Friday, 31 May 2013

Review: All That I Am, Anna Funder

All That I Am

Anna Funder

Viking, 2011

When Hitler comes to power in 1933, a tight-knit group of friends and lovers become hunted outlaws overnight. United in their resistance to the madness and tyranny of Nazism, they must flee the country. Dora, passionate and fearless, her lover, the great playwright Ernst Toller, her younger cousin Ruth and Ruth's husband Hans find refuge in London. Here they take breath-taking risks in order to continue their work in secret. But England is not the safe-haven they think it to be, and a single, chilling act of betrayal will tear them apart.

In Stasiland, Funder wrote a fantastic, revealing book about life beyond the Berlin Wall in the German Democratic Republic (East Germany), focusing on the role of the Stasi, or secret police, and those who resisted them. I read Stasiland about three years ago and thoroughly enjoyed it, and I think I went into All That I Am expecting to be blown away again, so I was a little disappointed to find that I was struggling to get through the earlier sections.

It seems unfair, really, because the story being told in All That I Am is just as powerful and, at its root, just as compelling. It is based on real-life events, and uses a dual narrative, alternating between the characters of Ruth Becker/Wesemann and Ernst Toller, both of whom are politically leftist and opposed to the Nazi regime in Germany, which is slowly being cemented in the early 1930s. Toller is a big opposition figure, a powerful writer and vocal critic of the Nazis and Hitler. Ruth holds the same political views, but is what I thought of as the more 'real' character - normal, unremarkable, caught up in work that she believes is right, and believes is worth risking her own survival for. Toller and Ruth are linked by Ruth's vibrant cousin Dora Fabian, who is full of conviction and a determination to show the world what is really happening in Germany - and how this ultimately threatens the rest of Europe and the world. Dora is really the main character here, yet can only be seen through the eyes of the two who love her best - never quite grasped, as in life.

The book begins in Germany and moves eventually to Britain, where the characters are exiled after being expelled from their home country. They continue their resistance efforts and Hitler gains more power within Germany and more influence outside of Germany. Part of the book occurs in flashback, as both Toller and Ruth strive to remember and record the past before it is too late.

The book began in a promising way, and ended on a powerful note. The last quarter of the book was particularly compelling, and when I finished I was left re-evaluating the rest of the book, wondering why I had faltered a little bit in the middle. I think my main problem was I kept getting Toller and Hans confused - they are very different characters, but neither seemed to have a distinctive voice, and sometimes I would mix the two of them up, or conflate their characters. I much preferred Ruth's chapters, which often began with her current life in Australia as an old woman, before reverting back to her days in London.

Funder captured the atmosphere of fear and distrust really well, and it was interesting to see characters interacting who were both untrusting of each other, yet forced to trust through circumstance. This is the second book this year that I have read that deals with pre-WWII Germany (the other being Christopher Isherwood's Goodbye to Berlin) and it was interesting to see both the similarities - the gradual political changes, the realities of violence and brutality being covered up - and the differences, as All That I Am focuses much more closely on the politics and the personal sacrifices made by those who tried desperately to warn the world of what was coming.

Overall rating: 7/10

Book source: Borrowed from the library.

This review counts towards my Australian Women Writers Challenge 2013.

Wednesday, 29 May 2013

DNF: Dare You To, Katie McGarry

Dare You To

Katie McGarry

Harlequin/MiraInk, 2013

[New release: 7th June, 2013]

If anyone knew the truth about Beth Risk's home life, they'd send her mother to jail and seventeen-year-old Beth who knows where. So she protects her mom at all costs. Until the day her uncle swoops in and forces Beth to choose between her mom's freedom and her own happiness. That's how Beth finds herself living with an aunt who doesn't want her and going to a school that doesn't understand her. At all. Except for the one guy who shouldn't get her, but does....

Ryan Stone is the town golden boy, a popular baseball star jock-with secrets he can't tell anyone. Not even the friends he shares everything with, including the constant dares to do crazy things. The craziest? Asking out the Skater girl who couldn't be less interested in him.

