Category Archives: Reviews

[Review] Insurgent by Veronica Roth

insurgent

Published: 1 May 2012

Publisher: Harper Teen

Edition: U.S. Hardcover

Read my review for Divergent here.

Summary: “One choice can transform you–or it can destroy you. But every choice has consequences, and as unrest surges in the factions all around her, Tris Prior must continue trying to save those she loves–and herself–while grappling with haunting questions of grief and forgiveness, identity and loyalty, politics and love.

Tris’s initiation day should have been marked by celebration and victory with her chosen faction; instead, the day ended with unspeakable horrors. War now looms as conflict between the factions and their ideologies grows. And in times of war, sides must be chosen, secrets will emerge, and choices will become even more irrevocable–and even more powerful. Transformed by her own decisions but also by haunting grief and guilt, radical new discoveries, and shifting relationships, Tris must fully embrace her Divergence, even if she does not know what she may lose by doing so.

“New York Times” bestselling author Veronica Roth’s much-anticipated second book of the dystopian “Divergent” series is another intoxicating thrill ride of a story, rich with hallmark twists, heartbreaks, romance, and powerful insights about human nature.”

After the wild ride that was Divergent, the second in Veronica Roth’s dystopian trilogy, did not disappoint in its action-thriller-relationship dynamic. We meet with Tris soon after she has thrown all her cards in the air and decided that her only choice in the world now is to take down the Erudite and their masochistic leader, Jeanine.

Of all the dystopian books that I have read, this one had the most action packed plot of all. Even Catching Fire was slower to take up the pace of its plot than Roth has accomplished with Insurgent. One thing after another, we are left with little moments to take a breath and consider the consequences of Tris’ actions. We do, however, get a good insight into how the death and destruction is affecting Tris. Unlike The Hunger Games, Roth doesn’t try to harden her characters to the point of unrecognizable courage that not one reader could identify with – Tris is a human, just like us, and if we had just killed our friend, whether for a valid reason or not, we would be struggling. Tris’ struggle to deal with the murder she has committed stays with her through the book until the very end, and we see the outcome of the hard psychological struggle she has to live with while she tries to undermine the Erudite control over their little dystopian-Chicago world.

Aside from Tris’ inner struggles, we get a good feel for how Tris was identified as a Divergent. Her strength of body and fearlessness may set her apart as a Dauntless but she also cleverly devises plots to undermine Jeanine and her followers, depicting her Erudite intellect, and the love and selflessness that she has when she goes into a fight, determined that she should die to save the lives of those she loves, and those she does not know, identifies her Abnegation qualities. I felt like I got to know Tris’ character a lot more in Insurgent than in Divergent where we were learning more about the world that Roth created. We also get to see the relationship between Tobias and Tris grow stronger, and yet more easily breakable, when their differing plans to defeat Erudite come at a head.

Overall Roth created yet a stunningly addictive book, that I read with the same enthusiasm as a hungry child placed in front of a banquet. The deliciousness of Roth’s plot made me want more and more until we hit the peak surprise at the end of the book and we are left hanging with a suspenseful ‘what will happen next?!’. Unfortunately there’s still a bit of a wait for the next and final book, Allegiant, which won’t be released until October of this year. But that also leaves us time to speculate! What is outside of the world that Roth has created, and how does Tris, or rather, her former self, fit into all of this? Questions! Questions!

five-stars

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[Review] The False Prince by Jennifer A Nielsen

thefalseprince

Published: 1 April 2012

Publisher: Scholastic

Edition: U.S. Hardcover

Summary: “In a discontent kingdom, civil war is brewing. To unify the divided people, Conner, a nobleman of the court, devises a cunning plan to find an impersonator of the king’s long-lost son and install him as a puppet prince. Four orphans are recruited to compete for the role, including a defiant boy named Sage. Sage knows that Conner’s motives are more than questionable, yet his life balances on a sword’s point — he must be chosen to play the prince or he will certainly be killed. But Sage’s rivals have their own agendas as well.

As Sage moves from a rundown orphanage to Conner’s sumptuous palace, layer upon layer of treachery and deceit unfold, until finally, a truth is revealed that, in the end, may very well prove more dangerous than all of the lies taken together.

