Book Review: Skulduggery Pleasant, The Dying of the Light

In accordance with Derek Landy’s wishes, this is not going to be the long, in-depth review I would love to do as I don’t want to risk any accidental spoilers. I would advise however, if you have not read the book, to NOT the read this review.

44783-tdotlshadowfoilThe End is Nigh! Skulduggery and Stephanie are tracking down Darquesse to prevent the prophecy from coming true and are drawing together an all-star team but not everything is as it seems as they chase her from Roarhaven to Uncle Gordon’s house. Not everyone is going to make it out alive…

This is a fantastic end to the series with plenty of twists and turns to keep the reader hooked from start to finish. It is advisable to read the book carefully as Landy clues the reader into what is going to happen at the end but does it in such a way that it leaves the reader constantly guessing how the book is actually going to end. Landy also cleverly ends and starts chapters in such a way that it again clues the reader into what is actually happening at that point in the book.

The story also has a lot of links back into the earlier books but especially references the first book heavily. If you plan on reading this book, read it from start to end. You will not be disappointed.

It is clever but can leave the reader struggling and confused somewhat, especially in the first instances that he is doing it. The book is also structured somewhat oddly throughout and at the end, it seems like Landy has forgotten a storyline and is suddenly hurrying to try and finish it. In an odd way, whilst it is not following the storyline of the first book, it is doing it enough to give a reader déjà vu.

If you love this series, you will not be disappointed with this finale and Derek Landy has delivered a book that will keep long time fans hooked and satisfied from start to end. I would definitely recommend this book!

 

Book Review: Lockwood & Co., The Screaming Staircase by Jonathan Stroud

Yes! It is my first book review in a while!

Image: GoodSearch/Wikipedia

Lucy Carlyle is the newest Agent to join the most ramshackle psychical agency in London. Charged with dealing with the Problem that has plagued an alternative Britain for the past 50 years, she finds herself working with the mysterious Anthony Lockwood and the annoying, rotund George Cubbins to uncover the answer to a decades old murder case and a mysterious screaming staircase in the most haunted house in Britain! Two big cases for an agency that struggles with the most routine of cases…

This book is a fresh take on the urban fantasy genre for children. Whilst still centred on London, the reader is drawn in through the first person narration of Lucy Carlyle to learn about this alternative universe (AU) Britain where ghost hauntings have been increasing for 50 years and children with special Talents (Listening, Sight and Touch) join and train with psychical agencies to vanquish hauntings for people. The novel is split into four parts and does rely on the reader being willing to flip back and forth from the story, to the glossary at the end and back again or having at least a common knowledge base to understand the book. There are two distinct story lines in the book that are satisfactory tied up at the end.

Stroud also seems to be trying to hook readers into the series for the long haul. This book, the first of a series, has some small sub plots that Stroud appears to be setting up ready to be dealt with over the course of a series, particularly revolving around Lockwood and his past. The ending of the book also tries to hook the reader in with a new plot line linking directly to some character develops with Lucy to make sure they read the next book to find out more. This has certainly worked as I have already started looking to getting the next book when I can.

Unfortunately, I am not sure introducing new plot points at the end was a good idea. I will grant Stroud is an established author (he has already found success with the Bartimaeus series) so can probably get away with breaking the rule that says don’t introduce new plots or characters towards the end of the story but I feel that in this instance, it was completely unnecessary and would probably have been better placed nearer the start when set up with Lockwood started.

I have previous mentioned that the book requires a reader willing to either be flipping back and forth between the story and the glossary or have a common knowledge base on ghost hunting and this is something else I have a problem with. It is very hard to initially get into the book because the reader is constantly having to break the suspension of disbelief to look up terms. This could lead to readers potentially abandoning the book before getting to part two of the book where background information, about Lucy, the AU Britain and many other things are explained. This makes the story very badly organised in my view and possibly broken back. The first part is probably Stroud’s attempt to draw the reader in right from the start but I don’t believe it has worked as well as maybe he wanted.

This makes my concerns about having another series of Urban Fantasy books set in London rather redundant.

