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Leah on the Offbeat by Becky Albertalli - Review

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Where did I get it? I had it on pre-order so it arrived a couple of weeks ago. 

What's it about? It is a sequel to Simon vs the Homo Sapiens Agenda, told from his best friend Leah's point of view. It takes place just a bit after Simon vs, just before they graduate from high school and have their prom. 

Leah has a crush on Abby, who is going out with Nick. Abby is straight, though, right? Leah needs to get over it, so she agrees to go to prom with Garrett. Then Abby wants to go to Athens with Leah for them to check out the college they're both going to. But after everything that happened in Simon vs, Leah doesn't feel that she and Abby are friends, so she's confused by the overtures of friendship she's receiving. 

The end of the book is prom night, and it does slide quite a bit into cliche. I don't want to say I disliked the book, but I didn't love it. I wanted to love it because I loved Simon vs and The Upside of Unrequited so much. I don't feel like we saw enough of Leah's personality. Like, she's a drummer, but we only see that a couple of times. She's in a band, but we barely see them. She's into wearing dresses and combat boots and make up, but we don't really get a sense of that. Her mum is seeing a man called Wells and Leah is uncomfortable about it, but we never see any resolution to that. Leah is chubby, and there's passing mention to "everyone thinks fat girls should diet", but then she buys a prom dress off the rack at Nordstrom so that annoyed me too. Leah's personality didn't shine through in the same way it did in Simon vs, which I thought was a shame.

I thought she was quite passive in her own life, like things happen TO her and not because she goes to get them or wants them to happen. Like agreeing to go to prom with Connor - she doesn't really like him, so why say yes to him? Especially when he's clearly really into her and wants to do a whole promposal for her. I didn't like it. 

I did like this second glimpse into the lives of these characters. I like that we saw Simon and Bram at prom and know what colleges everyone ended up going to. But it didn't live up to everything I hoped, and I'm sad about that. 

What age range is it for? 14+

Are any main characters LGBTQ+? Yes, Leah is bisexual and she discovers someone else is bi too. Now, there's been a bit of controversy over this because Leah tells this person that they're basically not bi enough. I agree, I didn't like this bit at all. Leah isn't the gatekeeper of bisexuality. Someone could be only 5% bisexual and they're still allowed to be bisexual. Gender and sexuality are on spectrums. I know it's pretty outdated, but I think the Kinsey scale is a useful tool. I did think Leah was just out of order here and I didn't like it.

There is a minor character who is nonbinary and who uses the pronoun 'they'. I liked this minor character and what their existence meant to Leah. 

Are any main characters people of colour? Abby is. 

Are any main characters disabled either mentally or physically? No 

Is there any sex stuff? No 

Are drugs mentioned or used? No, but there's a tiny bit of alcohol use. 

Is there any talk of death? No. 

Are there swear words? Yes, Leah curses quite a lot 

What criticisms do I have? Gosh, where do I start. I've already given some above, obviously, but even apart from those I had such high hopes for this book but I felt like it was sort of unfinished and a bit sloppy? Too many things went nowhere and Leah wasn't as badass as I wanted her to be. 

Would I recommend the book? If you liked Simon vs then yes, for completism's sake, read this. But I wouldn't make it my first book of Becky's at all. 

Why did I choose to read it at this point in life? I'd heard there were some concerns about it and thought I ought to read it so I could have an informed opinion. I believe the concerns were around the aforementioned part about Leah saying someone wasn't bisexual enough. 

What other books is it like? It's like Becky's other books, for sure, but it's just not really as deep as her others. 

How many stars? Three out of five. I'm sorry. I wanted to love it, but I just didn't. 

Where is the book going now? I'll for sure keep it, I mean it looks absolutely gorgeous for one thing!

I took this photo while sitting on my front lawn while Lee and I had a barbecue on Sunday, I was lazing in the sunshine reading. The pan to the right had potatoes in it for our potato salad!

Raven Black by Ann Cleeves - Review

Monday, May 21, 2018

I recently picked this up, it was balancing on the top of the crime fiction bookshelf. I used to read crime fiction almost exclusively but then I fell in love with YA and put it aside. I like crime fiction because the bad guys always lose and everything always gets sorted out in the end. I have my favourites, like Ian Rankin and Peter Robinson, but I'd never read an Ann Cleeves book before. I got this book in my book advent calendar at Christmas, I think, so I thought I should give it a go.

