The Stravaganza series by Mary Hoffman

StravaganzaPublisher: Bloomsbury

Published: 2002-2012

My rating: 3.5 stars (as an average for the whole series)

Take 6 young people from 21st century England and transport them to a version of Renaissance Italy which can only be reached through dreams. In this country (Talia), our protagonists must help to defend a magical order called the Stravagante and fight against the machinations of the di Chimici family who rule most of Talia. This is the overarching plot of the 6 books in the Stravaganza series – City of MasksCity of StarsCity of FlowersCity of SecretsCity of Ships and City of Swords. Each book follows a different main character and their relationships both in their own world and in Talia.

I started reading this series at the age of 13, when City of Masks was first published. I believed that it was only ever a trilogy and, therefore, stopped looking for the books. However, 6 or so years after reading City of Flowers I discovered that Hoffman had in fact written three more books! So I was on a quest to read these too. Each book has its individual merits and flaws, however I feel that Hoffman’s first, City of Masks, is by far the strongest. Plot elements from this pervade the other 5 books and the protagonist, Lucien, is perhaps the most easy to like. Perhaps I am biased since I read this title at an impressionable age (whereas I was over 20 when I read the last three) however I think that City of Masks is by far the best in the series, not just in terms of plot but also of writing style. Sections of the latter three books read as though Hoffman feels she has to re-hash plot aspects in order to make a word count. Perhaps she felt duty bound to write more books due to the popularity of the earlier ones, but I feel that she could have easily stopped after City of Flowers having written a well-developed series. That said, however, she does use the final books to expand the di Chimici story arc to a satisfying conclusion. So perhaps I should not be too harsh.

Verdict: Definitely one to read if you have a soft spot for children’s/young adult fiction. There’s a definite possibility for magical escapism here.

Miss Heliotrope’s 2014 in review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2014 annual report for my blog.

It includes factoids like this:

A San Francisco cable car holds 60 people. This blog was viewed about 440 times in 2014. If it were a cable car, it would take about 7 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer

Into the WildPublisher: Villard

Published: 1996

My rating: 4 stars

In April 1992 Christopher Johnson McCandless, a young man from a well-to-do family from Washington, DC., hitchhiked to Alaska and walked into the wilderness north of Mount McKinley to try to live off the land and his own wits. In September that year, his decomposed body was found by a party of moose hunters. A fan of Jack London, John Muir and Henry David Thoreau, McCandless had donated his life savings to charity, abandoned his worldly possessions and invented a completely new life for himself under the moniker Alexander Supertramp. Composed of extracts from McCandless’s diaries and passages highlighted in books found by his body, alongside interviews with people who had known him and Krakauer’s own conjectures, Into the Wild explores what led McCandless to undertake his Alaskan odyssey and what ultimately caused his death.

I first heard of Chris McCandless when I saw Sean Penn’s film adaptation of the book back in 2008. It struck me profoundly, perhaps because at that point I was much the same age as McCandless was when he died, and has stayed with me in the intervening years. I decided to read Into the Wild as a slightly older adult to see whether the impact the film had on me was simply due to my impressionability at that point or whether there was something more to it.

This is not a very long book and it does not deal solely with the case of Chris McCandless. Instead, Krakauer takes his story as a central point from which to consider the idea of shaking off the trappings of society in order to live alone in the wild. To do this he examines several similar cases, one of which is the story of Everett Ruess. In 1934, Ruess was travelling alone through the Utah desert and simply disappeared. The parallels between his case and that of McCandless are striking – both were young men in their early twenties who wished to disengage from society and live closer to nature. There are doubtless many other similar cases.

McCandless is a polarising figure. There are some who believe that he was a suicidal idiot, whereas others think that he was a victim of circumstance and never intended to die alone in Alaska. For the moment I reserve judgement, however I believe that this will be a book I return to as I get older and that my opinion on the matter will doubtless change.

