Book Reviews

Review: Sway by Kat Spears

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Sway (verb)

to control or influence (a person or course of action).

    “He has a lot of sway over other people.”

     synonyms: influence, affect, persuade, win over, convert

——–

Now, even though this is a young adult (YA) book, I will admit it is probably not one that I would have picked up and read if it wasn’t for our lovely Pan Macmillan rep at work. She gave me a copy of this book without telling me what it was about, other than she thought it was the most underrated YA novel of 2014, and that it’s “like a John Green novel, but better.”

I think what she meant was, that it is like a John Green novel in that a slightly off-beat protagonist goes about their life with a ‘well, what can you do ‘ type attitude, only to have their world turned upside down by a member of the opposite sex, with whom they end up falling in love. And it’s true – Sway is definitely like a John Green novel in that way.

But in every other way it is completely different.

And definitely better.

Jesse Alderman, or ‘Sway’ as he’s known, is a high school student who has a talent of being able to obtain the unobtainable. He is able to get people the things they want, at the right price, naturally – completed essays, fake IDs, alcohol and a date with any girl in school. He does this through a network of contacts, favours and the ability to be able to talk his way into or out of any situation. He could probably sell ice to eskimos. School doesn’t interest Jesse – it is merely the location where he conducts most of his business transactions. He moves through life with an almost clinical coldness in order to avoid getting close to anyone except his best female friend and business associate, Joey.

However, everything threatens to unravel when Kevin, the captain of the school football team (who, to put it lightly, is a bit of a jerk) hires Jesse to get the school’s gorgeous do-gooder, Bridget, to become interested in him. Jesse strikes up an unlikely friendship with Bridget’s kid brother, who has cerebral palsy, and suddenly Jesse finds himself developing a bond him. Then to Jesse’s further surprise, while completing his assignment for Kevin, he begins to learn a lot about Bridget and her life, and finds himself falling in love with her. Maybe, Jesse has kept other people out of his life for long enough.

This is a contemporary and realistically gritty YA novel is written from Jesse’s point of view. As such, it is cynical, straight to the point, and full of truth and sarcastic humour. His views and observations of the world are clinical, harsh and sometimes quite depressing, but always realistic and logical. But as soon as Bridget comes into the picture, he is forced to confront a lot of his own demons and finally see that maybe it is worth feeling something after all.

Our Pan Macmillan rep challenged me not to like this book, and being the person that I am I cried, “Challenge accepted!”

And try I did.

From the first page to the last, I tried to not like this book.

And I failed.

This book has the kind of writing that I felt was missing from John Green’s novels – it’s realistic, smart, funny and brutal in it’s honesty and it’s themes. The character of Jesse is excellently written, and immediately you feel like you have gotten inside his head, seeing things the way he sees them. This is the kind of YA novel we have been waiting for without realising it. Ultimately it is the writing that makes this novel such a compelling read. It is definitely my pick for most underrated book of 2014.

Even though this book is a YA novel, I would definitely only recommend it for ages 16+ due to the nature of some of the themes and references in the novel.

Rating: 9/10

Author Events

Author Event: Matthew Reilly

So Monday 10th November 2014 was a day that all Matthew Reilly fans has been counting down to – the release day for his latest book, The Great Zoo of China.

Luckily for me, working in a bookstore means that I already got to read a proof copy of it back in September (my review of the book can be found here).

But that didn’t make Monday 10th November any less exciting for me.

For on Monday 10th November, Matthew Reilly was doing a launch event at the Hayden Orpheum Picture Palace in Cremorne, Sydney.

And I had a ticket.

The event was going to consist of an ‘In Conversation with…’ style of presentation with Matthew, moderated by the owner of a local bookstore, followed by Q&A from the audience (including one from myself!), and then book signings out in the foyer.

Below are highlights from the evening.

Disclaimer: Matthew gave a lot of fantastic, detailed, and in depth answers to all the questions he was asked, which makes it really hard for me to remember everything, and to include everything that he said. As such, I have paraphrased both the questions and answers, so nothing below is a direct quote from either the question-asker, or Matthew Reilly himself.

In Conversation With Matthew Reilly

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So, why set the story in China?

