Friday, 15 February 2013

Perfect Chemistry by Simone Elkeles

Publication date: 23rd December 2008
Publisher: Walker Books for Young Readers
Genre: YA, Contemporary, Romance

I am slightly embarrassed to admit just how much I liked this book, but I really did.  I read it because it seems to have divided opinions considerably on Goodreads and this made me curious.

I would say the plot is 'inspired' by the movie West Side Story (an adaptation of Shakespeare's Romeo & Juliet).  Brittany Ellis is a beautiful and wealthy 'uptown' girl who is forced to team up with Alex Fuentes in Chemistry class.  Alex is a typical bad boy -  attractive-in-a-dangerous-kind-of-way - and a gang member from the rough part of town.  As you can imagine Brittany and Alex don't get along.  When Alex makes a bet with his friends that he can get Brittany to fall for and go out with him, he goes in with the intention of doing whatever it takes (no matter how cold and calculated) in order to win the bet.  Needless to say he gets more than he bargains for and discovers there is more to Brittany than the obvious (and vice-versa).

For me Perfect Chemistry was a roller coaster of a read in the ‘I like it / not so much now’ sense.  At times I was oohing and ahhing and at others I was cringing and wincing.  On the downside, it is riddled with clich├ęs and shameful stereotypes.  On the upside its overall intentions are good and it is a sweet story.

This is essentially a romantic novel so one has to expect a certain amount of ‘sugariness’.  For me, this is not the hot chocolate with 5 sugars and marshmallows on top sickly sweet, or the saccharin in your coffee artificial sweet, but just the right amount of sugar in your tea sweet. I thought the ‘adult’ language and content was brave and was used appropriately.  (Not everyone will agree and no doubt it will ruffle a few feathers.)

I have a tendency to overlook the negatives of a book if the positives outweigh them and I would say this is the case with Perfect Chemistry.  As novels go, it is fast food as opposed to your 5-a-day, which is perfectly fine - in moderation. It's a guilty pleasure. 

My appeal to readers

Sunday, 10 February 2013

The Curious Incident ... by Mark Haddon

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

Publication date:  31st July 2003
Publisher:  Vintage 
Literary Fiction

Since it's the 10th anniversary of the publication of this book and the play is currently on at the Apollo Theatre in London, it seemed like a good time to find out what all fuss is about. Now I know.

Even though I knew this book had done well in terms of popularity, I was not quite prepared for just how GOOD it was – it was brilliant!

The story is told by 15 year old Christopher Boone and starts with him discovering that his neighbour’s dog, Wellington, is dead.  He finds the dog in his neighbour’s garden skewered with a garden fork so he realises the dog has been murdered and decides he is going to find out who is responsible.

From the very beginning we come to discover that there is something unusual about Christopher by the way he expresses himself.  He reveals that he is very good at mathematics, chess and puzzles but has great difficulty understanding the way people communicate with each other.  He does not like physical contact of any kind and has an aversion to the colours yellow and brown to the point where he has to avoid these things (as much as possible) in order to live a comfortable life.

The word autistic is never mentioned in the novel but not only does the story reveal to us that Christopher is autistic, it also shows us what it would be like because we are in his head.  I found this fascinating and it helped me understand the condition – which I realise I really had no clue about until I read this book.   So for example, Christopher reveals that he does not trust people easily and only feels comfortable with people he knows.  This is not so unusual but for him strangers represent danger and he fears them.  Most of us take for granted that we don’t only use words to communicate but body language and facial expressions.  Also we speak in metaphors and use sayings that literally don’t make any sense.  Christopher’s mind has difficulty processing this sort of stuff and it affects him in a negative way.  He needs to be told ‘a spade is a spade’.  At the same time, we learn that he has an incredible memory.  He describes accessing a memory like watching a DVD and having the ability to rewind to a particular part and replay events exactly as they occurred the first time.  As a result, he has amazing ability when it comes to attention to detail.

