Friday, 16 November 2012

Review: Catching Fire/Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins

I'm reviewing the final two parts of the Hunger Games trilogy together, as they're so essential to one another that to read one and not the other would be stupid. By the way, I can't review these books without a few Hunger Games spoilers, so don't read on if you've not read the first book yet!

If you look back to my review of The Hunger Games you'll see that I enjoyed it, but felt that it was for the younger end of the YA market, with the gore and suffering taking a back seat and a storyline that's very easy to follow. If you're expecting more of the same from the rest of the trilogy, think again. Catching Fire starts off in a similar vein, exploring the relationships between Katniss, Peeta and Gale, with Katniss and Peeta getting used to life in the Victors Village and embarking on their victory tour. Then, all of a sudden, everything changes gear and it's like reading a completely different book, possibly by a different author.

I've read other reviews and I see that I'm not the only one with this opinion. It has been mentioned that Collins never intended to write a trilogy, which makes complete sense when you look at the three books together. In Catching Fire it was obviously easy for Collins to give us an idea of what life was like for Katniss and Peeta for a while after the games, but then she had to come up with a storyline that could carry on through to the third book. The upshot of this is that it feels a bit disjointed, and while they are both good, the differences between the original storyline and the new one are too great I feel. Maybe I'm being too picky - there's obviously thousands of people out there who have enjoyed the trilogy. I just get the feeling that there was perhaps a few years gap between writing the original book and the last two, and perhaps Collins matured a bit in that time and her writing style changed slightly.

Having engaged fifth gear in the second half of Catching Fire, Collins ramps up the bloodshed, at the same time introducing an increasingly complex storyline. By the time the next Hunger Games are over, we're set up for an explosive third book which in my opinion barely resembles the first at all. We go from the very personal story of Katniss in book one, to a much wider story involving a large cast of characters and the whole of Panem in book three. In some ways it's genius - to take one event in one girl's life and throw it wide open.

Mockingjay is still very much Katniss' story, but her life has changed beyond recognition and she's having to accept some hard truths. It's a harder read, as it's more complex and the whole dystopia theme is much more prevalent. It's also an incredibly sad story. I was crying by the end, and although I salute Collins for creating a satisfactory ending that isn't just 'they all lived happily ever after', I do question her choices of who to kill off. I won't say any more. Get the books, be prepared for something different, and arm yourself with a box of tissues.

Buy Catching Fire and Mockingjay from Amazon.

Image from ScholasticUK twitter via

Monday, 12 November 2012

Review: Paranormalcy by Kiersten White

Paranormalcy is on of those books I've heard quite a lot about, but wasn't really sure if I wanted to read it or not. I came across it in a charity shop though and couldn't resist - it promises vampires, werewolves, faeries and shapeshifters - a full rota of paranormal characters. So I picked it up and started to read, and was pleasantly surprised.

Evie is special - she can see through the glamours that paranormals cast, meaning she knows when she's looking at a vampire or faerie rather than a hot guy! She's grown up in a facility that works to track and tag paranormals all over the world - she has an exciting life, working as an agent in the field taking down monsters and protecting humankind. It seems like a great life, but she's lonely and would give anything to go to school, shop and date like a normal kid.

I really liked the way vampires, faeries etc aren't romanticised in Paranormalcy. When Evie sees a vampire, she sees their true age underneath the glamour - "Imagine your grandpa. Now imagine your grandpa minus fifty pounds plus two hundres years." Not sexy. Werewolves deal with their lot by getting sedated once a month rather than by running around having fun on four legs. Evie's best friend is a mermaid, but if you're thinking long blonde hair and bra-made-of-shells, think again.

White is clearly in touch with her inner teenager. Lots of YA heroines are ridiculously mature for their age, but Evie is just like a normal sixteen year-old (apart from the whole working with paranormals part of course). She has her moments of self-absorbed whining and vacuous fashionista-ness, but I didn't find that made her annoying - just more real. White manages to make a really likeable, refreshing character who makes me want to follow her story. Evie is like a modern-day Buffy!

