March 26, 2012

At The Break of Day (Review: Legend by Marie Lu)

Marie Lu
Puffin 2012

June is a pretty smart cookie.  Passing her government’s aptitude tests with a perfect score, she’s already part way through her university training at just fifteen. Keen to start contributing to her society’s ongoing war effort, she’s itching to join her older brother, Metias in the military but isn’t all that good at following orders.  However, when Metias is fatally injured by the infamous rebel, Day, June finds herself on her first mission.  Day’s identity is shrouded in mystery and June sets off to find and destroy him before he destroys the society she holds so dear.  Meanwhile, Day lurks near his erstwhile home, terrified that his family is about to succumb to the deadly plague that is decimating the poorer sections of Los Angeles.  Increasingly desperate to save his youngest brother he finds himself suddenly thrown together with a mysterious girl who seems just a little too good to be true…

Told in duel narrative, Legend has two strong protagonists who complement each other nicely.  June is perhaps the least accessible of the pair, conditioned as she is by the society in which she has grown up.  She is certainly a child of privilege and is highly principled, believing that the party line drilled into her by her school and government is nothing but the truth.  She’s also exceptionally smart and focussed which makes her confusion later in the novel interesting to read.  While June could have come across as a rather hard character, Lu writes her cleverly allowing cracks to appear in her façade and her gentler, more vulnerable aspects seep through.

Day is more instantly likable perhaps because he’s a more familiar sort of character.  Essentially decent, his crimes are driven by his deep-seated principles.  Educated rather differently from June, Day has witnessed the realities of the society he lives in and rails against it.  His driving force, though, is his family and his determination that his youngest brother should not have to face the fate of most of Los Angeles’s poor.  His interactions with June are based around an inherent kindness which in turn makes him inherently likable.  Were Legend to be compared to The Hunger Games (and believe me, it will be… but more on that later) Day would be a sort of Katniss/Peeta hybrid to June’s Gale.

Other characters pepper the story effectively.  Metias is ever present, even when he no longer remains part of the main storyline.  The relationship between him and June is very well written and there are a couple of points where it is deeply moving.  June’s soldier friend, Thomas, is another character who is compelling; hard to pigeonhole and therefore adding unease to all of their interactions.  The elder characters in the book come across as slightly familiar.  June’s commander is a dead ringer for The Hunger Games President Coin while Chian is more than a little reminiscent of a variety of creepy, evil guys.  Still, they do add to the creeping unease that builds throughout Legend.

The world building in Legend is interesting yet incomplete.  America seems to be in the grip of a civil war with two main factions fighting against each other while  rebellious Patriots hover in the background.  This is all well and good yet few questions are answered as to why the country is in such a desperate state.  While Legend is the first book in a trilogy (of course), Lu could have answered more questions, particularly in a story that takes a while to get going.  To make dystopian visions work writers either require a plot that is so compelling readers accept the past without question (a la Hunger Games) or a storyline that sketches out, even briefly, the basis for the current society (a la Divergent).  It may seem disingenuous, even unfair, to compare Legend to the successful books in this genre that populate the shelves right now but it will be compared and as of yet it’s hard to predict how it will fare.

Regardless of the whys and wherefores, Legend does remain extremely readable.  Roughly based on Les Miserables the story certainly has legs and the placing of Day as Val Jean and June as Javert works pretty well (although I did get a little obsessed by who Eponine might be – having only ever seen the musical my knowledge of the story is sketchy and my reading was accompanied by rousing renditions of a variety of show tunes) but Lu will have to up the ante considerable for Legend to reach it’s admitted potential.  But it does have potential and I would recommend this particularly to those readers who wish to try Dystopian YA for the first time or who are missing the inimitable Hunger Games.

Legend is available now.  Thank you to the publisher for sending me this title to review.

March 25, 2012

My Favourite Things: The Hunger Games as through the lens of CJ Skuse.

Hello and welcome to the 75th Hung... I mean, the 2nd of new feature, My Favourite Things.  I am delighted to welcome CJ Skuse, author of the fabulous Pretty Bad Things and Rockoholic, who has joined us here to discuss (very timeously) her favourite YA novel of recent times. 

Everybody LOVES The Hunger Games, and for a very good reason. It’s an absolute stonker of a YA series. When I came to write this post I thought, there’s nothing I can say that hasn’t already been said about it. Then I had another thought because actually, yeah there is, because no one’s ever said it out of my mouth so here goes...

So I finally hopped on The Hunger Games bandwagon last summer after countless people told me I had to read it. I’d resisted it for ages because the subject matter just didn’t appeal. Dyst-what-ia? I cried. What’s a Katniss? What sort of a name is Haymitch? What sort of a place is Panem, for Peeta’s sake? Pah, I cried. No, not for me. I would Rue the day that I read that complicated mish-mash. Then I shut my trap and just read it ...

