March: eat, see, do.

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Inspired by this amazing Etsy poster and my holiday, this year I’ve vowed to collect moments not things. Yes, it only took a ridiculously expensive holiday for me to start living in the moment. There’s something about changing the scenery which helps me be mindful and aware in a way I don’t when they are familiar.

Sadly, it turns out my plan to spend the rest of my life travelling is fiscally unsustainable, booo. So I’ve been looking at ways to recreate that feeling of being tuned in at home. Life is really busy at the moment. So unless I ‘schedule’ time to have fun and see the people I love I find weeks have slipped by like sand through my fingers. I want to be somebody who is mindful, who does stuff, who lives.

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So here’s a catalogue of all the stuff I’ve been eating, seeing, reading, making and doing this month post holidays.

Eat

La Choza

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The day after we flew back from Australia in a frantic attempt to beat the jetlag, we were tourists in our own city*.

*We wondered aimlessly marvelling at how a) freezing, and b) dirty everything was in comparison to Japan and c) taking lots of photos.

In Brighton there’s been a sudden influx of Mexican restaurants and I’d heard La Choza a bright pink restaurant in the North Laines was one of the best. The decor is amazing, bright and vibrant with día de los muertos skulls everywhere. It really helped stave off those post holiday blues for a couple of hours at least.

I ordered a burrito tortilla filled with *takes deep breath* roasted spicy squash and sweet potato, green salsa, guacamole, refried beans, green rice, cheese and sour cream. It was huge and so filling I couldn’t completely finish it or even have room for the churros I’d been eyeing up for desert.

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One of the things that seem to vary quite a lot is the portion size. HSWNBN ordered two sets of three soft corn tacos (gluten free options FTW): one stuffed with prawns the other with hand pulled pork. But despite having two meals, which I mocked him roundly for because thats how I roll, when they arrived they seemed minuscule in comparison to my mega burrito.

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I’d heard beforehand that the service could be patchy and it despite getting in before the lunchtime rush it it took a long time to get our food and service was a little chaotic.

Verdict: Nommy, but I might avoid during busy periods.

Passionfruit Bubble tea

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Do you ever get into a bit of a taste obsession? In Japan I couldn’t get enough of matcha (green tree). I am on a bit of a passionfruit kick this month. I’ve eating it mixed into yoghurt and granola for breakfast, as a quick snack before I see clients and in my newest obsession: Passionfruit Bubble tea. They’ve been selling at work for ages but it looks so odd I’d never quite plucked up the courage. Think sugary fruit tea filled with gelatinous jelly balls that burst in your mouth. I’m not making this sound that appealing. But I genuinely can’t get enough of this drink.

See

The Grand Budapest Hotel

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One lazy Sunday I and a bunch of lovely people watched the Grand Budapest Hotel, Wes Anderson’s latest masterpiece.

As with every Wes Anderson movie the set design and colours are just stunning. I wanted to freeze each frame and study it like a painting.

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Has anybody else noticed how much Wes Anderson loves centering shots?

Wes Anderson // Centered from kogonada on Vimeo.

A friend told me, and now I can’t unseen it.

It was very evocative and made me long to go to Eastern Europe again and stay in the faded glamour of an old world hotel.

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But what made this movie for me was the humour. I love Ralph Fiennes and I’ve always seen him as a dramatist but his comic timing was out of this world. The room perfectly played into his luvvie wheelhouse. He was absolutely pitch perfect.

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Plus Tilda is my homegirl.

Verdict: funnier than Moonrise Kingdom but I was less emotionally invested. Still scoring in my top 3 Wes Anderson movies, is no mean feat. I’m sure Wes will be so happy he’ll put it on his posters!

Veronica Mars: the Movie

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I’ve raved on this blog many times about my obsession with teen detective Veronica Mars. Snarky, vulnerable, committed to justice – Veronica is my kind of girl.

So when a Kickstarter was launched to raise money for a movie I was beyond excited. And all the antics on social media only fanned the flames.

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The show’s ending, well before it’s time, was ambivalent to say the least. And ten years on I wanted answers. Did Veronica ever get into the FBI? Was her dad voted out as sheriff? And most importantly was her and Logan’s love story still epic?