Matthew explained that in 2003 he visited a dragon museum in Sweden and that is when he thought of the initial concept for the book – a zoo filled with dragons. But who would build such a zoo? And why? At the time, Matthew couldn’t come up with a satisfactory answer to either of those questions. However, in 2006 he was on a research trip in China for his book The Six Sacred Stones, and he thought that China could be a good setting for the zoo. Then with the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Matthew saw that China had really emerged as a contender for the next global super power and was a realistic country to set the story in. But to be a global super power, a country must have soft culture dominance, which is where the USA reigns supreme. Soft culture involves things like Coca-Cola, McDonald’s and Disneyland. And how could China do one better than Disneyland? Why a dragon zoo, of course! Matthew also explained a little about the ‘Chinese Dream’, which is this idea of trying to cement China’s place as a formidable country on a global scale. This ‘Chinese Dream’ is actually government policy in China, which makes the idea of Matthew’s book all the more plausible – that China would want to be a global cultural leader to rival the USA.

What is Matthew’s writing process?

Matthew explained that when he was writing his first book Contest, he was 19 years old and studying at university, so often he would write at all hours of the night, and not keep consistent writing hours. Nowadays, he tends to keep reasonably normal ‘office’ hours, and this is due to the fact that he aims to still have a reasonable social life. As most of his friends and family work 9-5, Monday to Friday, Matthew has more or less also adopted similar work patterns. He said he tends to go hard at his writing Monday and Tuesday, spend Wednesday playing golf, and then go hard at it again Thursday and Friday before having a weekend on Saturday and Sunday.

In terms of his actual process in writing one of his books, he said that this had also evolved a bit over his writing career, and nowadays he needs to have a visual map drawn up of where his story is set before he even sits down to write page one. He said he sketches and also uses Photoshop to do these maps and layouts, and that he revises them over and over again until he is happy with them, and until he has a very clear vision of what the setting looks like. The other thing is that he needs everything – story, plot, characters – planned out from start to finish and planned out 100% before he sits down to begin writing the book.

The Tournament (Matthew’s last novel) was very different to his usual style. Does he plan to do something like that again?

The short answer? Never say never. First off, Matthew clarified that, at the time he was writing The Tournament, he needed the creative break that it provided him. He needed some time away from all the explosions and car chases. And, more importantly, he needed to gather himself and prepare before embarking on the journey of writing his biggest, most explosive adventure yet – The Great Zoo of China.

Matthew also told us how he copped a lot of flack from parents and Reilly enthusiasts because he had strayed from his usual style of story-telling. Matthew maintains that The Tournament was still an action novel, just a different kind of action novel that didn’t have any explosions or car chases. And as to the parents who asked/complained as to how he could write that novel when he knows that kids as young as 12 and 13 are reading his books, Matthew said that apart from Hover Car Racer, he has always written his novels for an adult audience.

In regards to Troll Mountain, how did Matthew find writing for an ebook only format, and will it ever come out in physical book form?

I thought this was a great question from the moderator. Matthew found writing specifically for an ebook format much the same as writing for a physical book. The only difference was that more marketing and promotion had to go into it. When people buy ebooks, they tend to know what they are looking to buy and don’t really browse. Whereas people who buy in books stores browse and find new things, but also discover new things by authors they already like. Matthew pointed out that he personally likes browsing better. Matthew also talked about how he thinks that books have now succumbed to what he termed the ‘Pizza Hut’ effect – you used to be able to go to a physical Pizza Hut Restaurant and sit and dine in, whereas now, pizzas are mostly a take-away, home-delivered food item. Same for books – you can download and start reading a book within the comfort of your own home, rather than having to visit a physical store.

Matthew said it was highly likely that Troll Mountain would come out in a physical book format, (although he would have to check with his publisher to see if they want to publish it that way), and that he wouldn’t be surprised if it was published in in hard copy within the next 12 months.

Audience Q&A

Can I buy your shoes?

