Wednesday, 30 May 2012

Meeting Cassie Clare

Having followed Cassandra Clare's work since waaay before she released City of Bones, I was so excited to get the chance to meet her in person. I was nervous too; I mean, how scary is it to meet one of your idols?

I bought my book and joined the queue, waiting around half an hour for the lady herself to join us. As I neared the front of the queue I could hear her asking for favourite characters and chatting away with other readers; she created a really lovely atmosphere. I've been to quite a few signings where people are pushed along with minimal interaction, handed their book / CD at the end and told to move away from the exits. But Cassie was very accommodating for everyone, smiling for endless pictures, answering questions, even looking at one girl's GCSE Art coursework, which she'd based on the Mortal Instruments series.

The nice WHSmith lady took two photos of us - one while Cassie signed my book and another of us posing away. We spoke about Will and Wales (I'm half-Welsh) and how difficult it is to master the Welsh language (very), and I managed to stutter that I was a huge fan and so pleased to meet her.

She asked my favourite character, I said it was Will for the Welsh connection, and she put his name in little hearts for me. A really nice touch! I also nicked some of her awesome 'Team Cassie' badges. I hope she tours England again soon - a delightful lady who deserves all of the praise and success she is getting.

Tuesday, 29 May 2012

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

Release Date: 13th September 2011
Publisher: Doubleday
Pages: 387
Buy The Book: Amazon

"The circus arrives without warning. No announcements precede it. It is simply there, when yesterday it was not. Within the black-and-white striped canvas tents is an utterly unique experience full of breathtaking amazements. It is called Le Cirque des RĂªves, and it is only open at night. But behind the scenes, a fierce competition is underway—a duel between two young magicians, Celia and Marco, who have been trained since childhood expressly for this purpose by their mercurial instructors. Unbeknownst to them, this is a game in which only one can be left standing, and the circus is but the stage for a remarkable battle of imagination and will. Despite themselves, however, Celia and Marco tumble headfirst into love—a deep, magical love that makes the lights flicker and the room grow warm whenever they so much as brush hands. True love or not, the game must play out, and the fates of everyone involved, from the cast of extraordinary circus performers to the patrons, hang in the balance, suspended as precariously as the daring acrobats overhead..."

Erin Morgenstern's debut has been long-awaited and much-hyped. An enchanting, mysterious, playful and imaginative read, I found it enthralling, although I can see how some readers may feel that the slow-burning plot is merely a plot devoid of pace. The expressive prose used throughout the novel helps to create a sense of enchantment that I can only imagine must be akin to that felt by those who follow the circus, known as reveurs - the French word for 'dreamers'. Though the flowery, lyrical writing might not be to everyone's taste, it is an undeniably impressive piece of work. 

I'll start with my minor criticisms of this book: for the first few chapters, the flighty narrative, which jumps between continents and constantly flits forwards and backwards in time, is quite hard to grasp. This style of writing has its advantages; it gives the reader a sense of omnipresence that mirrors the relationship Celia and Marco have with the circus, but for the first quarter of the book, it has the detrimental effect of not allowing readers to really establish a connection with either Celia or Marco. The short chapters and persistent jumping from 1893 Munich to 1903 London to 1897 Paris is disorientating and doesn't allow much scope for character development until the real plot kicks in.

This happens when Celia and Marco finally meet. It is in this scene that the mysterious conversations and build-up all start to make sense, as it becomes clear that their relationship will form the core of the novel. Their love story is very delicately handled; not overwrought or overdone, but slow-burning and discreet (after a brief foray into 50 Shades of Grey by E.L. James, I can appreciate the romance of a subtle and tender love story more than ever). 

Character-wise, the supporting cast are excellent, and I felt one of the strongest points of the book was the fact that every single 'minor' character had their role to play. Nobody is introduced into this story by accident, and everyone has their say in the touching climax. Poppet and Widge, twins born into the circus on the night of its inception, are particularly interesting, and their relationship with a seemingly ordinary boy from middle-America, Bailey, is one of my favourite sub-plots. 

The sub-plots, which at first seem distracting and incoherent, begin to merge towards the end of the novel and it is here that the reader can appreciate the master-craftsmanship that has gone into the story. There are no loose ends, and as the novel reaches its end, it becomes more apparent that every single word of the book is there on purpose; there is no filler, no buffers between plots to steady the pace of the story... the plot is well-thought out and wonderfully handled. 

Morgenstern's debut is enchanting, imaginative and just a little bit dark. The most fascinating character is the circus itself, and the appeal of this novel definitely lies more in the journey than in the climax.

Monday, 21 May 2012

"Hogwarts will always be there to welcome you home..."

This isn't a review as such, more a reflection on one of the best days ever.

As a huge Potter fan for most of my life, I had huge expectations for this place, and I can say with utter delight that it exceeded every single preconceived idea that I had. These are just a few of the hundreds of pictures I took on the day, although I'd be happy to share to rest if anyone happened to be interested.The work that went into those films is nothing short of astonishing, and I can't wait until I can book onto the tour again for another look around.