An extraordinary adventure filled with danger and action, lies and deadly truths that will have readers clinging to the edge of their seats.”

I was about a third of the way through reading this book when I went to Goodreads to check its rating and quickly glimpse a few reviews to get a feel for what others had thought of it. The reviews were glowing and I got frustrated because this book was just not doing it for me. The pace felt slow, the characters were interesting but just not that engaging and the entire story felt like an introduction to a bigger story to come. I had just come off reading Insurgent, so I was used to big plot developments, hooks at the end of each chapter and characters that I as the reader, was attached to in a way that I couldn’t just leave off reading the book if someone was in danger. But as The False Prince progressed I realised that the charm of this book was not the traditional highs and lows of plot progression, it was the intricate way in which Nielsen wrote her central character Sage.

Most books, written in first or third person, tell the story from the central character’s eyes. What they see, we see, and what they hear, we hear. So the surprises that come in the story are from what the main character finds out through events and the actions of other characters. Nielsen’s The False Prince, is the complete opposite. Sage may be our protagonist but don’t let that fool you into thinking he’s telling the reader the whole truth, or any of the truth really. Instead of being in Sage’s head, we as the reader are as fooled as Sage’s recruiter-kidnapper Conner. Throughout the story we are given insights into Sage’s actions but left to our own devices to understand what his motives are and what plans are going through his head. This makes for the biggest surprise toward the end of the book when we discover Sage’s best kept secret.

Nielsen’s editor must have combed through the manuscript that was to be The False Prince, and ensured that Sage kept his secret as well hidden as possible, for greatest effect when we discover the things that Sage didn’t allow the reader to know in his storytelling. In fact when it comes time to learn about the true Sage, I was hesitant to believe that it was the truth. Sage is such a good liar that we don’t know if this the story that Conner wants the court to believe is the truth, or if this is Sage’s truth. This may sound quite confusing to a reader who has not come this far into the book, so I will keep this spoiler free, but the transition is beautifully written. From this point in the book it was a rush to the end and a very satisfactory one at that. I am very interested in reading the sequel, The Runaway King, which was published in March of this year.

four stars

[Review] Wentworth Hall by Abby Grahame

wentworth-hall

Published: 1 May 2012

Publisher: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers

Edition: U.S. Paperback

Summary:  ” Eighteen-year-old Maggie Darlington has turned into an entirely different person. The once spirited teen is now passive and reserved. A change Lord and Lady Darlington can’t help but be grateful for.

It’s 1912, and the Darlingtons of Wentworth Hall have more than just the extensive grounds to maintain. As one of Britain’s most elite families, they need to keep up appearances that things are as they have always been…even as their carefully constructed façade rapidly comes undone.

Maggie has a secret. And she’s not the only one…the handsome groom Michael, the beautiful new French nanny Therese, the Darlingtons’ teenage houseguests Teddy and Jessica, and even Maggie’s younger sister Lila are all hiding something. Passion, betrayal, heartache, and whispered declarations of love take place under the Darlingtons’ massive roof. And one of these secrets has the power to ruin the Darlingtons forever.

When scandalous satires start appearing in the newspaper with details that closely mirror the lives of the Darlingtons, everyone is looking over their shoulder, worrying their scandal will be next. Because at Wentworth Hall, nothing stays secret for long.”

I, along with 99% of readers, picked up Wentworth Hall from Barnes & Noble’s shelves because I love Downton Abbey. Currently this book has a 2.88 rating on Goodreads which will tell you the average reaction to this book. While I thought it was mediocre it was not because it was a disappointment in comparison to Downton Abbey, it was because the characters lacked the depth that good YA books usually possess.

