Tara Calaby

writer, editor & phd candidate

Category: Book Review (page 1 of 16)

Book Review: The Last Days of the Romanov Dancers, by Kerri Turner

The Last Days of the Romanov Dancers book cover

The Last Days of the Romanov Dancers is set in Russia between 1914 and 1920, which means that it documents not just the end of the Imperial Russian Ballet, but also the end of the Romanovs themselves. It was a period of great upheaval for Russia, and for all those affected by the Great War, but Kerri Turner manages to create a narrow focus for a reader’s attention so that the weight of historical detail doesn’t become too overwhelming.

Her two main characters are Luka—a newcomer to the Imperial Russian Ballet—and Valentina, who has been in the company longer, but shares Luka’s modest upbringing. While both interact with actual historical people, such as Rasputin and the Romanovs, the peripheral nature of their involvement means that the reader can sympathise with them more readily, even faced with displays of wealth and indulgence while the working classes starve. Here, Luka’s guilt about his position of privilege works to reassure a modern audience where perhaps Valentina’s enjoyment of wealth does not. I think I would have enjoyed a little more of an evolution in Valentina’s nature, but her character is likely more realistic as is!

I am not a great reader of modern (that is, in terms of publication, not setting) adult romance, so I was a little worried from the blurb that this novel would be heavy on the romance and light on the history. On the whole, I need not have worried. There was a section in the middle of the book where the romance took centre stage for a while, but most of the time I was happily immersed in history and ballet.

The descriptions of dance and the world of the performing arts are where Turner’s writing is at its most exciting and emotive. Her own experiences as a dancer and dance teacher inform the novel wonderfully and, while the passion of the romantic relationship may have failed to thrill me, the passion for dance seemed almost tangible. I’m not a dancer, but I understand the love of one’s artform, and I thought this was conveyed wonderfully throughout the book.

Overall, The Last Days of the Romanov Dancers is an excellent debut from Kerri Turner and I look forward to her future publications.

(Thank you to Harlequin Books for providing a copy in exchange for an honest review.)

Review: The Cracks in the Kingdom, by Jaclyn Moriarty

cracksSometimes it is good to be given books you’ve not specifically requested. If I’d seen the first The Colours of Madeline book in a shop or a library, I would’ve picked it up due to Jaclyn Moriarty’s name, but likely put it back down again when I read the blurb and realised it was fantasy. If I’d done that, I’d have missed out on reading an amazing series.

The first novel, A Corner of White, was a lot of fun. ‘Quirky’ is the word that seemed the best way to describe it, and the reviews I’ve read show that I wasn’t the only person to feel that way. With The Cracks in the Kingdom, however, I think the series has developed into something much more than quirky. It’s moving and exciting and intriguing, and I often found myself torn between wanting to rush through the pages to find out what would happen next – and why – and wanting to take things slowly, so that I could really appreciate the language and Moriarty’s great grasp of both character and style.

Although The Cracks in the Kingdom is the second book of a trilogy, it didn’t feel incomplete. There are still things left unfinished and questions left unanswered, but I didn’t feel cheated, because it still read like a complete novel, with enough resolution to counter the loose threads. That said, I’m still going to be grabbing the next book as soon as I can get my hands on it – not only because I want to find out what happens, but also because I’m pretty certain that I’ll be guaranteed a jolly good read.

The Colours of Madeline is an excellent example of just how good YA can be when it breaks away from carbon-copy fads and finds its own voice and concept in the hands of a talented author. It’s nice to know that I don’t have to say goodbye to Cello just yet.

(I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.)

Review: Lord of the Flies

lordfliesI found this pretty disappointing, to be honest, and I’m not sure how much of that is due to it being a bit dated in the modern era of more explicit violence and horror and how much of it is just my own tastes. The thing is, I generally really appreciate it when things are left up to the reader to read between the lines and to understand, instead of be told, but here it felt more like unfinished plots and ideas. I needed to know more about why exactly the boys were on the island to accept it as the basic premise, I needed Simon’s story to be related in a clearer manner and I needed there to be more consistency when it came to the narrative. At times, there were chunks of purple prose thrust into the story as description, but at other times there was a coarseness to the narrative that indicated it was being told with the voices of its characters. To me, that meant that neither style entirely rang true.