Paranormalcy is a fast-paced book. In just a few pages we're introduced to the main characters, we know what the situation is and the action begins. There's no introduction chapters - we just have to take it all on board as we go along, but White writes in such a way that she makes it easy for us. It's an easy, fun read. There's plenty of action scenes, a few tear-jerkers and a good dose of flirty romance. It's not one of my top reads, but I'm glad I picked it up and will definitely look out for the next installment.

Buy Paranormalcy from Amazon
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Friday, 9 November 2012

Review: The Sweet Scent of Blood by Suzanne McLeod

This was another great charity shop find - I am so happy when a charity shop has a good bookshelf! I haven't come across McLeod's books before, which is surprising as I'm always on the lookout for Brit paranormal writers. I'm so used to having to put up with US-based books, that I kept getting a surprise when a London landmark was mentioned. This might be due to the fact that despite being British, McLeod has a definite hint of the States in her writing style. Perhaps she's read a lot of US authors and it's rubbed off on her, but reading The Sweet Scent of Blood felt a bit like reading an English version of Charlaine Harris - not that that's a bad thing!

In fact, Ms Harris is quoted on the back saying 'One of my favourite reads'. No small praise, and you'll see why if you read it yourself - the kooky but tough heroine, the complex web of characters, the big adventures and the fact that McLeod is not afraid of a bit of blood and sex - these are all traits that the two authors share.

Our heroine, Genevieve Taylor, is sidhe - a fairy of sorts. She works for the witch-run company Spellcrackers, for whom she goes out and cracks spells, stopping mischievous brownies, gremlins and the likes from causing havoc. The book is based in London, but not as we know it. Vampires are celebrities, witches sell spells in Covent Garden, and Goblins work as bodyguards. McLeod does a good job of setting the scene, describing her world and the rules that govern it without getting too bogged down in the detail. You don't have to suffer pages of history, relationship descriptions or pointless details about who, what, where and when. Okay, so there's the odd flash-back here and there, but they're totally justified, well-integrated and essential to the story.

I'm normally a bit wary of faery-based books - I find they can often be a bit too relient on fairytales, oddly enough! The Sweet Scent of Blood certainly doesn't have that problem though - there are nods to the old lore such as cold iron being poisonous to the fae, but McLeod creates her own fairytale, with its own magic and lore. I've been reading a lot of YA fiction recently, and this tested my concentration a little as I had to work to keep everything straight in my head, but I'm not saying that as a criticism. It's no bad thing to have a deep storyline that twists and turns, taking the reader on a journey beyond their imagining.

I'll definitely be looking out for the next book in the series - it's so good to discover an author who's new to me!

Buy The Sweet Scent of Blood on Amazon

Thursday, 8 November 2012

Review: Blood Magic by Tessa Gratton

Okay so it's been an absolute age since I posted anything, my bad. I've been either too ill to do anything, or too busy to post. But enough about me. I indulged myself by spending ages in Waterstones the other day, and even allowed myself to buy a book! I get most of my books online these days, and I'd forgotten what absolute bliss it is to lose myself in a bookshop and leave with a piece of literary magic, jittering with impatience as I can't wait to start reading.

I'm really into YA fiction at the moment - I've always had a bit of a penchant for it, but since reading Harry Potter and Twilight I decided to throw off the pretence and just give in to my urge to lose myself in a world of teen romance and action. The problem is, as a 34 year old woman, a story has to be pretty special to capture me. Not for me the million vapid Twilight wannabes out there. Alright, so vampires are sexy and werewolves are cool, but there needs to be more inentive to read than that. That's why I absolutely love the Morganville Vampires, but can't get on with the Vampire Diaries. I want characters with... well, with character! Romance is good, but action is essential, and it has to be infused with atmosphere and dark enough to make me feel a little wild.

