Category Archives: Contemporary

Emma Maree Reviews: Anna and the French Kiss

Book: Anna and the French Kiss by Stephanie Perkins

Genre: YA/Romance

Anna was looking forward to her senior year in Atlanta, where she has a great job, a loyal best friend, and a crush on the verge of becoming more. So she’s less than thrilled about being shipped off to boarding school in Paris—until she meets Étienne St. Clair. Smart, charming, beautiful, Étienne has it all . . . including a serious girlfriend.

But in the City of Light, wishes have a way of coming true. Will a year of romantic near-misses end with their long-awaited French kiss? Stephanie Perkins keeps the romantic tension crackling and the attraction high in a debut guaranteed to make toes tingle and hearts melt.

I’m not usually much of a romance reader, but this book has received so much universal adoration that I had to give it a try. Plus, a fluffy romance book is a good read while travelling.

I’ve been describing this book to friends as “like a very smartly written chick flick”, and now that I’m finished I think it’s a very fitting description.

The story is a bit slow to start, but fantastic once it gets going — it’s a sweet, complex story of an American trying to find her way in Paris and all the interesting friends she makes in her year there.

It doesn’t shy away from anything, delving head-first into fascinating character personalities and friendships, detailed backstories, and teen issues.

I’ll be looking forward to picking up “Lola and the Boy Next Door” when I’ve whittled down my to-read piles.

Emma Maree Reviews: Code Name Verity

Book: Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein 

Genre: Fiction/Young Adult/Historical

I have two weeks. You’ll shoot me at the end no matter what I do.

That’s what you do to enemy agents. It’s what we do to enemy agents. But I look at all the dark and twisted roads ahead and cooperation is the easy way out. Possibly the only way out for a girl caught red-handed doing dirty work like mine — and I will do anything, anything, to avoid SS-Hauptsturmführer von Linden interrogating me again.

He has said that I can have as much paper as I need. All I have to do is cough up everything I can remember about the British War Effort. And I’m going to. But the story of how I came to be here starts with my friend Maddie. She is the pilot who flew me into France — an Allied Invasion of Two.

We are a sensational team.

I picked this book up due to the massive (and I mean MASSIVE) hype it’s had around the Internet. And for the first third of the book, I was convinced it just wan’t for me. It was slow and languous, and often needlessly confusing. I was fighting the urge to mark this down as ‘Did Not Finish’ and move on.

But I was determined to find out just what was so good about this book. I read on. And I got hooked.

The climatic half of this book is amazing. It’s sensational. I just wish I’d be warned about that beginning so I knew to keep on plodding through.

But oh my, that second half. This is a meticulously crafted story, with a razor sharp eye for dialogue and historical details. I’m very glad I finished reading it.

Emma Maree Reviews: Heart-Shaped Bruise

Book: Heart-Shaped Bruise by Tanya Byrne

Genre: Fiction/Young Adult/Psychological/Crime Fiction

They say I’m evil. The police. The newspapers. The girls from school who shake their heads on the six o’clock news and say they always knew there was something not quite right about me. And everyone believes it. Including you. But you don’t know. You don’t know who I used to be.

Who I could have been.

Awaiting trial at Archway Young Offenders Institution, Emily Koll is going to tell her side of the story for the first time.

“Heart-Shaped Bruise” is the diary of young criminal Emily Koll, written from her prison — a young offender’s institute in England.

This book has some balls: we’ve got a hard-to-categorise story (is it crime? mystery? psychological? contemporary?) with a hard-to-like protagonist who’s in jail for something horrible. It’s a daring book, and I love it.

I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to relate to Emily, who’s bitter about her imprisonment, difficult to talk to, and cold to her fellow inmates. But how can I not like a girl who talks about her grief like this:

“It was like a blackness that crept into the corners of my life until everything was grey and dirty. My insides felt burned out, like if you cut me open, all you would find would be smoke. No heart. No bones. There was nothing left, just the anger.”

I spent my time reading it and highlighting lines that resonated: Yes, Emily, I know that blackness. I know your pain. Your betrayal. Your black, unstoppable fury. If I’m being honest, I think it’s difficult to be a woman and not know exactly how she feels. She makes it so easy to understand her story.

Even though what Emily does might be unimaginable to some of us, the pain she goes through to reach that breaking point is something most of us can relate to.

If you’ve ever tried to write an unlikable character, it’s worth picking up this book as an example of how to do it right without losing your character’s edge.

