18 May 2015

Review: The Killing Jar by Nicola Monaghan


The Killing Jar by Nicola Monaghan

Published: 3 April 2007

Pages: 288

Genre/s: Adult, Contemporary

Source: Own library

Find It: Goodreads ~ Amazon

Synopsis


Very early on, Kerrie-Ann begins to dream of the world beyond the rough council estate where she lives. Her father is nowhere to be found, her mother is a junkie, and she is left to care for her little brother. Clever, brave, and frighteningly independent, Kerrie-Ann has an unbreakable will to survive. She befriends her eccentric, elderly neighbor, who teaches her about butterflies, the Amazon, and life outside of her tough neighborhood. But even as Kerrie-Ann dreams of a better life she becomes further entangled in the cycles of violence and drugs that rule the estate.

Brilliant, brutal, and tender, The Killing Jar introduces a brave new voice in fiction. Nicola Monaghan's devastating prose tells an unforgettable story of violence, love, and hope.


My Thoughts

The Killing Jar is dark, gritty, and at times very confronting. When you have a main character growing up on an impoverished estate, surrounded by drugs, abuse and the never ending threat of violence, it was never going to be a book that filled me with warm, fuzzy feelings. At times it was almost overwhelmingly dark – and I could easily have switched to looking at pictures of kittens to cleanse my mind, but I found it a very difficult book to put down.

Kerrie-Ann grows up in an environment that perpetuates a cycle of drug abuse, young motherhood, broken families and a lifestyle that is almost impossible to break out of. Her mother is addicted to heroin, she’s never met her father, and at a young age is dragged into selling and taking drugs. However, she’s tough, she’s smart and the kind of character that I just couldn’t help but wanting something better for, and when her neighbour starts teaching her about entomology, she begins to dream of something bigger and better for her younger brother, Jon.

The highlight of The Killing Jar however is Monaghan’s writing. She tells a dark, twisted story with a bevy of unlikeable secondary characters with a touch of sympathy, without glamorising or excusing the almost constantly bad behaviour. Kerrie-Ann’s volatile relationship with her childhood ‘sweetheart’ Mark, is violent and tense, and yet there are moments when they seem a rather fucked-up kind of happy. It all feels very realistic, from the grim lives of those on the estate, the crime and the drugs and violence, through to Kerrie-Ann’s almost indestructible belief that she can change her life, despite all the roadblocks that are constantly thrown at her.

If you like dark, gritty books with a main character that make you want to simultaneously scream with frustration and sadness whilst cheering them on with your fingers crossed, check out The Killing Jar. Just don’t blame me if you need to bleach your eyes with pictures of bunnies and kittens afterwards.

14 May 2015

Review: Extraordinary Means by Robyn Schneider


Extraordinary Means by Robyn Schneider

Expected publication: 26 May 2015 by Katherine Tegen Books

Pages: 336 pages

Genre/s: YA, Contemporary

Source: Publisher for review

Find It: Goodreads ~ Amazon

Synopsis

At seventeen, overachieving Lane finds himself at Latham House, a sanatorium for teens suffering from an incurable strain of tuberculosis. Part hospital and part boarding school, Latham is a place of endless rules and confusing rituals, where it's easier to fail breakfast than it is to flunk French.

There, Lane encounters a girl he knew years ago. Instead of the shy loner he remembers, Sadie has transformed. At Latham, she is sarcastic, fearless, and utterly compelling. Her friends, a group of eccentric troublemakers, fascinate Lane, who has never stepped out of bounds his whole life. And as he gradually becomes one of them, Sadie shows him their secrets: how to steal internet, how to sneak into town, and how to disable the med sensors they must wear at all times.

But there are consequences to having secrets, particularly at Latham House. And as Lane and Sadie begin to fall in love and their group begins to fall sicker, their insular world threatens to come crashing down. Told in alternating points of view, Extraordinary Means is a darkly funny story about doomed friendships, first love, and the rare miracle of second chances.
 

