Sunday, 12 November 2017

A Review of Ink

Ink is a novel by Alice Broadway, and it is short-listed for the Books Are My Bag 2017 Reader's Award in the Young Adult category. In Leora Flint's world, everyone is tattooed when they have a significant event in their lives. When you die, your tattoos are preserved forever in your skin book, if you are deemed to have lead a worthy life. If not, you are forgotten, and your skin goes up in flames. People without tattoos are called blanks, and they were exiled long ago to a different part of the land. Upon the death of her father, Leora starts to learn that her world is not as simple as she always thought.

This is the first of a planned series, but I want to review this book on it's own because I'm a rebel against my own rules. Well, they're more guidelines, really.

Ink had a cover that caught my eye instantly, and a blurb that put me off. It made it sound like a standard YA dystopia. However I gave it a try and learnt an important lesson: judge a book by it's cover, not it's blurb. Okay, that was tongue-in-cheek, but I swear that for me covers are a better way of telling if I'd like a book than the blurb.

My first credit is for Leora having an ambition, and it's one that actually makes sense in her world. She wants to be an inker, someone who designs and applies people's tattoos. However, women inkers are rare, and people express doubt that a man would want to be inked by a woman and question her feminine style. If there is something I would like to see less of, it's sexism even in a fantasy or future world.

Leora has a good relationship with some of the men in her life. I know that we need to show more girls supporting girls, but I think it is also important to show people that boys and girls can be friends. She gets on well with her mentor, Obel, is friendly towards her friend Verity's brother Sebastian and has a burgeoning crush on Oscar. Romance in general is not at all important in this book, a refreshing change. She also has a good if rocky relationship with her mother, and a supportive friendship with Verity.

It's one of only a few dystopias I've seen give a large amount of attention to school. Leora hangs out and revises like any normal teenager might. Obviously, school is an important way that dystopias brainwash people into believing their line of thinking. During one of Leora's school exams, she's asked to describe how life would be different if the blanks still lived among them. Isn't that telling? Leora writes that "society would be divided. It would be hard for such diverse groups to live together without conflict." If human history has shown us anything, it's that there is truth in that, but if some cities in recent times are taken into account, it's that it doesn't have to be. The future that I would like to achieve and work towards is one where diverse groups can live side-by-side.

Bad points - there is about a two long paragraph section where Leora describes herself that wouldn't be out-of-place in a young adult contemporary. You know the sort - "Who would want me? I know for a fact I've never [turned anyone's head]. I've got to be the only sixteen year old on earth who's never been kissed by anyone. I'm not the right kind of pale... I'm more of a dull grey. My breasts are too small to be curvy and I'm sure my bum is too large to be skinny." I won't quote the whole thing, you get the idea. Credit where credit is due, though, she doesn't have the whole world telling her she's beautiful while she thinks this. I understand that insecurities are part of growing up and a teenage protagonist who doesn't think she is pretty is good for girls to read about. But one of the things she complains about it her mousey brown hair, and I just have to wonder how reading that so much makes people with that hair colour feel. Some of the prettiest people I've ever seen had hair of light brown. I remember how I used to feel when protagonists described their brown hair and eyes as boring. I feel like it would be better if we could point out the positives about appearance-based attributes.

There is also a story in their world that functions as a fable or fairy tale, about why they have their marks. In it, there a two sisters, and one is "as beautiful as she is good" and people travel from miles around to see her, and she marries a prince and her marks appear magically on her skin. People often forget that her sister exists, because she's not as pretty as her sister. Of course, she turns out to be a witch and curses a large part of the land. Also: Leora is descended from the sisters in the story. Is that not the most overdone twist in fiction?

In fact, there are stories periodically inserted into the novel, telling some of the myths of the land. Many are creative and interesting, but one is literally Sleeping Beauty. However, it does end with the line "She told him he shouldn't kiss sleeping girls." I'm so happy that was included!

Here is a good article from the Guardian that details some of Broadway's mindset as she came into writing this novel. It's an interesting read. The ideas of faith, religion and questioning your beliefs are done subtly, but they are also important to the story and handled well.

I recommend this one if you like dystopias. Many of the standard tropes are at play here, so if you generally dislike dystopias, nothing here will change your mind. However, if you do enjoy dystopias, you may like this.

