Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Book Lover's Giveaway Hop

This hop is hosted by I Am A Reader Not A Writer and Kid Lit Frenzy. There are over 250 blogs participating.

You can find the full list of blogs participating in this hop here.

The fifth of December marks Sinterklaas's arrival in the Netherlands. He comes by boat from Turkey with his helper, Zwarte Piet, and leaves chocolates and presents in children's shoes for them to find when they wake up in the morning. But if the child has been naughty then Sinterklaas will take them away to Spain as punishment! I'm not entirely sure how going to Spain, where the weather is still mild, instead of being in cold, windy Holland is a punishment, but hey!

Anyway, to celebrate this gift-giving holiday I decided to be part of this blog hop. My giveaway is international so long as The Book Depository ships to your country. There will be one winner. Winner may choose one book from those listed below. Winner will be contacted within 48 hours of the end of the giveaway and will have a further 48 hours to respond before a new winner is drawn. I have tried to make the selection as broad as possible to encompass as many tastes as possible.

To participate you must fill in the Rafflecopter below. I would prefer if you use a nickname as your "name" as others can view this info. All other info is private.

To find out more about each of the books, you can click on the text links under the images.

Please note: Firethorn, Heart's Blood, Mistress of Rome, Sword in the Storm, Twelve and Unclean Spirits all contain at least some form of sex scene. This said, I would consider them all suitable for 16+ readers.

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Haunting Violet by Alyxandra Harvey

This review first appeared as a guest post on my friend Tara's blog,Basically Books.

Who am I?
My name is Rea. I’m a 23-year-student and blogger and a British expat from the Netherlands. I joined the blogging community at the start of the summer. My blog is Rea’s Reading and Reviews I review most of what I read on there and I read a bit of everything depending on my mood at any one time.

Tara and I are part of a Goodreads group called Basically Books! (yes, it was named after this blog!) Our group has been holding an autumn reading challenge where each participant has to read books from their friends’ favourites shelf. My pick from Tara’s shelf was Haunting Violet by Alyxandra Harvey. So when Tara told me that she was looking for guest posters, it was obvious to me that this would be the perfect choice for my guest review.

The book is one that I had been aware of prior to the challenge. In fact, I’d bought it mere days before the challenge started so when I found out that Tara had read and enjoyed it, I knew I would pick this book from her shelves, even though our reading tastes are sometimes very different. I seem to be going through a reading phase where I gobble up books about ghosts so I found myself rather excited about the prospect of reading this book!

What’s it about?
Violet’s mother is a medium in London in the late 19th century. She goes to great lengths to put on the best paranormal show money can buy and Violet has been helping her in these schemes to trick the rich out of their money for years now.

When Lord Jasper invites Violet’s mother and her little entourage to put on a big show for the toast of high society, Violet, her mother, their maid (a former prostitute), and Colin (a jack of all trades who Violet’s mother rescued from the streets some years previously) head out of the city and into the country to the large manor house where this séance will be held. As always, her mother captures the interest of those present with the little tricks to ensure a show to any and all present, including the young man she’s hoping will ask for Violet’s hand, but Violet has bigger problems than their lies. It would seem that she really does have a gift and one ghost in particular is adamant that Violet will help her… or she’ll make her life difficult until she does.

Who is it aimed at?
Young adults. Violet is 16, Colin is 18. It is clean.

What did I think about it?
This book provided an interesting look into séances in that period. They were really quite popular at the time and provided the rich with something interesting and different to distract them. Actually, I’ve read a few books recently that have included séances in this period and it’s interesting to read about what lengths the mediums were willing to go to in order to get the desired effects. A large amount of research must have gone into being able to recreate (if only in a literary sense) these Victorian secrets.

I quite liked Violet herself. As an illegitimate daughter, she can never aspire to the heights of upper class society, and she knows this. She’s pretty much the antithesis of her mother who is conniving, wrapped up in her lie of a life, and always wants to be the centre of attention. Violet is humble and does not like this life they’re living, often feeling remorse for the tricks she has to play, but she understands that they do need to do this in order to stay out of the mills.

