Friday, 28 June 2013

The Journals of Kara & Jason by Charlie Wood

Publication date: 4th March 2013
Published by: Self-Published
Genre: Contemporary Romance meets sci-fi (YA)

As the title suggests, this story is told through the journal entries of both the female and male protagonists, Kara and Jason.  The chapters alternate between each character giving their version of events; a format I like to use, myself.

I would say the book is in two parts.  Part 1 takes place in September 2008.  Kara Bridges is a 14 year old girl who has recently started eighth grade and is having a horrible time there.  Her best friend of 2 years, Stace, has decided to drop her without warning or explanation in favour of the popular girl.  Kara has become isolated and is on the receiving end of her former friend’s cruelty.  She feels hurt and betrayed and life sucks in general.  Her mum suggests she starts a diary so she may write about the things that are upsetting her – to get them off her chest. 

Jason Andrus is a 14 year old boy who is at Kara’s school as a foreign exchange student.  There is something unusual about him. For one thing, he dresses in clothes that were made in the 80s and 90s, for another he acts as though everyday life is alien to him.  On his first days at school none of the students talk to him, only the teachers.  He is thrilled when a student finally approaches him and introduces herself - Kara.  Jason keeps a journal too.  He is required to do so as part of his foreign exchange programme. 

A friendship begins to flourish between Kara and Jason which they both benefit from.  Kara is distracted from her former friend’s unkindness towards her.  Jason is able to find out about life in America from a native (required for a thesis he is writing).   Just as their friendship starts to blossom into something more, Jason has to return home abruptly and unexpectedly, leaving Kara hurt, alone and confused.

Part 2 takes place in February 2013.  Kara, now 18, is in her senior year of high school and soon to graduate.  She has not seen or heard from Jason since he left and she has come to terms with his departure.  One day, while walking to class she sees him standing in the corridor of her school looking taller, more handsome and grown-up, but still Jason.

For me this book started out good and continued to improve as it went on.  By the end of it I was completely blown away by just how good it was.  I absolutely loved it. 

The journal entries in part 1 read like the genuine article; they represent what it is like to be 14 years old, which I believe is the most confusing, angst ridden, and difficult part of growing up.  It is when youngsters are at their most cruel (both dishing it out and being on the receiving end). Kara’s journal in particular is honest, funny in parts and poignant in others.

The writing style of Kara’s journal entries in part 2 are different.  She comes across much more mature – as one would expect.

I did find it hard to engage with the characters; I did not feel I got to know them and I felt somewhat detached as a result.  I think the problem was that although both Kara and Jason told me a lot about each other, there was not enough evidence to allow me to draw my own conclusions.  So for example, 14 year old Kara states (repeatedly) that Jason is a kind and good person.  One of the reasons she feels this way is because he talks to her on the phone for hours and listens to what she has to say.  He offers advice and helps her see things from a different point of view.  However, we are never privy to any of those conversations.  I would have liked to have been a fly on the wall and been able to listen in.  Then I would have been able to make my own decision about Jason’s character.

I found the narrative of the last section problematic - the part that was not journal entries of either Kara or Jason but that of a third party.  It was presented as a combination of journal extracts and further descriptions (written in bold).  I found that part clunky and unfortunately it devalued the novel.  I think Jason's final journal entry would have worked better as an epilogue.  The cover design, although apt, is not 'sexy.' (I hate that word used in such a context, but by doing so I'm sure you get my drift - it may put readers off.)

It was a page-turner and I read it in a day.  My review may make it sound like a formulaic romance but don’t be fooled it is so much more than that.

I am mindful that this novel appeals to me because it combines the genre I like to write with the genre I like most to read, and it does it in a fresh and imaginative way.

This is a book I will revisit and it is going straight to my indie author "hidden treasure" book shelf.

Friday, 21 June 2013

Big Brother by Lionel Shriver

***SBRs 10th Best Read for 2013***

Publication date: 9th June 2013
Published by: Harper Collins
Literary Fiction 

Lionel Shriver is probably most well known for her novel We need to Talk About Kevin, which was also adapted for the big screen.  She is one of the highest profile authors I know of, and I have often seen her appear on interviews and take part in debates about serious issues (such as the recent Boston Marathon terrorist attack), but this is the first novel by her that I have read.

Big Brother is a first person POV narrative provided by protagonist Pandora.  She starts by telling us about her relationship with food.  Formerly a professional caterer, she still enjoys preparing sumptuous dishes for herself, her husband and step-children.  Unfortunately somewhere along the line in their relationship her husband Fletcher became a maniacal health addict who is serious about bike riding and obsessed with healthy eating.  He behaves like the food police, trying to enforce his banal dishes on the whole family.  

