Shiver – Maggie Stiefvater

ISBN: 9781407115009

I just finished reading Shiver by Maggie Stiefvater and I thought I would share with you some of my favourite winter reads. So, this is the first of my special winter reviews.

Boy meets girl. Girl likes boy. Boy is wolf. And that’s just in the first chapter. First published in 2009, this teen novel comes right in the midst of the Twilight craze, where all things supernatural, bloody and brooding are the height of popularity. And, yes, there are similarities between the two: poetic boy, girl who should be afraid of him but isn’t, irrevocable love within a few minutes. But that wouldn’t be a very fair review to write, and, actually, I really enjoyed this book, and thought that it had a lot of heart.

Set in the icy landscape of small town America on the cusp of winter, there is much beauty to be found in Stiefvater’s prose. There are countless scenes of looking out into the looming woods that are always picturesque and never sinister, despite the wolves that prowl around them, which I like. This book isn’t clean; there is blood amidst the snow. Sometimes the plot takes a blunt, shocking turn, and I liked this. But there is always beauty and serenity as the constant backdrop, like a thick blanket of snow.

The emotions that the characters feel, particularly Grace and Sam, are very real. The viewpoint switches, from a first person narrative from Grace, to a first person narrative from Sam, and the switches are natural and appealing. We get inside the heads of these two teenagers, and what we find there is poignant and deep, yes, but also very real. Amidst the love and joy and sorrow are more complex emotions, such as guilt and resentment, which add the third dimension to this novel. There are also numerous quotes from Rilke, which, surprisingly, work, whilst only seeming a little pretentious.

If you’re a fan of teen fiction, and if you’re not sick of Twilight-esque prose, then you really will enjoy this book. At times it is sickly, and often unbelievable, but if you want an icy winter read that is entertaining and will tug at your heartstrings, then you will have a lot of fun with this.

Rating: 7/10

Matched – Ally Condie

ISBN: 0141334789

Matched is a young adult novel set in a potential future society. There are several of these novels around at the moment, but this one does taking a different stance to the likes of The Hunger Games and Uglies, and is a must-read for anybody who loved those novels. In this society, people cannot be trusted to make their own choices. In order to make everybody’s life the best that it can possibly be, each individual is given the correct food, career and spouse based on what will statistically work out for their best.

This is a book about striving for freedom amongst an oppressive society, a popular theme for teen fiction. Cassia, our main character, is perfectly happy with the life that has been set out for her and, like everybody else, doesn’t question it. That is, until there seems to be an error in her Match. As she realises that the Officials aren’t quite as perfect as she had thought, Cassia begins to question who she is, gets to know herself and fights to make her own choices.

Themes about words and literature resonate throughout this novel in a rather beautiful way. Condie’s phrases trip across the page in a way that is delightful to read and the heartfelt emotion is really quite touching. Longing to be with someone you are forbidden from seeing has long been a popular storyline, but this book still feels original and is certainly entertaining.

Rating: 8/10

The Vampire Diaries: The Awakening – L. J. Smith

ISBN: 0553406043

 

This is the first novel in a series of (originally) four, first published in 1993. I first read these books in my tweens and am now re-enjoying them thanks to the ITV 2 series. For me, L. J. Smith is the queen of both teen fiction and paranormal fiction.

 

Take these books with a pinch of salt, by all means, but they are hugely enjoyable and should be relished. Yes, there is a lot of sighing about young love, dressed up as (literally) undying passion. And there is frivolous treatment of death. But these things should be embraced in fiction every now and then, and this is definitely the time for it.

 

The plot of this first novel wasn’t so overdone when it was first written, so please forgive it the ‘girl falling in love with a vampire at high school’ theme, and throughout the series this does develop in a different direction, and is nicely grounded in some Civil War history. There is a nice, strong, female protagonist, which we like, who is only occasionally too selfish to agree with. Swooning romance, obviously, ensues, and Smith does do this well. Anybody who loves to go giddy over highly-wrought teen romance will love this. The genre may well be overdone and on the way out, but I say it is to be enjoyed, and this is a darned enjoyable read!