“Family devotion only goes so far for most people on reaping day. What I did was the radical thing.”

Oh my Greasy Sae, what a novel. What a series. What a writer! Never in my life had I read something in which I inhabited so much of the main character’s emotions and experiences as I did with Katniss. Not only did the death of her father resonate strongly with me and immediately made me empathise with her, but every time she was running, my pulse raced like I was running too. Whenever she was thirsty, my mouth went dry. Whenever she was injured, I hurt for her. I felt the heat of the fire, the stings of the Tracker Jackers, the cold wetness of the stone walls in the cave. As Peeta lay dying, I felt sick and prayed for just one more parachute as much as Katniss did.

“No one has held me like this in such a long time…no one else’s arms have made me feel this safe.”

And my usual habit of ‘Just one more chapter and then I’ll leave it for a day’ just didn't work with HG. The endings of every chapter are such that you HAVE to know what happens next. They’re like little fish hooks which attach to you and pull you into the next one. And the next one. And the next one. It’s like a hunger than you just can’t satisfy. And after The Hunger Games, I was RAVENOUS for Catching Fire. And after Catching Fire I was positively CANNIBALISTIC for Mockingjay. More more more, I cried!

The real star of the whole series is, of course Katniss, who is just about as rounded a character as you will ever meet in YA fiction. At times she can be stubborn or judgmental, jealous, even irrational. Her naivety when it comes to matters of the human heart is sometimes frustrating, and her blindness at Peeta’s affection for her is infuriating. But she is a survivor against all odds and this is what makes her exemplary. Her coal miner father’s death, her mother’s fragile state ever since and her struggle to keep her family from starvation, have turned Katniss into a survivor who knows what is truly important and worth fighting for. She will fight for her sister, take beatings for her friends and will die to save Peeta, the boy who saved her and who loves her unconditionally. And despite everything she does, how deftly she fires those arrows from her bow, how skilfully she skins those rabbits, she is always just a 17-year-old girl who is internally, extremely afraid.


 “Well, if you put enough pressure on coal it turns to pearls.”  

Suzanne Collins is the kind of writer who makes me want to give up writing and devote my life to waiting for her next one to come out, and be totally happy about that. I can’t even be jealous of her talent because if you’d given me a thousand years I couldn’t have come up with The Hunger Games. I couldn’t have come up with a female protagonist as all-round awesome as Katniss. Or a boy character as hair-pullingly gorgeous as Peeta. Or prose as witty, as deep and as pacy. Or a setting as imaginative. Or a plot as globally pertinent. My brain just doesn’t work that way.

‘No one will forget me. Not my look, not my name. Katniss. The girl who was on fire.’

If I had my writer’s hat on and had to be Finnicky, I will say I wouldn’t have done THAT at the end of Mockingjay. Or THAT. And I certainly wouldn’t have made THAT character do THAT, but these are mere peccadilloes which I can forgive. Just. Anyway, I digress…

Collins’s involvement in The Hunger Games movie truly is the stamp of approval that, as book to film adaptations go, this one has the potential to be just as awesome. With Winter’s Bone’s wonderful Jennifer Lawrence, my muse of the moment Josh Hutcherson *sighs* and my childhood hero Woody Harrelson all on board (I still get goose bumps watching him in Natural Born Killers), not to mention Donald Sutherland, Stanley Tucci, Elizabeth Banks and that very scary-faced chick from Orphan, I think it’s a pretty safe bet this film will live up to expectations. The odds are definitely in their favour and I, along with the rest of this wonderful fandom, cannot Effie-ing wait!

‘Ladies and gentlemen, let the Seventy-fourth Hunger Games begin.’

Thank you, Cj, for such an awesome post.  It literally made me read all the books all over again and I am salivating at the thought of seeing the film soon.  I hope you all enjoyed CJ's post - come back soon for more Favourite Things.

March 21, 2012

A few of Splendibird's Favourite Things

Welcome to a series of posts based on many people's favourite things. I'm starting the ball rolling by writing a post myself but in subsequent weeks I have a variety of awesome guest posts from a variety of readers, authors and others who all want to share their favourite things with you.  This week I'm combining three of my favourite things:  books, films and...well...I think the third will become increasingly obvious over the course of the post. Enjoy!

