Being brutally honest about books

Tuesday, 25 August 2015

Top Ten Books That Would be on My Syllabus if I Taught Historical Fiction 101

Top Ten Tuesday is an awesome weekly meme hosted by The Broke and the Bookish.

This week's theme is Top Ten Books That Would Be On Your Syllabus If You Taught X 101 (examples: YA fantasy 101, feminist literature 101, magic in YA 101, classic YA lit 101, world-building 101).
Burial Rites

Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

I reviewed this the other week and gave it a pretty high rating, so it has to make the list!

 The Song of Achilles
The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

More mythology than historical fiction, but it's still all shades of awesome. I reviewed this one too.

The Ruby In The Smoke (Sally Lockhart #1)
The Ruby in the Smoke by Philip Pullman

There might not be much to teach, but it's still excellent. The students would probably end up finishing the series without me needing to say so.

The Watch That Ends the Night

Everything they need to know about Titanic they would learn from this book. I reviewed this last year.

The Sultan's Eyes
The Sultan's Eyes

Theodora: Actress, Empress, Whore

The Girl in the Mask
The Phantom of the Opera
The Silver Blade
Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, #1)

Saturday, 22 August 2015

Ask the Passengers by A.S. King

Date finished: 22 August 2015

Ask the Passengers is one of the best novels I've read in 2015, and as you can see from my previous reviews, I've read some pretty good books this year. It's so good that I read it in one day, unable to put it down.

The plot is pretty simple, but nice. I think I'd read somewhere that it's a character-heavy rather than plot-based novel, but I enjoyed its simplicity - it's more realistic, considering the 21st Century, small-town America setting - you don't expect huge tragedies or monstrosities, or quest for the good of mankind. Instead, you get petty teenagers, small-minded townies and family getting in the way of a girl who just wants to be herself. I don't want to spoil anything, but there is a happy ending that will make you grin. There are a couple of points that didn't seem to be resolved, such as a court appearance that didn't happen, but I loved the plot in general.

The protagonist, Astrid, is a very cool character who I could connect to. She's smart, perceptive, and funny, a non-mainstream teenager who doesn't want to be labelled by her peers. I think one of the reasons she's such a success as a fictional character is that so many of us can relate to her, no matter who we love or where we're from. I don't know how you could read this book and not love her.

Most of the supporting characters aren't as loveable, including Kristina (Astrid's dishonest best friend), Dee (Astrid's pushy love interest), and Ellis (Astrid's selfish sister), and I disliked many of their actions, but their behaviours are justifiable and Astrid forgives them, so you can't help forgiving them too. The parents are far from perfect and understanding, but how many parents are? As Astrid herself philosophises, nobody's perfect. Her relationships with all these characters are rocky, but in the end everything is sweet.

The writing is beautiful, a requirement for me giving a five-star rating. Sometimes first-person point of view in the present tense gets old, but no other style would be suitable for this novel. Astrid's voice is fantastic and it feels like a teenage girl could really be telling this story - it doesn't feel like a middle-aged woman trying and failing to write about teens, it's authentic and not overly complicated just for sophistication. I even laughed out loud once or twice, as it's funny too.

This isn't your usual kid-realises-they're-gay LGBT teen novel, because there is so much more in it. I especially loved the Greek philosophy aspect, when in YA books I usually find it a bit pretentious of a young character to be that philosophical, but it's done in a neat way that instead of hurting my brain made me go along with it because it made sense. I also enjoyed the whole sending-love-to-the-aeroplane-passengers idea because even though it's unusual, it's believable, as people do have quirks like that. Of course, I did like the questioning-your-sexuality part too, which is the main theme of the book after all, but these other ideas make it wonderful and unique.

There are so many reasons why Ask the Passengers is worth reading, some of which I've probably forgot to mention, but I can't recommend it enough to fellow teenagers and young adults, and any people who don't like their identity being put into boxes by society. Astrid questions the paradox that nobody's perfect, but this book is pretty close to it.

Thursday, 13 August 2015

Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

Date finished: 12 August 2015

Where do I even start? This is a novel based on a true story about the last person to be executed in Iceland in 1830, Agnes Magnúsdóttir, sentenced to death for her part in the murders of two men. It’s dark and grim, definitely not what you’d want to read on a summer holiday. But it’s so well-done that despite its bleakness it’s a beautiful book.