The Screaming Staircase is a wonderful start to a new series and is very different from other books on the market for both children’s and adults. It draws on the traditions of the genre whilst adding a new twist and encouraging readers to keep reading. I have no doubt that Stroud will continue to deliver interesting novels, develop the characters as they get older and, hopefully, will develop the world it is set in. A series to watch I think.

Book Review: Perfect Chemistry by Simone Elkeles

I want to preface this review now with my opinion is purely that: my opinion!

Farfield is a town divided between the North and the South.

On North side is the American Ellis family. Daughter Brittany appears for all the world the perfect all-American girl. Blonde hair, designer clothes, head cheerleader and dating a footballer. But it is all a façade. At home, things are not perfect with a often absent father, a mother on the edge and an older disabled sister who uses a wheelchair.

On the South side is the Mexican Fuentes family. Alex lives with his hard-working mother and brothers Carlos and Luis. To the outside world, Alex is THE bad boy, playing up his Latino Blood gang membership however this is Alex’s own mask. He is intelligent and could go far, if he was able to get out of the gang and still protect his family.

When Brittany and Alex are put together for a Chemistry project, sparks fly and the appearances that each of them put on begin to slip…

I will say it now. This book is so bad it’s good. Before I go on to why it’s so bad, I want to point out the good elements that actually made me read this cover to cover.

Elkeles uses the first person narration of each character to give both sides of the story and show the world of Farfield through the characters eyes very vividly. She shows the extreme differences in the fictional town as well as the big differences in the  characters worlds. But within that is also the juxtaposition that actually the characters are very similar. They have their family troubles whether caused by internal or external forces and each character must put on an act.

Because of the first person perspective, the readers gain a real insight on the characters instead of having their views on characters heavily influenced by others. This book definitely would not have worked as well if the story had been told from the third person.

On the subject of worlds, Elkeles  has really shown a strong and colourful understanding of Mexican culture, the protective nature of families and the close-knit community, minus the gang part. The research she put into the book really shows and something to be praised. (I don’t know if all the Spanish is correct as my own is very limited so I can’t really say if it is right).

The book also shows a real, positive representation of a person with disability. The sisterly bond between Brittany and Shelley, her sister, is touching and lovingly portrayed. The book also shows the struggles of a modern family with a disabled child. The act put on by Brittany’s parents to hide Shelley as well as the pressure they place on Brittany to do the same is very interesting and really makes the reader invest in this characters, wanting to see the sisters triumph against their parents’ act and no longer have to hide from the world.

Elkeles could have portrayed the character in a very dim light, showing the character as stupid and being completely unable to understand anything but instead it is a bright light that is put on Shelley, showing her as intelligent and perfectly able to make her own informed choices on matters about her.  The only other positive representation of disability I have seen lately, that also shows these traits in such characters, has been in Episode 5 of Call the Midwife.

Sadly, these are the only real positives I have found in the book.

The good writing and character portrayals is seriously hampered by the seriously clichéd characters and story.

Let’s start with the characters.

Of course the boy is in a minority group (Mexican) and is a gangbanger. He is also mixed up with the rougher people in society and gets into trouble with drugs and the police. He’s only dating her for a bet but oh, he really loves her so changes himself enough to be with her.

Of course the girl is the typical blonde, smart cheerleader who’s dating the football star. She breaks up with him for the boy from across the tracks who she must hide from her family, friends and society. Eventually, when he changes, she is able to go out with him freely in public!

I also have an issue with Brittany’s name. Why is the stereotypical blonde, cheerleading captain called Brittany? Why? It just feels so overused that the character has become almost the symbol of the American school system and must be used when a writer writes a story set in the classic American high school setting.

Plus, why do they meet in a Chemistry class? Why do the characters have to meet like that? I was having serious Twilight flashbacks at that point.

Really? Does the world really need this story AGAIN?! I realise that it is said there are only 7 stories in the world and it is how we dress them up that we create a new twist on that story but it feels like Elkeles tried in some areas of the book but not in others. Unfortunately, it is in arguably the two most important areas of a book that got neglected badly: the story and the characters.