I do believe, though, that part of the reason Lord of the Flies didn’t work for me was that its depiction of violence and the “beast” inside humankind just doesn’t scare the modern reader. It shies away from description when it talks of violence against humans, which is particularly interesting when the pig hunting is narrated with great relish. (I personally skipped those scenes, because I can’t deal with cruelty to animals, even in fiction.) We know the twins have been hurt, but we’re given no hint of how. I understand the boys’ unwillingness to think about what happened during the ‘dance’ after the fact but, for a modern reader, accustomed to graphic depictions of violence on the news, let alone in fiction, the dance itself is powerless. As for the inner beast, I wasn’t fully convinced by the book’s depiction of it. I personally needed a greater attention to the changing psychology of the characters. I wanted more of a journey, and I think that could have been achieved by narrowing the focus to fewer boys. (Also, when you have a large cast, naming characters Ralph, Roger and Robert is just plain confusing.)

I’m sad that Lord of the Flies was a bit ‘meh’ for me, because I’d always thought it sounded right up my alley – both as a reader and as a writer. Perhaps the true glimpse of human nature can be found in the fact that I needed it to be darker and more messed-up for it to work.

Review: The Skeleton Key – Tara Moss

The Skeleton Key coverWhen I received The Skeleton Key in the mail, I wasn’t sure it would be my kind of book. I’m a bit (okay, a lot) over paranormal romance at the moment, so I was worried that I might find myself wading through just the kind of novel I’m avoiding right now. As it turned out, I really needn’t have worried. There’s a hint of romance here, but the emphasis is strongly on the paranormal, and the book as a whole is much more Buffy than Twilight. I actually recommend it strongly to Buffy fans, because Pandora is from a similar kind of normal-but-kickass-chosen-one mould. (Try to say that one three times quickly.)

Although I haven’t read the first two books in the Pandora English series, I didn’t struggle at all with picking up the premise and the universe. Tara Moss creates an interesting world full of all the usual paranormal types, and manages to avoid the same-old-same-old trap. There are vampires – sorry: Sanguines – here, but there is a refreshing lack of uniformity when it comes to their characterisation. Deus (whom I loved) is a very different character to the undead supermodels who plague Pandora’s existence.

One of the things I liked most about The Skeleton Key was the humour that marked the narrative and the character voice. There’s a healthy sense of irony here, and that makes the occasional genuinely creepy moment stand out even more. The key villain of the novel is suitably discomforting and, while Pandora largely operates on instinct and employs extreme powers she doesn’t fully understand, I didn’t find this annoying. Her resignation to her responsibility as the Seventh and her commitment to doing the very things she doesn’t yet know how to do somehow made up for the relative ease of her achievements.

Pandora is nineteen, and The Skeleton Key very cleverly walks the (fading) line between young adult and adult fiction. There are no pubescent dramas to distance the book from adults, and there is nothing within its pages that could be considered too ‘old’ by younger readers (or their parents). The idea of crossover appeal is often thrown about these days, but I think it’s an apt descriptor for this series.

All-up, I found The Skeleton Key a light and enjoyable read and I shall definitely look up the first two books in the series – even if my arachnophobia does make me a little nervous about The Spider Goddess

(I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.)

Review: Does My Head Look Big In This? – Randa Abdel-Fattah

Does My Head Look Big In ThisRegardless of its contents, I think I’d have considered this book worthwhile simply because of how great it is to see a YA book with the covergirl wearing the hijab. I can’t even begin to comprehend just how invalidating it must feel for so many teenagers to head to the YA section of a library or book shop just to be faced by cover after endless cover of white, skinny models with no indication whatsoever of cultural or religious diversity. (And I am not going to go into the whitewashing of characters by publishers or film-makers here, because it’s all just too depressing and anger-making.)