My Thoughts

Extraordinary Means should not have been a book that got my attention, if I’m completely honest.  I’m not the biggest lover of YA contemporary fiction, nor am I an emotional reader.  It was only the fact that the plot centres around teens with an incurable disease that made me want to read it, because I am a complete sucker for anything that involves diseases or viruses.

And when I started reading Extraordinary Means, I wasn’t completely sold.  The story is told through the alternating perspectives of Lane, who is completely focus on his academic success, and Sadie who he briefly met four years before at summer camp, and who has used being admitted to Latham as a way to reinvent herself as the kooky, funny rule breaker.  It took me a good three or four chapters to begin to really warm up to them, and it was only at about page 100 that I realised I was completely head-over-heels with this book.

The relationship between Sadie and Lane feels right – it’s close and intense, magnified even more so by the fact that they are able to spend so much time together in a closed environment – in any other setting their relationship would have felt a little too rushed, but with the possibility of death hanging over them, it’s completely understandable and felt very realistic.

Although I loved the characters, and the fact that Schneider is a certified heart-stomper is the fact that there was more to this book than two seriously ill teenagers falling in love with each other – there’s also growth in the characters, a lot of introspection about life and goals and all the things that make us who we are, and it was delicious.
Perhaps the most telling thing is that I actually highlighted passages because I thought they were beautiful and really resonated with me, which I very rarely do.  Here’s a small selection:

‘There’s a difference between being dead and dying.  We’re all dying.  Some of us die for ninety years, and some of us die for nineteen.  But each morning everyone on this planet wakes up one day closer to their death.  Everyone.  So living and dying are actually different words for the same thing, if you think about it.’ 
‘We mourn for the future because it’s easier than admitting that we’re miserable in the present.’ 
‘It’s strange how we can lose things that are right there.  How a barrier can go up at any moment, trapping you on the other side, keeping you from what you want.  How the things that hurt the most are the things we once had.’


Yes, these quotes are rather sad, but Extraordinary Means is not just a sad book – although my heart is now rather worse for wear, by the end I felt incredibly satisfied – I got so much more out of this book than I had ever imagined, and it’s definitely one of the best YA contemporary novels I’ve read.

13 May 2015

Review: Swan Song for an Ugly Duckling by Michael Murphy


Swan Song for an Ugly Duckling by Michael Murphy

Published: 28 May 2014

Pages: 220

Genre/s: YA, GLBT

Source: Own library

Find It: Goodreads ~ Amazon

Synopsis

Aaron and Josh come from extraordinarily different backgrounds in small town America. Aaron is the only child of a fundamentalist preacher who fears and condemns the ways of the world outside their community. Josh is a jock who can only seem to express the feelings Aaron stirs in him by tormenting Aaron about how he looks and dresses. But one day, Josh’s world is turned upside down by a simple sentence spoken by Aaron, and he decides to get closer to Aaron.

Aaron assumes it is a new form of torture, but Josh persists: first a ride home, then talking with Aaron while he does his afternoon farm chores. Then Josh persuades Aaron’s father to let him participate in a scholastic event out of town one weekend. Josh pays a huge price for Aaron to attend, but that one weekend persuades Aaron to get free of his parents and attend college.

College doesn’t solve all their problems, though. Josh is horrified when a senior on campus seduces Aaron. He can’t believe Aaron has always been gay and he missed it—and missed getting to be Aaron’s first. But when Aaron finds out his boyfriend isn’t faithful, things go from tense to worse.


My Thoughts

Once again it’s a book with a main character who lives in an isolated religious community. It’s a theme that I’m always drawn to, and Swan Song for an Ugly Duckling had the added bonus of being a GLBT novel.

The synopsis is pretty accurate – Aaron has been bought up in a community lead by his father, and is grudgingly allowed to attend school where he is ridiculed for his hair, his clothes, his glasses, and generally ostracised by the other kids. Josh is one of his worst tormentors, until the moment that Josh realises that there’s more to Aaron than meets the eye, and he starts to befriend him.

