Thursday, 28 March 2013

Review: Pushing the Limits, Katie McGarry

Pushing the Limits (Pushing the Limits #1)

Katie McGarry

Mira Ink, 2012

No one knows what happened the night Echo Emerson went from popular girl with jock boyfriend to gossiped-about outsider with "freaky" scars on her arms. Even Echo can't remember the whole truth of that horrible night. All she knows is that she wants everything to go back to normal. But when Noah Hutchins, the smoking-hot, girl-using loner in the black leather jacket, explodes into her life with his tough attitude and surprising understanding, Echo's world shifts in ways she could never have imagined. They should have nothing in common. And with the secrets they both keep, being together is pretty muchimpossible.Yet the crazy attraction between them refuses to go away. And Echo has to ask herself just how far they can push the limits and what she'll risk for the one guy who might teach her how to love again.

I wavered on a rating for this book for a while. I feel like I've given books I've enjoyed to a similar extent a slightly higher rating, but that's because Pushing the Limits had a few too many niggles for me to really engage with it. The more I've had chance to think about it, the more I've been aggravated by a number of elements.

Pushing the Limits alternates between the first-person narration of Echo and Noah. Echo is a former member of the popular crowd at her high school, until a traumatic incident left her scarred and broken and unable to remember exactly what happened (at which point, her 'friends' all seem to have buggered off). Noah is RESIDENT BAD BOY, as identified by his leather jacket and some tattoos. He's been in foster care ever since his parents died, and his younger brothers live with a different foster family and are allowed only limited contact with Noah. (Foster care is apparently social anathema at this high school, too - I think someone actually "gasped" when told Noah was a foster kid.) Echo and Noah have been assigned the same guidance counsellor, Mrs Collins, who was a genuinely likable character in a sea of many less likable ones. As guidance counsellors go, she's not so many paces behind Allison Janney's Ms. Perky in 10 Things I Hate About You. ("What's another word for... engorged?")

Anyway. I digress. The very opening scene of the book, in which Echo, Mrs Collins, and Echo's father and stepmother all sit around and discuss Echo, seemed laden with cliches - the young, pregnant, evil stepmother! the my-way-or-the-highway father! the sullen teenager! Echo can't remember the bad thing that happened to her, and even though everyone else knows, they tell her she has to remember on her own (which seemed to have some psychological reasoning behind it, but which seemed kind of mean at the same time). I felt bad for Echo, but at the same time I don't think I ever cared enough about her as a character.

However, most of the problems I have with Pushing the Limits stem from the character of Noah. More pertinently, they stem from Noah somehow being the desirable boy in the book. I just couldn’t get on board with Noah as this supposedly dream guy. Sure, he doesn't try and push her into sex like her ex-boyfriend did, and he’s generally considerate and treats her well (although I don’t know if my dad would be too thrilled if some guy was groping the inside of my thigh when they met for the first time…). But Noah is horribly possessive, and somehow that becomes a ‘good’ thing here. He constantly refers to Echo as being his – “my girl”, “my siren” (argh), “my nymph” (shut the f…ront door). When he talks to his friend about whether he and Echo are together, he doesn’t say, “she’s my girlfriend”, he says, “I told her she was mine.” I bet she’s well pleased with that. (Except I think she is, and that’s kind of what bothered me.) He’s all ready to punch any guy that comes near her, even if they’re friends, and he says at one point that he’s glad they’re not going to a particular party because Echo’s friend Antonio will be there, and Antonio might be a little too interested in Echo for Noah’s liking. OH OKAY THEN.

Not to mention the whole - holding her hand = "marking my territory". Excuse me while I do the socially-acceptable version of peeing on you, woman.

McGarry included some interesting issues in Pushing the Limits, and ones that didn't seem overdone - Noah's case with his brothers was presented well, and I liked how we saw the different angles and different points of view, as well as the difficulties surrounding it. Noah didn't do himself many favours, and he was slow in coming to the realisation that everyone else had had - that maybe it wasn't a great idea to go to court and fight for custody - but the plotline itself was one of the things I enjoyed more.