But what begins as a dare becomes an intense attraction neither Ryan nor Beth expected. Suddenly, the boy with the flawless image risks his dreams-and his life-for the girl he loves, and the girl who won't let anyone get too close is daring herself to want it all...

Quotes are from the ARC version and might be different in the final copy.

I made it to 14% before giving up with this book. I haven't given it a Goodreads rating, but be warned that this review will be in no way complimentary.

It's rare that I DNF a book. I requested this book after hearing lots of great things about Pushing the Limits. Before reading Dare You To, I read PTL to familiarise myself with the series, and I found I had a lot of issues with that book. Still, I decided to give DYT a fair go. And I will say this: Katie McGarry writes pretty good drama. There are a lot of issues that she's not afraid to tackle as a writer, and I think it's interesting (and perhaps necessary) to see characters who are damaged by genuinely harmful or shocking life events. From reading PTL, I also know she writes romance with hormones, which is nice to see (i.e., we're not dealing with perpetual virgins here).

So what's the problem?

I will say right now that my issue with Dare You To is character-based, and that I know I am in the minority here when I say I didn't enjoy, or finish, the book. I have debated with myself whether or not to post this review, but it's something I wanted to put out there as air my thoughts, as it were.

The opening chapter of Dare You To was almost enough to make me stop reading in itself. We're introduced to Ryan and his friends, Chris and Logan, in a taco place. They've dared each other to get as many girls' phone numbers as possible that evening. When successful, they dump the slips of paper on the table. Ooh, conquests! And remember guys - the girl needs to be "chosen carefully": "Attractive enough so she won't fall for you. Not a dog because she'll be excited someone gave her a bone." Not that they'll call, of course, it's just a fun game. Well, Chris might call... HAHA! Only joking. 'Cause he "loves his girl" too much. Way to demonstrate that one, Chris.

So then we have Ryan, narrator of half the book's chapters and the kind of guy who HATES TO LOSE in a you-won't-like-me-when-I'm-angry, let-me-punch-the-table-because-I-might-lose-the-dare kind of way (or, as I prefer, in a just-plain-dickish kind of way). He's dared to get the phone number of so-called 'Skater-Girl', who walks into the taco place to, you know, get a taco. Skater Girl, or Beth, is approached by Ryan and rightly tells him to fuck off when he tries to smarm his way around her. Of course, Ryan believes that secretly, Skater Girl wants his attention - "She might look different from the girls at home, but all girls want the same thing - a guy who shows interest." HOLY CRAP, RYAN. You just figured out women. HIGH FIVE.

Beth tells Ryan there's "nothing you can do" to get her to hand over her name or phone number. So what does Ryan do? Walk away? Forget about the whole thing? Realise he's acting like a knob? No, ladies and gentleman, he ramps up the knob act a little further:

"Purposely invading her space, I steal a step toward her and place a hand on the counter next to her body. It affects her. I can tell. [...] She's small. Smaller than I expected."

What the ever-loving fuck is this? A girl tells you she's not interested, and you proceed to pin her up against the counter, invade her personal space, and take some kind of delight in the fact that you harrassment "affects her"?

But it's okay, because Ryan knows women, remember. He also knows what they should and shouldn't be doing. When Beth swears, she asks if he's offended by her language. He says no. His inner reaction is this: "Yes. [...] Girls don't use fuck. Or they shouldn't."

Well, fuck you, Ryan. Fuck you and your ideas about what girls want, and what girls should look like, and what girls should do.

[Minor spoiler] Oh, but don't get me wrong. Ryan is all about choice, at least when it comes to his brother being gay. One of Ryan's friends begrudgingly states that he's "cool" with Ryan's brother's "life choices" (I read that part out loud to my housemate, who said at exactly the same time as me - "IT'S NOT A LIFE CHOICE!"). Ryan is mad at his brother, because he left the house after his dad basically made him choose between being gay, and his family. Way to go, Ryan's dad. Way to be a homophobic dick. But hey, Ryan, go ahead and be mad at your brother for not sacrificing his own happiness and identity for your knobcheese of a father.