Emma Maree Reviews: The Fault In Our Stars

Book: The Fault In Our Stars by John Green

Genre: Fiction/Young Adult/Contemporary/Romance

Diagnosed with Stage IV thyroid cancer at 12, Hazel was prepared to die until, at 14, a medical miracle shrunk the tumours in her lungs… for now. Two years post-miracle, sixteen-year-old Hazel is post-everything else, too post-high school, post-friends and post-normalcy. And even though she could live for a long time (whatever that means) Hazel lives tethered to an oxygen tank, the tumours tenuously kept at bay with a constant chemical assault. Enter Augustus Waters. A match made at cancer kid support group, Augustus is gorgeous, in remission, and shockingly, to her interested in Hazel. Being with Augustus is both an unexpected destination and a long-needed journey, pushing Hazel to re-examine how sickness and health, life and death, will define her and the legacy that everyone leaves behind.

“The Fault In Our Stars” released at the end of December in the UK to a bit of a kerfuffle – all pre-orders were supposed to be signed, but Amazon UK ignored the large number of pre-orders received and left it until the last minute to order all their required copies. As a result, instead of receiving the pre-signed copies, they received and sent out a rushed print to cover their requested numbers.

For the thousands of fans waiting for a signed copy, who received a blank one, this was disappointing stuff. I received an unsigned one and ended up buying a signed replacement from The Book Depository, who happily kept customers up to date on their inventory of signed stock. They really showed Amazon how good customer service should be done.

But all this kerfuffle didn’t stop me reading and enjoying the book. It’s a curious mix – a light, comedic story about a serious situation. One of the cover quotes mentions it jumping from comedy to tragedy, which is a fair description – it does it seamlessly, though, moving from light to dark beautifully.

If you’re not a fan of ‘cancer books’, don’t be turned off – while cancer is a big focus, it’s all kept at light-hearted as possible, and John Green’s signature style makes it all feel so real and so important. The kids are wise and funny, and I think that’s part of the reason his books are so popular. He doesn’t talk down to kids, instead, his kids talk ‘up’ – they say and think the things we wish we could put into words.

Looking for Alaska is still my favourite of John Green’s books, and it’s the one I would recommend to new readers – but if you’ve ever read his stuff, The Fault in Our Stars will not let you down. Set some time aside to read it — you can go through it in an evening if you have the time, but god forbid anyone interrupts you, it knocks you straight out of the story and makes it difficult to get back into it. The characters will stay with you, and it’ll keep tugging at your heart-strings long after you’ve closed the book.

Emma Maree Reviews: “Boys Don’t Cry” by Malorie Blackman

Choosing character names is a struggle for me, but it’s clear author Malorie Blackman has some naming skills. The two main characters of her latest novel “Boys Don’t Cry” are Dante, whose story revolves around being left holding his newborn baby after his girlfriend skips town, has a younger brother named Adam, an openly gay black teenager that Dante’s friends hate.

Dante and Adam. Those are fantastic names. The Christian origin, the dichotomy of it – Adam being the son of God, residing in Heaven, Dante being a famous bard who went down into the depths of Hell in search of his love. Religion isn’t mentioned in the book, but the symbolism here – the opposite meanings – rings true. Dante and Adam are close as brothers, especially when they’re in the house around each other, but they disagree on a lot of things and argue often.

But this story is about a lot more than the two brothers. When Dante is sitting waiting for his A-Level result, his ex-girlfriend appears at the door with a baby she claims is his. Then she disappears, leaving him holding the baby and facing the fact that he might be about to lose everything – a promising university education, his social life, and his current girlfriend Colette.

Told from a rare single father point of view, Dante has to figure out how to be a dad – from changing nappies to worrying about whether it is really his kid. His dad helps him out using his own experience as a single parent – but the help is in true-to-life ‘dad’ form, with lots of grumbling about what a bloody idiot he is for getting into this mess in the first place.

I wasn’t sure if I’d enjoy this story, but Dante’s strong voice pulled me into the story. He’s very British, and very honest and real – he sounds like a typical English teen guy, it’s great. It’s also a very honest story – it doesn’t skim over any of the harsh realities of being a teen parent. Dante’s friends stop calling round to visit, his girlfriend doesn’t want anything to do with him, his guy friends mock him when they’re not busy taunting his brother.

Author Malorie Blackman

The story unfolds at a quick pace, with chapters from Dante’s point of view showing the child-rearing side of life, and Adam’s chapters showing some of the darker sides of Dante’s circle of friends. By the end of the story, the viciousness of Dante’s friends shows its true colours and has horrible consequences.

The ending left me wanting more – it was realistically done, but I really wanted karma to be served. I also wish they’d mentioned the families skin colour more – the only obvious mention about Dante being black was towards the end. You could argue that this is clever – the ambiguous cover and narrative mean any young guy can relate to the story – but personally I wish this was stated clearly and proudly from the start.

It’s been a long time since I read Malorie Blackman (as a kid I poured over stories like “Hacker” and “Pig-Heart Boy” in my Primary School library), and I’m glad to see she’s as brilliant a writer as ever.

