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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: Wonder

Book: Wonder by R. J. Palacio

Genre: Fiction/Middle Grade/Children’s/Contemporary

I won’t describe what I look like. Whatever you’re thinking, it’s probably worse.

August (Auggie) Pullman was born with a facial deformity that prevented him from going to a mainstream school—until now. He’s about to start 5th grade at Beecher Prep, and if you’ve ever been the new kid then you know how hard that can be. The thing is Auggie’s just an ordinary kid, with an extraordinary face. But can he convince his new classmates that he’s just like them, despite appearances?

When you pick up a book about a primary school kid with an illnesses that’s destroying his face, you’d expect it to be a depressing story. Not quite. Wonder manages to be both heart-breaking and heart-warming at the same time, mixing humour and honesty in a way that puts your emotions through a spin cycle.

I didn’t think I’d be tearing up at a novel for primary school-aged readers, but this book managed that. August is a warm, lovable character, and a huge Star Wars fan – he starts school with a Jedi braid in his hair, removing it only after this painful exchange with a school bully:

“Who’s your favorite character?” Julian asked. I started thinking maybe he wasn’t so bad.

“Jango Fett.”

“What about Darth Sidious?” he said. “Do you like him?”

Maybe no one got the Darth Sidious thing, and maybe Julian didn’t mean anything at all. But in Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, Darth Sidious’s face gets burned up by Sith lightning and becomes totally deformed. His skin gets all shrivelled up and his whole face just kind of melts.

I peeked at Julian and he was looking at me. Yeah, he knew what he was saying.

This story isn’t just about August, either. Auggie’s friends and family all have roles to play in the story, and each viewpoint has a different voice to match it. Wonder could be used as a textbook for great characterisation – it crafts a fantastic villain in school bully Julian while August’s friends and family are all flawed but loveable.

If you’re into children’s or young adult fiction, do yourself a favour and pick up “Wonder”. It’s a fresh, brave concept in the children’s writing world — and a great story to boot.

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

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: “Passion”

Lauren Kate’s “Fallen” series is one of the most popular reviewed series here on the blog. Thanks to Random House, I got hold of an early copy of the latest book in the series, “Passion”, for review.

“Every single lifetime, I’ll choose you. Just as you have chosen me. Forever.”

Luce would die for Daniel. And she has. Over and over again. Throughout time, Luce and Daniel have found each other, only to be painfully torn apart: Luce dead, Daniel left broken and alone. But perhaps it doesn’t need to be that way. . . .

Luce is certain that something—or someone—in a past life can help her in her present one. So she begins the most important journey of this lifetime . . . going back eternities to witness firsthand her romances with Daniel . . . and finally unlock the key to making their love last.

Cam and the legions of angels and Outcasts are desperate to catch Luce, but none are as frantic as Daniel. He chases Luce through their shared pasts, terrified of what might happen ifshe rewrites history.

Because their romance for the ages could go up in flames . . . forever.

Time travel is the latest addition to the “Fallen” series, playing an integral role in “Passion” as Luce hops around time trying to find some of the answers behind her curse. I love time travel, so I enjoyed Lauren Kate’s take on it.

With a unique set of rules preventing interaction with their past selves, both Daniel and Luce visit various different decades, and see their own past selves. The settings and cultures are only visited briefly, but Kate shines at them – showcasing culture and colourful characters, even if each location only features for a small amount of time.

She takes Luce from war-torn, snowy Moscow to 19th-century England; from Tahaiti islanders who mark themselves with elaborate tattoos to a Tibetan palace; even to a Mayan tribe with some terrifying rituals (my favourite scene).

It is important to realise that this book is both prequel and sequel – or else you might have the same niggling annoyances I did. The story arc didn’t seem to develop as much as in earlier books – the plot begins with Luce travelling through time to find answers, and that remains her objective for most of the book without any real detours. I could have definitely used a few more twists, but the last act of the book brought in some strong reveals and foreshadowing for the final book, “Rapture”.

As with “Torment”, there’s steady improvement in the writing – new characters, like the loud-mouthed gargoyle Bill, add some witty lines and a change of pace. The dialogue is sharper with some funny exchanges between Luce and Bill, and Luce takes a lot more control of her situation than we’ve seen her before. The world-building is also clarified – we find out more about the Announcers, shadows that are used to step through time and space, and there are some new rules about time travel and some exciting hints about Luce and Daniel’s curse.

I did miss some of the other characters – especially Cam. Cam’s awesome – but “Passion” does a solid job of filling in the back story and setting the scene for “Rapture”, which looks like an action-packed end to the series.

“Passion” is out on the 23 June. You can read our reviews of Lauren Kate’s other novels by clicking here, and we’ll have some exclusive editing advice from the lady herself on Friday.

You can pre-order it with free shipping almost anywhere in the world from the Book Depository, in Hardback or Paperback.

Disclaimer: A copy of “Passion” was provided for this review by 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”.

Review: Anne McCaffrey’s “Dragonflight”

So… Anne McCaffery’s “Dragonriders of Pern”. A famous series, particularly among those interested in

dragons, and one that’s been on my to-do list for a long time – because, as a writer of fantasy (well, cyberpunk) fiction involving dragons, it’s required reading.

I picked up the first book, “Dragonflight”, quite recently – it featured some gorgeous cover art pleasantly reminiscent of the work done on “Dragon Tamers 2: Digital Tempest”, and at first, I really enjoyed it. But in hindsight, there are sections of it that bother me…

It’s hard to explain my impressions of this book – perhaps it’s still too soon after reading it, but I’ll do my best.

‘Dragonflight’ does deserves its place as a fantasy staple – it’s well-written, for the most part, with a detailed world and brilliant effort put into grounding it’s main fantasy element – the dragons, which are all given personality as well as form, with their eating habits to their methods for firebreathing all rendered it satisfying detail.

The time it’s set, however, is not so clear – we’ve got a near-medieval world where important technology has been ‘forgotten’, but with telepathic dragons, extraterrestrial threats and time travel. Executed well, it could have been great – and the time-travel was a nice step up from the slow-moving first half of the book – but it wasnt really touched on, let alone explain, and too much thinking in to the situation tends to unravel the setting piece by piece.

So, where does it go wrong?

It starts with the main female character, Lessa. She starts out fantastic – strong-willed, ambitious, and delightfully dark-natured, and continues lie this, in part, for most of the book. But as it progresses and her relationship with the male protagonist happens, she seems to do a complete u-turn – not only does she let what’s described, in plain words, as rape by him pass with only the odd bit of snark, but she’s left helpless by his constant, rough shaking whenever she does the wrong thing.

She’s lead in a complete u-turn into some meek, abused housewife – and when you loo at Anne’s author bio, where she’s said to have started writing to protest ‘unrealistic portrayals of women’, well…

What.

I’m not a feminist, just smart enough to realise when abuse is clearly portrayed, nor am I a hater. I liked the book, and I’d still recommend the novel to fantasy fans. I’ll even be reading it’s sequels – though partly, this will be in the hope it gets better.

But I’ll be hoping the future protagonists are more of what Lessa should have been….