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As American as a Patchwork Quilt: A Spool of Blue Thread

A Spool of Blue ThreadA Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler

The Whitshanks are one of those families that radiate togetherness: an indefinable, enviable kind of specialness. But they are also like all families, in that the stories they tell themselves reveal only part of the picture. Abby and Red and their four grown children have accumulated not only tender moments, laughter, and celebrations, but also jealousies, disappointments, and carefully guarded secrets.

First Impressions: To me the opening scenes with the phone call felt a bit farcical and staged, like I was watching a mid 20th century stage play. I didn’t necessarily dislike this but it did make the book feel as if it had been published a few decades ago. This is typical of Tyler so I wasn’t surprised.

Highlights: The story of surrounding Stem, one of the sons, was intriguing and heartbreaking in measure. The novel followed many strands of the family story and it all tied together well. It is definitely a literary novel rather than a ‘family saga’ despite the fact it follows the same family over a few generations.

If I was an editor: The first thing that would leap out at me is just how similar this novel is in feel and plot to other Anne Tyler novels. This isn’t necessarily a negative as the formula works and it’s a comfortable read with a timeless American (Baltimorean) story. I went through an Anne Tyler phase a few years ago (a big shelf in my local library) and while I enjoyed all the novels and appreciated her plotting and characterisation, they never really grabbed at my heart and affected me. I found A Spool of Blue Thread to be the same; enjoyable but it did not leave a lingering impression.

Overall: A pleasurable read. Perhaps not contemporary enough to win the Bailey’s Prize.

A Spool of Blue Thread: 3 stars

Thank you to Random House (Vintage) for a copy of the title to review.

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Suburban Outworkers: Laurinda

LaurindaLaurinda by Alice Pung

Laurinda is an exclusive school for girls and it is dominated by three perfect specimens who go by the name of the Cabinet. Lucy Lam wins an inaugural academic scholarship. She is the daugter of immigrants anad lives in a working class suburb. Much to her surprise she becomes privy to the Cabinet’s secrets.

First Impressions: This is very readable and I regretted starting it late in the evening. Although it is a book for young adults there is much appeal to adults in the author’s mature writing style. It also means she is not patronising her target audience.

Highlights: I enjoyed the descriptions of Lucy’s suburb and home life. It’s like looking in a secret door to a part of Australia not everyone sees. The Laurinda mother ‘adopting’ Lucy as a sort of exotic Eliza Doolittle was a little uncomfortable at times but it never became too much; it no doubt shadows some common assumptions. Overall Laurinda is a really good story and it doesn’t feel like a YA novel, particularly as it isn’t marred by dramatic romance! This means the story stays true to the characters as I can’t imagine Lucy’s parents agreeing to her dating! The way the students interact with their teachers is unpleasant yet accurate.

If I was an editor: I would wonder at Lucy being offered a scholarship based only on an exam with no preliminary interview. I doubt the offer would come via a letter as surely there’d be a phone call for something so prestigious to the school? Also, Lucy not turning up to weekend sport would surely be taken more seriously as she is a scholarship student. However, I am sure most people would not be alarmed by these points and to elaborate on all of this would no doubt hinder the flow of the story!

Overall: The current generation’s Alibrandi.

Laurinda: 5 stars

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Retro Read #1: People Might Hear You

 People Might Hear You by Robin Klein

 

I became obsessed with this novel when I first discovered it as a young teen and was shocked to see it was no longer in publication! At the risk of ruining some nostalgia from childhood I sought out a second hand copy to see if it lived up to my memories now that I am an adult.

After her guardian aunt marries the forbidding Mr Tyrell, twelve-year-old Frances is introduced to the mysterious temple and its strange fanatical beliefs. Mr Tyrell makes it impossible for his family to have contact with the outside world and Frances’ new stepsisters keep imploring her to remain quiet at all times otherwise ‘people might hear you’.

