Friday, December 24, 2010

My Picks of 2010

I've been reading a fair few 'best of 2010' type blogs and so I decided to do my own. The following is a list of my picks out of all the books I read in 2010 (not just ones that were published in 2010). I have an ever-growing list of back titles that I need to read and so new releases tend to get pushed back a bit. There will probably also be a few picks for most categories - yes, I am that annoying person who can never have just one choice.

Merry Christmas to all, Happy New Year and Happy Reading.
P.S. Don't be a hater ;)

BEST KIDS BOOK READ IN 2010: The Undrowned Child, by Michelle Lovric & Island of the Blue Dolphins, by Scott O Dell
The Undrowned Child is a real story-tellers story, full of fabulous, crazy characters; original ideas; sly, knowing humour and a love of language and books. An absolute delight. Island of the Blue Dolphins is a heartbreakingly good story of survival. Enduring, moving and the writing is just so good - vivid and descriptive and relentless.

BEST YA BOOK READ IN 2010: Raw Blue, by Kirsty Eagar & This is Shyness, by Leanne Hall
I've mentioned these numerous times in my blog. The first is such a powerful, emotional story, made all the better by the author's restraint. Love the whole vibe of the book. The second was just so quirky and original with such great authetic and witty characters. These two were real winners.

BEST KIDS SERIES READ IN 2010: Septimus Heap, by Angie Sage
I feel like this series stuggled under the shadow of Harry Potter, but it can more than hold its own.

BEST WRITING: Winter's Bone, by Daniel Woodrell
Beautiful and bleak but always riveting. His use of language to evoke setting and emotion is outstanding.

BEST DISCOVERY: Merrow, by Ananda Braxton-Smith
Gorgeous central characters, gorgeous use of language and a sense of the otherworldly that lingers with you beyond the final page. 

MOST PLEASANT SURPRISE: Shiver, by Maggie Stiefvater
A paranormal romance with just that little bit extra to send it from formulaic to a decent read that can stand on its own. Also The Dead-Tossed Waves, by Carrie Ryan. There is some great writing and passages amongst all those zombies and gore.

I CAN'T BELIEVE I DIDN'T READ UNTIL NOW: Looking for Alaska, by John Green & Tuck Everlasting, by Natalie Babbitt
The second was a real charmer. The first even more so.

MOST UNPUTADOWNABLE: Raw Blue & This is Shyness

BEST CHARACTER: I loved Ree in Winter's Bone. What an awesome, resilient hard-ass. Those two crazy kids in This Is Shyness. Neen & Ushag in Merrow. Practically anyone fantastical in The Undrowned Child.

FAV COVER: Wildwood Dancing, by Juliet Marillier

MOST DISAPPOINTING: Keeper, by Kathi Appelt
My fault, but it just wasn't what I expected. The mermaids weren't even real! No! Mermaids must always be real! Don't hate on me like that! I need my mermaids!

LEAST FAVOURITE: Stargirl, by Jerry Spinelli & Evernight, by Claudia Gray
 My own personal taste, but didn't do it for me at all.

MOST ANTICIPATED FOR 2011: The Mourning Emporium, by Michelle Lovric, Lost Voices, by Sarah Porter & Wolfborn, by Sue Bursztynski

Monday, December 20, 2010

The Crowfield Curse, by Pat Walsh

First Published by Chicken House, 2010

It is Winter, 1347. There has always been something slighty strange about William - he was the only one to walk away from a fire that devastated his whole family and he has the rare gift of the sight: the ability to see what exists beyond the edges of the human realm. Since the fire he has been taken in by the monks of Crowfield Abbey and put to work. His life is hard but normal ... until he rescues a trapped hob. And then it begins - a world of secrets and hidden dangers, of encounters with the fay and mysterious travellers. William gradually learns that somewhere in the forest behind the abbey is a grave. And in that grave is a creature Will never thought could exist. But he is not the only one who knows about it. Something else knows, too - something not human.

The Crowfield Curse was another book I've been meaning to read for ages. I thought, from what I've heard and read about it, that it was going to blow me away. It didn't. The premise is great and the time period rich with potential, but the actual story-telling, the writing, did not follow through. I did not find this book particularly original or enchanting, and I was left a little impatient to just get it read and over with.

My main problem was the writing. I have written my own children's manuscripts and had them edited and workshopped and all the rest. I love the process, but it does take time and effort. And when I read a book that is full of everything (technically and stylistically) I have just been told to cut and rework, it does make me go 'huh?' I mainly had trouble with over-use of adverbs, especially when modifying verbs, and way too much filtering (too much thinking and feeling when to show it through action and dialogue would be far more compelling). Some of the descriptions were uninspired. I also felt that the way characters spoke was not altogether fitting with the time period they came from.