Verdict: Whatever your opinions of Chris McCandless may be, Krakauer has made a concerted and commendable attempt to understand what drives some people to seek out a life of solitude and commune with the land.

Being Reem by Joey Essex

Being ReemPublisher: Hodder & Stoughton

Published: 2014

My rating: 3 stars

“Trendsetter, male grooming icon and all-round good guy, this is the world according to the one and only Joey Essex. Spreading joy wherever he goes, Joey became an instant favourite after joining the cast of The Only Way Is Essex in 2011. Renowned for his brilliant observations, distinctive style and immaculate hair, his unforgettable appearance on I’m A Celebrity… Get Me Out Of Here! has confirmed that this Brentwood boy is a national treasure in the making. But life for Joey hasn’t always been so straightforward. When he was just 10-years-old, his mother, Tina, committed suicide after battling with depression, a fact that Joey didn’t find out until many years later. For the first time Joey opens up about life before fame and the events which have led him to where he is today. Whether you’re a salty potato or a pair of Capri Suns Joey teaches us to take everything as it comes and shares his own unique view of the world around him. Hilarious, touching and always surprising, Being Reem is the crazy story of Joey Essex’s journey to becoming one of our most loveable stars.” (Taken from the blurb)

I am not a fan of TOWIE, and this may have been the first celebrity autobiography I have finished reading, but I read this during dry periods at work and was impressed and surprised. Although it is clear that Joey Essex must have employed the services of a ghost writer, it sounds very authentic and was enjoyable to read.

Verdict: A light-hearted insight into the life of one of the more well-known British reality tv stars. Clearly not high-brow literature, but worth a giggle.

Angel Answers by Diana Cooper

Angel-AnswersPublisher: Hodder

Published: 2008

My rating: 2 stars

“Angels provide outlooks that can help resolve any human dilemma, whether social, political, historical, personal, sexual, or spiritual, and their enlightened approaches are recorded in this insightful and uplifting spiritual guide. True and inspiring personal stories prove that no problem is too difficult when angels are consulted, and numerous exercises and meditations are included to make listening to and understanding angels easier. These simple, clear, and compassionate answers are presented as a way of resolving trying issues and finding peace.”

Diana Cooper is a spiritualist, whose website states that she was “born … in the Himalayas at the exact second the first bomb fell on London” and was “sent to bring in light to counteract the darkness at the other side of the world. Of course [she] went through the Veil of Amnesia and knew nothing of this.” She has written numerous books about spiritual healing, as well as giving seminars to the credulous. In this book, the angels (who are, of course, 6 foot tall asexual beings) use Cooper as their conduit to answer some of the most pressing questions for humanity. Their answers include topics such as:

  • Cancer – the greatest protection against which is “happiness, contentment, self-worth, and good quality organic food and water”
  • Cows and horses – they “come from Lakuma, an ascended planet near Sirius”
  • Walt Disney – his life mission was to “tell people about the elementals, such as pixies and gnomes”

Further to this, there is an entire section on Atlantis, which contained super-evolved people and inter-dimensional crystals, as well as sections on unicorns, social issues and the cosmos.

Verdict: It is unclear whether Cooper really believes everything she writes or if it’s simply a money spinner. But this is a good diversion if you have time to kill and fancy a laugh in between shaking your head in disbelief that anyone could believe this stuff

Take Me Tomorrow by Shannon A. Thompson

Take Me Tomorrow Publisher: AEC Stellar Publishing

Published: 2014

My rating: 3 stars

In a future version on the United States which has been divided into 7 regions following an external economic crash, the population live in a police state led my a mystery figure known as Phelps, where they are subjected to strict rules and harsh recriminations for any infraction of the laws. The reason for these excessive laws is tomo – a drug with clairvoyant properties. The users of tomo caused an uprising which ended in a massacre and the subsequent way of life.  This is the world of Sophia Gray. In addition to her father’s double life as a cross-border trafficker, her friends are involved in defying the state and its war on drugs. Into the picture comes Noah Tomery, a young man who is deeply entangled with the whole affair and who brings Sophia’s world crashing around her ears. Should she stay and submit to the status quo or should she fight for the people she loves?

