Friday, 29 May 2015

We Are All Made of Molecules, Susin Nielsen

Pages: 306
Publisher: Andersen Press
Release Date: 30th April 2015
Edition: UK hardback, purchased

There are two sides to every story…

Meet Stewart. He’s geeky, gifted but socially clueless. His mom has died and he misses her every day.

Meet Ashley. She’s popular, cool but her grades stink. Her dad’s come out and moved out – but not far enough.

Their worlds are about to collide: Stewart and his dad are moving in with Ashley and her mom. Stewart is trying to be 89.9% happy about it even as he struggles to fit in at his new school. But Ashley is 100% horrified and can’t get used to her completely awkward home, which is now filled with some rather questionable décor. And things are about to get a whole lot more mixed up when these two very different people attract the attention of school junk Jared…

Hysterically funny, tender and offbeat, We Are All Made of Molecules is about first impressions, false impressions and totally making the wrong impression.

Ever since the first proof copies started coming through letterboxes, all I’ve heard about We Are All Made of Molecules is how beautiful and sweet and funny it is. It’s all true.

Stewart and Ashley couldn’t be more different and now they’re under the same roof and their parents are madly in love. Stewart is 13 and he’s Gifted. He’s polite, kind, insanely clever and tells a great geeky joke. Ashley is 14. She’s the queen bee of her grade, has the perfect wardrobe and her sights on the gorgeous new boy. Unsurprisingly, they clash big time.

I actually really loved both characters. At first I was expecting to really dislike Ashley – she’s mean and angry and selfish, but she’s a 14 and that’s HARD. She’s struggling with her parents’ split, she’s angry at Stewart and his dad for moving in, she struggles at school (academia isn’t her thing) and she’s fighting to stay at the top of the social ladder, pushing her friends down before they can topple her. And she has a huge crush, as well. I really felt for her. Ashley isn’t inherently mean, she just has a lot to deal with and she does that in the wrong way, but she’s hurting and it makes sense.

Ashley’s situation became even more important as she started seeing the aforementioned new boy, Jared. Even though he’d been bullying Stewart, Ashley becomes immediately wrapped up in him, until the cracks start to show. He’s pushy and forceful, he’s cruel, he’s homophobic and a complete shit. I loved how Jared’s actions demonstrated so clearly that Ashley wasn’t mean at heart – she just made a fair few mistakes – whereas Jared is disgusting. I hated the way that Ashley let him get way with in the beginning as that’s what she was supposed to do. It made my heart ache. Luckily, Stewart was able to sweep in.

Early in his school career, Stewart had been moved to a school designed specifically to cope with his advanced intelligence and lack of social skills, but real high school is a jungle. And yet he stayed true to himself and fought for his friends and his new family. I definitely think this difference has to do with intelligence, but also in socialisation of gender – boys can generally get away with being a little weird, for girls like Ashley, that’s social suicide. He knew what Jared was doing and saying was wrong and he acted on it. He defended the girl that had been nothing but mean to him since he moved in because it was the right thing to do.

Against all of the struggles with moving from his childhood home and forging a new family, Stewart is also grieving the loss of his mother still. The guilt he felt at moving into Caroline and Ashley’s house and putting his old life into storage tore at my heart – I really do understand how that feels – and how he felt the need to take a few minutes every day just to think or her and remember her, wrapped in her old afghan broke my heart. Losing a parent is impossibly difficult and moving onto new parts of your life without them is even harder in some ways. I think Susin Nielsen’s depiction of grief was picture perfect and she turned Stewart’s love and grief for his mum into something so lovely and so sad. So wonderfully done.

This review is both a bit rambly and a bit vague, but what I’m trying to say is that We Are All Made of Molecules is a sweet, funny, touching and incredibly important book. It’s a story of family, friendship and being brave enough to stand up for yourself and those you love.


Thursday, 28 May 2015

Little Black Classics

In February of this year Penguin celebrated their 80th birthday and launch the Little Black Classics – 80 pocket-sized paperbacks at 80p each. They span thousands of years of literature, every genre, every form, every style and every continent. And I think they’re pretty great.

Classics can sometimes feel impenetrable. You can fall in love the a story you read in a retelling, see on stage or watch in an adaptation so picking up the book seems like the perfect idea. Then you find out it is 500 pages long and the language is a little trickier to read than it is to hear and see. That’s where the LBCs come in for me.