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*Wipes away drool*

So HWSNBN and I sat down to watch it. He’d never seen the show so was slightly lost in a mass of in jokes and spot on cameos from notorious characters from Veronica’s past.

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The central mystery was a little weak in comparison to the character work surrounding it. (SPOILER a character we’ve never seen before is the murderer, even HSWNBN could see that one coming.)

But it delivered the bittersweet, noir ending I wanted. Veronica might be a marshmallow but she hasn’t gone soft. Not one bit.

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Verdict: for a LoVE fan like me this was an absolute bliss. I only hope that the success of the movie leads to more show. Please TV gods?

Do

Green dreams

This month Daddy Janvier and I become the proud co-owners of an allotment.

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We’ve been on the list for years now but finally I got the call and as we were top of the list we could come and choose from four vacant allotments. Eeek! Just a five minute walk from our house, was a hive of weeding, planting and watering. There was only one problem, Dad was away and I was going to have to pick the plot myself. Uh-oh. This was a hell of a responsibility for somebody with a notorious green thumb. It’s an affliction!

HWSNBN and I were in agreement and plumped for a sunny yet secluded plot with our very own shed! I’ve since learnt this is allotment gold. We’re currently twiddling our thumbs until we could get the keys. But after inspecting Daddy Janvier couldn’t help do a bit of digging. I think he’s pleased.

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Verdict: there go my evening and weekends. But I’m so excited to learn more about gardening, bond with my Dad, and spend some time making things grow.

Decluttering

After packing and unpacking (read throwing unironed clothes back into cupboard) my wardrobe looked like a hurricaine had been through. The items I wear regularly were in my clothes basket. And all of the unflattering, weird fitting, odd coloured clothes were still hanging up.

So I had a wardrobe cull and donated three bags of clothes to charity. And now look there’s actually space in my wardrobe. I feel like I can see what I own and actually want to wear. The only challenge is keeping it this way.

Read

Bill Bryson’s Australia

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From the back copy:

‘It was as if I had privately discovered life on another planet, or a parallel universe where life was at once recognizably similar but entirely different. I can’t tell you how exciting it was. Insofar as I had accumulated my expectations of Australia at all in the intervening years, I had thought of it as a kind of alternative southern California, a place of constant sunshine and the cheerful vapidity of a beach lifestyle, but with a slightly British bent – a sort of Baywatch with cricket…’

Of course, what greeted Bill Bryson was something rather different. Australia is a country that exists on a vast scale. It is the world’s sixth largest country and its largest island. It is the only island that is also a continent and the only continent that is also a country. It is the driest, flattest, hottest, most desiccated, infertile and climatically aggressive of all the inhabited continents and still it teems with life – a large proportion of it quite deadly.

In fact, Australia has more things that can kill you in a very nasty way than anywhere else. This is a country where even the fluffiest of caterpillars can lay you out with a toxic nip, where seashells will not just sting you but actually sometimes go for you. If you are not stung or pronged to death in some unexpected manner, you may be fatally chomped by sharks or crocodiles, or carried helplessly out to sea by irresistable currents, or left to stagger to an unhappy death in the baking outback.

Ignoring such dangers – yet curiously obsessed by them – Bill Bryson journeyed to Australia and promptly fell in love with the country. And who can blame him? The people are cheerful, extrovert, quick-witted and unfailingly obliging; their cities are safe and clean and nearly always built on water; the food is excellent; the beer is cold and the sun nearly always shines. Life doesn’t get much better than this.

When I’m abroad I like to read thematically. There’s something about immersing myself in fictional representations of where I am visiting that adds another layer to this experience. So while in Japan I read Murasaki, a lot of Murasaki. And when in Australia it was time for some Bill Bryson.

He is such a roundly brilliant writer and I adore his enthusiasm which spills through for his subject. Whether he’s musing on how many things in Australia can kill you.

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Or roundly mocking the explorers who took off to find a way across the centre hauling an oak writing desk. You need to read this book.

Verdict: I loved it so much I read half of it aloud to HWSNBN.

