Wednesday, September 30, 2009

REVIEW: Prophecy of the Sisters

Lia and Alice are identical twins, locked in a struggle of good versus evil that has been passed down their family through the ages. One is the Guardian who protects this world from the Beast and the coming of the Souls, and one is the Gate, through which the He will pass and begin the seven plagues. The prophecy pits sister against sister as each seeks to fulfill their role.

I'm a sucker for a Gothic tale. Northanger Abbey is my favourite of Austen's work, and is fantastically Gothic despite the author's intention of parodying the genre. And of course there's Jane Eyre, with a madwoman stalking the halls, being careless with candles and chomping the house guests. It also happens to be my favourite book ever. (Have I mentioned this before...?) Prophecy of the Sisters is a rainy day book, one that conjures up rustling silk, mourning jewellery and consumption. We've had just the right sort of weather for it these past few days in Melbourne, so I've been eating it up.

Michelle Zink has a hold of her sentences. Written in a faux-historical style, the cadence of the writing is smooth and unhurried, which enhances the dark, secretive mood of the book. Being the first of a trilogy there's lots of world building and pondering. The prophecy is steeped in Christian mythology; the Beast, the apocalypse, fallen angels and the seven plagues. There's also the superstitions surrounding twins and births and "women's magic". The supernatural element is laid on very lightly. There is nothing to frighten here, despite the dark house, the deaths in the family and the Satanic rituals in circles. They are secondary to the mystery and the companionship of Lia's partners-in-crime: Sonia, a psychic, and Luisa, an Italian schoolgirl. Even though there is a love-interest, James, this is a girl's book with girl's characters.

While I enjoyed the lightness of this book, I do feel a tiny bit let down. The prophecy is about the Beast leading his army into the world--death, plague, torture and so on. A taste of terror and supernatural suspense would have gone a long way; but it is clear that Zink prefers mystery to terror. As this is an historical novel, Zink could have easily been carried away with the Gothic-ness of her tale, heaving breasts and whatnot. But her characters too are restrained, and in many ways she has done the right thing. At the beginning of the novel, the brushing of one sister's hair by the other comes off as sinister. While it's pleasing Zink has kept herself on the right side of melodrama, the sinister aspect between the two sisters does not develop further.

The restraint is carried a little too far as the climax is approached. I wanted human reactions and emotions to the terrible event, but everything takes a backseat to the prophecy. Families are messy and explosive--especially when they're put under the pressure of a world-ending prophecy--yet none of the accusations and drama that would have been natural, today or in Victorian times, comes out on the page.

While it was too restrained in parts, and could have done with several more genuinely sinister moments between Lia and Alice, I enjoyed this book, and I hope that Zink takes her characters and tension to the next level in book two. (Guardian of the Gate, April 2010. By the way, check out the website.)

A niggle: Lia makes an assumption early on about who is the Guardian and who is the Gate. When I got to the twist I had to go back and reread certain passages, but no: there is no good reason for Lia making the assumption that she does, and this annoyed me as it took about ten minutes of page scrabbling to convince myself I hadn't missed anything.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Review: Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson

First of all, I'm a Friday Featured Blogger over at Steph Su Reads! Go check out my interview here.

Lia's ex-best friend Cassie is found dead in a motel room, alone. On the night of her death Cassie called Lia thirty-three times. Lia never picked up, and now she's being haunted by Cassie as she slides back into dangerland: her all-consuming struggle to be thin.

First of all, how popular is the name Lia in books right now? She's the main character in this book, Crashed by Robin Wasserman and my current read, Prophecy of the Sisters.

I read several books in my teens about anorexia, all very powerful books whose titles have been lost in the mists of time. But none came close to the lyrical power contained within the pages of Wintergirls. The theme is ripe for revisiting. The internet has brought a new facet to body-image disorders since I was a teenager: pro-ana forums, short for pro-anorexia. Proponents argue that anorexia and bulimia (pro-mia) are lifestyle choices, not psychological disorders. The forums are a place where those with eating disorders can go for "thinspiration", tricks for not getting caught, and support. (There are also several forums of the same name that are actually there to help anorexics recover and heal. Why they call themselves pro-ana is a sweet mystery to me.)

There has always been the concern that YA books about eating disorders "teach" teenagers how to be anorexic or bulimic. The portrayal of these disorders in books is so bleak, so heart-wrenchingly awful, so downright shocking that the idea that anyone would claim that a teenager would get to the end of a book like Wintergirls and decide to jump on the eating disorder band-wagon is ridiculous.

Lia views the world through a prism that makes everything about food; not only what she puts in her mouth, or what other people put in their mouths, but their actions as well.

He regurgitates his chewed story for me, another paying customer feasting on the dead blonde.

She's been institutionalised twice, both times against her will, and fed until she reaches a "safe" weight. She's disgusted by the idea of food in her body, but at the same time she craves it, knows she needs it desperately. As her weight drops she feels stronger, but her hallucinations grow worse. Her character is drawn with such sensitivity that instead of wanting to grab Lia by her bony arms, shake her, and scream "Eat, Lia, EAT!" as her parents do, the reader knows it's not as simple as that--Lia won't get better unless she wants to, and she's so lost that she has no idea even where to begin. So she tries to make herself disappear instead, one pound at a time.

The novel is told in first-person present tense, and if it weren't for Lia's dry and evocative observations, being right there with her as she runs on empty would be too heavy to handle. The telling is brisk and honest. Lia's compulsions to eat, to stuff her face with box after box of cereal, slice after slice of pizza, are stricken from the record--literally--and replaced with affirmations that she hates eating, that she loves not-eating. Her parents are dealt with similarly. She replaces mentions of "mum" and "dad" with Professor Overbrook and Dr Marrigan.