I can see the appeal of Pushing the Limits in theory (and if you don't mind that you're kissing a boy who refers to you as his "nymph", there's a lot of material to please fans of YA romance) but it didn't do much for me at all. The main characters didn't grab me and there were so many questionable things happening that I could never really immerse myself in the story before someone else did or said something outlandish or strange or totally not in keeping with their character, just so the story would move along. (Case in point - Luke going from "YOU DON'T STEAL MY GIRLFRIEND!" to "actually, you guys make an awesome couple and he treats you so much better than I did" in ABOUT THIRTY SECONDS.)

Overall rating: 3/10

Book source: Borrowed from the library.

Sunday, 24 March 2013

Showcase Sunday: Ozfest!

Showcase Sunday is hosted by Vicky at Books, Biscuits and Tea.

I have been a little bit absent from these parts lately, mostly due to the looming final deadline, but give me two weeks and I should hopefully be free. Ish. You know.

Two books to share this week - both Australian young adult novels. (Eddie and the koala approve.)

Received as part of Mandee's book tour, sent on to me by Jasprit (thanks ladies!). I just finished this on Friday night, and it's absolutely fantastic. Review to come!

Everything Beautiful - Simmone Howell

Picked up from the library yesterday after my reservation came in. Another author recommended to me by Mandee (who has also made me watch My Mad Fat Diary, and I can only pass on the recommendation!). I started reading this last night and I'm enjoying it so far.

This weekend I will, however, mostly be reading my own footnotes and making sure all the page numbers are correct. YES.

In awesome news, I did go and see Skunk Anansie this week - this was my fourth time seeing them and they were mind-blowingly excellent as always! There isn't much good footage from the Wolverhampton gig on Youtube yet, but this pretty much sums up the atmosphere:

(The crunchy sound is a good replication of what it sounds like in the Wulfrun when the bass is so loud is echoes off the wooden walls/floor.)

A handful of reviews posted over the last week or so:
S. J. Bolton - Now You See Me (very twisty crime thriller with a Jack the Ripper bent)
Stephanie Perkins - Lola and the Boy Next Door (and my re-read of Anna and the French Kiss)
Gillian Flynn - Gone Girl (gripping thriller with lots of unexpected moments)

Hope everyone is having a good weekend, thanks for stopping by!

Thursday, 21 March 2013

Review: Now You See Me, S. J. Bolton

Now You See Me

S. J. Bolton

Bantam Press, 2011

Lacey Flint is a London policewoman with a secret past, a morbid fascination with serial killers and a curiously empty flat. On the job she's quiet and plainly dressed. At night she has an unusual social life.

When Lacey returns to her car one evening to find a woman fatally stabbed right by it, she is taken in for questioning, but then a hand-delivered letter suggests the killer has a special interest in Lacey herself.

Suddenly she is at the centre of a terrifying murder hunt, working with the smart but damaged DI Dana Tulloch and the hostile DI Mark Joesbury, another person who seems curiously fascinated with Lacey.

Is Joesbury's interest in Lacey personal or professional? Will Lacey cope as the case pushes her into the limelight? And does the team have the skill to outwit one of the nastiest serial killers Londoners have fallen prey to since the killer's infamous role model... Jack the Ripper?

Now You See Me is a first-person crime thriller and the first Bolton novel I have read. In it Lacey Flint, a young police officer, becomes embroiled in a Jack the Ripper copycat case that has the police running all over London trying to solve the mystery before another woman dies.

The book opens with Flint being accosted by a dying woman on a London housing estate, and from that moment Flint is inextricably connected to the case, despite the reservations of her superiors. Flint has a particular interest in Jack the Ripper and is able to spot the parallels in the cases. This is helpful to the police, but it also suggests that Flint is being targeted by the killer.

There are lots of twists and turns in Now You See Me, and once I got to the end and everything fell into place it was quite satisfying to see how everything slotted together, but although I had a few suspicions about various characters throughout, I never managed to unravel the whole story as it was happening. (One of my hunches was particularly off-centre!)

