Wednesday, 30 December 2015

One - Sarah Crossan

Published: 2015
Publisher: Bloomsbury
Pages: 430

Blurb:

Grace and Tippi. Tippi and Grace. Two sisters. Two hearts. Two dreams. Two lives. But one body.

Grace and Tippi are conjoined twins, joined at the waist, defying the odds of survival for sixteen years. They share everything, and they are everything to each other. They would never imagine being apart. For them, that would be the real tragedy.
But something is happening to them. Something they hoped would never happen. And Grace doesn’t want to admit it. Not even to Tippi.
How long can they hide from the truth—how long before they must face the most impossible choice of their lives?


Review:

One by Sarah Crossan follows the story of conjoined twins Tippi and Grace as they attend school for the first time and take their first steps in the “real” world.


If you’re reading this, you probably already know One is written in free verse. As someone who is deeply suspicious of poetry, especially something as “pretentious” as free verse, I had my misgivings about this book. But never fear, this book is beautifully written and the free verse doesn’t take away from the story at all, it even adds to it. However, it makes the book look at lot longer than it actually is, and you will find yourself flying through it much faster than you thought you would. It turns out that I was really wrong about free verse, and I wouldn't hesitate to pick another book by Crossan or in a similar style.


My favourite thing about One was Grace and Tippi’s relationship. I’ve read books about twins before, but there is something different about the relationship of conjoined twins. Grace and Tippi have spent literally every second of their lives together, and it shows through the unique bond they have. They have a relationship that is completely unimaginable to the rest of us, and Crossan does very good job of explaining the bond in a thoroughly touching way.


Family is a huge theme in this book, and Crossan deals very well witht he effect the twins condition has on the rest of the family, and how their own problems and experiences are eclipsed by Grace and Tippi’s. The girls’ mother works tremendously hard to support the girls and the rest of the family, while their father’s drinking begins to tear his marriage and their family apart. Crossan also addresses the effect the girls have on Dragon, their little sister, her health issues and eating disorder. The girls’ condition has a huge affect on the family over time, and though it’snot their fault, they begin to resent themselves for it.


In a similar vein to The Fault in Our Stars , Grace and Tippi have to deal with the prospect of death from an early age. Their whole lives they have been told that they won’t survive much longer, and like Hazel, Augustus and Isaac in TFiOS they approach it with a dark sense of humour that most of the other characters don’t seem to understand, even going so far as to plan their funerals.


I found the way the television crew and the reporter, Caroline, dealt with the girls and their situation very interesting. We've all seen documentaries that brutally exploit people like Tippi and Grace for entertainment value, but Caroline and her co-workers were extremely respectful in their dealings with the twins. It was a huge contrast to the way the general public and people around the girls reacted to them, which was mostly with fear and disgust.


However, this book left me with a lot more questions than answers. Grace and Tippi have very different personalities, how is this possible when they have exactly the same DNA and and environmental upbringing. Biologically speaking, they are the same person, coming from a single embryo that didn't separate fully, but at what point does one person become two? And how did they end up with such different personalities.

I would highly recommend One to practically everyone. It is a quick, yet heart wrenching read, and a wonderful introduction to free verse writing. One is a YA book about love, without being about romance. It will break your heart, and stay with you long after you've put it down.

Monday, 12 October 2015

The Scorch Trials - James Dashner ( The Maze Runner #2)

Publisher: Chicken House
Published: 2013 ( first published January 2011)
Pages:

Blurb:

Solving the Maze was supposed to be the end. No more puzzles. No more variables. And no more running. Thomas was sure that escape meant he and the Gladers would get their lives back. But no one really knew what sort of life they were going back to.

In the Maze, life was easy. They had food, and shelter, and safety... until Teresa triggered the end. In the world outside the Maze, however, the end was triggered long ago.

Burned by sun flares and baked by a new, brutal climate, the earth is a wasteland. Government has disintegrated—and with it, order—and now Cranks, people covered in festering wounds and driven to murderous insanity by the infectious disease known as the Flare, roam the crumbling cities hunting for their next victim... and meal.