Memories of Cassie are revisited almost reluctantly, with more about their unhealthy friendship revealed as the haunting grows worse. They make a pact as pre-teens to be the thinnest girls in school. Their progression from lively little girls who play with dolls into teens with full-blown eating disorders is somewhat obscure, especially for Cassie, as we aren't inside her head. At one point Lia muses that she's not particularly smart or beautiful or talented, so her way to be special is to be thin. I was gob-smacked when I read this. I could read you a page from my diary when I was sixteen that is almost identical. The only difference is that I've never had an eating disorder. Anderson's portrayal of Lia's struggle is one that any who is or has once been a teenage girl will in some way identify with.

I thought Elijah was vaguely redundant. At first I thought he symbolised what Lia was missing out on: a real life, part of which could include a boyfriend. There's a fantastic scene on page 131 on the way to Cassie's funeral that illustrates a fundamental difference between men and women: our stubborn attitude to clothes and footwear that hurt us. In Wintergirls it goes like this:

"They look good."
"No, they don't," he says. "If they hurt you, they're hideous."

Which is, of course, a metaphor for anorexia: you're killing yourself, you're dying--you think you look good but you don't. Elijah's role petered out so unsatisfactorily that it made me question why he was included at all.

Apart from secondary character issues--that are somewhat due to the close-first narrative--Wintergirls is a complex, thought-provoking read. I'm extremely pleased with my first foray into Laurie Halse Andersons work. It's little wonder she is the "issues" queen.

Last thoughts for those who have read Wintergirls: One question that I felt could have been explored further is "Did Lia kill Cassie?" Not literally, of course. Not picking up the phone the night she died is understandable--the two girls weren't speaking. But Lia revealed how when they were friends, Lia sabotaged Cassie's recovery, telling her how much weight she'd lost, gloating over how little food she was eating. Cassie pulled away, severing their friendship, but is Lia still responsible, at least partly? I'd have to do a reread to really form an opinion, but what do you guys think? How much does Anderson exonerate Lia at the end of the book--completely, or with some reservations?

Saturday, September 26, 2009

In My Mailbox (6) + Travel Plans

This meme is hosted by The Story Siren.

I'm writing this while I should be working on my novel. I've come to a wall in the narrative: a love scene. Up until now it's all been Azrea, my main character, with her snappy dialogue slashing tires and being sucked in and out of portals. (She had good reasons for slashing tires. The guy's a total dick. Trust me.) But now I have a love scene and I'm just not feeling that romantic this week. I'm feeling strung out. Not conducive to romance at all.

So. Procrastination!

This week I couldn't wait to tell you that my vintage editions of all the Night World books had arrived from the US ... and now I can't wait to tell you all over again! Here's a cover montage for you if you haven't seen them. The link to the original post is here.

No books for review this week but I got some good-uns from the library. I've been meaning to read some Ellen Hopkins, especially Tricks or Crank, but I saw Identical on the shelves and it's shiny silver cover was just too good to resist. I also picked up the sequel to Life As We Knew It by Susan Beth Pfeffer--amazing book, apocalyptic and heart-breaking--called The Dead and the Gone. Book three, This World We Live In will be published in 186 Days, 15 Hours, 54 Seconds. TOO LONG! How do I know? It says on her blog, which is here. It's adorable. Her cat Scooter is all over it. She also gives a polite *ahem* that the "as" in Life As We Knew It is meant to be lower case. But I like maximal caps for titles, not minimal caps, where you don't capitalise the prepositions, conjunctions and the thingies. Thingies isn't the technical word but really it's all TMI for a Saturday morning!

I also got Before I Die by Jenny Downham, which is about a girl with a terminal illness that is supposed to be brilliant but will induce buckets of tears. One to read at home, I think. I received from BookMooch (I love you BookMooch!) The Book Thief by Markus Zusak.

Lastly, also from the library, I got Lonely Planet USA, because ... I'm going on holiday! Yay! When I heard about the blogger convention at BEA next May I thought, I want to go to that. Then I thought, I WILL go to that! My plan is to spend two months in the US travelling around by myself from the end of May until July, and then head down to Santiago, Chile for two weeks where my friend will be on exchange. Santiago is in the foothills of the Andes, and Easter Island isn't far away. It'll be the middle of winter and coming straight from the US summer, but I'm a Melbourne girl and used to rapid changes in temperature. Crowded House didn't sing "Four seasons in one day ..." for no good reason!

So first question is, how much does the BEA conference cost, because their website is oddly reticent to say.

UPDATE: Adele just found me this link about registration pricing.

Second question is, where should I go in the US! Should I visit your hometown/city? New York is a given and Anne Rice's books make me want to visit New Orleans. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Josh Homme's Desert Sessions makes me wanna go through Arizona. I've already been to San Francisco and San Jose. House music means visiting Detroit (all hail Derrick Carter and Stacey Pullen) and I want to get some good beaching time in too. Where else should I go? I'm into Epic Rail Journeys, so if you know of any of those, do tell!

This means no more buying books *cry* but there's still the library and BookMooch. I won't starve for literature!

I'm off to read the romantic bits of Jane Eyre for inspiration. Happy Caturday!


That was my head exploding from cuteness.

Review up shortly for Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Reveiw: The Demon's Lexicon

The Demon's Lexicon is an urban fantasy novel starring two brothers, Nick and Alan. They've been on the run since their disturbed mother stole an amulet from the Obsidian Circle, a circle of magicians who summon demons to feed off their power. When Mae and Jamie come to the brothers for supernatural help, Alan is marked by a demon. Jamie bears marks too, but all Nick cares about is his brother and the Obsidian Circle magician they must kill to remove Alan's mark.

Nick is unlike any other character I have read about. He's dark and fierce and not without humour. But he's also cold and distant, two qualities rare in a narrator, which makes this book an unusual read. He lacks the gamut of human emotions and is difficult to warm to, but his love and dedication to Alan, and his dry humour, give Nick a painful humanity. He's also a bit of a spunk, a deadly fighter and a skilled dancer. Definitely crush material for girls who like bad boys. (*cough* me *cough*)

The book opens on a typical day in the Ryves family: magical attacks, sword-fighting and a kitchen full of ravens. The set-up is witty and evocative, immediately setting the tone for this dark and often humorous novel. Nerdy, awkward Jamie and stubborn Mae are perfect foils for Nick's I-don't-care-leave-me-alone attitude: they need his help, and while Alan is swayed by their desperation and Mae's pretty face, Nick couldn't give a damn.