Maybe I should get around to finally giving her “Noughts & Crosses” series a look…

A review copy of this book was provided by Random House.

Emma Maree Reviews “Looking For Alaska”

Took me a while, but I finally got around to reading John Green’s “Looking For Alaska”. This is a modern classic in Young Adult books, and it broke a lot of barriers regarding sex, drugs and profanity in teen fiction.

Before. Miles “Pudge” Halter is done with his safe life at home. His whole life has been one big non-event, and his obsession with famous last words has only made him crave “the Great Perhaps” even more (François Rabelais, poet). He heads off to the sometimes crazy and anything-but-boring world of Culver Creek Boarding School, and his life becomes the opposite of safe. Because down the hall is Alaska Young. The gorgeous, clever, funny, sexy, self-destructive, screwed up, and utterly fascinating Alaska Young. She is an event unto herself. She pulls Pudge into her world, launches him into the Great Perhaps, and steals his heart. Then. . . .

After. Nothing is ever the same.

Author John Green is brilliant, and this story is tightly written – the boarding school setting is detailed and quirky, the teens all act realistically and each character is memorable and loveable,  and the plot moves at a good pace with short chapters that focus on key moments and end as soon as that moment is done. It’s a short and fast story, with no words wasted.

What really made me love this story, though, is that is focuses on what’s really important.

A lot of stories that involve suicide focus on the grief, the emotional collapse and crumbling relationships that follows it. These are all good things to focus on, but they’re not the main issue.

Why?

That’s the main issue, the big problem, the all-consuming thought that follows suicide. Because you never know all the answers, all their thoughts, the reasons and the events that made it happen. You are left wishing you could see their last few moments, know their thoughts. You’re left piecing together the reasons because they never line up, there’s always missing moments, facts, questions. There’s always a why.

John Green’s “Looking for Alaska” captures this perfectly.

Emma Maree Reviews “The Sky is Everywhere”

Seventeen-year-old Lennie Walker spends her time tucked safely and happily in the shadow of her fiery older sister, Bailey. But when Bailey dies abruptly, Lennie is catapulted to centre stage of her own life – and, despite her nonexistent history with boys, suddenly finds herself struggling to balance two. Toby was Bailey’s boyfriend; his grief mirrors Lennie’s own. Joe is the new boy in town, with a nearly magical grin. One boy takes Lennie out of her sorrow, the other comforts her in it. But the two can’t collide without Lennie’s world exploding…

This is one of those books that didn’t quite “click” with me.

The narrative and characterisation is flawless -Lennie and her sister are both loveable bookworms, and the Lennie’s ‘voice’ is light-hearted and absolutely adorable. Every character is someone you’d like to meet, from Lennie’s gardener-extraordinaire Gran and pothead lothario Uncle Big, to Lennie’s best friend Sarah and Joe, the constantly-grinning new boy in her music class.

But the plot just didn’t work for me. Lennie’s relationship with Toby didn’t feel romantic. As much as I wanted to believe it was grief behind Lennie’s relationship with her dead sister’s ex, a lot of her reasoning behind it was that she felt ‘drawn to him’.

Grief can make you irrational, and it makes you want to be around people who understand what you’re going through. But after this has happened a few times it’s more of a matter of Lennie being unable to keep her lust in check, and my sympathy wore off. The story still managed to be amusing and upsetting in turns, but I felt ‘disconnected’ to Lennie and spent most of the story waiting for her to do the sane thing and choose Joe.

The edition I had was gorgeous – it was advertised as a hardcover on Amazon, but it was a softcover with a textured cover and lovely full-colour images of Lennie’s poems throughout. (Ringo the Cat has some pictures of this edition.) I haven’t seen as unique and detailed an edition of a book before, so if you decide to pick this up, that’s the version to buy.

Emma Maree Reviews “Where She Went”

Last month I fell in love with the sparse, disconnected prose and honesty of “If I Stay”. The sequel, “Where She Went”, is a different creature entirely.

Told from the brutally honest point of view of Adam, who was Mia’s high-school boyfriend in “If I Stay”, it’s the bitter, angry counterpart to Mia’s calm detachment.

Three years after Mia’s accident, Adam’s channeled his angst into a multi-million selling album. He’s a hit rockstar with a gorgeous movie star girlfriend, and paparazzi follow him everywhere.

He’s also very clearly unwell – he’s fighting with everyone and pushing his band away, lashing out at reporters, on medication for panic attacks, obsessing over Mia, and hating every moment of his rich-and-famous life.

On a one-night stop in New York before he embarks on a dreaded European tour, Adam finds out that cellist Mia, now a rising star in the classical music scene, is playing in the city. She spots him at her concert, and they end up face-to-face for the first time in free years.

Is one evening in New York enough time to repair all the damage they’ve been through?