So after reading the backs of a ton of books and discounting them, I felt something inside me leap when I came across Blood Magic by Tessa Gratton. Not a vampire in sight, no werewolves or were-anythings, and thankfully no faeries (you need to be really careful if you're going to go down the faery route). What it does have is buckets of blood, magic that could be real, and an atmosphere so thick and dark that I found myself completely drawn in.

So many teen books leave me following the story from the sidelines, interested but deteched, but Tessa Gratton drew me right into her world. With her poetic descriptions and lyrical dialogue, Gratton pulls the reader along with a thread of magic. I was right there in the forest, spilling my blood and shivering with the thrill of the magic.

Gratton is a friend of Maggie Stiefvater, and you can see the Shiver author's influence in the depth of detail and fearless realism intertwined with Grimm-esque fairytale elements. This is a book for book lovers, a story for everyone who fell in love with books at a young age and still hasn't got over it. I only hope that Gratton won't be as hit-and-miss as Stiefvater is with her writing.

Unusually these days, Blood Magic stands alone as a story. It is the start of a series, but it doesn't leave the tale half-finished with the reader tearing their hair out for the next year until the next installment is released. I usually like the chunky promise of a good trilogy - more to get my teeth into - but I found the completion of this story refreshing. The ending is left just open enough that you wonder if you'll be reading more about Silla and Nick in the future, but happy to leave them to their fictional lives if not. It's long enough that I wasn't left feeling unfulfilled or short-changed, and the rewarding feeling from finishing a book and finishing the story at the same time was a welcome change from the slight depression that always affects me when I have to leave a set of characters in the middle of their lives and wait for the follow-up.

So many teen books are all about the romance, which is fine if you're a dewey-eyed teenage girl dreaming about her first love. Silla and Nick's relationship is an integral part of the story, but it doesn't take over everything else - Gratton has found a great balance between Silla's relationships with her family and friends. She doesn't come across as a green young thing who's never been kissed, which can get a little boring, and you know that at seventeen she's old enough to know what she's doing when it comes to boys. In spite of this, we're not teased with the whole will they/won't they scenario - it's more like her relationship with Nick progresses at a healthy pace for a young couple, and just like any relationship in real life it has its ups and downs. Romance has to take a back seat to the dark and dangerous magical events going on, and our couple are aware of this and a little frustrated by it. As a reader, there was just enough intimacy to make my old romantic heart flutter, but it stays well behind the lines of saccharine-sweet,  lovey-dovey, make-you-puke lurve.

Moving away from romance and on to a word of warning - this book is not for the feint-hearted. It seems a prerequisite for good YA fiction to include some element of death and destruction, and Blood Magic is no different. Where it does differ though, is that Blood Magic is a step closer to reality than the usual supernatural yarns. It would be all too easy for a young, impressionable teen to take this tale to heart and get obsessed with it, believing they have the power in them to do blood magic themselves. I hope that anyone reading this book has the strength of character to know when they are reading fiction, and to let it stay fiction. I think the magic Gratton creates might just be strange and unbelievable enough to save her from an army of damaged fans. Strangely, it is this element of danger that makes the book so readable and captivating for the older reader.

If you want supernatural with a healthy dose of realism, romance that will make your breath catch but not take centre-stage, and a serving of gore to put you off ketchup for a few days, Blood Magic by Tessa Gratton is definitely for you.

Buy Blood Magic on Amazon
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Review: Saving June by Hannah Harrington

I'm usually drawn more to the supernatural side of teen fiction, but now and again something a little more real draws me in. Saving June appealed for some reason I can't define - it's a road-trip story, a coming-of-age yarn and a poignant tale of loss and growth all rolled into one.

I'll warn you now - it's a powerful read, and one that will make you cry. Our protagonist, Harper, is sixteen and her sister has just commited suicide. You can't pick up a book with that premise and not expect there not to be any raw, weepy moments. Having said that though, what shines through the strongest is Harper's amazing strength. This is not a sad story. Yes, it has scenes that will bring you to tears, but not for the reasons you's expect.