Leah Cypress’s Death Sworn

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From the back cover copy

Ileni is losing her magic. And that means she’s losing everything: her position as the rising star of her people, her purpose in life, and even the young man she loves. Sent to the assassins’ cave, hidden deep within the mountains, she expects no one will ever hear from her again. The last two sorcerers sent died within weeks of each other. Accidents? Or something more sinister? As Ileni navigates the dangers—both natural and human—of the caves, she’ll discover secrets that have been kept for decades. And she’ll find an ally in Sorin, the deadly young man who could be the assassins’ next leader. With Sorin determined to protect her, sparks—magical and romantic—will fly. But will even he understand the choice she must make in the end?

I love fantasy and I love my heroines with a piquant touch of cynicism. Cypress writes so well perfectly capturing Ileni’s fatalistic streak and determination to investigate the death’s of her predecessors no matter the cost. I enjoyed the tension of knowing her magic was fading when she was surrounded by assassins poised to strike at any moment. However, just as the book was getting started it ended. Plus the ‘twist’ ending was ridiculous.

Verdict: Will read the sequel for the atmosphere alone but the plot better tighten up and soon.

Wear

After having technicolour nails for technicolour countries. I’ve been feeling a little grey this month.

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I love this shade, it’s almost lilac but not quite. Plus this George nail varnish from Asda is cheaper and more durable than some expensive brands.

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My newest charity shop find is this olive green patterned Pearl Lowe at Peacocks dress. HWSNBN thinks I look frumpy, but I think I look foxy. You decide.

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Right, any ideas for what I should be doing in April. Besides watching the first episodes of Game of Thrones on repeat and spoiler baiting HSWNSBN who hasn’t read the books by looking sad when random characters appear on the screen.

Tell me anything I should be reading or watching in April in the comments.

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Book review: The Fault in our Stars by John Green

Reading a book about teenagers with a terminal illness who meet in a cancer support group is not recommended the week after your best friend has died from a terminal illness. But I did it anyway. Why? Well, firstly because I’m an idiot. I had a masochistic desire to reopen the wounds caused by grief and see how much they bled (a lot). But mainly I read this book because books have always been how I cope. As a child stuck in a small town they showed me how limitless the world inside my head could be. As a lonely teen they were constant companions. I chart moments in my life by what I was reading when it happened, those books forever fixed in amber so evocative of a particular time and place.

The Fault in our Stars will forever remind me of the dark days after Lianne died and no matter how much the sun shone it did not touch me. But I shall be forever glad I read it.

Here’s the blurb:

Diagnosed with Stage IV thyroid cancer at 13, Hazel was prepared to die until, at 14, a medical miracle shrunk the tumours in her lungs… for now.

Two years post-miracle, sixteen-year-old Hazel is post-everything else, too; post-high school, post-friends and post-normalcy. And even though she could live for a long time (whatever that means), Hazel lives tethered to an oxygen tank, the tumours tenuously kept at bay with a constant chemical assault.

Enter Augustus Waters. A match made at cancer kid support group, Augustus is gorgeous, in remission, and shockingly to her, interested in Hazel. Being with Augustus is both an unexpected destination and a long-needed journey, pushing Hazel to re-examine how sickness and health, life and death, will define her and the legacy that everyone leaves behind.

The book follows Augustus and Hazel as they try to track down the reclusive author of Hazel’s favourite book which ended mid sentence and find out the fates of the characters. I don’t want to say much more about the plot because I don’t want to spoil how the story unfolds. But you need to read this book.

This book is bitter and joyous, angry and so true about death and the reality of watching people we love die. It is the first book I have read in a long time which does not gloss over the reality of dying as beautiful instead its painful, ugly and. I loved it so much that I find it so hard to pin point the magic of why. Why is it easier to talk about things we hate than things we love?

The title is a play on a quote from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.

“The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
But in ourselves”

The book takes exception with this idea that fault rests with the individual as opposed to fate. Far too often bad things happen to good people like Hazel, like Augustus, like Lianne. The fault is not in the individual  but in the stars that good people die in agony and the world keeps turning all the same.

This book is filled with so many good quotes, I felt like I was scribbling down something every other page. Here are just a few of my favourite quotes and why:

“That’s the thing about pain…it demands to be felt.”