I loved the way the narration is so simple to understand and yet so clever.  The plot is such that a lot of the story is written between the lines – Christopher sets about discovering who murdered Wellington and in doing so, reveals to us the murky private lives of those around him.  Unfortunately, the mystery (and murkiness) is linked very closely to his parents and, because we as readers know what is going on before Christopher does, one cannot help but feel for him as we anticipate the storm on the horizon.

When Christopher discovers the truth it takes him on an incredible journey (literally) that is fraught and very much an ordeal.  You could say that part of the story is ‘difficult’, but it showed just how brave a character he was.

I found myself getting angrier with his parents to the point where I felt that his autism wasn’t the worst thing that he had to deal with, it was the misfortune of being stuck with a couple of selfish idiots for parents!  In truth, they weren’t bad people, they were just human – and trying to cope with a very difficult situation themselves.

I could not fault this book.  It will be an all-time favourite and one I will revisit (probably time and time again).

My appeal to readers

NW by Zadie Smith

Publication date: 4th September 2012
Publisher: Hamish Hamilton
Literary Fiction

It took Zadie Smith seven years to write NW and there is a lot in there.  This review could easily be pages and pages long - but I’m going to do my best to keep it as short as possible.  I found some parts of the novel intriguing other parts a bit dull and some parts confusing.  It certainly left me with questions.

NW focuses on 4 characters, Leah, Keisha/Natalie, Felix and Nathan, all with the Caldwell Estate in common (a social housing estate for low income families where they grew up).

The story moves from the pov of each character, showing where they are in adult life and how they came to be there.  The two main characters, Leah a girl of Irish descent and Keisha a girl of Afro-Caribbean descent are best friends.  Smith alluded to an event that tied them together as children but it isn’t clarified (or did I miss something?).  Apart from a period of separation during their late teens the girls remain close friends throughout.  They both manage to escape Caldwell through education (Keisha more successfully than Leah).  They graduate from university, find husbands and move into private housing not far from Caldwell. 

Leah’s story starts when a young woman knocks on her door claiming she desperately needs her help.  The outcome of this is unexpected but also underwhelming - which is also how I would describe Leah’s story, she’s not happy at work, her husband is so handsome all the women want him, she can’t have baby, her dog dies… (although I hold her partially responsible for that!) etc.  You do get an insight into how Leah perceives Keisha/Natalie (assuming her life is perfect - see below).

Keisha’s story is more interesting.  She reinvents herself by changing her name from Keisha to Natalie, ditches the NW ‘street’ accent for the Queen’s English, obtains a law degree, becomes a barrister, marries a rich man, lives in an expensive house in a nice part of North West London and has posh friends.  What I found interesting was it gave some insight into the difficulties (and the consequences) of breaking through the barriers of class (and in Natalie’s case also race) in Britain to climb the social ladder.  The more accepted she became among her middle class peers the more she became alienated from her working class family and childhood friends.  Her mother treated her more like a ‘cash cow’ than a daughter, her sister became resentful and her friends envious.  With all that she had achieved she wasn’t happy and this seemed to lead her into a sleazy underworld - I didn’t get that at all - but it was intriguing all the same.

The other two characters feature to a lesser extent.  They are both Afro-Caribbean males struggling to get by (Nathan more so than Felix).  Felix’ story is ‘a day in the life of.’ It starts with him waking up and we learn that he lives with his girlfriend, whom he loves.  He visits his dad and we learn his mother left when he was little, that his relationship with his dad and siblings (one of whom, his brother, is in jail) is a distant one. We learn that he has two important things to do that day.  One is buy a car the other is to extricate himself from his long-term-on-and-off relationship with an older woman.  On his way home on public transport he has an altercation with a couple of youths.  What happens to him after that seemed to be shoe-horned in to depict knife crime in London.  In reality these youths are more likely to target their peers (i.e. vulnerable teenagers, often the ones who want to keep away from trouble) not strong grown men like Felix. Also, none of this seemed to tie-in with the rest of the novel (or perhaps I just didn’t get it).