I feel she had a real chance to do a great twist on the genre, challenging the stereotypes and the traditional codes and conventions that have come to epitomise the teen romance genre.

The only way the story could have been improved is if she had scrapped it completely and done something else by allowing the characters to lead. Why not have the girl as the Mexican or another minority and the boy as maybe an invisible geek who sits in the back of the class? What would happen when these two came together?

Having spoken to a friend of mine in the USA about the chemistry class plot point, they told me that joint assignments take place in other classes, like English. Providing it wasn’t a clichéd romance book or even Shakespeare play, maybe the characters could have met there or another class or maybe even outside of school! Do American teenagers lives really completely revolve around high school?

Whilst I had Twilight flashbacks during the chemistry class scenes, throughout much of the book, I also couldn’t help thinking of the Bring It On: All Or Nothing film. The film and this book were almost identical in the main staples of the story and characters.

I also feel that the epilogue was completely unnecessary. There was enough closure in the ending of the previous chapter but open-ended enough that it left the readers able to make up their own ideas of what happened next. The epilogue robs the readers of that and seems to be restarting the story again unneeded.

Problem is, Elkeles is a good writer. She chose the right point of view for the book, creates a town that feels so real, the reader could go there, gives an excellent portrayal of the Mexican people, culture and community and represents disability in such a brilliant way and positive light. It’s with these elements of the book that she manages to hook her audience, makes the readers become emotionally invested in the characters so that, despite all the horrible clichés, the reader keeps on reading to the last page.

It’s because of this that I feel the book is annoyingly addictive and I hope vindicates my view that the book is so bad, it’s good! I’m not sure I would recommend this book necessarily to someone who is experienced with the genre but as a starting point, I think it is a good introduction for new readers to the genre. It has all the stereotypes, the codes and conventions and every last little thing someone would expect from a Young Adult Romance book. For a writer, I think it’s a good book to look at to learn those very same things and to get a grounding in the genre before they start writing their own stories.

The Hunger Games, Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins

Finished this novel a few days ago but events at home have prevented me from posting the review until tonight.

Panem is at war.

The districts are in revolt. The Capitol is fighting to regain control  and has Peeta Mellark prisoner, using him for their own means. District 13 is trying to turn Katniss Everdeen, survivor of two Hunger Games, into the Mockingjay. Katniss is reeling from the revelations that she has been a pawn in plans laid down by everyone around her and finds herself questioning who to trust.

Kept busy initially with doing propaganda work for the rebels, she eventually manages to persuade the rebel leaders to give her the chance to actually fight in the revolution and takes it with both hands.

Katniss’s goal? To bring down the oppressive rule of Panem and kill President Snow.

The third book in the series brings the curtain down on the story brilliant, tying up loose ends and keeping the reader glued from start to finish. It shows not just the war but the things that happen behind the scenes: the war councils, the tactical discussions and the creation of propaganda. The book also shows the effects of war on  civilian people in their civilian life in their civilian homes. This happens in District 13 but is especially emphasised I think in the Capitol, with people becoming refugees, having been displaced from their homes, and others being forced to take those people in. I couldn’t help thinking it almost mirrored the billeting of evacuees in the Second World War. Think Goodnight Mr Tom and you get an idea of what I am talking about.

This book does seem more bloody than the others, especially considering the level of violence in all three books. This feeling is accentuated by certain major events, again, near the end of the book. Certainly, this is not bad thing I don’t think as it actually makes sure the book, story and the series makes a lasting impact on the reader and forces them to think.

For the most part, the limited first person narration is perfect for the story however, near the end, there were some events that I feel could have benefited from being in third person so being elaborated on. I think those events would actually make for a great short story and/or spin-off novella. I am not going to say what as I don’t want to give away any spoilers.

There were parts which seemed rushed or just skipped over which could also have been elaborated on and it felt like that Collins decided to use the hospital almost as a way of setting things back to default. Rowling used this as well near the end of the Harry Potter novels but it made Mockingjay feel very episodic by bringing it constantly back to the hospital. I feel it was unneeded and better plotting of the novel could easily have avoided this.

