Tara Calaby

writer, editor & phd candidate

Tag: ya fiction (page 2 of 9)

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!

Review: Ex-mas – Kate Brian

Ex-mas book coverEx-mas is enjoyably fluffy. Like many contemporary romances, it’s rather predictable, but the storyline is pleasant and the writing style is low-key and unobtrusive. I read it on public transport, and it’s the perfect sort of book for that situation. You don’t have to think too much, and it’s likeable enough that the time passes quickly.

I’m a big fan of queen bees, so I got excited when I realised that Lila was one of the two most popular girls in her school. This isn’t a story about popularity, however, but rather one about the choice between being popular and being yourself. In this sense, it has a good message, but I found Lila’s dilemma a little unconvincing, given that she’d spent three years working at gaining and maintaining her place in the social hierarchy of her school. That shows commitment!

I struggled to find the connection between Lila and Beau convincing as well. For starters, their background is that they dated through middle-school and into their freshman year, and this is represented as having been an extremely serious relationship, with them being in love with each other. I really needed them to be aged up a little if I were to believe in their past and their rightness for each other. In contrast, Lila’s three year relationship with Erik is written more like a three month relationship. I know dating is different in America, but it still didn’t ring true to me – especially as Lila’s memories of Beau being controlling are never really addressed.

Then again, it never pays to think too deeply about a lot of novels, and Ex-mas is entertaining enough that I was able to put aside my questions and enjoy the plot. Road trip stories are always fun, and here the purpose for the trip adds an extra element of interest to the story.

Review: Cinder – Marissa Meyer

Cinder book coverFive Things I Loved About Cinder

1. It is set in a well-constructed and interesting future universe. Marissa Meyer has given thought to the history of her world and to how this history influences the present time and the fears and actions of those who inhabit it.

2. It uses the Cinderella fairytale as inspiration, not as a blueprint. Often, retellings are just that, with no real creativity or innovation involved. Here, you can see the elements of the original story, but they’re used in a way that feels authentic within the setting.

3. It has a strong female lead. Cinder has plenty of insecurities, but she just gets on with her life despite these and despite her less-than-wonderful living situation. She’s a talented mechanic, devoted to the people she cares about and selfless when it matters, rather than as her standard.

4. It’s entertaining and well-plotted. The pacing is good and there is a strong mix of characters who do not feel like unaltered archetypes. Better still, the romantic lead has a lot more going for him than his looks – and he treats Cinder with respect.

5. It’s about a CYBORG OMG. Cyborgs are essentially my science fiction thing.

Two Things I Didn’t Love About Cinder

1. It contains a “twist” that is readily apparent almost from the very beginning of the book. Regardless of whether Meyer wanted her readers to be aware of this before Cinder, I always feel a bit duped when the big reveal is something I’ve known all along.

2. It is not a fully-contained novel, but rather the first quarter of a complete story. This is my biggest gripe with Cinder. I know series are the big thing right now, but every novel within a series should be able to be read and enjoyed as a book in its own right. I didn’t feel that with Cinder. It’s good enough that I will read Scarlett anyway, but the lack of any closure is annoying nonetheless.

Review: My Summer of Love – Helen Cross

My Summer of Love book coverI watched the film of My Summer of Love earlier this year. It was one I’d picked up super cheap at some point in time, completely unaware that it was related to the novel I’d had sitting in my bookshelves for years, waiting to be read. I didn’t like the movie at all, so I had very low expectations for the book it had been based upon. Luckily, I enjoyed it a lot more than I had been expecting.

My Summer of Love is tightly written with a very strong voice. The protagonist is fifteen-year-old Mona, and the novel is presented from her flawed perspective, complete with slang and local dialect. At first, it’s a simple tale of teenage boredom and family drama, centred around Mona’s sister’s second wedding and life at her father’s pub. But then she meets Tamsin (for the second time) and Mona’s penchant for gambling, drinking and petty crime descends into something a lot darker.