To clarify with a bit of background, Matthew started the event by saying that he had brought with him the 3 things he had promised via his Facebook page:

  1. His new book The Great Zoo of China
  2. His DeLorean (yes, Matthew actually owns one!)
  3. His custom made, Great Zoo of China Converse shoes

Matthew was wearing his shoes, so one eager fan asked if he could have them (to which Matthew said “No!”) and then he offered to buy them off him (to which Matthew said “… how much?”). It was a great, light-hearted way to kick off the audience Q&A!

(For the record, Matthew kept his shoes firmly on his feet, and didn’t sell them!)

Was setting his latest book in China difficult due to it being a communist country?

Matthew again explained that he had actually been there for research, and that he had been to Southern China, specifically Guilin, where the Zoo in his book is located. He found the experience interesting, and eye-opening, but other than that it was pretty much the same as any other research trip. Although, he did say that they will probably never let him back in to China now that the book is published!

Does Matthew have any plans for a Contest or Temple sequel?

Matthew has no plans to write sequels for them as he thinks they are best as stand alone novels. His rule for sequels is that they have to bigger and better than the novel that precedes them, and he doesn’t think he could do Contest or Temple any better.

How about another Jack West Jr. novel?

Never say never, but in terms of research, they are the most heavy of all his novels. Even The Tournament didn’t required as much labour intensive research as a single Jack West book. So he would need to be up to doing that level of research again, before he could commit himself to writing another Jack West Jr. adventure.

Do you ever write a scene and then look at it again later and think “Maybe that’s a bit too much” and scale it back?

This was my question, which I was very excited that I got to ask!

The short answer was no, but Matthew knew what I was getting at. He said that he tends to write to the limits of his imagination as it is. Matthew then went on to explain that when Ice Station was first released, he got a lot of mail from readers saying it was just too unbelievable. His first USA publisher even told him to scale back his books, so he changed publishers! He writes for ‘big kids’ and if you get a kick out of reading it, then mission accomplished! If you like the more clear-cut, well defined, and neatly wrapped Tom Clancy type novels, then you should be reading Tom Clancy novels! But he does have a limit to his big ideas and action sequences…although he hasn’t reached that limit yet!

On that note, does he think he went too far with THAT scene in Scarecrow?

Again, a bit of (spoiler-free) background for those who haven’t read Scarecrow, a much-loved character meets their rather grisly death in a guillotine.

Matthew told us how he has received hate mail for that scene, and that he can always tell when Scarecrow had just been released in a new country, because the hate mail starts pouring in again. For a lot of fans that he has spoken to, even though they have read all his books, that scene in Scarecrow is the scene that remains clearly in their minds (on a personal note, it is the only Matthew Reilly book I have never re-read). Matthew explained that he knew he was going to do it before he wrote the book. He almost chickened out though! When he was up to writing that scene, he got up from his computer and asked himself “Can I do this? I can still back out.” But he decided he had to go ahead with it, so he sat down, wrote it very quickly and then moved on with the book. When his friends and family were reading the manuscript he’d always get a call just after they had read that part, so he always knew where they were up to when the phone rang!

The most heart-warming moment of the evening goes to one 11 year old fan who asked:

My parents let me read Hell Island, but won’t let me read Area 7 even though I really want to. So, my question is, can I read Area 7?

This made everyone in the theater laugh and Matthew good-naturedly asked if the young gentleman had learned any new swear words while reading Hell Island, to which the boy replied that there wasn’t anything new. One of the characters in the book is nicknamed Mother, which is short for something… ahem… more adult (add a curse word starting with ‘F’ on to the end of ‘Mother’). So Matthew asked this kid if he knew what Mother’s name was short for, to which the kids replied that he did. So, Matthew said if he could handle Hell Island, he would be just fine with Area 7, and that he would give him a free copy of it after the event.

My very own signed book!
My very own signed book!

After the questions, we all filed out of the theater and queued in the lobby to get our books signed! I had a quick chat with Matthew about China (I had visited at the start of the year), about what I thought of the book, and that I would be seeing him again next month, when he does an author signing at the book store I work at. He was a really lovely person, and a great public speaker and I am so glad that I got to go along to his launch event!

To find out more about Matthew Reilly and his books, visit his website here.

Book Reviews

Review: Red Rising by Pierce Brown

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Dystopian/post-apocalyptic/rise-against-oppression novels are back in vogue again folks (as if you didn’t know!).

