Midwinterblood (by Marcus Sedgwick)

20 04 2013

mwbTwo souls who long to be reunited through time is in short what Marcus Sedgwick’s Midwinterblood is about. It all starts on the mysterious Blessed Island in the year 2073 with journalist Eric Seven visiting the island and intent on writing a story about a place where apparently no children are born and people are rumored to live forever. On Blessed Island he meets a young woman, Merle, who he feels strangely drawn to although he doesn’t quite know why. At the close of the first tale, the reader ends up with more questions than answers, questions that are slowly answered by going back in time… seven times, until we get to the beginning of their destined love.

As per usual, Sedgwick’s prose is sparse and seemingly simple, which gives it its unsettling and haunting feel that most people call “gothic” (and after all, this is not just a book of love, but also one with quite a lot of violence, blood, death…). Somehow, Sedgwick always manages to give his books an almost poetic quality and Midwinterblood is no exception to this. I’m sure that Sedgwick will be accused of trying to outsmart himself with his attention to structure, genre, language and mood. But that’s not taking into consideration how engrossing this book (and many other of his books) really is: you just can’t stop reading and that’s the mark of a true artist right there.

Any Sedgwick book needs to be savored rather than devoured, though. His atmospheric prose is of the type that lingers. Blending the contemporary (e.g. the use of present tense alternated with the use of past tense for the narration of the 7 tales) with the traditional (these stories are what gothic horror tales would have been like at the heyday of “the gothic novel”!), he is so unlike many present-day “fantasy” writers, who churn out formulaic fantasy fodder. Sedgwick, on the other hand is – to use Aidan Chambers’ words – a true author and not a writer and he’s obviously not concerned with pleasing a certain type of audience, but rather in producing a work of art. Revolver, Blood Red, Snow White, Midwinterblood… all of these share this common urgency. And it works! It works for kids, it works for teens, it works for adults!

Ten Things We Shouldn’t Have Done (by Sarah Mlynowski)

29 01 2013

10thingsTen Things We Shouldn’t Have Done is the British title for Sarah Mlynowski’s 2011 novel that was published under the title Ten Things We Did (And Probably Shouldn’t Have) in the US. Sometimes titles just get changed from one country to the next, with no real explanation…

April’s world is about to be turned upside down for the 2nd time! First her parents divorced and her mom moved to Paris with her new husband, taking her little brother with her. Now, her dad is planning on moving to Cleveland right in the middle of April’s junior year. April – who has a complete support network where she is not to mention a boyfriend of 2 years – doesn’t want any of that, and intends to stay behind, on her own if she needs to. But, because obviously her dad wouldn’t go for that option, she’s found the perfect solution: she’ll stay with her friend Vi and her mother, her school year will not be disrupted, and she gets to stay with her boyfriend! Score! Convincing her dad that this is good idea takes all of 2 seconds… seriously, 2 whole seconds…

Now don’t be mistaken… Ten Things is definitely NOT realistic fiction, it would be impossible to find parents as clueless as April’s NOT to check out (i.c. actually MEET them) the responsible adult who’s going to take care of your 16-year-old teenager for a couple of months. Oh, and get this: Vi’s mother won’t even be around because she’s touring! So what do you get? Every teenager’s wet dream: NO parents, NO rules, big fat allowance (enough to buy a hot tub!!),… the works. What oh what in the name of what will they do to keep themselves busy? Right, that’s what…

Ten Things We Shouldn’t Have Done is such a light-weight read… with a premise that is so completely over the top that you just have to accept it or you won’t enjoy a minute of this hilarious little read… And this one, deserves to be read with shedload of suspension of disbelief.  It’s basically mindless entertainment, with a couple of real issues thrown in for good measure (parent-teen relationships; sex and teenage relationships; the value of money: etc.) … up until there’s the almost obligatory (so it seems) backlash at the end of the book… I’m talking about a “punishment” that seems to be there for all the wrong reasons. That’s a bit too bad, because Mlynowski’s style of writing isn’t half bad. Also, the minor characters she created (Vi, weird Lucy, Dean and Hudson) are definitely quirky enough to get me interested in another one of her books. I guess what it comes down to is that Ten Things We Shouldn’t Have Done is a book the cat enjoyed despite being annoyed by how much she seemed to enjoy it… does that make any sense?