I have always been very good at functioning through pain. When I was 16 I walked until the soles of my foot peeled off. I was so distracted I only noticed because my shoes started filling up with blood. So when bad things happened I would shut them away in a box until I felt able to deal with them. Compartmentalise, baby. Grief does not work like that. In the days and months after her death grief has flattened me like a tidal wave and I have no choice but to sink. Feelings demand to be felt.

“The pleasure of remembering had been taken from me, because there was no longer anyone to remember with. It felt like losing your co-rememberer meant losing the memory itself, as if the things we’d done were less real and important than they had been hours before.”

When Lianne wasn’t sure about the course her tumours might take and whether it would effect her memories she asked all her close friends to write a history of our friendship with her. I tried but I only got as far as 18. There were too many memories, I kept forgetting the order and it made me realise that one day I’d be the only one that remembered some of these stories. And I’m no good at remembering. She was the memory keeper with her diaries and mementos. The memories already seemed faded, who will remind me what age we were, what were wearing. What’s the point of saying ‘Do you remember when?’ when there is nobody to finish those thoughts off.

“The voracious ambition of humans is never sated by dreams coming true, because there is always the thought that everything might be done better and again.”

After Lianne was diagnosed they told her that with the type of the tumour she would be extremely lucky if she lived two years. In the end she lasted five. She fought tooth and claw for that time to say goodbye, to settle her affairs, to tell us she loved us over and over again. But it wasn’t enough. If she’d lived ten, fifteen, 30 years it wouldn’t be enough. When you love somebody it never is.

“The only person I really wanted to talk to about X’s death with was X.”

After I heard I just kept thinking uselessly I need to talk to Lianne but there was a void where she should be. I was 14 when we met but I already knew how rare it was to have the kind of friend you could talk to about anything. I was already a proto-counsellor in the making but Lianne was the person who counselled me. All I wanted to do after she died was talk to her. I kept staring uselessly at the telephone number on the my phone as if somehow I’d be able to get through to her.

“You don’t get to choose if you get hurt in this world, old man, but you do have some say in who hurts you. I like my choices. I hope she likes hers.”

I hate pain and will do anything to avoid it if I can. It says something about what type of person Lianne was that being her friend was worth for me the pain of saying goodbye to her.

This is the power of art that it takes an experience so deeply personal and expands it until you realise that you are not alone. Thank you, John Green

The Hunger Games: film vs the book

(I thought I’d published this a month ago but I forgot to, so here it is.)

My name’s Rowan and I’m a middle age fangirl. In the past I have been obsessed with (in no particular order): Buffy the Vampire Slayer, My Little Ponies, L J Smith books, Jem and the Holograms, Veronica Mars, Around the World in 80 days, The Chronicles of Fire and Ice, and most recently the Hunger Games. I devoured the books in a New York minute and was ridiculously excited to see the movie adaption the weekend it opened with my fellow fangirl and our respective other halves. I really enjoyed the film and thought it was pretty amazing. Jennifer Lawrence has some huge shoes to fill by taking on the role of Katniss and boy did she deliver. In short, the film rocked. But was it better than the book? Let’s use science* to find out! It goes without saying but spoilers ahoy!

*completely biased opinion.

The film is better

Jennifer Lawrence

Jennifer Lawrence can act. I mean I knew this from Winter’s Bone but she is amazing as Katniss. It’s a tough role given how much of Katniss emotions are held behind a stoical façade, but the emotional intensity she bought without saying a word. Loved it! Furthermore she’s hardcore. I haven’t been this into a strong heroine since Buffy and Veronica Mars and you know how much I love them. The contrast between her open hostility towards her mother and the sweetness with which she mothers Prim showed you exactly why she would volunteer. In a scene that actually gave me goosebumps.  Girl is going to get an Oscar one day, you can count on it.

District 12 vs the Capitol

The contrast between the downtrodden Appalachian District 12 with its muted colours staffed with Deadwood extras and the vibrant, glossy, modern Rome design of the Capitol was brilliant. I can’t convey how odd characters like Effie Trinket with her bleached brows, oddly coloured wigs and oversized shoulders look in contrast to Peeta and Katniss. It’s a perfect visual representation of the fin di siecle atmosphere of Panem.