While reading My Summer of Love, I was strongly reminded of the absolutely brilliant film, Heavenly Creatures and, upon finishing, I realised that it also has many similarities to The Member of the Wedding, by Carson McCullers. There’s a strong sense of apathy here that belies the obsessive emotion that Mona says she feels for Tamsin. As readers, we are not given the impression of a young girl caught in the flush of first love; rather we see someone broken and breaking further apart, with no apparent care for what she does and who she does. My Summer of Love is not so much a tale of love as it is an account of deep grief and the (unknowing) quest to find something to feel.

The main pairing in the novel is a lesbian pairing, but I am not sure that this matters at all. Mona doesn’t question her attraction to Tamsin, but rather lets it slot easily in amidst her growing awareness of men and her attractiveness to men. I found this refreshing, but not entirely realistic, given the novel’s setting.

I am not entirely sure why they changed the novel so very much when making it into a film. Certainly, there is not a lot in the film that bears any great resemblance to the book, which is a shame. My Summer of Love is dark and clever and very good. On the other hand, I would not read it again, simply because I didn’t like the ending. I’m not sure it was sufficiently supported by Mona’s journey and, in a purely personal sense, it just felt too dark and pointless. The first line of the novel talks about the day that two people died. If it had only been the first person, I think the ending would have been perfect.

Still, the fact that I didn’t enjoy everything about My Summer of Love doesn’t mean that it isn’t a very clever novel, with strong characters and a wonderful feeling of apathy and destruction throughout.

Review: The Duplicate – Helen Fitzgerald

The Duplicate book coverThe Duplicate was introduced to me as a story that had been inspired by Carrie and Frankenstein. With that first impression, I just had to read it! The author, Helen Fitzgerald, refers to it as her “short, dark, weird one” and I was pleased to find that both the literary references and the promise of weirdness were supported.

Although written for the young adult market, The Duplicate should prove equally pleasing to adult readers. What teenagers will consider an entertaining read, will likely provoke greater thought in an older audience. There are many ethical and philosophical questions raised here, albeit in a black and quirky manner, and the things that are left unsaid nonetheless stick with the reader for a while.

My introduction to Fitzgerald’s work was Amelia O’Donohue is So Not a Virgin, which wowed me with its understated style and ability to convey character and plot without shoving them in the reader’s face. The Duplicate goes even further, with much of the story being implied, rather than outwardly told, especially in the sections told from the perspective of Barbara. It’s a stylistic choice that I’m always a big fan of, and it works particularly well with the science fiction edge to the novel.

I think the key similarity to King’s Carrie lies, not in the depiction of an unpopular girl who is tormented by the popular crowd at school (because, let’s face it, that’s a common theme in YA and real life), but rather in Barbara herself. It’s easy to feel sympathy for her as a character, but also easy to dislike her. It’s not that she’s weird: that’s actually a mark in her favour. Rather, it’s her overwhelming determination to buy the favours of the very people who make her life hell, changing her appearance and losing her dignity in the process.

In comparison, Rowena is likeable, surprisingly well-adjusted and, well, normal. The build-up of tension during her section of The Duplicate is very cleverly done, to the point of me being on the edge of my seat expecting a ghastly murder to eventuate at any moment! Sometimes I find dual protagonists unnecessary and a little irritating, but here they are used authentically, and I think Rowena’s voice forms a positive contrast to that of Barbara. I don’t think the book would have been nearly as effective if it had been told solely from the latter’s perspective.

The Duplicate is a clever, engrossing story, with a concept that I loved. The ending is fantastic, and my imagination is still running wild, thinking about what happened after the final page. A quick read, but an enjoyable one.

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

Review: Every Other Day – Jennifer Lynn Barnes

Every Other Day book coverEvery Other Day is the very best kind of escapist reading: the type that doesn’t require you to check your feminism – and brain – at the door. Sure, there are a few things here that ask the reader to suspend disbelief for a moment, but it’s paranormal fiction, and it’s no more than you’d expect.