I like to cast books in my head - who doesn't - and have been toying with doing a post filled with my own personal cast members for a while.  Some of the books that I am casting are already being filmed/are successful movies.  I've included them anyway... sometimes using actual cast members, sometimes switching them out for people I prefer or who match my inner-vision (dahl-ling) more accurately.  As you will see, there's a common denominator but I really can't help it if there are certain actors who just fit EVERY role I can think of.

City of Bones by Cassandra Clare

I love this book, I really do.  Now, I know that it's is currently being cast but I just can't bear to think about Jamie Campbell-Pugface as the lovely Jace so have turned my attention to the older members of the cast.

Hodge - Jeremy Irons
This just seems to fit.  He's kind of kindly and grey but also looks like he could kick some ass/totally betray you should he be so inclined.

Valentine - Paul Bettany
Just for the record, I wanted Paul Bettany for Valentine YEARS ago. Way before anyone else. Fact.

Luke - Richard Armitage
Well, he's about the right age and I can see him giving sage advice and wolfing out as necessary.  Also, he's Richard Armitage.  Good point, well made.  By me.

Beautiful Creatures by M Stohl and K Garcia

Another book that is currently being cast, and pretty well cast, but I had so long envisioned Ethan as the following actor that I just had to recast him.  Apologies, other actor who actually got the job.

Ethan - Steven R. McQueen
He's got that laid back, almost surfer dude voice that I think would really suit the character.  Also, he's been getting increasingly handsome on The Vampire Diaries.  Additionally, I can see him being lovely to old ladies which works with The Sisters.  All of whom will be played by Maggie Smith, obviously.

Lena - Alice Englert
This is actually the actress who will be playing Lena in the film and she looks pretty perfect to me with just the right level of fragility.

Macon - Richard Armitage
See that picture?  See the suave-ness?  And the Macon? Exactly.

The Chaos Walking trilogy by Patrick Ness 

One of my very, very favourite book series I'm still rather wary at the concept of it as a film.  Still, apparantely it is indeed going to be one so I have cast it as follows:

Todd - Skandar Keynes
Sadly, I think young Skandar has retired from acting after the various Narnia films he appeared it.  This is truly a shame as he showed a great deal more actorly potential than his young cast-mates.  He has a mix of immaturity, vulnerability and sheer gumption that sounds just perfect for Todd.

Viola - Kaya Scoledario
I'm aware that Kaya is probably a bit too old to play this role but again she's the closest to the image of Viola I had in my head and I reckon she'd work pretty well with old Skandar.

Mayor Prentiss - Richard Armitage
He can ride a horse and I'm pretty sure he can act suitably evil but he's also a nuanced actor with a great deal of charisma.  All together, now: I AM THE CIRCLE AND THE CIRCLE IS ME.

Ballad by Maggie Stiefvater

James - Zach Gilford
The short hair, easy smile and boy-next door looks make him just perfect for the likable, easy going James.

Nuala - Dianna Agron
I like Dianna Agron and her petite blondness would work really well as Nuala.  I also think that, unlike the majority of the Glee cast, she might actually have some acting chops.

Sullivan - Richard Armitage he would look equally good in a Julliard sweater and a long black coat?

Across The Universe - Beth Revis

Amy - Karen Gillan
She has the hair and the height (I always image Amy as super tall), she's already played an Amy who travels through space so this isn't really a stretch (which is good as she's not necessarily the best actress) and she's quite good at being both wronged, confused and whiny.

Elder - Ethan Peck
Well, really , if you thought I was going to cast movies without casting Ethan Peck then you were sadly mistaken.  I've never seen him act so have no idea what he's like but I can see him  being all confused and driven like Elder.

Orion - Richard Armitage
What????  It's such an obvious choice....

Jellicoe Road by Melina Marchetta

Taylor - Caitlin Stacey
Firstly, Australian. Secondly, was pretty impressive in Tomorrow, When The War Began and illustrated her ability to portray both toughness and fragility all at the same time.

Jonah - Liam Hemsworth
Firstly, Australian. Secondly, deserves to not be instantly dismissed just because he is Mr. Miley C. Thirdly, am trying to stop disliking him before seeing The Hunger Games in which I would have cast Richard mean...Evil-Thomas-from-Downton-Abbey as Gale (and yes, that is his real name).

The Brigadier - Richard Armitage
Firstly, looks good in uniform. Secondly, is currently shooting The Hobbit in New Zealand which is almost the same as being Australian (this is a JOKE, Australians... don't get so mad). Thirdly, is Richard Armitage.

And that's yer lot. It may seem excessive but I really cannot help it if some performers are versatile enough to appear in all of the above. Really.

I hope that you have enjoyed reading about some of my favourite things as much as I have enjoyed writing about them. Drop by next week to read about the specially themed favourite things of awesome author, CJ Skuse and don't be shy about sharing your favourite bits and bobs in the comments or by way of a guest post. I'm off to watch Spooks and North and South.