Virtuosity (by Jessica Martinez)

8 01 2013

virtuosityCarmen is 17 and one of the best violinists in the world. She’s already landed a Grammy and has a scholarship to Juilliard. She also has the privilege to play on a 1-million-dollar violin (!) – courtesy of her uppity grandparents – and now she’s ready to get into and win the prestigious Guarneri violin competition. Raised by a former opera singer, Carmen was destined to become a great musician. From a young age, her mom sheltered her, homeschooled her, overprotected her and basically molded her into this picture perfect violinist, the star she herself couldn’t be any more after a throat surgery ruined her voice. Now, with the Guarneri competition, Carmen’s talent gets matched by that of British prodigy Jeremy King. It doesn’t take much for Carmen to feel threatened by Jeremy. And yes, the two kids also feel an attraction…

Unfortunately, Virtuosity, though definitely not the worst book the cat’s read, is just so… bland, to be considered a thrilling read and anything more than ‘a filler read’. The romance between the two is sweet-ish , in that instant attraction sort of way (from feeling threatened and severe distrust to butterflies and kisses all in the span of an evening!). The ending felt very deus ex machina, like Martinez didn’t want either of her protagonists to lose out. There were also plenty of elements in the book that just didn’t work to be believable (the pills, what mom did to the competition).

Virtuosity is the book version of an X-Files MOTW-episode… Obviously there are no real monsters here, but it’s a bit of a filler in between really great books. For a book that’s supposedly all about the way something (in this case, music) makes you feel things (both Carmen and Jeremy liken their playing music to flying), the cat felt very little of that. Too plain, too obvious, too … mèh…

Eleanor and Park (by Rainbow Rowell)

25 12 2012

Eleanor and ParkRainbow Rowell’s Eleanor and Park is set in Omaha in 1986, the year of Top Gun and the Chernobyl disaster. It was also the year of the Dead Kennedys and Black Flag playing their last concert and of The Smiths releasing The Queen is Dead. Eleanor has just moved, steps on the school bus and needs a place to sit. Park has always sort of flown under the radar, well out of reach of the meanest bullies – courtesy of a short fling with Tina, who’s got pull with the big guy on the bus – and hopes, prays the weird fat girl with the bright red curls and the ugly – “like she wants to get noticed” – clothes isn’t going to come and sit next to him and in doing so also draw attention to him. But of course she does. For days the two don’t interact, don’t even acknowledge each other’s existence until one day Park notices Eleanor is reading his comic books together with him. From then on a relationship forms, a relationship based on comic books, mixed tapes and the feeling they get from just being together on the bus.

At first Eleanor is very reluctant to tell Park anything at all about herself. So what Park doesn’t know is that Eleanor’s home situation is completely fucked up.  She doesn’t have two parents who love each other the way Park’s mom and dad love each other and are devoted to one another and kiss each other in public no matter who watches. She doesn’t have a room of her own where she can have time for herself to read Park’s comic books, to listen to his tapes without being disturbed by brothers and sisters. The reason why she wears the clothes she wears is not some kind of forward or twisted sense of fashion, but because she’s too poor to buy anything else. She doesn’t even have the safety and security of a door for the bathroom. What she does have is a mother who has stopped caring about her family and has come to rely on the mercy of her husband Richie for everything in the family’s life. She also has a stepfather (Richie) who hates her and has already thrown her out of the house once and isn’t afraid to do it again. Park on the other hand – though he’s from a loving family – obviously has his own set of problems. He’s half Asian in a community of all white families. And even though he does taekwondo, his father has always thought he’s too feminine: can’t even drive stick, and now he’s started wearing guy-liner…

And despite these unbelievable differences between the two, they connect. They form the sort of bond that only first loves can form. For all the rawness in this book (and especially Eleanor’s situation is extremely rough), the romance between Eleanor and Park is incredibly sweet and tender. This is the way these two kids fall in love. Eleanor and Park is a romance novel, but unlike so many other books of this genre you never get the fake, sugary, even sickly aftertaste of authors trying too hard, plot twists overdone and situations too implausible for their own good.