The first thing that struck me about Every Other Day was the fact that this isn’t a novel set in the future. Instead, it’s a present-day alternate universe, with most things left unchanged from what we know. The big difference is that preternatural creatures have been a known part of the world since Darwin’s famous voyage. Our introduction to the book’s protagonist, Kali, sees her hunting hellhounds, and creatures such as dragons, basilisks and zombies also play their role in the novel. I found this AU very clever, and enjoyed it as a change from the usual paranormal settings.

Kali is great. She’s not entirely human herself, and doesn’t understand why or what she is, but that doesn’t stop her from doing her best to keep the true humans around her safe. She’s accused of having a hero complex, and that’s very much the case, but it’s always refreshing to have a female protagonist who’s strong and independent, even if the latter quality does tend to irritate her new-found friends.

Speaking of those friends, Skylar and Bethany add two more fantastic female characters to the mix. Bethany is popular and seems to be your typical mean girl at the beginning of the book, while Skylar is an outcast, who is “a little bit psychic”. Kali resists their offers of help but they pay little attention, meaning that Every Other Day boasts a cast of three likeable, active and three-dimensional female leads. If you’ve read a lot of teen paranormal fiction, you’ll know how big a deal that is.

In another move away from the standard, there is a complete lack of love triangles, controlling boyfriends or, indeed, anything but the slightest hint of romance in Every Other Day. This is not a paranormal romance. It’s straightforward paranormal fiction, with an action-filled plot and pleasing sides of character development, growing friendships and family dysfunction. And it does it well.

My only gripe with Every Other Day was the fact that I found it a little hard to get into, initially. Once the setting-up chapters were over, however, and the main plot began, I had no more reservations. Every Other Day is enjoyable, creative and packs an emotional punch. Recommended for fans of Buffy and strong female leads.

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

Review: All I Ever Wanted – Vikki Wakefield

All I Ever Wanted book coverI hate trying to review books that I loved and books that really got to me on an emotional level. All I Ever Wanted falls into both categories, so I’m not going to try to be intellectual about this at all. Instead, here’s a list:

Five things I loved about All I Ever Wanted

1. It has a brilliant fallible first person narrative. When it’s done well, first person fallible is easily my favourite narrative style, and here it’s used to a wonderful effect. As readers, we only see what Mim sees and know the things that she wants to tell us. This means that her growth and discoveries are signposted but not obvious. When her perspective changes, ours does too and, when she misjudges people, so do we. It’s powerful stuff.

2. It focusses on the kinds of Australians who are so often left out of the fictional record. Mim’s family is poor, they’ve been mixed up with drugs and crime and they live on the worst street in town, surrounded by other people in difficult circumstances. At first, we see these characters through Mim’s judgemental eyes, but as the book progresses, we are allowed to see the beauty in so many of them – and the ugliness in someone who Mim formerly found beautiful.

3. It takes the coming-of-age genre and develops it into something new. Usually, coming-of-age books are about growing up and moving on and out. All I Ever Wanted is about coming back home again. It’s about accepting, rather than rejecting, what you’ve known.

4. It’s about love and community. It’s about the love of family, even through differences and difficulties. It’s about friendships new and old and about accepting friends’ failures along with admitting your own. It’s about neighbourhoods and the kind of community that comes from facing adversity together and understanding each other. It’s about finding support in places you didn’t expect it, and discovering it’s been there all along.

5. All I Ever Wanted hurts. It is joyous as well. The writing is elegant and pretty and the heart of it grabs you and doesn’t let go. I cried after reading it from the emotional build-up and I’m emotional again writing this review. It is difficult and complicated and subjective and hopeful, just like life itself.

And one extra thing, which will mean nothing to those who haven’t read the novel.

6. Gargoyle.

Vikki Wakefield deserves all the praise that she’s received for this novel. I can’t wait to see what she does next.

Warning: contains an attempted rape scene, and references to domestic violence and animal cruelty

Review: Fated – Alyson Noël

Fated book coverThe Cover:
It’s gorgeous. I love the yellow background, which is quite unusual, and the sepia toning used for the photo of Daire. The way her hair evolves into the flock of ravens is graphically attractive and a great hint at the novel’s content. I’m loving the font, as well.

