Tuesday, 20 February 2018

A Review of Undercover Princess

Undercover Princess is the first book in The Rosewood Chronicles series by Connie Glynn, who is also know as Noodlerella on YouTube. Lottie Pumpkin has been accepted to the prestigious Rosewood Hall on a scholarship. She's always had her head in the clouds, and a love of fairytales. So it might be fate that she ends up rooming with Ellie Wolf, who happens to be the Princess of Maradova.

Look, I'm easy to please. If your book is about royalty, I'll at least give it a chance. Bonus points if it's also about princesses.

Rosewood Hall isn't a school for royalty, exactly. It's a posh boarding school, for all intents and purposes. It does well with students who are exceptional, have the potential to be exceptional, or whose parents are paying for the school in hopes it will make them exceptional. High-ranking politicians, Olympic athletes, famous people of stage or screen - in short, exceptional in their respective fields, even if they aren't always household names. It actually fills a unique niche, giving readers a fictional school they may actually want to attend. I can't remember this being a thing since Harry Potter, and Rosewood Hall is distinct in that it does keep to mostly normal lessons.

I did like Lottie. I liked her love of fairytales - she reminds me of me. I felt at first there was a lot of telling and not showing. Lottie's circumstances at the school are stated to be exceptional, and there's nothing extraordinary about her. However, as the book goes on, she displays deduction skills and a level of quick thinking that weren't apparent at first glance. Ellie is very much a cookie-cutter rebellious princess. There's not a lot to say, but I would like some character development of her either accepting her role as a way she can change things, or having the courage to reject it altogether. Binah reads like an exaggerated parody of the "smart people use big words" stereotype. It did get on my nerves after a while. Most of the rest of the cast here aren't distinctive enough to be worth mentioning.

I wasn't sure how anyone could mistake a princess with a wild reputation with shy and anxious Lottie, even if they did think she was putting it on. Especially when Princess Eleanor Wolfson was hiding under the name Ellie Wolf. Brilliant disguise.

So was I the only one to think there might be something between Lottie and Ellie? Lottie feels jealous when Ellie hangs out with another girl, and Ellie sings a song for her about a Princess and her portman/partizan who were close as more then friends.

I was actually curious about both the terms, portman and partizan, so I looked them up. I can't find any reference to portman being used as a specific term for someone who disguised themselves as a royal to protect the royal. Any googling just got me a list of Natalie Portman films in which she played royals. I realise Glynn did make up the concept of partizan, but I was curious if maybe it was an ancient word for a soldier in any language. I did understand that neither are in common use or would be accepted practice today, but I was curious if there was any historical context to either of them. It seems more like Glynn invented the terms. There's nothing wrong with that, but it is something to bear in mind.

The writing style could use a little work. I'm being nice, because it is, at least, readable. Sometimes the sentence structure is odd, and the dialogue makes it hard to tell who is who. The passage of time, and therefore the pacing of the book, is jumpy, too. We spend the majority of the book in the time between September and Christmas, but we seem to jump from the 9th of January to summer in about two chapters.

I'd like to know a bit more about the country of Maradova. It's near Russia, used to be part of the British Empire so it speaks English, that I can buy. But surely Russian is still commonly spoken? What did it do in the Second World War? What's the capital city called? Any famous monuments? Is it part of the EU, does it use the Euro?

Look, it's not going to change the world, and it's not going to be studied in literature classes 100 years from now. But reading is 90% context. For a fun, relaxed afternoon it was good. And if you're going on holiday to, oh I don't know, DisneyWorld or something, it's an easy read that also fits in the theme.

I recommend this book as one to bridge the gap between MG and YA. The protagonists are fourteen, older than most middle grade but younger than a lot of young adult, and it's written in an easy reading style.

Friday, 16 February 2018

Six Foods Brits Should Try in America (And Four You Can Skip)

One of the good things - in fact perhaps the best thing - about America is the sheer variety of foods and cuisines on offer. Anyone who thinks it's all burgers and fries probably hasn't been to the States! With so many different people who have immigrated and bought their own food cultures with them, it's bound to be varied. For the purposes of this list, I will keep it to foods that can be defined as broadly American, with some regional Southern specialities. Also didn't include steak/burger/fries/hot dog etc. Most of these things are easy enough to find in most parts of the world nowadays, and the purpose of this list is to tell people about things they might not have considered.