Chances were, after all, that whatever problem the pair had was imaginary. He turned the engine on. It roared into life, and he pulled away fast from the side of the river where the body was sinking. Imaginary problems. Must be nice.

For most of the middle of this book, I felt like I was being kept at arm's length, partly due to Nick and his inability to have any depth of feeling, or reflect on why certain things are the way they are. The bizarre, frightening relationship he has with his mother, for instance, he doesn't question or elaborate on. The distance Nick keeps between the other characters and the reader also affect the writing. I persisted with this book through large sections that I felt little connection with because I was so taken with the opening. A weaker book I would have given up on, as sections of the narrative are downright drab:

Nick did not care what Gerald's theory might be. He was busy calling himself a hundred kinds of fool for putting down the sword. It was becoming more and more obvious that they were outmatched. The magicians had tricks none of them were prepared for. The magicians had clearly planned this. Nick should have let Jamie be a casualty and got out of there. Jamie doesn't matter at all, not compared to what else Nick might lose.
This summarising style invades even the most fast-paced scenes and left me distracted. Being able to guess the first two twists from a mile off didn't bode well either. I do feel that less energy was spent making the middle of the book as interesting and witty to read as the beginning and end.

But. By the time I finished this book--which ends with an almighty BANG--I realised the reasons for such an unusual and distant narrative. The relationship between Nick and Alan is poignant and bittersweet, and makes this story a triumph of humanity in the face of overwhelming evil.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

L.J. Smith cover awesomeness

I just can't wait for In My Mailbox--I have to post about this now! Last week's eBay purchase from the US arrived today: all nine of the Night World series with the original covers. I adore the original covers. They're so kitschy and corny and evocative--and absolute works of art! The books are in near-perfect condition so I got the graphic designer at work to scan them for me so I could share them with you. In order they are:

Poppy is dying. Her best friend James, can offer her eternal life. One kiss and she sees into his soul. But can she follow him into death... and beyond?

Three vampire sisters, running from the Night World, seek sanctuary with their aunt - only to find her dead at the hands of vampire hunters. Now the sisters are at the mercy of the hunters - if their evil brother, Ash, doesn't find them first...
(Awesome cover! This and Spellbinder have to be the best!)

(Also known as Enchantress) Blaise is irresistable. She's also lethal. She bewitches human boys for sport. Then she meets a boy who matters - to her cousin, Thea. They become rivals in love. It's Thea's white magic against Blaise's black magic. They're both breaking the rules, but it is Thea who risks expulsion from the Night World...

Gillian is about to die. Then he appears - Angel - and becomes her secret protector. She must give him absolute trust and obedience. He makes her the most sensational girl in the school. She's ecstatic. Until he starts to draw her into the darkness of the Night World... Good Angel or bad Angel? And will Gillian live to find out?

Rashel kills vampires. Quinn traps human girls and feeds on their blood. He's a Night World ringleader. He is her soulmate. Love and loathing tear at Rashel's heart. Revenge is sweet, but love is sweeter. Quinn's a killer, but she can't live without him...

Something is haunting Hannah. Memories of a passion that has spanned the centuries. Who - or what - is it that Hannah loves? A vampire, lord of the Night World. This soulmate is pursuing her - as he has throughout her many lives, but so has Hannah's ancient enemy...

Jez Redfern is wild and dangerous, and the leader of a gang of Night World vampires. Jez discovers a shocking secret, and faces a terrifying choice: she must either remain a deadly crusader of evil, or fight to protect innocent mortals from her former friends... but can she resist her instinct for blood?
(My favourite of the series, as I remember them. Jez is way cool. The girl on the cover actually looks a lot like how Jez is described in the book.)

Maggie Neely’s biggest worry is leading her soccer team to victory – until her brother, Miles, goes missing. Maggie must find him. Her search leads Maggie to the vampire, Delos, to whom she is strangely attracted. But while Delos lives, Miles could be lost forever. Can Maggie bring herself to destroy him? Or will Delos get to Maggie first?

Keller is a shapeshifter, who changes into a panther. She is searching for a new Wild Power, but can the dizzy human girl, Ilianna, really be it? Then there is the dashing, romantic Galen. Keller has strong feelings for him. But he's destined to be Iliana's soulmate. Can Keller keep away? Or will she break her promise, and fall in love?
(Is that a girl or a boy with their arms folded??)

I've read them all (some several times) except Black Dawn and possibly Dark Angel. But I can't wait to get stuck into them all, all over again! All the starbursts on the covers are about winning a gold-plated pin like the one the characters wear in the book (WANT) or free glow-in-the-dark stickers, which are long gone. Shame.

This is the summary for book ten, Strange Fate, which was meant to be released in around 1997 along with the rest of the Night World books, and then in 2006, but will actually be released early 2010:

Sarah Strange and her soulmate, the gentle vampire Blade, live in a peaceful New England town. Sarah's world is shattered when her family is asked to hide an arrogant male witch named Kierlan Harman. Sarah recognizes Kierlan as a soulmate and fights being drawn to him -- until he's kidnapped by the Nightworld and everything she's ever known is lost.

Since when do Night World girls have TWO soul mates?? That's not very L.J. Smith! I thought the jolt of electricity/universe aligning was only supposed to happened between one girl and boy within one lifetime. I'm intrigued to read it, and bizarrely, I've found a cover for it--it's in the old style!

I sincerely doubt that this design will ever see the light on a bookshop shelf. *Cry*Instead we'll get the new, totally boring version:

It's just not an L.J. Smith novel if the cover isn't tacky.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Guest Post: Amy of Addicted to Books reviews The Handmaid's Tale

During the Dystopia Challenge, Amy of Addicted to Books told me how much she loves dystopian fiction, and how she's looking forward to reading The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood. I invited her to review it on my blog and here's her reaction.