The Protagonist:
I liked Daire, even if I have no idea how to pronounce her name. (Then again, this is the same for most of the characters in Fated. What is it about paranormal YA and names I’ve never heard of?) I think that Noël did a good job of giving reason for Daire’s independence and flexibility. Most teenagers would be completely thrown by the revelations that Daire has to quickly take on board, but her background travelling the world means that she is used to change and instability. I also appreciate the fact that Daire is the character whose powers form the focus of Fated. So often with paranormal romance, it’s all about the boy being special, and it’s always nice to have a protagonist who is powerful in her own right.

The Antagonist:
I get the impression that we’ll be seeing a lot more of Cade in further novels. In Fated, he’s a little two dimensional. We know he’s dangerous, because everyone tells Daire that he is, but we don’t really see much of his power. I did, however, appreciate that there was no hint of a love triangle involving Cade and his twin, Dace – at least from Daire’s point of view.

The Love Interest:
Fated falls into the instalove category of paranormals, unfortunately. Daire and Dace’s attraction is fated before they even meet, and so there is no slow build-up to romance in the novel, or even to friendship. Dace himself is a likeable character, however, and I think he’ll be a big hit with young readers. There’s a slight Jacob Black feel to him, with his Native American heritage and long black hair, which I’m sure will go down well! I appreciate the fact that he’s nothing but kind to Daire and her loved ones – no creepy YA boyfriend syndrome here. In this first novel, his and Daire’s connection is largely physical, which meant that I found it a little wanting in the depth department. I did, however, appreciate the fact that there was no moral judgement attached to Daire’s sexual urges.

The Supporting Cast:
I enjoyed Paloma, but my favourite minor character was definitely Chay. I’d love to see more discussion of their relationship in future novels. Xotichl was likeable, although I don’t understand including a character name that you know people won’t be able to pronounce, and I was intrigued by Lita. I think Jennika, Daire’s mother, would have bothered me more if I didn’t know her backstory and a little about the place she comes from with her decisions, but as it was, I actually thought she was a well-crafted character.

The Plot:
Fated is the first book in a series, which means that there is a lot of setting up to be found in the first couple of hundred pages. I’ve read other reviews from people who haven’t been able to make it past this section of the book to the action, and I can understand why. It felt like there was an awful lot of waiting around before things actually started to happen. That said, Noël has come up with an interesting concept, and it will be interesting to see where she goes with it. By the end of the novel, the reader is still left with a lot of questions about what Daire is and how she will have to use her new-found powers. When it comes to a series, I think it’s generally unfair to judge the first book too harshly for having a slow start, because all of that exposition has to happen somewhere. I did find myself wishing, however, that there had been a little more of a pay off for the long introduction when the meat of the story finally began.

The Writing:
Noël’s writing style was actually the thing I struggled most with while reading Fated. She uses sentence fragments. A lot of fragments. Building on previous sentences. Adding information. Rarely using grammar as it was intended.

See what I did there? Look, I’m a big fan of learning the rules of grammar and then using this knowledge to break the rules here and there in order to add interest to your writing. I think there comes a point, though, where this kind of thing can become distracting and, with Fated, I was constantly pulled out of the story by the lack of proper sentence structure. I enjoy an occasional sentence fragment, and use them for pacing and emphasis myself. When it reaches the point, however, where a half-page paragraph consists of one initial sentence followed solely by fragments, it just doesn’t work for me. Others may well consider it stylistically brilliant.

The Verdict:
Fated is sure to find its place in the current YA paranormal market. I think there’s still a large demand for this kind of story and, while there is nothing very new about Fated, it is this that is likely to ensure it becomes a hit with its intended demographic. I personally struggled with Noël’s writing style and a plot that failed to ignite a spark of excitement in me, but I believe that Fated will do well and will amass many fans – not all of whom will be in it solely for Dace!

