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!

Sunday, 21 January 2018

How to Write a Gamer

Gaming is a big part of many teenagers (and the lives of people of all ages) nowadays, and it's often included in YA novels. However, sometimes I don't quite believe that writers have much experience with video games, themselves. This isn't meant to be a call-out post to any specific writer, but just some hints that you could include in your writing.

First - we don't all like the same types of games. There are as many types of games as there are genres of books. For example, I like more story-driven games, RPGs, some indie titles and most Nintendo titles. I've always thought you can tell a lot about a character from what their favourite films are, and video games are similar to that. Contrarily, I don't play a lot of multiplayer games. Yes, not all games are multiplayer, there is such a thing as singleplayer games. I had no-one to play multiplayer games with when I was younger, so I never picked up the habit. While I do enjoy them with friends, they're not what I tend to reach for, either. And playing with strangers doesn't appeal to me, although I understand why some people enjoy it.

Second - we don't use video game speak in our everyday lives. The only time I would call someone a 'noob' for example, is ironically and only if I'm in a group of other gamers who would get the joke. Also, a related term with very similar meaning is scrub. Again, though, I wouldn't use it with non-gaming friends.

Third - girls play video games. And we don't all get into them just because we had an older brother, either. Quite honestly, the idea that the only way a girl can have more masculine interests is is she has brothers is one I would happily see buried. I got into them because it was something I could do by myself, as an only child.

Fourth - it can be just a hobby. I'll cheerfully nerd out over the tiniest details in many of my favourite games, but it's not my whole life. They're one of the best stress relievers I know. I'm not planning to become a game developer or make a million off YouTube Let's Plays. Those are not as big a thing anymore, either. If you want to seem more current, have your characters watch a game on Twitch. Or even stream one themselves.

Fifth - if you don't know, stay unspecific. "He threw his console out the window" rather than "He threw his PlayStation out the window." You know, just in case the console you mention may not even be out where your book is set. "Now he hasn't even got a video game to take his mind off things" rather than "Now he hasn't even got Mega-Mutilation Part 3 to take his mind of things." There's more to video games than violent ones, anyway. And keep in mind if it's reasonable for a character to know something. A non-gamer may well assume most TV consoles are PlayStations and that any Nintendo handheld is called a GameBoy. Have a character gently correct "Well, it's actually a 3DS..." to show you did your research but are still bearing in mind narrative voice.

Sixth - not all of us will have everything. Some will have a tricked out gaming PC they bought themselves, all the latest consoles and every game on release. Some will be surviving with last generations systems, second hand games, and Steam sales on a laptop, due to lack of funds. Some may use predominantly handhelds, some will prefer PC gaming over everything. Every type of gamer is equally valid.

Seventh - some good phrases. "I watched a video game stream on Twitch last night." "I bought a few new games on Steam." "I was achievement-hunting for hours." "My favourite games are JRPGs." "I collect Amiibo." "They should port more games to the Switch." "I don't think the Xbox One is living up to it's potential." "My gamer tag is ...." (A gamer tag is like a username, often a nickname with a few numbers after it) If games aren't your thing, any one of these can be used to clue the reader in that your character likes gaming, and you don't have to make a big conversation about it. Here's a sample conversation where the main character isn't the gamer:

I entered the school hall, and noticed my best friend talking by the lockers, to a boy I knew she was interested in. "I think they should port more games to the Switch," she said.
"Talking about video games again?" I said with a smile.
"Hi, how are you?" she said.

I've introduced the fact that she likes video games, with a statement a lot of gamers have been saying, and lead them off the subject so discussion of it doesn't take over the story. If you're not overly confident in your use of gaming terminology, just move the conversation on.

So, there's a few tips! Also, if you're curious, here are my experiences with gaming. I got in through my GameBoy and Pokémon (Still love it, favourite Pokémon - Vulpix). I played mostly PC games growing up - my parents didn't let me have a console for the longest time. Nowadays, I am making do with a laptop and handhelds because of a sheer lack of space. I can't fit a TV in my bedroom, and the house TV is where Dad lives. (seriously)

Tuesday, 16 January 2018

A Review of the Rebel Belle series

The Rebel Belle series is a trilogy by Rachel Hawkins, who also wrote the Hex Hall series. Harper Price is a Southern Belle from Alabama, worrying about things like her grades, relationship, looks and future. But when she goes into the bathroom to touch up her lip-gloss, one of her teachers gifts her with superpowers, which she has to use to slay another of her teachers, who is attacking her. Soon, she learns that she has become a Paladin, who along with a Mage is charged with the ancient duty of protecting an Oracle. The Oracle happens to be the one boy she has hated since daycare, David Stark.

This series is fun, fluffy and lighthearted - not that that ever means bad, and I really enjoyed these books.

The plot is ridiculous, in a good way, so much so that it reads like a parody of "teenage girl with superpowers who has to keep going on to school while saving the world" stories, in the vein of Buffy the Vampire Slayer or magical girl anime.