The Gladers are far from finished with running. Instead of freedom, they find themselves faced with another trial. They must cross the Scorch, the most burned-out section of the world, and arrive at a safe haven in two weeks. And WICKED has made sure to adjust the variables and stack the odds against them.

Thomas can only wonder—does he hold the secret of freedom somewhere in his mind? Or will he forever be at the mercy of WICKED?

Review:

I read The Scorch Trials a full year after The Maze Runner in anticipation of the new film, and I couldn’t really remember where we left off, but I did remember being mildly impressed by the madcap plot Dashner had written. It turns out that I actually preferred The Scorch Trials to The Maze Runner, for various reasons that I’ll go into in a bit.


The Scorch Trials begins as we rejoin Thomas and the other gladers in some sort of holding facility after being rescued from the maze, and to be honest, it just gets weirder from then on in. The plot is actually mental, like, it’s completely ridiculous and I was surprised by how little that bothered me. If you thought the circumstance of the Hunger Games were farfetched , then this will probably be a little much for you. The whole plot is wrapped up in dubious science and horrendously unlikely circumstance, so if you can’t suspend your disbelief, you probably won’t enjoy this book. I’m not going to go into the plot because I feel it’s the most important part of the book and I don’t want to spoil it for you. The storyline is absolutely gripping, and I didn’t want to put it down at all. Unlike in the first book, Dashner manages to keep up a good pace and no part of this book drags.


However, one of the annoying aspects of the book were the extremely short chapters that were generally bookended by Thomas passing out and waking up again. Thomas does an awful lot of passing out/falling asleep, and it becomes a little tedious.


In this book we learn a lot more about the world Thomas and the Gladers inhabit, WICKED and the flare, but I still felt we were left with more questions than answers. I really am looking forward to having all my questions answered in the final book.


I would recommend this book to readers between 12 and seventeen, because I think I would have enjoyed them the most between those ages. Unlike so many trilogies, I feel like Dashner actually has a story that is worth taking three books to tell, so The Scorch Trials manages to avoid the dreaded book two dip in quality and substance.


Four Stars ****

Wednesday, 23 September 2015

I'll Give You the Sun - Jandy Nelson

Pages: 427
Publisher: Walker Books
Published: April 2015

Blurb:

From the author of The Sky Is Every­where, a radiant novel that will leave you laughing and crying - all at once. For fans of John Green, Gayle Forman and Lauren Oliver. Jude and her twin Noah were incredibly close - until a tragedy drove them apart, and now they are barely speaking. Then Jude meets a cocky, broken, beautiful boy as well as a captivating new mentor, both of whom may just need her as much as she needs them. What the twins don't realize is that each of them has only half the story and if they can just find their way back to one another, they have a chance to remake their world.


Review:

I’ll Give You the Sun is the second book I’ve read by Nelson, The Sky is Everywhere being the first. Now I couldn’t tell you what happened in TSiE I read it so long ago, but I remember the absolute adoration I felt for the book and that I recommended it to all my friends. So going into this one I knew I’d love it.


Stylistically, I’ll Give You the Sun is not something I would usually read. I read a review in which it was described as “death by artistic metaphor” and I can see how they got this impression. In any other narrative, this style wouldn’t work. But Noah and Jude are artists, and they don’t see the world in the same way I do. They see the world in colour and movement and light, like a living painting, a living sculpture. I found that this was a really effective method to get into the headspace of an artist, something I’ve never been able to experience before. It was a really unique reading experience, and instead of being annoyed by it, or just tolerating it, I absolutely loved it. If you’re not usually into that flowery kind of prose, still give it a chance, you might like it.


The book is divided into both Noah and Jude’s point of view, Noah’s POV from age thirteen and Jude’s POV from age sixteen. Both halves have very distinct voices, I never once got them mixed up like a sometimes do with other split POV narratives. They’re both excellent, but I personally preferred Noah’s sections.