Sunday, 5 November 2017

A Very Potter Day - Harry Potter: A History of Magic at the British Library and the House of MinaLima! 3/11/17

At The British Library, from 20th October 2017 to 28th February 2018, there is an exhibition going on about Harry Potter and the History of Magic. It's main focus is how myths and legends from our world influenced Harry Potter. So, I didn't expect to be able to go. But long story short, an advert for it appeared in Dad's paper, and I talked him into it like the mature 25-year-old that I am. Although it didn't take much talking. I'm not dragging him along, here. He hides it well, but he's almost as into Harry Potter as I am!

Under a cut due to a large amount of pictures! I didn't get many from the exhibition itself, for reasons I explain below, but I did get some nice ones from the House of MinaLima!

Sunday, 29 October 2017

A Review of The Island at the End of Everything

The Island at the End of Everything is a middle grade novel by Kiran Millwood Hargrave, who also wrote The Girl of Ink and Stars. Amihan Tala has lived her whole life on Culion Island in the Philippines, with her mother, who has leprosy. After a decision is made to turn the island into a dedicated leprosy colony, Ami is sent away to an orphanage on a nearby island. There she meets Mariposa, a girl named for butterflies, and the two of them set off to return to her island.

My word, how is this a book for children? It's about a colony for people with leprosy, that was an actual place! I don't mean that because children shouldn't read about things like this, because they absolutely should. I just mean that if you're expecting a light fantasy adventure more in line with Hargrave's first book, you're in for a surprise. And a treat, because this book is exceptional, even better then Hargrave's first.

After loving The Girl of Ink and Stars, I admit I overlooked this one slightly in shops. I assumed that it would be more of the same. An island, a corrupt government official, a girl on an adventure home. I also assumed there would be fantasy elements, even though that is not stated anywhere. But it couldn't be more different, showing Hargrave's range as a writer, but also her style is coming through.

As in Hargrave's first novel, female friendships are important. Mari is the first person on her new island, and possibly one of the first in her life, to treat Ami kindly, something which throws Ami off at first. There's a lack of any romance here, implied or otherwise, and I couldn't help but wonder is something might be between Ami and Mari when they get older. And I did like how this one focuses on a relationship between mother and daughter, too. The one thing about Hargrave's characters I really like is that they act like children. They make mistakes, they get things wrong, they get irrationally angry at things.

Butterflies are often used in fiction to symbolise a lot of things. Death, love, rebirth, chaos theory. Here, they symbolise many things at once. Mr Zamora likes to keep them on display behind glass, symbolising his love of order, and showing what he'd like to do to the island - make a museum of it. The overall idea for the children of Culion is to take them somewhere where they can have a better life, giving them rebirth. Of course, the definition of better life is subjective and doesn't include the opinions of the children themselves. In it's way, Ami's journey home was her own rebirth. And at 12 years of age, they are very much in the chrysalis stage of their lives - growing and changing into who they will be. Mari's name symbolises her kind nature. And taking the children from Culion was the trigger for the rest of the events in the book - rather like the theory that a butterfly flapping it's wings in Mexico can cause a hurricane.

Absolutely recommended for everyone from confident younger readers up to adult fans of historical fiction. If any book has ever defined the term "universal appeal" it would be this one.

Thursday, 26 October 2017

A Review of There's Someone Inside Your House

There's Someone Inside Your House is a book by Stephanie Perkins, author of the Anna and the French Kiss trilogy. Bit of a difference, huh? Makani Young has been moved from Hawaii to Nebraska, to look after her grandmother. She's beginning to settle in, when a series of horrific murders start, centred around the students of her new high school. Her crush, Ollie Larsson also happens to be a suspect in the eyes of the student body.

Horror is an odd genre for me to read. I've read a little Steven King and that's about it. It's not a genre I reach for, not because it scares me too much, but because it doesn't often scare me, at all. I often find supernatural aspects too unrealistic to be believable, and therefore scary. However, that's not the case here. Someone inside my house is an actual, tangible fear. It's something that worries me. This book isn't keep you up at night scary, but it is sort-of look over your shoulder creepy. It's really more of a mystery than a horror.

It does feel weird to add a trigger warning to a review like this, which is about a book already dealing with a gruesome subject, but some people are fine with one thing and not okay with another.

