Thursday, 23 August 2012

Review: Beautiful Creatures by Kami Garcia & Margaret Stohl

I'm always a bit wary of books with two authors - I can't imagine the kind of relationship you'd need to have with someone to be able to write a book with them and have it flow as if produced by one author. Beautiful Creatures is a book that I've been considering reading for quite a while, not too sure if I would like it or not. I decided to go for it though, and it turned out to be a good decision.

Beautiful Creatures is a good, chunky read. It's a substantial book, which I like. Even before I start reading, it's good to know that there's something there to get my teeth into, with the promise of further books if I like it. As soon as I started reading, I was pleasantly surprised to see that the story is told from Ethan's point of view - it makes a nice change to be reading the thoughts of a hormonal young man instead of an angst-ridden teenage girl. For some reason it makes the book more interesting, although I'm sure that as it's written by two women, the boy's point of view is actually what a girl thinks a boy would think, rather than what a boy would really think! I suspect if it was written how a boy really thinks, us girls wouldn't like it nearly as much!

As per most successful teen novels, Beautiful Creatures is a love story with a dark background. No vampires or werewolves here though; nor a fairy or angel. Instead we're dealing with witches, or as they're called in the book, Casters. I think a successful supernatural story comes with either a completely believable monster or a completely unbelievable one. Books like Twilight are great as fairy tales, but vampires that can walk around in the day and boys that turn into wolves the size of ponies? It's a step too far. However, the possibility of a family of witches in small-town America is infinitely more likely, and infinitely more spooky.

Taking advantage of its location in America's Deep South, where the swamps breed superstition and the legacy of voodoo is never far away, Beautiful Creatures is full of strange happenings, eerie elements and a fight against fate itself. Ethan Wate's life is thrown into turmoil when a new girl arrives at his school - a girl he has seen in his dreams. Lena Duchannes is everything a popular girl isn't. She doesn't look right or act right, but Ethan is drawn to her and unable to resist the draw of the power that links them. I liked the fact that until Lena turned up, Ethan was a normal guy. He had friends, he was on the basketball team, he did okay in school. All that changes though as he gets closer to Lena. The fact that he is willing to become an outcast at school makes us like and trust him as a character. He has a lot to deal with as Lena gradually allows him to get closer to her and reveals her unusual family and her powers, but he stands strong. Lena is scared to get close to him because she believes she is cursed, but he won't let her push him away. He's the strong guy who will fight battles for her and do anything to prove to her that he loves her. He's every girl's dream boyfriend!

Garcia & Stohl do a great job of creating a world you can get totally lost in. The Deep South is like another world to me, living in the UK. It's probably like another world to plenty of people living in the top half of the US as well. I think that's why there are so many great books based there. The weird and wonderful seems that bit more believable if it happens in the South. Our pair of authors weave a rich tapestry as a background to Ethan and Lena's story - the world they inhabit, the way they think and the little things that combine to make up their lives are described in just enough detail to pull us in and hold us until the last page is turned.
There is enough life in this book that it doesn't need to rely on a ridiculously fast pace with tragedy and danger on every other page. Instead, the story builds gradually, sucking you deeper and deeper in as it goes. It reminds me of Stiefvater's Shiver trilogy in some ways - it's raw and elemental; the path of true love does not run smooth, and it's obviously a book-lover's tale. There was just one element of the story that didn't quite sit right with me. Casters don't see themselves as mortal, and have a rule that a Caster and a Mortal can't be together. I don't think they are removed enough from us mere mortals for that to ring true though.
Niggles aside, I'll definitely be buying Beautiful Darkness to see what happens next, and I've just read that Beautiful Creatures has been made into a film, due out in February 2013 so I'll be interested to see how that goes. I just hope it's better than the Twilight movies - let's face it, it can't be much worse!
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Tuesday, 21 August 2012

Review: The Dark Side of Midnight (Spy Girl Series) by Carol Hedges

I don't normally go for books in the children's section of the library - Young Adult is much more my cup of tea - but The Dark Side of Midnight caught my eye on a display, and after reading the bumf at the back I thought it looked like a fun read so I gave it a go.

I've read my fair share of children's/crossover books - the Harry Potter series and Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy being the most obvious, so I was hoping for something of a similar caliber. I guess I got my hopes up too much, though. Don't get me wrong - Spy Girl could be a great series, but I think it has some maturing to do. It's like the pilot episode of a new TV series which then gets polished and turned into something better if it does well enough.