That’s my fancy dress costumes sorted for the year now

Although an honorary mention goes to Seneca Crane’s facial hair. It makes me long for perfectly crafted topiary beard of my own. Except that would be weird. Shine on tragic Seneca you crazy diamond. (I digress but it was only in this movie that I truly understood the cleverness of Collin’s allusions to ancient Rome. The director highlighted these parallels with Seneca’s final scene with the bowl full of nightlock berries recalling the end of his poetic namesake. Well played Gary Marshall)

Caesar Flickmann

I love Caesar Flickmann, I love Stanley Tucci. He’s the perfect actor for flashy, vacuous, but very good, at his job talk-show host. I loved the way the film used Caesar and his Mogadashu sidekick  (seriously look at that hair) as expostion bots explaining the tracker jackers, commenting on who had died and the change in the gamekeepers tactic. The book is quite claustrophobic with it’s narrow first person focus on Katniss and although I wished the film had been more in the style of the Truman show, where we see Panem citizens watching the action inside the Hunger Games, I did appreciate the widening of perspective we did get.

District 11 uprising

Which brings me on to the uprising in District 11 as they watch Katniss sing a dying Rue to sleep then cover her dead body in flowers a revolution breaks out. OK, they may have cut out the scene where they send the bread, weep. But it effectively demonstrates how small actions in the arena can have a huge effect.

The sponsor scenes

In the book they seemed the ultimate deux ex machina of authorial intent. Uh-oh Katniss has got hideously wounded send down some medicine from her sponsors/god/me the author 🙂 But I minded it less in the book even if they did omit the scene where Katniss drugs Peeta to attend the feast at the cornucopia, where she can get medicine for him. Girl is cold and that’s why I love her.

The book was better

The ambivalence of Katniss and Peeta’s motivations

If I hadn’t read the books in the film I would assume that Katniss is actually falling for Peeta in the Hunger Games softens Collins satirical attack on reality show romances. I love in the book how mixed up Katniss’ feelings are for Peeta in her need for survival which contrasts completely to what she decides to do in Catching Fire. Also throughout the book she constantly doubts Peeta’s motivations: is he playing her for the cameras? Thereby justifying her actions. There seems no doubt in the film that Peeta loves Katniss, therefore the scene where we discover he has teams up with the Tributes is robbed from its power as we know he’s doing it for her. Unlike in the book where it casts real doubt on whether he was always pretending to love her? Only towards the end of the book do we realise that Peeta truly loves her in contrast to the film where it seems clear all along.  When Katniss reacts to the gamekeepers reversal on two tributes surviving, by drawing her knife of Peeta it makes her a much more complex and dark character than in the film. Effectively showing how much the games has warped her from the girl she was back in district 12

Violence

I reread the books before watching the movie and the descriptions aren’t actually that violent. However, because of the difference in medium your imagination can fill in the gaps in a book in a way it doesn’t do in the film. And my imagination, likes blood and lots of it. Look I get why they made this film an 12 so that it would make more money. But it’s a film about teenagers killing each other for our amusement. I think we need to vicariously get off on the violence but be simultaneously horrified by it to understand the attraction-repulsion felt by the Capitol vs the Districts. The camera style made it incredibly hard to see what was going on in the fight scenes. Also cutting moments like when Peeta defects to the darkside and finishes off the girl that started the fire to show he’s part of the Tributes (and also we later realise to protect Katniss makes him a much darker character in the book).

Haymitch

Sorry Woody Harrelson but book Haymitch with his bitterness and anger at the Capitol is so much better than film Haymitch. I was really sad they moved his entrance in the film to the train and opposed to IMHO in the book where during the drawing ceremony he falls up the steps drunk showing to the world and Katniss and Peeta the complete lack of help they have in the games. In the book the vehement dislike between him and Katniss is great and the way they come to uneasy understanding that are both unlikeable survivors is really strong. Here’s hoping they ramp up the rage for Catching Fire because I know Harrelson can rock that out.

Avox

In the book the Avox are servants in the Capitol who have had their voice box surgically removed so they are mute. Katniss recognises her Avox as a girl she saw on the run in the woods of District 12. They only appear in the background of the film which is a shame as I think they encapsulate that there are worst things than dying in the arena.