First Impressions: Although I have always remembered the ending, I was amazed at how much of the story I remember. I’m not just talking general plot either but many specific incidents and descriptions such as mandatory clothing and schooling. The only part I did not recall for some reason was the brief romantic storyline. From the first page I was also amazed at how old fashioned the writing sounded and how challenging some of the vocabulary is compared to most of the current YA selections I come across. Did I really not notice this as a teenager? Then again, it is 30 years old.

Highlights: I may be biased, but there are no lowlights in this novel! The isolated and odd lifestyle forced upon Frances and her imprisonment in Mr Tyrell’s house remain as absorbing as I remember. Robin Klein is also brilliant at capturing Frances’ childish innocence when faced with the different restrictions and rules placed on her life. If the internet existed when I first read this novel I’m sure I would have spent much time online reading news stories about The Family, the cult that inspired this book. I just thought it all came from Klein’s imagination!

If I was an editor: I would insist that this book be republished and stocked in all school libraries! I hate the idea of other children missing out on this fascinating novel. Obviously the cover art needs a rethink…

Overall: I can see how this story completely captivated me twenty years ago. Despite downsizing to be a Kindle-only reader I will be holding on to my tattered old copy in case in the future all copies disappear through natural attrition and I no longer have the option to read it again.

People Might Hear You: 5 stars

 

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Blog Tour! Blackbrooke II: The Guardian

Blackbrooke II: The GuardianBlackbrooke II: The Guardian by Emma Silver

I feel really privileged to be part of this blog tour. Released only this past Friday, The Guardian has already been charting in the top 20 of Amazon’s horror section.

To celebrate the release of The Guardian, Orange Pekoe Reviews has an exclusive character interview with Denzil Rathbone, owner of the shop Tales from the Crits:

What Blackbrooke rule do you find the hardest to follow?
They’re all a pile of crap. I suppose the one that confuses me is girls having to wear their hair tied up. I mean, I have dreads and they’re long so do I have to tie my hair up? The rule mentions girls but not boys. I don’t know, that’s a pretty boring answer. Let me think of something a bit cooler…Okay, I’d probably have to say its the ‘not going out at night’ rule. It would be great to head out in the dark and dice with death. I’ve sometimes thought about arming myself and taking them down, one by one. That’s a better answer, isn’t it? Forget what I said about hair.
After all your experiences with the Crits, are there any new rules or pieces of advice you think should be added for the residents?
Don’t underestimate them. They might look big and freaky but they’re fast and have zero conscience. Some of the things they do and the ways they kill are gruesome. It’s not a surprise they’re at the top of the food chain. In saying that, there should be another rule warning against trusting anyone in this town, humans included.
Do you think Mr Fuller’s Blackbrooke lessons at the Academy provide the children with enough realistic information?
Ha! Fuller as a teacher, I still can’t get my head around that. The dude was a Vigilante for gods sake. Unless he’s regaling them with tales of the little missions him and his group went on as teenagers then I doubt he’s teaching them anything. He came face to face with the Crits on more than one occasion that I know of but I can’t imagine he’s allowed to discuss that with the kids. Instead, I bet the lessons are as dry and dull as that book he wrote that I have to sell in the shop.
I really enjoy reading about your shop, Tales From the Crits. What items are your favourites? What items creep you out the most?
My favourites are probably the things that have nothing to do with Blackbrooke, like the pumpkin lollipops and the bobbing head pens. There’s a few cool dreamcatchers as well and the incense smells incredible. Unfortunately, that’s as good as it gets. The tourists love the Crit stuff but it’s vile and so anatomically incorrect it’s laughable. The kids books are the worst. The Crits are illustrated to look like massive teddy bears. There’s even a picture of a Lurker hugging a little girl in one of them. What they fail to show is that same Lurker ripping the little girls face off in the next scene.
Do you think it’s a good idea so many tour groups visit Blackbrooke? What advice would you have for these ‘adventure’ tourists?
Without the tourists I wouldn’t have a shop so I have to be grateful to them. I do think the numbers of tourists have increased in recent years though and that makes me nervous about some of them hiding out in Blackbrooke so they can stay overnight to see a Crit, Luckily, no tourists have been killed as a result, but I feel like its only a matter of time. If I were to offer them any advice it would be to always get on the coach at the end of the day. The Crits are not what they have in mind. Outsiders have a very naïve view of them.
You always look out for Liberty. Do you think it’s inevitable that her heart will always be torn between Cassius and Gabriel?
Oh, little Liberty Bell. She’s a handful. I actually feel sorry for Cassius and Gabriel, I really do. Firstly, I think they’re both off the chart bonkers for being interested in such an unhinged miniature maniac, and secondly, they like her more than she likes them. I think she’ll always have that problem. She’s not one of those ‘cutesy’ teenagers who loves the attention, it makes her uncomfortable. Plus, I’ve told her to wait until she’s thirty before even thinking about having another boyfriend. Makes me feel a lot better.
On a more personal note, I can’t help but think there are some mysterious elements to your past that you want to hide from people. Am I on the right track with this thought?
I don’t know whether there’s anything mysterious. I suppose there’s some pain from my past. My late teens and early twenties saw some really dark times. If you’ve had your heart broken you’ll understand. It’s difficult to talk about in any detail, even now. I hung out with the tourists for a good many years and used to get them to bring me any illegal substances from the Outside to numb the pain. Imagine losing the person you love the most to a person you detest. Then imagine you live in a tiny ass town with them and have to bear witness to their marital bliss on an almost daily basis. Not that it was bliss, I know that now but I didn’t at the time.
Finally, if you were able to leave Blackbrooke, where would you go? What would be your ‘escape’ soundtrack?
I’d get as far away as possible. I like the idea of travelling around Indonesia perhaps or maybe head to Australia. Who knows. I want sunshine, a beach and a pina colada. My soundtrack would be the one that’s remained my favourite for years: Best of the Eighties. You can’t beat a bit of Eighties pop. It’s not cool but I don’t care. I also like Red Hot Chilli Peppers, who are probably also not seen as cool but that’s what floats my boat. Music, cocktail, beach, sunshine – just throw a certain lady in there and I don’t think you’d find a happier man. Oh, and probably Liberty Bell too. It wouldn’t be the same without her screaming at me to turn off the shit music.