Maggie, who I kept reading as Mary Crawley, was a typical unlikeable rich girl with a bad attitude, and her character throughout the book only grows to be more unlikeable. I found it quite odd that she was introduced as the central character and then sidelined without much else from her perspective in the rest of the book. The twist at the end felt uncomfortable, given that it involved Mar-I mean Maggie showed very little signs of being changed by something that is life changing. Her new ‘maturity’ was not enough to convince me that she was anything but a child who the author used for a plot twist. I understand that if she had given away some more signs of bodily or emotional change the plot twist would have been too obvious. I greatly enjoyed the interspersed caricature newspaper publications that I imagined in the kind of stop-motion that Harry Potter used to convey the three deathly hallows story. If only the rest of the story had been that interesting!

I can’t give it the benefit of the doubt and say that perhaps I couldn’t like it as much because none of the characters were likable. Not even the maid, Nora. Divergent has many characters that I can’t identify with but I can still connect with the story and understand the reactions of the characters based on my understanding of their personalities. Unfortunately Wentworth Hall doesn’t have the same well thought out character development and so their actions as the story unfolds doesn’t meet with expectation.

Given that this is Grahame’s first attempt at writing a novel, I salute her caricatures and hope that she writes another book to show off the talents that she does have. Perhaps something that people won’t read with expectations of drawing similarities to tv shows.

three-stars_0

[Review] The Amaranth Enchantment by Julie Berry

The Amaranth Enchantment by Julie Berry

Published: 3 March 2009

Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing

Edition: U.S. Hardback

Summary: “When Lucinda Chapdelaine was a small child, her parents left for the royal ball and never returned. Ever since, Lucinda has been stuck in perpetual servitude at her evil aunt’s jewelry store. Then, on the very same day, a mysterious visitor and an even more bizarre piece of jewelry both enter the shop, setting in motion a string of twists and turns that will forever alter Lucinda’s path. In this magical story filled with delightful surprises, Lucinda will dance at the royal ball, fall under the Amaranth Witch’s spell, avenge her parents’ death, and maybe—just maybe—capture the heart of a prince.”

 

This gorgeous little book was probably on the younger end of YA, but sometimes you just need simpler books to remind you why young adult literature is so fascinating. Lucinda, a child who has been left with her uncle by marriage’s wife, is eager to escape her jail and find something meaningful to do with her life. When she meets the Prince of the land everything changes. 

While it was obvious that this book was a retelling of Cinderella, it was an intriguing twist on what we normally see in fairytale retellings. The evil that we expect to always remain evil turns out to be the result of evil being done to them, thus perpetuating evil. I won’t get into the details, since the book is quite simple and giving away anything would ruin the entire experience of reading it, I shall say that the messages conveyed in this book would make great reading for preteens to start getting into the heavier, more emotionally charged YA fiction. 

This book was written as a standalone but I hope that the author considers writing a companion book so that we might learn more about the life of the witch, from her perspective. In fact, it seemed that the real story lay with her character rather than with Lucinda who was almost like a secondary character when we discover the witch’s secret. 

Just like a fairytale, romance plays a large part in this book, and I’ll admit to reading this with great rapture when the Prince and Lucinda get off on the wrong foot, and keep missing each other’s cues, as in any good heart-wrenching romance. This book probably won’t appeal to boys, and given the rather feminine cover photo/illustration it wouldn’t surprise me if this was the publisher’s intention. 

The Amaranth Enchantment was a delightful first novel that I greatly enjoyed, and hope that many young girls give it a chance so that they too can be swept away into a world of Princes and life changing events. 

four stars

[Review] Divergent by Veronica Roth

divergentPublished: 3 May 2011

Publisher: Katherine Tegen Books

Edition: U.S. Paperback

Summary: “In Beatrice Prior’s dystopian Chicago, society is divided into five factions, each dedicated to the cultivation of a particular virtue–Candor (the honest), Abnegation (the selfless), Dauntless (the brave), Amity (the peaceful), and Erudite (the intelligent). On an appointed day of every year, all sixteen-year-olds must select the faction to which they will devote the rest of their lives. For Beatrice, the decision is between staying with her family and being who she really is–she can’t have both. So she makes a choice that surprises everyone, including herself.

During the highly competitive initiation that follows, Beatrice renames herself Tris and struggles to determine who her friends really are–and where, exactly, a romance with a sometimes fascinating, sometimes infuriating boy fits into the life she’s chosen. But Tris also has a secret, one she’s kept hidden from everyone because she’s been warned it can mean death. And as she discovers a growing conflict that threatens to unravel her seemingly perfect society, she also learns that her secret might help her save those she loves . . . or it might destroy her.”