But so what? Why does Ryan bother me so much? He's a character in a book. I read a lot of books, and I have encountered a lot of arsehole characters in my time. They don't stop me reading the book - books need villains, and books need people you love to hate, and books need characters you don't agree with. I don't dispute any of that. What bothers me about Ryan is he's the hero. He's the guy you're meant to think is hot and desirable and the kind of guy you wish you could find at your high school. In Dare You To, you're meant to be so taken with Ryan that you forget the relationship between Beth and Isaiah that was set up in Pushing the Limits. And I have a problem with being told that Ryan is that kind of guy.

And yes, I am 27, and maybe a little older than the target audience here. I don't think that makes it any better. I teach a class of teenage girls who at times have such problematic ideas about boys and sex and control and violence that I can't just let characters like Ryan go. (I teach a class in which I have had to say, on numerous occasions, that controlling behaviour is never acceptable, that domestic violence is never justified, that girls are never "asking for it", and it hurts a little every time I have to do it.) Equally, there are characters like Chris, who texts his girlfriend constantly at a party they're all at, because he might trust "his girl" (arrrrgh) but he sure as HELL doesn't trust other drunk guys around her. So drunk, predatory guys at parties are just a fact of life here, and the girl needs protecting. Thankfully, Chris's girlfriend has Chris around, or else she'd probably never be able to leave the house.

Beth's characterisation I found problematic too. I felt for her - she's is trapped in some pretty horrific situations by her mum and her mum's violent boyfriend, and is sent to live with a family member she hasn't seen in years. All of this had the makings of an interesting plot - what I found disturbing were the numerous references to why Beth was like she was, particularly with regards to her appearance. When stoned, she talks about loving dresses and pink when she was a kid, and babbles a bit about ribbons. Her step-aunt asks why she has black hair now, when she was once blond. I have a horrible, horrible feeling (and I really hope I'm wrong) that during the course of this book, Beth shuns her "hardcore" look in favour this traditionally feminine image that the book seems to be suggesting she would secretly love, if only she didn't have all these "issues" and maybe a boy would love her enough so she could become a proper girl. The girl-saved-by-boy trope seems to be alive and well. (Unless you're a bad, slutty, harridan of a girl. Then you deserve what you get.)

So, in summary, according to Ryan and his friends, women should probably shut up and stop swearing (and maybe wipe off that eyeliner while they're at it), and gay men should probably stop choosing to be gay. I'm sorry if I can't reconcile this with any attempt to make Ryan 'book boyfriend' material, but I really, really can't. I think there is an element of trying to make Ryan and his friends "real" in this book - all that peppering their speech with "damn" (as in "damn if she doesn't make me hot", like you're really in a Matchbox 20 song now) and refusing to sugarcoat sex and relationships and the way boys are together. I don't begrudge this attempt at authenticity, but I do refuse to validate it. I know "real-life boys" (of which I know plenty) are not the lovestruck, eloquent specimens of some YA novels, but they're not all like this, either, and I don't like the idea of this misogynistic, controlling, saving behaviour being portrayed as either normal, or desirable.

Of course, I put this book down quite early, so I am aware there is room for Ryan to develop and change. I suspect, from the clues early in the book, that he will fall out with his dad, reunite with his brother, forgo a career in baseball for a writing career (given a weird, WEIRD burst of eloquence about what baseball means to him that just happens to take place in front of his English teacher, who utters a version of those fateful words - "You're a writer, Ryan") and get the girl. Beth will realise that her uncle is just trying to help, her mum will get better and dump her hideous boyfriend (or else Beth will realise there's nothing she can do to help and write her off), and she's stop dressing like 'Skater Girl' and become perfect girlfriend material.

I just really, really don't have the patience or the stomach to find out.

Overall rating: DNF

Book source: ebook ARC received from review from Netgalley.