I almost wish I'd saved it for the winter though, because it's set just after the New Year and it is very atmospheric of ice and cold. But, I wasn't to know that when I started it, so there we go. It is the first of Cleeves' Shetland novels, which are now a TV show, although I've never seen it. I would definitely read more of the series, and I really should check out the TV series. I love crime serials as much as I like crime novels! I'm a big fan of Vera, the books of which are also written by Ann Cleeves.

The detective in question is Jimmy Perez, a Fair Isle native who's just moved back to Shetland after the break up of his marriage. There actually isn't a lot of his point of view in the book, which I quite liked because it meant we got to see much more of everyone else who lives there. Fran Hunter, a Londoner who was married to Duncan, who's well known on Shetland, is walking home from taking their daughter to school when she sees ravens circling something in the snow. She goes over to investigate and finds the body of her young babysitter, Catherine Ross, buried in the snow.

Suspicion immediately falls on Magnus Tait, an old man who lives by himself and who is generally regarded as being "not quite right" by his neighbours. Several years ago a little girl called Catriona Bruce went missing, and although Magnus was questioned at length, charges were never brought against him. Perez is determined to not fall into the trap of immediately collaring Magnus for Catherine's murder, but in doing so he uncovers a whole host of secrets that the inhabitants of Shetland are hiding.

All in all I liked the book, although I felt the second half dragged somewhat. I also got very confused by the locations and had to keep looking things up. I could have done with a map of where the main action occurred. But this wasn't really a huge deal, so I'm giving the book four out of five stars. I was intrigued by Jimmy Perez and would like to read more about him.

The Island by M A Bennett - Review

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Where did I get it? Netgalley, courtesy of Bonnier Zaffre publishers, so thank you very much to them! 

What's it about? Lincoln Selkirk wakes up on a desert island and through flashback we find out what has happened. He was raised partly in America and then in Oxford by scientist parents. He's been homeschooled but aged thirteen he joins Osney school, which is extremely sporty and where Lincoln fails to fit in. On his very first day he is humiliated in a race and designated as a "Twelve" - the lowest of the low. He spends the next three years being bullied and vows to leave school as soon as he turns sixteen. His parents agree, on the condition that he attends a two week summer camp with some of his fellow students. On the way there, the plane crashes and seven of them are left on this desert island.

The school stuff takes up twenty percent of the book, which I felt was quite far into it for us not to see that much of the island. On the island, Lincoln manages to make fire, hunt animals, and become indispensable to the others. The power starts to go to his head and we see all kinds of things unravel there.

I felt like parts of the story were a little bit stereotypical and I could see them coming. But then, I'm 34 and have read a lot of books and seen a lot of media. A teenager may not have seen this kind of story played out before so may not see things before they're revealed on page. I also forgave a lot of the trite parts because they were written so well and told in new ways, which was good. There are obviously a lot of comparisons with Lord of the Flies, but there's so much other popular culture put in too, so I really liked it. I think M A Bennett has a real flair for creating believable characters. I have to say that I mostly didn't LIKE Lincoln as a person, but he was a great character and a reader could often understand why he did what he did. There was enough about him to keep me reading, anyway.

I felt like the ending was a bit rushed and I would've liked more denouement and explanation there. But in all, this was as intriguing as S.T.A.G.S and I really enjoyed it. 

What age range is it for? I'd say from 15

Are any main characters LGBTQ+? Yes, but it's not a major storyline

Are any main characters people of colour? Yes, although it's not a major strand

Are any main characters disabled either mentally or physically? No 

Is there any sex stuff? Not really 

Are drugs mentioned or used? Yes, there is a leaf on the island which is similar to cocaine and which Lincoln takes 

Is there any talk of death? Yes, it's not overly explicit

Are there swear words? I don't think so? 

What criticisms do I have? Like I say, I think there could have been less school at the beginning and more explanation at the end. 

Would I recommend the book? Absolutely 

Why did I choose to read it at this point in life? I was desperate to read it as soon as I got approved for it! 

What other books is it like? Well, Lord of the Flies, obviously, which i read a hundred years ago in secondary school. It's also a lot like S.T.A.G.S. 

How many stars? Four out of five, it's thoroughly enjoyable. 