Makani is a fish out of water in Nebraska, and she misses home massively. It should resonate with anyone who has moved house. She's half African-American and half Native Hawaiian. Back home, she used to be a diver, but after a bad event alluded to briefly until about 3/4th of the way through the book, she doesn't anymore. Ollie is a loner who wants to leave the small town himself. At home, he has an odd family set-up. Owing to the deaths of his parents, his older brother is head of the household. Actually, the character and romance-driven moments, as is Perkins's speciality, are the strongest parts of the book. Her wider friends circle also included Darby, a trans man and Alex, a goth. I am sorry, but that is all we learn about them over the course of the book. Perkins was so good in her previous series in giving all her characters dreams and interests or in the case of Isla, explaining why she didn't have one yet, that I was a little disappointed with the lack of it here. In fact, it's the minor characters who die off that seem to have more fleshed out hobbies and goals.

Since there is a mystery aspect, I can't discuss much of the book without spoiling, so: I can't be the only one who thought for a time that the killer would be Makani's grandmother in a sleepwalking state, can I? The mystery isn't so much solved as the answer is given to us, which does feel like an unsatisfying conclusion.

Good book for Hallowe'en, recommended to first-time horror readers as an introduction to the genre.

Tuesday, 24 October 2017

A Review of Invictus

Invictus is a book by Ryan Graudin. Farway Gaius McCarthy lives in 2370's Rome, the son of a famed time-traveller and an Ancient Roman gladiator. He was born outside of time, on a time machine. Wanting to follow in his mother's footsteps, he takes the course to become a time-traveller himself, but something goes wrong in his final exam simulator. Finding himself stealing expensive historical artefacts for a smuggler, trouble finds him again in the form of Eliot, mysterious girl who interferes with his mission on-board the Titanic...

Well, this book is fun, but that's all it is. Style over substance. I guess if you're looking for a romp through time with a pet red panda and a basis in Rome, it's right here. And you might learn something about various time periods while doing it, but you're not going to figure out the meaning of life or anything.

Rome is a fun place to base any novel. The old architecture and the new, and the required amounts of gelato are consumed. I also enjoyed the slight futuristic touches - explanations of how time-travel effected society and simple things like a lack of bees. So, if the book is based in Rome, why do so many characters have distinctly English names? Wouldn't a slight tendency towards Italian names be the norm, with a larger variation from centuries of globalisation?

Obviously, we don't spend all our time in Rome! Other places include Ancient Rome, libraries of Alexandria and the Titanic. However, I personally think the book is at it's best when it's in one of three locations. On the Invictus, in Rome 2354, or the section in 2020's Las Vegas. The historical periods always have too much going on and move too quickly for me to really get a sense of the place and feel like I'm there. But in the future (to us, at least) I feel like I'm there with the characters.

Characters! Farway is a typical leader. Always likes to seem in control, and somewhat cocky, but his crew is his family. Imogen, his cousin, is a knowledgeable Historian. This means she knows how best to blend in with the time period they're in. She'll pick the outfits they should wear for any trip, but this is much more involved than that sounds. She likes to colour her hair with different hair chalks every day. This is never explained beyond "I like colour and colour likes me." And perhaps it doesn't need a reason. Not everyone in real life dyes their hair as a symbolic way to show they are trying to hide something, so maybe characters don't need to, either. Priya is the ships medic, good at her job and a love of music from every time period. Gram, ship's engineer, huge geek and loves video games. At one point we are informed the group went to the 90's to find a replacement part for his NES. I wish the book had focused more on his games, rather than just Tetris. And Eliot... I don't want to get too into Eliot, for fear I might spoil something.

One thing I did like is that Farway and Priya were in a committed relationship from the start of the novel. Romance isn't a major focus here, with so much else going on. It gives our characters a grounding influence, and shows us a healthy relationship which I think is beneficial for people to see. And we still got a will-they-won't-they relationship from Imogen and Gram!

As with most time-travel stories, paradoxes arise pretty quickly. Going into some of the biggest paradoxes will spoil it straightaway, so: if the group stops Farway from being born on the Ab Aeterno, there's no Fade, therefore there's no reason to stop it. And surely there are other universes with very slight differences that have lead to a different Farway being born on the Ab Aeterno? Surely then, the Fade would still be there?

Props to Graudin for keeping the story contained to one book. I could easily see this been stretched into a trilogy in someone else's hands.

Recommended to anyone who's looking for a book that is just plain fun. Also, if done well, it would make for a movie that would be just too much fun.

Thursday, 19 October 2017

One Year of Blogging!