The ghosts were interesting, though most of them were ignored because Violet didn’t want to let them in. The provenance of Violet’s abilities is unfortunately completely ignored; they’re just suddenly there, but the descriptions of Rowena make up for it. I adored these. Despite this, as the reader I would still have liked to have come to understand how and why Violet has the third eye.

There were multiple scenes and subplots in the story that didn’t really seem to have any impact on the story as a whole. I think they were there to bulk it up but every scene should add to a final picture. One such scene was when Elizabeth, Violet’s friend and the daughter of a member of the ton, is introduced. That scene just seems to exist and doesn’t add to the story at all. The same thing can be observed with the whole subplot that has Elizabeth drooling over Frederick. Nothing ever comes of this – this is no resolution one way or the other, it just exists and then the book’s finished. Again, it can be seen in the passages when Violet meets her dad. It never evolves past her actually meeting her dad, there is no point to this subplot and had it not been included, the story would not have suffered for it. I have to admit that this tendency bothered me when I was reading.

Words cannot express how relieved I am that Harvey did not try to introduce a love triangle. The courtship with Xavier felt real in how awkward Violet was but how she knew she could not afford to say no to such a potential rise in her status in society. At the same time, the budding romance with Colin was not quite so satisfying. It was cute, yes, but in the scenes prior to Colin kissing Violet, Violet never thinks of him as anything other than the boy she grew up with, but then she’s suddenly thinking about him as the boy she’d rather be with. I would rather have been offered a glimpse into how the feelings evolved, or her surprise at him kissing her and then a re-evaluation of her own feelings for him. That didn’t happen. The chapter just ended and then after that it was accepted as given that she liked him now. Again, this bothered me.

Despite this, the story itself was a fun, quick read and managed to both capture and hold my interest. It frustrated me that so many plot points were never addressed properly when this book appears to be a standalone, but it ended on a note where the main plot was neatly tied up.

4 stars

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon

This is a book that I’ve owned for a long time but had just never got around to reading up until now. It came to my attention around the same time that it was published so I probably purchased it back in 2004. At the very least, my copy has an Ottakar’s stick on it so I must have bought it there (probably the one in the Ridings Centre in Wakefield – ah memory, how well you serve me!) - before the takeover by Waterstone’s (which seems like a life time ago now but was really only back in 2006.)

This is a fate that quite frequently befalls my book purchases. Some books I will read as soon as they’re in my possession but others will go onto a shelf and don’t see the light of day again until they’re unearthed, seemingly at random, several years later. This one actually got a reprieve when my mum discovered, read and enjoyed it at some point after I left home. She then sent it on to me about four months ago. When this book was chosen as one of the monthly reads in my Goodreads group, it was the perfect excuse to finally force myself to get around to reading it.

Presentation: A large paperback made of good quality paper. There are 268 pages broken down into “233” chapters. The narrator does not like the idea of using a normal counting method for his chapter headings so he chooses to use a sequence of prime numbers instead. The book also includes several graphs, diagrams and drawings.

Story: Christopher Boone is 15 years old and he has Asperger’s syndrome. This means that intellectually he is a genius but he is incapable of normal human interaction. One night he finds his neighbour’s dog dead, rammed through with a garden fork. Christopher liked Wellington the poodle so he decides to do some detecting to see if he can find Wellington’s murderer.

Thoughts and impressions: After having read several books with soppy or flowery narrators, this book was a complete breath of fresh air. Christopher does not see the world the same way as a normal person does and as a first person narrator this means that the voice of the story is very different to any other that I have read. The idea is that Christopher has decided to chronicle his investigation (with support from his class teacher) so he really is telling his own story.

Towards the start of the book, Christopher explains that he understands the emotions behind :) and :( but anything more complicated than that goes straight over his head and he has to rely on knowledge of what he thinks the facial expression should mean. He can’t read people’s emotions. He can’t understand implicitations in speech (cf Grice). He does not like being touched. He has little routines that help him get through his day and he does not like it when there are factors that intervene and upset his timetable. I liked all of the little snapshots into Christopher’s mind, like how he likes the colour red but he avoids anything that’s yellow or brown; how he can’t eat food that has touched another type of food on the plate but it doesn’t matter if the different food items touched before they were on the plate. It was a very informative look into how things are for an autistic person. Considering the fact that the author has worked with autistic children, this is also a very informed look into this sort of life. The reactions of the people around him are always realistic too. I particularly liked the elderly neighbour with the dachshund.