I have to say, though, that my hopes for Does My Head Look Big In This? weren’t entirely met. I think the main issue for me was that it felt extremely fragmented. It was like the author wanted to deal with a hundred different plot points and, instead of choosing a few to concentrate one, decided to put them all in. Because of this, everything felt a little shallow and unfinished. There was so much room for conflict and resolution in many of the plot points raised (for example, the whole Amal/Adam storyline, which gave a wonderful opportunity for Amal to confront temptation and examine the reality of her choices, but instead just kind of flopped), but even the dramatic story surrounding Leila and her family felt rushed and a little forced.

In the end, this meant that I liked this book a lot more for what it represents than what it actually is. I think it’s so very important that teenagers of all races, cultures and religions feel represented in mainstream fiction. As a work of fiction, however, it left me feeling decidedly apathetic.

Review: Pugwall’s Summer – M.D. Clark

Pugwall's Summer book coverI was obsessed with the first Pugwall book in upper primary school. It’s only very recently that I’ve come to terms with the fact that I lost my copy after one of my school friends borrowed it and never gave it back. I managed to keep hold of my copy of this sequel, however, although I hadn’t read it for nigh on two decades by the time I picked it up recently, and decided to give it another try.

As a kid, I never liked Pugwall’s Summer anywhere near as much as the original. As an adult, it’s a little hard to compare the two, given that it’s been so long since I read Pugwall, but I think I can guess why. Pugwall’s Summer doesn’t have quite as much heart as I remember the original having. There’s plenty of action here, and some great interactions between Pugwall and Marmaloid, his annoying little sister, but I didn’t find myself becoming very invested in the characters.

I think part of the reason for this was the fact that I loved the growing friendship and then romance between Pugwall and Jenny in the first book, but Jenny seems like a completely different character here. Something that was a big focus of the original is just discarded in this one, as though it were unimportant, and that didn’t work for me at all.

What did work, however, was the brilliant late-eighties-Australia nostalgia that Pugwall’s Summer promotes. There’s slang in here that I probably haven’t used since primary school, and reading the novel feels like going back in time to that era. It’s set in Geelong, with lots of talk of nearby coastal towns, like Torquay, and there’s even a school excursion to Melbourne. Any Australian child of the eighties will enjoy the reminiscent aspect of the book.

Re-reading Pugwall’s Summer doesn’t make me any less keen to one day get my hands on a new copy of the original. I’m not sure I’ll revisit this one again, however. Instead, I think I shall head over to YouTube to watch clips of the television show based on these books – which was one of my favourites, back when it first aired.

Review: Fright Knight – Connie Laux

Fright Knight book coverAlthough it is part of a horror series for young readers, Fright Night has more of a feel of fantasy to it, with its cast containing both an enchanted knight and a wizard. Magic is very present in this novel and, although the foes that its protagonist, Mike, has to face might seem spooky to its readers, there is more a focus on action than on frights.

Young readers will love the setting for Fright Knight, with Mike and his sister, Carly, living with their father in a museum of spooky objects. They will possibly identify well with the squabbling between the two siblings, but also enjoy them working together against their magical opponents.

The writing here feels a little stilted, with a few too many short sentences and paragraphs for the words to flow smoothly, and it is not one of the more interesting or original tales in the Fear Street stable. It’s a quick read, though, and a young audience should enjoy the surprise villain, if not the fairly derivative plot.

Review: The Bugman Lives! – Carol Gorman

The Bugman Lives book coverThere are some fun characters in The Bugman Lives!. The competitive and snarky semi-friendship between Janet and Carl is very enjoyable, and the addition of Willow part-way through the book adds another type of friendship. There’s also a strong sense of setting, with Gorman doing a great job of conveying the feel of summer.

The Bugman himself is a little less convincing. As a villain, he’s not particularly scary, and his motivation isn’t very well described. In addition, it’s not very clear what is going on in the epilogue. It almost feels as though the story could have used another couple of chapters and, given that it’s one of the shorter Ghosts of Fear Street books, I’m sure the extra length would have been okay.