Pandora has become a successful business woman.  Her company manufactures ‘Baby Monotonous’ customised doll versions of their owners complete with a pull string that activates recorded catch phrases of their owner.  She has a unique product that sells well and this has made her somewhat famous.  She has made several appearances on high profile magazines such as Time.  She has an older brother, Edison, to whom she is close and a much younger sister, Solstice, to whom she is not.  On the occasions that Edison visited her in the past, he and Fletcher clashed.  Pandora describes Edison as a handsome and confident jazz musician, but she has not seen him for several years.  She receives a call from a friend of his telling her that Edison is down on his luck and needs a place to stay.  She informs Fletcher that Edison will be coming to stay for a while and, although he protests at first, Fletcher agrees to this.

Pandora waits for Edison in the arrival lounge of the airport.  When he appears Pandora is shocked.  She does not recognise him at first.  Edison is morbidly obese and at first is being wheeled towards her in a chair. He gets out of the chair and shuffles towards her with great effort, clearly hampered by his weight.

There is a limit to what I can say about this one without ruining the plot but, as you can probably tell, it is about someone who has an addictive nature and in this case the addiction is food.  Pandora understandably is troubled by her big brother's condition and at first ignores the elephant in the room.  Eventually she can ignore it no more and so she attempts to get to the bottom of what is going on with her big brother and explores how she can save him from himself.

For me Big Brother is also about food in general and a nation's obsession with it (I won't say America's obsession with food since it is not alone.  The UK is certainly not trailing far behind in that regard).

I found the idea for the story to be original and clever but as I read I was surprised by the prose. It struck me as rather ‘light’ and predictable.  I would not have thought Lionel Shriver would be the type of author to do light.  As it turns out, she isn’t.  It was I who got it all wrong, and once this became clear to me I thought, ‘That’s more like what I was expecting.’  She had me completely fooled and when reality hit, for me this book went from being a really good read to a great read.  Be warned, Big Brother is very dark, brooding and melancholic.  For me the writing is perfection and the story was so affecting I was thinking about it for days afterwards.

Sunday, 16 June 2013

Dark Water (Siren Book 3) by Tricia Rayburn

Publication date: 10th July 2012
Published by: EgmontUSA
Genre: Fantasy (YA)

Warning: This one contains some plot spoilers of books 1 - 3.  

Dark Water #3 is the final instalment of the Siren trilogy by Tricia Rayburn.  I read the first 2 siren novels and liked the first one but found the second one disappointing. Even so, I wanted to follow the series through to the end.  

There are several plots intertwined surrounding Vanessa, the protagonist. She has just graduated from senior high and is spending the summer in Winter Harbour, the small seaside town in Maine she and her family have always gone to in the holidays - returning despite the awful thing that happened there last summer.

Plot 1 - The murder mystery: Like last summer following Vanessa's arrival there are more mysterious deaths in Winter Harbour. Last time the victims were young men.  This time it's young woman and it's up to Vanessa and her friends to track down the killer so justice may be served.

Plot 2 - The Siren: Vanessa is increasingly experiencing physical discomfort because of what she is, a Nenuphar siren.  Consuming large quantities of salt and taking regular sea baths don't work any more.  She soon discovers that what does seem to revive her is physical contact with the opposite sex.

Plot 3 - The Siren's mother: Charlotte, Vanessa's real mother - the siren, comes to town, supposedly stopping by on her way to Canada.  It is so obvious that Charlotte is very ill (apparently she looks older than she should, like she is about to drop dead or something, and she tells Vanessa she is going away and won't be contactable for a long time - hint hint hint) and yet Vanessa is oblivious, which made her seem dumb for an "Ivy Leaguer".  She does however ask Charlotte to stay for a while longer and then acts as though she isn't there most of the time.

Plot 4 - The love interest: Vanessa's boyfriend Simon broke up with her at the end of book 2, possibly because he found out what she was or possibly because he caught her making out with someone else because of it. Now Vanessa is back in town and she wants Simon back.

What was my problem?

I didn't like the way Rayburn revisited the same plot of the previous book - see plot 1 above. It's meant to be mysterious - but it isn't. There are two likely suspects - the only two new significant characters introduced in this novel. When the killer is revealed it's an anticlimax and the motive for murder is ridiculous.