Are these things forgiveable, because it is a kid's book? Do they help the younger reader to see and understand? Do children bring fresher eyes to a book and thus these stylistic choices are not as obvious? I can make a few allowances but when they are used so often, as in The Crowfield Curse, then they actually drag the pacing of the story down and just feel like lazy writing.

Not to be misunderstood - I didn't not like this book. There is a nice sense of adventure and mystery, and it doesn't play dumb - characters get hurt and killed and the stakes remain high (although I was never in fear for William). Brother Snail and the Hob are lovely additions. I did get confused trying to distinguish between the other monks, though. Pat Walsh is an archaeologist, and all the detail, especially of the day-to-day life of Crowfield Abbey, was actually the most interesting part of the book.

I'm just left a little unsatisfied - I wanted there to be a greater sense of story. But in the end, I felt like it was just another children's book, with nothing truly individual to set it apart.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Best Books of 2010

Great post over at Fancy Goods yesterday, the Bookseller and Publisher blog. They have made a fantastic list of all the best 'Best of 2010' book lists, from book stores, newspapers, libraries etc. It's well worth a look.

Pay particular attention to the two Readings lists, under 'Best Children's Books'. Some nice choices - love that This is Shyness is on there. One of my favs this year.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Dark Matter, by Michelle Paver

Published in 2010, by Orion

I love a good horror story – I love that creepy dread-inducing feeling, that idea that something is not quite right. Ghosts are fascinating because there is a whole other story going on away from their haunting of a person or place – why are they haunting it, what happened, is it malignant or just wanting help, how much can it intrude into the present? So I picked up Dark Matter because it looked like a fun scary read, and a nice change from my usual young adult and kids fare.
Jack is in his late twenties – poor, lonely and desperate to change his life. He is offered the chance to be a wireless operator on an Arctic expedition with four others, and leaves a London threatened by war to spend a year at a base in Gruhuken, in remote Norway. At first he is delighted to be useful, away from his stuffy, dead-end life in London, but as, one by one, his companions are all forced to leave, Jack begins to doubt his commitment to staying. Living in permanent polar night, he lives in fear of the sea freezing over, making return and escape impossible. And something is watching him, in the snow – something that oozes malignance. Imagination or reality? Is Jack really alone?
The setting of this book, Gruhuken, is stunning in its untouched isolation, its harshness, its complete submission to the natural world. Paver describes it with astute observation. Her prose is not showy or of astounding beauty – but the world she’s describing is beautiful enough on its own. The darkness, the rare moments of light, the fog, the dark water, the ice caps – they all come alive in Paver’s prose and you can feel Jack’s wonder as he witnesses what it is like to step into this world.
Dark Matter is told in diary entries, something I’m not usually a fan of. It works well here, but it could have been told in normal first person present or past to the same effect. I guess what the diary entries do is emphasise the elements of time and isolation. When you are alone and waiting for someone or something, time can have a good old play around with your mind. And as Jack is alone and his story quite a personal one, the diary-style captures well what he is going through.
I wouldn’t say this story is particularly scary, either psychologically or physically. But I had a great time reading it. For what it is, it works. It does perfectly the is there/isn’t there mood and the feel of being stuck, alone, in this hostile white wilderness and wondering whether you are going to last. I love a good faithful-dog sub-plot, and the one with Isaak added a much-needed emotional grounding. It provided warmth, and at least one other character whose survival we invested in (because obviously, as its Jack’s diary, we know he’s going to last at least through to the end). I also found the rituals that occupied Jack’s day quite fascinating, the every little thing he needed to do to retain normality and ensure that he beat the cold and the environment. It feels real.
Dark Matter won’t have you trembling under your covers. But it is a well told story, with just enough uh-oh moments to keep you turning the pages to the end.

"Moving closer to the edge, I peered down. The water was glassy green, extraordinarily clear. I experienced the feeling I sometimes get when I'm on a bridge or a railway platform. Rationally, you know that you've no intention of stepping off ... but you're aware that you could, and that the only thing stopping you is your will."