And across all genres as well! – young adult, general fiction, and fantasy, as well as the traditional science fiction.

Once upon a time, a dystopian novel where the hero wants to challenge the status quo would only have been picked up by the true, die-hard Sci-Fi fanatics. Nowadays, we have thankfully broken out of that stereotype, and with so many quality and engaging books that deal with these themes, it’s easy to see why we have!

And Red Rising certainly falls into the category of a quality and engaging book.

Red Rising, the first book in Pierce Brown’s debut trilogy, introduces us to Darrow.

Darrow is a Red and a Helldiver; one of many who are part of the lower echelons of a hierarchical/caste system that is designated by colours. He lives his life below the surface of Mars, mining elements that they are told will make the surface of Mars habitable for future generations because Earth is dying – they are the only hope humanity has for it’s survival.

However, an awful and traumatic series of events leads Darrow to find out that everything they were told was a lie to subdue and control. Mars has long been inhabited by the Golds – the top tier of society. With the help of an underground group of rebels that are determined to bring down the system from the inside, Darrow goes undercover as a Gold and enlists in one of their prestigious command schools. But Darrow soon finds himself right in the middle of an elaborate battlefield, fighting it out with all the other students for the top spot – only for Darrow, this is about more than just a prestigious offer of apprenticeship at the end of the game. This is about justice. This is about revenge.

This book is The Hunger Games for adults. It is so skilfully written, with so many intricate details and clever nuances. The writing is some of the best I have read in this genre, which is no mean feat normally, but then take into account that Pierce Brown is only 26! The amount of detail at times made me forget that this imagined society doesn’t actually exist. Brown cleverly uses self-made language and jargon to distinguish between the upper and lower colour classes. This jargon makes this fictional society more authentic, but it also serves to show that this version of humanity and society is something that is very different to what we know – but one that is not necessarily that implausible.

All the characters in this book are extremely well crafted and clearly defined. They really are the driving force of the entire novel. Despite their brutal natures and shocking acts, I actually really loved the characterisation of many of them, however I won’t reveal which ones were my favourites for fear of spoiling the book for everyone! My only criticism is that, at times, the story did drag on a bit, especially since the first part of the book moved quite quickly. However, Brown does pick up the pace again towards the final stages of the novel, and it is well worth the wait.

This book is definitely one I would recommend for lovers of the Sci-Fi genre, as well as those who may not have thought or wanted to delve into it before. This book is not what you would expect from a book in this category, and I can see it becoming a movie at some point in the future! And if the quality of the storyline, the writing, and the characters weren’t enough to get you to give this book a go, the author isn’t all that terrible looking either! Check out this rather humorous take on Pierce Brown here.

Golden Son, the second book in the trilogy, is due out in Australia on 13th January 2015, so make sure Red Rising is on your wishlist this Christmas!

Rating: 9/10

Edit: Looks like my prediction was right! Despite the book only being released at the start of 2014, Brown has already written and sold the screenplay for Red Rising to Universal pictures for a tidy sum. Find out more here.

Book Reviews

Review: Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty

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Up until about a week ago, I had never read one of Liane Moriarty’s books, which is rather surprising considering she is a local author in my area, and I am a huge supporter and advocate for Australian authors.

I had also been hearing almost all of my colleagues at work rave about her novels, so I thought I would give her latest one a whirl, though I was a bit worried that I may not enjoy the book. I will admit I am not normally one to read a book about the lives of fictional suburban mothers and their families. Quite frankly, I find the notion of reading a book about daily trials of mothers and their kids rather dull and unexciting.

That is, until I picked up Liane Moriarty’s latest book.

Big Little Lies takes place in the fictional Sydney suburb of Pirriwee and revolves around a group of kindergarten parents and their respective children who attend the local public school. The whole novel revolves around one key event – Pirriwee Public’s annual school trivia night. Why? Because a parent is dead.

The three central characters are Madeline, a highly extroverted, bubbly force to be reckoned with, Celeste, an effortlessly gorgeous, wealthy mother of twin boys and close friend of Madeline’s, and Jane, the young single mum who is new in town. This trio form the foundation of the story we are told, and all have their own worries and trials to deal with in their personal lives.