October marks the end of my first year of blogging. What a weird twelve months this has turned out to be. With some real high points, and some unbelievably shit ones. Let's look back on what I learnt about blogging and writing reviews over the year!
  1. I learnt to be personal - when I first started, I thought that including personal thoughts while reviewing would be unnecessary. I kept those to their own post, and tried to keep the focus of reviews solely on the book. But there's no better measurement for how good a book is as how it effects, personally. No two people will ever have the same reaction from a book, but the mark of a good book is being able to cause strong emotions in a person.
  2. I stopped doing silly titles - when I first started, I gave each of my reviews a silly title that played with their name and the word review. Trouble is, I was shoehorning the word review into them, in a lot of cases. I think it looks a lot better organised now I've stopped doing that.
  3. I've learnt to market - I've been using my twitter to participate in bookish chats and blogging hashtags. I've used my Instagram to tell people about my recent posts. And of course, people are more interested in your work if you display an interest in theirs. I've started commenting on other people's blogs if I enjoyed reading it.
  4. I learnt how to organise - when I first started, I would just throw all my thoughts together into one review. Now, though, I try to organise it into an introduction, my brief opinion, setting if necessary, characters, random thoughts and a conclusion.
  5. I learnt to be myself - well, not so much learnt as got more confident in being myself. The reason I liked blogging from the start was because it gave me a place on the internet where I could just be myself. However, I find it easier now to state my opinion and outright say if I disliked a popular book.
  6. I learnt to reply to comments - when I first got comments I was a little overwhelmed and didn't know what to say back. Now, I've decided to say a quick thank you when someone comments! I don't get many comments, and if people with 100+ comments per blog can reply to them all, why can't I?
What are the biggest things you've learnt since you started blogging?

Tuesday, 17 October 2017

A Review of Turtles All The Way Down

Turtles All The Way Down is a book by John Green. Unless you've lived under a rock for the last few years, you know what else he's written. Aza Holmes is a student at White River High School, Indiana. When local billionaire Russell Pickett goes on the run to escape corruption charges, Aza would really prefer to stay out of it. However, her friend Daisy, tempted by the reward offered, wants to investigate, and ends up dragging Aza along with her.

So, I enjoyed it. It varies slightly from the John Green standard - average male teen falls in love with quirky teenage girl, and he has a bunch of quirky friends - but still with the same Green charm.

As we all know, characters are Green's bread and butter, but these are different from the usual Green fare. Aza has a mental illness. And it's not a pretty, neat one she can treat easily. It invades her thoughts, constantly turning the narrative towards it. It effects her ability to live a normal life and do things that teenagers should. It's not easy to read about, and it's probably not easy to have, either. She is getting therapy and treatment, but they don't seem to make it better for her. That's one of the points that it can take a lot of effort to get to a stage where mental health is manageable, let along better. Just because one way doesn't work, doesn't mean you should stop trying. Daisy writes a lot of Star Wars fanfiction. That's the most stereotypical Green quirk of the lot. She discusses it using terms that go over my head, and I'm a Star Wars fan myself. Her love interest, Davis Pickett, is rich, and by that I mean extremely, but he's the good sort of rich. He has the common thing where he recites trivia, but the narrative never tells us he likes trivia. Normally, when that pops up a character will tell someone else "hey, I tend to recite trivia." Let's compare that to two other Green books - I think the first thing we learn about Colin from An Abundance of Katherines is that he can do anagrams. Similarly, the thing I remember most about Pudge from Looking for Alaska is his quoting of famous dead peoples' last words. But Davis is notable in that the narrative never tells us, only shows us.

I've said it before, and I'll say it again: I love how John Green writes teenagers. I was one of those teens with a good vocabulary and I can distinctly remember having philosophical discussions with my friends at lunchtime in school. But they still make mistakes, they misinterpret things, they fight with their friends because they don't understand their point of view. They have problems we can all relate to and problems that are more unique to them.

At a few points, Aza wonders if she's fictional. She feels like she is the sidekick to Daisy, but Aza... your last name is Holmes and you're in a mystery novel. I've never been a fan of this trope, actually. As soon as a character starts wondering if they're fictional, it takes me right out of the narrative, the immersion. It doesn't happen often enough here to really annoy me, thankfully.

You never really realise how many dead parents there are in fiction until it happens to you. Some of the ways Green describes it are spot on. The point where Aza says she still expected to see her father everywhere, months after his death? That's the point I'm still in, now.

Was the line explaining what Applebee's is in all editions of the books? As someone who has eaten at Applebee's, it was weird, and I don't think Americans would need a line explaining it.

The mystery part of the book isn't as big a part of it as the cover might make you think. If Green wants to make this a series with Aza and Daisy as teen detectives, I would be okay with that. I'd recommend this to John Green fans and also, since it is different from his usual fare, to John Green not-fans.