[Blurb from Amazon: In a startling departure from her previous novels (Lady Oracle, Surfacing), respected Canadian poet and novelist Atwood presents here a fable of the near future. In the Republic of Gilead, formerly the United States, far-right Schlafly/Falwell-type ideals have been carried to extremes in the monotheocratic government. The resulting society is a feminist's nightmare: women are strictly controlled, unable to have jobs or money and assigned to various classes: the chaste, childless Wives; the housekeeping Marthas; and the reproductive Handmaids, who turn their offspring over to the "morally fit" Wives. The tale is told by Offred (read: "of Fred"), a Handmaid who recalls the past and tells how the chilling society came to be.]

"I honestly did not enjoy reading this book. I disliked more than I liked. I came into reading it with huge expectations and was sorely disappointed.

"It was extremely confusing and I almost needed to read the summary of the book to began to understand. I have to say, once you mildly get the gist of it, you realize how insane it is. The type of society depicted in The Handmaid's Tale is, I wouldn't say probable, but still frightening to imagine.

"It started out boring, and I kept hoping it would get better... but it never did. I didn't like how she was making the point that all Christians are hypocritical bastards. Yes, some are, but people are human. I just felt like she was zeroing in on this one religion when the fact it, the majority of Christians are tolerant, kind people. So that's my main problem with the book.

"Overall, The Handmaid's Tale is way overrated. It is not light in the least. Do NOT read it if you're looking to be entertained or excited about the book, like I was. While it is very intelligent and it certainly makes you think (perhaps it makes you scratch your head more than think), it's not exactly interesting. Finally, I would not recommend this to teens, unless you are highly mature for your age. Heck! Even I didn't comprehend much of it. :-D"

I'm so bummed you didn't enjoy this one Amy! It's several years since I've read it but I do know I found it intriguing and enjoyable. You're right, probably not for teens because it's a tad "literary", ie. the ending is bizarre and Offred doesn't even introduce herself properly until halfway through the book.

In my opinion there's no shame in reading summaries or critiques of books in order to understand them. I do it all the time! Some writers are just too damn clever for their own good. But I find that it's worth going in pursuit of a little understanding, because when it does click, it's such a good feeling.

If Atwood calls the Republic of Gilead "Christian", I don't think she's drawing direct comparison between the Christianity of her fictional world and the Christianity of today. As I remember it, everything in Gilead is a warped, unhealthy version of what it is (and could someday be) in this world--like English Socialism in Nineteen Eighty-four, which isn't socialism at all, but totalitarianism. Who's read this book recently? Does this sound right?

As I said it's been a long time since I've read it and the film version has wiped most of the book from my memory. The film you might find more palatable--heroics and romance, and a neatly tied-up ending, but it also keeps the main messages of the book. As I remember it. But again. It's been so long.

You've prompted me to read it again, Amy, and have a good think about it while I do!

Offred and Nick in the film adaptation of The Handmaid's Tale. Nick is played by Aiden Quinn, whom I adore and looks rather like my boyfriend! I'm a sucker for a good set of cheek bones and some curly Irish hair.

Sunday, September 20, 2009


Well, last night's film fest was as disappointing as last night's thunderstorm. A few flashes of lightening travelled half-heartedly past my window, followed by an intermittent shower or two and absolutely no wind to speak of. Ripped off!

I don't recommend either of the films I watched, and to tell you why I have to "spoil" them. They already spoiled themselves in my opinion, but look away if you're spoiler sensitive to Premonition or I, Robot.

We got cozy with some red wine and grilled chicken and watched Premonition first. It starts out amazingly well, very thrillerish and twilight zone, but ends with this bland "God wills it" message, just have a baby and get on with things. There was no bloody point to Sandra Bullock's premonitions at all, and the whole thing was very hit-you-over-the-head moralistic. Chasteness, duty and procreation. Blurrrrgh. I do love Sandra though.

I, Robot I had a similar reaction to: good beginning, bland middle, totally disappointing ending. Robots stage a coup on the human race. Why? Because this big, head robot thing, Viki, has calculated that the human race is annihalating itself through war, violence and a thorough trashing of the planet. Therefore she's going to take charge and see that we're all "safe", ie. chained to the walls or something. Will Smith saves the day, overthrows big, bad Viki and we're all FREE! Free to live without our robot overlords! Free to wage wars and be violent and continue to trash the planet! HURRAH! The end.

What a ridiculous message.

For a bit of sanity I shakily put Aliens in the DVD player. Sigourney Weaver is MAGNIFICENT, Michael Biehn is a Greek god and Bill Paxton is pure gold. "We're on an express elevator to hell, going down!" I could watch these films again and again. And I do.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

In My Mailbox (5)

This meme is hosted by The Story Siren.

Today I've been to Kyneton and back with the boy, dropping some books off for an event. It's a lovely drive, straight up the highway north of Melbourne, through Macedon and past Hanging Rock--Hanging Rock, that infamous picnic spot where Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay is set. In 1900, several boarding-schoolgirls go missing. Some are found with no memory of what happened to them, and others are never seen again. It's a very creepy tale and an Australian classic, and one I must get around to reading one of these days.

It's a warm, cloudy day in Melbourne, but freezing and wet in Kyneton. I was only too happy to scurry back to the city, the supermarket for some supplies and then onto the video store. It's going to storm tonight, so we stocked up on some old favourites and some new ventures: Aliens, The Amityville Horror, the first season of Firefly, I, Robot and Premonition. Of these I've only seen Aliens, which I love and is the boy's favourite of the Alien films. Mainly because of Bill Paxton, who he adores in this role!

It was a slow one this week in terms of books. The floor in front of my bookshelf is stacked with books to read, so I can hardly complain. One book for review, Hollywood is Like High School With Money by Joey Dean. This was an unexpected arrival and not exactly my thing, but I'll dip into it anyway. The second is Space Demons by Gillian Rubenstein, a classic urban fantasy middle grade book from 1987 that I must have read several times as a kid. It's actually signed by Rubenstein herself, to "Tim". Bought from eBay.