The mutts

In the books the mutts are creepy mutations with the faces of dead tributes. The ultimate horror for Peeta and Katniss is that they have to defeat the people they just killed. Like a real life version of those horrible dreams you have when you are trying to kill somebody and they just won’t die. In the book they are ‘magically’ generated creatures. I know the Capitol a monopoly on technology but why couldn’t the dogs have rised from the earth in cages instead of appearing like flickery magical apparitions. It really took me out of the film. Not to mention the effects are awful.

The camera style

The handheld filming style made me want to be sick. I mean, I get it the lack of budget meant that filming around the effects saved a lot of time and money. But before I got used to the filming style I spent the first ten minutes of the film trying not to puke into my popcorn. Not the ideal start.

Result

5 vs 6. You win this time book. But only just.

In short see the Hungers Games and read the book. They’re both brilliant.

Evernight and point of view

I know, I know, yet another vampire book. But Evernight by Claudia Gray has a twist on the genre that I think is quite interesting. To explain why I’m going to have to go into details, so if you haven’t read the book yet, be warned. Here be spoilers…

I am a big fan of the twist, when used well in young adult fiction (Nick at the end of the Demon’s Lexicon by Sarah Rees Brennan, Clary and Jace’s relationship in City of Ashes by Cassandra Clare). One of the greatest pleasures is rereading a book and discovering the trail of breadcrumbs leading up to the twist. Going from ‘oh my god I didn’t see this.’ to ‘how could it be anything else.’ Like a magic eye painting where you can only see the witch, after the twist how could it be anything else but a duck?

Evernight is not one of those books. The big reveal halfway through the book is that Bianca, our heroine, is not an innocent ingénue but a born vampire who has known about her nature ‘as soon as I was old enough to keep a secret.’ So why then for the first 150 pages of the book are we the reader ignorant of information? Instead of the feeling of things clicking into place my reaction was WTF?

I went back and reread the first half of the book, knowing the reveal. And instead of the careful foreshadowing there was no way you could have guessed the twist. With the result that instead of adding something to the book it read more as the twist for the sake of the twist. And as a reader I felt betrayed and deliberately kept in the dark. This was not an unreliable narrator (Micah in Justine Larbaleisteir’s Liar), the narrator was unreliable on only one point to create false suspense.

The main problem I have with this book is the point of view. I think if Gray had choose the third person, it could have worked. In the third person we have more distance from a character and they are better placed to hide things from us. The narrow confines of the first person point of view means that we, the reader, know what Bianca’s knows. And if information is kept from the reader that the narrator would think about we feel betrayed and lied to.

It would have felt less like two different books glued together if Gray had hinted about the secret Bianca was keeping. That she was ashamed of her true nature and wanted to distinguish herself from the others who were different. Like a watered down version of Jessica (one of the best TV creations) in True Blood. Puberty is horrifying enough teenage girls made monstrous by their hormones without adding fangs, blood tears, and a regenerating hymen to mix. Or if she was in denial? Or even ignorant of her true nature?

It was shame because the suspense in the opening scene really worked for me but I never felt it was followed through into the book. Bianca dreams of the flower but it is never mentioned again. I guessed the Lucas=vampire hunter from the opening scene.

Another issues I had with the book was the Bianca/Lucas relationship. Bianca goes straight from interesting guy I met in the woods to Mine, Mine Mine, Mine. Now I was a teenage girl, I understand obsession, but apart from her vampire nature there isn’t a big explanation for her sudden obsession with Lucas. Whatever criticisms you may have about Twilight Meyer puts the time in to develop Bella and Edwards relationship (boy does she ever, that is pretty much the singular plot until the baseball game and the cat and mouse games in the third act). As the book is told entirely from Bianca’s point of view I spent most of the Lucas love scenes bored and wondering exactly why she was so obsessed with him, particularly when the far superior, and (less boring and pious) Balthazar is lurking in the background. Rwahah.

Also I really didn’t get what Lucas saw in her. There didn’t feel a real connection between the characters. If you are going to go the well trodden route of slayer/ vampire romance (awh Buffy you were awesome) you had better knock it out of the park.