Another feature of the writing I loved were Noah and Jude’s little additions to the prose. Noah constantly paints in his head, and throughout the text Nelson scatters in the names of the portraits and self portraits he imagines. It’s such a creative and effective way to give another insight into how Noah is feeling. Jude’s text is littered from little excerpts from the twins’ grandmother’s ‘bible’, a book of superstition and witchcraft-like-spells, written by both Jude and Grandma Sweetwine. The narrative is hugely influenced by fairytale and folklore, which gave a strange but fascinating magical realism to the text. I wasn’t a huge fan of the prophecy aspect, but I see how it added to the plot and the overall feel of the book.


The book primarily deals with relationships, both romantic and familial. I was surprised by how small a part Jude and Noah’s romantic relationships played in the book, considering that is what the blurb and summary focussed on. Nelson focusses on the codependent relationship between the twins, and how they fall out and become almost estranged. Jealousy and sibling rivalry play a huge part in the breakdown of Jude and Noah’s relationship, and shows how damaging this competition can be to familial relationships. Parent-child relationships are also very important, and Nelson explores the different bonds between father, mother, son and daughter.


Nelson also deals beautifully with grief and bereavement, and how those left behind tend to blame themselves for the death of a loved one. All the characters deal with grief in different ways, some more self destructive than others, but we also see the different ways people can come back from a colossal loss.  


Both Jude and Noah deal with their identity over the course of the narrative. Noah really struggles to come to terms with her sexuality, what it means for his future and how others will perceive him once they find out. Jude struggles with whether or not she is “that girl”, and the strain it puts on her relationship with her mother. This was my least favourite part of the book. I feel Nelson blames Jude’s promiscuous behaviour on her desire to aggravate to mother, and Jude feels like the universe punished her for her behaviour, and then decides to boycott boys in order to make things right. This made me feel a little uncomfortable, but I may have misunderstood. Feel free to correct me if I’m wrong.


I’ll Give You the Sun is a beautiful novel, and I would thoroughly recommend it to everyone. I was thoroughly engrossed by it, and I’m still thinking about it two weeks after I finished it.

Five Stars

Wednesday, 16 September 2015

Go Set a Watchman - Harper Lee

Publisher: William Heinemann
Published: July 2015
Pages: 278

Blurb:

Maycomb, Alabama. Twenty-six-year-old Jean Louise Finch--"Scout"--returns home from New York City to visit her aging father, Atticus. Set against the backdrop of the civil rights tensions and political turmoil that were transforming the South, Jean Louise's homecoming turns bittersweet when she learns disturbing truths about her close-knit family, the town and the people dearest to her. Memories from her childhood flood back, and her values and assumptions are thrown into doubt. Featuring many of the iconic characters from To Kill a MockingbirdGo Set a Watchman perfectly captures a young woman, and a world, in a painful yet necessary transition out of the illusions of the past--a journey that can be guided only by one's conscience. 

Written in the mid-1950s, Go Set a Watchman imparts a fuller, richer understanding and appreciation of Harper Lee. Here is an unforgettable novel of wisdom, humanity, passion, humor and effortless precision--a profoundly affecting work of art that is both wonderfully evocative of another era and relevant to our own times. It not only confirms the enduring brilliance of To Kill a Mockingbird, but also serves as its essential companion, adding depth, context and new meaning to an American classic.

Review:

The first time I read To Kill a Mockingbird it was while studying for my Junior Cert, and it remains to this day the only studied text I ever loved. So I was obviously delighted when I heard there would be a sequel. But Watchman is to Mockingbird like The Casual Vacancy is to Harry Potter, just because you like one doesn’t mean you’ll like the other. Where Mockingbird is innocent, Watchman is complex, where Mockingbird is action, Watchman is slower. If you don’t like character study and development, talking and not much else, don’t read this.


I know Watchman was written first, but it really feels like a sequel. So much of it would feel unexplained if I hadn’t read Mockingbird, so if you haven’t read it you probably should. I understand why Lee’s editor asked her to write Mockingbird because the whole novel contains these allusions to what can only be a fascinating untold story.


