Wednesday, 25 February 2015

A Song For Ella Grey - David Almond

Published: October 2014
Publisher: Hodder Children's Books
Pages: 272


"I'm the one who's left behind. I'm the one to tell the tale. I knew them both...knew how they lived and how they died."

Claire is Ella Grey's best friend. She's there when the whirlwind arrives on the scene: catapulted into a North East landscape of gutted shipyards; of high arched bridges and ancient collapsed mines. She witnesses a love so dramatic it is as if her best friend has been captured and taken from her. But the loss of her friend to the arms of Orpheus is nothing compared to the loss she feels when Ella is taken from the world. This is her story - as she bears witness to a love so complete; so sure, that not even death can prove final.


I’m in two minds about A Song for Ella Grey. On one hand, I really dislike it, on the other hand I can see how someone would really like this book. So I’ll try to keep an open mind as I write this.

Firstly, A Song for Ella Grey is a modern retelling of the story of Orpheus and Eurydice. Now I wasn’t aware of this until about halfway through the book, and when I did find out, it didn’t really help much because I’d never heard of the original myth. I would advise that you read it before hand if you aren’t familiar with the story, because it made a lot more sense once I understood where Almond was going with it. I couldn’t believe the characters as real teenagers. They were ridiculous and nonsensical even compared to other contemporary YA teens in love, but if you consider them as characters from an epic greek poem, they actually make a lot more sense. The book is pervaded by a fairytale-like atmosphere, which is quite disorienting and confusing, but very powerful when contrasted with the gritty, contemporary setting.

In fact the language of the whole book made me feel like I was reading a really long poem. I see why the author wrote it this way, harking back to the old greek poems, but it didn’t really do anything for me. This is a completely subjective critique, if you’re into that kind of poetic, flowery, overwritten kind of language go for it , this book is for you.

The narrative of the book, stays pretty true to the story of Orpheus and Eurydice, with the added character of Claire, which is where the story begins to differ. Now correct me if I’m wrong, but I’m pretty sure that Claire considers Ella more than a friend. She’s definitely in love with her , right? Almond never actually states this, but if he didn’t intend it, I’m not sure if he understands platonic female friendship. By the end if the story I felt really sorry for Claire, because Ella clearly didn’t reciprocate these feelings and had no idea.Ella is a kind of manic-pixie-dream girl, and seems to be vibrant and full of life compared to her dull parents, the Greys. They have a lot of hopes and dreams for her, which Ella doesn’t completely agree with, because she considers herself a bit of a fairy-child.

My favourite aspect of the book was the beautiful descriptions of the Northumberland countryside and seaside. They reminded me so much of the place I grew up in, the beautiful yet cold and harsh sea and landscape, and brought back so many good memories. The plot was also fantastic, and I couldn’t put it down it was so captivating.

While I didn’t love this book, I recognise that it is really good for what it is. It’s a quick read with an excellent plot. And if you’re into poetry, this is definitely for you.

Four Stars ****

Wednesday, 18 February 2015

Friday Brown - Vikki Wakefield

Published: July 2013
Publisher: Hot Key Books
Pages: 320


I am Friday Brown. I buried my mother. My grandfather buried a swimming pool. A boy who can’t speak has adopted me. A girl kissed me. I broke and entered. Now I’m fantasizing about a guy who’s a victim of crime and I am the criminal. I’m going nowhere and every minute I’m not moving, I’m being tail-gated by a curse that may or may not be real. They call me Friday. It has been foretold that on a Saturday I will drown…

Friday, 17, flees memories of her mother, granddad, and the family curse. She joins Silence in a street gang led by beautiful charismatic Arden, and escapes to a ghost town in the outback. In Murungal Creek, the town of never leaving, Friday faces the ghosts of her past. Sometimes you have to stay to finish what you started, and before you can find out who you are, you have to become someone you never meant to be.


I will shamelessly tell you that I binge-read Friday Brown. I sat down in the morning, I read half the book. I sat down in the afternoon I finished the book. It was a perfect way to spend the day. I loved this book, it’s  beautiful little gem of a novel that gave me all the feels.