**********

The Guardian picks up where the first book in the Blackbrooke trilogy ended. Liberty spends the first part of this book recalibrating all her knowledge of Blackbrooke and trying to work out exactly what is happening with the town. If you thought Mr Jones, Principal of the Blackbrooke Academy was a dubious character, wait until you meet Carl Evans, Director of the Blackbrooke Institute. When Liberty (and therefore you as a reader) finally gets her head around what is happening and a chance of freedom approaches, everything is spun around again. Who can Liberty trust?

The ending of this book is similar to the first in what seems to be typical Emma Silver style: you are left hanging and don’t know how you can wait another year for the final instalment!

If you are new to the world of Blackbrooke, you must read the books in order! You can read my review of the first book in the Blackbrooke trilogy here.

Meet the author Emma Silver at her blog here.

Still want more?

Twitter: @Emma_Silver and @Blackbrooke_I

Facebook: Facebook and Facebook fan page

Goodreads (Emma Silver page) and Goodreads (Blackbrooke page)

 

 

1

Love in a Small Town: Dare You To

Dare You toDare You To by Katie McGarry

I loved Pushing the Limits, the first book in this trilogy, and was eagerly waiting for Dare You To to be published.

This novel focuses on Beth. Due to an altercation with her mum and mum’s boyfriend, she is whisked away by her formerly estranged uncle, a retired pro-baseballer. He is able to provide Beth with a second chance at a successful life but Beth is reluctant to take the opportunity and acts out in a variety of ways.

Ryan Stone is an all-American teenage boy. Good looking and popular, he is likely to go straight to pro-Baseball after graduating high school. However, life is not perfect for Ryan. His father puts ridiculous pressure on him, controlling the progress of his baseball career with guilt and fear. His parents do not talk to each other and his brother has been banished from the family.

