Monday, 25 July 2016

Review: Wolf Hollow by Lauren Wolk

2016  304 pages  Corgi Childrens

Whilst the Second World War rages throughout Europe, eleven-year-old Annabelle McBride lives a quiet life on her family farm in the small Pennsylvanian town of Wolf Hollow. But peace is disrupted when new student Betty Glengarry arrives and Annabelle quickly learns just how manipulative and cruel Betty really is. Things soon grow worse when reclusive war veteran Toby becomes a target for Betty’s scheming ways, and before long the whole town is involved in a man hunt fed entirely by rumour and fear. Annabelle however knows the truth, and she must somehow find the courage to be the only voice of justice as tensions throughout Wolf Hollow begin to rise.

This novel is simply delightful. Its poignant story and effortless writing style make for a memorable reading experience and I didn’t want it to end. Wolf Hollow has been compared with To Kill a Mockingbird and I can certainly see where the similarities lie – Annabelle, like Scout Finch, is a young country girl who explores the fight for justice and witnesses the consequences of false accusations. Whilst I don’t know the true inspiration behind the story there are parallels that can definitely be felt throughout, especially with Toby who acts as a Boo Radley figure. Despite this the novel works wonderfully and the story stuck with me long after I’d turned the final page.

Child narrators can sometimes be difficult to master but Annabelle is a brilliant heroine, with Wolk managing to evoke just enough childlike innocence in to her character to be believable. Annabelle is strong and brave and rather than simply watch the events that are unfolding in her town, she actively becomes involved in trying to create a solution. Whether her actions always prevail or not, it was pleasing to read about a young female character who is active and who is aware of what’s happening around her. I also liked how the book highlighted the importance of relationships between adults and children. Toby is a shy, nomadic figure haunted by war but Annabelle has only ever seen kindness from him and the friendship they grow to have is lovely. Annabelle learns from her parents, like most children, how to behave and treat others and I loved how this family relationship ran continuously throughout. The novel explores how adults lay the foundation for who their children become and the positive experience gained from reading this was really touching.

The writing flows easily and the tone of the story is so atmospheric that I flew through the pages quicker than I anticipated. I loved the rural Pennsylvanian setting and the details behind the name of Wolf Hollow are a nice touch – everything just worked so well and the end result is simply charming. I think what I loved about Wolf Hollow so much is that I was surprised by it – I wasn’t expecting to read a story that was so haunting and captivating. The book is marketed for middle grade readers but this is well worth a read for those of us past our school days, because I absolutely loved it. One of my favourite reads of the year so far. 

Overall rating:
4.5 stars

My proof copy Wolf Hollow was sent to me by The Bookbag and my review was originally published on their website.

Tuesday, 19 July 2016

Review: Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler

2016  368 pages  Oneworld Publications

Twenty –two year old Tess is a restless graduate from a broken family. With the intention of finally starting her life, she moves to New York City with no real plan but a need to do something. She manages to get a job at one of the most exclusive restaurants in town as a back-waiter and Tess is thrown in the comforting commotion of New York life. It’s at her new job that she becomes fascinated by two people: Simone, a know-it-all server and Jake, a handsome yet moody bartender. While the restaurant becomes her home and her colleagues her new family, Sweetbitter follows Tess through a year of her life as she grows and learns about the complexities of human relationships.

Author Stephanie Danler certainly has an intricate way with words and throughout reading this I had to remind myself that this is a debut novel, and not the work of a writer with many years more experience. If I could describe Sweetbitter in one word it would be raw - everything is stripped of glamour and the claustrophobic, monotonous daily cycle of Tess consumes you. The flair in Tess’s life is food and wine, things that are both treated as an art form in the world of the restaurant, and to say that Danler did a good job at creating a world within a Union Square New York restaurant might sound bizarre, but it’s true. It’s a microcosm of New York life – everything is always moving and it’s the chaotic, punishing routine of a back-waiter that awakens Tess’s appetite for food, for love, and for life.