The plot of this book is completely captivating, it sucked me in from the very first page and I couldn’t stop reading. The action-based plot kind of trundles along at a pretty solid pace, and then towards the end it shifts into fifth gear all of a sudden and I couldn’t wait to see how it would end. This was definitely a plot driven book, as well as having fantastic characters, themes and a beautiful setting.

Speaking of characters , there is such an interesting mix of characters. The group of homeless teenagers kind of reminded me of that joke “oh they looked like a Benetton commercial”, but in a really good way. There is so much diversity in the group, and they are all really accepting of each other, and I especially loved the way they treated Joe. The two characters I would contrast against each other are Friday and Arden. I adore Friday, she is strong and complex and intelligent and independent. And the same can be said for Arden, except that Friday is compassionate, kind and selfless and Arden is not. Friday is a runner, she has been raised by her mother Vivienne , who dies shortly before the narrative begins. Throughout her childhood Vivienne and Friday roam around Australia running from something, until they cannot run any longer. Vivienne is definitely an unusual character, who we never really figure out. I still have a lot of questions about Vivienne, even know days after reading this book I’m still wondering about one or two things. Vivienne and her way of life both have a huge influence on her daughter, and as Friday journeys through life alone we see her mother’s life and death influence her and her decisions. Parents have a huge influence on their children, which is something I feel that is overlooked a lot in YA, but Wakefield really addresses this is Friday Brown. This book, and specifically this mother-daughter relationship, really reminded me of Red Ink, by Julie Mayhew, which is a good thing because that is a phenomenal book. Through Friday, Wakefield explores the idea of grief, how losing such an influential figure can affect a young person, and how we deal with loss.

Silence is without a doubt my favourite character, he is wonderful and mysterious. He has a heartbreaking backstory, and seems to be the personification of how young/homeless people can be overlooked when it is convenient for us, and only noticed when they cause trouble. Wish, on the other hand, is my least favourite character. I felt like he was an unnecessary addition, one of my biggest pet peeves is unnecessary characters and irrelevant romance.

The setting of this book is beautiful. Half set in an unnamed Australian city, and half set in the outback, the setting of this book had a huge effect on me. This is actually only the second book set in Australia I’ve ever read (a problem I plan to rectify as soon as possible), and for a really long time I couldn’t figure out where it was set. The descriptions of the Australian outback are so beautiful, they were unlike any other setting I have ever read about, and they really blew me away. And I loved the way Friday’s character changes with her surroundings. We can see how Friday seems more lost and dependent in the city, but really comes into her own when she travels to the outback.

The final aspect I’d like to talk about is destiny, or fate, whichever you prefer. Before she dies Vivienne tells Friday that all the Brown women are cursed to die in some way related to water,on a Saturday. Friday wrestles with this idea, and throughout the book we see her run from and embrace her destiny, trying to come to terms with whether or not the curse will strike her too. There is a tinge of magical realism in the way Wakefield deals with this curse. In this way, Wakefield carefully explores the influence we have over our lives, and how we can influence our own destiny, if we dive in or run away. This book is also really friendship oriented, which is a nice change from all the romance in YA contemporary novels.

Overall a pretty stellar book. I knew nothing about this book before reading it, and I’ll confess the only reason I picked it up was because of the pretty cover and the intriguing line “It has been foretold on a Saturday I will drown”. This is a wonderful book and I would recommend it to anyone who likes well written, thought provoking high quality YA contemporary fiction.

Four and half Stars  

Wednesday, 11 February 2015

Code Name Verity - Elizabeth Wein

Published: February 2012
Publisher: Electric Monkey
Pages: 353


Two young women become unlikely best friends during WWII, until one is captured by the Gestapo. Only in wartime could a stalwart lass from Manchester rub shoulders with a Scottish aristocrat, one a pilot, the other a special operations executive. Yet whenever their paths cross, they complement each other perfectly and before long become devoted to each other.