There were plenty of scenes that were very emotionally powerful for me, especially the scene where Christopher is taking the underground. I felt completely overwhelmed by the situation right along with him. Another thing that I found to be very interesting was the addition of what I’m going to term ‘side chapters’ where Christopher would explain a moment from his life, a scientific theory or maths problem. Some of these interrupted the flow of the story, but others really added to it. In particular, I liked his ideas about the images we see in the stars and how Orion the hunter could just as easily be a T.rex – I had to stop and laugh at that bit. It is, however, obvious that the book is now a little dated as some of the scientific theories presented have now ‘evolved’ from the one presented by Christopher. I feel that, despite them digressing from the main plot, it was very important to include all of these passages as science and maths are Christopher’s main interests so obviously he would want to talk about them in the same way that a protagonist who wants to grow up to be a professional singer and dancer would refer to singing and dancing a lot.

Style: Christopher tells it like it is. He basically reports everything that goes on around him, both his thoughts and what people say to him. Because of the way the world works for him, he only ever uses the tag “said” – and then I said, and then he said, and I said, and then he said, etc. Eventually it got to the point where I’d skip over that bit, but at the same time it was such a refreshing change from all the whispers, murmurs, growls, grumbles, stammers and everything else that litter the tags now instead of using the perfectly good said.
(Just to be clear, I don’t think said should be used all the time, but I also don’t think that said should be avoided at all costs and replaced with a multitude of other verbs. There is a healthy balance.)

Final verdict: I really enjoyed this read. It was a refreshing change and I feel ready to go back to the murky waters of purple prose. The author recognised that this book could not be a long one and, for me, 250 pages was the perfect length. I feel that I could not have read this style in a much longer book without starting to get frustrated with it. 4 stars

Extra notes: As mentioned, Christopher reports everything around him, especially in speech. This means that there is a lot of swearing in this book, including one use of the c-word. There is no sex.

Extra extra notes: Christopher talks about The Hound of the Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle in one of the chapters. This contains spoilers for the book so you might want to read that one first… although I have to admit that I’ve now forgotten everything I read about it. But it’s possible that it would come back to me when reading the book.

Friday, 11 November 2011

Follow Friday - 11/11/11

Follow Friday is a weekly meme hosted by Parajunkee and Alison can read. Each week participants are given a prompt. This week's is:

Q: In light of 11.11.11 and Veteran’s Day tell us about your favorite soldier and how he or she is saving the world. Fictional or real life.

I've had a think about this an I'm not really sure. I don't tend to watch many war films or read books about soldiers. No one on my dad's side of the family was ever sent to the front lines in either war as they were farmers and needed to run their farms. I think my mum's mum's uncle lost his life in the First World War, so I could thank him for giving his life to ensure the rights of the generations to come. As 11/11 is about remembering those who lost their lives during that horrible time, it would be fitting to honour him in such a way as well. But I don't even know his name.

So I'm also going to thank Captain Blackadder (Rowan Atkinson), Private Baldrick (Tony Robinson), Lieutenant George (Huh Laurie), Captain Darling (Tim McInnerny), and General Melchett (Stephen Fry). Especially George for going out into the mine fields and painting the German troops with all their elephants.
(You won't understand that joke unless you've seen the series.)

The Mermaid's Madness by Jim C. Hines

This is the second book in a series. I have tried my best to not touch on any points that would spoil the plot of the first book but do have to mention the (obvious) ending and one major plot thread in passing.

I read the first book in this series, The Stepsister Scheme, about a year ago. I’d found a recommendation for it on a blog that I followed at the time and was immediately intrigued. Drawn mostly by the fun but spunky cover art, I purchased it and read it almost as soon as it had been delivered. Though I enjoyed the overall story, I felt like it dragged in places. Despite this, I still wanted to know what happened next so I went out a few days later and bought the sequel… then The Mermaid’s Madness spent the next twelve months sitting on my shelves, watching forlornly me until I was forced to take refuge away from my own living room, which had been invaded by various people who were complaining about me just being in the way, and this was the book I picked to accompany me to my attic reading sanctuary.