1. Corn dog - if you only ever try one stereotypical American food, make it one of these. A hotdog style sausage on a stick, deep fried in a very smooth, crispy batter. If you've ever had a battered sausage from the chippy, you have the idea. The batter is perhaps a little sweeter than I first expected, but it's still a nice savoury snack.
2. Grits - I know, I know. This one surprised me too! I assumed I was going to dislike grits before I even tried them. I'd read about fictional characters disliking them, and from the name I thought they would be gritty. They're actually really creamy, smooth. The best think I can compare it to is soup. I said to one of my friends that it would be good in wintertime, which lead to a joking "Sorry, what's that?" since he's from a hotter state. They do need a little extra seasoning to bring out the flavour - salt, pepper or butter - the ones I had came with cheese on top.
3. Proper BBQ - Americans really do have a good handle on doing BBQ. They keep the meat juicy and tender, and apply the right amount of sauce. Anything with the word "rib" in it is always a good idea from a specialist BBQ place. Pulled pork sandwiches are also neat. However, if you're not used to them, I have to remind you to watch your portion sizes! If you're coming from anywhere outside of the States, you probably aren't used to so much food.
4. Funnel cakes - deep fried sweet batter, topped with icing sugar. What's not to like?
5. Pumpkin pie - Americans do sweet pies well. See if you can't get your hands on canned pumpkin - foreign section in the supermarket or Amazon - and try it yourself! Most come with a recipe, or you can find one online, and they're not too tricky to make.
6. Chicken and waffles - the sweet and savoury mix works really well here. Americans are known for their odd food combinations, but when they find something that works, it really works.

These are four American foods I found didn't live up to the hype. I still recommend trying them out of curiosity to see what the fuss is about, but they aren't on my list of foods I seek out when I'm over there. The thing with a lot of these foods is that they're not actually bad, per se, but are just strange to my tastes.

1. White gravy - if my American friends knew this was on my list, they'd never invite me back. Sorry guys, but I just don't get it. It has very little flavour, and when it's on top of something like fried chicken that really needs a flavourful sauce, it doesn't do anything. Don't even get me started on the thing you call biscuits and gravy. Those aren't biscuits and that is not gravy!
2. Hershey's chocolate - if you're used to Cadbury's, Hershey's tastes awful. I'm sorry, but it's just a fact of life. It literally tastes of vomit. Which is possibly because of the presence of butyric acid in it.
3. Cinema popcorn - they put melted butter on it. The butter makes the popcorn go soggy. Popcorn is supposed to have something of a bite to it. Mixed sweet/salty from a UK cinema is way better.
4. Bacon - It's a tiny strip mostly of fat, cooked until it shrivels up so that it's no longer there. Wait until you go home, and have bacon with a proper amount of meat on it. I have no idea how Americans are obsessed with this when their bacon isn't even good.

There's my list! It's harder for me to figure out this list in reverse, since I don't really know what would appeal to American tastes. I was trying to get an even five and five, but I ended up with six and four. Do you have any suggestions or anything you think I've missed from this list?

Tuesday, 13 February 2018

A Review of Batman: Nightwalker

Batman: Nightwalker is the second book in the DC Icons series, written by Marie Lu. Wonder Woman: Warbringer by Leigh Bardugo was released last year, and Catwoman by Sarah J Maas and Superman by Matt de la Pena will be released at a later date. Bruce Wayne is an orphan billionaire - do I really need to recount Batman's backstory? - who is sent to do community service at Arkham Asylum after getting in trouble on his eighteenth birthday. While there, he becomes interested in one of the inmates, Madeleine. What she tells him may be crucial in saving Gotham City from it's latest threat, the Nightwalkers. But can her information be trusted?

I really did like this book. I think I preferred Wonder Woman: Warbringer slightly more, but this was still a fun and fast read. This was my first book by Lu, and I will definitely seek out some of her other books.