I'm halfway through The Demon's Lexicon. All I've read is how much people love this book, but I'm flagging. I can't seem to warm to Nick and the writing's rather drab. I'll persevere, but today I'm giving myself a little treat and reading World War Z in the intermittent sunshine and watching the storm clouds roll in. Ah, Caturday night at home!

Last night at a party I was talking to a couple of lovely and well-read women who belong to a book club that meets at our local pub. As my own book club is now defunct I've been hoping to come across another. I haven't joined yet as this month's book is The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce (big fat yawn). I'll find out what next month shall bring and possibly have a few literary Chardies with them. ("It's pronounced Caaaaaar-ddonay, ya pack of shunts.") We bonded over a mutual love of Day of the Triffids, and Brave New World and A Short History of Tractors in Ukranian.

Tomorrow I'm going to the Northcote High Street festival. Drinking and dancing in the streets, huzzah! My friend Natasha is hosting a champagne brekky and then another friend, John Beta, is doing a DJ set at the Social Club. I hope the rain holds off.

I love spring. Especially weekends in spring. Happy Caturday to all!

Friday, September 18, 2009

Review: Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins

In the aftermath of Katniss and Peeta winning the Hunger Games, Katniss must come to terms with the consequences of thwarting the Capitol. Leading up to the Quarter Quell, the seventy-fifth anniversary of the games, she must prove to everyone, including President Snow, that she's head-over-heels in love with Peeta and that her "cousin" Gale means nothing to her. There will be dire consequences for Katniss and the people she loves if she fails.

Reading Catching Fire made me angry, and there's nothing I like better than a dystopian novel making me angry. Down with the President! Chunks of this reminded me of the sweet parts of Nineteen Eighty-four, the middle third in which Winston and Julia have their dalliances in the forest and the room above the shop, talking carelessly and indulging in love-making, a big no-no in Oceania. (I've always rather fancied going to a party dressed in overalls with a red sash tied around my waist like a member of the Anti-Sex League, but I think the reference might be a tad obscure.) I half expected Katniss to spy a microphone hidden in the woods or for a painting to fall down in her house revealing a telescreen inhabited by President Snow sporting a Stalin mo. "TWO MINUTES HATE!!" Unlike in The Hunger Games, I found the romance in Catching Fire to be touching and thoroughly heart-wrenching. The love triangle isn't just about who Katniss thinks is spunky and can play up to the audience with; it becomes a matter of life and death for many people.

The pacing starts off a tad slowly, but it's hardly a disadvantage. It's like the calm before the storm, the ominous quiet before everything "catches fire". Fantastic title, by the way! It works literally and metaphorically on several levels. Where does Collins get her ideas? Such imaginitive ways to kill people. So sadistic and flamboyant! Rather like the thoughtless indulgences of the people of the Capitol. While Collins borrows from your typical grey, stony totalitarian dystopian novels, she also throws in a bit the destructive extravagance of Brave New World and Westerfeld's Uglies as a wonderful contrast between the bleakness of several districts and the frivilousness of the Capitol.

Gale remains a mystery. Peeta I have gained rather more respect for. He's the one to watch in book three I think. Gale needs to really pick up his game or he's going to fall off the radar for good! So have I picked a team? You bet I have!

Yep. The boys just pale into comparison to Katniss's awesomeness. This girl rocks. I don't think I've ever adored a female protagonist so much. I love hearing what's going on in her head, the way she pieces things together. Her voice (and Collins' writing) is thoroughly readable. And boy is she feisty when she's angry. I think I feel a girl crush coming on.

It's the people that really make Catching Fire, and not only the main cast of characters. There's a real sense of the masses, how people are reacting to this or that bit of footage; the unrest; the partying. Every bit character has a personality sketched in just a few short sentences, and they all have a purpose in Collins' grand scheme. (I had to look up who Seneca Crane was, but the bit with the dummy was genius!) Those who called The Hunger Games "simple" can't do the same for book two.

Catching Fire goes off with a bang. I adore it.

If you've reviewed Catching Fire or know someone who has, leave a link in my comments as I've been avoiding them all like the plague until I could read the book myself!

Thursday, September 17, 2009

(Slightly belated) BBAW Interview Swap!

Tammy runs Mug of Moxie, a new YA and children's book blog. She works as a librarian at a small town library. Her main job is with children and outreach programs where she goes into schools, preschools and daycares to read and talk about books. And she loves her job! She discovered a passion for YA while trying to figure out what books she should be getting for teens. She loves the stories, characters and authors.

1. What's the best thing about being a librarian/running outreach programs?

Visiting the preschools, daycares and class rooms is my favorte part of the job. I love that they are excited to see me and can't wait to see what story I'll read to them.

2. If I gave you a number in the dewey decimal system, say, 910, could you tell me which books could be found there without looking it up? I'm going to guess on this one ... autobiographies?? Or maybe travel ... uugggg I don't think I'm getting a raise anytime soon! (RH: Geography, so travel is very close!)

3. Which book would you like to see made into a film?
First one would be Spud by John van de Ruit and of course The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins.

4. Have you ever tried to write a book?
No, I'm definitely a reader not a writer.

5. What's your favourite genre of YA?
I love honesty and comedy combined. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie, Spud by John van de Ruit, and Looking for Alaska by John Green are books that make you laugh out loud and pull at your heart strings.

6. Are there any children's books that you feel are unsuitable for children? Any there any controversial titles in your library?
I try to avoid irrate parents by previewing the books that come in and making sure they go to the appropriate age group. We are pretty conservative in our library and have the series and Twilight and The Traveling Pants series in Adult Section. Probably the heaviest book I've recently read was the Perks of Being a Wallflower. It just made me sad.

7. What do you think will be the next big thing in children's books?
I love Diary of a Wimpy Kid that combines a cartoon and story, it engages reluctant readers. I would love to see more of those books.