Presentation: Mass market paperback. The font is small but spaced. There are 339 pages broken down into 18 chapters.

Story: A year has passed since we first met Danielle, Talia and Snow, aka Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty and Snow White. It is time for the undine, mermaids, to migrate to their breeding grounds for the summer but when the human royal delegation is met with a new undine royal, things quickly unravel. It soon becomes obvious that Lirea, the new undine queen, has murdered both her father and her older sister in recent months. She has taken control of the tribe, announcing that she means to return the undine to their rightful position as rulers of the seas and that they will sink the ships of any nation that does not pay a gold tribute. In the scuffle that ensues, Lirea stabs Queen Beatrice with an enchanted knife, severing her spirit from her body. Neither body nor spirit can survive long separated from the other so Danielle, Talia, Snow, and Lirea’s little sister Lannadae must set out to wrest the knife from a mermaid gone mad.

Toughts and impressions: As mentioned, I enjoyed the first book of the Princess series but felt that it dragged at times when it lost my attention. This second book worked much better for me – maybe it was because I preferred the setting (the sea here vs. Fairytown in the previous book) but I’m more inclined to think that it’s probably because the plot seemed more concise in this one.

Jim C. Hines takes elements from the traditional fairy tales and plays with them, taking them closer to their darker roots, because in life we don’t always get our happily ever after. So Danielle, Cinderella, is probably the luckiest of the characters. Even though her husband was kidnapped in the first book, she and the other princesses managed to rescue him. Talia, Sleeping Beauty, was not awoken by the chaste kiss of her Prince Charming, and Snow’s seven dwarves were a far cry from the jolly men who work in a mine and sing a happy song. In this book we also meet Lirea (anagram of Ariel in case you hadn’t noticed) who begged her human prince to marry her so that she too could assume permanent human form. He refused her and she killed him, shattering her sanity. Not quite “and they lived happily ever after.”

Each of the three princesses brings her own personal added extra to the fold: Danielle can talk to animals; Talia is proficient in combat; and Snow is a sorceress. They all also have very different voices: Danielle’s tends to be caring and pragmatic; Talia’s is guarded and always on the verge of a violent outbreak; and Snow’s tends to be light-hearted fun. Considering the parody nature of these books, I think Snow’s is my favourite voice. Also, Snow was the character who seemed to undergo the biggest character growth in this book. There was a lot of focus on her coming to control her magic powers but also facing the reality of what she’s doing to others with them (I adored the passage about the ship’s cook refusing to make breakfast after the peas, screaming in agony, had tried to climb out of the pot the previous evening.)

I found Lirea to be an interesting foe because of the way that she could never really control herself what with the voices of her madness whispering to her. I much preferred her to the stepsisters in the first book. I’ll admit that I also felt sorry for her because, despite her actions, she is ultimately the victim of other people’s madness and prejudices.

Style: On the whole, light-hearted. It is engaging and soon draws you in.

Final verdict: I’m definitely a fan of this one and will be finding the time to read the third book, which I already have, when possible – hopefully before autumn 2012! 4 stars

Extra notes: One or two cases of mild swearing. No sex. Themes of homosexuality and coming to terms with it (also present in book 1.)

Saturday, 5 November 2011

Give Thanks for Good Books

This post is part of a giveaway hosted by Beth Revis, author of the awesome Across The Universe (if you haven't read this yet, you should. You can find my review here.) You can find out more about this giveaway here

Well, this question left me somewhat stumped. As an avid reader, there are a lot of books that I could put here. So, do I put the book that got me back into reading last year? Do I put the book that renewed my faith in YA fiction? Do I put one of the books that left me in a flood of tears? Or do I put one that left me with a silly grin on my face? There are just too many to choose from! And then it came to me. It should have been obvious all along.