At times this felt like a novel I could really relate too thanks to the details Danler provides of Tess’s experience working as a waiter. Having worked as a waitress myself for many years the similarity between Tess’s working life and my own were incredibly similar, and even if you’ve never worked in a restaurant environment before the overall tone of the novel has a strong sense of nostalgia. The whole story seems to capture and echo the general commotion of everyday life and I thought it was very clever how Danler managed to capture that in her writing.

The prose, the style, and the execution of this novel are all excellent, but I found this to be a rather slow, quite gentle read. When I was reading, I was interested to continue but this isn’t a novel I devoured in a few days, and I don’t mean this in a bad way because some books you feel you want to take your time with. Sweetbitter for me is one of those novels. It’s dreamy and raw and ultimately a study of a young woman as she learns about life and about herself. There isn’t a lot going on in terms of plot and with the exception of Tess I didn’t particularly like many of the other characters. As I said, this novel isn’t sugar coated and the characters have their flaws – in many ways it was the reality of the story that made it so enchanting.

Overall rating 3 stars

My proof copy Sweetbitter was sent to me by The Bookbag and my review was originally published on their website.

Thursday, 7 July 2016

Review: The Martian by Andy Weir

2011  369 pages  Del Rey

This was boss. I can’t really think of any other way to describe my reading experience of The Martian other that it totally rocked and I loved every minute of it.

The story follows Mark Watney, an astronaut sent on a mission to Mars with five other crew mates. As you probably guessed, things go a bit wrong and during their evacuation Mark gets hit in the dust storm causing the rest of his crew to believe him dead and leave without him. Of course, he’s actually still alive and is now left on Mars with a limited supply of food, no way of getting back to Earth, and no communications to contact NASA. If it was me I’d give up hope there and then but Mark Watney is smart guy and gets to work figuring out how he’d going to survive, potentially years, on a planet that wants to kill him.

Again I feel this is book I’m a bit late to the party with, but I’m so glad finally jumped on the bandwagon and gave it a whirl because it’s one hell of a ride. I haven’t read an awful lot of science fiction but I love space and because I’m such a massive nerd the whole concept of this story – the science, the engineering, the rockets (hell, yeah) was all really fascinating. Admittedly a lot of it went over my head but Andy Weir made it all sound so cool. Plus you don’t really need to understand all the mathematical jargon to follow the story since you know how things are going from how Mark Watney sums every up as either, “Well, that’s fucked” or “Yay! It worked!”

Which brings me to my next point: Mark Watney is an awesome protagonist. He’s funny, super smart, and both equally optimistic and pessimistic to be believable for a guy in his position. The story is broken up in to different scenes which take place in various different places, the primary narrative being told by Mark as he runs us through what he’s doing with his extended time on Mars. His narration is told through a series of ‘logs’ he keeps whilst the rest of the time the story skips to the guys at NASA and what they’re up to, or the rest of Mark’s crew as they journey back to Earth. The story definitely needed these multiple narratives because having just Mark’s viewpoint would have felt claustrophobic and repetitive. Mixing it up and adding more characters stopped it from feeling isolated.

Having said that, there’s only one Mark Watney and he’s essentially the only well-developed character in the entire book. It’s his story after all I guess, plus you don’t really need too much character development where everyone else is concerned since they’re all just focused on the same thing and that’s the Get-Mark-Watney-Home campaign. They all pretty much say the same things with a load of science talk thrown in which is fine because they’re just there to fill us in, and Mark holds the entertainment side of things pretty well on his own. He’s got quite a boyish, cheeky-chappy sense of humour complete with boob references and lots of sarcasm which did make me chuckle a few times. The basic plotline is obviously a very serious one but Watney’s character added some comic relief whilst still maintaining a continuous feeling of anxiety towards the gravity of the protagonist’s current situation (no pun intended).

I’m going to end the review with a quote from the book: “Every human being has a basic instinct to help each other out.” That is essentially what The Martian is. One man is stranded on a foreign planet and the rest of the world try their best to get him home, with Watney relentlessly fighting death along the way. Watney and the rest of humanity refuse to give up hope and I think that’s pretty great. We should all help each other out more often. 

Overall rating: 5 stars
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