But then a vital mission goes wrong, and one of the friends has to bail out of a faulty plane over France. She is captured by the Gestapo and becomes a prisoner of war. The story begins in “Verity’s” own words, as she writes her account for her captors. Truth or lies? Honour or betrayal? Everything they’ve ever believed in is put to the test…


I feel I may be in the minority of people who don’t adore this book. That being said, I did like this book. Maybe because my expectations were so high that the actual book couldn’t live up to them, because on paper everything about this book was perfect, but I just wasn’t feeling it.

I found the story slow to begin with. Unlike other readers, I wasn’t gripped from the first page. I found it difficult to connect to the characters and the story for the first hundred pages at least, even though I can’t put my finger on why. I found the format confusing as well. The first part is told in the past and present tense, and Verity refers to herself in the first and third person which I found really confusing for a while before I got used to it. The second part of the novel, I found much easier to read, because of it’s format (it was all in first person, past tense). While Wein’s writing is technically good the majority of the time, I found it difficult to read sometimes because of all the technical language surrounding the different types of planes. I’m not interested in any of this at all, so I skimmed over it all. However, if you are interested in planes then this is perfect for you. You can almost tell the author is a pilot, there is so much information in the book.

Now for the positives. This is primarily a story of friendship , which I found undeniable refreshing. Verity has a wonderful line along the lines of “It’s a bit like falling in love, finding your best friend.” I feel like there is a huge hole in YA literature ( Is this YA, it could easily also be adult) where female friendships should be. YA lit spends way too much time on romantic relationships, when friendships are just as important. Maddie and Verity are also fantastic characters. I know that the term ‘strong female character’ is thrown around a lot, but I feel that if it should ever be applied, it would be applied to these two girls, primarily because of their independence, strong will, and their refusal to be defined by the men around them. One of the main things I loved about them was though they are badass, they are still women. They don’t sacrifice their femininity, but they don’t use it either. They are thoroughly admirable characters.

Plotwise this book is pretty excellent. It is suspenseful, captivating and keeps up momentum the whole way through, especially in the second part. I would have loved to have heard more about Verity’s missions, they were skimmed over and only the vaguest details were supplied, which kind of annoyed me, but maybe it just wasn’t the authors area of expertise. That ending though, I did not see that coming. It was well worth hanging on for that ending, I didn't think it would make me as emotional as it did, but it was like a punch to the gut. There were some upsetting scenes which I had to skim over because I just don’t have the constitution for that kind of thing, so if you’re super sensitive to violence, you should be wary of this going in.

I would recommend this to anyone who likes historical fiction, especially anyone, who like me, is a sucker for WW2. I hate to say that I didn’t like this as much as everyone else seemed to, but if I did that would be a lie. I did really enjoy it though, and was glad I stuck with it.

Three Stars ***

Wednesday, 4 February 2015

Gone Girl - Gillian Flynn

Published: August 2014
Publisher: Phoenix Fiction
Pages: 461


On a warm summer morning in North Carthage, Missouri, it is Nick and Amy Dunne's fifth wedding anniversary. Presents are being wrapped and reservations are being made when Nick's clever and beautiful wife disappears from their rented McMansion on the Mississippi River. Husband-of-the-Year Nick isn't doing himself any favors with cringe-worthy daydreams about the slope and shape of his wife's head, but passages from Amy's diary reveal the alpha-girl perfectionist could have put anyone dangerously on edge. Under mounting pressure from the police and the media--as well as Amy's fiercely doting parents--the town golden boy parades an endless series of lies, deceits, and inappropriate behavior. Nick is oddly evasive, and he's definitely bitter--but is he really a killer? 
As the cops close in, every couple in town is soon wondering how well they know the one that they love. With his twin sister, Margo, at his side, Nick stands by his innocence. Trouble is, if Nick didn't do it, where is that beautiful wife? And what was in that silvery gift box hidden in the back of her bedroom closet?