8. Do you have kids of your own that you read to? What do they like? If not, what were you reading as a child?
I have a first grader so we read Junie B. Jones at this moment and we are huge Skippy Jon Jones fans. My teenage son has become a non reader which is shocking and disturbing. Hopefully it's just a stage so I don't have to disown him and cut him out of the will! (RH: Oh no! My worst fear!)

9. When I was in high school, Flowers in the Attic was passed around surreptitiously. What was the book you and your friends sneakily read?
Our guilty pleasure was books by Jackie Collins! Rock Star and Lucky were full of outrageous characters and loads of sex!

10. Are there any Australian books that are popular at your library? (I'm an Aussie and can't help asking!)
A very popular series right now is The Ranger's Apprentice by John Flanagan, and of course Mem Fox who wrote Koala Lou and Boo to a Goose.

11. I have to ask this one! What sort of apocalypse do you think is the most likely to happen: an asteroid crashing into the moon, playing havoc with the weather (Life As We Knew It, Susan Beth Pfeffer), a virus taking out all the grass (The Death of Grass, John Christopher) or a zombie plague (The Forest of Hands and Teeth, Carrie Ryan)?
I think a zombie plague would be pretty exciting. One of my favorite movies is Shaun of the Dead. I picture myself being calm, cool and collected. I plan to hole up in a pub and take out many zombies! I also was inspired by your web site I added World War Z and The Zombie Survival Guide to my TBR pile. This insures that I have prepared even more for the end. (RH: Hell yeah! Pass me the vodka tonic and a shotgun and lets kick some ass.)

12. Which paranormal creature has your heart? I'm feeling rather partial to mermaids right now myself!
I live in the Rockie mountains so I always keep an eye out for Big Foot, I know he's out there somewhere and I'm determined to get a decent picture of him!

It's been a pleasure to have you Tammy! Tammy's thoughtful reviews can be found at Mug of Moxie.

Happy BBAW everyone, and congratulations to all the award winners.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The Dystopia Challenge Wrap-up

Three months, leaden clouds, dark nights, and a whole reading pile full of persecution, despair and heroics. This was the Dystopia Challenge.

I've always had a thing for speculative stuff. I grew up in houses with my dad's Asimov and Niven, my mum's Le Guin and Cooper. Bedtime stories were The Hobbit and the Narnia books. I had a girlish crush on Tom Baker's Doctor Who, who was my number one Doctor until Christopher Eccleston blew him outta the water a short time ago. I've never been much for the "hard", outer space sci-fi. While I like my fantasy to be set far, far away in a distant, non-existent universe, I prefer my sci-fi ... with a little milk. I think that's why I like dystopian stuff so much: it's often science based, but it's set in this world, with a twist.

I did a bit of digging around to discover what "dystopian" actually meant. It's the opposite of a utopia. Utopia is the title of Sir Thomas More's sixteenth-century treatise about a republican paradise. Humans have worked together to create stable peace and happiness, abolish poverty and persecution. But the problem is we're a fickle, head-strong species, all with opinions of our own about how to attain paradise. It works in More's book. It doesn't work in real life.

Dystopian books started to emerge after the industrial revolution really got going in the nineteenth century. There was organisation and growth, and great power to wield. Rulers weren't just kings anymore, they were governments, and they had a vision for the future.
H.G. Wells wrote The Time Machine, which has been pegged as the the first dystopian novel, in the late nineteenth century. The genre really exploded in the west with the rise of fascism in the early twentieth century. If you're looking for head-strong, you can't much go past Stalin and Hitler, two men who had absolute confidence in what they were doing: they were making "paradise".

The fundamental lesson to take away from dystopian literature is that humans will always fail when they strive for perfection. (Which seems like a damned good reason for me not to do the dishes today. I might turn into Hitler.) One person's perfection is another person's hell.

My original list of titles to read (bold=actually read)

Day of the Triffids, John Wyndham
Brave New World, Aldous Huxley
The Death of Grass, John Christopher
The Declaration, Gemma Malley
The Children of Men, P.D. James
Lord of the Flies, William Golding
On the Beach, Nevil Shute
How I Live Now, Meg Rosoff
Animal Farm, George Orwell
Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury
The Time Machine, H. G. Wells
Bend Sinister, Vladimir Nabokov
Cloud on Silver, John Christopher
The Trial, Franz Kafka
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, Philip K. Dick
Logan's Run, William F. Nolan
This Perfect Day, Ira Levin
The Sheep Look Up, John Brunner
Emily, Dana De Young (released in 2010 but the first three chapters available on her website)
Battle Royale, Koushum Takami
Oryx and Crake, Margaret Attwood
The Bar Code Tattoo, Suzanne Weyn
The Forest of Hands and Teeth, Carrie Ryan
Z for Zachariah, Robert C. O'Brien
The Chrysalids, John Wyndham
Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell
The Carbon Diaries 2015, Saci Lloyd
The Adoration of Jenna Fox, Mary E. Pearson
The Handmaid's Tale, Margaret Attwood
The Obernewtyn Chronicles (book 1 only), Isobelle Carmody
The Tomorrow Series (book 1 only), John Marsden

Some of the ones I didn't get to I started but found unsuitable for young adults (and my own tastes right now) like Oryx and Crake and Children of Men, or they got bumped as I discovered more YA titles as I went.

This was the final list (including a couple of films):

1. The Forest of Hands and Teeth
2. Z for Zachariah
3. The Carbon Diaries
4. The Death of Grass
5. Film review: On the Beach
6. The Declaration
7. Day of the Triffids
8. The Hunger Games
9. Film Review: Battle Royale
10. Brave New World
11. The Chrysalids
12. Life As We Knew It
13. The Time Machine
14. Obernewtyn
15. Flim Reviews: Deep Impact and Watchmen
16. The Knife of Never Letting Go
17. The Politics of Nineteen Eighty-Four
18. Tomorrow, When the War Began
19. Uglies
20. District 9
21. Unwind
22. Skinned

Life As We Knew It, The Knife of Never Letting Go, Uglies and Skinned made it in because of recommendations by other bloggers, and you're right! They are fantastic books.