The Island will by published by Bonnier Zaffre on the 9th of August 2018

Holy Fools by Joanne Harris - Review

Saturday, May 5, 2018

I rarely reread books, because there are just so many beautiful books waiting to be read, but I do have my favourite books and every now and then I think to reread one. I was nominated for that Facebook meme recently where you had to share your top ten books (I'd already done my top ten albums) and I had to think really hard about what my favourite books are. I haven't actually shared my top ten books on Facebook yet, but I may as well tell you:
  1. Rebecca - Daphne du Maurier
  2. Notes from an Exhibition - Patrick Gale
  3. The Seduction of Water - Carol Goodman
  4. Five Quarters of the Orange - Joanne Harris
  5. Simon vs the Homo Sapiens Agenda - Becky Albertalli
  6. T.H.U.G - Angie Thomas
  7. Station Eleven - Emily St John Mendel
  8. Fangirl - Rainbow Rowell
  9. The Handmaid's Tale - Margaret Atwood
  10. The Woman in Black - Susan Hill
Wow, typing these out really makes it clear that I prefer books by women! Some of these have been on my favourite list for absolutely years, but some are obviously newer additions. 

Joanne Harris' early books are all great, although I definitely love Five Quarters of the Orange the most. That's partly because of its setting, on the banks of the Loire river. I love France and the Loire especially - I've spent quite a few happy holidays there and it is a really special place. The Loire in the book becomes almost a character in its own right; it is terrifying. The World War II setting is really fascinating as well.

I remember very clearly how I first got into Joanne Harris. I did French A level at college between 2000 and 2002, and in my first year I had a French French teacher, called Frederique. She was a really good teacher and she really stretched our French. She was reading Chocolat, and she offered to lend it to me. I loved it - I love the mixture of mythology, theology, folklore, family, found family, all of that stuff. I made both my parents read it and they really liked it too. I followed Joanne's next few books closely.

Blackberry Wine didn't thrill me, so I've never reread it. Five Quarters of the Orange is stunning, as I've said. Coastliners is really good too, set on an island a little like the Ile de Re, somewhere I've been a couple of times. I love the Atlantic coast of France, and I think the novel is really evocative of the area. Gentlemen and Players moves its setting from France to a boys school in Yorkshire, and it is also one of my favourite books. The Lollipop Shoes and Peaches for Monsieur le Cure are both sequels to Chocolat. I really wish my dad could have read Peaches for M. Le Cure, but he died before it was published. I don't think I've read any of the other ones, and I haven't read any of the Norse mythology books that Joanne has written, but I know my stepdad and Mum have enjoyed them.

Anyway, Holy Fools. I was wandering through my bookshelves, as I do, and I thought to myself that I really ought to reread this book. I think I've only read it once, or maybe twice. It's set in the early 1600s, at an Abbey on an island off the Brittany coast, I think.

The protagonist, Juliette, is now a nun in the Abbey, known as Soeur Auguste. She arrived at the abbey posing as a young widow. Her daughter, Fleur, has been allowed to live with her, and under the old Abbess, life has been pretty sweet for five years. But then the Abbess dies, and in her place arrives Mere Isabelle, who is twelve years old and the daughter of one of France's most well known families, the Arnaults. With her is a man that Juliette knows well. In her former life she was Ailee, the Winged One, a talented tightrope walker in LeMerle's theatre of players. LeMerle is posing as Pere Columbin, a good Catholic priest, but Juliette knows she can't trust him. He begins to whip up the nuns into a frenzy and casts suspicion upon Juliette. Juliette must try to stop him before he damages the both of them.

I enjoyed my reread. I liked Juliette's recollection of her days with her theatre troup. I felt like the middle dragged a bit, and I didn't like the very end - I felt like the denouement wasn't as good as it could have been. But this is an excellent book anyway, and I'm giving it four out of five.

I also now quite want to reread Chocolat...

Unboxed by Non Pratt - Review

Sunday, April 29, 2018

Where did I get it? I bought it for myself a couple of years ago, I'm guessing not long after it came out. I was perusing the bookshelves the other night and picked it out. I wanted something short to read and this was perfect. It's one of those dyslexia friendly books, printed on thick paper, and it isn't too long. It's more of a novella really. 

What's it about? Alix is eighteen and has just got in touch with three old friends, Zara, Ben, and Dean. The four of them were a little gang when they were thirteen, along with their friend Millie, and they buried a time capsule together to be opened later. Later is now, because Millie has died of stomach cancer, and one of her dying wishes was for the others to open the time capsule. 

The other four lost touch after the summer they made the time capsule, although Millie tried to keep in touch with them all, meaning that they're seeing each other for the first time after five years. Each of them has a secret; Alix's is the fact that she's gay. The four of them, along with Zara's boyfriend Ash, go to retrieve the time capsule and then setting about opening it.