The negative aspect of this book was the clumsiness of the writing. It never really feels like it flows properly, the dialogue is awkward and the second portion, when Aaron and Josh go to college changed the dynamic of the story so much that I felt like I was reading another book entirely.

However, the first part of the book I enjoyed very much – I loved seeing the friendship between Aaron and Josh grow and develop, and although the overwhelming message was about Aaron finding freedom from the restrictions of his upbringing, it was also interesting to see Josh grow as a character. Murphy does a good job of weaving those themes together, even making it possible to feel sympathy for the bully as well as the bullied.

Swan Song for an Ugly Duckling is a touching story about two young men finding their way through difficult times, an unusual friendship, and breaking free of the things that are holding them back. I enjoyed it quite a lot, despite the fact that at times the writing felt a little awkward and the feel of the story switched so quickly from the first to second half.

11 May 2015

Review: The Improbable Theory of Ana and Zak by Brian Katcher


The Improbably Theory of Ana & Zak by Brian Katcher

Expected publication: 19 May 2015 by Katherine Tegen Books

Pages: 336 

Genre/s: YA, Contemporary, Romance

Source: Publisher for review

Find it: Goodreads ~ Amazon

Synposis

It all begins when Ana Watson's little brother, Clayton, secretly ditches the quiz bowl semifinals to go to the Washingcon sci-fi convention on what should have been a normal, résumé-building school trip.

If slacker Zak Duquette hadn't talked up the geek fan fest so much, maybe Clayton wouldn't have broken nearly every school rule or jeopardized Ana’s last shot at freedom from her uptight parents.

Now, teaming up with Duquette is the only way for Ana to chase down Clayton in the sea of orcs, zombies, bikini-clad princesses, Trekkies, and Smurfs. After all, one does not simply walk into Washingcon.

But in spite of Zak's devil-may-care attitude, he has his own reasons for being as lost as Ana-and Ana may have more in common with him than she thinks. Ana and Zak certainly don’t expect the long crazy night, which begins as a nerdfighter manhunt, to transform into so much more…

My Thoughts

I enjoyed Brian Katcher’s Almost Perfect when I read it last year – I was in the midst of a YA GLBT kick, and I liked the unique storyline and the kooky characters, so I was really looking forward to The Improbably Theory of Ana and Zak, particularly due to the setting – a sci-fi convention – geeks unite!

Zak is the ultimate cool geek with a few personal demons and Ana is the ultimate perfect student who lives under a cloud of permanent pressure from her parents, and herself.  Katcher’s choice to alternate perspectives between Ana and Zak works perfectly – and I loved being in Zak’s head, and although I took a while to warm up to her, I also enjoyed Ana’s side of the story.

Both Zak and Ana have their share of problems, and instead of being just a crazy, funny story, Katcher does get down to the bones of their issues and rather than just being a backdrop, they shape how the plot develops, even if they are not directly addressed in the body of the novel.

When it comes to the romance, there’s definitely a strong love/hate vibe in the beginning, and it was fun to watch the relationship change and the banter was funny and endearing, although perhaps not as laugh-out-loud funny as I had anticipated (but I’m a tough crowd in that respect).

The Improbable Theory of Ana and Zak is definitely a kooky story, and at times Katcher trades in realism for a rather far-fetched storyline, but it works perfectly for the setting of a sci-fi convention – there’s a feeling that anything can happen, and it certainly does – practically all in the space of one night.  And don’t worry if sci-fi culture isn’t really your thing – the references are quite broad and refer mainly to the more mainstream than the hardcore, making it an easy and fun read.

Overall, The Improbably Theory of Ana and Zak didn’t blow me away, but it kept me entertained and (internally) smiling – I loved the characters, enjoyed the uniqueness of the plot and the fact that Katcher pushed a few of the traditional YA contemporary boundaries.