The majority of the novel takes places over the months leading up to the ill-fated trivia night, and delves into the cliquey world of helicopter parents and playground politics. At times, you almost forget that one of the characters you are reading about is in fact dead, but Moriarty very cleverly keeps you on track – at the end of every chapter there are excerpts of witness statements and background information being given by the schools parents and teachers. In this way, Moriarty also cleverly keeps you guessing as to who exactly the deceased person is.

As sombre as the overall storyline sounds, Moriarty’s latest novel is actually quite funny, while at the same time heartbreaking. She really knows how to get you emotionally invested in her characters, and to love and loathe them in equal measure. This is one of the best examples I have seen of really well written, well-defined characters. You know exactly who they are and how they will most likely react to certain situations, even though they are works of fiction.

I also love that Moriarty hasn’t compromised herself as an author just to appeal to the American mass market. The book is rife with ‘Australian-isms’ – including a brief discussion of ‘mum’ vs. ‘mom’ spelling, greetings of ‘gidday’, and particular aspects of the first year of school that evoked nostalgic memories of my own kindergarten days. I was able to relate to many things in this novel, despite not being in the target reader demographic.

I can’t wait to pick up another Liane Moriarty novel sometime soon.

Rating: 9/10

Edit: It is exciting to see both Nicole Kidman’s and Reese Witherspoon’s respective production companies option the screen rights to Big Little Lies! Read more here.

Book Reviews

Review: The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

 

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I am a quick reader. I normally read about 2 books a week. I devour novels like lions devour gazelles. Or like my best friend devours chocolate. Books sustain me and I hunger for new stories all the time.

But The Night Circus was different.

It took me just over a week to finish it.

I wanted it to last.

I wanted it to go on forever.

I was actually quite upset when it ended (even though, as a logical adult, I know all books must end).

I have never been so reluctant to reach the end of a book, and so disappointed with my reality when it did. Much like the patrons of the circus in the novel, you do not want the experience to end. The challenge I face now is trying to adequately write a review of it. For those of you who have read The Night Circus, you will know how much of a challenge this is.

The novel is essentially about Marco and Celia, two illusionists, who are trained by their respective tutors in preparation for a challenge, of which the rules, time and venue are all unknown. But then again, it could be said that this novel is also a story about an impossible love and the nature of the human soul. Or it could even just simply be about a travelling circus.

You start reading this novel not quite knowing what you’re in for, the blurb simply stating:

“The circus arrived without warning. No announcements precede it… it is simply there, when yesterday it was not.”

Even though this seems vague and meaningless at first glance, in hindsight, this sums up my experience reading this book – I came across it without meaning to, I hadn’t heard anything about it, and I knew nothing about it, but now it is ingrained in me when a week ago it wasn’t there at all.

The book, at first, seems to be an incoherent collection of stories of people’s lives. However, the further into the book you go, the more intertwined these lives become, and the clearer the bigger picture becomes. You fall in love with the circus and the characters, and you end up feeling like you have lived across the years that the circus spans – you feel apart of the circus, of something bigger than yourself.

Morgenstern jumps back and forth through the years from the late 1800s and into the early 1900s. The reader is able to keep track with the dates of the events taking place, as they are conveniently stated at the start of every chapter. Her writing style is sumptuous and enthralling, and you are immediately transported into the world of Le Cirque des Rêves – The Circus of Dreams – every time you open the book.

This novel is breathtakingly beautiful. If a book were to be compared to a work of art, this would be the shining example. You want to take your time with it, to savour it and give your full attention to it. You want to appreciate every word, every detail and every moment, trying to commit each to memory so you can relive it over and over again.

The best way I can think of to even come close to giving a sufficient summary of the novel is to give you one piece of advice: Do yourself a favour and go out and buy this book and get lost within it’s pages. It is the only way to truly understand and experience this world that Morgenstern has created.

I cannot recall the last time I read a book where I lost myself in the author’s literary vision so utterly and completely. Most definitely, without question, one of my top 10 books I have read this year.

Rating: 10/10