It's a very sweet little novella, which is quite emotive, and I was left wanting more, which I think is always good with a novella. I didn't quite understand why Alix had left their school and would have appreciated a couple more paragraphs on this, and I would have maybe liked a little bit more of Millie's personality to come through (which I appreciate is difficult since she's dead), but mostly I thought it was very, very good. 

What age range is it for? 13+, a younger reader would certainly understand the book and probably really like it 

Are any main characters LGBTQ+? Yes, Alix is. Although she's a bit apprehensive about telling her old friends, she's very proud to be who she is. I think her apprehension is understandable - all of us were very different people at thirteen to who we were at eighteen.

Are any main characters people of colour? Yes, Zara is, and I think Alix may be although it's not overtly stated. 

Are any main characters disabled either mentally or physically? No 

Is there any sex stuff? No 

Are drugs mentioned or used? No, I don't think so

Is there any talk of death? A little bit about Millie, but it's not explicit. There's a bit of stuff about Dean's family which includes violence, too 

Are there swear words? If there were I didn't notice 

What criticisms do I have? Only that I would have liked it to be longer and a little more in-depth explanation at times! 

Would I recommend the book? Absolutely 

Why did I choose to read it at this point in life? I spotted it on the shelf. It's a really nice cover and like I say it's one of those easy-to-read books, like The Last Days of Archie Maxwell. I think they're really beautiful editions, I would collect more. 

What other books is it like? I think it's got a similar feel to Non's other book Trouble

How many stars? Four out of five

Where is the book going now? I might lend it to my friend Laura, but I'll be keeping it for sure

The Confession of Katherine Howard by Suzannah Dunn - Review

Thursday, April 26, 2018

This book was a real departure from what I usually read, but I thoroughly enjoyed it and it surprised me. Someone else chose it for my book club, it was £2.49 on Kindle, I want to go to book club next month, so hey-ho, in for a penny and all that.

It's about Katherine Howard, obviously. She was the fifth wife of Henry VIII, and she was only a teenager when she met him although he was much older. She was eventually beheaded for adultery. This was as much as I knew about her, so I went in kind of blind.

The book is told from the point of view of Catherine Tilney, known as Cat. She meets Kate when they are both wards of the Duchess of Norfolk, at her house in Horsham in Sussex. There are a few girls who are wards, including a few who later become Katherine's ladies in waiting at court. They are pretty much left to their own devices, due to the absence of the duchess. Katherine has a sexual relationship with their older music teacher, Henry Manox, and Cat watches her friend grow absent from her. Then the duchess' household moves to Lambeth, where the girls meet Francis Dereham and his friend Ed.

The novel is dual narrative, because in the present time Kate is queen of England, and Cat is one of her ladies in waiting and is in a relationship with Francis herself. Kate is having an affair with Thomas Culpeper, and Cat is complicit in this and will be seen almost as guilty as Katherine herself. I really liked Cat as a character, I thought we definitely understood a lot of things about her and her feelings towards Kate.

I didn't know how it was going to end, and I really liked the meandering way we got there. I thought the resolution of the book was a little rushed, but I thought the very, very end was absolutely perfect and quite daring.

I met a friend for lunch on Tuesday (and her new baby!) and mentioned I was reading this, as she's very knowledgeable about historical fiction and she even teaches it at Teesside University. She was really pleased that I was enjoying it and we talked a bit about how it is told in modern terms, mostly. The language is very modern, and when there are archaic phrases they are well explained (although I did have to look up what a kirtle was). The reader understands the world of the young girls as they move through Tudor England and understands the love affairs presented. I thought it was really interesting how we never see the king - even though he's one of the main players in this he isn't present on the page at all.

I would definitely read something by the same author as I really liked the accessible way she wrote. I may also try something else in the same genre - Philippa Gregory or Hilary Mantel or something. Any recommendations would be gratefully received!

While this isn't a YA book, I do think that a teenager interested in the subject matter could very easily read it. It's about teenagers after all, even though their world is very different to ours. There is some sexual matter, but it isn't too graphic and would be suitable for older and more mature teens. There's some talk of contraceptives (which I thought was really interesting, but please don't use half a lemon rind as contraception, kids) and some talk of sexual assault, but like I say, I think it would be okay for older teenagers.

I am giving this five out of five because I thoroughly enjoyed it and read it relatively quickly for me!