After reading the Hunger Games I became skeptical of books that were subsequently published as Dystopian books. Twilight spurred a legion of badly written vampire books as publishers attempted to piggyback on the multi million dollar ride that Stephenie Meyer hit upon after her books rocketed into best seller lists all over the world. I admit seeing Divergent on bookshelves and avoiding it for this very reason. So after a long time after it was published I finally picked this incredible book up and gave it a shot. Boy was I wrong.

This book was a thrilling ride from beginning to end. I read it all within 24 hours which means that it is a winner. I am a naturally fast reader but only when the book I am reading is capturing my full attention. Unlike characters like Harry Potter and Bella Swan I didn’t identify with Tris’ character, which makes Roth’s attention to plot advancement a greater power in Divergent than any other young adult book I have read in awhile. While books like Harry Potter and Twilight pay closer attention to the interaction of characters, I felt more inclined to turn the page to find out what was happening in the world Roth created rather than to find out what would happen to Tris and her friends. True to Dystopian form, Tris Prior is a troubled soul in an even more troubled world. She doesn’t feel like she belongs, no matter where she is, and that is not just something common to teenagers who devour these YA books, it’s something that keeps adults picking up these books, and making YA books the biggest genre seller in bookstores.

Divergent, unlike the Hunger Games, relies on plot more than the romantic interactions of the characters. I found myself thinking about this while I was reading. Perhaps I am too romantic at the core, but I love it when a writer can make me care about the story over the relationships, because it means they have saved me from myself. I want to read books for the story, not for the lurch in my stomach when my two favorite characters kiss, but I am a girl and like many girls I have a weakness for romance. You won’t find too much of it in Divergent, but its use of it is strategic and just enough to keep girls satisfied while taking nothing from the integrity of the story.

Divergent painstakingly reveals that adults sometimes don’t know where they belong, and that no matter how hard you try, maybe you won’t belong in the society that you grew up in, or the one that you moved to, but that doesn’t mean that you are worse off. Instead of giving up, Tris fights to be a part of the people she has chosen to call family, and sees that belonging isn’t what she needs most, it’s being strong inside to face the situations where she is alienated.

My one little beef with this book was that the plot seemed to flow too easily, so that in some parts I wasn’t quite sure where I was or what just happened to lead us from one place to the other. Unlike Harry Potter where everything is strategically separated by the space of time and firmly concluded chapters, Divergent has many end of chapter cliff hangers that doesn’t allow the reader to take a break and digest what they have just read. Time is fluid and days pass without my realizing that is has – particularly toward the end of the book.

Overall the book will keep a reader engaged long enough for them to realize that this book is different from the usual sappy romantic books that they normally pick up when trying to find a great YA novel. This is refreshing and I’d love to thank Roth for turning away from the easy way to capture a reader’s attention and actually writing a book that is worth reading for its story rather the its romantic side plot.

4.5stars

[Review] Forbidden by Syrie James and Ryan M. James

Published: 24 January 2012

Publisher: HarperTeen

Edition: Australian Paperback

Summary: “She should not exist. He should not love her. Claire Brennan has been attending Emerson Academy for two years now (the longest she and her mom have remained anywhere) and she’s desperate to stay put for the rest of high school. So there’s no way she’s going to tell her mom about the psychic visions she’s been having or the creepy warnings that she’s in danger. Alec MacKenzie is fed up with his duties to watch and, when necessary, eliminate the descendants of his angelic forefathers. He chose Emerson as the ideal hiding place where he could be normal for once. He hadn’t factored Claire into his plans. . . . Their love is forbidden, going against everything Alec has been taught to believe. But when the reason behind Claire’s unusual powers is revealed and the threat to her life becomes clear, how far will Alec go to protect her?”