I didn't like the irritating way characters struggled to articulate themselves, and would often not finish their sentences in dialogue (trailing off), supposedly to keep the mystery going. There was far too much "But what if ... but... I..." "How come ..." she trailed off,  "I'm in the..." the phone went silent.

I didn't like the constant "it almost-but-not-quite happened" in scenes, pointlessly leaving you hanging, supposedly to keep you guessing or intrigued or interested (???).  Like the build up to Vanessa and Simon's first encounter. They frequently almost-but-not-quite run into each other.  Yet, when they do come together it's another anticlimax. Then again when they almost-but-not-quite get it on during their day out together - not that I care - but what's the point?? Then there was the important conversation that Charlotte almost-but-not-quite has with her on several occasions.  And the part when Vanessa almost-but-not-quite tells her friends about her discovering that there are a group of people who are suspicious of the existence of sirens... and so on.

The romantic conclusion was unrealistic.

It wasn't all bad, the story did get interesting when it focused on what Vanessa was and what her body needed to sustain her.  At times I found her interactions with the guys she used to gain her energy disturbing, but I was intrigued. Colin's fate was unfortunate but sort of worked as a story. The cover is nice. (Okay, I admit I am struggling to find positive things to say.)

Dark Water (Siren 3) is an anticlimactic underwhelming conclusion to a mostly underwhelming series. This is not a novel written by an indie author and I would not exactly describe it as a 'labour of love', i.e., for me it reads like not enough time or effort was put into writing it. When I compare it to many of the great self-published books I have reviewed, I can only shake my head and think - MUST DO BETTER. I have deviated from my review policy and am posting my review of it simply to make this point.

My advice would be to give this series a miss.  I do wish I hadn't bothered.

My appeal to readers

Friday, 14 June 2013

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce

Publication date: 1st January 2012
Published by: Random House
Genre: Contemporary (Adult)

Harold Fry is recently retired and suddenly has a lot of free time on his hands. While having breakfast with his wife one morning, he receives a hand-written envelope in the post.  Used to only receiving bills in the mail, he regards it curiously.  Inside is a letter from an old friend, Queenie, who he has not seen or heard from in many years.  Queenie has written to tell Harold that she is dying of terminal cancer and to say good-bye.  Harold is affected by the letter and thoughts of Queenie bring back old memories.  He writes a response and sets out to post it in the nearest letterbox.  When he arrives he hesitates and decides to walk a bit further to the next one.  On the way he stops in at a local service station and strikes up a conversation with the girl serving at the counter.  He tells her about Queenie.  The girl inspires him and he becomes convinced that he needs to go to Queenie right away.  He sets off immediately, despite being unprepared for such a long journey.   He is convinced that as long as he keeps walking, Queenie will keep living….

As the title suggests, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry is a novel about a man who embarks on a "journey".  It is not clear from the start what transpired between him and Queenie, but it is clear that he feels both affection for her and guilt over the way things were left when they parted company.  We also learn that although Harold and his wife reside in the same house they live separate lives and their relationship is strained.  They have one son and it would appear that Harold is estranged from him and feels guilt about that also. 

Back at home Harold’s absence continues to have an effect on his wife, Maureen.  At first she is angry and feels humiliated that he would leave to go to another woman.  Later she realises she misses him and wants him home.

Harold is emotionally constipated and this took its toll on his relationship with his son while the boy was growing up, as well as on his relationship with his wife.  He feels a tremendous amount of guilt as a result. He sees the journey as a kind of penance – even when the opportunity arises to buy comfortable hiking gear he takes the decision not to, preferring to suffer his deck shoes. He chooses to give up the comfort of hotel rooms and possessions, traveling light, sleeping outdoors and eating whatever he can get his hands on (be it from the kindness of strangers or from the great outdoors).  In time he feels closer to nature.

Harold's pilgrimage gives him the opportunity to reflect on his life.  We learn about his childhood, which sheds light on his inability to express himself emotionally, and it is difficult not to empathise with him.  The journey is therapeutic for him as he is able to face up to things that he had been ignoring for many years.  By facing them he is able to deal with them.   The need for penance is linked to the strong feeling of guilt he has.  Most of that guilt is about his relationship with his son, whom he longs to reconcile with. 

