Tara Calaby

writer, editor & phd candidate

Category: Book Review (page 2 of 16)

Review: White Fright – Petra James

White Fright book coverThree books into the series, I think it’s safe to say that I’m a fan of Arkie Sparkle. Sometimes a book series will have lost its initial momentum by this point, but I found that I enjoyed White Fright more than Time Trap, which is particularly impressive given that I enjoyed Time Trap more than the first book, Code Crimson. The characters have definitely come into their own by this point, and there is little need for scene-setting, so the reader is thrust straight into the action.

While the other books have largely concentrated on brilliant technology and journeys back in time, White Fright moves away from this formula a little, focussing instead upon the mystery surrounding the kidnapping of Arkie’s parents and the clues that the two cousins have to work with. This was a change that worked well for me, as the mystery captured my interest right from the beginning, and I’ve been jumping to conclusions ever since!

A new character is introduced here, which adds a whole new dimension to the story. What seemed like a fairly simple mystery in the beginning is now becoming quite complex and interesting. There’s also a little more discussion of Arkie’s emotional reaction to the loss of her parents, as would be expected as the initial excitement of the treasure hunt wears off and the reality of the situation begins to sink in. I enjoyed the glimpses into her family’s back story and the hints at the strong relationship that she has with her parents.

Most importantly, however, the Arkie Sparkle, Treasure Hunter series continues to be interesting, educational and a whole lot of fun. The plot is thickening, the cast list is growing and there are still four more days to go. I can’t wait to see where the girls end up next.

Meanwhile, if you’re on Tumblr (or just on the Internet!) there’s now an Arkie Sparkle blog to follow, complete with fun facts and character information. You can find it at http://arkiesparkle.com.

Review: Stolen – Lucy Christopher

Stolen book coverStolen is an extremely cleverly written book. It’s essentially a book about Stockholm Syndrome, written for a young adult audience, and its greatest feature is the way that Lucy Christopher takes the reader along on the same emotional ride experienced by protagonist Gemma. At the beginning of the book, Ty – her captor – comes across as creepy and unappealing but, as he reveals more of himself and more of the past that led them both to the Australian outback, he becomes a surprisingly sympathetic character. I never found him truly likeable, because there always remains something dangerous about him, but many other readers have been completely won over by the end of the novel. Manipulating one’s readers in such a fashion takes a lot of writing skill. Although Stolen has its faults, I came away from reading it with a healthy respect for the author’s talent. I love a book that can mess with my head.

As suggested above, however, Stolen isn’t flawless. At times, it feels over-long. There is a lot of description of the Australian outback and I’m not sure whether I’m just jaded to that, as someone who lives in Australia and has been fed images and romanticised perspectives of the outback all my life, or whether the description really does take over a little at times. For the first half of the book, I wasn’t very engaged at all. I kept reading because the premise interested me and the writing style is elegant and clever, but I wasn’t invested in the characters or their actions. I think the beginning of the change in Gemma’s attitude towards Ty also marked the beginning of my greater interest in the novel. Perhaps it was a case of my needing more movement in terms of character development and plot or perhaps it just comes down to me being in a more receptive mood by the time I reached the second half of the book. Either way, my near-indifference was not lasting and I definitely enjoyed the latter half of the novel and the book as a completed whole.

I think that’s really how Stolen should be assessed. Its power doesn’t lie in its characters or even in the artfully described and ever-present setting. The true power of Christopher’s work is its ability to draw its readers in and to make them feel a little of what Gemma is feeling. Her confusion became my confusion. And that’s the sign of a good author.

Review: Revenge of the Shadow People – Jahnna N. Malcolm

Revenge of the Shadow People book coverRevenge of the Shadow People is a fun story with an interesting premise – shadows that are really monsters! Young readers will enjoy the building tension as the shadows begin to stalk Vinny, becoming more and more threatening as the book progresses. Vinny and his best friend, Sharon, come up with a plan to keep the shadows away, but it is unsuccessful, with a result that will surprise readers.

Along with its enjoyable plot and premise, Revenge of the Shadow People boasts a cast of characters that is a lot more three-dimensional than the usual Fear Street fare. Sharon is particularly larger than life, and Vinny’s parents are well drawn, with their focus on Vinny’s toddler brother and obvious worry about Vinny once the shadow begins to take over his world.