I recently read on someone’s wordpress blog that rather than reviewing books they didn’t like, people should only recommend the books they did like. While that is a simplistically positive way of reading books I think it’s still important to discuss and share your opinions about the books you didn’t like. Imagine if an absolutely awful racist, homophobic, sexist book was published and nobody wrote a negative review about it. How many people would go and buy it? How many readers would have to suffer through its nonsense? That is an extreme example but I want to make a point that you are not a negative person if you share a negative opinion about something. We are all individuals with different opinions and it would be magnificently harder to live in a society where we could not share what we think with everybody else. I’m not saying we should rip apart the books we hate with a knife because I’m naive enough to think that there’s always something positive you can say about a book. And I am absolutely not condoning personal attacks against the authors. They’re people too and just because you don’t like their work doesn’t mean other people don’t love it too.

This is a pretty heavy handed way to start a book review. First let me say that I borrowed Forbidden from my local library for two reasons: The cover is beautiful and I have read Syrie James’ Jane Austen book and loved it. As you may have caught on from my preface I did not like that book. In fact I couldn’t even finish it. I have mixed feelings about reviewing a book I haven’t completed so to calm you dissenters I will say that I am only reviewing what I read which was about 50% of the book.

I deeply disliked the similarities between Forbidden and Twilight. I would love to know how the authors and the editor didn’t pick up on the disturbing likeness or worse yet whether they deliberately wanted the similarity in the hope of catching the money of young Twilight fangirls. This was the main reason I had to stop reading the book. Claire (who we should name Bella as they’re the same character)  plays the pathetically hopeless part of a girl so utterly ‘selfless’ that she barely understands that she’s the hot stuff every boy in school wants. I’m not sure if I’ve ever known any girl to be so blind when a boy is interested in them, let alone several, and it bothers me that books like Twilight and Forbidden are teaching girls that feigning ignorance about their beauty is attractive. Or even worse that if they only open their eyes they’ll see that every boy wants them. In reality this isn’t the case, and I challenge anybody to prove that I am wrong. Of course Claire is also vastly intelligent as well as beautiful so really I am not surprised at the lack of interest this character had for me. Why couldn’t Claire be intelligent and look average? Because that doesn’t sell. As a reader we live vicariously through the hero and Claire must make us feel beautiful and smart, and every bit as perfect as we wish we could be. (Or so these books suggest.) Twilight at least had an interesting love story and an acceptable plot. Forbidden lacks the imagination and the characters are left reaching for attention rather than holding us captive like Bella and Edward did.

I tried, I really did, and according to the ratings on Goodreads apparently I’m in the minority. But take it from a girl who actually loved Twilight, this book is a cheap copy and it annoys me that publishers are still grasping at straws to recreate its popularity. I would rather read something new than something chewed twice.

[Review] Perks of Being A Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky

Published: 1 February 1999

Publisher: MTV Books and Pocket Books

Edition: Australian Paperback

Summary: “Standing on the fringes of life… offers a unique perspective. But there comes a time to see what it looks like from the dance floor. This haunting novel about the dilemma of passivity vs. passion marks the stunning debut of a provocative new voice in contemporary fiction: The Perks of Being a Wallflower. This is the story of what it’s like to grow up in high school. More intimate than a diary, Charlie’s letters are singular and unique, hilarious and devastating. We may not know where he lives. We may not know to whom he is writing. All we know is the world he shares. Caught between trying to live his life and trying to run from it puts him on a strange course through uncharted territory. The world of first dates and mixed tapes, family dramas and new friends. The world of sex, drugs, and The Rocky Horror Picture Show, when all one requires is that perfect song on that perfect drive to feel infinite.” 

It’s difficult to review a book so renowned by readers when I only just heard about it and read it after learning that Emma Watson would be starring in something called The Perks of Being a Wallflower. Perhaps I had never come across it because I went to school and live in Australia. Reading this book was therefore a lesson in American culture and lifestyle as much as it taught me about the adolescence of American teens in the 90s.

I read the book in one sitting and found the prose both difficult and appealing to read. Charlie’s voice strengthens and matures as his experiences with new friends open him to a world of sex, drugs, music and parties. Maybe I matured a bit later but I don’t remember high school being so exciting. I never came across drugs and the parties in Chbosky’s book made me wonder whether all American teens’ parents are trusting enough to be absent from the parties and the drug/alcohol consumption. I don’t want to sound like a prude though so I will move on from those thoughts.