Ryan’s friends dare him to take Beth out on a date. This is how the two meet and it is clear they need each other. If only Beth could learn to trust and share her burdens!

It is impossible not to compare this novel with the first book in the series Pushing the Limits which exceeded all my expectations. Dare You To was an enjoyable read but Beth and Ryan did not have the same magnetism as Noah and Echo. In fact, when Noah and Echo made brief appearances in Dare You To the electricity between the two was amazing and they were by far the most captivating characters on the page.

I think Dare You To could potentially appeal to more readers than the heart breaking story of Noah and Echo. The inclusion of baseball could make the novel appeal more to males. This story is also more of a typical romance as not every character is broken. Ryan is your typical fairy tale prince and high school hero. He is accessible and doesn’t hide under a confronting exterior like Noah. The setting is also less urban and more quaint small town (think Jodi Picoult meets John Grisham) which will always hold charm for a lot of readers.

I think Dare You To is an excellent YA novel. It just misses the some of the crossover qualities for adults that Pushing the Limits has in abundance.

Dare You To: 4 Stars.

Thank you to Harlequin UK for a copy of the title to review.

You can find my review of Pushing the Limits here.

2

Pushing the Limits

Product DetailsPushing the Limits by Katie McGarry

I took a chance on this novel when it was on special earlier this year. Boy, am I glad I did as the story really blew me away.

The chapters alternate between Echo and Noah, two senior high school students. The opening chapter begins with Echo, her father and pregnant stepmother in the clinical psychologist’s office at school. This heavy scene sets the tone for the rest of the novel. Both Echo and Noah are suffering. Echo has recently returned to school after a long absence and spends the days instinctively hiding her heavily scarred arms. Noah, the delinquent of the story, doesn’t take school seriously. He lives in the basement of his disinterested foster parents’ house and works at a fast food restaurant to keep some respectability in order to maintain visitation with his two younger brothers. As you would imagine, Echo and Noah are drawn together through a mutual understanding of loss and confusion.

This is a sad read but the author avoids turning it into train crash drama. Instead, throughout all the misery, Katie McGarry has created a believable plot and real electricity between Echo and Noah. I think I fell in love with Noah a bit too! I love Echo’s name; she is named for the mountain nymph in Greek mythology who acted as a diversion and then lost her voice. Both of these attributes are seen in Echo’s character and subtle references to the Greek myths are included in Noah’s chapters.

The only weakness in the story is perhaps there was just one misunderstanding between Echo and Noah too many. However, this didn’t spoil my enjoyment of the book and I would have immediately started the next book in the series had it been published!

Pushing the Limits: 5 stars

Product DetailsDare You To by Katie McGarry. Due to be published on 7 June 2013. The cover doesn’t really speak to me but I can overlook it as I am so keen to read the second book in this series.

1

The Touch of Prince Tohon

Product DetailsTouch of Power – Maria V. Snyder. (Book 1 of the Avry of Kazan series)

My current foray into YA fiction continues…

Before the plague began, Avry was training as a healer in the fifteen realms. When the virulence of the plague became obvious, healers were at first treated with suspicion and then the witch hunts began. Avry spent three years in hiding before being rustled out and kidnapped by Kerrick, a man working on behalf of Prince Ryne’s Kingdom. Avry discovers she is the last healer left alive and her forced meeting with the artificially comatose Prince Ryne will ultimately end in her death.

This book moves at a fast pace. As with all fantasy there are diversions on the way to the final showdown. Well written fantasy should integrate these quests seamlessly; I begin to lose interest in a fantasy novel when the diversions become too far removed from the ultimate goal. I dislike feeling cheated that perhaps the author is using the side story as padding. Luckily, Maria Snyder has kept good focus and the further I read the less I even noticed the digressions.

I found the setting of the fifteen realms to be realistic. The realms have a solid history and the geography of each of the regions is unique. Both the towns and the countryside are well described and across the fifteen realms unusual plants grow and imaginative animals roam. I liked the death lily plants and towards the end the importance of these flowers begins to be revealed.