I think the most important thing to bear in mind is that this book isn't about Batman per se, but about eighteen-year-old Bruce Wayne. It's also firmly AU, so you have original characters and canon characters that act unlike their counterparts in other canon. It is, for all intents and purposes, fanfiction, and there's absolutely nothing wrong with that.

Bruce Wayne is young and impulsive, making mistakes, but his heart is in the right place. He's also an idiot at times. Well, I'd say bad at reading people, good with tech. He isn't quite Batman yet, and that's okay. He has two friends, Dianne Garcia and Harvey Dent (yes, I know...) who are there to be his friends, not receiving much character development themselves. Other side characters, such as Richard Price, get more backstory in a couple of lines. This book has a talent for making you sympathise with even people who dislike Batman, and no-where is this better shown then in Batman's discussions with Madeleine. I found myself constantly questioning if she was telling the truth, and if there was even a grain of truth in what she was telling Bruce, did that make her sympathetic?

I actually feel like making Batman do community service in Arkham Asylum was a good idea, in theory. It's the sort of work a rich boy would never have to do, and most wouldn't like. Credit to Bruce, he never complained more than a few snarky comments at the end of the day. It would also show the type of place he could end up if he went down a dark path. I just think it might have been a better idea to keep him away from the inmates.

I have to credit this book with one of the best descriptions of grief I've read. "People always expect you to move on so quickly after you experience loss, don't they? For the first few months, the sympathy pours on you. Then, gradually, it dwindles down, and one day you find yourself standing alone at the grave site, wondering why everyone else has moved on to caring about something else while you stay right here, silently carrying the same hurt."

So, if the security cameras in Arkham record voices, as is implied, why would they need to wire Bruce up to record Madeleine's voice? Bruce tells Draccon to check the security cameras for the record of Madeleine talking to him, Madeleine speaks directly to them to pass a message, and Bruce reminds her that she could lose her bed, even though she's not supposed to know he was wearing a wire. But then, when it's convenient, they can't hear? Maybe they're just not very sensitive, and only record loud sounds?

I would recommend this book to Batman fans, who don't mind something being a little loose with canon, and are looking for a fun read.

Friday, 9 February 2018

I Love the Olympics

I really do. Both flavours, Winter and Summer. And it does seem weird, because I don't care all that much about any other type of sporting event. Maybe the odd football game if it's a big England match, but that's it. Why does this one event seem to catch my imagination like no other sports do?

For one thing, it's only on every two years, on the four year cycle between Summer and Winter. Some sporting events feel like they're on all the time. Formula 1 seems to take up a good three quarters of the year, Wimbledon is once a year and it seems like there's football on every day. But the Olympics are rare enough to still seem like a novelty.

I especially love the opening and closing ceremonies! They're as much about culture as they are sport, showcasing all the best things about a nation. One of the best ways to understand somewhere is to learn about it's culture. I enjoy all the pomp and ceremony of the opening, raising the flags, lighting the torches and making the oaths. I also really like the Parade of Nations, and Dad and I play a game where we try and guess the country coming next from the flag. And I like the more relaxed atmosphere of the Closing Ceremony, with every country coming in together and it feeling more like one big party.

It's nice to see sports other than the usual. Normally, if there's a sport on UK TV, it's one of a select few. But the Olympics showcases more unusual sports, ones you don't always see. There's always something on, and sometimes I tune in for fun on a random sport, and cheer for all countries if neither is Team GB. And, at least over here, Women's and Men's events get the same amount of coverage and interest, something you don't often see in a huge sporting competition.

With the state of the world at the moment, it's nice to see countries coming together for a little friendly competition. I like it when things aren't taken too seriously, and if we get a medal, that's awesome, if we don't, that's cool too. These athletes are the best of the best, and few people can do anything like what they do. Sport has a unique power to bring people together - the Christmas Day football match in the First World War is a favourite of mine - and no-where is that shown better than the Olympics, featuring people from many different countries. I always hope that the gathering of people from all corners of the globe can lead to better understanding between everyone.