I found the supporting characters: Patrice, Vic, Raquel far more interesting than either Lucas or Bianca.

It was a shame because these factors spoiled my enjoyment of the genuinely different things Gray is doing within the genre. The girl vampire is notoriously underdeveloped apart from Jessica and Pam in True Blood. I loved the fact that in the love scenes Bianca is the pursuer, she wants Lucas and she is not ashamed to admit.

This book  had so much potential. The female vampire. The frank depiction of female sexuality. The well-drawn cast of supporting characters. The awesome cover. The clever gothic opening. All of it unrealised.

There are much better young adults book out there, don’t waste your time on this one.

Book Review: The Black Tattoo by Sam Enthoven

If I had a younger brother I would force this into his slightly sticky hands (I’m thinking 5’2, freckles, scabby knees). The premise is simple (and it must be admitted not particularly origin). However the direction that Enthoven goes literally to Hell and back, and the sheer enjoyment he obviously takes in telling his story lift this book beyond the cliche demon possession + martial arts/Matrix stylings. In the acknowledgments Enthoven quotes Lee Child who said something along the lines of ‘write the book you would want to read.’ And he has certainly done that here from gladiatorial contests in hell, vomiting bat demons who are good, and Great White Shark Lord of Hell.

So taken from the back cover copy:

Jack doesn’t know what he’s got himself into. One minute he and his best friend Charlie were up in Chinatown having crispy duck with Charlie’s dad (and Jack was having to listen to Charlie shouting at his dad for leaving his mum) – then next minute they were in a mysterious room above a theatre, with some of the strangest characters they’d ever encountered. And they were about to take The Test…and something very very weird was about to begin. The Test transforms Charlie – leaving him with the distinctive markings of the Black Tattoo – and with a temper that seems out of control. The boys’ meeting with Esme, a young girl with the most impressive martial arts skills this side of Bruce Lee, her huge and hairy father Raymond, and the mysterious Nick seem to have swept Charlie and Jack into a world they had no idea existed. And it’s only going to get stranger…This epic tale of good and evil, demons and hell, vomiting bats and huge battles marks the debut of an incredible new talent for children’s books.

For the first hundred or so pages, although the book was very well written, I knew exactly where the story and the characters were going. Magical destiny, demon possession, tragics death spurring a quest for revenge, invasive controlling tattoos, EVIL demon who wants to end all of existence. Apart from a few nice touches (tobacco being able to store magic, the scene in which Charlie makes the butterflies come alive in powerly puffs. This is perfect for demonstrating Charlie’s arrogance and how desperate he is to please. One of these great scenes where you can see where each of the characters are coming from.) I was a little bored. And then the characters go through a portal to hell, and the story really kicks in.

In creating hell, and its associated demons is where Enthoven’s skills really come to play. I must admit when the characters went through the Fracture (a gateway to hell) my heart sank. But he more than pulls it off from the narcissistic ruler of hell and his officious administrator, to the gladiatorial contests, the God(frey) bumbling and distracted, and the fractious demons not good at doing what their told. Imaginative, gross, inventive, and very clever he squeezes every drop of humour out of his setting. I loved every minute of it. Of course when the action returns to earth some of the frenetic pace lessens but in the home stretch the characters return to Hell and the pace picks up.

The characters are well drawn. Even Esme who at first seems little more than cliche girl with super powers love interests steps outside of what you expect of her. I love the scene in which she says (paraphrasing here) that yes Charlie was an idiot, but the crucial question was whether he deserved to die for being an idiot. One of the nicer and underated things about this book was the way that Charlie and Jack communicate. Despite some of the cool boys own plot points they never stop talking like the fourteen year old boys that they are. You can see why Jack would follow Charlie into hell. And also there’s a very nice scene where he rips him a new one for his behavior. Charlie’s pain is very real and you see why he would do anything to keep his demon powers, to live in a place where people love him unconditionally and never leave. Jack keeps the book from straying into overblown heroics. I love his ‘typicals’ and cynicism that things can always get worse.