Something I struggle with quite often when it comes to police procedurals is the sheer number of bit characters (normally all those minor police officers), and there were a lot of names in this one that I forgot as soon as I read them. Luckily, Flint is a pretty complex character and an interesting narrator. She's trying to juggle a less than savoury past with her new life as a police officer, while engaging in some love-hate, touch-me-don't-touch-me flirtation with another officer and taking on extra work under the radar in order to ensure the safety of girls who are at risk of sexual abuse. In the middle of all this, she has to deal with the gruesome reality of the Ripper case (and the details are pretty gory) and the fact that she could be next on the list.

This book was recommended to me Vicky, and in her review she talks about wanting to find out more about the Ripper while reading. The book gives quite a lot of background information and it was interesting without being too info-dumpy. It definitely makes you want to read a little bit more into the background, and in the back of the book there is a rundown of some of the more popular Ripper theories, which were a nice little addition.

Now You See Me is a gripping crime thriller with a less than simple protagonist and lots of action to keep the pages turning. There are some genuinely chilling moments, and I'll definitely be looking out for more of Bolton's work in the future.

Overall rating: 7/10

Book source: Borrowed from the library.

Tuesday, 19 March 2013

Review: Lola and the Boy Next Door, Stephanie Perkins

Lola and the Boy Next Door

Stephanie Perkins

Dutton, 2011

Budding designer Lola Nolan doesn’t believe in fashion...she believes in costume. The more expressive the outfit--more sparkly, more fun, more wild--the better. But even though Lola’s style is outrageous, she’s a devoted daughter and friend with some big plans for the future. And everything is pretty perfect (right down to her hot rocker boyfriend) until the dreaded Bell twins, Calliope and Cricket, return to the neighborhood.

When Cricket--a gifted inventor--steps out from his twin sister’s shadow and back into Lola’s life, she must finally reconcile a lifetime of feelings for the boy next door.

My housemate is hammering on the door to the bathroom because she thinks I've fallen asleep in a foot of lukewarm water (and she'd quite like to clean her teeth). But no - I'm just hooked on another Stephanie Perkins book.

Lola and the Boy Next Door takes place in San Francisco, one of my favourite cities. Lola is seventeen and lives with her dads in a cool, colourful Victorian house. She's going out with a hot boy in a band (Max) and she's looking forward to getting started on the construction of her Marie Antoinette dress for the school dance. Above all, Lola loves fashion and costume, and she never wears the same outfit twice. The only thing that can threaten Lola's happiness is the reappearance of the Bells, her old next door neighbours. And yes, that's them pulling up in the moving van. Enter Cricket and Calliope, twins and former friends of Lola's. Calliope is a champion ice skater, Cricket is an inventor (and former crush), and Lola would rather not see either of them ever again.

Once again, Perkins' writing was spot on. I was pulled into Lola's world from the beginning. The family scenes were integral to the book, which I liked, and her relationship with her dads was nice to see. I would have liked to seen a little bit more of Lola and Lindsey's friendship, but it was a lot of fun to get reacquainted with Anna and Etienne from Anna and the French Kiss (which I re-read and reviewed recently!). The three of them work together, and it was nice to see how Anna and Lola's friendship developed, as well as see Anna and Etienne through someone else's eyes.

Lola is a very vibrant character, and it was a shame to see how she changed around Max, yet I felt like her staying with him was totally believable at the same time, even when she was agonising over her feelings for Cricket. And Cricket is a pretty cool guy. I loved that he and Lola could talk to each other through their windows, and it was sweet to see them reclaiming their friendship gradually (even if they did misunderstand each other a lot of the time!). I don't think anyone is better than Stephanie Perkins at really nailing the little details of attraction, and it was fun to see Lola (and Cricket) coming to terms with it and struggling to hold it all in.

And I am all about combat boots with a dress. Every time.

Overall rating: 9/10

Book source: Bought from the Book Depository.

Thursday, 14 March 2013

Review: Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn

Gone Girl

Gillian Flynn

Weidenfeld & Nicolson/Orion, 2012

Just how well can you ever know the person you love? This is the question that Nick Dunne must ask himself on the morning of his fifth wedding anniversary, when his wife Amy suddenly disappears.