Friday, 24 May 2013

Review: The Whole of My World, Nicole Hayes

The Whole of My World

Nicole Hayes

Random House Australia, 2013

[New release: June 3rd, 2013]

Desperate to escape her grieving father and harbouring her own terrible secret, Shelley disappears into the intoxicating world of AFL. Joining a motley crew of footy tragics and, best of all, making friends with one of the star players, Shelley finds somewhere to belong. Finally she's winning. So why don't her friends get it? Josh, who she's known all her life, but who she can barely look at anymore because of the memories of that fateful day. Tara, whose cold silences Shelley can't understand. Everyone thinks there's something more going on between Shelley and Mick. But there isn't, is there? When the whole of your world is football, sometimes life gets lost between goals.

The Whole of My World stands out as a somewhat different take on the theme of young adults dealing with loss and grief. Likewise, the main character, Shelley, is both recognisable as a certain kind of YA heroine - confused, withdrawn, wary of who she can trust - while managing to seem unique in her own way and retaining a strong presence in the book. Dealing with a new school, the loss of old friends, and both her own grief and that of her father, Shelley finds solace in her love of AFL and her local team.

Setting the novel against a backdrop of (Aussie rules) football was different, and I thought it worked really well. Shelley is passionate about her team, the Falcons, and as a fellow (English) football fan - and one who was similarly obsessed as a teenager - I could relate to her enthusiasm, the way a win or a loss could affect her whole mood and outlook, and the energy and emotion she channels into it. For Shelley, football is a kind of refuge.

And it's not difficult to blame her. Shelley and her dad are living in a strange, dull world after a family tragedy, and the two of them barely communicate. In fact, communication is particularly hard to come by in this book. Enveloped in grief, Shelley not only keeps her dad at arm's length, but everyone else, too: her best friend Josh, her old classmates, the people at her new school, even Tara, her new friend and footy ally. Tara is also struggling with her own problems (largely hidden from Shelley, so the reader is also clueless for quite a lot of the book), and is equally allergic to meaningful conversation. While she and Shelley appear to need each other, their relationship is quite hard to fathom at times - a lot of monosyllables and meaningful looks that the other one is left to interpret. The lack of communication was quite frustrating as a reader, but at the same time it did fit the situation, and it was easy to sense a kind of helplessness on Shelley's part, as she struggled to make sense of everything around her.

In the middle of all this, Shelley befriends the Falcons' new player, Mick Edwards. She sees a kind of kindred spirit in him, as a fellow newbie (Shelley has a new school, and is also new to the world of the training ground), and the two forge a friendship that was, again, difficult to fathom at times. Again, this seemed intentional. Everyone around them is convinced there's something going on, and Shelley is quite naive about the whole thing, whilst remaining protective of the friendship they have developed. The lines seemed blurry at times, and I did feel for Shelley as she tried to figure out what exactly (if anything) she was doing wrong.

There were a couple of bits that fell a bit flat for me, not least the token pretty mean girls at school, and the repeated use of "slut" as a insult against these girls, and the girls at the football club who are, it is implied, having sex with the married players. (That the married players weren't castigated at all was revealing, however, about the dodgy gender dynamics at play that these girls were dealing with.) At one point, Shelley seems surprised that one of the "lovely ladies" (her and Tara's name for the football fangirls, who go for the players rather than the play) is actually kind of nice and smart. Overall, though, I enjoyed The Whole of My World - the football background was obviously done with enthusiasm on the author's part, and these bits really came alive on the page, and as a teenage girl dealing with grief and guilt and a feeling of not knowing where she belongs, Shelley was an engaging protagonist - just a girl trying to find her feet.

Overall rating: 6.5/10

Book source: ebook ARC received via Netgalley.

This review counts towards my Australian Women Writers 2013 Challenge.

Wednesday, 22 May 2013

Review: Twerp, Mark Goldblatt


Mark Goldblatt

Random House Books for Young Readers

[New release: May 28th, 2013]

Julian Twerski isn't a bully. He's just made a big mistake. So when he returns to school after a weeklong suspension, his English teacher offers him a deal: if he keeps a journal and writes about the incident that got him and his friends suspended, he can get out of writing a report on Shakespeare. Julian jumps at the chance. And so begins his account of life in sixth grade--blowing up homemade fireworks, writing a love letter for his best friend (with disastrous results), and worrying whether he's still the fastest kid in school. Lurking in the background, though, is the one story he can't bring himself to tell, the one story his teacher most wants to hear.