I think that overall, the Olympics inspires us to be the best in what we do everyday, whether that be sports or not, and that is worth supporting.

Tuesday, 6 February 2018

A Review of Simon vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda

Simon vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda is a book by Becky Albertelli. A movie adaptation, Love, Simon, is planned for this year. Simon Spier is a closeted gay guy, but he has been emailing Blue, a mysterious guy from school. However, when Martin Addison gets ahold of the emails, he blackmails Simon into setting him up with one of Simon's friends. Simon's life is about to go from complicated to worse.

It took me a little while to get fully invested into this story, but by the end of it I was grinning at everything. If you don't, you have no heart. God, it was just... so cute.

Simon is fine. He's nice, if a little clueless, and has a great family support. I did wish Simon wouldn't push Blue into meeting in person so much. Blue had stated that he wasn't ready for that yet. But he's a teenager, and he's not flawless. Abby and Nick are good best friends, and Abby especially shines. It's easy to see why she'd be the first person Simon would tell. I didn't overly like how snippy she got when she found out about Martin, but she does quickly sort out her feelings. Leah is a little more prickly. She hates Abby (because Abby gets on well with both her crush and her best friend) and has a tendency to get angry at her friends over very slight things. However, it is clear that she is concealing a lot of anxiety issues, and I would be interested to read Leah on the Offbeat just to see things from her POV. Martin belongs in a dumpster full of the worst characters in all of literature, alongside Dolores Umbridge.

So, when did people figure out who Blue was? Spoiler: I was pretty sure I knew it was Bram throughout the book, became certain on page 194, than started doubting myself because I didn't know of any Presidents with the first name Bram. /spoiler

This may be the first USYA book I've read where teenagers realistically drink. Simon's parents reaction seemed way over-the-top to me, but that's a cultural difference. In the UK, we can drink at 18, and many parents are okay with teenagers drinking at 16/17. It's sort of a 'you're going to do it anyway, so I'd rather know where you are and what you're up to' thing. So you see, USYA treating alcohol as this 'forbidden subject' has always seemed really odd to me.

One of the best things fiction can do is teach you that your feelings are valid. When you identify with a character going through something similar,  Which is even a mantra that Simon preaches, learnt from his psychologist Mom. I'm hoping more teenagers can take away from this that they are entitled to their emotions.

If there's one place I think Albertelli can improve, it's in the description of technology. She calls a Tumblr blog 'The Tumblr' and I don't even think Tumblr is as popular now. I think Facebook would be most logical for a school secrets page. And school computers, I don't know about the US, but over here, if you've logged out of your school account, any internet site is cleared with it. Most teenagers would be hyper-conscious of logging out of an account with that amount of sensitive material on it.

I'd recommend it as one of those books that should be available in all high and secondary schools. It might help teenagers to think about how their actions may effect others, and may help people who are struggling with the idea of coming out.

Tuesday, 30 January 2018

A Review of My Name is Victoria

My Name is Victoria is a book by Lucy Worsley, a well-known historian in the UK. Miss V Conroy is the daughter of John Conroy, comptroller to the mother of Her Royal Highness, the Princess Victoria. When John Conroy brings her to Kensington Palace with the idea of making her a playmate for the young princess, things appear to go well, at first. But this has immersed Miss V Conroy in a world of secrets and lies that she could never have imagined.

Historical fiction is my jam, okay? I'm loving these YA books coming out based on historical events. Maybe it will help encourage an interest in history in teens. I wish they'd been around when I was a teen - maybe I would have discovered my interest in it sooner. Historical fiction makes historical events more real and alive in ways you don't get out of a sometimes-dry history textbook. However, I do need to say that as with all historical fiction, historical accuracy is always in question, and this definitely plays into alternate history, too.

This is also a historical fiction with a huge emphasis on female friendships. Miss V and Victoria feel like truly good friends at some points, and have a royalty-and-attendant relationship at other times. It's nice to see in historical fiction, where the narrative normally swings towards romance. And I do love books with a strong focus on friendship.