I received this book from the author (here is her website) in return for a review. This made the whole review process difficult, since I don’t feel comfortable slating something when I have been in contact with the person who created it. Conversely, I don’t want to appear as though I am being overly favourable in gratitude for being asked to review it. So here follows my honest assessment.

There are some definite pros to Take Me Tomorrow. Thompson has come up with a good story and has, very impressively, managed to find a niche in a highly saturated genre – just think of The Hunger Games, the Divergent trilogy, the Maze Runner series…Additionally, it is refreshing to find that the heroine does not immediately fall for the handsome and brooding boy. Instead, like Katniss in The Hunger Games, she is fiercely independent. Content-wise, I was impressed by Thompson’s creativity and ingenuity.

The cons, however, come from the style of writing and the editing. Given my background in English Language and publishing I may be overly picky however there were some problems which really did affect my enjoyment of the story:

  1. There were far too many Americanisms for my liking. I’m aware that this is a personal preference rather than a failing on the author’s part, but I did find myself wincing over tortured phrases such as “Living in the Albany
    Region was too distant of a past to recall”. While I am guilty of verbosity in my own writing, this was a little too much when it came to reading.
  2. Some of the word choices were just plain wrong. Take, for example,”the shudders were pearl-white”. I would assume that this was a typo, except for the fact that earlier I came across the phrase “windows spanned out over every floor, dark green shudders lining the brown exterior with frivolous decorations”. This takes me onto my third big issue:
  3. Oh my gosh, the hyperbole. And the adjectives. This is not a novel which believes “less is more”; instead, both nouns and verbs require embellishment.
  4. There is surprisingly little character development. The main actors are fleshed out, but some of the minor characters are left up to the reader’s imagination. I, for one, would have liked to know more about Sophia’s father. And who is this mysterious Phelps? He orchestrates most of the action, however we learn very little about his other than that he is a malevolent power.

Ok, I am probably being overly critical. This is a good story from a young writer, who I am sure will continue to mature. I hope this will turn out to be the first instalment in a series, since there are several loose ends which remain to be tied up. Had the writing style not irritated me quite so much, Take Me Tomorrow would probably have received 4 stars since it is well thought through and brings something new to a genre which runs the risk of becoming staid.

Verdict: Worth a read if you have a bit of time on your hands and want something light but a little different.

Recommendation: For another YA dystopian future book from a slightly less well-known author, try Delirium by Lauren Oliver

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

The Night CircusPublisher: Doubleday

Published: 2011

My rating: 4 stars

The circus arrives without warning. No announcements precede it. It is simply there, when yesterday it was not. Within the black-and-white striped canvas tents is an utterly unique experience full of breathtaking amazements. It is called Le Cirque des Rêves, and it is only open at night. Behind all the magic and wonder, a duel is taking place between two young magicians, Celia and Marco, who have been trained in magic since their childhoods with only one aim – to win the competition. While they believe it is only a show of skill, they are instead locked into a battle where the only chance of winning is to be the last one standing. As they toy with the circus and its inhabitants, Marco and Celia become increasingly involved in one another’s lives – with potentially devastating results.

I have a weakness for Young Adult fiction – indeed, I feel that sometimes it can discuss topics which are still taboo in adult literature – and The Night Circus is one of the best I have read. Conceptually it is great: circuses are already magical places, so where better to hold a magic duel? It is also wonderfully paced. Although it may seem a little slow to begin with, Morgenstern has succeeded in creating an absorbing fantasy world into which you will be drawn. I feel that the time taken at the start of the book to flesh out the plot and the characters is well worth it, since it serves to create a richer fantasy world. By splitting the action over several decades and following the trajectories of several characters, the reader is kept hooked without feeling that the outcome is a foregone conclusion.