In the first book, I loved the focus on debutante balls, and seeing Harper come to terms with her powers. I liked how in the second book Harper has to deal with the idea of how her entire life will be completely different from what she expected. And I don't think she has a wholly unrealistic reaction to the whole deal, either. Her whole life would revolve around David, and boyfriend or not, that's not a good way to be. I've always thought the third book in a trilogy has a really hard job, even harder than the second. It has to tie up loose ends, and provide a satisfactory ending to fans. Luckily, the book succeeded, and a road trip involving superpowered girls was exactly my cup of (sweet) tea.

The unique culture of the southern states is given it's due in this book, making for an excellent setting. I know debutante balls and cotillions came out of a very sexist tradition, but they've always held a glamour for me in the way that only things that you don't have in your country can. I liked learning so much about them, and how the narrative spent so much time there. Other parts of the culture are celebrated, like the cuisine (hummingbird cakes and iced tea) and calling everyone y'all.

Harper Price (yes, I hate the two last names thing, too) is one of the better protagonists I've read. It is rare that a female character is allowed to be beautiful and know it, and smart as well. The first thing she does when she learns about her powers is start researching everything to do with them. She might have been gifted with them, but she also needs to learn to use them well, too. She's a perfectionist, taking part in every extracurricular, getting perfect grades and always feeling like she has to look good. This could be a response to the death of her sister a few years ago, with Harper feeling like she needs to fill two shoes. This is also why she dislikes the idea of her powers at first. She had her whole life planned out, but her double life has caused her to re-write everything she ever expected of herself. However, she can be judgemental about people who's choices she doesn't agree with, such as people who dye their hair blue or wear a lot of piercings for example.

I also loved Harper's good relationship with her family. Although she doesn't always tell her parents the truth, sometimes out of necessity, she is obviously close to them. And her Aunts might be the best characters ever committed to paper.

David is the Oracle, and he's been that since birth. It's something he's always had to live with. However, he's also a modern teenage boy, and just wants to be normal. He's also known his whole life that people (called the Ephors) may come and kidnap him just because he exists. He never asked to be made Oracle. As a male Oracle, he's visions aren't always accurate, and it's a possibility that his powers might make him snap.

Bee is as good best friend. I like how she does start dating Harper's ex over the books, and there is literally no jealousy or bitterness between them. Said boyfriend, Ryan, is one of the good ones. Like the rest of them, he's a teenager caught in things that he doesn't understand. They all have little to no guidance about what they are attempting to do, and Ryan really feels this lack of tuition more than most of them.

There's also Blythe, who I don't want to say too much about because of spoilers, but she develops into one of the most fascinating characters in the story.

I would recommend this book to others who like teenage girl with superpowers who goes to school and saves the day stories.

Tuesday, 9 January 2018

A Review of A Quiet Kind of Thunder

A Quiet Kind of Thunder is a novel by Sara Barnard, the author of Beautiful Broken Things. Stefanie 'Steffi' Brons has grown up with childhood selective mutism. As Rhys Gold, a new boy at her school, is deaf, her new head of year decides to introduce them. As they communicate, they start to understand each other better than they ever thought possible.

I really liked this book. However, I was just expecting Steffi to be a little quieter than she actually was.

Steffi talks more than the description 'I don't talk' would have you believe. However, it's often with people who she is comfortable with, and as soon as there is too much pressure on her, she will clam up. When she does talk with strangers, it's a big deal and a huge victory for her. She is still dealing with the after effects of her childhood selective mutism, and her own chronic shyness and anxiety. Something that seems basic to us, like buying something from a shop, is a huge achievement for her.

She has a dream, and it's an unusual one for YA fiction! She wants to work with animals, and study Zoology with Animal Behaviour. However, she has to fight for it, since her parents are worried she won't be able to handle university. It makes sense, as she's the sort of person who does prefer talking to animals than people. And she works in an animal shelter, which is good for her, but can we have more realistic awkward jobs in YA fiction that don't relate to the protagonists interests and are barely tolerable?

Rhys has this attitude where he thinks he should always be the one to take care of Steffi and that she should depend on him. What Steffi calls 'boy bullshit.' He's also got a low self-esteem. Like dude, come on, of course Steffi isn't going to think you're a 'burden.' I don't think he was a bad character however, and I thought it was a realistic way for a teenage boy to behave.

He's also into video games and wants to design them, which makes perfect sense. Video games weren't always something where you needed to be able to hear to get the full experience. However, I have noticed that my enjoyment from video games is increasingly tied to their auditory parts. Many of my favourite games are ones with stellar soundtracks or voice acting. I even know of a few where you need to listen out for audio cues to complete a part. Some aspects of gaming, like voice chat, will be impossible for Rhys. Imagine him working on a program that transcribes what someone is saying and places it into a chatbox during gameplay.