I really recommend this book, and I can’t wait to see what Enthoven does next 🙂

Book Review: Charmed life by Diana Wynne Jones

One of my greatest pleasures is discovering a new author. Now Diana Wynne Jones has been writing for a long time, Charmed Life was published in 1977, and one of the nicest thing about being (seemingly) the last person to know about a great author is that you have such a wealth of books to pick from. (Digression: a similar thing happened when I picked up the first Harry Dresden novel. When I loved Storm Front I had seven other books in the series to read, as well as Jim Butchers sci fi series. Book geek bliss!). So earlier this week I picked up a copy of Charmed Life from the library.

And it was good, so gooood I squealed, I laughed, I tried to stop characters from doing things (in my head obviously. I haven’t discovered a way to travel into fictional worlds, yet). It was lovely and savage, and imaginative and familiar.

Charmed Life was the first book in the Chrestomanci series (not in the internal chronology, but Diana Wynne Jones wrote it first). The story centres on orphaned Cat who lives in a strange alternative modern day England with steamer ships, and girls wearing petticoats and were magic exists. It’s bright, it’s playful and I never saw the twist coming. In short, I loved it.

Book Review: Temeraire by Naomi Novik

The hook for Temeraire is inspired– dragons and their captains set across the backdrop of the Napoleonic wars (think Patrick O’Brian crossed with Anne McCafferty). It was this combined with the stunning cover that made me pick up this novel.

Digression: I used to work in the editorial department of a Big Publishing Company so I know how much influence authors have over cover design (very, very little). That said I think the cover fitted the subject matter perfectly. I love the calligraphy of the title and the striking embossed black illustration that flows around the title and author name. All in all it was beautiful so big gold star to all involved.

Captain Will Laurence captures a French ship and as part of the bounty gains a rare dragon’s egg. The war with France is not going well, but that dragon if properly trained could provide the vital strategic advantage that England is looking for. When the dragon hatches whilst on board on the ship it imprints itself on Laurence, destroying his beautiful future in the navy, and condemning him to a live as an aviator.

I really enjoyed this book. The authorial voice is confident blending it with contemporary literature of the period. Its full of little historical details which give you confidence that Novik know her period back to front (for example the aviator boys putting kohl beneath their eyes to protect them from the glare of the sun). I really liked the descriptions as dragons as sentient beings. In particular some of the more childish aspects of Temeraire and Laurence’s relationship where hilarious, they bickered like an old married couple (Temeraire ‘s jealously of Laurence cleaning other dragons, and their discussion as to the ‘attractions’ of Dover)

Novik skillfully weaved women into the narrative without being anachronistic and compromising the reality of the historical period. All in all the the world building was excellent introducing the dragon mad aviators with their crumpled clothing and secretive training schemes (dragons as head trainers – oh yes). I also loved the whole notion of the dragons breeding the aviators to beget a new generation of dragons. Very funny. As well as the different breeds of dragons each with their own particular strengths and weaknesses. There were also a couple of moments with a certain dragon being mistreated that was so heartwrenching sad I couldn’t bear it.

However there were a couple of elements that jarred for me. Novik takes great pains to tell us how Temeraire’s imprinting on Laurence disrupts his life: his career in the navy, his relationships was his family and his fiancée . But I felt there was a bit of telling as opposed to showing. Almost immediately Laurence develops a relationship with Temeraire. He shows very little resentment or disappointment. I didn’t feel that the character went on the emotional journey I wanted or expected (ie longing for the life he left behind and gradually realising how exciting and fulfilling his new world was). All in all the new world he’s entering into is too good, too exciting for him to feel much regret about what he is leaving behind.

Tied up in this was that Laurence and Temeraire were just too perfect. The characters that haunt me (Elizabeth Bennett, Heathcliff, Alanna), are difficult, flawed people. They are interesting because they make mistakes, because they change, and because they suffer. Laurence and Temeraire seem always too right. Temeraire is the brightest, the rarest of all the dragons. Laurence despite having little background in aviation often comes up with innovative ideas. I just felt it would be a little more satisfying in terms of character development if there happy ending was earned (yes I am an author sadist mwhahahaha).

Despite these minor gripes, all in all it was skilfully done and I cannot wait to read the many sequels and find out what happens to Temeraire and Laurence.