This is definitely one of the better Ghosts of Fear Street books and the sinister shadows should be enjoyed greatly by young readers interested in a little monster horror.

Review: The Writing Class – Jincy Willett

The Writing Class book coverThe Writing Class is an interesting novel. For much of its first half, it feels like light-hearted women’s fiction – a study of the standard “types” that fill writing classes across the world. The second half, however, ventures into cosy mystery territory, when the nasty pranks being played on the class’s members lead up to murder. I think it was this dual nature that limited my appreciation of the work. I could enjoy both aspects separately but, together, they both ended up feeling a little lacking.

As a novel about a middle-aged widow, a published author who has not written for years, The Writing Class initially feels promising. Amy is a multi-faceted protagonist who feels very real, and her situation as a writing teacher who no longer writes is interesting. At first, it seems like the reader will be treated to similar character explorations of the large ensemble of students who join her class, but unfortunately this is one of the areas in which the novel falls short. Of the students, only Carla feels truly three-dimensional. The rest are mere ideas – hinted at, but never really fleshed out at all. You know that a cast is too large for its story when you confuse one character for another and feel surprised when a name is mentioned, because you’d forgotten that character existed. This kind of thing works (just) in the standard And Then There Were None-esque whodunnit novel, because the reader is more invested in working out who the killer is than in the characters themselves, but it felt like The Writing Class was attempting to be more than that, and the lack of developed characters greatly hindered this ambition.

As a whodunnit, The Writing Class is just too slow to get started. Although mentioned in the blurb, the first hint of murder doesn’t happen until well into the novel. The motive isn’t sufficiently explained and the overall pacing is just off. Readers looking for a good mystery will likely struggle with the long lead-up to the crimes, not caring much for the development of Amy’s character and the glimpses Willett offers into her lonely and solitary life. The action picks up in the second half of the book, but there is not a great enough pay-off to make up for the amount of time needed to get to the denouement.

The Writing Class is not a bad novel, by any means. I was actually quite entertained by it most of the time. My issue is more with the fact that I felt like it could have been better than it actually was. It’s an interesting read and a nice way to pass time on public transport, but it’s ultimately quite forgettable.

(As an aside, the writing course that I took was not filled with these “standard” types at all. Perhaps it was due to the extremely competitive selection process, but regardless of the reasons why, my classes were filled with students who wanted to write a “literary” novel and looked down on anything that could be labelled genre fiction!)

Review: Boys Beware – Jean Ure

Boys Beware book coverBoys Beware is not a particularly realistic novel. Generally, parents do not leave two twelve-year-olds and a thirteen-year-old in their own flat to fend for themselves for eight weeks. Even if their aunt is downstairs, it isn’t exactly an advert for good parenting. Or good sense, for that matter!

Of course, such pragmatic observations are of no interest at all to this book’s young audience, for which it serves as a wonderful wish-fulfilment fantasy. For the age group Boys Beware is aimed at, nothing could seem more exciting than getting to live on your own for a couple of months. No doing what you’re told. Eating whatever you want. Holding unsupervised parties. Fantastic!

As the title indicates, however, Boys Beware isn’t just about three sisters living by themselves. Largely, it recounts the endless quest of Emily and Tash to meet boys and capture them make them their boyfriends. There’s also a lot of time spent discussing their sister, Ali, who they feel is a hopeless case when it comes to making the most of herself and finding her own boy toy.

The best thing about Boys Beware is easily the wonderful first-person voice of Emily. It really makes the novel stand out from other books with a similar focus. Chatty, slangy and completely believable, the narrative is just spot on. Tash and Ali are also great characters. I really enjoyed Emily and Tash’s relationship – with the occasional short-lived tension quickly smothered by their genuine supportive friendship – and the clever characterisation of Ali. The book is very much told from a flawed perspective, and this is why Ali works so well. The reader can see her assets, but her sister, the narrator, struggles a little!

Boys Beware is a fun novel that should be enjoyed by middle grade readers – and by older readers looking for a quick and entertaining read.

Review: Sons and Lovers – D.H. Lawrence

Sons and Lovers book coverI picked up Sons and Lovers as the next book to read from my 100 Books list, simply because I’m trying to cull my book collection at the moment, and years of hearing how much people dislike D.H. Lawrence – and this book in particular – led me to assume that I’d have a similar reaction. Really, I should’ve known better. After all, I like Conrad!

