Wednesday, 20 June 2012

Review: The Lost Continent, Bill Bryson

The Lost Continent: Travels in Small Town America

Bill Bryson

Black Swan, 1989

"I come from Des Moines. Somebody had to."

And, as soon as Bill Bryson was old enough, he left. Des Moines couldn't hold him, but it did lure him back. After ten years in England, he returned to the land of his youth, and drove almost 14,000 miles in search of a mythical small town called Amalgam, the kind of trim and sunny place where the films of his youth were set. Instead, his search led him to Anywhere, USA; a lookalike strip of gas stations, motels and hamburger outlets populated by lookalike people with a penchant for synthetic fibres. 

Travelling around thirty-eight of the lower states - united only in their mind-numbingly dreary uniformity - he discovered a continent that was doubly lost; lost to itself because blighted by greed, pollution, mobile homes and television; lost to him because he had become a stranger in his own land. 

This was an absolute joy to read. I borrowed this book from my friend's dad, and a few pages in I realised that I'd actually read this book before, years ago, but I only vaguely remembered it. I'm glad I got a chance to re-read it as an adult. Bryson is acerbic, but there is a genuine affection for the country underlying his writing, which comes through more and more as he makes his journey around the continental United States. I think it would be easy to mis-read this book as an attack on his home country, but I took it more as a lament against those forces that can really ruin a landscape and dull people's desire to preserve their surroundings: big business, fast food restaurants, crappy tourist attractions.

Bryson was born in Des Moines, Iowa, but at the time of writing this book (1989) lived in the UK. There are a few comparisons between the two countries, which I appreciated, as someone who has lived in both. The book is testament to the sheer vastness of the US, from the little towns of New England to the huge, empty spaces of the West. Bryson visits a mixture of small towns, towns that are notable for their famous residents (most of which are geared towards tourism), and a couple of bigger cities, as well as Appalachia and the Grand Canyon.

Underlying Bryson's journey are memories of his father and the holidays they used to take as a family. I've come across this theme in travelogues of this sort before, the re-tracing of the father's steps and the desire to remember, but it was in the background, rather than used in an over-emotional or over-played way.

Most of all, Bryson is funny. He is also grumpy and occasionally bitter, but I found him the ideal travel companion as I devoured this book over the space of a week. His sense of humour is dry, his exasperation with the world frequent, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I particularly enjoyed his observation of the state line between North and South Carolina, where is goes from being attractive and tree-lined to scrub right as you cross it. I can attest that this, at least, has not changed.

I'll definitely be picking up some of Bryson's other travel books in future - he has written on the US, the UK and Australia - and, although this book is now over 20 years old, I would recommend it as a humorous, warts-and-all jaunt around America, that is both scathing and redemptive, an underlying and understated affection eventually shining through.

Overall rating: 9/10

Book source: Borrowed from my friend's dad.

Sunday, 17 June 2012

Weekly roundup: Showcase Sunday #5

Showcase Sunday is a weekly meme hosted by Vicky at Books, Biscuits and Tea, allowing bloggers to share any books they've received recently.

It was my birthday this week. I have reached a certain age. That certain age is the unfortunate-rockstar age. (No, I am not the same age as Mick Jagger.) I also received some books for my birthday, as well as one that I ordered a while ago and that finally arrived!

Received as gifts:

Riding The Magic Carpet: A Surfer's Odyssey to Find the Perfect Wave by Tom Anderson

I don't surf, but I've always had a fascination with it from being a kid. Blame all those Beach Boys records my dad gave me. Even if the only Beach Boy who actually surfed was Dennis Wilson. But I'm getting off track.

Oh hi guys.
Anyway. I've actually started reading this book, and so far it's great. Anderson has written another book called Chasing Dean, which seems to be a kind of surfing/travelogue around the US, which I'll definitely be picking up if this book continues to be as good.

The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach

This has had some great reviews, and was blurbed by Jonathan Franzen, whose novels I really like. It's set in a US college, and revolves around the baseball season and the lives of a handful of characters. This sounds exactly like the kind of book I love, so I'm excited to get started with this!