Mockingjay is brilliant book to finish the series, despite it’s issues, showing sensibility, tact and raising issues about the effects of war on people. It makes the reader think about what they are reading and consider the earlier books in light of events in this book, something that rarely seems to happen in modern day novels.  Whilst it perhaps could not be read as a stand alone, it has an excellent story that breaks away from the almost formulaic plotting of the previous two books and keeps the reader’s attention from start to finish.

Book Review: The Hunger Games, Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins

Catching Fire is the second book in the Hunger Games trilogy.

Carrying on the story from Hunger Games, Katniss is back in District 12 and back hunting. Not that she needs to now she has money and good home for her and her family to live in since she won the Games. However, things are getting harsher in the district and there are rumours of rebellion in the other districts.

Things seem to get worse on the Victory Tour as Katniss and Peeta find themselves struggling to contain the rebellion they may have inadvertently started. When the Quarter Quell is announced, they face going back into the arena and this time, they may not get out.

This book seems a lot more violent than the previous one though slower. The book is split into three again but the titles of the parts do not give away any plot points which the first one did (see my review of Hunger Games to find out what I mean by this). The characters are developed well as are all the new characters introduced in this book. I found myself actually liking Katniss more in this and feel the relationship and Katniss’s feelings for Peeta were growing organically, something that seems to rarely happen in books. The story is well plotted and holds the reader’s attention. The development of the revolution is well written.

Collins seemed to go for shocks in this book, whether it was what happened in the square in District 11 or what Peeta and Katniss do in their individual training sessions. (I am not going to say any more as I don’t want to give away any spoilers).

It is not all positive with this book. Despite being plotted and written well, the pacing seems slow and a lot of exposition was placed in the book as an info dump, especially at the end when it could have been offered in a more active way. Whilst it is readily said in the books that the Games take the same format ever year, I couldn’t help feeling that Collins missed a trick by not switching things up. It felt repetitive and compounded the issues with pacing in the book.

I also got a little confused about what was happening in the arena, trying to keep track of the plan they put in place, why things were happening and even after rereading those sections, it still wasn’t altogether clear.

Catching Fire is written and plotted well and is an excellent sequel to the Hunger Games. It has its issues but the story is well executed and keeps the story going from the earlier book. The characters are developed well and I like Katniss more than in the previous book. Her relationship with Peeta has grown organically and very much believable. If you love the first book, you love this one too.

Book Review: The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

Okay, I know I am about a year behind with this but it’s only really caught my attention within the last couple of months.

Set in the future, America has become Panem  and been split into 13 districts and a central Government City, the Capitol. The 13th District was destroyed after a failed uprising years before the book begins and the remaining districts are annually reminded they are at the Capitol’s mercy through The Hunger Games. Every year, one boy and one girl between the ages of 12 and 18, called Tributes, are taken at random in a public lottery from each district to the Capitol, where they are trained then forced to fight each other to the death in an arena at the  Capitol’s control. The whole country is forced to watch the slaughter.

At the Reaping in District 12 for the 74th Annual Hunger Games, Katniss volunteers for her sister and finds herself up against not just Tributes from other districts, some of whom have trained their whole lives for the honour to volunteer for the Games, but against the boy who helped her and her family many years ago. If she wants to win and return home, she will have to kill him and the other 22 Tributes but can she?

This book is well written in limited first person, allowing the Collins to get the reader’s attention and to draw the reader into the brutal world of Panem. The fact that the book is in first person also lets Collins give the reader the large amount of exposition required and has cleverly spaced out the information in the exposition of the story without the need of a large info dump right at the start of the book.

Most media outlets focus on the romance element of the narrative and whilst that does form an important part of the main plot, the survival part of the story is of more importance I feel. Katniss is forced to do what she has to, to survive. Collins focuses on this and shows what I feel is a cold and harsh character acting, manipulating and lying to get what she needs for herself and Peeta. She shouldn’t be a likeable character but the circumstances in which the character is placed in makes the reader want to root for her and Peeta, for them to survive the Games. The author’s choice to write in present limited first person also helps the reader to identify and sympathise with Katniss, overcoming the fact that the character is not particularly likeable.