Monday, December 6, 2010

The Sky is Everywhere, by Jandy Nelson

Published by Walker Books, 2010

The Sky is Everywhere took me a long time to read. Usually I can finish a book in a few days, but this one I found I could only read bits at a time. I enjoyed it, but it’s not the kind of book that I wanted to rush through, that swept me up and made me keep turning the pages. The subject matter can’t be blamed either – yes, it is quite sad and harrowing, but I’ve read similar books that despite their tragedy still kind of eat away at me and I have to find out more. I didn’t experience that feeling with The Sky is Everywhere, but I still think it’s a worthwhile book with lots of good content about relationships and grief and family dynamics.
The story follows seventeen-year-old Lennie Walker as she struggles to cope with the aftermath/shock of her sister Bailey’s death. Lennie is a bookworm and a band geek and has been pretty happily living in her older sister’s shadow. But when Bailey dies, Lennie must scrape together her own identity away from her sister, deal with family conflict both past and present, and make sense of the conflicting feelings she feels towards Bailey’s old boyfriend, Toby, and newcomer in town, Joe Fontaine.
I like what this book has to say about grief and love and how they are never simple and how they so very often go hand in hand. The book’s strongest point was how Bailey’s death impacted on those family she left behind: Lennie, Grams and Uncle Big. The plot about Lennie’s missing mother is also worked in quite nicely and never feels like an intrusion into the central story – in fact it helps give depth and meaning to what Lennie is going through. Grams and Big are great characters, and you can feel the affection they have for each other – the way they interact is spot on.
Another strength of The Sky is Everywhere is that it is actually pretty funny and quirky, despite the subject matter. Some lovely prose, both physical and emotional, and also some nice lines and dialogue. At times I felt Nelson was being a little too clever and obvious, and it annoyed me, but there is a lovely natural feel to the way most characters speak, and it is refreshing to read.
My least favourite part was the lovey-dovey stuff. The stuff with Toby was fine – I understood it, and it was never over the top. I understood the desperation that led to he and Lennie being drawn to each other. But the stuff with Joe Fontaine I just didn’t get. Sometimes it even strayed into Twilight territory – Joe Fontaine is so gorgeous, his smile, his smile, his smile, he is too cute, too amazing, etc. For someone that is supposed to be the all-consuming love of Lennie’s life, there is a lot of focus on the physical – I never understood just what he did for her, apart from being gorgeous, that made her think he was the answer to all her trouble and pain. I just think it was a little too intense a little too fast. All the Wuthering Heights stuff was also a bit overdone – give all the classic references a rest, I don’t think it added anything to the text. Someone doesn’t know everything about love just because they like Wuthering Heights.
Generally I think Nelson told Lennie’s story quite well, but sometimes I just feel it is a little too much, a little too overdone. I like understated simplicity – it’s just a personal taste. When I have to arrive at my own conclusions, can feel the heart of the novel creeping up on me and gradually sinking in, then I am pulled into the story and held tight. This is not what The Sky is Everywhere is about – it is about huge, all-consuming emotion and how it eats you up. I didn’t feel immersed in it, kind of just whacked over the head. So I wasn’t completely won over, but I still think it is a book that should be read. And the design of it is gorgeous, as well.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Impossible, by Nancy Werlin

Published in Australia by Penguin, 2010

Another book for teens dealing with true love and the supernatural. This one is refreshing in that it is not about vampires or fallen angels or faeries – it has more of a folksy feel, the ‘love’ has been developing since the two protagonists were both kids, and it just feels softer somehow, not so in your face. It is refreshingly different but not entirely successful.

Nancy Werlin’s Impossible concerns seventeen year old Lucy Scarborough and her quest to break a curse that has been in her family for generations. Pregnant by supernatural forces, she must complete three seemingly impossible tasks or fall into insanity. Having seen what the ‘curse’ has done to her mother, Lucy is desperate to prevent it from affecting her and, in turn, her unborn child. It is only the love of her family and childhood friend Zach that give her the strength to fight back and ‘take her destiny into her own hands.’

For a book that revolves around the breaking of a supernatural curse, it is a bit disconcerting that the quest to break this curse only begins well after the halfway mark. For this reason the blending of the real and the supernatural isn’t quite seamless, with a tendency to feel tacked on in parts for the advancement of the story. To me, there is too great a divide between reality and fantasy, and I cannot combine the two without some suspension of belief. Whilst I have problems with some other YA paranormal romance, I think that for the most part you are immersed in the supernatural side straight away, which helps you better step into the shoes of the characters.

In regards to the ‘reality’ parts, characters also spend far too much time thinking through problems and having internal monologues, often to the detriment of the plot, as these thoughts end up being irrelevant. Maybe it does help character development but I just wanted to tell them to hurry up and get on with it.

Werlin’s writing is quite evocative and dreamy, which suits the folksy romantic elements of the book. I love folk songs so it was nice to see Scarborough Fair make an appearance, but I don’t think Werlin tapped into the true potential of it. (Jon Mayhew, in Mortlock, uses folk songs much better, even if only in quotation/epitaph style).

There are some nice, recognisable teenage love/lust moments between Lucy and Zach and in the last quarter of the book the pacing picks up considerably as Lucy struggles to complete the three tasks. A familiarity between Lucy and her audience, however, is never quite established, and for this reason her story lacks true folksy magic.