While I liked the character of Avry, it was her enemy Tohon who really stole the show for me. Tohon only began to appear in the final third of the novel but his introduction coincided with a faster, edgier pace and storyline. He is a handsome man who uses some sort of ‘sexual magic’ to make women swoon. I know this sounds like quite a cliché but Snyder handles this character well and I found him incredibly entertaining. Tohon is a devious and enigmatic dictator in his kingdom. Still reacting to his father’s disinterest in him, Tohon feels he has a lot to prove. He is much more memorable than both Belen, Avry’s gentle protector and Kerrick, the gruff leader of the kidnappers.

The magic Tohon adds to the story has secured the book a 5 star rating from me rather than the initial 4 stars I had in mind. The final chapters of Touch of Power bode well for the already published second book in the series, Scent of Magic.

Touch of Power: 5 Stars

A similar fantasy book for adults:

Product DetailsThe Name of the Wind – Patrick Rothfuss. (Book 1 of the Kingkiller Chronicle series). Absolutely amazing. I read it a year ago and could not put it down. 5 Stars, deserving of more!

Other YA fantasy books currently on my to read list:

Product DetailsPoison Study – Maria Snyder. (Book 1 of the Chronicles of Ixia Series).

Product DetailsSeraphina – Rachel Hartman.

Product DetailsMagyk – Angie Sage. (Book 1 of the Septimus Heap Series)

Product DetailsAngelfall – Susan Ee. (Book 1 of the Penryn and the Book of Days Series).

Product DetailsThe Ambassador’s Mission – Trudi Canavan. (Book 1 of the Traitor Spy Trilogy). Really, the first in any series by Trudi Canavan would be a good start as she seems quite prolific in this genre.

2

Amazing YA Debut

Product Details Blackbrooke by Emma Silver

I had seen the marketing for Emma Silver’s Blackbrooke on Twitter and was intrigued by the premise: due to the town of Blackbrooke being harassed by dangerous Crits walking the streets at night, the area has been fenced off from the Outside. Blackbrooke residents must follow a series of rules which include staying inside after curfew and having triple glazed windows. The long nights make winter hard and ‘walk outs’ are inevitable. Seventeen year old Liberty Conner begins to notice some odd behaviour and patterns in Blackbrooke and seeks to find out the truth before time runs out. I had it at the top of my ‘to read’ list on an earlier blog about YA fiction (Dystopian Survival) and started reading it last Friday.

I was gripped from the first page of this novel and became annoyed when I had to take a break from reading it! I often have a YA book on the go that I can dip into every so often when I am busy but I have to say that I read this book in two sittings. I enjoy YA fiction. As an adult I realise I am not the target audience so I am often rather forgiving when plot weaknesses and somewhat predictable characters pop up. Much to my delight, I found none of these flaws in Blackbrooke.

Emma Silver has done a remarkable job of creating three-dimensional characters; each character is unique and believable. The relationships between the characters are also clear and thoughtful. There is an obvious personal history between the characters that has developed over the years as a result of living in such an insulated town. The imaginative plot also seemed believable. The only thing I did wonder about every so often when I took a brief break was, Unless I missed something, why didn’t the residents just vacate the town when the rules were established? However, once I got back to the story I forgot all about this! The author has also created a believable setting. The town of Blackbrooke is somewhere in the mysterious north of England. There are only about 10,000 residents and the feelings of claustrophobia and depression permeate the story, particularly when the dark winter nights close in. For an imaginative story there is a reasonable amount of social realism included.

Due to the more sophisticated writing style, some of the themes and the raunchy elements that are included, this is a book for older teens. It is one of the best books I have read recently and stands heads and shoulders above other YA books. Secondary school libraries should have it on their shelves and adults who are interested in trying YA fiction will probably find themselves pleasantly surprised. I look forward to the second book in the series that is due for release in the summer.