Touching The Void by Joe Simpson

I have a strange fascination with mountaineering books, even though (like surfing) it's not something I actually partake in. I am a huge fan of Jon Krakauer's books, and while he now writes on varied subjects as an investigative journalist-type writer, he used to be a mountain climber and wrote a couple of books about mountaineering, including one on the Everest disaster of 1996 (Into Thin Air). Simpson's book is meant to be one of the classics.


Girl, Missing by Sophie McKenzie

This is a young adult book about a girl who is adopted, and who finds out that she might not be who she thinks she is. I am a few chapters into this at the moment. McKenzie is a British author and it's a novelty to have some familiar slang in there!

Reviews posted this week:

A Feast For Crows by George R. R. Martin (7/10)
Just Listen by Sarah Dessen (6.5/10)

This week on the blog:

I am off to the Isle of Wight Festival to see Pearl Jam (!!), Bruce Springsteen (!!) and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, as well as Feeder, Ash, Madness, Joan Armatrading, and a whole host of terrible pop acts who I will be avoiding. This is my fourth time seeing Pearl Jam (the last time was twice in the summer of 2010), but my first ever time seeing The Boss. EXCITED. As a result, posting will probably be sparse, but I'm hoping to get up my review of Bill Bryson's The Lost Continent before I go.

Let me know what you picked up this week! Happy reading. :)

Thursday, 14 June 2012

Review: Just Listen, Sarah Dessen

Just Listen

Sarah Dessen

Puffin, 2007 (2006)

Last year, Annabel was "the girl who has everything" — at least that's the part she played in the television commercial for Kopf's Department Store. This year, she's the girl who has nothing: no best friend because mean-but-exciting Sophie dropped her, no peace at home since her older sister became anorexic, and no one to sit with at lunch. Until she meets Owen Armstrong. Tall, dark, and music-obsessed, Owen is a reformed bad boy with a commitment to truth-telling. With Owen's help,maybe Annabel can face what happened the night she and Sophie stopped being friends...

This is the second Sarah Dessen book I have read, after Lock and Key. In it, Annabel Greene is the girl who formerly had it all: a modelling career, friends, popularity, and the picture-perfect family. Now, however, Annabel is facing a school year in which no one is talking to her and she must eat lunch alone. Her ex-best friend is spreading vicious rumours about her. Annabel's middle sister is slowly recovering from an eating disorder. Annabel, not wanting to rock the family boat any more, keeps quiet about her desire to escape the modelling, and about the secret that caused all the rumours in the first place.

Whether it's a formula or not, I can't quite tell, because I haven't read enough of Dessen's books to come to any kind of conclusion, but Just Listen definitely adheres to a certain troubled-girl-saved-by-friendship-with-unlikely-boy pattern. "Saved by boy" isn't something I particular enjoyed reading, especially in YA, but here Owen is more the catalyst that allows Annabel to start saving herself. Owen, too, was perhaps the most compelling character, and certainly my favourite. Avoided by everyone at school because of his violent past, Owen is in fact the personification of a nice guy: he (begrudgingly) helps out his little sister, he's passionate and opinionated, and he's willing to give Annabel the chance to find herself.

I thought the Greene family issues were dealt with well. Whitney's recovery was a touching subplot, and the changing relationships between the three sisters were a nice aside. The whole time, I was willing Annabel to tell her family what was wrong (even though this isn't revealed until relatively late, the hints made it reasonably easy to guess what Annabel was hiding). Her new found unwillingness to sit with her dad and watch the History channel I found particularly sad.

Annabel's gradual reclaiming of her own life kept me turning the pages of this one. The final few chapters were rewarding in this manner: as Annabel starts to speak up, and people start to listen, she starts to find her feet again. With a few chapters left, I couldn't help but power through to the end to see how everything turned out. (Although I was incredibly irritated by the lack of action Annabel took at the fashion show towards the end, which is *eventually* rectified.)