 

Rating: 8/10

 

A Great and Terrible Beauty – Libba Bray

ISBN: 0689875355

There is nothing remarkable about this book, but I really liked it. A novel for teens, set in the late 19th century, Bray explores girls coming of age in a time when this really mattered. Gemma Doyle, the main character, is on the cusp of womanhood, discovering things about herself, but she also discovers things she never thought she would… powers.

Cue moving to a boarding school, making friends and enemies, and getting caught up in magic, this books is almost a cross between Charlotte Bronte and J K Rowling. It is dark and Gothic, but also doesn’t lose the frivolity of being a teenage girl. Anachronisms abound and plenty is jarring about this book, particularly with the attitudes of the girls who seem far more like girls of the 21st century than the 19th. But then, this is a book that shouldn’t be taken too seriously.

If you let go of your reservations and dive into the candlelit gatherings of the teenage girls in a cave, this is an enjoyable read. This is one for you if you like eerie boarding schools, old buildings with secrets, big fires, midnight shenanigans and the empowerment of women. Basically, if you’re happy to read a modern, less-good version of Jane Eyre, you will love this book. I, actually, did.

Rating: 7/10 (It’s quite generous, but there is something eminently enjoyable about this book.)

A Novel Bookstore – Laurence Cosse

ISBN: 9781933372822

We all love a good tongue-in-cheek mystery, but this is one that has particular appeal because it is so sumptuous to the book-lover. Any bibliophile who starts reading this book will say ‘at last!’ for it is about the perfect book shop. Imagine a book shop that contains only good novels. Put together by an elite panel, any novel that is not great will not be sold. I read this book how I read Enid Blighton’s The Magic Sweet Shop as a child.

Rich with characters that could have stepped out of your own street, this novel has a huge amount of reality about it, and yet it doesn’t take itself too seriously, despite the deep ideas that are developed. It is set in present-day Paris, but it is a world that doesn’t exist. It is a world where people are thrilled about bookshops, where gossip magazines write about them, where book-lovers flock together for refuge and friendship, and where it is quite possible to read an entire trilogy in one night.

However, I did find the actual description of the shop and how it came about more interesting than the actual plot, which seemed forced and stale at times. I found the undisclosed narrator a little unnecessary and the ending fell a bit flat for me. There was also something stilted about the language, although that could be just because it has been translated from French and some of the phrases seem rather unnatural.

And yet there was a lot about this novel that was satisfying. Any avid reader will feel akin with the sentiments throughout the pages, and will find themselves nodding at the attitude towards literature. It is a book that makes you want to keep reading, and a book that makes you want to read more. Not necessarily more of this book, but just more of everything. Cosse clearly loves books and bookshops, and I am very glad that she does.

Rating: 7/10

The Language of Flowers – Vanessa Diffenbaugh

ISBN: 0330532014

This novel is a bouquet of old and new. Diffenbaugh arranges the ins and outs of family and business in the 21st century with an almost extinct method of messages from the early 20th century: the language of flowers. The story is moving without being false, it is realistic without losing a sense of magic. It is tragic in the way that real life is tragic, and is heart-warming by equal measure.

Victoria, the narrator, is canny, and reveals information to us only when it suits her, making for an intriguing read that is plot-driven to just the right extent. Victoria is eminently identifiable; we can see her in ourselves, in our friends and in our families.

Which brings us to the heart of the novel: family. this is essentially a book about joining families, leaving families and trying to piece a family together. It cannot fail to touch anybody who has ever experienced family life, for better or for worse.

Rating: 7/10

The Summer Without Men – Siri Hustvedt

ISBN: 9781444720259

This is a somewhat melancholy little book, but one that beckons us in like girls at a sleepover. It is all about women, from toddlers to old women and every age in between. Hustvedt concentrates on the shape of women, not just the physical and anatomical shapes of them (although she doesn’t shy away from this), but also the shape of women’s minds, and how they are shaped.

Although the premise for this novel is loss, it is remarkably celebratory, and of womankind in particular: think a cross between Angela Carter and Jane Austen. While I’m on the subject of Austen, if she invented free indirect discourse, then Hustvedt has established it firmly in the 21st century. She plonks us straight inside the brain of Mia, the Narrator, and we are encased there for 216 pages without a breath for air. And this is certainly a woman who can think. Ever thought that you wish you could turn your brain off? Well, be thankful you’re not Mia Fredricksen.