I find it fascinating that so many people have been bored senseless by Sons and Lovers, because I was interested and entertained from start to finish. It’s true that there is not a great deal of plot here. Rather, it’s a book that focuses on character and on family relationships. It’s slow-moving and slightly dreamy tale, and Lawrence holds his characters at something of a distance from the reader, but I was nonetheless ensnared very quickly in the piece.

Most of the characters here are awful. There are no genuinely likeable people amongst them. Annie is quite inoffensive and I found myself rather sympathetic to Walter Morel, despite his faults, possibly because of how keenly he was judged by his family for his lack of pseudo-middle-class airs. Or perhaps it’s just that Gertrude and Paul are just so utterly detestable that I feel a kind of solidarity with anyone they disdain. I feel a bit cruel saying so, given that Sons and Lovers is highly autobiographical, but Lawrence certainly didn’t represent himself in his best light when he took on the guise of Paul Morel. And I feel utterly sorry for Jessie Chambers, upon whom Miriam was based, because Miriam is portrayed with such disgust. Clara, too, is sneered at and the reader is left to wonder whether it is merely Paul Morel who has such a Madonna/Whore complex (to go with his Oedipus Complex), or whether that stemmed from Lawrence himself.

Despite the ghastly characters, however, I found Sons and Lovers itself thoroughly likeable. The writing is lovely – elegant but not overwrought – and I’m a big fan of these kinds of slow, intimate stories of family and human nature. I shall be very interested to see whether my enjoyment of Sons and Lovers extends to all of Lawrence’s work. In the meantime, this will not be joining the pile of books to give away!

Review: Does My Bum Look Big In This? – Arabella Weir

Does My Bum Look Big In This? book coverI picked this book up years ago, because I’m a big fan of ‘The Fast Show’, even if the ‘Does My Bum Look Big in This?’ sketches aren’t among my favourites. Arabella Weir is a very capable comedian and this shows through in her writing, with several scenes in the book provoking audible snorts. The question, however, is whether a fairly limited premise – a protagonist with cripplingly low self esteem – can comfortably support an entire novel. For the first hundred or so pages of Does My Bum Look Big In This?, it doesn’t seem like this is the case, but there is more character development and action in the second half, meaning that there is less reliance on the tiring joke of an attractive woman who just can’t see that’s what she is.

I think my key difficulty with Does My Bum Look Big In This?, however, is the fact that it’s a little too realistic to be enjoyable reading. It’s hard to be amused by a self-destructive internal monologue that bears a little too much resemblance to my own negative thought patterns. While I can definitely appreciate the accuracy of the protagonist’s voice, and the consistency of her characterisation, I didn’t gain a lot of enjoyment from the novel. Some things just hit a little too close to home.

That said, I think that a lot of fans of humorous chick lit will find plenty to enjoy in Does My Bum Look Big In This? There’s an interesting supporting cast, complete with a caddish ex, a likeable new love interest and a large circle of friends, family, neighbours and workmates. It’s told in diary form, so is a light and easy read, and is laugh-out-loud funny in places. One for readers who can empathise with feelings of insecurity – but perhaps not for readers who are overwhelmed by them.

Review: Time Trap, by Petra James

Time Trap book coverThese books are just so much fun. I read the first book in the series, Code Crimson last month, and thoroughly enjoyed it, and Time Trap is even better. Because there’s no need to set up the situation, the book can launch right into the next adventure, which means that the same exciting momentum is maintained throughout. Anyone who missed the original will not be completely lost, however, as the two main characters, Arkie and TJ, sum up the vital points at the beginning of this instalment.

After heading to Egypt in Code Crimson, Arkie and TJ are off to ancient China in Time Trap. I hadn’t been expecting to enjoy the new location quite as much, but I was proven wrong, with the plot providing plenty of interest even without a pre-existing interest in China to build upon. What’s more, I felt like I actually learnt something, without it ever seeming like I was being taught. I really enjoy the way the Arkie Sparkle series presents its readers with snippets of information about the places that the girls visit – both in terms of their present and their history. The little facts at the end are particularly good, and just the sort of thing that is enjoyed by young readers.