Eleanor and Park is ultimately a great antidote for the mushy end-of-yearness you’re bound to encounter these days. Park is just a really lovely guy and Eleanor is one lonely tough chick who is actually just hiding her insecurities (not just about her home situation!) behind a façade of toughness and sarcasm.  When the two break out something wonderful happens where together they feel like they’re greater than the sum of their parts.  And Rainbow Rowell has a knack for making it believable and honest rather than cheesy and cheap. This is star-crossed lovers done right.

Going too far (by Jennifer Echols)

27 08 2012

The fact that the cat sort of forgot to give this book a review may say it all… Seriously: the cat forgot about reading this book…um, last week… which goes to show that it’s fairly forgettable.

Anyway, wild bad-ass chick Meg – blue hair and all – likes getting drunk and doing guys. Yup, that’s the start of this MTV book. But then, she goes that one step too far when she and her guy for the night and their 2 friends decide to go on the railway bridge… They get stopped by a cop, John After, who doesn’t turn out to be a 40-year-old has been guy with 14 children and wife at home, but a 19-year-old stud who used to be in one of Meg’s classes the previous year. The story then focuses on how John makes some kind of deal with the DA that Meg and the other 3  (but one of them just gets out of it because of daddy-o, who’s got some pull) do some kind of community service. Meg’s punishment? Driving around with Officer After for a week… And yes ::::insert big sigh here::::: Officer John is the love interest…. Who has zilch chemistry with the main character… who’s annoying, stupid and every kind of unbelievable. This book also has a myriad of predictabilities, and all kinds of wannabe shock factors (like that pesky plot device aka “the hard past that just has to make you feel oh sorry for the main character”?? What’s that all about? Reader manipulation much!) . But it just didn’t work at all for the cat who kept rolling her eyes at the things that were being described.

Nope, this is not my thing. Johnafter didn’t make me swoon (like e.g. Sarah Dessen’s love interests often do!). Meg didn’t make me think there was so much more besides her being annoying and obnoxious . And Jennifer Echols’ writing – though not bad in itself – doesn’t make me forget that the story is predictable ánd over the top at the same time!

Life: An Exploded Diagram (by Mal Peet)

12 06 2012

Even though the cat was slightly underwhelmed by previous Mal Peet work (Tamar), she was lured to Life: An Exploded Diagram by Patrick Ness who blurbed it and called it “so good, you almost want to keep it a secret.” This blurb makes it all the more ironic that Ness’ own A Monster Calls lost to Peet’s Life: An Exploded Diagram in the first round of this year’s Battle of the Books. Myracle was right in calling that both are just astonishing books, but in the cat’s own personal battle of the books, yes, I do think I would agree with her, because, to quote Lauren Myracle:  “Mal Peet? He. Is. Amazing! Shit, man, shit,[…]”. Yeah, I couldn’t get it more eloquent than that either…

Life: An Exploded Diagram actually starts like a family chronicle, but eventually spans 2 oceans and almost 60 years in the life of Clem Ackroyd. Deftly showing how supra-national events like the Cuban Missile Crisis can influence a couple of lusty Norfolk teenagers, it is both cleverly construed and a joy to read. Life initially has an omniscient narrator (who will turn out to be Clem) tell the tale of how in WWII a Nazi pilot was the unfortunate cause of a boy’s premature birth.  The reader first thinks it’s Ruth and her mother Win who will be at the center of this novel, but this is actually the narrator’s roundabout way of letting us now that all things happen for a reason, and that reason may both be trivial and earth-shattering.  Before we get to 1962 and the infamous Cuban Missile Crisis, it seems we have already read an entire book about Clem’s family. There’s both nostalgia and humorous self-awareness here, as Mal Peet is clearly acutely conscious of the rural Norfolk area, both before and during 1962, also introducing us to the Norfolk dialect while he’s at it.