Verdict: Simply magical. Read if you fancy some well-plotted escapism.

More like this: Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke

Drood by Dan Simmons

DroodPublisher: Quercus

Published: 2009

My rating 4 stars

In June 1865, traveling from France to London with his young mistress Ellen Ternan and her mother, 53-year-old Charles Dickens was involved in the Staplehurst rail crash which killed 10 people and injured 40 more. Escaping with only minor injuries, Dickens initially appears to be relatively unharmed, barring an entirely rational fear of fast-moving transport, but he becomes increasingly obsessed with London’s seedy underbelly, with its slums and opium dens and a shadowy figure known only as “Drood”. He begins to take secret trips to “Undertown”, lying about his whereabouts and activities, and a young man he takes under his wing goes missing. Narrated by Dickens’ friend opium-addicted Wilkie Collins (author of The Woman in White and The Moonstone among others) who makes for a fascinatingly unreliable narrator, Drood is a richly-woven Gothic horror story of one man’s descent into madness.

Drood tells the story of the last five years of Dickens life, including his sometimes fraught relationships with family and friends and the writing of his last, unfinished work – The Mystery of Edwin Drood. I attempted to read Edwin Drood several years ago and gave up three pages in. While Dickens’ work is not always the easiest read – and I have slogged through all 800+ pages of Bleak House – Edwin Drood is something else entirely. Beginning in an opium den with one character’s pipe dream, it is a web of complex narrative in which it is easy to get lost. This same feeling is very cleverly evoked by Simmons in Drood where the ridiculous mixes with the mundane (imagine, if you will, macabre ancient Egyptian rituals and a secret city entered via a mausoleum) which, coupled with the incredible unreliability of Collins as a narrator, makes for a fascinating read where you cannot always trust the narrator’s, or your own, experiences.

This is probably not a book to read if you have no experience of Charles Dickens or Wilkie Collins or Victorian literature in general. Simmons has done very well with recreating the feeling of Dickens’ and Collins’ prose, but this may come across as arduous and unnecessarily verbose if you are not familiar with this style of writing. It is also clear that Simmons has done his research – in fact, the first couple of hundred pages read like an attempt to flesh out the setting as much as possible in order to provide a great level of detail. This is admirable, however it does mean that I found the first section quite a slog as the action of the novel does not begin for a long time. That does not mean, however, that Drood is not engaging – in fact, Guillermo Del Toro is due to direct a film adaptation in the near future and I eagerly anticipate seeing what he can do with this fascinating story.

Verdict: You may require some patience to get past the lengthy and overly detailed nature of the prose, but it is worth the effort. Read this if you have any interest at all in Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins and/or Gothic fiction.

Bared To You by Sylvia Day

BaredToYou_cover_hires Publisher: Berkley Books
Published: 2012
My rating: 3 stars

Eva Tramell, a young, blonde society girl, moves from California to work at an advertising agency in New York and live with her deeply disturbed and highly-sexed best friend, who is also a drop-dead gorgeous male model who may or may not be in love with her. Shortly after starting starting her new job, she enters into a relationship with the intensely hot but extremely possessive Gideon Cross, a man who seems to own most of Manhattan – including the building Eva works in (the Crossfire), a chain of upmarket gyms, some bars, the building where she lives…. The list goes on – and displays disturbing stalker-like tendencies including checking her credit card purchases in order to wow her by knowing her drinks order and reading the lease on her flat in order to find out more about her living arrangements. Despite her initial and entirely rational misgivings – Cross’s idea of courtship is asking whether she’s available because he wishes to fuck her – Eva submits to to his possessive tendencies and embarks upon a relationship filled with mind-blowing sex which is only marred by the fact that both she and Cross have dark and disturbed pasts. Well, relationship may be a strong word for a series of (apparently extremely hot) sexual encounters interspersed with Eva freaking out and running away while Cross asserts his dominance by “marking her” as his, mainly by letting her get up close and personal with what is apparently the most beautiful and enormous penis in the world which Day describes in superfluous detail.