Friday, 18 May 2012

City of Lost Souls by Cassandra Clare

Released: May 8th 2012
Publisher: Margaret K. McElderry
Pages: 536
Buy The Book: Amazon

"The demon Lilith has been destroyed and Jace has been freed from her captivity. But when the Shadowhunters arrive to rescue him, they find only blood and broken glass. Not only is the boy Clary loves missing–but so is the boy she hates, Sebastian, the son of her father Valentine: a son determined to succeed where their father failed, and bring the Shadowhunters to their knees."

City of Lost Souls is a welcome return to form for Cassandra Clare, who, in my opinion, dropped the ball with City of Fallen Angels (check out my review here for my thoughts). The odd decisions and the strange character development that ruined CoFA for me have given way to a much more engaging plot, and the 'fanfiction' element has all but fallen away. I'll try to keep this relatively spoiler-free, as it's still quite close to the release of the book and I don't want to ruin it for anyone who hasn't got their hands on it yet.

Having read the books that have been released so far in the companion series, the Infernal Devices, I'm struggling to find Mortal Instruments quite as engrossing; in fact, I thought the most interesting parts of this book were the parts that dropped heavy clues as to what would happen in the next and final Infernal Devices instalment. However, that's not to say I don't seriously appreciate Cassandra Clare's craft and supreme talent, which is more evident in this novel than ever. The woman knows how to structure a story, CoLS is wonderfully put together and excellently written, with plenty of the old spark that I so missed in CoFA. Cassie is growing with every novel (writing CoFA off as a blip) and, despite my lingering reservations about her continuing the series past City of Glass, I'm actually quite excited to see what the final book holds.

Where my favourite character used to be Jace by a country mile, I am now appreciating Simon and Sebastian much more as literary constructs. Sebastian is masterfully well-written, the scenes where he has an almost easy and charming camaraderie with Jace certainly lull the reader into a false sense of security before he transforms into the monster we know him to be. He's a very charismatic villain and it's easy to see why people fall under his spell, even if his methods and aims aren't to be celebrated. Simon has also blossomed; in the first three novels I saw him as an annoyance but he's absolutely pivotal now and I don't find myself dreading the chapters that begin with his POV anymore.

In the way of criticism, I'd have to say that, as diverse and wonderful Cassie's cast of characters are, I'm finding the sub-plots to be a little distracting. The Maia / Jordan side-story didn't add contribute much to the actual plot, and I find it a little too neat that every single person in the main cast is involved with another member of the main cast. I know that it's fiction, but I find it a little too convenient, and I hope Cassie shakes it up a little in the final book. I'm sure she will, she writes tragedy extremely well.

All in all, I'm starting to warm to this series a little more, and I hope the final book is worthy of standing alongside City of Glass, which I thought (at the time) was an ideal ending to a series.

Thursday, 5 April 2012

Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys

Released: March 22nd, 2011
Publisher: Philomel Books
Pages: 344
Buy The Book: Amazon

"Lina is just like any other fifteen-year-old Lithuanian girl in 1941. She paints, she draws, she gets crushes on boys. Until one night when Soviet officers barge into her home, tearing her family from the comfortable life they've known. Separated from her father, forced onto a crowded and dirty train car, Lina, her mother, and her young brother slowly make their way north, crossing the Arctic Circle, to a work camp in the coldest reaches of Siberia. Here they are forced, under Stalin's orders, to dig for beets and fight for their lives under the cruelest of conditions. Lina finds solace in her art, meticulously-and at great risk-documenting events by drawing, hoping these messages will make their way to her father's prison camp to let him know they are still alive. It is a long and harrowing journey, spanning years and covering 6,500 miles, but it is through incredible strength, love, and hope that Lina ultimately survives."

I'd read a glowing review of this book but I'll admit I initially thought it was a little out of my comfort zone. I didn't know much about Stalin or his regime before I read it, and historical accounts turned into fiction don't usually catch my attention. But this is an astounding story of courage and hope, and I'm glad that it was given a platform.

I had previously read Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor, which is wonderful in all its flowery, liquid language and description, so to go from that to the stark depictions of life in a Siberian prison camp was quite a shock to the system, but the bare frankness of the prose here serves to illustrate how exposed these people truly were. It never feels like the novel is playing on the reader's emotions or even trying to elicit sympathy; it simply states the facts in a very naked, honest way. Despite the bleak setting of the novel, there are some truly heartwarming scenes which show the human race at its best. Ruta Sepetys spoke to many Lithuanians who had survived this ordeal and some of the incidents represented in the book take inspiration from real life accounts; it makes you truly marvel at their spirit.

Most of the novel focuses on the relationships between Lina and her family, but it was interesting to see how a romance would slot into the story. It followed the pattern of the rest of the novel, in that it wasn't obvious or overwrought, but subtle and rather more enigmatic than some romance plots. It played second fiddle to the overarching story, which was a pleasant surprise, as many novels aimed at young adults tend to use romance to push along the plot. 

I felt a little more closure could have been offered with the ending. I don't want to stray into spoiler territory but the end, when it arrives, is rather abrupt, and could have been better explained. I suppose with this kind of historical/fictional account, endings aren't neatly wrapped up anyway, but that was my only complaint of the novel. The book is presented as a young adult novel but some of the themes aren't suitable for a younger audience; I'd recommend it to more mature readers.

Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor

Release Date: September 27th, 2011
Publisher: Little, Brown & Company
Pages: 432
Buy The Book: Amazon

"Meet Karou. She fills her sketchbooks with monsters that may or may not be real; she's prone to disappearing on mysterious "errands"; she speaks many languages—not all of them human; and her bright blue hair actually grows out of her head that color. Who is she? That is the question that haunts her, and she's about to find out. When one of the strangers—beautiful, haunted Akiva—fixes his fire-colored eyes on her in an alley in Marrakesh, the result is blood and starlight, secrets unveiled, and a star-crossed love whose roots drink deep of a violent past. But will Karou live to regret learning the truth about herself?"

I had never heard of Laini Taylor's past work, and I seem to have stumbled across this book entirely by accident, but it is a beautiful book. It's one of the first books I've read on my new Kindle and I've enjoyed playing around with the 'highlights' feature - there are so many gorgeous phrases and passages I wanted to remember from this book, it seemed I was highlighting every page.

The first half of the story is set mainly in Prague; a gothic, romantic setting for a book like this, with talk of angels impaling themselves on the Czech church spires as they fall from heaven. The setting is wonderfully imaginative and a perfect launchpad for the dark and mythical goings-on that take place. I like books which take common folklore or myth and flip it on its head; too often you read stories about good girls who fall for bad boys, princesses who fall for stable boys etc. And too often there are definite lines drawn, so that readers know who is the good guy and who is the bad guy. This book has no lines whatsoever; you're not sure who to sympathise with, you're not sure which side you're on. It's intriguing.

For the last quarter of the book, the story switches into flashback mode and, as a reader, at this point I became much more aware of the scope and scale of what Laini Taylor is trying to do. The story stops being one girl's search for her identity and starts to become an all-out fight for revolution and peace between two races as old as the earth. And isn't that what we like our fantasy fiction to be?!

Lovers of fantasy fiction shouldn't need any persuasion to read this book. It's really quite astonishing in parts. But just in case you need a little push in the right direction, here is one of my favourite passages; a description of Akiva the angel.

"His gaze was heat across her cheeks, her lips. It was touch. His eyes were hypnotic, his brows black and velvet. He was copper and shadow, honey and menace, the severity of knife-blade cheekbones and a widow's peak like the point of a dagger. All that and the muted snap of invisible fire..."

Friday, 16 December 2011

Delirium by Lauren Oliver

Release Date: February 1st, 2011
Publisher: Harper Collins
Pages: 448
Buy The Book: Amazon

"Ninety-five days, and then I’ll be safe. I wonder whether the procedure will hurt. I want to get it over with. It’s hard to be patient. It’s hard not to be afraid while I’m still uncured, though so far the deliria hasn’t touched me yet. Still, I worry. They say that in the old days, love drove people to madness. The deadliest of all deadly things: It kills you both when you have it and when you don’t."

After reading Before I Fall I decided to seek out some more of Lauren Oliver's work. I was a little bit undecided whether I liked her previous book but I felt like her dreamy prose had promise and so I decided to see what else she'd written.

Delirium is one of the most beautiful books I've read for years. Not since I read A Certain Slant Of Light by Laura Whitcomb have I felt so completely moved by a book. The basic concept is original and intelligent, with a convincing backstory that makes for uncomfortable reading (especially with excerpts from the Book Of Shhh). A life without love is bad enough but a life without the capacity to even feel emotion... unimaginable. Those who have been 'cured' of love lose enjoyment in their hobbies, food tastes bland, friendships dissolve; it is difficult reading at times.

Lena, the lead, is convincingly straight-laced at the beginning of the novel. Abiding strictly by the rules is all she's done for her whole life, believing the stories force-fed to her by her adopted family and the government which has taken over. Her awakening to the truth of what's going on in this dystopian world does not just happen overnight; the realisation takes time. Lena struggles convincingly with the truth and struggles with trying to resist what has been drilled into her for her entire life. She is wonderfully brave and honest, with a good heart. You can't help but like Lena. Seeing her and her beliefs fall apart and build herself back into the person she is at the end of the book is thrilling and satisfying. You like to think that, should you be in her place, you'd be as brave as her.

But this is just the start. I had no idea when I picked up Delirium that it was the first of three novels, and so when the ending came I was in SHOCK (I convinced myself my book must have some chapters missing because it could just NOT END THERE). Having thought it was a standalone novel I was devastated with the ending, but now that I know it's just the beginning of the trilogy I see that it's a fantastic cliffhanger. 

Delirium feels like a more adult novel than Before I Fall. Concepts are echoed in both books, with themes of loss and identity represented strongly, but Delirium feels like a much more polished work. Lauren Oliver's prose is lyrical, fluid and beautifully written; the last few pages especially stick in my mind. This dystopian world is intriguing and I am truly excited to see what happens next. Check back for my review of Pandemonium, the next installment in the Delirium Trilogy, in February 2012.