Yet I feel like this review is somewhat muted, and my main problem is that I couldn't really get a grip on Annabel as a character. The book is written in the first person, yet for much of it Annabel is difficult to ascertain. Part of this may be related to the story and the idea that she tries so hard to please everyone else, it's actually detrimental to her own sense of self. However, I found I was drawn to other characters more, namely Owen and Whitney, both of whom seemed more well-rounded and more interesting as a result. I have wavered on a rating for this reason: the story was enjoyable and pulled me in, yet I felt that there was a barrier between the reader and the main character. I didn't ever feel like we truly got inside Annabel's mind. Even when it came to Owen, I didn't feel like there was much of how Annabel actually felt towards him. I thought, for instance, that the car wash scene was cute, but because Annabel seemed more inclined to just let things happen to her than have any active involvement, there was none of that usual build up or tension that one might expect (and hope for!) as a reader.

There was a lot to like about Just Listen, though, and I'm reluctant to end on a downer! I liked how the issues were presented seriously and realistically: these were not DRAMATIC EXTRAORDINARY THINGS that happened to DRAMATIC EXTRAORDINARY PEOPLE, but real things that happened to real people, who dealt with them not in bombastic, dramatic fashion, but in messy, well-meaning, every day ways. The friendship that develops between Annabel and Owen was gradual and believable. There is a strange kind of blandness that I can't quite put my finger on that has dogged me on both occasions that I have read one of Dessen's books, but as a contemporary YA novel this was a good read.

(I originally rated this 4 stars on Goodreads, but have since decided that 3 stars is a more accurate reflection of my feelings towards this book.)

Overall rating: 6.5/10

Book source: Borrowed from the library.

Tuesday, 12 June 2012

Sandy toes and ocean waves: Top Ten Beach Reads

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme hosted by The Broke and the BookishThis week's topic is: Top Ten Recommended Beach Reads.

I am a bit of a sun dodger in the summer, but I do love being by the sea, and beach + book is never a bad way to spend an afternoon!

1. Death on the Nile - Agatha Christie

Holiday murders and the heat of the desert.

2. Amy & Roger's Epic Detour - Morgan Matson

One of my favourite road trip books!

3. Tales of the City - Armistead Maupin

Short, snappy chapters and lots of fun characters.

4. The Summer I Turned Pretty - Jenny Han

A nice beach-themed read.

5. The Rehearsal - Eleanor Catton

Blurring the lines of truth amongst a group of high school girls.

6. The Virgin Suicides - Jeffrey Eugenides

Delicious and absorbing.

7. The Boyfriend List - E. Lockhart

A quick, fun read perfect for a sunny day!

8. Five on a Treasure Island - Enid Blyton

The ultimate in beach-side adventures, where the kids have their own island to play on to their hearts' content.

9. Riding The Magic Carpet: A Surfer's Odyssey to Find the Perfect Wave - Tom Anderson

This is a little bit of a cheat, because I just received this book for my birthday, but it seems like exactly the kind of thing to read by the sea!

10. You could always have a snooze! (Remember the sun cream.)

Monday, 11 June 2012

Review: A Feast For Crows, George R. R. Martin

A Feast for Crows (A Song of Ice and Fire #4)

George R. R. Martin

Harper Voyager, 2011 (2005)

Bloodthirsty, treacherous and cunning, the Lannisters are in power on the Iron Throne in the name of the boy-king Tommen. The war in the Seven Kingdoms has burned itself out, but in its bitter aftermath new conflicts spark to life. The Martells of Dorne and the Starks of Winterfell seek vengeance for their dead. Euron Crow's Eye, as black a pirate as ever raised a sail, returns from the smoking ruins of Valyria to claim the Iron Isles. From the icy north, where Others threaten the Wall, apprentice Maester Samwell Tarly brings a mysterious babe in arms to the Citadel. Against a backdrop of incest and fratricide, alchemy and murder, victory will go to the men and women possessed of the coldest steel and the coldest hearts.

The fourth book in the series focuses on events in Kings Landing, as well as the Eyrie, Dorne, Oldtown, the Iron Islands and across the Narrow Sea in Braavos. As such, some of my favourite characters were missing completely (to be picked up again in #5, A Dance With Dragons, which exists as the ‘other half’ of this book). However, the new locations were welcome. Dorne has existed on the maps that accompany each book since the beginning, but it was only here that any of the life there could be viewed firsthand.