Ok, “synopsis” over. It is surprisingly difficult to write about a book with very little plot to speak of! But on with the review… As may well be obvious, Bared to You is one of several erotica series which were published following the success of E.L. James’s 50 Shades of Grey trilogy (and yes, I have read those too). It is obvious from the outset the debt Day owes to James, who in turn adapted her works from her initial Twilight fan fiction, and the central themes of sex, power and money run through both and highlight Day’s startling lack of originality. Instead of referring to the sexual acts in irritatingly coy terms, Day embraces the other end of the spectrum using phrases such as “he tongued my cleft” and “I looked at him in his civilized, urbane, outrageously expensive suit and thought of raw, primal, sheet-clawing fucking.” Hot!

So why then have I given it three stars? Well, somehow the writing manages to be oddly compelling (although doubtless not in the way Day intended). Rather than the dragging tedium of 50 Shades, with its poorly edited sex scenes and obsession with the Dom-Sub relationship, Bared To You contains elements of humour frequently interspersed with inexpert attempts at erotic writing which have the effect of bordering on the gross – who thinks that feeling spunk dribble down their legs is a turn on?! There is also slightly more parity between the characters of Gideon Cross and Eva Tramell than Christian Grey and Ana Steele. While both men are hot, loaded – in more ways than one (nudge nudge, wink wink) – and emotionally damaged, the real difference is in the female characters. Eva has more going for her than Ana does. She is independent-minded, financially self-sufficient and not immediately wooed by Cross’s coarse attempts at flattery. While the entire situation is incredibly contrived, Day has managed to create a world which feels more real than James’s.

Verdict: if you have time on your hands and fancy a giggle at Day’s attempt to write about steamy sex, then go ahead and read this. Just don’t go into it expecting it to be a) original, b) erotic or c) good.

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

Cloud Atlas Film Tie InPublisher: Sceptre (Hodder & Stoughton)

Published: 2004

My rating: 5 stars

Ranging from the nineteenth century to a distant, post-apocalyptic future, Cloud Atlas is composed of 6 inter-related stories, with characters and themes linking them. Each tale is read (or observed) by the main character in the next. Ranging from slavery in the Pacific islands all the way to the same islands hundreds of years in our future, taking in a young composer in 1930s Belgium, the issue of nuclear energy in 1970s California and a futuristic Korea where clones are forced to work 19 hours a day serving consumers at a horrific future version of McDonalds, Cloud Atlas explores what it means to be human, the concept of reincarnation and continuity of the soul, and how our actions can create ripples which reach far into the future.

I don’t tend to read collections of short stories or novellas, with the exception of Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach, as I tend to enjoy longer, more involved stories, and worry that the narrative of shorter works won’t have the ability to sustain my interest. By creating a novel composed of short stories with interconnected characters and themes, David Mitchell has managed to tread the line between weightier fiction and a short story collection. While there are some flaws – the pacing is off in some places and, as it to be expected, some of the story lines are more interesting than others – Cloud Atlas  has more to commend it than to detract from its merits.

I came to this book having already seen its 2012 film adaptation. This is something I generally dislike doing, since I feel that this spoils my enjoyment of the writing. However, on this occasion I think that viewing the film before reading the book may have been the correct way to approach it and those friends I know who tried to read the book without first watching the film came away with predominantly negative experiences. Although the plot of the film differs in several instances from that of the book – with the storyline in futuristic Korea deviating the most – it added to my understanding and enjoyment of the book and as soon as I had finished it I went back and watched the film again. The addition of listening to Tom Twyker’s brilliant soundtrack while reading added to the general atmosphere of the novel.

Verdict: One of the few occasions in which a book and its film manage to complement each other. A haunting soundtrack with its leitmotifs adds to the spellbinding nature of Mitchell’s writing. If you are struggling with Mitchell’s writing, stick with it – it’s worth the effort.