I lumped dystopian and apocalyptic books together under the banner "dystopian", but they can be rather distinct sorts of books. An apocalypse can be man-made (ie. nuclear, climate change) or natural (ie. massive asteroid hitting the moon). There's a lot of death in these sorts of books, often whole populations. My favourites of the apocalyptic genre were Life As We Knew It, Z for Zachariah and Obernewtyn.

On the other hand, in a dystopia, the "disaster" is purely human
-made, and can be nuclear, totalitarian, biological, ethical and so on. The best of these were Brave New World, The Knife of Never Letting Go and Tomorrow, When the War Began. Oh, and The Hunger Games and Nineteen Eighty-four and ... so on and so on!

I loved just about everything I read in this genre. The Death o
f Grass blew me away despite its misogyny. The Day of the Triffids was totally creepy despite its bad dialogue. I was let down somewhat by Uglies, but I liked the characters and I'm hoping things pick up in Pretties.

Because I'm a biology nut from way back--and us biologists do love our classification schemes--here's another way you can sort dystopian books: by the narrative. There are three major ways these sorts of books can end. The hero escapes; the hero overthrows society; the hero dies. I notice that contemporary YA fiction--especially series--is mainly concerned with overthrowing narratives. In fact, every contemporary YA book on my read list is part
of an overthrowing series, except Unwind. Everything's a series these days! Not one YA book is about a hero who dies. I was talking about The Hunger Games with my dad the other day (he's a high school teacher now so I've been throwing YA fiction at him at a rate of knots) and he said he would have liked it better if Katniss and Peeta had eaten the berries and died. I pointed out that you can hardly go around glamorising suicide in YA fiction. Whereas Brave New World, which is for an adult audience, is topped off nicely by someone taking their own life. (I do recommend this book to older teens. Huxley does this sort of book so-oo-oo much better that Scott Westerfeld's Uglies.)

I'm going to leave you with a little tale my friend Ben told me the other day. He had a real industrial dystopian moment that he knew I'd appreciate, and a dystopian-esque song recommendation: 'Machine Gun' by Portishead.

Me 'n Ben, posing for our forthcoming dystopian album. Sorry girls, he goes the other way! I show you this as there has been some speculation that the only dress I own is red tartan. See? I have at least one other dress!

I had an eerie moment last night walking home after dark. I rounded the corner of my street as 'Machine Gun' was playing on my iPod. I saw the commission flats, the full moon hanging low in the sky, shrouded in clouds, looking very moody, and the church ... it was like the universe was conspiring to create that moment.
This is a very creepy song. Happy Dystopia Challenge to me!

(YouTube wouldn't let me embed any version of this song apart from a live version. The quality's not as good, so I recommend you click over and watch one of the studio recordings like this one. The synthy bit at the end is tres cool!)

Monday, September 14, 2009

More TOMORROW movie news and more...

In a recent review of Tomorrow, When the War Began I mused about the identity of the invaders. I can fully appreciate why Marsden kept this ambiguous--he didn't want anyone using his books to justify their own racial prejudices. It didn't occur to me until now how they would portray the invaders in the film.

On Q&A the other night Marsden revealed that the producers had decided that they're going to keep the race of the invaders ambiguous. I imagine this will be a tad harder to do in images than it was in words. Former West Australian premier Geoff Gallop remarked that "I don't think John can escape from the politics of this." The gods only knows why we care that an ex-premier of WA can point out the bleeding obvious, but it's an ABC show and they do love their politicians. Gallop's probably gleeful that it's someone other than a polly in the political hotseat. But besides, it's out of John's hands now. He's been handling the "politics" of these books for a decade with aplomb. It's up to the film team to pull off racially unidentifiable invaders. Good luck to them.

Two more female leads have been cast, Ashleigh Cummings, 16 (left), and Phoebe Tonkin, 19.

I'm guessing Cummings will be Fi, cos she's so sweet and small and all, which leaves Robyn or Corrie for Tonkins. (I'm thinking Corrie, the BFF, though Tonkins does rather look like Kaitlin Stasey, who will be playing Ellie.)

I wish they'd hurry up and announce Homer! He is, of course, my favourite. Big-time crush on him when I was in high school. It's a bit weird now, me being 24 and all, but I feel NO qualms about crushing on boys in books. Real 16 yos, now that's another question...but I can't wait to see who they pick anyway!

In less dystopic news (unless you're Scott Westerfeld/Aldous Huxley/concerned about opiates of the masses) America's Next Top Model has spawned a spin-off series.

Destined for greatness, I'm sure. (By the way it was Karl Marx who originally said, "Religion is the opiate of the masses". I always thought that the quote was "Television is the opiate of the masses", but that's just a modern take on it!)

While I'm in the mood to be snarky, can I tell you how much I *adore* the vacant, oversexed promo shots for The Vampire Diaries?


Lastly, I watched the entire season two of Dexter yesterday. I definitely liked it more than season one and I'm starting to see why people are raving on about it so. It didn't reach "rave" levels for me, but the voice-overs only made me wince ten percent of the time and couldn't turn it off. One thing that did annoy me was all the women are so frigging NEEDY and my lemonade bottle had to be tossed at the screen a few times. But I got over it. Dexter's just such a cutie-cute.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

In My Mailbox (4)

This meme is hosted by The Story Siren.

I was told it would be sunny today but there is a pall of cloud hanging over the city. Not happy.

See? Pall.

So far on this happy Caturday I have had two cups of chai, one cup of lemon tea, one cup of coffee and two slices of leftover pizza. In my defence I have been eating salad and green tea all week, the boy is snoring his head off and our cafe breakfast is hours away. I have bashed out more than a thousand words for my WIP (current word count 15, 689), researched mortality statistics and admired next door's fat grey tabby. The mortality statistics are for my WIP. The tabby is just cute.