Nathan’s story was the most subtle.  He pops up in the background of the other stories (on the fringes just like him) and comes to the forefront towards the end.  His was the most poignant, believable and tragic for me.  As a child he was considered cute and liked by the adults, he was Leah’s big crush, he was clever and had the potential to become a footballer.  Somewhere along the line he became a drug addict, a criminal and homeless.  He may also have been mixed up in something sinister (that part was not clear to me either).  One of my favourite parts of the novel was when he told Keisha/Natalie some home truths, about herself and about him.  It gives some insight into how young men like Nathan can end up where he did.  I found this perceptive on Smith’s part.

Not everyone will like it but I did (mostly).

My appeal to readers

Saturday, 9 February 2013

The Moon Dwellers by David Estes

Publication date: 30th June 2012
Publisher: Self-published 
Genre: YA, Dystopia
Attention! Well written indie fiction.

The Moon Dwellers is the first of a three part series about a post-apocalyptic society where civilisation exists underground - after destruction of the surface of the earth renders it uninhabitable. The society has a caste-type system called the Tri-Realms, with each realm existing deeper underground.  The Sun Realm being the closest to the earth’s surface with ‘upper class’ inhabitants known as Sun Dwellers, the Moon Realm located beneath it where the middle class Moon Dwellers live, and the Star Realm at the lowest where the underclass reside; the Star Dwellers.

This is a well thought out dystopian story that centres around two main characters: Adele Rose and Tristan Nailin.  They have lived very different lives.  Adele is from the Moon Realm where life has become increasingly hard as a result of the brutal dictatorship of both the Moon and Star dwellers led by President Nailin of the Sun Realm.  The President rules with an iron fist and any signs of rebellion are dealt with swiftly and severely. When Adele’s parents are arrested for being suspected rebels she is charged with being guilty by association and is locked up in a juvenile detention centre (the Pen) while her sister is left in an orphanage.  Like the name suggests, Tristan is related to the President – he is the older of two sons.  He has been brought up in a hedonistic environment and has lived a life of luxury.

While on an official visit to the Moon Realm for his father, Tristan is paraded in the streets crowded with adoring fans.  His entourage passes the Pen and he comes into contact with Adele who is able to see the procession from the Pen’s yard. Although some distance away they both become aware of each other and are drawn to one another - not in the conventional boy-meets-girl love-at-first-sight kind of way, but definitely in a way that is intense and cannot be ignored.
Adele is determined to break out of the Pen and rescue her family. Tristan is confused, intrigued and determined to find out why Adele has had this effect on him.  Both characters find themselves on an amazing journey which is action packed.

Intriguing, at times humorous and at other times quite sad, The Moon Dwellers is a page-turner of a novel that I am glad I had the opportunity to read.  The back story for each character is well presented as is the history of how the Tri-Realms came about.  I would not say it is without flaws (few novels are).  For me there was a little too much stating of the obvious (e.g. often a character would make a joke and one of the protagonists would then clarify that it was a joke - which gave the joke less impact).  Also, I found both Adele and Tristan to be so similar in personality (same sense of humour and same way to expressing themselves) that to some extent they lacked individuality.

 My appeal to readers

Friday, 8 February 2013

Slammed by Colleen Hoover

Publication date:  18th September 2012
Published by: Atria Books
Genre: YA, Contemporary

One of the downsides to investing time in reading a novel is when said novel has a promising synopsis and it starts out as a good read, only for it to deteriorate later on and conclude with an anti-climax.  Slammed was NOT one of those novels – it was the complete opposite.

Leykan is forced to leave her home in Texas and move to Detroit following the sudden death of her father.  She moves with her mum and 9 year old brother, Kel, into a small house in a cul-de-sac where she meets Will, a neighbour she becomes increasingly attracted to.  Will, who is a big fan of slam poetry, asks Leykan out and takes her to the place where he goes to perform his poems.  Will evades questions about himself and they both avoid asking the obvious first date questions.  Only when Leykan manages to convince Will to step to the mike and perform one of his poems does she get a glimpse of who he is, and through the poem she discovers they have something in common.