The Princess Victoria feels like a fully realised, living character, rather than a stereotyped royal. She's a product of her upbringing and a realistic child. I knew of John Conroy from various period dramas about the early life of Queen Victoria, so his true nature wasn't a huge surprise to me. Miss V, though... for the first person POV character, she hasn't got much life. She has little-to-no agency, most big events in her life being decided for her by others. She's only too happy to be dressed down next to Victoria, to show the princess off in her best light. It actually makes a change to have historical fiction narrated by someone who is happy to do her duty, rather than one who is rebellious, with a firmly 21st century outlook on things. But she is definitely not the most memorable character in the novel.

Spoiler: One of the problems with historical fiction, especially that dealing with well-known people, is that it's unlikely to have a real plot twist. However, this one does, putting it firmly into alternate history. And I'm... not sure if it worked. The problem is that Queen Victoria is such an iconic figure that the idea of her being someone different is hard to swallow. And by many accounts, Victoria and Albert were a couple who were actually in love, even if they sometimes fought like all married couples do. So his romance here with Miss V seems unlikely at best. Although I did enjoy them when they were together on page, it never happened in real life, and that felt off. /spoiler

Recommended for teens (and above, but it will work for younger teens and tweens, too) who are studying the Victorians.

Tuesday, 23 January 2018

A Review of the Twisted Tales Series

The Twisted Tales Series is a retelling of Disney stories, with one twist that has far-reaching concequences. The first three are by Liz Braswell, with another due out next year by Elizabeth Lim. The first three are A Whole New World, based on Aladdin, Once Upon A Dream, based on Sleeping Beauty and As Old As Time, based on Beauty and the Beast. The next one due out is called Reflection, based on Mulan. For the purposes of this review, I will talk about the first three by Liz Braswell exclusively.

Well, I loved them! I made the mistake of looking at the reviews on Goodreads before I got around to reading it. They made me a little apprehensive, but I needn't have been. The first quarter or so of the books is mostly a retelling of the movie, but they get much, much better once that bit is passed. I'm not sure how much free reign the writers have here - it seems like they were told to take the story and make it a little darker.

A Whole New World takes place in Agrabah, and as such used a lot of ideas from Islam and Arabic culture. It's also quite something to read about Jafar twisting someones head off by magic in a book under a Disney label. Who doesn't love to idea of Princess Jasmine running a resistance movement to a corrupt dictator? Also, it is Jasmine and Genie who strike up more of a rapport, rather than Genie and Aladdin. Perhaps because of the tone of the book, Genie goes from being a comic figure to a tragic one. However, he still has lines that made me laugh. I did feel like this lost some of the whimsy of the story. Other characters, such as Iago, are completely left out. You can have a darker story and still keep some lighthearted elements in.

Once Upon A Dream is quite different from it's movie source. It doesn't follow the story of the movie very much at all, beginning with Aurora trapped in a dream world that she had thought was real. One of the best things here is that Aurora is very much the main character, and she is a joy. She gets the benefit of page-time that she is usually denied and it proceeds to make her a well-developed character. She has huge insecurities over the idea of running a kingdom, and her description of her feelings may ring a bell with people who suffer from depression. It deals with the idea of how you can't possibly know everything about a person after only meeting them once. It can be a surprise to read a Disney-based book talking about things like moon-blood (periods) and chastity! However, I found this to be a plus, as many books shy away from these topics altogether.

I was really excited to start reading As Old As Time. Belle is basically me. The early part of the book interspaces Belle's story with extracts from her parents' lift before her. It works well since that part is really mostly a straight-up account of the events of the movie. It doesn't really pick up until Act 3, but it's worth it to read on. It's gets seriously dark, darker than you'd expect from a book with 'Disney' splashed across it. I've mentioned this about every book in the series, and I just want to get the point across, okay? They are more aimed at teens and older children who can handle darker material. One of the things I did like is that the whimsical parts of the movie stay in the book. Some of these book do leave out the more comedic elements of the film. The talking furniture are present in the book, and feel like proper, well-developed characters. Also, the conclusion - I don't want to spoil anything, but it's less foregone than you might think.

Recommended for older Disney fans!