When I read a book that features such a massive loss in someone's life, I can't help but wonder if the author has had any experience of such a thing. How do you write about how it feels to lose a loved one if you've never felt it? I guess the power of a good author is in their ability to put themselves into someone else's life, feel what they feel and transform it into words. Perhaps it's actually harder to write about it if you have experienced it - everyone experiences death and loss differently, but I think that Harrinton's perspective on it is a good one. The whirling mess of emotions that Harper goes through is a believable portrayal of grief, and it's only support of her best friend Laney and the surprising involvement of the irascible Jake that get her through it.

Road trips are usually the domain of the movies (yeah there are a few great road-trip books out there, but so many movies!), but the journey we embark on with Harper, Laney and Jake is an enthralling journey, with a kick-ass soundtrack to boot. Harrinton weaves the music into the story seamlessly, and it's an integral part of the book. Any young readers who haven't heard the tunes mentioned really need to refer to the soundtrack listings at the end, make their own mix-cds (or playlists if they really must), and then read the book again. I promise everything will be better.

Not being American, sometimes I have a problem with US fiction in that I don't get some cultural references, or the language does my head in! Not so with Saving June - Harrinton's descriptions are just right - the heat, the crazy tourist spots, the diners and gas stations, the endless road. We're not overloaded with minute details, but the important ones are there - it's a hard balance to get right but Harrington does it spot on.
I'm always partial to a spot of romance, and Saving June has just that. The growing attraction between Harper and Jake winds through the story, not driving it but always there. It's both a realistic and magical imagining of young love. The awkwardness, the intensity, the veering between hate, love, lust and confusion. Those painful moments when you think something's going to happen and your stomach flips and you can't breathe, and then it doesn't happen and the atmosphere ups another notch until the next time.

Saving June is a funny, poignant and raw read. Join Harper on her journey and remember how to be yourself.
Buy Saving June by Hannah Harrington from Amazon.
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Review: Shiver/Linger/Forever by Maggie Stiefvater

I'm reviewing this as a trilogy, because I don't think that anyone should have to read it as just one or two books - it's too sad. The first time I read these books I only had the first two, and had to wait to get the third one. What a wait that was! I was climbing the walls! So be warned - make sure you have all three books lined up before you start.

Stiefvater is an incredibly talented author, whose books are a delight to read. They're just so real - which is saying a lot when you're reading about werewolves! That's the thing though - although there are people who turn into wolves in the books, it's really far more about the people and their relationships with one another. The Shiver trilogy is a wonderful love story - it's not all plain sailing, but then what relationship is? This is part of what makes it so real. There is pain and suffering, but there are countless sweet moments that make it all worth it.

One of the things I like most about Stiefvater's writing is the way she includes little details that very few writers would think to include. A touch, a thought, a look - these tiny, inconsequential things are what makes up a real relationship, and the fact that Stiefvater writes them into her story makes it all the more believable. Grace and Sam's connection is incredibly strong, despite all everything that goes against them, and Stiefvater manages to write in such a way that you feel their relationship progressing. It's like real life on paper; love in words.

By telling the tale from both Grace and Sam's perspectives, plus other characters as the story progresses, Stiefvater manages to create a wonderful all-round understanding of what is happening. When a book is narrated by just one character, we get a very personal, somewhat stilted account, but by allowing each character to have their own time, by letting us see what is inside their heads, we are treated to something that feels much more complete. It's like watching a film, but better! I usually want books I really like to be made into films, but not Shiver - I just don't think any filmmaker could do it justice. It's the kind of book that needs to use your imagination, because what you can imagine is so much better than what any special effects and actors can create.

Shiver is a completely new twist on the werewolf legend - I'm not going to give anything away here, but I really liked the fact that it completely ignores the whole full moon/silver bullets shebang, and creates a whole new legend of its own.

I urge everyone to read the Shiver trilogy. It's beautiful.
Buy from Amazon: Shiver, Linger, Forever Boxed set (Wolves of Mercy Falls)