For no particular reason AT ALL...

March 12, 2012

Away With The Fae (Review: Stolen Away by Alyxandra Harvey)

Stolen Away
Alyxandra Harvey
Bloomsbury 2011

Eloise Hart keeps herself to herself.  Content to spend her time with best friends Jo and Devin, hang out with her Rockabilly mother and help out at the local tattoo parlour (while avoiding the local mean girls) she’s used to not drawing too much attention her way.  All this changes however, when suddenly she seems to be drawing the attentions of mad old women, a crew of persistently creepy crows and (most importantly, obvs) a handsome young man in medieval dress.  Quite frankly, she’d be happy if they’d all disappear but this is not to be.  It quickly emerges that her strange visitors are from Faery, a land dominated by the oh-so-nasty Lord Strahan – a Fae with a special interest in Eloise’s missing aunt, Antonia.  Eloise, Jo and Devin suddenly find themselves caught in the middle of Court politics, lost love and coming war – a war that only Eloise can bring to a halt.

Eloise and Jo are fun characters to read.  Eloise is a particularly lovely protagonist with her strong sense of identity and moral compass believable and not at all preachy – she comes across as a decent person (with an awesome tattoo, btw) with out seeming holier-than-thou.  Her reaction to the situation she finds herself in is at once believably confused and winningly practical and her interactions with Lucas are pretty funny.  It’s nice to see a girl who doesn’t instantly swoon at the feet of a boy who is clearly not quite normal.  As her best friend (and co-narrator) Jo seems to be more of a free spirit, boy-mad and funny with it.  Her loyalty is certainly her most commendable character trait and she’s incredibly likable in her fight to save her friends.  Also, her love life contributes most of the obligatory swoon-age.

On the male side, Lucas and Eldric cast nicely opposing shadows over the group of friends.  Lucas verges on being slightly too nice – honourable to a fault but also awfully sweet.  However, Eldric is far more interesting.  Fae characters are always at there best when they carry with them a sense of the “other” – a slightly dangerous edge – and Eldric has that down.  It’s hard to know whether he’s good or bad and impossible to tell how he might turn out, even at the end of the book.  As resident villain, Strahan ticks all the boxes but isn’t anything that readers of Fae stories won’t have seen before although his back story with Antonia is pretty interesting and does add depth.  Jo and Eloise’s best friend, Devin, is nice enough but woefully underwritten – he contributes little to the story and could have been omitted completely with no lasting effect.  Other characters are sketched fairly lightly although both Antonia and Jaz are strong enough to be believable.  A special shout out must go to the rather awesome Isadora – a faery after my own heart (and her own sword).

The story line of Stolen Away at first seems quite standard for Fae fare – issues between Seelie and Unseelie courts abound and hapless mortals get trapped in the middle while the fate of both Faery and the moral world hangs in the balance yet Alyxandra Harvey introduces a structure of Raths and lesser courts that is nicely imagined and the climax of the novel includes some lovely set pieces.  The romance seems fairly obligatory but is no less fun for that and Harvey, as always, writes friendship very well.  The only criticism to be made is that the duel narrative structure doesn’t always work – Eloise and Jo share a voice that is so similar that it is easy to become confused when reading the alternating chapters.  However, what is particularly lovely about Stolen Away is that it includes some gorgeously visual writing – Harvey’s vision of Fae is filled with detail and beauty and is a real treat for the imagination. 

While it could be said that Alyxandra’s stand alone titles have yet to reach the level set by her fabulous Drake Chronicles, for fans of both this author and of Fae stories, Stolen Away is a sweet story, full of Harvey’s trademark humour and swoony romance.  For readers who have yet to dip their toes in Faery wine, this is the perfect introduction not just to a new genre but also to a writer whose work is consistently enjoyable and full of fun.

Stolen Away is available now.  Thank you to Bloomsbury for sending me this title to review.

March 02, 2012

YOUR Favourite Things

About a week ago, I sent an email to a few fellow bloggers and blogging friends regarding a new feature I want to start running on The Mountains of Instead.  It's garnered such a great response that I've decided to spread the net for contributors wider - to all of you!  Because you're all awesome.  Fact.

Soooo... every month (at least) I will run a feature entitled My Favourite Things about, er, everyone's favourite things.  I'm looking for posts of about 600-700 words (or more, but no less) about YOUR favourite thing/s.  These things do not need to be YA related, they do not even have to be book related - they just have to be favourites of yours.  Thus far I have posts coming in that range from the pleasure of a scale model of a world wonder to the joy of all things Hunger Games.  Personally, I'll be dropping by occasionally with posts about why I love TS Eliot and The Secret History as well as my favourite walk.