Charlie’s abnormality was apparent to me early on in the text, but I have to say it came as a big shock to find out what exactly had happened in his past to make him so… unusual. If I could have placed a bet I would have put my money on Charlie being autistic. His intelligence, matched with emotional and social immaturity screamed autistic to me, but I was wrong. This was my biggest problem with Perks. I felt that Chbosky spent a lot of time proving to the reader that Charlie was smart to the point of being gifted. By the end of the text I wonder why this was so important. His experiences at a social scale make sense to me because we see the journey this boy goes through as he experiments with love and drugs. As readers we can connect with Charlie as we too remember our first crush, our first love, the time we felt alone, the time we made friends, and when we lied to our parents. The scene between Charlie and his teacher when he goes to visit his teacher’s home was both sweet and awkward. Was is to show the reader that Charlie isn’t a completely hopeless character? That the antisocial kids are smart and that we shouldn’t judge them upfront for being socially awkward? It all felt a little cliche.

I did enjoy reading Perks and I can’t wait to see the movie, if only to see what they change from the book. I guess my reluctance to fully appreciate and love this book has to do with the social differences. It was very American and I am obviously not. But I can appreciate how people in the U.S. believe that Perks ‘speaks to them’ and offers them a glimpse back in time when they were in high school.

[Review] Shadowfell by Juliet Marillier

Shadowfell by Juliet Marillier

Published: 1 July, 2012

Publisher: Pan Macmillan Australia

Edition: Australian Paperback

Summary: “The people of Alban are afraid. The tyrannical king and his masked Enforcers are scouring the land, burning villages and enslaving the canny. Fifteen-year-old Neryn has fled her home in the wake of its destruction, and is alone and penniless, hiding her extraordinary magical power. She can rely on no one – not even the elusive Good Folk who challenge and bewilder her with their words.When an enigmatic stranger saves her life, Neryn and the young man called Flint begin an uneasy journey together. She wants to trust Flint but how can she tell who is true in this land of evil? For Neryn has heard whisper of a mysterious place far away: a place where rebels are amassing to free the land and end the King’s reign. A place called Shadowfell. A story of courage, hope, danger and love from one of the most compelling fantasy storytellers.”

***

I should preface this review with my love for Juliet Marillier’s writing. I have been a fan of her books ever since I picked up a second-hand copy of Daughter of the Forest (Sevenwaters #1). The way she built an intricate fantasy world and filled it with complex characters spawned my desire to write. In fact I wrote my one and only fan letter to Juliet when I was 15 years old. She responded kindly and told me to continue to write while also pursuing a career such as teaching or editing. Wise words for any young budding writing. I’ve gone on to read several of her other published works but my favourites are her young adult books: Wildwood Dancing and its sequel Cybele’s Secret. So needless to say when I learnt that Marillier was writing not one, but three new young adult books I was very excited.

From the very first chapter the reader becomes immersed in a corrupt world where magic has been suppressed, killed and forced into hiding while the King surrounds himself in a protection of the magic that he has sought to destroy. It is an interesting concept to think about. While Rowling’s magical world brought to life a dark group of wizards who wanted to use their powers to control and suppress non-magical folk, Marillier’s world has evil controlling magic as a safety measure against people who never sought to overthrow the King. The reader learns of this world through the eyes of Neryn, whose magical abilities are revealed gradually through the book. The first chapter deals with the repercussions of the destruction the King has made to families throughout the Kingdom. Neryn’s father, the only family she has left in the world, has been driven mad by the loss of his son and wife. The King is burning villages to the ground and hunting any person found to be consorting with magical creatures or possessing magical abilities themselves. Throughout Neryn’s journey we learn that there can only be two resolutions for this kingdom: death or a war using magic to save the existance of magic. Ironically this means that the King will have created the path to his own destruction. (Or perhaps his followers will have the ability to overthrow the rebellion.) In any case Shadowfell was a compelling story that I look forward to reading again before the sequels are published.