As it’s based on a true story, it’s not as if the plot can be full of improbable adventure. Instead, we see how Agnes lives out her last few months before her execution, and through flashbacks and her stories to the reverend and her host family we find out about her past. There are also documents from the case that give an idea of how criminals were treated at the time, which made me uneasy. The author does a great job at retelling Agnes’s story and, as she says in the author’s note, provide a “more ambiguous portrayal of this woman” so that we sympathise with the protagonist. Without flashbacks the plot would have no substance and it would be very boring to read, but the backstory and the eventual recounting of the events leading up to and during the double murder make it interesting and even gripping.

The most obvious thing to comment on is the writing. Even the blurb calls the prose beautiful and cut-glass, and that’s correct. So is the comment from author Madeline Miller (whose book The Song of Achilles is one of my new favourites – check out my review here), which definitely convinced me to give Burial Rites a go. The language is stunning. The words and sentence structures themselves aren’t too complicated, but the use of imagery is amazing – I’m in awe of the author’s ability to string together such wonderful similes. Even if the story doesn’t excite you, the book is worth reading for the writing alone.

Agnes is a believable character, and I liked that she is strong but not invincible – she gets on with her life, facing terrible hardships and losses, but her response to the reality that she is about to be executed is very human – she is terrified, and this moved me. Agnes is in her mid-thirties at the time of her execution, but her age is not too important and even though I’m half her age I still felt for her, which is no mean feat for the writer. The reverend, Tóti, is likeable too, as is Steina (not so much her sister Lauga), and Margrét becomes more accepting and forgiving towards Agnes, even though she is very against Agnes coming to live with her family at the beginning. Most of the characters are not very nice, however, but they are still portrayed realistically and are important to the plot to be written that way, so I think the overall characterisation is excellent.

This is the fourth book I’ve read this year with a Scandinavian setting, but Iceland in 1828-1830 is a new one for me. We see the poverty and hardships the ordinary people faced just to survive, as well as the public opinion towards criminals, which is all very interesting and serves to develop the characters. The Icelandic character and place names are distracting in terms of pronunciation, but at the start of the book is a guide for some vowels and diphthongs, which helps a bit. The map is also useful in figuring out where the locations mentioned are in relation to each other.

This is an adult book, which I’ve been finding myself reading more of lately, but despite the mature themes (unhealthy relationships is not the only one) and occasional graphic imagery, I think it would be fine for anyone over sixteen to read. If you’re a fan of historical fiction with a bit of crime thrown in, Burial Rites is definitely worth picking up.

Wednesday, 12 August 2015

Top Ten Authors I've Read The Most Books From

Top Ten Tuesday is an awesome weekly meme hosted by The Broke and the Bookish.

Posting a day late because I haven’t had internet for the past twenty four hours.

1. Tamora Pierce (24)
Mistress of fantasy, I started reading the Song of the Lioness quartet in 2010 and couldn't stop. 

2. John Marsden (14)
Why is Australian fiction so good? We will never know. I actually saw John Marsden speak at the Auckland Readers and Writers Festival in 2014. He was very funny. 

Her books aren't necessarily good, but they make me laugh. Out loud.  

I'm not a big manga fan, but I absolutely loved her A Devil and Her Lovesong series. 

Isobelle Carmody. Sigh. One of my favourite fantasy authors, but doesn't seem to be able to just finish a bloody book.  The first Obernewtyn book was published in the 80s and the last one still isn't out yet. It's a similar story with Legend Song. She came to my school to speak to the Year 9s two years ago, and I still haven't forgiven my sister for listening to a talk about one of my favourite authors when I wasn't invited because I was Year 11.

Words can't describe how much I love her Shadowhunter books. I'm undecided on whether to read her next series, but I love her already published books. I saw her at the Auckland Readers and Writers Festival in 2011 and she signed my copy of City of Fallen Angels

7. L.A. Meyer (11) 
The Bloody Jack books are fantastic - they're historical fiction with action, romance, and humour. Definitely recommend.

I started reading his CHERUB series, which I really enjoyed, but never got around to finishing. 

It's been a very long time since I read his books, and I think they'd be too young for me now, but I especially loved his Warrior Princess books.  

10. Carolyn Meyer (9)
She writes historical YA fiction, mostly about quite mainstream queens when they were young, but you do learn a lot about those characters.

I'm Alexandria, a 19-year-old reader/writer/blogger from New Zealand. I love language, history, and sci-fi. Hi! I'm always around if you want to talk, which you can do via comments, the contact form, or Facebook.

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