At first, the book was reasonably disorienting. Used to chapters headed by character names—characters by this point that are largely familiar—it was strange to find many of the chapters headed not by names but by less obvious monikers. These ‘new’ characters, however, begin to flesh out a book that is less action, more politics. Characters manoeuvre and sidestep and outwit and bargain with each other; not uncommon in Westeros, but there is certainly a deeper focus on it here.

What emerges might best be described as the aftermath: the aftermath of war, of death, and of rebuilding. There is a subdued quality to the book that at first I found hard going, but becomes a necessary shade to proceedings. These are characters that have been scattered, lost, and in some cases renamed and reborn.

The biggest revelation in A Feast For Crows might well be Cersei, who gets POV chapters for the first time in the series. Convinced that she is the Lannister sibling most like their father Tywin, she sets about ruling as Queen Regent while Tommen, the boy king, spends his time playing with his cats. Cersei believes herself to be clever and politically astute, but as the book progresses it becomes painfully obvious that she is floundering in a sea of more competent (and quietly, just as ruthless) politicians.

The scenes in Braavos were fun, mostly because of my enduring love of Arya. Her brief interaction with Sam was poignant, as Arya is unable to reveal her true identity, and so Sam never knows he has spoken with Jon’s little sister, so far from home. Sam was another joy in this book: his heartwrenching journey across the sea with Maester Aemon wasn’t the most action-packed, but it was interesting and it was nice to see Sam in 
a different role.

In the epilogue Martin states that the reason for splitting book #4 and #5 was to tell the whole story for half of the characters, rather than half the story for all of the characters. That is not to say, however, that there is not much more story to come for the characters in this volume: as it ended, I was fearful for at least two characters, and left wondering how they and others would get out of their current predicaments.

I am excited to move on to A Dance With Dragons and see how the other characters are faring. A Feast For Crows is not my favourite of the ASOIAF series so far, and there are a lot of names to keep straight and a lot of intricate political manoeuvring in amongst the muted action, but it was still a delight to spend a little more time in Martin’s intricately constructed world.

Overall rating: 7/10

Book source: Borrowed from my brother.

Sunday, 10 June 2012

Weekly round up: Showcase Sunday #4

Once again, I'm linking up with Vicky at Books, Biscuits and Tea this week, to take part in Showcase Sunday!


My friend's dad lent me two books: Bill Bryson's The Lost Continent: Travels in Small Town America, and Terry Pratchett's The Wee Free Men. I am pretty new to Terry Pratchett, after borrowing Equal Rites from another friend a few months ago, but I enjoyed my first foray into the Discworld and am excited to read more!

I have read some Bill Bryson before, but it's a long time ago. As someone whose entire academic life thus far (and it's been a long time, guys) has revolved around the United States, and having spent a year living in the States, it's always nice to visit it again through someone else's eyes. I have had a hankering to delve back into travel writing lately, and have just discovered Summersdale Books' range of travel publications, some of which I have my eye on! 

Reviews posted this week:

Agatha Christie - Cat Among The Pigeons (9/10)

Upcoming reviews: I have reviews of A Feast For Crows by George R. R. Martin coming up this week, as well as a review of Sarah Dessen's Just Listen.

Happy reading!

Wednesday, 6 June 2012

Review: Cat Among The Pigeons, Agatha Christie

Cat Among The Pigeons
Agatha Christie
Fontana, 1981 (1959)

Another term has begun at Meadowbank, a prestigious, well-respected British girls' school. The indomitable headmistress is preparing to retire and name her successor. There is a disconcertingly mature Middle Eastern princess among the students and several new staff members in residence. And a brand-new sports pavilion is the pride of the campus.
But the school year suddenly takes a deadly turn when one of the teachers is found shot to death. As the investigation ensues, it becomes clear that the killer was not an outsider—and equally clear that no one at Meadowbank is who he or she seems to be. It is up to Hercule Poirot to determine who is who—and, more importantly, what has drawn the killer to the school—before anyone else falls victim to the cat among the pigeons.