I had heard mixed things about Gone Girl before I read it, but I suspected that it may have been one of those culturally pivotal books, so I thought I’d give it a go. It isn't, but it’s still good. I’m usually not a big fan of thrillers, they put my on edge, and if I was to read any they would be of the Agatha Christie, Dan Brown variety, so this book is not the type I would usually read and it pleasantly surprised me. And by pleasantly, I mean horrified, but in a good way.

Amy and Nick are quite unusual characters in that that they are both absolutely awful. The narrative is told from the dual perspective of the couple, and spending time in the minds of two people who can only be described as sick, was disorientating and uncomfortable. In any other book Nick would have been the worst character in it, but for some reason, beside Amy, he doesn’t seem too bad. Both of their voices were distinct, and you could always tell who you were reading. Both Amy and Nick had childhoods that affected the way they behaved in later life. Nick finds grieving for Amy and the way he portrayed his grief extremely difficult, because of his strained relationship with his father . He acts weirdly around the cameras, and his behaviour seems to incriminate him even more. I found it interesting to see how his emotions conflicted with the way he behaved and why. Amy had a very different childhood from Nick. Instead of scraping by , Amy was the privileged and adored only daughter of two loved up psychologists, who write a bestselling children’s book series based on a sickeningly perfect version of their daughter. So Amy spends her childhood overshadowed by this fictional version of herself, created by her own parents, which messes her up quite a bit.

The first half of the book contains extracts from Amy’s diary, so we see through her eyes what happened before her disappearance, how her and Nick met and how they ended up in Missouri. These are interspersed between Nick coping with the fallout of her disappearance, and the contrast provided was really interesting.

This is a fantastic thriller. There are twists and turns, it’s suspenseful and has a cracker of an ending. Flynn leaves pieces of the solution hidden around the narrative, and I think they all fit together by the end. I certainly didn’t notice any plot holes, but if you’ve found any feel free to let me know. If you’re looking for a captivating thriller, do check this one out. The writing was excellent, and perfectly captured the c=story, the characters and the atmosphere. Flynn did an excellent job inhabiting the minds if two outrageous characters.

SLIGHT SPOILERS AHEAD I hear that there has been a lot of controversy about whether or not this is a feminist novel, and I just can’t make up my mind. On one hand, there are some fantastic 3D female characters such as Margo, Nick’s sister, and Boney, the police detective investigating Amy’s case and I’m not completely sure about this, but I think this book passes the Bechdel test. On the other hand, the book deals with the controversial theory of the “Cool Girl”. Through Amy, Flynn insists that the cool girl doesn’t exist, that she is a figment of the male imagination, brought to life by women who believe this is how they are expected to behave. It sounds ridiculous, and while I don’t agree with her completely, the more she reasoned it, the more I started to agree a bit. I don’t think that the cool girl doesn’t exist, I don’t know any but I’m sure there are some out there, and I don’t think this is what all men are looking for in a girlfriend. But I do agree that there is some societal pressure on women to act this way. The point is that because of this phenomenon, the roles could not have been reversed. Amy could never have been suspected of killing her husband the same way Nick is. Because of the way society views domestic relationships, and the way the media treats these cases, the roles could never be reversed and get the same story. And because of the “Cool Girl” theory, Amy’s motives are predominantly female, and could not be transferred to a man. That being said, Amy cannot be seen as a representative for all women, she’s more like a representative for sociopaths. I think people are quite touchy about how women are presented in culture these days, and they feel that Amy is giving men ( and women) yet more kindling for the “Crazy Bitch” fire, but I feel that she is a complex and interesting character, who is also female, which is what I wanted all along.

With regards to the film, Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike did an excellent job portraying the hot-yet-creepy husband, and the beautifu,l mysterious wife. The film captures the atmosphere of the book perfectly, and there were some parts that were definitely enhanced by being on film. There were some slight differences, probably taken out to shorten the running time of the film, but everything ran smoothly regardless. They way the use Amy’s diary is quite clever, and it held my attention even though it ran the risk of being boring.

This is a fantastic thriller, with something more to think about than just whodunnit. I would recommend this to anyone who already enjoys the thriller genre, and to anyone who hasn’t much experience with the genre, but wants to try it out.

Four Stars ****