So, this is quite an intense read, and yet it is not claustrophobic, as you might expect. There is something freeing about the writing, with light, airy prose and Mia’s readiness to observe. Though this tale is told through this narrator, there is not really a sense of a main character. All of these women are important, simply because they are interesting.

Rating: 8/10

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest – Ken Kesey

ISBN: 9780141187884

Set in a ward in a mental hospital, Kesey treats it like a school. He describes the antics of a group of men much like a Just William tale. Through highly unique characters, Kesey tells the story of a fight for liberation, but more than that, the fight for a personality, to rediscover yourself when everything, down to the very clothes you wear, has been stripped from you, and a new, corporate, identity forced upon you.

Unreliable narrators are always interesting, but Kesey takes this to a whole new level by projecting his novel through a self-confessed madman who consistently lies to those around him, pretending to be something  he is not. This pretence seems to give him a huge amount of freedom, but perhaps it is actually a cage he has shut himself in. This is a theme that Kesey explores throughout the book as he toys with our perceptions of who is sane and who is insane.

As we sympathise with the richly furnished characters, we question where the line is between sane and insane, and is there in fact a line at all? Kesey draws us close to his characters, often without revealing much about them at all. It is the intricate details, reflected in the sketchy yet delicate illustrations, that gets us inside the lives of these men. The language he uses, too, is simultaneously precise and vague, which gives us a beautiful yet hazy view of the world. Feelings are exact, realities are not.

Rating: 8/10

Lady Chatterley’s Lover – D. H. Lawrence

ISBN; 1840224886

I think there’s quite a lot of stigma attached to this book, because it’s a book about sex. It is about sex, yes, but it’s more a book about the sexes: male and female. Lawrence explores the power the sexes wield over each other, through sex, but also through other means, by the sheer inescapable-ness of one’s gender. Throughout the novel we are presented with the power struggle between classes, but the power struggle between the sexes overcomes this as a way of division.

There are some beautiful moments in this novel. Lawrence uses his words like paint and shows us the forest in a storm, the quivering of a violet petal, and the intimacy of early love. He dwells on the emotional connection between two people far more than the physical, which is at times very poignant. It is particularly interesting that Lawrence so emphasises emotional power when Lord Chatterley, the man who gives the eponymous Lady Chatterley her title, has no power in his physicality at all.

Although this novel is named after Lady Chatterley’s lover, it is of course Lady Chatterley herself who we remember. In a period when women were  beginning to cease a little power, Lawrence gives us a heroine who is strong, independant, does what she wants, and, perhaps more controversial to contemporary readers than anything else in the book, seems to be equal with men. She converses with men on equal terms, in smoking rooms, and with boldness that is almost shocking now, and certainly would have been then.

Rating: 7/10

Eat Pray Love – Elizabeth Gilbert

ISBN: 9781408809365

This book is undoubtedly about human nature, and what it distils down to, according to Gilbert, is selfishness. This is a work of memoir, which in its nature is going to be self-absorbed, but Gilbert shows us how deeply this is rooted. The tagline of my copy is “one woman’s search for everything,” which sums it up well, I think.

Throughout the book, Elizabeth is searching for balance, but she continues to look for it within herself, and even actively fights against external sources of contentment, so determined is she to save herself. Continually striving for isolation, Elizabeth even opts for a night of food and masturbation at one point, rather than an evening with a man, because she deems it safer.

What is unique about this book is that it is divided into three sections, eat, pray and love. They are surprisingly self-contained, with only a few references to the other sections within them. ‘Eat’ is about searching for contentment in pleasures, ‘pray’ is about finding it in ceremonies and devotions, and ‘love’ is supposedly about finding a balance and involving others.

This is a compelling read, and Gilbert’s precise writing style pinpoints aspects of a culture or landscape so that we can smell the fruit growing on the trees and feel the hot ground under our feet. This is clearly a writer who loves language, which makes for a pleasurable read. She has a remarkable gift to capture a personality with one turn of phrase, which is often very funny.

Though I wouldn’t recommend anybody follow the advice or wisdom to be gleaned for this book, it is a mind-opening read that drags you through a whirlpool of culture.

Rating: 7/10