I'd love this to be a feature that could run and run - but for that I need all of YOU to tell me what your favourite things actually are.  If you'd like to contribute, and I hope you do like, then please contact me via the usual channels (Twitter, Facebook or email) and we can take it from there.  Here's to variety, here's to random - here's to favourites!

If he left off dreaming about you, where do you suppose you'd be? (Review: Wither by Lauren DeStefano)

Lauren DeStefano
Harper Collins 2011

Rhine has always lived with the knowledge that she will not live past the age of 20 and her brother will die at 25. In a world cured of disease, some strange anomaly has led to men and women contracting a strange virus that kills by the clock. Rhine’s world has since been divided into the haves and have nots – the remainder of a healthy, older first generation and their children and those like Rhine and her brother who survive in menial jobs and slum apartments. For young women like Rhine there is the added aspect of Gatherers, who prowl the streets looking for young brides to offer up to rich husbands in a vain attempt to save the human race by way of forced reproduction. When Rhine is caught and delivered to a strange and frightening house she finds herself caught between her new husband, his father, her sister wives and a servant who she cannot dismiss. Wither follows her struggle between what is expected, what is right and what she most desires.

Rhine is an interesting protagonist. She’s clearly led a fairly hard life in a pretty hard world and has strong views on what is right and what is wrong yet she seems to have been largely dependent on her twin brother and when she is moved to husband Linden’s mansion she moves to being emotionally dependent on firstly Rose (Linden’s first wife), then Gabriel (her servant), Jenna and eventually even Linden himself. While she never entirely loses her will to escape she also goes through periods where she doesn’t seem to try too hard to leave and is honest about the fact that she enjoys many of the perks offered by Linden and his lifestyle. However, she never entirely resigns herself to the situation and keeps a barrier between herself and Linden.  She’s not unlikable but is certainly flawed, slightly naïve and sometimes a little selfish or even spoilt – none of which are out of place when her young age and strange situation are taken into account.

Rhine’s sister wives seem to represent different aspects of her own personality. Rose, happy to live as Linden’s wife with all the respective perks; Cecily naïve and excited by the prospect of motherhood and Jenna grimly resigned to spending the last few years of her life as a concubine.  Each character is well written with Cecily being particularly compelling (and often heart-breaking). Linden himself is a hard character to like in that he is not entirely un-likable.  Rather than being a complete monster, he’s a rather gentle character who seems to be completely under the spell of his domineering father.  He seems to have no idea that the situation in which he places his brides is at all unsavoury and certainly does not push Rhine to do anything that she does not want to do (apart from stay in what is effectively a pretty prison).  However, his lack of backbone doesn’t stop him from sleeping with 13 year old Cecily and it’s rather hard to sympathise with anyone who is so unrelentingly weak. The other male character of note is Gabriel.  While he is perfectly nice he seems to have been written rather vaguely.  At the end of the book he remains rather a non-entity (if a vaguely interesting one) and one can only hope that DeStefano is going to expand his character in sequel, Fever.

The plot of Wither is actually fairly slight.  Rhine is captured by the Gatherers, taken to Linden’s mansion where she finds out all sorts of intriguing/horrible things about his father and the world she lives in and gradually plans an escape attempt.  What makes Wither so readable is the world-building and moral issues it raises.  It’s not a comfortable story to read and, to an extent, the science, world-building and dodgy morality is full of holes.  Why the forced capture of brides?  Wouldn’t young people reproduce anyway?  How are 10 year olds such excellent fashion designers and life coaches (albeit in the guise of servants)? Also deeply problematic/disturbing (depending on your point of view and almost definitely both) is the issue of Linden and Cecily which seems to be largely accepted by those around them even, to an extent, Rhine.  A twenty-one year old man having sex with a thirteen year old girl is extremely hard to swallow and, while this may be the point, when said man is also the third prong in a rather obscure love triangle it verges on extreme bad taste, at the very least.  However, Rhine’s relationship with Linden is explored cleverly and is tinged with more than a little Stockholm Syndrome. Still, there is little in Wither that won’t give readers pause for thought and it is certainly a story that will inspire either admiration or absolute disgust.  This reader, for one, is slightly conflicted and is thus reserving judgement until the end of the Chemical Garden trilogy – at the moment it could go either way.  However, DeStefano’s writing is starkly beautiful and her vision of an apocalyptic Manhattan juxtaposed against a Looking Glass house of holograms and candy is eminently readable as is her complex plot and characterisation.  What comes next is anyone’s guess…