Tuesday, 9 May 2017

One of Us Is Lying by Karen M. McManus

Disclaimer: I read this book as an advance copy from Netgalley. My thanks go to them, to Penguin Random House UK and to the author for this opportunity. The opinions stated in the review are my own.

This book grabbed me simply the illusion on the cover to The Breakfast Club. 'A Jock, A Criminal, A Brain, A Princess.' It does, however, ramp things up with a murder. The premise is five students find themselves wrongfully in detention; one of them does not survive it and suspicion rapidly descends on the remaining four. An issue which is not helped by the fact that the boy who died was the school gossip and each characters has something to hide.

Cooper, Nate, Bronwyn and Addy find their lives change in the aftermath of that day. They are questioned by police, hounded by the media and gossipped about by their peers. They also find themselves looking with suspicion at each other and at the same time bound together by their experience.

McManus does a wonderful job of bringing these characters beyond the two dimensional descriptors. I think the use of the narrative perspective shifting from one to the other helps with this, allowing us to see who they perceive themselves and by others. It also reveals to us the secrets that they are keeping. The shift doesn't allow the time frame to stall but moves briskly through the events. It give us a chance to see into the students' lives at home, the pressures they are under and  how this forms their identities and choices. There was enough time devoted to their family relationships that the strength of the bonds between, for example, Addy and her sister Ashton, were very clearly portrayed. The latter going out of her way to step up as a strong parental figure even though her own life is changing radically. 

I thought the title was an excellent starting point as I started reading with a sense of mistrust in the narratives being presented. The use and presence of social media and technology wasn't over done, although present it didn't feel as though there it was demonised. There are comparisons to be made to Pretty Little Liars and to a lesser extent Gossip Girl but it had a genuine softness when is came to the handling of the characters, which particularly shone through when reading Addy's perspective. The dialogue was natural sounding to my ear and created an immersion with the events. This book was great fun to read, I found that I did correctly surmise the conclusion of the plot before it was revealed but that in no way detracted from my enjoyment. 

For fans of - Pretty Little Liars, Dorothy L. Sayers, E. Lockhart.

Tuesday, 4 April 2017

The Best Minds of My Generation A Literary History of the Beats by Allen Ginsberg

Disclaimer: I read this book as an advance copy from Netgalley. My thanks go to them, Grove Press, to the author, and the editor Bill Morgan, for this opportunity. The opinions stated in the review are my own.

When I was in University I had a fantastic teacher who lit a fire under our class (or at least me) and set us off to read as much of it we could. It spoke to me as a teenager, particularly as one who yearned to travel. I still love reading so much of the work that came from these writers, particularly Ginsberg, Corso and Snyder. What has come to my interest more recently is the work that came after the wild phase that lives more in legend, after the time that was kicked off during the Columbia University days. 

This book is a fascinating look at back taken from Ginsberg's lectures at the Naropa Institute and at Brooklyn College, around twenty years after the publication of 'Howl'. He speaks about the works, not particularly focusing on them in terms of adventures, but recalls situations and experiences. The translation of the lectures to text works well. It doesn't require a constant recollection of his voice but the rhythm of his speech and the energy comes through very clearly. I found the pace with which I read raced and slowed as if I were there hearing it spoken aloud. Given the dialogue based nature of the text it's one I enjoyed picking up for a section or two and then returning at a later date.

Ginsberg relates his experiences, knowledge and passion for his and his  friends' writing in this book with a palpable excitement but not an overblown one; there is criticality and introspection here. For me the most valuable and enjoyable part of reading this book was the warmth and passion that has been invested in it. Such a passion that it is passed on to the reader.