Twerp is Mark Goldblatt's first book for younger readers, and is written as the journal of Julian Twerski - a journal he is forced to write by his English teacher after he is accused of bullying another boy (Danley Dimmel) and is suspended from school. The only good thing about writing the journal, it seems, is getting out of a project on Shakespeare's Julius Caesar.

If Holden Caulfield wasn't a disaffected adolescent, and was instead a sixth grader in New York at the end of the 1960s, he might sound a little bit like this. Julian's narrative voice recalls that same desire to explain himself and to try and unravel a world that doesn't always make sense to him. He lives with his parents and his sister, but spends most of his time with his group of friends, including his rather overbearing best friend Lonnie. Julian is known for being the fastest runner in his school - something he takes great pride in - and when his title is threatened by new kid Eduardo, Julian is worried about what this means for him. The possibility of being the second fastest runner at school opens Julian's mind to the fact that his significance as a human is limited.

His philosophical ponderings aside, most of Julian's journal concerns the bigger events of his sixth grade life. The one event his English teacher wants him to talk about - what happened to Danley Dimmel, and what did Julian have to do with it - is avoided, as Julian talks instead about meeting Eduardo, accidentally killing a pigeon, writing a love letter to a girl, and running an important race at school. Only after he's written about all these other things, in which he realises how naive he can be, and how unfair life can be, does he get round to talking about the bullying incident.

Goldblatt really captures the voice of a young boy, and the frustrations, disappointments and triumphs that Julian goes through felt very genuine and authentic. Julian isn't a bad kid, but enough people have thought of him badly, or accused him of things he didn't do (although maybe he kind of did) to make him realise that wanting to do the right thing, and doing the right thing, aren't always the same thing. There are lots of comic (or comi-tragic) moments, and the journal format worked really well. Twerp is most suited to pre-teen readers, but it's smart and touching and wouldn't be out of place in young adult, either.

Overall rating: 7/10

Book source: Received an ebook ARC from publisher.

Friday, 17 May 2013

Back to Privet Drive: The Harry Potter Experience

The cupboard under the stairs
As I mentioned in last weekend's Showcase Sunday, I recently visited the Warner Brothers' Studio Tour, or the Harry Potter Experience (or, as my friends and I have been referring to it, "Harry Potter World", because it really is a world of Potter-tastic stuff). Eleven of us drove down to Watford for the afternoon after booking tickets a couple of months ago, and although I was prepared for it to be good, I wasn't expecting it to be quite as awesome as it turned out!

We got to walk through the Great Hall (sadly without that enchanted ceiling...), which had two of the four tables in it, and seems a lot smaller in real life! It was a great start to the tour, and the little details were fun to spot, such as the house points counter up on the dais (Gryffindor were way out in front). They had some of the original costumes, including the huge costume that Robbie Coltrane wore as Hagrid. It was news to me that he had a (taller) body double at times, and a robotic Hagrid head does some of the scenes, rather than Coltrane - I had genuinely never noticed that, so it'll be interesting to see if I can spot it now...

The rest of the tour was self-guided, and there was so much to see that it seemed almost impossible to take everything in, no matter how many ways you tried to look at once. There were some unexpected bits that I really enjoyed seeing, like five versions of the same outfit that Harry wears, in various stages of distress, and plenty of original sets: the Gryffindor common room, the boys' dormitory, Dumbledore's office, Hagrid's hut, and the Burrow (or, as the French girls behind me yelled gleefully, "la maison de Weasley!"). I really liked Dumbledore's office (where apparently the books are actually recovered phone books), and the Burrow had the magical iron and the magical knitting, all going on while no one was home.