It was the premise that intrigued me - Jazmin is a schoolgirl dreaming of being a spy like her mum, and by a fluke chain of events she actually gets her wish. It sounded fun, a light read and a great piece of escapism. It was soon clear that the story is set somewhere in the not-too-distant future, presumably to enable a host of futuristic tech to be used. Fair enough, I can handle futuristic. There are elements of this future that weren't really explained though, and I think if they had been it would have made for a more enjoyable read. It's a problem you see quite often - the author has a whole world in their head when they're writing, and they know exactly what and where everything is, but they sometimes forget that the reader isn't privy to their thoughts.  It always surprises me that their editors let them get away with it, but there you go.

An element of romance was to be expected in a book for young girls, but I was surprised that the boy in question appeared to be a few years older than 14 year-old Jazmin. I'm not a parent, and maybe I'm being stuffy but I think at that age girls should be encouraged to look to boys their own age for boyfriend material. Overlooking the slightly inapropriate love interest, I ploughed on, enjoying Jazmin's plucky character and her defient attitude when it comes to her perfect, popular cousin. Then everything started to go a bit weird and supernatural. I don't want to drop any spoilers so I'm not going to give away too much. I just had the feeling by the end of the book that it's having trouble working out quite what it is. Spy thriller vs futuristic vs romantic coming-of-age story vs supernatural fiction. I'm afraid it was all a bit too much - the supernatural element on top of everything else felt a bit unnecessary, as if it was being jammed in just because it's so popular at the moment. If Hedges had stuck with a futuristic spy thriller with an element of romance I can't help but feel it would have worked better.

I would read another Spy Girl book just to see how the series progresses, but I wouldn't buy it.
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Thursday, 16 August 2012

Review: The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

Okay, so I'm probably the last person to read The Hunger Games, rendering this review pretty useless, but to be honest it didn't really appeal to me at first. I don't like buying into the hype, so when something's huge in the media I tend to avoid it rather than rushing in to see what all the fuss is about. However, I've decided to do this review blog so I thought I'd better check it out. Also, I came across the first book of the trilogy in a charity shop so that decided it for me.

Is it worth the hype? In so much as anything is, yes. It's interesting to watch media trends and wonder just how many people realise what a huge effect the media have on our lives and our taste. Twilight was huge for a while, so we had that whole vampire resurgence, but you only have to go back a few years to see that it was just a repeat of the Anne Rice media train, and Bram Stoker before that. Eventually the market gets over-saturated with vampires, werewolves and the like, so they have to find a new angle, something different that will appeal to the masses. Bring on The Hunger Games - a futuristic dystopia where teenagers fight to the death in an arena. It's like a tailor-made antidote to the intense romance of Twilight - or is it?

I was surprised to come across a strong romantic storyline - I should have known that a trilogy this successful would hang on a love story, but I didn't expect it to be such a large part of the book. I was rather expecting more gore and suffering to be honest. It's certainly not the first time we've been drawn in by the grimy realism of a future where there isn't enough food to go around, where kids will fight over a loaf of bread and think nothing of killing each other. I couldn't help but think of the Japanese film Battle Royale (based on the book of the same name) as I read The Hunger Games, but I guess as in the art world there are no new ideas, only new interpretations of a theme. Whether it's because of being aimed at a slightly younger audience, or just the whim of Suzanne Collins, the gore is kept to a minimum and the general suffering takes a backseat to our heroine Katniss Everdeen's personal experience. This is no bad thing though - if I wanted to read about gruesome murders and a disgusting account of living in the wild I wouldn't have gone to the YA fiction section.

I found the book very easy to read - it's probably aimed at age fourteen or so, and the writing style is of the first person/present tense type that makes it very addictive. With a plot that shoots along consistently at a hundred miles per hour, it's impossible not to get sucked into Katniss' world. It's a world that's hard to live in, tatty around the edges but with a few fluffy moments still. It's a very good interpretation of a sixteen year-old girl and how she thinks as she goes through this extraordinary experience. Okay, so it glosses over a lot of filth and has the odd improbable moment, but that's what artistic licence is for right? It's also another facet of Katniss' character - this strong young woman isn't one to let the bad things get her down, she just won't think about them and they won't seem as bad.

I was pleasantly surprised to see that the Games were over by the end of the book - I knew it was part of a trilogy and was worried for a while that I might have to buy the other two to finish the story. Collins has done well though - The Hunger Games stands alone well as a story in its own right, while at the same time leaving things nicely open should you wish to continue reading about Katniss. You know what? I think I just might - bring on Catching Fire!
Already read it? Check out my review of Catching Fire and Mockingjay.

Buy The Hunger Games on Amazon.