09 May 2015

Review: Down from the Mountain by Elizabeth Fixmer


Down from the Mountain by Elizabeth Fixmer

Published: 1 March 2015 by Albert Whitman & Company

Pages: 272

Genre/s: YA, Contemporary, Realistic Fiction

Source: Publisher for review

Find it: Goodreads ~ Amazon

Synopsis

Eva just wants to be a good disciple of Righteous Path. She grew up knowing that she's among the chosen few to be saved from Armageddon. Lately, though, being saved feels awfully treacherous. Ever since they moved to the compound in Colorado, their food supplies have dwindled even while their leader, Ezekiel, has stockpiled weapons. The only money comes from the jewelry Eva makes and sells down in Boulder--a purpose she'll serve until she becomes one of Ezekiel's wives. But a college student named Trevor and the other "heathens" she meets on her trips beyond the compound are far different from what she's been led to believe. Now Eva doesn't know which is more dangerous--the outside world, or Brother Ezekiel's plans.

My Thoughts

Down From the Mountain is yet another 2015 book that had me captivated, but yet strangely unmoved. Reading it was like what I imagine watching a car crash in slow motion would be like – I felt disconnected from the people that were involved, but compelled to keep going, even though at times I’d developed a case of couldn’t’-give-a-fuck-itis.

Eva, at fourteen, has lived for the majority of her life in the compound of the Righteous Path. Led by Ezekiel, with only one other grown male and a bevy of women and small children, they live an isolated life, dominated by prayer and punishment for those who break the increasingly strict rules. It’s only when she is temporarily allowed to leave the confines of the compound when she shows an unexpected flair for jewellery making that she really starts to question how the Righteous Path members really live.

I can completely imagine that some readers would get rather frustrated with Eva – she retreats back to the safety of the commune at every moment, and at times I felt frustrated with her too, but when I stopped to think about it, it was logical. She’s been brainwashed – and the normal human reaction in any uncomfortable or scary situation is to fall back on the familiar, and apart from some patchy early memories, the commune is all she has ever known.

What made Down from the Mountain so addictive to read however, is knowing there’s a crunch time coming, and although it’s obvious quite early on what it is going to be, I was so curious to see how it would play out and Fixmer definitely drew me into the climax of the story.

The reason I felt rather disconnected from the book, however, was the characters. Eva was strong and brave, going against everything she had been taught, knowing the consequences would be dire, and yet I never really felt like I knew her very well. She bonds with one of the other ‘mothers’, Rachel, and yet I never really got to know Rachel, or any other secondary character either. And guys, there is no romance – although for everyone that assumes there is romance just because it’s a contemporary YA novel, this is why we should never assume – because there isn’t one.

Finally, Down from the Mountain ends rather abruptly, and it felt a little awkward to me – everything is a little too neat, despite all the trauma that Eva has been through, and it was just over too quickly for my liking.

Down from the Mountain was an interesting read – there is a lot to think about in terms of the way that human beings can be convinced by others to believe in something, even if it is illogical. An interesting premise that just didn’t quite hook me in.

07 May 2015

Review: The Book Thief by Markus Zusak


The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

Published: 2005

Pages: 550

Genre/s: Historical Fiction

Source: Own library

Find It: Goodreads ~ Amazon

Synopsis

HERE IS A SMALL FACT - YOU ARE GOING TO DIE

1939. Nazi Germany. The country is holding its breath. Death has never been busier.

Liesel, a nine-year-old girl, is living with a foster family on Himmel Street. Her parents have been taken away to a concentration camp. Liesel steals books. This is her story and the story of the inhabitants of her street when the bombs begin to fall.

SOME IMPORTANT INFORMATION - THIS NOVEL IS NARRATED BY DEATH

It's a small story, about:

a girl

an accordionist

some fanatical Germans

a Jewish fist fighter

and quite a lot of thievery.

ANOTHER THING YOU SHOULD KNOW - DEATH WILL VISIT THE BOOK THIEF THREE TIMES


My Thoughts

As I read the first pages of The Book Thief, I was confused. Everyone and their dog has loved this book, and yet I’m trying to figure out what the hell is going on and the prose is waaaaaaayyyy too purple for my tastes. But I persevere, I keep reading because either I’m missing something terribly obvious or I’m going to lose my faith in all my book loving friends. Before I know it, I’m completely sucked in and only stop reading for other compulsory life activities.