The book is also well researched, from the use of weapons, survival techniques and the effects of conditions like dehydration can have on the body. It adds to the believability of the story and helps draw the reader into the world of Panem.

Whilst reading it, I couldn’t help getting the feeling that certain parts of this book are allegories for our own world.

The fact that the media in the book are so focused on the love story between Peeta and Katniss almost ironic as that seems to be all that the media is interested in here in the real world. The excessiveness of the Capitol and the extreme body modifications in the name of beauty is considered normal in the book and I couldn’t shake the feeling that the same ideas are becoming prevalent in reality as well. To have some cosmetic surgery here and some there is becoming frighteningly normal in the media and it is all in the name of being beautiful.

The contrast between rich and poor is a big part of the book I feel and whilst the same extremes can be seen in our world, it isn’t as extensive. In the current economic climate, starvation, lack of everyday essential things and not being able to buy them is something that older readers can definitely relate to.

The brutality of the games and it being televised as entertainment can conceivably also be found in our own world as well. For entertainment, the video game industry releases games like Call of Duty, Medal of Honour and other similar games are played for entertainment. Whilst there is difference between killing people in a game and forcing people to kill each other in real life, it is uncomfortable to think about.

Whilst these are allegories I have noticed and may not have been intentionally put in by Collins, it does make the book very appealing and almost a warning to people against the extremes that human actions can lead to.

Whilst the book is enjoyable, despite the character, I did find myself getting bored with the streams of thought and limited action in places. Whilst it is understandable why this is in places, it did get boring and pulled me out of the book as I scanned ahead hoping for more interesting things to happen. I also can’t understand why the book was split into three parts. It made no sense the name of the third part gave away the ending, especially if a reader started reading the book, unaware it is the first book in the trilogy.

This book is a survival story that is unexpectedly dark for a teen book but at the same time, the darkness makes the book appealing to older readers. The character is likeable but only because of the world she is placed in. Whilst I would re-read this, I am not sure it is one I would come back to again and again. I would recommend this book but only tentatively as whilst I wouldn’t sing Collins’s praises for it, it is a readable and, dare I say it, enjoyable book.

Book Review: The Worst Witch and the Wishing Star by Jill Murphy

Mildred Hubble is determined to not be the worst witch this year and everything seems to start well for Miss Cackle‘s Academy’s misfit student. The school even has the chance to get a fancy new swimming pool to go with the glass in their bedroom windows. But when she makes a wish upon a shooting star, everything predictable goes wrong!

This new book in the much-loved series is a great addition, featuring what readers have come to expect from the series but at the same time switching it up a little. The book has been written with its target audience in mind, seven and above, and yet manages to entertain older fans of the series.

As with the earlier books, it does survive some modernisation to fit the book being read in 2013 and expands the world of the Worst Witch slightly, within realms of the story. Arguably, there could be one or two parallels to be made between this book and the Goblet of Fire from the Harry Potter series.

Mildred, Enid, Maud and their classmates are all older (if not necessarily wiser) and yet are the same memorable characters we have come to love (or hate in the case of Ethel). The characters have been aged up but it is within reason doesn’t detract from the book. In fact, it makes it even more enjoyable and enchanting and, by ageing them up, helps develop the characters.

The same can be said of the teachers (who do talk about age in this book). The change in Miss Drill is good however I couldn’t shake the feeling that she seemed a little out of character. This complaint is even more notable in Miss Hardbroom I feel. There is talk of her background which makes the character more likeable but even so, she felt quite out of character to me.

Sadly, this did make the experience of reading this book seem a bit different and not in a good way.

This book is a great addition to the series which has been much-loved by many generations. The book can be read by young learner readers as well as together with a friend or a family member. Mildred might be the worst witch in the school but she is possibly the greatest friend in the world.