Some may find this novel overly sentimental.  It certainly reads as though the author wants to appeal more to her readers’ hearts than their minds; If she succeeds in making you cry her job is done.  I read this novel for my book group and during our meeting a few members admitted that she succeeded.  It did not make me cry.  Personally I am not a fan of books that try too hard to manipulate my emotions and I wondered if I was determined not to cry for that reason. I decided that was not it. A friend of mine who also read it described it as 'light'. My view is that there is more to it than surface and what lies beneath has been skillfully executed by Joyce. It strikes me as a perceptive portrayal of how what affects a person in childhood stays with them throughout their life and can hamper relationships in adulthood.  She then explores the consequences. It got me thinking how passiveness is more likely to lead to suffering while activeness (although difficult and risky) can change a person's situation for the better.

Saturday, 8 June 2013

Fire Country by David Estes

***SBRs 4th Best Read for 2013***

Publication date: 29th January 2013
Published by: Self-published
Genre: Sci-fi/Dystopia (YA)

I was familiar with David Estes’ books before I read Fire Country as I have read his Dwellers series and enjoyed it very much.  For some reason I did not want to know too much about this one before reading, so I purposely avoided the synopsis and reviews and got straight to reading.

Fire Country is set on futuristic earth.  It is clear that several hundred years previously a catastrophe occurred on earth on an apocalyptic scale.  The air became toxic rendering the surface uninhabitable.  Several hundred years into the future and humans do now survive on the surface, but not for long (their average life expectancy is early 30s).  

Fire Country is the terrain where this story is set.  It is harsh land under a harsher crimson sky.  The climate is hot all year round.  The inhabitants are known as ‘Heaters’ and live a relatively primitive tribal existence.  The leader of the tribe is Roan the Greynote, a hard man who reminded me of Okonkwo in Chinua Achebe’s Things fall Apart.  Like Things fall Apart, the men of the tribe dominate and are able to have up to 3 wives.  In fact, it is a requirement by law and is considered essential for the continuation of the tribe’s existence.  As such, girls at 16 are required to become ‘Bearers’  and are subjected to a ceremony called ‘The Call’ where they are effectively handed over to one of the tribesmen as their property.  Their sole function in life thereafter is to procreate and rear offspring, who will become future Greynotes (the leaders), Hunters (as the name suggests and exclusively male) or Bearers.

The main protagonist is Siena, Roan’s 15 year old daughter.  Time is running out for her as she is approaching her 16th birthday and a fate that does not bear thinking about.  She feels helpless and trapped until someone called Lara suggests to her that there is another way to live …

I know there are a lot of dystopian young-adult novels out there, so you might be thinking ‘Oh no, not another one.’  But believe me this book is well worth reading.  It’s portrayal of a new developing society that seemed to have started from scratch – as though access to it’s history has been lost and all they have to go on is stories handed down over generations – is fascinating; from their language to the tribe’s way of life.  Essentially it’s about gender equality. The character Lara represents freedom – the alternative for women.  She shows that woman can do what is traditionally considered for the men.  There have been many YA novels that have been criticised for sending out the message that gender inequality is acceptable – books written by women.  I have come across it, embedded in the subtext of some, myself.  This book is the antidote to those novels – and it’s been written by a man!  It suggests to me that David Estes clearly knows who his readers/fans are, and I get the impression he regards them highly and respects them.

And there’s more…

The writing is exceptionally good.  It has the right balance of humour and poignancy throughout.    Siena is probably the most likable protagonist in a novel I have come across.  The Heaters’ language has its own words and phrases, which really works.  You don’t need a glossary because it’s easy to work it out from the context.  I think I’ll be using “Sear it to burnin’ scorch!” from now on – love it!

Warning: If you are sniffy about romance you might want to skip this paragraph.  If you like a good romance, read on.  I must admit that one of the problems I had with the Dwellers series was that I found the romance unconvincing.  It felt scripted and I didn’t buy it.  In contrast, the romance in this novel is completely believable.  Those moments shared by Siena and Circ will melt even the hardest of hearts.

Forgive me for quoting myself but, in a previous review I had written My feeling about dystopian novels is that, for them to work they need to be affecting, thought-provoking and slightly disturbing.  
 Fire Country ticks all three boxes and for this reason I would say it shifts up a gear from Estes’ previous Dwellers series.  I would also say that, now that I have read 4 of his books, David Estes is an author whose writing has continued to improve and flourish over time and in that regard he reminds me of Maggie Stiefvater.  The early stuff was good but this is even better.  As a reader and fellow indie author, it has been a real joy to experience.  

Is Fire Country a hidden treasure?  Yes, it’s a gem, and not any gem.  It’s pure crystalized carbon.  If you like this genre my advice is go get yourself a copy of this book, now.