Another Poirot, but only just. The majority of Cat Among The Pigeons takes place in a girls' boarding school, where the police (with the help of the Secret Service) must uncover the mystery of the dead school mistress and the kidnapping of a high profile student-slash-princess. There is also the case of the missing jewels, smuggled out of Ramat on the eve of the revolution, as well as the question of who will succeed the retiring Miss Bulstrode as formidable headmistress of Meadowbank...

It's reasonably difficult to review a crime novel without giving too much away, so I will just say this. Cat Among The Pigeons was a wonderfully plotted mystery whose ending did not disappoint. By the time Poirot steps in to wrap things up, all the different threads have become delightfully muddled, until the Belgian detective steps in to unravel them all and reveal the murderer.

The characters were interesting, from the rather bland schoolgirl Jennifer to the dramatic Princess Shaista, and from the hard-nosed Miss Springer to the bulwark that is Miss Bulstrode. What made this book one of my favourite Agatha Christie novels was the multifarious nature of the mystery, the different viewpoints, and the pairing of international mystery and cold-hearted killing with the setting of an English boarding school tucked away in the country. A fantastic and compelling read from the Queen of Crime herself.

Overall rating: 9/10

Book source: Bought secondhand from an Oxfam bookshop in Birmingham.

Tuesday, 5 June 2012

Top Ten Tuesday: Rewind!

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme hosted by The Broke and the Bookish. This week, TTT is on a rewind, meaning we can choose any past topic that takes our fancy!

I haven't been taking part in Top Ten Tuesday for very long, relatively speaking, so going back through all the old topics, I saw quite a few that I thought I'd enjoy doing. In the end, however, I chose to relive a chunk of my childhood and go with the relatively simple: Top Ten Childhood Favourites. If nothing else, it gives me an opportunity to google some tragic book covers from the late 80s/early 90s. (And, let's face it, the early 80s, because my local library growing up was hardly ahead of the times, or even anywhere near them.)

These are all books that I was reading, roughly, as a pre-teen and young teenager. I read a lot of series whilst growing up, so here are just a few choice samples:

1. The Babysitters' Club (series) by Ann. M. Martin

Kristy and Shannon swoon over the impeccable rhyming of "blue" with "you".
Oh, the BSC. How I adored these books as a kid. Fifteen chapters of babysitting adventures and mild teenage issues, all wrapped up nearly by the end of the book. Not forgetting, of course, the requisite introductory chapter, where we learned, over and over and over, that Stacey had a blond perm and was from New York, Kristy liked sports and wore a visor, Claudia liked junk food and Nancy Drew, and no one cared that Jessi was black. So much so that they kind of forgot to add in anything in the way of personality for poor Ms. Ramsey.

My first BSC book, and the one I remember the most, was Kristy's Mystery Admirer, as shown above.

2. Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret by Judy Blume

A book that baffled me for years, given all that talk of belts instead of sanitary towels, but one that I loved anyway. I used to borrow the audiobook from the library, and listen to it on my Boots cassette player.

3. Malory Towers (series) by Enid Blyton

I was a massive Enid Blyton fan - everything from The Famous Five to The Secret Seven and the Five Find-Outers, to St. Clares and the Faraway Tree. But Malory Towers, with its tempestuous protagonist Darrell and a cast of broadly sketched but compelling characters, both pupils and teachers, made me desperate for midnight feasts and lacrosse, whatever that might have been. (My brother and I tried, by chucking a tennis ball between two fishing nets, but it's not quite the same.)

4. Sweet Dreams series (various authors)

If only she knew that glasses were for NERDS.
80s throwback time. My library had a potted selection of these books, all of which I borrowed at one time or another. I can only remember two stories now: one about a girl who went to live with her grandmother for the summer, by the beach, and spent all her time diving for sand dollars (I had no idea what these were), and one about a girl assigned to a science project with a (gasp) "bad boy". She liked meteorology, he liked being popular, except he fell in love with her and proved it by taking off her glasses and remarking on how beautiful she was. ("Guys don't make passes...", and all that. Doh.)