These snippets of literature are no longer than 50 pages long. Inside their covers are small collections of poetry, letters, short stories and other stories so short they could be considered flash fiction! They give you a brief glimpse into the style of an author and allow to get to know them before you commit to the real thing. I found this with The Reckoning by Edith Wharton. I really love the titles of Wharton’s full-length novels – The Age of Innocence, The House of Mirth, Ethan Frome – and that’s attracted me to her as a writer, but I really knew nothing of her style of writing or the stories she was compelled to tell. But in No.48 I found two short stories – Mrs Mantsey’s Window and The Reckoning – two very different stories from different times in her career. I discovered her themes of marriage and independence; her progressive ideas; her beautiful, vivid writing and her satire and I’ve now got a few of her novels in my Amazon basket! Those 45 minutes I spent checking out her work took me from vague interest to wanting to buy her books.

But at the same time, they also allow you to read and own favourite poems and stories without buying several full collections. During my A-levels I studied the Victorian poet Christina Rossetti, the sister of the famous member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Her tales of broken and tricked women and the prices they have paid for being seen as possessing original sin and living in a man’s world are wrapped up in fairytales and folk tales and obscure extended metaphors that allowed her to get away with publication in the mid-1800s. I fell in love with her poems, but I have struggled to find nice editions of her collections and that has meant that I haven’t read much beyond the AQA syllabus. This collection gave me 18 poems and I’d only read the title one, Goblin Market – it expanded my experience of this poet and now I’ll be looking even harder to find nice editions of her full collections. There a few better places to retreat into on a lunch break, a bus rid or on a short train journey than into the imagination of Christina Rossetti!

For me, one of the best things about the Little Black Classics series is that it has allowed me take a glimpse into legendary authors and famous stories that I’m a little intimidated by otherwise. Edgar Allan Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart is beloved by many and most people know at least a little of the story, but it was still so much more than I expected! At only nine pages, the story was quick, intense and the tension was incredibly high. I loved it. No.31 also features two other stories, the longer The Fall of the House of Usher and another 10-page punch, The Cask of Amontillado. It turns out that I prefer his shorter stories with their intensity and the crazy atmosphere, but all of his stories seem to feature death, murder, guilt and madness so now I know what to expect and what to look for from an author with a hugely extensive backlist. Now I can stride confidently into the dark, twisted mind of Poe with confidence.

I love this series. I think they’re a fantastic collection for every bookshelf – I want them all, to be honest. They really do make classics accessible for every budget and every timescale.

Have you read any of these? Do you have a favourite Little Black Classics? Any you’ve got your eye on?


Wednesday, 27 May 2015

The It Girl, Katy Birchall

Pages: 344
Publisher: Egmont
Release Date: 7th May 2015
Edition: UK paperback, review copy

Anna Huntley’s aims in life:

1. To recreate famous film scenes with Dog (her pet Labrador) such as the lift from The Lion King during that ‘Circle of Life’ song.

2. To not accidentally set Deputy Queen Bee Josie Graham’s hair on fire (again).

3. To keep her very first and only two school friends by not doing anything in her usual manner of socially inept dork and outcast.

4. To find out if points 1 and 2 constitute being socially inept – or outcastish.

5. To find a cupboard to hide in with Dog (preferably for life) after her dad gets engaged to one of the most famous actresses ever, the paparazzi move in and the whole world is on the brink of discovering why no one wants to be friends with Anna…

I honestly didn’t have any expectations of The It Girl other than that it was supposed to be funny, and boy was it! It was exactly what I needed.

When I picked up Katy Birchall’s debut, I was in the middle of a classic novel that I’m trudging through and after a string of distinctly ‘meh’ novels that I wasn’t too bothered by. Then Anna came stumbling into my life, being dragged along by Dog and I didn’t stop smiling until I finished reading. She’s a delight to read about. A propensity for setting things on fire, saying stupid things and generally embarrassing herself, Anna is the spirit animal of most teenage girls. Marvel, movies and her Labrador Dog are her favourite things in the world and she’s genuinely worried that if she doesn’t start being cool her only two friends will ditch her.

This only intensifies after her dad reveals that he’s engaged to a legendary movie star and ends up in close proximity to her It Girl daughter, Marianne, and her failings are displayed in the papers. I think that it would have been really easy to put the novel’s conflict in the introduction of Helena and Marianne or between Anna’s mum and dad and I’m so glad it wasn’t that way. I loved that though they aren’t together, Anna’s parents are best friends and together with the Montaines, they make a family. I love that in The It Girl a disjointed and unconventional family doesn’t make an unhappy one, in fact, it’s the opposite. I really loved the ragtag group they made and the genuine affection that built between them, especially between Anna and Marianne.