Girl Mans Up by M E Girard - Review

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Where did I get it? It was this month's book in my Willoughby Book club subscription, so I have my friend J to thank for it, as she works there and often (maybe even always) selects the books to send to me. (Don't forget you can get 10% off a subscription using my affiliate link)

What's it about? Pen is in her last year at a Catholic high school in Canada (near Toronto I think). At the beginning of the book she's friends with three boys, two of whom are basically total dickheads to her. She dresses like a boy, borrowing shirts off her older brother Johnny and wearing her long hair tied back under a baseball cap. Her friends are Tristan, who is nice, Colby, who behaves like a total dickhead but who has her back when things get difficult with her family, and Garrett, who is barely her friend. The four of them spend a lot of time gaming together, even though Garrett is really mean to Pen and calls her every name under the sun.

When they start school, Colby asks Pen to get rid of an old girlfriend, Olivia, for him, and to talk to a new girl, Blake, for him. But Pen has a crush on Blake herself, and it turns out to be reciprocated. Olivia has some problems and Pen ends up supporting her through them. There's a wedge driving between Pen and her old friends, and she doesn't like it but she isn't sure what to do, especially when she's really enjoying spending time with Blake and Olivia.

Pen's parents are Portugese, and they don't really understand her. While they don't seem to mind that she's gay, they don't like the way she dresses. Her mum thinks she looks like a "punk druggy" and wishes her daughter could be more feminine. They're also quite hard on Johnny, Pen's older brother, who lives in the apartment under the house and who always comes to Pen's rescue. 

There's a lot going on in the book, all of which I thought was great. There are a couple of occasions where I felt like the narrative was confusing, and I would have liked being led a bit more, by the writer, to what I was supposed to be taking from the section. But it is most great. I loved Pen's family, even though they were kind of messed up - I think we need more of this in YA fiction. I loved Pen's developing relationships with Blake and Olivia and I thought there was a lot about feminism and girls standing up for each other and themselves which was really good. 

There's a lot about nerd culture and how girls can fit into that. I really liked the stuff about queerness, too. But, I did think it was a bit odd in places. Lots of the reviews of this book will mention that Pen is genderqueer, and all the way through I kept waiting for when she used that word on herself, but she didn't. Then at the end there was a Q&A with the author in which she talks about that, and I really liked her response. Basically she realises that lots of teens - trans, non binary, queer, all kinds of different identities - had identified with Pen and that that was really great. I agree completely and I can see how a lot of gender non-comforming people would see themselves reflected in her. For me, she's redefining what it means to be a girl to herself, and I liked that a lot. 

What age range is it for? 15+, thanks to some mature themes

Are any main characters LGBTQ+? Yes, Pen is gay and there's a lot of exploration of queer themes going on. I thought it was a bit odd how she kept saying to Blake that she was a girl and Blake had to be okay with that, even though clearly Blake knew that and liked her as a girl. But that was perhaps part of Pen's own gender exploration and presentation - but if so I would have liked a bit more signposting into that. I loved their relationship actually - Blake veers a little into being a Manic Pixie Dream Girl but in the Q&A Giraud acknowledges that and says she wanted their relationship to be something really good against the backdrop of all the rubbish things going on in Pen's life. 

There's some homophobia and a lot of homophobic bullying, so be careful if that will upset you. 

Are any main characters people of colour? Pen's family is Portugese. Her parents speak non-standard English and speak Portugese to each other. Pen understands a lot of the Portugese but doesn't speak it. There's parts too where the Portugese isn't translated - and that's okay. The reader still understands the gist of it. 

There's a lot about family and family expectations, I think the book is a good depiction of immigrant life. 

Are any main characters disabled either mentally or physically? No 

Is there any sex stuff? Yes, it's really sweetly done and isn't graphic. I thought this was a really great addition - it wasn't needed exactly, but I'm glad it was there

Are drugs mentioned or used? There's some marijuana usage 

Is there any talk of death? No 

Are there swear words? A few, they're judiciously used 

What criticisms do I have? Like I said, I think I would have liked more signposting in parts. 

Would I recommend the book? Absolutely, it's a really good story and I loved Pen as a character and the settings and situations. 

Why did I choose to read it at this point in life? It was just hanging around my bedroom after it arrived and it appealed to me! 

What other books is it like? Gosh I'm not sure. Maybe some of the family stuff reminded me of Aristotle & Dante

How many stars? Four out of five 

Where is the book going now? Straight on to my LGBT shelf! 



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