While there is definitely an audience for The Bugman Lives! I don’t think it is one of the better books in the Ghosts of Fear Street series. Nevertheless, it’s a quick and easy read for young readers who like the idea of an army of bugs!

Review: Twelve Red Herrings – Jeffrey Archer

I quite enjoyed Jeffrey Archer as a teenager, so thought I should revisit this volume to see whether the writing holds up at all as an adult. It’s a collection of short stories, all of which contain a twist. While twist fiction is generally held to be a little hackneyed these days, it’s not something I mind personally. When you know there’s going to be a twist, however, it’s hard not to focus on predicting it, instead of just letting the plot unfold.

Trial and Error
Long and rambling, with unlikeable characters. The ending is slightly different from the one signposted in the story, but I actually felt like the alternative would have made for a better conclusion.

Cheap at Half the Price
Another set of unattractive characters, without the plot or the pay-off to make up for them.

Dougie Mortimer’s Right Arm
No real twist in this one, and not a lot of interest, either. Also, it has a first line that could’ve been great, but wasn’t. When you compulsively edit a story while reading it, it’s not a good sign.

Do Not Pass Go
This, like most of the stories in this collection, was supposedly based on a true story, and I’d very much like to hear that true story, because it’s quite an amazing occurrence. Although the very ending is a little pedestrian compared to the story, it’s nonetheless my favourite of the twelve.

Chunnel Vision
Predictable and rather annoying. It seemed like a short gag that went on for too many pages.

Shoeshine Boy
I found this one enormously dull. Long-winded and not much else.

You’ll Never Live to Regret it
I felt bad for not predicting the first twist in this one! Quite a clever tale, that might have bugged me a little if it hadn’t been based on a real life event.

Never Stop on the Motorway
Very predictable from early in the piece, but the tension was built well nonetheless.

Not for Sale
Quite a standard short story, but entertaining enough.

Timeo Danaos…
Another one about annoying characters. There’s really not enough plot to make up for them!

An Eye for an Eye
Not a bad tale. One of the better ones in the book.

One Man’s Meat
This one has four possible endings. I personally don’t think it was an interesting enough story to warrant that, although some may enjoy the gimmick.

All up, it’s a reasonable collection of short stories, but not one that changed my world. I’m not quite the fan I was as a teenager, but I’m not appalled by my past taste, either!

Review: Loving Richard Feynman – Penny Tangey

Loving Richard Feynman book coverI’m not sure I’m sciencey enough for Loving Richard Feynman. You see, it’s a fairly standard contemporary novel for young adults, with mild coming-of-age themes, made different due to the protagonist’s love for science and unique crush on a long-dead physicist. While I loved mathematics in high school and would very much have enjoyed the maths competition that Catherine takes part in, I never had the burning urge to study physics or to become a scientist when I grew up. So, in that sense, the thing that makes this novel different to the many others dealing with similar family and social issues is not a thing that resonates with me at all. Therefore, it felt a little samey to me, I’m afraid.

On the up-side, Loving Richard Feynman is delightfully Australian. There’s never any doubt that it is set in country Victoria – with a brief Melbourne visit thrown in. I do enjoy YA fiction set in Australia, so the setting was one of my favourite aspects of the novel.

Catherine is a realistic protagonist, if not always a completely likeable one. She’s very self-conscious and not always very nice to her friends and the rest of her classmates, but she has a strong voice and her quirks are cleverly portrayed. As someone who wallpapered her room with posters of Guns n’ Roses in my teens, I was particularly amused by the thought of Catherine’s most important decoration being a poster of the man who helped create the atom bomb. I think Tangey did a good job, also, of showing how Catherine hides behind her differences when it comes to dealing with her peers.

While Loving Richard Feynman will not be a book that sticks in my mind forever, it’s a capable piece of writing and a light novel that should please lovers of Australian YA who are looking for a quick contemporary read.

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