Blackbrooke: 5 Stars

Crooked Cat Publishing are clearly able to identify a great writer. Blackbrooke was the first book I read from this publishing house and I would now like to try a couple more of their books. I have added these three adult fiction books to my ‘to read’ list:

Product DetailsA Guide to Becoming Distinctively Average – Amy Elliott-Smith. Humour / Contemporary Fiction about a 30-something dog groomer questioning life.

Product DetailsDragon Ring – Maggie Secara. First in a Fantasy series about a reality TV host who owes the King of the Faeries a favour.

Product DetailsHow to Look Like You – Rose McClelland. A chick lit story about frenemies.

8

Dystopian Survival

Cover of "The Hunger Games"

Cover of The Hunger Games

I once heard a comment that Lord of the Flies was like, Gone, but in Gone they get to eat people too. Ah, the horrors of dystopian futures! Are some older novels no longer timeless?

The sensation of The Hunger Games had me intrigued. I avoided reading it for a while in case fighting to the death proved too gory for my delicate constitution. However, once I started I couldn’t stoop. While I didn’t read the three books in quick succession, I did finish each of them in one sitting. The chapters always ended in such a way that I was lured into starting the next. I am someone who has from a young age enjoyed the idea of post-apocalyptic or chaotic worlds (Robert O’Brien’s Z for Zachariah, for instance) and Suzanne Collins didn’t disappoint. However,  I did feel that she had in some ways created a pastiche of ideas that had been used before. As I was reading, the following stories quickly came to mind:

  • Hatchet (Gary Paulson) and My Side of the Mountain (Jean George) both detail surviving in the wild. My concerns about gore in The Hunger Games were dismissed when I realised the bulk of the time in the arena is spent  finding food, shelter and water, and hiding from danger. Ultimately, The Hunger Games is an old fashioned survival story.
  • Tomorrow when the War Began – John Marsden. A 1990s YA war series about a group of teenagers in country Australia fighting to survive against the ruling army. Filled with weapons, danger, hunger and refugees. Is Ellie no longer bold enough to be a contemporary heroine?
  • The famous American gothic short story The Lottery by Shirley Jackson describes  villagers being selected for a gruesome fate.
  • The cult Japanese movie Battle Royale (this one is according to my husband). Based on his descriptions, among other things the ‘giant clock’ in Catching Fire seems to resemble the destruction patterns in Battle Royale.

All this being said, I did enjoy the series and thought that movie was excellent. I only watched the movie this past weekend which is partly why I am inspired to write this blog today. The contrast between the Captial and District 12 was stunning to see. I did not expect the fashions in the Capital to resemble the ostentatious couture of the French Revolution and I was surprised that Lenny Kravitz’s Cinna was not more flamboyant! The Victorian poverty and dull colours in District 12 also added to the story. While both locations were described well in the novels, I felt that Suzanne Collins was not always convincing enough with the setting and SF elements. For example, some miracles of futuristic science and medicine seemed to solve plot problems too easily, while other storylines grew only because what you would imagine to be a simpler discovery was not yet made. There didn’t seem to be a pattern with the names either and it was not clear why certain people had Latin names and others did not.

My favourite of the three books is the third, Mockingjay. It is a darker book with cat and mouse elements. Some people I have spoken to found this book too unnerving but I found it was a nice break from the first two which had somewhat similar plots.

One other successful YA novel set in a dystopian future is Hollowland by Amanda Hocking. In a USA ravaged by war, the zombie threat means survivors are placed in secure facilities. Vigilantes and religious cults have bunkered down and stockpiled arms.  Remy is separated from her brother and, carrying a family secret, she travels across the country to find him. I found this novel to be convincing throughout, even with the random sounding inclusions of a pop star and a tame lion. It is a little short at 290 pages but it is sharp throughout. Hocking has avoided padding out the story – a skill by which all authors should abide. Hollowland should have a wider reputation than it currently does. It is only available as an ebook so this may be why.

Similar YA  dystopian books at the top of my to read list:

And two more, perhaps suited to adults:

If you have any more suggestions please get in touch.