I had a problem with the beginning.  Three chapters in and I was thinking “Unbelievable!” And I meant it literally.  The scenario of how Leykan and Will were brought together was too coincidental to be feasible.   It reminded me of the Brady Bunch – two broken families whose structure and circumstances were identical, brought together to create a new family.  Surely that would (and should) only happen on TV. 

I also had a problem with the romance.  It was difficult to buy because it felt premature and rushed.  It happened before there was time to get to know the characters, so it was hard to feel anything other than detachment and indifference. 

Just when I was beginning to think choosing this novel had been a mistake, it started to get interesting.  It was at the point when (a week after their first encounter) the couple discover something about each other that forces them apart.  I don’t want to give too much away but let’s just say they really should not have avoided those obvious first date questions.  What is left is a ‘forbidden love’ type of situation where both characters have to come to terms with the separation while having to not only see and be around, but also interact with each other on a daily basis.  The dynamic of this angst-ridden relationship is well portrayed by the author and I started to engage with the characters and hope things would go in their favour.

Leykan has a lot to deal with – her dad’s death, the abrupt ending of her blossoming relationship with Will and her mother keeping secrets from her.  She comes across as a strong character who handles it all very well.  I did come to like her.
I also liked her relationship with Eddie, a school classmate who decided to take Leykan under her wing.  Eddie decides that she and Leykan aren’t just going to be friends but the best of friends.  As their relationship develops and Eddie’s backstory is revealed it all makes perfect sense.

Despite my criticism of the ‘Brady Bunch’ type family arrangement, I do think the novel showed very well how circumstances can cause people to form bonds that are as close as family – and with all the joy and pain that comes with family. 

There were several trips to slam poetry night and a number of poems were read.  I found all the poems to follow a similar format – used as a way for the poets to divulge their demons, which was fine but there was a lost opportunity to mix it up a bit.

The romance was a little too fluffy (sickly sweet) for my liking, but I realise that may be just me.

So, I had mixed feelings about this novel and found myself up and downgrading it as I went along.  I’ve decided to settle somewhere between 3.5 and 4 stars.

 My appeal to readers

Sunday, 3 February 2013

The Casual Vacancy by JK Rowling

Publication date: 27th September 2012
Publisher: Little, Brown
Genre: Adult, Contemporary

The Casual Vacancy is a ‘sugar-free’ and bleak portrayal of community life in a small countryside town called Pagford in England.  It begins with the death of Barry Fairbrother, a member of the parish council, whose death has a dominos-type effect on the people of the town.

I gave the novel 5 stars because I think it is very brave.  JKR has tackled some tough, uncomfortable and controversial topics that most would shy away from.  She gets us to look where we would prefer to look away.  (I get that many others have done this before – but we are talking about JK Rowling!)  I could not help but be moved by the stories of the “victims” (see below), especially the Weedons, Sukhvinder and even the horrid Stuart (Fats) Wall and his dad, Colin.  I can see how some would be incensed by the way JKR attempted to justify the Weedon’s self-destructive and antisocial behaviour, but they were feasible to me. Parts of it made me laugh, too.  I was amused by the way, one-by-one, three of the teenagers sought revenge on their parents and, although borderline creepy, by middle-aged mum Samantha’s obsession with Jake the boy-band member and the fiasco over the concert ticket.

The one problem I had with the book was the portrayal of the characters.  Most of them came across as nasty, petty, mean and self-absorbed.  The ones that weren’t were all portrayed as victims.  On the one hand I commend JKR for showing the ugly side of human behaviour – I especially liked her insightful portrayal of the ‘gossip-mongers’ – but on the other hand I would have liked to see some redeeming qualities in at least some of these people. (It lacked subtlety in my view.)  Instead, her portrayal of most of her characters is so scathing it felt as though she disliked them and was determined NOT to show ANY positive side of them.  The only person who comes across as decent (or isn’t a victim) is Barry Fairbrother – the dead guy – and he was portrayed as Saint-like!  In this sense for me the book is flawed.

I am not sure it is a book I would recommend (for reasons mentioned above) but I enjoyed it and I would say hats off to JK Rowling for taking a risk and writing it. Also, for speaking up for the Krystal Weedons of this world.

My appeal to readers