One thing I was really excited to see were the green tiled fireplaces from the Ministry of Magic - I always loved how that was brought to life on screen. A weird little thing, but still one of my favourites, was a pile of letters like the ones used in the scene where Hogwarts writes to Harry care of his cupboard under the stairs, to tell him that he's a wizard.

That part of the books - the Muggle world at the beginning of each one, but particularly in the first book - is one of my favourite aspects of the series. I don't think you can beat the scenes where Harry finds out he's a wizard. Nothing makes me feel more like a kid than that. So I was also really happy to see the exterior set of 4 Privet Drive - not that it looks that different from the house I grew up in, or loads like them, but it was still interesting to see it.

We also saw the Knight Bus, the Hogwarts bridge, the Potters' cottage, and Tom Riddle's grave, which was in an outside section. I thought the tour was over at this point, but there was quite a lot more to see. There was a room dedicated to the special effects and how a lot of the non-human characters were made and animated: Dobby, the goblins, Buckbeak, and the dragons. They had parts of the basilisk (eek) and the Aragog model, which was suitably disturbing.

And then... Diagon Alley! Again, a little smaller than expected, but absolutely fantastic to get to walk down in and see all the shop fronts, including the Weasley's shop. As one of those early scenes I mentioned earlier, the first time Harry gets to see Diagon Alley is also one of my favourite bits of the book, so it was pretty exciting to get to do the same walk for the first time!

The scale model of Hogwarts was really (sorry) magical, and I spent quite a lot of time in that part - it was so well done. Although the whole experience is based around the films, it was easy to have the books in mind at the same time, because although a lot of stuff from the books was cut from the films, they stayed faithful in a lot of other ways. Seeing some of my favourite parts of the Harry Potter world come to life was definitely worth the trip - if you ever get chance to go, I'd definitely recommend it (broomstick riding and Butterbeer optional!).

It's made me want to re-read the Harry Potter books again - I last did it about four or five years ago, so it might be time to dig them all out again!

[All pictures are mine.]

Sunday, 12 May 2013

Showcase Sunday #25

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

It's been a few weeks since I did a Showcase Sunday, so here are a couple of things I've picked up recently, and a few reviews!

BUT FIRST: Yesterday some of my friends and I went to the Harry Potter Experience at Warner Brothers Studios outside London! It was a lot of fun, and there was so much to look at - a lot more than I was expecting. It was quite overwhelming at times, trying to take it all in - there were lots of little details and things you could quite easily miss (for instance, I loved that they had the house points counter in the Great Hall, but totally missed the Black family tapestry later on!).

I will try and write a full post on it sometime soon (and I am thinking about a HP re-read if anyone is interested in joining me over the summer), but I thought I'd post a couple of pictures here:

4 Privet Drive (ext.)

Diagon Alley

Hogwarts scale model
Highlights: Walking down Diagon Alley (a lot smaller than I expected!), seeing the complete model of Hogwarts, the exterior of 4 Privet Drive, walking across the Hogwarts bridge, and the Gryffindor common room / boys' dormitory sets - including the jumpers knitted by Mrs Weasley for Harry and Ron in the first film. :)

Anyway, on to the books...


A couple of weeks ago I picked up The Dinner by Herman Koch, a Dutch novel that I reserved a while ago. I read this within a couple of days (short chapters = excellent for train commute!), and thought it was excellent. Highly recommended - review here! (This also counts for my 2013 Translation Challenge, run by Ellie, which I am having a lot of fun with.)


I received an eARC of Confessions of An Almost Girlfriend by Louise Rozett - thanks to MiraInk/Harlequin UK. I have started reading this on my Kindle to and from work, and am really enjoying it so far.

Recent reviews

The Hidden Child - Camilla Läckberg (7.5/10) - Swedish crime novel with some realistic domestic subplots.

Steal My Sunshine - Emily Gale (7/10) - New contemporary Australian YA with some interesting historical elements as part of the backstory.

It's Different for Girls - Jo Brand (5.5/10) - Funny novel about growing up as a teenage girl in 70s Hastings.

A Hat Full of Sky - Terry Pratchett (6/10) - The return of Tiffany Aching, as she learns how to be a witch (and why it's not quite as glamorous as she thought).