This is a very different story from “If I Stay” – it’s a much more self-constrained story about the two characters. I adored it – just like in “If I Stay”, every little interaction is brimming with character revealing-details. Adam’s narrative is a perfect example of a guy with issues, and it never pulls any punches. The dialogue is brilliant, but for the opposite reason – while Adam’s narrative is wordy and honest, the spoken words that follow are clipped and false. A perfect example of the contrast between what we think and what we say.

Recommended for fans of: “Before I Fall” by Lauren Oliver, “If I Stay”

A copy of this book was provided for review by the lovely people at Random House.

 

Emma Maree Reviews “If I Stay”

This felt like a very fresh book to read, for a lot of reasons. It’s filled with references to classical music and classic rock. It uses flashbacks to tell a lot of the story without slowing down. Most importantly to me, the main character Mia didn’t speak like a teenager. The 17-year-old cellist thought like an adult, acted like an adult, fell in love like an adult. It all made her so much easier to relate too, while the difficult situations she had to deal with in her life kept the focus on how young she still was.

When her entire family die in a car crash Mia is left with a choice: stay and be with her the boy she loves but with her parents and little brother dead; or leave, avoiding the pain and taking the chance to be with her family.

The story is broken up into sections of time, with flashbacks in-between telling the story of Mia’s life before the crash. The hospital scenes are told expertly, and the both past and present contain a huge amount of memorable characters –  Mia’s boyfriend, an up-and-coming guitarist trying to balance his relationship and his tour schedule, her punk rock parents, her drummer little brother, her grandparents, and a long line of relatives and friends.

While at first she’s quite detached from events, Mia goes through all kinds of emotions after the crash – her grief, her anger, her self-doubt and her loves all form vital parts of the story. The decision of whether or not she should stay is never clear-cut, because you can tell how much she loves her boyfriend and her grandparents, and how much she loves her parents and little brother.

Sometimes gruesome, sometimes funny, and always honest – Gayle Foreman’s “If I Stay” is a novel that will stick in your mind long after you’ve finished it.

Click here to read my review of the sequel, “Where She Went”.

Emma Maree Reviews “The Betrayal of Natalie Hargrove”

If you’ve been reading much Young Adult fiction lately, you’ll be familiar with love triangles. You might even be sick of them. But “The Betrayal of Natalie Hargrove”, a standalone contemporary novel by “Fallen” series author Lauren Kate, deals with that problem in an unusual way – the secondary love interest, green-eyed Justin, is dead. Not zombie-dead or vampire-dead. In-the-ground, exit-stage-left dead. This doesn’t stop him haunting every corner of the book, completely outshining Natalie’s own boyfriend Mike.

Natalie Hargrove is Lauren Kate’s smartest and darkest protagonist yet. A small town Southern girl born on the wrong side of the tracks, in the wrong trailer park, she’s spent years plotting her way into the richer side of town. She’s gained a hot, rich boyfriend and a place at the top of elite Palmetto high school’s social ladder. Then she accidentally kills Justin, the gorgeous green-eyed reminder of all her past mistakes. Now her relationship, her social status, and her carefully-crafted life depends on making sure the police don’t find out she’s behind it.

The American high school culture is fairly extreme compared to British schools, but easy enough to adapt into if you’ve seen enough American movies. I wasn’t a huge fan of the plot – it gets off to a quiet start, setting up the stakes well, but the climatic scene felt awkward and unnatural. I’m also getting really tired of conveniently physic friends.

Where this book really shines is as an example of a strong character ‘voice’. Natalie is my favourite of Kate’s characters so far, way above Lucinda Price from Fallen. The first person writing lets you know the reasons behind her occasionally cruel actions, and little details are picked up that only she would pick up: first their fashion sense, then the state of their hair and how it could be improved, then their eyes and make-up or accessories. Lauren’s also good at using her environment to bring out character details – check out how she blends a bit of family back story with a description of Mike’s mother:

“from the seamless skin around Diana’s eyes when she smiled […] it was obvious someone had discovered the perks of having a son with an endless supply of botox.”

Oh, and that cover? Not bad at all, fits perfectly with Lauren Kate’s other books and does a great job working in the main character’s fondness for the colour purple. A huge improvement on the original American cover. The new American cover is better, but I think the UK one fits with “Fallen” and “Torment” much more smoothly.

“Betrayal” is a short read, but definitely worth picking up if you enjoyed Lauren Kate’s other books “Fallen” or “Torment”, or the portrayals of popularity in books like Lauren Oliver’s “Before I Fall” and Chuck Palahniuk’s “Invisible Monsters”.

Disclaimer: The copy used in this review was won in a competition run by Random House.

Click here to read my review of Lauren Kate’s paranormal romance, “Fallen”.