Normally, when I have trouble getting started with a book, even if I end up loving it, I’ll deduct a star or half as penance. But you know what? Fuck it, this book redeemed itself rather quickly and then had the audacity to make me want to cry. (Not actually cry because my reading heart is made of stone, but WANT to cry). So five stars it is.

Narrated by Death, The Book Thief is the story of Leisel Meminger, who finds herself living with a foster family just outside of Munich, after her mother puts her in foster care, and her younger brother dies. It didn’t take very long for Leisel, and her foster parents Hans and Rosa, to find a place in my heart – whether good or bad, almost all of the characters, and especially the main characters of The Book Thief are larger than life. I loved both Leisel and her best friend Rudy, her foster father Hans, but most tellingly, the seemingly abrasive Rosa Hubermann who really does have a heart of gold (albeit a well-hidden one), and on and on – Zusak invests a lot in his characters and it was so easy to imagine them in my mind.

The most telling thing, however, is that I loved this book despite two things that would normally irritate me:

- Death tends to go off on one a little bit – the colours, the way of speaking, at times it was beautiful and poetic, at other times I thought perhaps he’d been partaking in an afternoon tipple.

- The story is not linear – Death occasionally jumps back and forth, and he’s a terrible one for dropping hints, or even outright telling part of the story before Leisel’s story has arrived at that point.

So in the end, I loved The Book Thief - so much that I also bought the movie tie-in enhanced Kindle version and the audiobook so I could read for every possible second. Its great historical fiction with fantastic characters, a unique narrator and although a little unconventional in approach, it’s definitely memorable.

06 May 2015

Review: We Are All Made of Stars by Rowan Coleman


We Are All Made of Stars by Rowan Coleman
Expected Publication: 21 May 2015 by Ebury Press

Pages: 400

Genre/s: Contemporary, Adult

Source:
Publisher for review

Find it: Goodreads ~ Amazon

Synopsis

What if you had just one chance, one letter you could leave behind for the person you love? What would you write?


Stella Carey has good reason to only work nights at the hospice where she is a nurse. Married to a war veteran who has returned from Afghanistan brutally injured, Stella leaves the house each night as Vincent locks himself away, unable to sleep due to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

During her nights at the hospice, Stella writes letters for her patients, detailing their final wishes, thoughts and feelings – from how to use a washing machine, to advice on how to be a good parent – and posts them after their death.

That is until Stella writes one letter that she feels compelled to deliver in time, to give her patient one final chance of redemption...


My Thoughts

If you ask me what my favourite movie is, I will immediately answer ‘Love, Actually’. I’ve seen it at least a dozen times, and it always leaves me feeling warm and fuzzy. So saying that We Are All Made of Stars left me feeling that way, when it’s a book about a woman who works in a hospice, writing final letters for her dying patients whilst her marriage falls apart, sounds a little strange, as they don’t seem that similar.

We Are All Made of Stars is one of those books – the kind that you go into with not huge expectations, and suddenly, somewhere along the way you find yourself thinking about it every moment that you aren’t reading it, and when you are reading it, you go back over certain passages again and again to squeeze out the maximum amount of emotion.

Although the synopsis only mentions Stella’s story, the book revolves around three main characters, Stella, Hugh and Hope and their individual but linked stories. Stella is struggling in her marriage to Vincent, injured in Afghanistan, Hugh is isolated and lonely but not able to admit it to himself, and Hope is a young woman with Cystic Fibrosis who spends her life hiding away from the world.

The writing is beautiful, full of profound moments and thoughts, but at the same time the characters feel like real people, and their relationships are awkward, fragile and they don’t always know what to do, or how to handle the situations they find themselves in. Coupled with the funny, heartbreaking, mysterious letters that separate the changes of perspective, I was completely hooked.

It’s been a long time since I was so emotionally invested in a book, and it’s definitely one I recommend to anyone that enjoys a good, moving story with characters that are very easy to care about.

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