Marianne is a party girl. She’s beautiful and poised and she is often splashed across newspapers and magazines doing something extremely cool. Who wouldn’t be intimidated by that?! I really liked that we got to see underneath that aspect of Marianne and that she even hinted at the difficult parts of being constantly in the spotlight – it humanised her so much and really made me cheer on her friendship with Anna.

Friendship in general is a huge part of this novel; it’s one of the reasons why I enjoyed it so much! Anna only moved to London a year or so ago and she was pretty much a loner until Jess and Danny swept her under their wings. I really liked their little group. Though Danny is a tad underdeveloped, he had some really nice input when Anna really messed up with Jess. But Jess is brilliant. She’s the best friend every teenager needs: funny, loyal and loves you even when you admit to dancing with a balloon at a school dance. The real strength in their friendship came about when it was threatened, however. In a classic teen movie fashion, Anna new status as an It Girl drew the most popular girl in school to try and get what she could out of Anna. Sophie is your average catty, needlessly mean popular girl and Anna couldn’t quite see that she was being used, but Jess could. Though she warned Anna about it gently, she wasn’t mean about, she didn’t ditch her, she just waited for Anna to wise up to it. That to me is genuine friendship and it was so lovely to see.

Tied into the theme of friendship is the idea of embracing who you are. Jess and Danny love Anna for who she is, and so do her family, but it’s not quite good enough for Anna at first. It’s natural to want to be at the top of the high school food chain, but it’s not at it’s cracked up to be. I really enjoyed seeing Anna realise that she actually had it really freaking good with her friends and family – she didn’t need to be popular after all. I think this is so important for teenagers to learn – in fact, I need to learn it! – and Anna is the perfect character to deliver that message with charm and humour.

The It Girl is a charming, funny story of friendship and embracing who you are. I’m so looking forward to more from Anna.

Thanks to Egmont for the review copy!


Tuesday, 26 May 2015

Blast From the Past: Little Women

Originally published in 1868-9 by the Roberts Brothers

My edition: the beautiful Penguin Clothbound Classics hardcover – surprised, right?

What’s it about?
Meg, Jo, Amy and Beth – the four ‘little women’ enduring hardships and enjoying adventures in Civil War New England. The charming story of the March sisters, Little Women has been adored by generations. Readers have rooted for Laurie in pursuit of Jo’s hand, cried over little Beth, and dreamed of traveling through Europe with old Aunt March and Amy. Future writers have found inspiration in Jo’s devotion to her writing. I this simple, enthralling tale, Louisa May Alcott has created four of American’s literature’s most beloved women.

Why now?
The need to finally read this has been niggling since Christmas when hoardes of people on my Twitter feed were having their yearly comfort Christmas re-read. I needed to know what I was missing!

The verdict:
I have to admit that this is perhaps my least favourite classic of the year so far. Being beloved by legions I was expecting to fall head over heels in love with the March sisters, but it fell a little short for me.

From the very beginning, Amy, Jo, Beth and Amy are very distinct and different: Amy is a little selfish and obsessed with society; Jo is a writer, an adventurer and a tomboy; Beth is the youngest, quiet, sweet and happy and Meg is fed up being poor and wants to be a part of fashionable society. Keeping them under control is the seemingly perfect Mrs March and their housekeeper Hannah who is pretty much a part of the family. Mr March is off fighting in the American Civil War. Jo was my immediate favourite. She sees beyond the confines of her sex and wants every freedom that boys have. And she can’t understand why she shouldn’t. I love that she’s a reader and a writer and wants to go on epic adventures, all while not having a romantic bone in her body. She’s a breath of fresh air. With the exception of Beth – who could dislike Beth?! – I found the other three March sisters pretty annoying, if I had feelings about them at all!

I think my feelings around their characters may have something to do with how they were used by Alcott. Every character in this novel has a distinct fault and Alcott uses these faults or quirks to preach morality and values, even to the cost of the girls’ dreams and personalities. Preachiness is one of my pet peeves. You can deliver values and morality in a way that isn’t glaring in your face and I think they’re more effective. I know this was written in the late 1860s and for children, it still didn’t sit right with me.