(After reading Steal My Sunshine, I wanted to find out more about the laundries that girls like Essie were sent to, so last night I ended up watching The Magdalene Sisters, a 2002 film made with Irish/Scottish backing and documenting what life in these laundries was like. Recommended.)

Friday, 10 May 2013

Review: The Dinner, Herman Koch

The Dinner

Herman Koch

Atlantic Books, 2012 (2009)

Translated from the Dutch by Sam Garrett

A summer's evening in Amsterdam and two couples meet at a fashionable restaurant. Between mouthfuls of food and over the polite scrapings of cutlery, the conversation remains a gentle hum of polite discourse - the banality of work, the triviality of holidays. But behind the empty words, terrible things need to be said, and with every forced smile and every new course, the knives are being sharpened.

Each couple has a fifteen year old son. The two boys are united by their accountability for a single horrific act; an act that has triggered a police investigation and shattered the comfortable insulated worlds of their families. As the dinner reaches its culinary climax, the conversation finally touches on their children, and as civility and friendship disintegrates, each couple show just how far they are prepared to go to protect those they love.

The Dinner takes place over the numerous courses of one dinner, one evening in Amsterdam. Paul, his wife Claire, his politician brother Serge and Serge's wife Babette meet at an exclusive restaurant. Ostensibly, the meal is a pleasant evening out between two couples, yet under the surface a horrific event lingers, boiling over just as dessert arrives.

As you might expect from a novel based entirely around one dinner, there is a lot of detail and a lot of insight into the minutiae of the lives of the Lohman family, particularly Paul, from whose perspective the dinner is viewed. The opening few chapters were biting and funny and razor sharp in their dismantling of people's public facades and secret intentions, and it was easy to see things from Paul's point of view as he observes the power games that he thinks his brother is currently playing with him.

These small observations and reflections on relationships and families and past events continue throughout the dinner, as the backgrounds of both Lohman families start to become clearer, and the horrific event is revealed. The Dinner is very clever, and rather insidious in its manipulation of the reader, as the parameters of reasonable behaviour start to shift before you really realise it.

The Dinner is quite difficult to talk about without giving too much away, but I highly recommend giving it a go. It's revelations about middle class privileges and the horrors that parents become in pursuit of their children's futures made this a compelling read, and one of my favourites of the year.

Overall rating: 9/10

Book source: Borrowed from the library.

This book counts towards my 2013 Translation Challenge.

Wednesday, 8 May 2013

Review: A Hat Full of Sky, Terry Pratchett

A Hat Full of Sky (Discworld #32) (Tiffany Aching #2)

Terry Pratchett

Doubleday, 2004

A real witch never casually steps out of her body, leaving it empty. Eleven-year-old Tiffany does. And there's something just waiting for a handy body to take over. Something ancient and horrible, which can't die...

Wise, witty and wonderful, A Hat Full of Sky is Terry Pratchett's second novel about Tiffany and the Wee Free Men - the rowdiest, toughest, smelliest bunch of fairies ever. They'll fight anything. But even they might not be enough to save Tiffany...

Tiffany Aching is an eleven year old witch, and for the first time ever she's leaving her home on the Chalk and heading for parts unknown. The Chalk is what Tiffany knows - it's where she feels safe, and it's where her Granny Aching lived and worked and watched over the land, until it was part of her and she was part of it. But now Granny Aching is gone, Tiffany is off to learn what it means to be a witch. Miss Tick takes Tiffany to stay with Miss Level, and what starts out as the more boring side of "hagglin'" - cutting toenails, making tea, giving people baths - soon turns a lot more sinister.

Tiffany is a wonderful character, and one I wish I'd have known when I was growing up. A Hat Full of Sky is full of excellent female characters - not infallible, but believable and strong and interesting. The book continues on from The Wee Free Men, and expands on one of the things I found most interesting in that novel: the lives of the witches. Witches in this world aren't there to be flashy and cast grand spells. Instead, they're there to offer medical attention and guidance and teaching. As Tiffany discovers, witchcraft is really just about offering help without expecting anything in return (except maybe a few biscuits).