Arkie and TJ are still very likeable characters, and the new characters introduced in Time Trap are well chosen, with the First Emperor and his Chief Advisor being worthy villains and the scholars Lu Sheng and Fu Su providing insight into life at that time. I really think the amazing technology that Arkie and TJ use is the real star of the series, however. The inventions are just so quirky and fun.

My only disappointment with Time Trap was the fact that the ending felt a little abrupt. I would have liked the danger to be a little more imminent, to add to the excitement. That’s a minor quibble, though. I really do enjoy this series, and would happily recommend it to all young readers.

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

Review: The Snog Log – Michael Coleman

The Snog Log book coverI’m afraid I just couldn’t like The Snog Log. Sure, it ends in a place where the male protagonist, Robbie, has finally started to realise that it’s not exactly a nice thing to do to turn his female classmates into objects, but there’s just not enough bite to the resolution to make up for the way the female characters are portrayed and treated for the rest of the novel.

I think part of the problem lies in the way that Mel is depicted. She’s not quite a co-protagonist, but her journal entries form part of the narrative, and occasionally there will be a confusing switch to her point of view in the main text. The trouble is that her distrust of boys (and men) seems to be included as a parallel to the behaviour of Robbie and his friends. So she is shown to be just as much at fault, because she fails to see that some boys (ie. Robbie) can be capable of good acts, as well as acting up in class and treating girls like crap.

There’s a big issue with this. Namely, Mel is right to distrust the boys in her class! They are all using her and her peers as pawns in their snogging bet. They pretend to be interested in these girls, then attempt to dump them the moment that they’ve reached the maximum snogging score. Girls are rated according to how easy it will be to snog them, and constantly discussed solely in terms of their physical attributes. How, then, does Mel’s change of heart serve as an appropriate parallel to Robbie’s startling revelation that perhaps girls deserve to be treated with respect?

I’m not saying that there aren’t teenage boys out there who are a lot like Robbie and his mates. There most definitely are. I just feel like the female voice in The Snog Log is unauthentic. I actually think that the novel would be more palatable if there were no female perspective, but rather if we were shown Robbie’s character progression without the juxtaposition with Mel. Let the obnoxious boys be obnoxious boys; just don’t suggest it’s all okay, because look! sometimes girls think the worst of boys! (Never mind the long history of male-female relations that causes those girls to think that way.)

I think Coleman meant well when writing The Snog Log. After all, there is the attempt at a moral in the end. Unfortunately, however, the novel just didn’t work for me.

Review: All American Girl – Meg Cabot

All American Girl book coverI’ve never read any of the Princess Diaries books. My library never has the first one in, and the movie put me off them a bit, because Anne Hathaway bugs me, and I’m exceedingly shallow. So I think All American Girl might be the first full-length Meg Cabot book that I’ve ever read. I picked it up at a library book sale, expecting it to be a light and fluffy read that I could then pass on, but I was pleasantly surprised at just how much I enjoyed it. It’s a clever and fun contemporary romance, which I shan’t be giving away after all!

Sam is an enjoyable heroine, who has a strong personality. My favourite part about the novel was the way that she grows throughout its pages, learning to see the world and the people around her in a more mature way. Although All American Girl is not strictly a coming-of-age story, there is still a great deal of character growth shown here. Sam’s art lessons, and her struggle to paint what she sees, instead of what she believes she knows, form a perfect metaphor for her parallel reassessment of her family, her long-term crush, and the other people in her life.

I can’t stand the phrase “Leader of the Free World” as a synonym for “American president”, because the US president is not my leader, thankyouverymuch. It’s used multiple times in All American Girl, but I get the impression that Cabot uses it ironically, given the way she portrays the president and his actions. If so, it’s another example of the clever writing and characterisation that makes the novel stand out a little from the crowd of contemporary romances.

Speaking of the romance, it’s also nicely done. There’s a love triangle of sorts, but only in the sense that Meg is torn between her long-held “love” for Jack (her older sister’s boyfriend) and the “frisson” between her and David. I particularly enjoyed the way that Jack’s character failings are never specifically detailed, but rather the reader is allowed to form their own conclusions from his behaviour.

All American Girl is, indeed, fluffy teen romance, but it’s a strong example of the genre. Perhaps I should try the Princess Diaries after all!

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