5. No. 1 (unknown author, part of the Point series)

Okay, so I remember this book vividly: it was huge, for a YA novel, and bright purple on the front. It concerned a gypsy boy called Terry, who wrote songs and was bullied at school, the bullies themselves, who (I think) end up forming a boy band, and the fight to be number one in the music industry and in the charts. I don't remember who wrote it, but it was a standalone in the "Point" series (who also did Point Horror and Point Romance). If anyone does remember, please enlighten me!

6. Making Out (series) by Katherine Applegate

Also contained a doctor's lecture to Nina and her blind boyfriend on how to use a condom. Fact.
I think they renamed this series a few years ago, but when I was reading it, it was the VERY SCANDALOUS "Making Out", so scandalous it was difficult to ask for them as birthday presents. A group of teens live on a tiny island off the coast of Maine, all stealing each others' boyfriends and girlfriends and scrawling out journal entries while looking cool in a massive jumper (necessary when living on aforementioned tiny island). I wanted to live on an island, and I wanted to be like wise-cracking Nina, who smoked (except she didn't) and always said funny things in threes.

7. Sweet Valley High (series) by Francine Pascal

The scandal of Suzanne, who tried to seduce Robert Redford. I mean, Mr. Collins.
I started by reading the Sweet Valley Twins books, the only one I owned being one where (12 year old) Jessica dates one of her brother's friends by pretending to be older, and ends up on a double date with, erm, her brother. That old chestnut. I then graduated onto SVH, where I spent many a happy hour reading about Jessica's latest hare-brained scheme, and Elizabeth's plan to get her sister out of trouble. Memorable favourites include: The New Jessica and Too Good To Be True from the regular series, the Secret Diaries they published from each twin's point of view, and some trilogy late in the series, where the twins go off to be counsellors at a summer camp. (If you too are an SVH survivor, I highly recommend Shannon's Sweet Valley High blog, as well as the Dairi Burger, which is on hiatus but has an impressive archive.)

8. Anastasia Krupnik (series) by Lois Lowry

The literary character I most resemble.
I almost feel like I would still enjoy this series now, which is more than I can say for some of the above tragedies. ;) Anastasia lives with her parents and her little brother Sam, first in New York and then in the suburbs. My favourite, and the one I read over and over, was Anastasia Again!, in which they make the move to the suburbs, and a hostile Anastasia gradually learns to love her new home.

9. Point Horror series (various authors)

Ghosts! Hangings! Dead girls! Woo!
We used to pass these around school in a borderline-illicit fashion. I recall almost nothing about individual books now, other than the tried and tested formula, which was that the killer was always the one who the narrator never suspected - usually the best friend. I do remember laughing at some for being absurd, yet being genuinely terrified of others: namely, Caroline B. Cooney's Twins, which was so frightening to me at the time that I never finished it, and hid the "scary cover" at the back of the wardrobe.

10. Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh

Maybe my favourite book ever as a kid. I thought being a spy was the greatest thing ever. I wished for stealth and a big yellow raincoat. I had to stand for just writing down lots of pointless things in a notebook.

I also noticed that, in recounting these books, I can remember the series' numbers but not the titles themselves. I knew that SVH #11 and SVH #32 were two of my favourites, but I had to google the titles.

I hope you enjoyed that very retro Top Ten Tuesday - leave me your links!

Sunday, 3 June 2012

Weekly roundup: Showcase Sunday #3

I'm linking up with Vicky at Books, Biscuits and Tea again this week, to take part in Showcase Sunday.

Just one book this week, Follow The Blue by Brigid Lowry, which I borrowed from the library.

The turtle's name is Nora. She lives with Eddie the dolphin, Alan the shark and Rory the triceratops at the end of the bed.
I was away this week, but managed to finally catch up on some blog reading over the weekend. I also did quite a bit of reading throughout the week: I finished Avalon High by Meg Cabot, and started and finished Agatha Christie's Cat Among The Pigeons

I have also (finally) re-opened my copy of A Feast for Crows, book #4 of A Song of Ice and Fire, which I put to one side a few weeks ago when I was battling against a big deadline and had no brain power left come the evening. Hopefully I can enjoy the adventures of Westeros more fully now a long weekend is stretched out in front of me!