The novel deals with the idea of rationalising racism, which is still a relevant idea today unfortunately. Characters like Atticus and Henry fell they are totally justified denying black people their humans rights and treating them as less than equal citizens for a number of convoluted reasons, some that people still try to use today. It’s quite upsetting to watch otherwise intelligent and kind people try and justify cruelty towards others, and the fact that it’s just as topical and prevalent now as when Watchman was written really makes you despair for humanity.


Lee also deals with the fallibility of our role models. Through Jean Louise’s relationship with her father, we explore the idea that there is no greater heartbreak than finding out someone you looked up to is wrong sometimes. We’ve all had a moment when we realised our parents or other role models didn’t know what they were talking about, but Jean Louise’s is particularly traumatic. Atticus, a paragon of goodness in her eyes, falls as she realises that his compassion only stretches so far.


One thing I’m sure about Watchman is that Lee writes children like no other. No other writer I’ve ever read has captured childhood and the minds of children quite like Lee, which is probably part of the reason Mockingbird was such a success. Her writing is beautiful, and I wish there was another book of hers I could read.

Overall, just because you liked Mockingbird doesn’t mean you’ll like this. But I’d give it a go anyway.

Four and a half stars

Wednesday, 9 September 2015

Valentina - Kevin McDermott

Published: 2012
Publisher: Little Island
Pages: 266

Blurb:

Much of the world is burning or flooded. The temperate zones are still habitable - and one small island is teeming with climate refugees. Life in the Badlands is dangerous, disease-ridden, violent and controlled by gangsters and terrorists.

But Valentina lives high in the privileged Citadel, at the heart of the heavily protected Green Zone. She is the president's daughter, sheltered, spoilt and arrogant. When she makes a secret trip to the Badlands, however, with her friends Pippa and Damian, she is forced to face up to the realities of life on the island and to the responsibilities her position brings with it.


Review: 

Valentina is a dystopian YA novel set on the island of Ireland, way in the future. It follows the absolutely mad escapades of Valentina , fourteen year old daughter of the president of the State of Free Citizens, as she leaves the safe haven of the Citadel, and travels to the badlands. If that isn’t enough to get you hooked I don’t know what is? To be honest, the main reason I picked this book is because it was written by an Irish writer, and it has been an age since I read anything Irish so I thought I’d give it a go.


First things first, Valentina is both a terrible and wonderful narrator. She’s astoundingly annoying, like all fourteen year olds. But as aggravating as it might be, McDermott really captures the teenage voice, and I got more used to it as the book went on. As annoying as I found Valentina at the beginning, I had grown quite fond of her before the end.


The plot is absolutely mental, completely ridiculous and I loved it. As realistic as Valentina was , the plot wasn’t. There is too much nonsense going on to take it seriously, but once I suspended my disbelief I really enjoyed it. However it was a little slow to start with, but as the narrative unfolded I became more and more interested. Give it a hundred pages before you give it up, it takes a while to kick in. Also, a big thank you to McDermott who didn’t throw in a clich├ęd YA romance, finally a dystopian YA novel without a love triangle.


The world building in Valentina is fantastic. The island is divided into three zones, the green, amber and red zones, with the Citadel (where Dublin used to be)  reigning over the rest of the island. The State of Free Citizens is a safe haven from the climate change and mass migration that is crippling the rest of the island. The politics relating to immigration in Valentina is really interesting, and quite topical the moment because of the issue with allowing refugees into the EU.


I think I was a little old for this book, and I would have enjoyed it a lot more if I was 12 to 16 years old. Valentina is a quick but thoroughly interesting read. I would especially recommend it to anyone interested in dystopian fiction, but is a little tired of the formula most YA dystopian seems to be following.

Three stars

Wednesday, 19 August 2015

Weightless - Sarah Bannan

Publisher: Bloomsbury
Published: April 2015
Pages: 352 

Blurb: 

When 15-year-old Carolyn moves from New Jersey to Alabama with her mother, she rattles the status quo of the junior class at Adams High School. A good student and natural athlete, she’s immediately welcomed by the school’s cliques. She’s even nominated to the homecoming court and begins dating a senior, Shane, whose on again/off again girlfriend Brooke becomes Carolyn’s bitter romantic rival. When a video of Carolyn and Shane making out is sent to everyone, Carolyn goes from golden girl to slut, as Brooke and her best friend Gemma try to restore their popularity. Gossip and bullying hound Carolyn, who becomes increasingly private and isolated. When Shane and Brooke—now back together—confront Carolyn in the student parking lot, injuring her, it’s the last attack she can take.