As you may or may not be aware, I moved country when I was 13 years old. Now, 13 isn’t a great age to undergo such a change. You need your friends at 13 and where I was, not only was I in a different country where people spoke a different language (and very little English) but I was also in an area renowned for being cold towards anyone not from their region. They don’t call them “the wooden heads” for nothing! Of course, I soon made new acquaintances, but these people already had their own friends and the language barriers only meant that I felt the loss of my old friends even more keenly. This wasn’t a good time for me personally or for my family as a whole as each of us was suffering from the same fate. I felt alone – the only things I had left to turn to were my dog and my books. Because I no longer had friends to hang out with at the rec (a big playing field in the village where I grew up – also had a swing set) after school, I threw myself into reading. In those first few months I spent most of my time reading or sleeping – being surrounded by a foreign language all day really takes it out of you and most days I would be in bed by 8pm! But one book in particular really helped. It was a book that I had already read a few times but it became the image of my last link to the life I’d left behind. It became a lifeline. I read it over and over. Even now, though it’s probably been at least six years since I last read it, I still view it with reverence and awe. The book was lost for a couple of years when I leant it to my brother and he did that thing where you put your book down somewhere then forget where and it doesn’t resurface until years later. This one just happened to resurface over this past summer. It’s now back with me, where it belongs. So I’m thankful for this book, for helping me through my darkest hour.

Which book? Kit’s Wilderness by David Almond.

And because my dog was such an important part of my life at this time as well, here's a photo of my beloved Rosa. RIP. I miss you. <3

Friday, 4 November 2011

Follow Friday - 04/11/2011

Follow Friday is a weekly meme hosted by Parajunkee and Alison can read. This week's prompt is a bit different.

Q: Today’s Question is something new, an activity. We want to see what you look like! Take a pic with you and your current read! Too shy? Boo! Just post a fun pic you want to share.

Here's a snap of me with my current read, Daughters of Rome by Kate Quinn. The light from the French patio doors is a bit strong but I'm afraid I couldn't be bothered to move my PC to the other side of the room! This is actually only one of my current reads but it was the closest one at hand, plus the cover is absolutely gorgeous!!

By Midnight by Mia James

This book must have caught my attention at some point as it was already on my Goodreads to be read shelf, though I don’t remember having put it there! A couple of days ago, I rushed to the station after class but it turned out that my ten minute window was not enough (I usually walk it in 15 mins, so there wasn’t a definite rush going on) and I got there just as the train was pulling out. Now, my train only goes once every half hour and on that particular day I had no reading material with me. So I went into the station bookshop expecting to end up with the most recent National Geographic magazine. Much to my surprise, I found this book instead. I even recognised the cover (presumably from Goodreads). Needless to say, I immediately bought it, without bothering to skim read the back cover to remind myself of the plot, and stuck my nose in.

Presentation: Average-sized YA paperback. The type is small. There are 236 pages broken down into a prologue and 41 chapters, some are short, others relatively long.

Story: After her father lost his job at the Scotsman newspaper, April Dunne finds herself dragged from the life she knew in Edinburgh to a new life of unknowns in Highgate, north London. Things aren’t looking too bright for April: her parents are constantly fighting, there’s been a high profile murder nearby, and she’s been enrolled at Ravenwood – a school for the very bright and the very rich. Though the popular crowd seems to accept her with open arms, she still has her reservations about them – even if she is intrigued by one of the boys, a certain Gabriel Swift. When April finds herself witness to a second murder, where Gabriel was also present, she cannot help but suspect him of the crime. Soon things escalate even further and April finds herself seriously contemplating the existence of vampires at her school.

Thoughts and impressions: Okay, I’ll admit it: at first I was worried that this book would go down the same road as Twilight. I live in constant fear of this these days when it comes to YA books about vampires with romance. It’s true that there was an instant attraction to Gabriel, but there was also an instant attraction to a number of the other boys at the school, so I can forgive this to a point… I’ll come back to this in a bit.

April soon meets Caro, an outsider at the school who does not try to fit in with the popular and the pretty. She’s a conspiracy nut, like April’s father, and the two are soon getting along famously. I liked Caro: she might have been determined to see looming shadows wherever she turned, but she was real, raw, and she was right to call April out on her selfishness when she did.