Jo was the balance of the two themes in the novel, I feel. She was the March sister who desired the most independence, the most ‘unfeminine’ things, the one who didn’t want marriage and babies and the keep house but she was still loyal and loving to her family, worked hard and looked after those she loved. She was my very favourite from beginning to end. That’s why the whole Laurie debacle made me ragey. I knew from just being in the literary world that Laurie married another of the sisters instead of Jo, but I was still desperately hoping that I had remembered wrong. As Jo and Laurie grew up together and experienced more I felt like they were moving towards it and ripping them apart was cruel. I almost felt like it was Alcott’s punishment to Jo for being so against what a women should want out of life that she doesn’t get the rich, charming, beautiful boy who understands and loves her completely as her husband. I feel that if Jo wasn’t to marry Laurie then she should have stuck to her guns and not married at all. And I really didn’t like the Amy/Laurie match – it didn’t feel as genuine as what I’d seen build for 350 pages. I was quite cross. Though everyone got a happy ever after, though very realistically, not the happy ever after they all desired, I felt that Jo almost wasn’t done justice in her ending and that feeling is the only thing that makes me want to read Little Men. I need to know that Jo is really, genuinely happy with Mr Baer and that Laurie made the right choice about Amy.

The subjects of marriage, love, family and poverty are the main themes in Little Women and the way they approached changed and altered over the course of the novel. This story does span around 20-odd years after all! Though I loved watching Meg soften, Amy sharpen, Jo turn into a confident, hardworking young woman and Laurie transform into, well, an older charmer really, I much preferred part one of the novel. The friendships and games and trials and tribulations of childhood and their teenage years were ironed out in the second half of the novel when it became clear that the March sisters were becoming women and had to start acting like it. Though I understand that marriage really was one of the only ways for a woman to have a secure life, it still made me thoroughly sad as they began to almost groom themselves for it, although Jo was traditionally late to the party, of course.

Sadly, Little Women wasn’t for me. I had none of the nostalgia for the story or the March sisters and I became really frustrated by the preaching of Louisa Mae Alcott and the injustices towards Jo. But I am glad I read it, if only for Jo and Laurie.

Still not convinced?
- It’s a treasured novel from childhood and early teens for many, many book lovers.
- You need to know whether you’re a Jo, an Amy, a Meg or a Beth.
- The trauma of the Jo and Laurie saga is something you need to experience.


Monday, 25 May 2015

City of Fae, Pippa DaCosta

Pages: 336
Publisher: Bloomsbury Spark
Release Date: 7th May 2015
Edition: UK e-proof, NetGalley review copy

From the moment Alina touches London’s hottest fae superstar, breaking one of the laws founded to protect her kind, her fate – and the fae – close in.

Below ground, the fae High Queen plots to claim the city as her own and places her pawns, ready for the battle to come. A battle she cannot lose, but for one small problem – Alina. There are four ancient keepers powerful enough to keep the queen in her prison. Three are dead. One remains… And to fight back, Alina risks everything she has come to love.

This new adult urban fantasy is packed with action and suspense and will have you yearning for more forbidden fae romance.

I’ve come to associate Bloomsbury Sparks with quick, fun and lively novels and City of Fae met those expectations perfectly.

From the very start, Alina’s story throws up mysteries and questions, all surrounding a gorgeous fae rockstar. What has Reign done? Why are the authorities after him? And what on Earth does it have to do with her?! Answers are drip fed as Alina gets to know Reign a little more and discovers more about the deadly fae. In the 70s, the fae came out to the rest of the world and though there are government warnings and laws to keep humans safe, the fae are beautiful and dangerous and endlessly alluring.

The mythology that Pippa Dacosta wove around Reign and the fae was really, really interesting. It’s nothing I’ve ever read before and I loved how completely original it felt. The fae need draíocht to survive and humans are a plentiful resource. The draíocht can be leached from humans by a single touch, but a few too many times and the human becomes bespelled – they’re pretty much high and addicted to the fae who drew their draíocht. This is a risk that Alina dances around for the entire novel, bringing her growing attraction to Reign into question as dangerous situations bring them closer and closer. I really loved the high strung tension between them and the pure risk of them helping each other; it made me race through the novel.

As Reign and Alina become more and more entangled, so does the world Alina thought she knew. Though there is the fantasy staple of the heroine not being quite who she thought she was, I did enjoy the direction it went in. I loved that Alina didn’t like what she discovered, that it wasn’t all good and the high stakes that were placed on her shoulders didn’t feel forced; she was an unfortunate pawn in a centuries old game. Alina’s newfound knowledge led us deeper into the mythology of faerie, giving us a glimpse into the reality of the fae and where they came from as well as why they opened themselves up to humans in the 70s.  

City of Fae is a fun, original and sparky debut and I hope I get to see more of this world.

Thanks to NetGalley and Bloomsbury Spark for the review copy.