Review: A Pocketful of Eyes – Lili Wilkinson

A Pocketful of Eyes book coverI’m amazed that there aren’t more Young Adult mysteries out there. It’s such a well-loved genre when it comes to junior and middle grade fiction, what with the massive popularity of the Enid Blyton mysteries and series such as Trixie Belden, Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys, but then there’s a real hole in the market in the section between those books and their adult counterparts. I was excited, therefore, to discover A Pocketful of Eyes. I knew of Lili Wilkinson from her excellent Pink and was very pleased that she had produced an Australian, Young Adult take on the murder mystery.

Just like the stories that are regularly referenced in the novel, A Pocketful of Eyes is great fun. There’s an ever present sense of its place in the world of the whodunnit, but Wilkinson is also aware at all times of her audience. There’s no stuffy Poirot here. The protagonist, Bee, is just as keen a detective as her literary ancestors, but she’s also very much a teenage girl. Her sleuthing is often derailed by her growing crush on her sidekick, Toby, and she has her geeky mother and her new boyfriend to deal with as well.

I knew I’d love A Pocketful of Eyes from the moment that it started talking about Bee’s childhood obsession with Trixie Belden. I, too, wanted to be Trixie when I grew up, and I received far too much pleasure from the references to her and the book series throughout the novel. I have to wonder whether Wilkinson was also a big childhood fan of junior mysteries, because they are all spoken of with such love.

The mystery itself is nicely paced and cleverly constructed. While I picked up on the murder weapon reasonably early in the piece, due to the various hints given in the pages, I had not predicted the other details of the death at all, which is always good. (To be fair, I am not the type of person who tends to think a lot about whodunnit, preferring to let things unfold at the author’s pace.) As with most books in the genre, the reader has to suspend disbelief a little, but I think that’s part of the fun of mysteries. There’s an escapist element to lay detectives that really appeals to one’s own, personal sense of potential adventure.

I wasn’t sure what to expect of A Pocketful of Eyes, given the aforementioned lack of YA mysteries, but was very pleased to find that I enjoyed it very much. I’d love to see more books about Bee, or at least a few more whodunnits from Lili Wilkinson.

Review: Stay With Me – Paul Griffin

Stay With Me book coverThree Things I Liked About Stay With Me

(1) There is an extremely strong use of voice throughout Stay With Me. Griffin does a great job of differentiating between his two protagonists through the way they tell their stories. The reader is unlikely to become confused about who is speaking, because the two voices are very different.

(2) The character of Vic is fantastic. His unwavering belief in the people around him is extremely important to making this book readable, despite the overwhelming negativity of the situations described in it.

(3) The dogs in Stay With Me are obviously written about by someone who knows and loves dogs. There is a strong and obvious parallel formed between them and Mack, and this is cleverly done, inserting a little hope where it is most needed.

Four Things I Disliked About Stay With Me

(1) I found that the age of the characters detracted from my enjoyment of the story. I didn’t think that either character really felt fifteen in terms of the way they interacted with the world and each other. The stakes in their romance were reduced by their ages; relationships between fifteen year olds rarely last, so it felt like the events of the book only hastened the eventual outcome.

(2) I was a little concerned by just how blasé the book was about underage sex. There was the sense that it is expected and right for fifteen-year-olds to rush into sexual relationships. Obviously this is something that happens, so I’m not questioning the realism, but rather the way it was presented as being inevitable.

(3) Stay With Me is mostly shade without many touches of light. Everyone in this book has bad things happen to them – even the dogs. I think that realism in fiction is fantastic, but I also think that things can reach the point where tragedy and bad life situations are heaped on top of each other to force emotional reactions that the reader wouldn’t otherwise have had.

(4) On a very personal note, I struggled with reading about the many abused dogs referred to in the story. I think that Mack’s relationship with the rescue dogs he trains is the most positive, powerful thing about Stay With Me, but the backgrounds of these dogs and their resilience to human cruelty was the element that made me come very close to stopping reading this novel, due to my own sensitivity to such things.

(Warning: Contains a lot of discussion of animal abuse and an animal death, violence and underaged sex.)

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