The police immediately suspect Nick. Amy's friends reveal that she was afraid of him, that she kept secrets from him. He swears it isn't true. A police examination of his computer shows strange searches. He says they aren't his. And then there are the persistent calls on his mobile phone.

So what did really did happen to Nick's beautiful wife? And what was left in that half-wrapped box left so casually on their marital bed? In this novel, marriage truly is the art of war.

Trying to talk about Gone Girl is a bit like trying to talk about A Song of Ice and Fire with people who are a book or two behind you. You're desperate to analyse it, but you don't want to give anything away. This book kept me hooked from start to finish, to the point that I had a dream that I was suspected of murder and had to try and explain why I'd hidden the "evidence" in our paper recycling box. (I would be a rubbish criminal, evidently.)

Nick and Amy have been married for five years, and for the last year or two have been living in Missouri, where Nick grew up, after losing their jobs and leaving New York City. On the morning of their anniversary, Amy goes missing, and what follows is the police investigation, told from Nick's perspective, inter-cut with sections taken from Amy's diary. Through the two perspectives, you get a pretty brutal, intimate look at their marriage and the ways in which their relationship has developed over the last few years. Flynn does an excellent job of really pinpointing Nick and Amy's personalities and making them simultaneously aggravating, horrifying, and yet quite often sympathetic. It's difficult to like either of them a lot of time, but I found more than once that I was hoping for a particular outcome or sympathising with one over the other (only to change my mind later on!).

The book is in three sections, and the first two were totally compelling. The third section was a little stranger, and I felt a little bit more disconnected from this part. I struggled to understand the motivations of some of the characters, and while I think that this was probably an intentional move on Flynn's part, it felt like it dipped a little towards the end. This is a really minor quibble, though - Gone Girl is so tightly wound up and so intriguing throughout, with layer upon layer of mystery, that the whole thing was excellent, if more than a little disturbing at times.

Overall rating: 9/10

Book source: Borrowed from the library.

Tuesday, 12 March 2013

Re-read: Anna and the French Kiss, Stephanie Perkins

Anna and the French Kiss

Stephanie Perkins

Dutton, 2010

Anna is 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. Which is why she is less than thrilled about being shipped off to boarding school in Paris--until she meets √Čtienne St. Clair. Smart, charming, beautiful, √Čtienne 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?

[Re-read February 2013]

There are a number of reasons why I love this book so much, and chief among them is the way in which Anna is the focus of the book. Sure, Anna and Etienne are an awesome couple and the whole book revolves around their awkwardly fantastic (or fantastically awkward) steps towards developing a relationship, but Perkins doesn't forget to give Anna a personality in the meantime. I like her dedication to her film reviewing and how her love of the cinema comes through, and I like that she's the kind of girl who would go to the cinema on her own. She's funny, and smart, and a good friend, and all of this comes through as the book progresses.

I also like that Anna and Etienne are friends. They don't just hang out in the same circle waiting to kiss each other, they're proper friends who care about each other. They're also believable teenagers, which I think isn't always nailed in young adult books. I like that they're allowed to swear, and drink, and think about (and have) sex, without it being some huge scandal or the reserve of Bad Characters.

The whole living-in-another-country thing is captured really well - I did my study abroad in a country where there was no language barrier, but a lot of the cultural shock was familiar! Paris really came to life for me when I was reading Anna, from the cold weather and the winding streets to the piles and piles of colourful macaroons, and the wish that Anna makes at Kilometre Zero is one of my favourite things about this book: "I wish for the thing that is best for me."

I love how well Perkins captures the minutiae of Anna and Etienne's relationship - the accidental (or not-so-accidental) touches and the looking-when-you-shouldn't-be-looking and the exquisitely painful emotions Anna goes through as she oscillates between falling in love with Etienne and knowing she shouldn't be falling in love with Etienne, and all the bits in between. There is something about Perkins' writing that made revisiting this book an absolute joy, and something about her characters that make you want to stay up just that little bit later just so you can see what happens to them.