Tuesday, 14 March 2017

Come On In, America: The United States In World War I by Linda Barrett Osborne

Disclaimer: I read this book as an advance copy from Netgalley. My thanks go to them, ABRAMS Kids and to the author, Linda Barrett Osborne, for this opportunity. The opinions stated in the review are my own.
This is a very interesting look at the events surrounding the United States involvement with World War I. I studied some US history several years ago, both at school and at University, and was fascinated by how the different US political approach to conflict contrasted to that of the European history that I also studied.  This book focuses on the build up to and the fighting of World War I from a US perspective and gives an interesting and detailed account of this time in American history. The information is presented with clarity and insight that make it a illuminating read. The text is augmented by photographs which portray both military and civilian life as well as propaganda posters. The text never veers into stuffy fact recounting but gives a human look at the political decisions, the character of the decision makers involved, the prevailing attitudes and concerns to American citizens and the experience of fighting the markedly different form of warfare to any that preceded it.

I enjoyed the details that were included such as the victory garden grown in the White House, complete with sheep to trim the lawn. They certainly would wreak havoc with the security sensors of the modern day White House!

This book has a wide scope but it doesn't feel messy in any way, it balances the importance of the war, the impact it had in both human and social terms and is an excellent text. From reading this there are now areas I wish to learn about in greater details. As a text aimed at young people studying this period in history for the first time I think this would be very suitable.

Tuesday, 7 March 2017

The Roanoke Girls by Amy Engel

Disclaimer: I read this book as an advance copy from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. My thanks go to them, to Hodder & Stoughton and to the author for this opportunity. The opinions stated in this review are my own.

"Roanoke girls never last long around here. In the end, we either run or we die".

There is a creeping dread woven into this book. The fate of the Roanoke girls is something that is there in the background at first but then the secret is given voice quite early in the book. The insidiousness of the full truth, however, takes the whole of the text to unfold. Lane Roanoke grew up far away from the house of her grandparents, taken off to New York by her mother. At sixteen, following her mother's suicide, she found herself back there for a summer. This intertwines with Lane returning many years later, alarmed by the disappearance of her cousin, Allegra.

The subject matter Engel writes about is uncomfortable reading and this book, at times, walks the line of sensationalism. It does spend some of the time exploring some issues surrounding the subject matter, such as complicity, trauma and guilt. By flipping between Lane's experiences as a teenager and an adult we see her innocence and her guilt in turn. Lane serves as the eyes through whom the story is told which means there is an element of caricature or mystery to the other figures in the book. This is actually beneficial as she needs to be a narrator who cannot see clearly. I found the short sections told from the perspective of the other Roanoke girls very interesting for a change of pace and a chance to see them become more than the stories Allegra tells. The plot for has some wonderful turns to enjoy, although I found the sections of the language a little bit inelegant at times. The short section with the physical description of both Lane and Allegra was particularly jarring. 

'The Roakoke Girls' is a good dramatic thriller, I absolutely had to keep reading, to reach the conclusion. It covers uncomfortable ground and, through Lane, is an interesting exploration of how hurt and trauma can play out.  

Thursday, 2 March 2017

Done Dirt Cheap by Sarah Nicole Lemon

Disclaimer: I read this book as an advance copy from Netgalley. My thanks go to them, to Abrams Books and the to author, Sarah Nicole Lemon, for this opportunity. The opinions stated in the review are my own.

This is one of the more intriguing YA books I have read in a long time. Initially I selected it for the cover image but found the writing style, characters and plot worked together brilliantly. The writing style is somewhat jarring at first but when  I became more attuned to it as I read and it has a great rhythm and vividness. I particularly enjoyed the descriptions throughout the book of the mountainous landscapes and of the town resting in the wilderness. A lovely reminder that a place can seem so peaceful and yet be so noisy and fierce. The setting connected the dual components of the location to this story of order and chaos, delicate relationships and blunt brutality.

The book centres on the two female characters, Tourmaline and Virginia. Tourmaline is the daughter of the president of a local biker gang, who she insists are just a club. She keeps her distance from people while working very hard to make her life looks perfect. While looking forward to starting college in a few months, Tourmaline is struggling with the events that resulted in her mother's incarceration. Virginia is working for a local lawyer, a man uses his knowledge of the law to break it, after her mother 'sold' her into his debt to repay legal fees. Hazard, the lawyer, wants Virginia to infiltrate the biker gang and she chooses to do this by befriending Tourmaline. Each girl wants something from the other but their experiences change things and the beginnings of an authentic friendship develops between the two. A friendship that is often tested and bruised in the course of the book. 