Sarah Bannan's deft use of the first person plural gives Weightless an emotional intensity and remarkable power that will send you flying through the pages and leave you reeling.
 


Review:


Weightless is one of those books I wish I had read when I was fourteen. It’s one of those books that should be on recommended reading lists for school because it’s just that important. I feel like it should be made into a movie because then more people would hear this story, but I just know they’d ruin it. It’s a perfect little heart-breaker of a book and I recommend it to everyone who has ever or will ever be a teenager.


Weightless is set in Adamsville , Alabama, a small tight-knit, religious community. New-comers are few and far between, generation after generation of native Adamsvillian have lived there and there seems to be a sort of segregation between blacks and whites. Adamsville seems to be a stereotypical southern town, enhanced by the descriptions of the stifling and oppressive heat that you just don’t get in Ireland, but really gave a sense of setting. Adamsville is a Christian town, Baptist to be more specific, and Adamsville High is a Christian school. They pray before football games, they pray for the football team at church. Everything is wholesome, there’s no alcohol, no sex. Everyone is a Christian, but no one acts very christian at all.


Obviously the main issue dealt with in this book is bullying and the role technology plays in bullying in the twenty first century. The whole technology aspect was nothing new to me, after all, this was the culture of bullying in grew up with. But I’d say it’s a shock to the system for any adults reading this book who thankfully managed to avoid the era of cyber bullying. It’s much easier to dehumanise someone online than face-to-face, but the  stuff said about Carolyn isn’t anything worse than Brooke, Gemma and co. would say to her face. More importantly, the internet is used to send videos and photos of Carolyn, and mobile phones are used to make sure that Carolyn can’t even escape the bullying when they leave school. And it seems like the internet has ushered in an era with no privacy. Everything is recorded, with the other students taking photos and videos of Carolyn without her knowing. The narrators see no problem in looking through Carolyn’s bathroom cabinet and gym bag, and then telling everyone what they saw.


There is a trend within the narrative of passive aggressive bullying escalating to violence and abuse. While it starts off fairly “innocent” , it ends up with the sort of behaviour adults get prosecuted for. But the whole time it’s passed off by the other students as normal behaviour, or banter. If I had a euro for every time I hear “You need to learn how to take a joke” used as an excuse for picking on someone, I’d be a rich woman, and in Weightless it’s used as a way to make excuses for bullying. Similarly, nobody takes the suicide attempts of Carolyn or “that girl at Lincoln High” seriously. They are seen more as a cry for attention, that the girls are being dramatic rather than exhibiting symptoms of emotional distress or depression. I remember people saying stuff like this when I was at school , and may have even been a culprit. And obviously the book goes on to show how dangerous ignoring and downplaying these acts can be.


To me, what Bannan actually does really well here is showing the motivations and causes of the bullys’ behavior. There’s an old theory that parents and teachers tell you, that you don’t believe when you’re thirteen  but you realise is true when you get older and look back , that only unhappy people pick on others. In Weightless , like in real life, bullying comes from a place of insecurity. Brooke is ashamed of her weight, Gemma knows everyone thinks she’s stupid, and Taylor and Tiffany are desperate to cling onto the bit of social standing they have. Everyone has their own issues, and as well as trying to build themselves up they tear everyone else down. At one point Carolyn asks why don’t they just leave her alone if they hate her so much, but tearing Carolyn down is just a cruel way of making themselves feel more superior.