When Clem and Frankie, the only daughter of a wealthy landowner, engage in their lust affair, halfway through the novel, Peet embarks on another tour de force: switching narrative points of view, becoming a fly on the wall during important political and military meetings (Doves and Hawks in JFK’s war room), switching back and forth between Clem & Frankie on the one hand and JFK & Khrushchev on the other hand, all the while explaining about the ifs and hows and whys of the Bay of Pigs and the Cuban Missile Crisis and how the scare of the Cold War affected the decisions of people thousands of miles away.

At the same time of being better than any history text book ever could be, Life: An Exploded Diagram is also an incredibly warm book about a boy and a girl’s sexual awakening in the 1960s. The romance is the stuff of Shakespeare: poor Clem, rich Frankie, families are not to know… we all know the cliché,  but it works so well here, because Mal Peet juxtaposes different sorts of relationship. There is not just the relationship between Clem and Frankie (though it’s obviously at the heart of the novel), there’s also the way that Ruth & George interact (or not), the way that Win thinks about sex. I’m sure many  adult readers will also get a kick out of the way Clem describes how he got to know about sex, and how “You Learn Nothing About Sex From Books, Especially If They’re By D. H. Lawrence”. Yes, this was the 1960s in rural England.

Life: An Exploded Diagram is about love and war. The stuff that divides and unifies. It’s about relationships, it’s about community, it’s about history. Life: An Exploded Diagram is a truly epic book: in scope and in language. This makes it all the more banal that apparently so many people want to focus on ‘intended audience’. After reading so many “YA” books, “YA” reviews, “YA” blogs, it still astounds me that people can say, “Yeah, yeah, great book, but it’s not really “YA”, is it?” Err…ok, so how should I read that statement? Is it because books like Life: An Exploded Diagram, or books like Octavian Nothing, or books like The Book Thief, or… are so obviously books with literary ambitions (what a dirty, dirty word) that they fall outside of the scope of “YA”? Color me dumbfounded, because I didn’t realize it was an exclusive club. Anyway, Life: An Exploded Diagram: awesome book! If you like romance, if you like history, if you like language… then get reading now!

The Tea Rose (by Jennifer Donnelly)

25 04 2012

Sssstt….don’t tell, but the cat has found a new guilty pleasure. And she’s called Jennifer Donnelly. A while back the cat was mightily impressed by A Gathering Light (aka A Northern Light), which deservedly won prizes left and right as it not only reads like a train, but harbors one of the age-long issues of YA literature: how to grow up in a manner true to yourself and making decisions which will have an impact of the rest of your future life. Donnelly was definitely a writer to watch, so where to start better than with her 675-page (!) debut novel The Tea Rose.

Not to be gender-specific here, but alpha males, please abstain from reading on… Also, book snobs, definitely stop reading now! If, on the other hand, you (even though it’s only secretly) enjoyed Sleepless in Seattle, Gone With the Wind, Pride and Prejudice (the 1995 mini-series with Colin Firth as Mr Darcy, obviously…) or Titanic and one Mr Nicholas Sparks makes your book-boat rock(or all of the aforementioned, for that matter), then please do continue as I am sure that you will absolutely adore The Tea Rose! You’re in for a thrilling historical romance and a page-turner at that!

Fiona Finnegan is 17 and lives in the poverty-stricken Whitechapel area of London at the time of the Jack The Ripper murders. She’s chockfull of dreams of a better life as a merchant. Along with her true love Joe she wants to earn enough money so they can start up their own shop. However, something and someone thwarts this plan, and Fiona finds herself forced to flee London and escapes to New York where she tries to build a new life for herself.