I also read Timothy Corrigan's American Cinema of the 2000s, for a review that is pending for the academic journal I am editor of.

Reviews posted this week:
E. Lockhart, Fly On The Wall (7/10)
Meg Cabot, Avalon High (3/10)

What's been on your reading radar this week?

Saturday, 2 June 2012

Review: Avalon High, Meg Cabot

Avalon High

Meg Cabot

Macmillan, 2007 (2006)

Avalon High, Ellie's new school, is pretty much what she'd expected. There's Lance, the hunky footballer; Jennifer, the cute cheerleader; Marco, the troublemaker. But the big surprise is Will - the most gorgeous guy Ellie's ever met.

When Will says he thinks he's known Ellie before, things start getting weird. A feeling that grows as Ellie discovers dark secrets that bind Lance, Jennifer, Marco  Will - and herself. Can she stop the horrific chain of events that threatens to engulf them all?

Ellie has just moved to Annapolis because of her parents' jobs. Her mum and dad are professors of medieval history, and her mum is writing a book about the Lady of Shalott, Ellie's namesake. The Camelot theme is established early on, and snippets from "The Lady of Shalott" are used as the headings for individual chapters. What Ellie thinks is just an obsession of her parents', rooted firmly in the past, might be more than it seems, however.

At first, I thought I would warm to Ellie as a character. When the book opens, the summer holidays are upon her, and with no friends in this new city, Ellie spends her days floating in the family's swimming pool and obsessing over the chlorine levels, not really knowing what else to do with herself. Worried about starting a new school, and missing her best friend, Ellie emerges as a normal, slightly introverted teenager trying to figure out her life. So far so good.

Yet as soon as Ellie starts at Avalon High, I started to lose interest in her as a character. She becomes obsessed with Will after glimpsing him in the park a couple of times. Will, the hot (yet socially conscious!), mysterious boy is full of secrets, and he immediately turns up at Ellie's house for tea out of the blue. Just a few days later, he's revealing the issues he has with his dad. Ellie experiences some impressive insta-love, and then flips out about him keeping other secrets from her (basically, gossip she gets from her new friends regarding Will's past). I found that Ellie went from potentially interesting to quite dull, quite quickly. Her relationship with Will goes from smile-in-the-park to no-one-knows-me-like-you-do at such a speed that it felt completely unrealistic.

The reason for this instant connection is related to the book's Arthurian underpinnings, but I couldn't help but find it lazy all the same. The references to the Arthur/Camelot legend were a nice touch, but often felt laboured: the names were a fun addition, but the moments when Ellie races to the phone book to "discover" Will's actual name was worth an eye roll.

In the end, I think the problem was I didn't buy it. This wasn't high school with Arthurian parallels, but a not-quite-confident-enough-to-pull-it-off high school Arthur. When most of the characters don't even believe the ending or the motivations behind it, I'm not sure a reader should either. It's not doubt difficult to introduce vaguely supernatural (or, in this case, supernaturally historical) elements to a realistic, contemporary setting, but if you're going to do it, at least believe it. (How lame would Buffy have been if she hadn't quite believed that vampires were real, and spent entire chunks of each episode asking the audience, "Could it be true? Surely not! But what if... No! It's just too preposterous!")

Ellie, as a character, could have redeemed it if she had been more interesting and three dimensional, like the beginning promised but never followed through on. There was a lot of telling and not a lot of showing, and I didn't find Ellie compelling enough to ignore this. There were, however, a few sparks of interest: Ellie's parents are vibrant and amusing, for instance, and I enjoyed one particular strand of the historical paralleling: namely, that Ellie wasn't who everyone believed her to be. This raised some interesting questions regarding destiny and passivity, and did redeem the ending a little for me.

Having read and enjoyed a number of Cabot's Princess Diaries books, I shall give her other novels a go at some point, but for me Avalon High was overwhelmingly a disappointment.

Overall rating: 3/10

Book source: Borrowed from the library.