As with most young adult book we have a small love story that also spices up the plot. I don’t want to give away any spoilers but the last few pages of Shadowfell will get some hearts thumping and craving the next book in the Shadowfell series. (Next year!!)

At the moment Shadowfell has a 4.04 Goodreads star rating. I give it a 5. It’s a beautiful book that has all the elements of a proper fantasy novel without the sappy shortcomings of some YA books, a page-turner to give your imagination a hearty stir and a plot that’ll keep you interested until the very last page.

[Review] The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling

The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling

Published: 27 September 2012

Publisher: Little, Brown Company

Edition: Australian Hardback

Summary: “When Barry Fairbrother dies in his early forties, the town of Pagford is left in shock. Pagford is, seemingly, an English idyll, with a cobbled market square and an ancient abbey, but what lies behind the pretty façade is a town at war. Rich at war with poor, teenagers at war with their parents, wives at war with their husbands, teachers at war with their pupils…Pagford is not what it first seems. And the empty seat left by Barry on the parish council soon becomes the catalyst for the biggest war the town has yet seen. Who will triumph in an election fraught with passion, duplicity and unexpected revelations?
The Casual Vacancy is J.K. Rowling’s first novel for adults.”

***

First there is something that you must know, before you go out to read The Casual Vacancy, and that is that this book is an adult book. Not just an adult book that you will find in the general fiction area of your local bookstore or library but an adult book containing adult content that you would not want your thirteen-year-old sister reading. J.K. Rowling has set aside her magic wand and delved into the world of a small town named Pagford where the poor expect a drastically reduced life expectancy and where the rich, or rather ‘comfortably affluent’ live for the challenge of being better than their neighbour.

Upon opening the book I was a little thrown by the difference in style. No matter how many times reviewers and Rowling forewarned us to expect an adult novel from the greatest children’s book author of all time, actually reading this magnificently diverse book was a different kettle of fish altogether. I am 22 years old, about the average age of the first generation of Harry Potter fans, and therefore in the grouping of people who went early to the bookstore on Septermber 27th and immediately bought a copy. Having read the book in two days I can say with absolute certainty that if you are in your early 20s you can read this book and take some powerful messages from it.If you are younger then probably not, if you are older then you should give it a try too!

I can’t say that I enjoyed it exactly. I would liken it to reading a biography about a person struck by some terrible disease or misfortune. You don’t enjoy books like that but you find them interesting and worth reading because they say something about life and the human body. Essentially The Casual Vacancy drew me in because it offers up a truthful piece of our existence on this earth. I don’t and have never lived in a small English town but we have all known our fair share of the Mollisons and the Princes. I was particularly struck by the character of Simon Prince, who I believe is someone we would all not admit to knowing in real life but probably do. The tragic thing about this book is that while these characters seem to live dull, absurdly selfish lives they ring true to the kind of mundane existence many of us lead. If we are not trying to be better than our neighbour, we are trying to be better than our friends, or family or workmates. I can’t tell you how many fully grown adults I know that consciously or subconsciously spend every hour of their day gloating about themselves, trying to do things to make people believe they are ‘coming up the social ladder’ and always offering up a story that can beat the one you just told. We are all guilty of this and Rowling artfully weaves through a host of characters who are guilty of many things of which conceit is one.

Unlike Harry Potter, The Casual Vacancy deals with sexuality in an upfront and explicit manner that I found rather refreshing. Sexual acts and desires are so often hidden away in books and films because it is not considered ‘appropriate’ but most of us are sexual beings who have desires from teenagehood and sometimes earlier. The sexual awakening of teenagers is a topic that I think everybody will relate to when reading this book, wondering perhaps, ‘How did J.K. Rowling know the thoughts I had when I was fifteen?’. Drugs and the affect they have on disadvantaged families is one of the strongest messages that you will take from the book. Characters such as Krystal and her mother will have you swinging from feelings of disgust to feelings of pity. The exploitation and dreadful existence of the poor and drug abused lead to some tragic endings that will leave you in tears within the last 50 pages of the book. The sad truth is that stories such as Krystal’s are unfolding every day.