The Tea Rose has a number of mesmerizing elements going for it… Endearing heroine? Check! Victorian London? Check! Jack the Ripper mythology? Check! A love story spanning 2 continents? Check… throw in some New World entrepreneurial endeavors, tea, gay best friend, murder(s), trade unions, etc. and you’ve got yourselves a family saga, that can truly be called Epic. On a sentimental, “I-secretely-love-watching-sappy-romance-movies-when-no-one-else-is-home” level, the cat LOVED.EVERY.BIT.OF.THIS! Truly! Not even being sarcastic about it. What’s not to love? Donnelly’s prose is sumptuous. Her descriptions are vividly detailed recalling a time when authors still cared about taking the time to tell a story and would not be constricted by that “less than 240 pages” dictum that many a YA (or other) editor would force upon their authors for marketing reasons. Moreover, the main character Fiona is incredibly likable in that Every Woman’s Heroine kind of way. The side characters are actually developed (yes, yes, I know, they’re clichés) and the story has a bit of everything thrown in that makes it so damn addictive to stay away from! Soap operas eat your heart out!

On top of that, Donnelly clearly has done her homework when it comes to the historical part of the novel. She weaves the Jack the Ripper mythology in her novel – though not focusing on the canonical five, which actually worked for the first part of the novel. Furthermore, incorporating an important subplot about the upcoming labor unions in the 1880s and 1890s in London was a nice Dickensian touch, and one which serves to rationalize the decisions of the protagonist. In part two of the novel, it’s Fiona’s awareness of the ‘new markets’ and the upcoming New World capitalist ideology which is skillfully outlined by Donnelly. I have to say, even though a lot of what Fiona accomplishes in Part 2 of the book really is quite unbelievable and definitely too good to be true, it’s captivating to read how Old World characters like Fiona discover New World ideologies and business strategies: a true rags to riches story.

On the other hand, this debut novel is definitely not without its flaws… the biggest flaw? Predictability. Yes, at almost every step of the way you know what will happen next, and you are reminded how in this historical romance novel, the focus really is the romance and not the history. It’s never a question of whether Joe and Fiona will meet each other again, it’s just a matter of when this will happen and under which circumstances. Of course, our courageous and determined, almost flawless heroine will first have to overcome a dozen of mishaps, get into a number of pickles involving strange marital arrangements, set up a ton of important businesses to be reckoned with, before she can finally meet her one true love Joe Bristow again. Yes, predictable. Yes, sappy. But who cares? The cat didn’t… well, not up until Part 3 of the novel, when Fiona is once again transported from America to London and a meeting with Joe becomes completely inevitable… Actually, it’s the whole ‘will they/won’t they’ string of coincidences and just-missed encounters that downgraded this otherwise utterly entertaining novel from a 4 to a 3+ star rating. The cat could have done without all the (yes I admit it, cheap) sentiment in part 3, the weird almost deus ex machina rescue at the end of the book. Not to spoil anything, but let it suffice to say that the fact that there’s 2nd book (and a 3rd) in this family saga is due to an incredibly unbelievable twist of events in part 3 of The Tea Rose. I’m willing to suspend my disbelief, but this was stretching it a little bit too much…

Because of the fact that this book is incredibly captivating and exciting in Part 1, The Tea Rose is a guilty pleasure despite its unbelievable and overly (melo)dramatic ending. A book to curl up with. Make sure to have chocolate, wine (or tea if you are so inclined…) nearby, and get all of your husbands and boyfriends out of the house, stat! And yes, despite the predictability of it all[i], the cat just knows she’ll read The Winter Rose. Such is the addictive nature of Donnelly’s prose. Not even feeling guilty about it. Not even one bit. Get out, you book snob!



[i] BTW, reviewers who call this book boring are just lying to themselves. Predictable? Yes. Boring? Never!


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