Overall rating: 9.5/10

Book source: Bought from Amazon.

Sunday, 10 March 2013

Showcase Sunday #21

Showcase Sunday is hosted by Vicky at Books, Biscuits and Tea.

I spent last weekend hanging out with The Boy, who came to stay for a few days, so this is a round up of the last couple of weeks' worth of books.

From the library:

Gone Girl - Gillian Flynn

I have already finished this, and all I can say is: go read it. (It's a difficult one to talk about without giving stuff away, so I'm not how the review will go yet!)

Now You See Me - S. J. Bolton

Recommended to me by Vicky, this is a crime novel focusing on a young policewoman and her fascination with Jack the Ripper. A copycat is on the loose, and he appears to be targeting Lacey...

Pushing the Limits - Katie McGarry

I received the second book in this series (Dare You To) for review a couple of weeks ago, so I thought I'd read them in order. It doesn't look like something I would normally pick up, but we'll see how it goes!

Received for review:

Steal My Sunshine - Emily Gale

Ebook copy received from Random House Australia (expected publication May 2013). Contemporary Australian YA with some added historical elements (according to the blurb, to do with forced adoptions). Looking forward to starting this one!

I also got my thesis back from my supervisor for my final edits, which means in WEEKS, rather than MONTHS or even YEARS (and it seems like not very long ago at all, sometimes, since it really was YEARS), I will be submitting. 80,000 words and a lot of brain-aching, brain-expanding, brain-frying thoughts later, my doctoral thesis is in its final stages. So if my posting is a little sporadic until that point, please excuse it...

Thanks for stopping by!

Thursday, 7 March 2013

Review: Persuasion, Jane Austen


Jane Austen

Kindle edition (public domain), 2009 (1817)

Written at the end of the Napoleonic Wars, Persuasion is a tale of love, heartache and the determination of one woman as she strives to reignite a lost love. Anne Elliot is persuaded by her friends and family to reject a marriage proposal from Captain Wentworth because he lacks in fortune and rank. More than seven years later, when he returns home from the Navy, Anne realises she still has strong feelings for him, but Wentworth only appears to have eyes for a friend of Anne’s. Moving, tender, but intrinsically ‘Austen’ in style, with its satirical portrayal of the vanity of society in eighteenth-century England, Persuasion celebrates enduring love and hope.

Recently I read an article on the BBC News website about women in China being labelled "sheng nu" (leftover) if they were unmarried at 27, and "leftover" is just about what Anne Elliot is DOOMED to be in Persuasion. Saddled with a vain father, a snooty older sister (Elizabeth) and an attention-seeking hypochondriac for a younger sister (Mary), Anne isn't doing particularly well in the family stakes and, to top it all off, her engagement some years ago to Captain Wentworth was nixed by her friend Lady Russell, who thought Anne could do better. THANKS EVERYONE, thought Anne.

Most of the book takes place while Anne is staying with Mary, after her father and Elizabeth traipse off to Bath after spending too much money and having to rent out their country home. During her stay with Mary, Captain Wentworth pops back up (his sister and brother-in-law are the ones renting out the Elliots' house) and an elaborate dance of WILL-THEY-WON'T-THEY commences, only to be somewhat thwarted by Louisa Musgrove taking a blow to the head in Lyme Regis. (Of all the places to be knocked unconscious.)

The final section of the book moves to Bath with Anne, who chafes at her family's inelegant and snobbish ways, and must endure a fair amount of other people telling her what to do and who to do it with, before she has an epiphany moment and realises she should probably do what she wants, instead. GOOD FOR YOU, ANNE.

I enjoyed Persuasion - there were a lot of funny moments, mostly due to Austen's subtly scathing sketches of the less appealing characters, particular the Elliots - and Anne is a likable protagonist. The action is quite slow at times - a lot of the plot is driven by conversation and observations rather than dramatic events - but there was enough to keep me hooked until the end, and it was very satisfying when one character in particular was revealed as a bit of a scoundrel. As with Pride & Prejudice, there was a lot of focus on women's choices (or lack thereof), and the way in which marrying well is often elevated above marrying someone you might actually like. So, things Persuasion has taught me: 1) There's no such thing as too much coincidence. 2) Letter writing has never been more intense. 3) No jumping off the harbour wall.