I can’t say that it wasn’t a struggle to get through the book, although I did finish within 48 hours, it is slow-going. The characters are all flawed and it is hard to care when the reader doesn’t have a ‘hero’ to cling onto. But for those in the process of reading and thinking of giving up, I urge you to hold on until the last 50 pages because the events that transpire will make the journey worth it.

[Review] Seraphina by Rachel Hartman + Free Prequel!

Seraphina by Rachel Hartman

Published: 10 July, 2012

Publisher: Random House Children’s Books

Edition: Kindle

Summary: “Four decades of peace have done little to ease the mistrust between humans and dragons in the kingdom of Goredd. Folding themselves into human shape, dragons attend court as ambassadors, and lend their rational, mathematical minds to universities as scholars and teachers. As the treaty’s anniversary draws near, however, tensions are high.

Seraphina Dombegh has reason to fear both sides. An unusually gifted musician, she joins the court just as a member of the royal family is murdered—in suspiciously draconian fashion. Seraphina is drawn into the investigation, partnering with the captain of the Queen’s Guard, the dangerously perceptive Prince Lucian Kiggs. While they begin to uncover hints of a sinister plot to destroy the peace, Seraphina struggles to protect her own secret, the secret behind her musical gift, one so terrible that its discovery could mean her very life.”

***

I adore the fantasy fiction, whether it be written for children, young adults or adults, but it is hard to come across a fantasy book that breathes fresh air into this very worn genre. We’ve had vampires, werewolves, wizards, elves, hobbits, unicorns and even dragons, but we haven’t had dragons like the ones we are introduced to in Rachel Hartman’s Seraphina. I was fortunate enough to read this book via Netgalley a few months ago and it is quite simply fantastic! Not to spoil anything but as soon as you read the opening lines you will want to keep reading. So Seraphina is an intelligent and musically talented woman who lives in the fantastical medieval land of Goredd, which is celebrating 40-year anniversary of its peace treaty with the nation of dragons. She has a dangerous secret, one which is treated and maintained almost like a mental illness, something I dwelled upon a lot even after I discovered this interesting part of her character.

The hard thing about fantasy books is that you really have to learn a lot about the world, while simultaneously following the plot development of the hero/ine. Books like Harry Potter simplify matters by starting with a character needing to learn about the world at the same pace as the reader. For example Harry learns he is a wizard, and through his eyes we become acquainted with Hogwarts and the rest of the wizarding world. But then there are books like Seraphina in which the character is already established in this fantasy world and we have to pick up clues about the world through snatches of the story. This is much harder for the reader and requires a skilled author to balance description and plot developement. Rachel Hartman wins for one of the best Young Adult authors this year. While I found it a bit difficult to fully grasp what was going on at the beginning of the story it didn’t take long to catch up on the history and events and get on board with Seraphina’s personal journey of self-discovery.

The beauty of this story lays with the readers slow discovery of who and what Seraphina is, so I won’t spoil it for those of you who have not read it, but what makes Seraphina such a captivating character is predominantly the vivid landscape of her mind. I thought to myself as I read Hartman’s descriptions of Seraphina’s mind gardening – what strange creatures are lurking in my own personal mind garden? Do I have ugly little beasts that need to be controlled? Are we all a little wild inside?

What else is there to love about this book? DRAGONS! But maybe not the kind of dragons you are expecting… These dragons are intelligent, and can transform into human form (but then need to be trained into civility like a baby does in becoming a mature adult). I found the whole idea very interesting. We’ve had dragons in many fantasy novels. Game of Thrones anyone? But not quite like this. If humans can turn into animals like the animagi of the Harry Potter world then why can’t animals turn into humans? It’s an interesting idea that is explored with the kind of political and racial upheaval that you would expect in a world where two different species are trying to co-exist.

All in all, Seraphina was a very well written, imaginative and interesting story that will be enjoyable to any reader that has a passion for fantasy.

Seraphina is the first of a trilogy, with the next book expected to be published in 2013. In the meantime Rachel Hartman has released a FREE prequel that you can enjoy right here!