October 28, 2015

On a Wing and a Prayer (Review: Winger by Andrew Smith)

Andrew Smith
Egmont, 2014

This review contains spoilers. Consider this fair warning, although we'll warn you again below, before things get REALLY spoiler-y. You may now proceed.

Ryan Dean West is 14 and, as such, Ryan Dean West has problems. Not exactly abject poverty, incurable disease, downtrodden by the powerful masses problems but problems none the less.  He is in love with his best friend Annie, he is spending this term bunking in the bad boys dorm and he is at least a year younger than his classmates, leading to the aforementioned Annie not exactly seeing him as hunk material.  Never mind the constant threat of physical harm by being the only player on the rugby team that's around half the body weight of the rest. When you live on the campus of an extremely affluent boarding school these are the types of problems that can play on your mind.

Our journey with Ryan Dean covers his life over a school year, the trials and tribulations, the loves and losses and the drama that, at 14, we can all remember being absolutely world-ending (for about 2 days), all peppered with quirky cartoon strips of our protagonists own making.  Or at least it should have been, that would have been nice.  But instead Smith felt it necessary to go SUPER HARDCORE SERIOUS in the last 20 pages, so much so that the ending genuinely feels like it is a different book involving different characters.  But not to the ending just yet.

Our erstwhile host Ryan Dean is a very average 14 year old boy - he is insecure, overwhelmed and feels that all the worlds ills will be righted if he has the opportunity to rub himself up against almost anything female.  Sadly though, Smith has written him very averagely.  I didn't find Ryan Dean particularly likeable or even interesting which led to me having huge problems getting hooked in to this book.  Not only Ryan Dean but the majority of the characters I felt were woefully underdeveloped.  Don't get me wrong, they were all fine and played their parts but there was just way too much tell and not enough show from the author - I didn't understand why most of the characters did what they did or behaved the way they did which, for a book which isn't particularly short, is a mean feat to achieve.  But, to be more positive, Smith's mile-a-minute narration is always fun and really aided with the pacing of the overall tale which was, at times, mildly all over the place.  Ryan Dean is witty and delivers a very believable teenage view of the world which I'm sure will transport a lot of the readers back to their own school days, be that a good or bad reminiscence!  


But really, this ending I just can't make peace with and I'm going to have to lay down some pretty heavy spoilers here but I feel it's important for me to vent.  There is an openly gay boy on Ryan Dean's rugby team who, early on in the book, gets some agro from a group of local kids at an away rugby game.  Then, in the last twenty or so pages of the book, this boy goes missing from a party and is found tied to a tree, beaten to death, just for being gay.  This is such a massive step-change from the rest of the book and it happens so close to the end that there is no satisfactory response from any of the characters.  We are basically told that Ryan Dean was sad and then he got over it.

For me, it seemed a little too much like Smith was set on delivering a strong morality message to end Ryan Dean's story and tried to work back, creating a story around this.  Even the language in the last chapter does not sound like the Ryan Dean that the reader has spent the last few hundred pages getting to know.

Whether I was just too in love with Grasshopper Jungle to ever share my heart with another of Smith's novels is very much a possibility but I can't help leaving Winger feeling just a little bit let down.  What started out as a relatively light-hearted coming-of-age meander waded in with the hard-hitting moral stuff right at the end and it just didn't work for me.  In my mind it created a clunky plot, that was pretty light for much of the book, and an overall tale that doesn't seem to quite know what it wants to be.  Sadly, not nearly as clever or as organic-feeling as some of Smith's other work.    

This review was brought to you by Polka-Dot Steph who Splendibird hasn't seen for FAR TOO LONG. Isn't that sad? Yes, yes it is. Winger (and it's sequel Stand-Off) are now available in all places that sell good books. As are Andrew Smith's other books, which we think you should ALL read. Thank you to Egmont for sending us this title to review.



October 26, 2015

This is Halloween! Some Terrible Treats for the Weekend...

I love Halloween, I always have.  I think anybody who is a reader, or who spends a lot of time on their imagination can't help but be entranced by an evening so driven by stories.  Even as a very young child, I liked the sharp thrill of fear, found between safe pages and each year, I ferret out my favourite scary stories to read and re-read in front of the fire, surrounded by the deep gloom of October evenings.

This year, we were lucky enough to receive not only new editions of two all time favourites, but also a rather special book that offer both a Halloween challenge and a lot of fearsome fun.

Firstly, Alma Books were kind enough to send us two of their Young Adult Classic series:

I read both of these books as a teenager and they have remained close to my fearful heart.  I was actually rather obsessed with Hounds of Doom as a child.I was convinced that a werewolf regularly stalked the field behind our house. Really. So of course, I read The Hound of the Baskervilles. It terrified and thrilled me in equal measure, feeding both my desire to see an aforementioned Hound of Doom get his just deserts and my innate love of a good mystery.  The story did both and continues to do so. It is a tale that stands up well to repeated re-reads and sends a shiver down the spine every time.

Dracula is, while similarly Gothic in tone, an altogether different kettle of fish.  It has the most tremendous sense of forboding from the very first page and Stoker maintains an atmosphere of malingering, yet highly seductive, murk to the last. The story is frightening, the setting ominous and the fate of all those drawn towards the titular Count highly uncertain yet Dracula sits, like a spider in the heart of his web, horribly and terribly attractive.  That, of course, is where the true horror of the story lies.  For those who have experienced vampires only through Buffy and the CW network, this is the genesis of all those characters you hate to love.

These new editions from Alma  not only have fantastic new covers courtesy of illustrator, David Mackintosh, but also have great sections at the end of each story exploring the authors and books that might be excellent next reads for those who want just a little bit more darkness in their light.  All in all, both the stories and Alma's new take on packaging them are highly recommended.

For those of you who want a little more fun on fright night, Dandy's Horrorgami is the book for you!

This is an excellent introduction to the art of paper-cutting via the medium of, well, every horror story you care to think of. The book is beautifully produced and comes with cut-out-and-make sections to help you on your way to some truly terrifying spooky scenes. I have yet to take scalpel in hand and try these out but I certainly will be this weekend and have already invested in a few copies to hand out at Christmas.  As you can see below, they should keep even the most avid horror afficianado pretty happy.  If not covered in band-aids (that may just be me):

I am sure that mine will look EXACTLY like those when I am done hacking away at the pages.  Possibly.
Thanks very much to the folk at Midas PR for sending this unusual and challenging project our way!

Now that we've hopefully got your collective Halloween read on, don't forget to take part in the Neil Gaiman created All Hallow's Read.  Any of these books would be fantastic to pass on to the nearest fan of spooky stories.

Happy Reading and Happy Halloween - don't have nightmares....