Virginia's character is tough but vivid and bright, Tourmaline is more murky, twisting. I struggled to get a grasp on her character at times, she pushed so hard to be a certain way so it made sense that she hid things from herself as well as us. Portraying the loss of an innocence can be hard to write but it was done very well by Lemon. Her motives are not clear to us or herself, she is however very clear on her boundaries. Virginia is a young woman whose focus is survival, with one eye on what failing at it would entail. It struck me that the end goals weren't laid out clearly but the underlying desire of two different outcomes were clear in both girls' minds. I really enjoyed how this relationship developed throughout the book. Virginia's romantic entanglement was more complex and compelling to me than Tourmaline's but both rang true. The unfolding of the plot was given good balance with the development of relationships and the ending of the novel was ultimately very satisfying. 

The following line needs including in this because it works perfectly in a devastating scene it also say something that is important to emphasise in YA literature:

'We're friends because when girls - women - are alone in this world, they're easier to pick off.'

For fans of: Blake Nelson, Laurie Halse Anderson.

Wednesday, 8 February 2017

Year of Yes by Shonda Rhimes

This book has been on my to-read list since I first heard about it. I was drawn in by curiosity about the people who create the shows we watch and that having an entire evening of TV being dedicated to shows lead by one show-runner is a major deal. The Shonda-land shows are filled with tough, powerful, outspoken women and yet Rhimes impresses on readers that a few years ago this was not reflected in her own life. In the Year of Yes, Rhimes speaks openly about how a simple comment from her sister made her take on a project of saying yes to many things, first and foremost being the things that scared her.
As a writer she calls her process as one similar to that of her childhood adventures playing in the store cupboard of her mother's kitchen, sitting in the dark and coming up with characters and stories, finding strength there. She talks about how she wrote the strong characters of her TV shows, particularly Cristina Yang, as a form of wish fulfilment. Rhimes classifies herself as an introvert and although that doesn't change she works on finding a way to engage with the people and challenges around her.

Rhimes starts the year by saying yes to a speech at her alma mater, Dartmouth, and describes her absolute physical terror at doing this. She details it, describes the aftermath and survives. She also throws in a ference to EBAs, a restaurant in Hanover NH,  which thrilled me as I celebrated a birthday there many, many years ago. Over the course of the book we see Rhimes' life, which is already packed with impressive things and people, grow more open and her confidence increase. I found the conversational tone of the book  very engaging but what surprised me was how unashamedly goofy it was at times. There was a great deal of comedy but it served to show how to brave the challenging stuff.  Standing in front of a crowd, all staring at you and expecting pearls of wisdom? Rhimes was worried about soiling herself and tripping over. Over the course of the year, Rhimes faces things head on and sees the benefit of doing this. This is probably a book that I will go back and read again as it was a very entertaining. 

4/5 Stars

Thursday, 12 January 2017

Surf Mama by Wilma Johnson

Starting off honestly, I want to learn how to surf. I am not 100% sure why or where this idea has come from. However, it is here and it is not going away. This, as a landlocked city dweller, poses something of a problem for me. As a result I have started reading books and watching films that are about surfing. If you have any recommendations please do add them in the comments!
 The most recent member of this category is Wilma Johnson's book detailing her journey to surfing and a thoroughly enjoyable read.

Johnson was an artist living in Ireland doing the 'earth mother' thing with three children and being made a, what she terms, surf widow when her surfer husband would disappear off to chase the good waves. When, after ten years, they make the move to the south of France and the marriage dissolves she finds her way to make good on her earlier determination to learn to surf herself. What follows is a lovely telling of her adventures. The book was funny and told a charming story with a conversational, relaxed tone. The anecdotes of making choices as a mother, an artist and a surfer; the finding of a community in a new place and the strong sense of self that the author portrayed made it an amusing and inspiring book.

4.5/5 Stars