Miss Level - who has the unusual condition of being one person in two bodies - was very funny, along with Oswald. Witches like Miss Level and Mistress Weatherwax have very little time for flashy witches with their ostentatious hats and cloaks and their fancy wands, and there are more than a few swipes at witches who are more interested in the jewellery than with helping people out. 

The main plot was less interesting, I found, even though it does allow for the return of the Nac Mac Feegle, a band of blue-skinned, red-haired pictsies whose aim is to help Tiffany fight... whatever it is she's fighting (they're not sure, but they'll give it a good kicking anyway). The book is full of funny lines and sly jokes - everything you would expect from Pratchett - and Tiffany's journey to discover the witch within herself was really the best aspect of the book for me. Perhaps worth it alone for Mistress Weatherwax's sage advice (and Rob Anybody's new-found skill of reading...).

Overall rating: 6/10

Book source: Borrowed from the library.

Wednesday, 1 May 2013

Review: It's Different For Girls, Jo Brand

It's Different For Girls

Jo Brand

Review, 2005

(Amusingly enough, my library copy has the word "sex" covered over with a small square of white paper.)

Hastings in the seventies is not the coolest place to be. As Rachel and Susan teeter on the brink of adolescence, they realise safety lies in numbers and the best chance of surviving their teens is to stick together. Their friendship protects them against the trials of parents, classmates, soggy chips, warm beer, aspiring guitar heroes, stoned hippies, men's clubs, derivative three-chord bands and emotional neediness and weediness.

But when Dave, sophisticated London art student and unattainable boyfriend, enters their lives, they discover that sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll aren't always everything they've dreamed of. And then punk music detonates the status quo and nothing will ever be the same again.

Jo Brand is one of my favourite comedians, so when I saw this in the library I snapped it up. It's Different For Girls focuses on Rachel and Susan, two teenage girls living in Hastings in the 70s. Rachel has just moved there from London, and the two girls become best friends (and sometimes best enemies), despite the fact that Susan's mum Terry thinks that Rachel's family are too stuck-up, and Rachel's mum Helen thinks Susan's family are common and to be avoided.

The social nuances of their friendship, and their disapproving families, were amusing and felt very genuine (I remember my mum passing judgement on some of my friends and their parents at times!). One of the strengths of the novel is the way it captures a particular period (70s Britain) and the experience of growing up in a small, slightly faded town. Hastings loses out to the glamour of Brighton and the somewhat forbidden appeal of London, and both girls seem a little bit disappointed with what their lives have to offer.

The book encompasses the period of a few years, from more benign fallings-out between the girls, accompanied by Rachel's feeling that while Susan is being felt up by boys under the pier, Rachel would rather be at home with a cup of tea, to later incidents of drinking and sex and discovering the joys of punk music. Doomed to always be the 'friend' next to pretty girl Susan, Rachel meets a boy and things all start to go right and wrong all at the same time.

The ups and downs of female friendship felt very real. There were some funny moments and lots of incisive observations, which I think comes from Brand's background as a comedian, but occasionally I felt like the writing fell a little bit flat, or that there was a bit too much 'tell' rather than 'show' when describing some of the characters and their thoughts. It often felt like it might work better written in the first person, as a more confessional account of being a teenage girl in a dull town in the 70s, as sometimes I felt a little bit distant from both girls.

I'm not sure I totally bought into the Dave storyline, although he did get a nice line - "I can't find anyone else like you anywhere". The novel seemed stronger when it focused on the girls, and Paul/Pauline was a nice addition quite late on in the book. The ending seemed a bit rushed and rather neat, and although the blurb promises punk music and lots of bands are mentioned (before they become hugely famous, like Siouxsie and the Banshees and the Sex Pistols) there's no real feeling of being immersed in any particular scene.

A good read, with some funny parts and some very dry observations, but ultimately it felt a little bit like something was missing.

Overall rating: 5.5/10

Book source: Borrowed from the library.