Bannan also touches a little on slut shaming and casual sexism. After another student takes a video of Carolyn and Shane having sex in his car, Carolyn suffers all the backlash , and Shane gets away with a flawless reputation. It’s amazing that only one of them gets ridiculed and blamed it takes two to tango, but are we really that surprised. The Adamsville hotlist is another great example of both casual bullying and sexism. Firstly, there’s no list for the guys, and secondly there’s obviously something inherently cruel in ranking girls based on their attractiveness.


As the title suggests, a lot of the heartbreak in this book is caused by weight. All the girls think they are fat, all of them want to be smaller. Both Brooke and Carolyn have eating disorders, and while the narrators don’t , they still spend a lot of time and energy worrying about their weight. The girls are obsessed with being small, nearly every time Carolyn is mentioned they reference her weight, if she has lost or put on any. Every time she is mentioned with Shane , they talk about how tiny she is compared to him, how he eclipses her. They seem to want to shrink themselves, to take up as little space as possible.


Weightless is written in the first person plural, which adds to the whole bystander syndrome of the situation. Nobody does anything to help Carolyn because, well nobody else was doing anything to help her, and everybody feels ok with tormenting her, because everyone else is doing it too. It also helps encapsulate the joined-at-the-hip herd mentality of teenagers. It’s the first book I’ve read written by this point of view and I found it a really interesting way to tell a story.  Bannan also uses things like facebook posts, text messages, Carolyn’s essays, reports and transcripts of conversations, which all added to the story.


This is a heartbreakingly wonderful book that isn’t getting the recognition it deserves. Read this book, just do it.

Five Stars

Wednesday, 12 August 2015

Dead Ends - Erin Lange

Pages: 384
Publisher: Faber and Faber
Published: July 2014

Blurb:

Dane Washington and Billy D couldn't be more different. Dane is clever and popular, but he's also a violent rebel. Billy D has Down's Syndrome, plays by the rules and hangs out with teachers in his lunch break.

But Dane and Billy have more in common than they think - both their fathers are missing. Maybe they'll just have to suck up their differences and get on with helping each other find some answers.



Review:

Dead Ends is the second book I’ve read by Erin Lange, and it reached all my expectations. I loved Lange’s first book Butter, and Dead Ends is a worthy follow up. In my opinion, Lange tells YA stories in a way that no other YA author that I’ve ever read does. She writes stories for teenagers similar to the way others write stories for adults, and doesn’t really pull any punches.


If I remember Butter correctly, the characters weren’t exactly likable. Well, the same goes for Dead Ends. None of the characters, especially the protagonist Dane, are very likable unlike other YA books. I feel like this is really important, through Dane we learned the reasons why someone could come across very unlikable, but ultimately is not all bad. Dane is definitely a bully, but instead of condemning him for his actions, Lange shows us his motivation for the way he behaves. I found this to be a really unusual perspective, as usually you get the point of view of the person being bullied.


Dead Ends is the first book I’ve read that deftly deals with Down’s Syndrome. Billy D. , Dane’s neighbour and eventual friend, has Down’s Syndrome, and through him we explore how people treat others with intellectual disabilities. Billy D. feels exactly like everyone else and doesn’t understand why he should be treated any differently. However we see the other characters struggle with how the should treat him. They try to figure out what allowances can be made for him, and what he can be held accountable for. They tread the line between condescension and understanding and compassion.


Lange also deals with the importance of parents and their relationships with their children. Dane doesn’t know who his father is, Billy D’s father is out of the picture. Conversely, Seely has two dads, and seems to be getting on well because of it. Through these relationships, or lack-of, Lange explores a father’s relationship with his children, the importance our society places on it, and the how important being accepted by him can be. Lange also explores the way parents, in this case mothers, protect their children in different ways. Both Dane’s mother and Billy D’s try to protect them by not telling them the whole story, and this does some harm as well as good.


My only gripe with the book is Seely, the required Manic Pixie Dream girl. She has short hair, wears boyish clothes, skateboards and knows how to fix cars. She’s just so different you know, she’s not like the other girls. It’s not that I don’t like her, but I’m pretty sure I’ve seen her a thousand times before.


Overall a really excellent book. Lange keeps up a high standard and I’m looking forward to reading more of her work.

Four and a half stars