April, at times, could be dense beyond all reason. Her big panicked run through the whole of London? She’d got a stupid idea stuck in her head by then and just wouldn’t let go of it long enough to see sense. This is the only part of the story that really bugged me. The whole time I wanted to reach in, slap her and tell her to get over herself.

What’s more, I couldn’t believe that she never showed an interest in her family’s real surname. Vladescu? A black prince? Old Eastern European royalty? That couldn’t possibly be one hell of a nod in the direction of Vlad Tepes now, could it? That was too much on the “obvious” side for my tastes. For those that don’t know, the suffix –scu is added to names in Romanian to show lineage (or it was, from what I gather the practise has been dropped, much as it has in English) in the same way that the suffix –son is / was used in English: Johnson (son of John) ; Peterson (son of Peter) ; Hobson (son of Hob = Rob) – you get the idea.

I get the feeling at times that the authors have imposed too much of their own culture on April. They makes references to things that were already starting to lose their importance when I was young and I’ve supposedly got 5 or 6 years on this character. Unfortunately I did not stop reading to write these down, but there were a few of them dotted about the book. There were also a number of unfair stereotypes of Scotland (no summer, no autumn, endless cold, etc.) or details bent to fit the plot. April mentions that she’d never seen a fox in Edinburgh. A few years ago, I was watching a nature programme focused on urban foxes in Edinburgh. Now, it’s possible that April Dunne just never saw one, but the narrative makes it sound like they’re not there at all.

The story does not focus on the budding romance between April and Gabriel. In fact, Gabriel does not actually figure in the story all that much until towards the end. This in turn means that the romance does sort of come out of nowhere – the two characters don’t really get to know each other all that well before the romance comes into play. April’s instant attraction to him is fine. The fact that they have a whole one, or possibly two, conversations before she’s imagining being married to him is also fine (hey, at 16, I imagined whole relationships with people I barely knew.) But if Gabriel has shown no interest in girls since Lily (you meet Lily in the prologue when she dies), why is he now interested in April? There’s really not enough to the romance. I prefer relationships that build up slowly to ones that are just suddenly in your face. This is one of the latter kind.

So what is it about? It’s about unravelling the three murders (yes, there is a third but I’m not saying who as that’ll spoil it. Suffice to say, it hits much closer to home and makes all of this personal for April) and uncovering the reason behind the seemingly random and yet connected killings. It’s about slowly (and when I say slow, I mean s-l-o-w) coming to terms with the fact that vampires really exist and their existence is only scratching the surface of things. Indeed, much as she may reject the idea, April herself has a very important role to play in all of this. I hope that her family’s secrets, often hinted at, are explored in the second book.  I can’t believe that April hasn’t exploded already and demanded that they tell her, what with all the weak “we should tell her already!” “No, now is not the time!”s that are being bandied about. In fact, April seems to get somewhat one-track minded and ignores all the other things around her (the family name, the secrets, the man in the graveyard, Caro’s own problems (these are addressed once and never brought up again)) in favour of focusing on the vampire angle.

Don’t get me wrong, I liked the vampire angle presented in this story. It cannot be said that it’s a new take on vampire lore, but it is presented in an interesting and engaging manner most of the time. The exposition dialogues with Gabriel did not go down so well, as Gabriel sort of felt like an actor reading out his lines at this point. I just wish that more time had been spent on other things as well, such as those mentioned above and less time on endless inner monologues. Also, when the villain was finally revealed, they did that James Bond villain thing where they list all of their crimes. I’m not a fan of this style of revelation.

Style: Sometimes clunky, sometimes superficial. There are a lot of unnecessary paragraphs that just seem to go on and on and on and… The author’s strong point is describing emotions: when disaster struck and April felt like her whole world was falling apart, I was feeling it right along with her.

Final verdict: Though I enjoyed the book to a point, it wasn’t one of the best bits of YA lit that I’ve read this year and it was far from being one of the worst. I’m wavering between 2 and 3 stars, but I’m feeling nice today so 3 stars.

Extra notes: There are some ‘bloody’s and other forms of milder swearing, but I don’t think language use got much worse than that. No sex.