Once I've finished this post I'm going to curl up on the couch with ... (drumroll please)

It's here! It's here! There's the book, there's the couch. All this picture needs now is me!

From BookMooch I received How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff and The Thief by Megan Whalen Turner. From eBay I scored Playing Beatie Bow by Ruth Park, which is probably my favourite Australian YA book. For review I got My Soul To Take by Rachel Vincent. Thanks Harlequin Teen for sending all the way from the US!

From the library I picked up Genesis by Bernard Beckett and Arrival (Strangers of Paragor Book One) by Charlotte McConaghy. Charlotte is Australian and younger than me, resulting in equal parts awe and jealousy.

Later today I plan to soak in the bath, dye my hair (my mousy roots have begun to appear! Exterminate!) and paint my nails my favourite shade which looks something like this. Not quite red and not quite orange. The bottle says "coral", but that evokes the Golden Girls and blue rinses. Yuck. At approximately midnight tonight I will be found on Chapel Street in my most fabulous little black dress, club-hopping. I'm going out bare-legged for the first time since May, pall be damned.

I leave you with An Engineer's Guide to Cats. I want to marry this man!

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Review: The Ask and the Answer by Patrick Ness

This is a spoiler-free review, but if you're like me and are allergic to reading reviews for books you are really excited about, scroll down for release information for book three in this series, Monsters of Men.

If I thought it was difficult writing a spoiler-free review of The Knife of Never Letting Go, it's going to be nigh on impossible to do the same for The Ask and the Answer. The joy of reading these books, especially The Knife, is going in completely blind, not knowing the setting or even the genre.

But I'll give it a go.

The Ask and the Answer picks up the story a few hours after we left it at the end of The Knife. A new world order is about to be born, and whoever is in control will greet the new settlers, Viola's people. It's a story of resistance and persecution, men, women and Spackle struggling for a position in New World.

As with The Knife, the story warms up slowly, ambiguously, like riding up the hump of a rollercoaster blind-folded. Who are the good guys? Who are the bad guys? What the hell is going on? While The Knife was a chase narrative, The Answer sees the story of Todd and Viola become an overthrowing narrative--but it's not clear exactly who should be overthrown.

For those of you who thought Viola wasn't fully realised in The Knife, she gets a much elaborated role in book two. (Okay, so that was a bit of a spoiler, but we all knew she wasn't REALLY going to die, right?) Every few chapters alternate between her and Todd, and while her voice isn't quite as strong as his, and I still love Todd the best, it's interesting to see things from her perspective. Todd changes immensely during this book. By the end I had a whole different picture of him in my mind. He gives so much life and humour to these books, and he's becoming one of my favourite characters ever. There's a new villain too. Where Aaron was a Terminator-like villain and definitely the bad guy, the new villain is not so easy to pin down. I found myself oscillating wildly as I read, unable to decide who to trust, and it's little wonder that Todd reacts the way he does. I kept hoping that he would run, that this would turn into a glorious chase novel like the last one, but there's nowhere for him to go. As a result book two is a lot darker than book one, with scenes reminiscent of Nazi death camps. I also found myself reminded of scenes in District 9 for its alien cruelty.

But what REALLY made me mad is what happens to the women. Because of Noise, a virus from the Spackle that makes all men hear each others thoughts, there is a deeply ingrained mistrust of females, who are unaffected. The structure of society goes men, women, Spackle, with not a lot of breathing room between women and Spackle. But another delicious thing about this book is that while it appealed to my sense of feminine self-righteousness, Ness isn't flattering his female readers that they are the superior of the species--one of the possible villains is a woman, and I have the feeling that she's going to have a big, bad role in book three.

I was furious reading this book, tearing through the last 300 hundred pages in one sitting HATING several characters with all my might. I'm getting all riled up right now just thinking about it and the fact that there was another cliffhanger ending and I have to wait until MAY 2010 (!!!) for book three, Monsters of Men--but that's if you live in Australia and the UK. US residents have to wait until FALL! On his website, Ness says that Monsters of Men will finish off the trilogy "with a bang". I don't doubt it.

Again, I don't give ratings, but five effing stars.
(except I don't say effing)

Feeling the love and VOTE

On Saturday I had a record seventeen comments for one post (not counting my comments) and I'm feeling the love! I adore comments. They're like my own personal brand of heroin.

(I can't believe I just quoted that ...)

For those of you who were AWOL from the internet on Saturday, the part of Ellie Linton in the film adaptation of Tomorrow, When the War Began has been cast! Full details here.

Here's some more love. I've received these awards recently. THANK YOU! I'm going to pass each on to three bloggers that have caught my fancy recently.

I got the coveted Zombie Chicken Award from Lauren at I was a teenage book geek.

And I'm passing it on to:
1. Kelly at YAnnabe
2. Eleni at La Femme Readers
3. Kristen at Bookworming in the 21st Century

I got a very lady-like Kreativ Blogger award from Steph at Hey! Teenager of the Year

And I'm passing it on to:
1. Suzie at Confessions of a Wandering Heart
2. Mary at The Sweet Bookshelf
3. Ravenous Reader

And I got the I Love Your Blog Award from The Magic Thingamajig. I ALMOST (but not quite) forgive him for calling my lovely tartan dress "flannel".

This one's going to:
1. Tina at Fantastic Book Review
2. ihatewheat at The Dairi Burger
3. Ashley at The Book Obsession

There's two things you should be voting for right now: the BBAW Awards, and 101 of the Best Fantasy Books. For the latter I went with Obernewtyn by Isobelle Carmody, Blood and Chocolate by Annette Curtis Klaus, and a new love, the Study books by Snyder.

But hurry! Because voting closes on the 12th for the BBAW Awards and the 14th for 101 of the Best Fantasy Books.

I'm sure there was something else I wanted to mention too but it's just slipped my mind`...

Oh yes I remember now ...


Tomorrow: My review of The Ask and the Answer by Patrick Ness!