Anyone who has read Barnard's other book will not be surprised if I mention that female friendships are a strong theme in this book, and almost as important as the romance. There is Tem, Steffi's best friend, and while they have a bumpy part, they sort it out. And there's Meg, Rhys's female friend. After the first part of being confused whether she is his girlfriend or not, they get on well, and there is no jealousy between them. It might be the first time I've ever seen this in YA fiction, and I wish she'd had a larger role.

It's also partially educational, as the front and back covers in my edition display the alphabet and numbers in BSL. There's also a list of things you shouldn't say to someone who doesn't talk, and things like keeping your head still and facing a deaf person, so they have a chance to lip-read. It also deals with a few misconceptions, like the idea that BSL is 'for' deaf people.

The book goes into how therapy can help. Steffi's therapist is good with her and understands her small steps. She's also on medication, and it mentions how medication isn't always straightforward and doesn't always help, but it can make a difference. It's important to show people how useful therapy can be, since it's from fiction that people learn what they might need. From this, people might be more likely to speak up if they feel like therapy could help them, and to say something if they find they need a different therapist or medication, for example.

Spoiler: Is it me, or did anyone else think that Steffi's parents reaction to her lying and sneaking off to Scotland to be unrealistic? My parents would never have let me get away with something like that. /spoiler

I would recommend this book for more mature teenage readers. It does contain some descriptive sex scenes, and I feel they would better be able to emphasise with Steffi's anxiety issues. It also uses a fair amount of swear words. I don't personally think swear words are a bad thing - teenagers swear, after all - but I know some people have a problem with them. Also, the sex scenes are realistic - Steffi and Rhys discuss condoms, for example, something I think more teenagers need to see normalised.

Tuesday, 2 January 2018

A Review of Love, Hate and Other Filters

I like how Maya is shown
to be using her camera
on the front cover!
Love, Hate and Other Filters is the debut novel by Samira Ahmed. Maya Aziz is in some ways a normal, American teenager, and in other ways inhabits a world totally different from her classmates. She is of South Asian descent and a Muslim, so she is trying to balance the weight of her parents expectations with the reality of life in 21st-Century America. After a terrorist attack on a civic building, in which one of the suspects shares her last name, Maya finds her safety and her future plans are both at risk.

Firstly, please, please read the reviews and opinions from people of Muslim descent about this book, and listen to their own experiences. I just want to add my voice to the people singing the praises of this book and telling everyone who will listen to buy it.

Maya gets my instant appreciation for having a dream. I liked how how dream of becoming a director is central to the plot, rather than in the background, too. It's also shown, constantly, through Maya's thoughts and conversations. She discusses film terminology in depth and often plans her life as a movie shot. She's determined, stronger than she knows and braver than she thinks. She's also delightfully sarcastic. I also liked both of her love interests. Kareem stays friendly with Maya, and offers her a brotherly relationship, which helps her often to sort her thoughts out. Phil is a little more of the traditional YA boyfriend - football player, in a relationship with someone else, pals with the jocks - but he has some real hidden depths. And Violet makes a very good supportive best friend - she doesn't get a lot of development, but she is always there for Maya.

There is a love triangle, but I feel like it works in this particular case. Maya sorts her feelings out quickly, and deals with it in a grown-up manner. I liked how Kareem, although he seems perfect for Maya on the surface, and would be considered ideal by her family, just isn't quite right for her. And then, as I said, he remains on good terms with her, after they break up. I loved Phil's dream to be an EMT, and the reasons behind it.

I love that there are lots of different sort of Muslim-American families represented. Not everyone of South Asian descent is the same, not every Muslim is the same, not everyone who practices Islam will practice it in the same way. I feel like this shouldn't need to be said, but it is sometimes good to have a reminder. One example of this is the difference in lifestyle between Maya's parents, and Hina, her Aunt.

It's a short book, a fast read, and I also feel like the story itself doesn't fully pick up until the half-way point. However, I feel like it needs the set up so that we could get invested in Maya, and her dreams and relationships. This way, we know exactly what she stands to lose from the attacks and the growing fear from her parents.

Spoiler: I did also appreciate the fact that the terrorist wasn't Muslim. It drove home the point that if horrible things can happen because the first suspect was Muslim, how much worse will it be the next time there is a terrorist attack from so-called Muslims? The suspicion was on Kamal Aziz solely because he was present at the scene, and a Muslim, showing how quickly they fall under suspicion. Afterwards, we find out more about the bombers home life, he gets a standard "troubled home life, quiet loner kid" backstory that is all too common when terrorists are found to be white. /endspoiler

So, where are all these YA protagonists finding these good jobs that relate to what they want to do, or are at least tolerable? When I was their age, I worked on my feet under fluorescent lighting in an ugly Domino's Pizza uniform, taking phone call orders. Where was my bookshop job?

This book does have many standard YA book tropes, such as love triangles, but I feel it will also appeal to fans of more serious YA, such as The Hate U Give. However, it needs to be said that it is a lot fluffier than The Hate U Give.