Overall rating: 7/10

Book source: Free Kindle download.

Tuesday, 5 March 2013

Review: Bumped, Megan McCafferty


Megan McCafferty

Corgi Books, 2011

A virus has swept the world, making everyone over the age of eighteen infertile. Teenagers are now the most prized members of society, and would-be parents desperately bid for 'conception contracts' with the prettiest, healthiest and cleverest girls - cash, college tuition and liposuction in exchange for a baby.

Sixteen-year-old Melody is gorgeous, athletic and has perfect grades, and has scored an amazing contract with a rich couple. And she's been matched with one of the most desirable 'bumping' partners in the world - the incredibly hot, genetically flawless Jondoe.

But Melody's luck is about to run out. She discovers she has a sister - an identical twin, Harmony, who has grown up in a religious community opposed to the idea of 'pregging'. Harmony believes her calling is to save Melody from her sinful plans. Melody doesn't have time for this - she can't wait to meet Jondoe and seal the deal. But when he arrives and mistakes Harmony for Melody, everyone's carefully-laid plans are swept out of control - and Melody and Harmony are about to realise they have so much more than just DNA in common.

Bumped is a near-future dystopian set in the United States, in which a virus has swept through the population and rendered almost everyone over the age of eighteen infertile and unable to reproduce. In 2036, teenagers are prized above all for their ability to have babies. Reproduction has become marketable, with rich couples bidding on pregnancies and deliveries. The most intelligent, attractive teenage girls can go 'pro' for huge amounts of money, selling their reproductive function to the highest bidder and having an equally desirable partner chosen for them. Others go the 'amateur' route, 'bumping' with their boyfriends or at so-called "masSEX" parties and then auctioning their babies off once they're born.

The concept fascinated me - if asked to name an issue that I care about strongly, reproductive rights would be it every time. The book deals in a world where having reproductive sex is patriotic, a way of keeping the American population going - to have sex with a condom, for pleasure, is the biggest scandal there is. Girls as young as eleven are pregnant, and there is a whole industry built up around this veneration of pregnancy. Melody's parents have spent her whole life making sure she offers the best possible package to prospective parents, and have auctioned off her reproductive capacity (and, in doing so, her virginity) accordingly.

The issues at the heart of the book are incredibly interesting. Unfortunately, the story itself - focusing on Melody and her twin sister Harmony - didn't grab me like I wanted it to. Melody is preparing for her professional 'bumping' (this weird, 'cute' way of referring to sex was reasonably aggravating, but it did underline how immature they all were at heart) and Harmony has come to save her, with the intention of taking Melody back to Goodside, where Harmony lives a strict religious existence. Harmony, too, is expected to have a baby as soon as she is married. Basically, reproductive control is unavoidable.

The last quarter of the book, in which the seedy side of the pro-bumping life is revealed and both Melody and Harmony start to voice their thoughts about this kind of control, was pretty good. Yet up until this point neither character was particularly interesting. Neither seemed to have much discernible personality. Harmony is conservative and God-fearing; Melody is... not. At one point in the book, quite late on, a character refers to Melody's likes and dislikes as listed in her file, but none of these things are ever explored beforehand. Melody's battles with the other girls in the Pro/Am Alliance were interesting, but I never really felt engaged with them.

The ending felt very unfinished, and given that there's a sequel (Thumped) it seems like a set up for another book rather than an actual conclusion. I was disappointed largely because I feel like the issues at the heart of the book, which amounted to legitimised control over reproduction, the commodification of pregnancy and the re-imagining of sex as purely to produce children, are exactly the kind of thing that need exploring and need interrogating as much as possible, yet it felt like a bit of a waste of an idea. The book started slowly and made some half-hearted criticisms without ever staking its claim. Excellent in theory, but not so much in execution.

Overall rating: 4.5/10

Book source: Borrowed from the library.