Culture Vulture (Or: Meanwhile, on the Internets)

Good day to you all! Sadly, the weather here in the UK is a little more uneven this week than the glorious sunshine we had last week but summer is definitely here!

This week’s bag of internet goodness below…

Lots of interesting opinions on what is ‘literary’ and Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch in this article. I for one am still excited to read it…

A bookish alternative to the World Cup, courtesy of Penguin!

Pretty Little liars are back and so are the Forever Young Adult recaps – huzzah!

My friend kindly directed me to this blog post about the first UK YA Lit Con – it looks awesome, is anyone going?

Interesting and controversial article about adults reading YA literature. I don’t agree with the views expressed, but I do think reading a decent range of different types of books is good for you as a reader. What do you think?

Really interesting article about caring for our West End Theatres.

And lastly, I LOVE this list of things Coach Taylor has taught us. Clear eyes…

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Book Review: Life by Committee by Corey Ann Haydu

Life By Committee is the story of Tabitha; high school student with no friends, a growing (and unfortunate) reputation and immature parents. At the very beginning of the book, we learn that she is falling for schoolmate she chats to on the internet… who also happens to have a serious girlfriend. Knowing no one else would approve of their relationship, Tabitha is weighed down by keeping the details to herself. Missing her friends and finding her parents occupied by the imminent arrival of her sibling, Tabitha is delighted when she comes across Life by Committee (LBC). LBC is a website where you share your secrets with a select group of people – all sharing, all anonymous. However, Tabitha soon learns that the group will award an assignment for each secret. These assignments lead Tabitha into more and more trouble with this boy and she begins to isolate the few friends she has left in her attempts to keep up with LBC…

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Book Review: Along for the Ride by Sarah Dessen

Guys, this was a good one. I LOVED Sarah Dessen’s The Truth About Forever and so promptly went out and bought practically every other book she’s written and have started making my way through them. I have decided to treat Dessen’s books like Charlie treats Wonka chocolate – something to be savoured and not to be rushed through (this was also how I approached the Jessica Darling series). I saved Along for the Ride for my four hour train ride back from Newcastle, finishing it about half an hour before I got home.

Along for the Ride is about Auden (named after one of my favourite poets, W.H. Auden). It’s the summer before college and she’s preparing to spend it the way she spends all the others: alone, studying and preparing for life as an adult, which she seems already made for. Auden’s parents are not that long divorced and her father has just had a new baby. On a spur of the moment decision, Auden decides to change her summer plans and heads off to stay with her dad by the beach. When she arrives, she finds her dad holed up in his office, working on his 10-years in the making second novel (echoes of I Capture the Castle), a stressed step-mother (Heidi) and grizzly new-born sister, Thisbe. Helping out at Heidi’s store on the beach front, Auden starts to make some new friends her own age, meets the enigmatic Eli, and begins change her mind out how her future is supposed to be.

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Graphic Novel review: Northern Girl by Isobel Harrop

You guys; I loved this book. This was the first graphic novel I ever picked up to read (I’m not sure reading over your brother’s shoulder as he reads Marvel really counts) and boy, am I glad I did.

Northern Girl is a collection of drawings and musings from ordinary British teenager, Isobel. The book is divided into three sections: Me, Friends, College and Art and Love. The book is a little like a scrapbook, Isobel filling it with drawings and notes based on her musings, her conversations and her own inner monologue. Her thoughts and comments range from Beyoncé to her drawing skills, to getting over boys, to how she feels about shaving her legs.

Harrop manages to convey accurately the quiet, comforting sort of monotony that comes with living in a small British town. Having grown up in one myself, I recognise the push and pull feeling that comes with it: it can be frustrating and very dull to live somewhere small in the British countryside, especially as a teenager when your means of escape are limited. And yet, there’s something reassuring about its smallness, about knowing you know where it begins and ends. There a wonderful sense throughout the book that Isobel is trying to determine who she is and that she’s figuring it out through the words and pictures she’s brought together in the book. It rang true for me and my own experiences as a teenager.

Being light on dialogue and relatively short, I read my way through this in half an hour. But it’s not really the sort of book that you read once, put on the shelf and forget about. It’s a book to revisit several times over, flipping to the pages that are relevant to you that day, using it for inspiration and reminiscing about your own teen years. I look forward to going back to it for many years to come!

Throwback Thursday: Pop Arts Revisits…Ballet Shoes

This week’s TBT is about the children’s classic, Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfeild, one of my all time favourites. To clear confusion now: We won’t be talking about actual ballet shoes (sorry!), Noel was a lady and no, I didn’t misspell Streatfeild, that’s just how she spelt it. We good? Good.

My mother was an avid Noel Streatfeild reader as a child and bought the books for me when I was a child. I fell in love with Ballet Shoes from the first time I read it. It tells the story of three sisters: Pauline, Petrova and Posy. All three are adopted by explorer and palaeontologist Matthew Brown, who to them becomes Great Uncle Matthew or Gum for short. Gum has already raised his orphaned niece, Sylvia and as she grows older, decides to fill his house with babies for her to mind, reasoning that ‘women like babies’. Sylvia and her nanny, Nana (governesses and nannies feature heavily in all Streatfeild novels; always reliable, redoubtable women who sort everything out) take on the task of raising all three girls themselves, giving them the unifying surname Fossil, after Gum’s usual presents from his trips. However, when Gum heads off on another adventure after dropping off baby Posy, they don’t see or hear from him again for another 12 years or so. This unusual set up means that with no Gum, they have no real source of income. They turn Gum’s big house at the end of Cromwell Road in London into a boarding house to earn money. The arrival of their lovely boarders: dance teacher Theo, Mr & Mrs Simpson, fresh from Kuala Lumpur and scholars Dr Jakes and Dr Smith change the Fossil girls’ lives forever.

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Top 10 Tuesday – The Broke and the Bookish link up

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My weekly link up with The Broke and The Bookish is here again and this week’s theme is…

Top Ten Characters Who X (you fill in the blank — examples: piss me off, are the popular kids, are bookish, would be my bff, that stole my heart, etc. etc.)

In my list this week I’m going to select my top 10 characters who I will always love

1. Petrova Fossil (Ballet Shoes)

Ballet Shoes is probably one of my favourite books of all time. It’s a treasured childhood favourite and of all the Fossil sisters, Petrova has always been my favourite. Petrova is the middle sister and most definitely not a gifted performer like her sisters. She finds the whole process tiresome and infuriates her teachers with her mediocre attitude towards her training. Petrova is far more inclined towards engineering, with a love of maths and gift for cars and planes. She never gives up on her dream of working with engines though and keeps finding ways to learn and grow her skills throughout the novel. Petrova is the sort of person I would want as a sister – fiercely loyal, smart and practical, with a healthy dose of family peacemaker thrown in for good measure.

2. Lucinda Leplastrier (Oscar & Lucinda)

Oscar & Lucinda is an epic novel, spanning continents and ideologies, bringing two most unsuited characters together and make them fit perfectly. Lucinda rises up from an unpromising start, pulling herself through life, always trying to live her own way and relying on her stubbornness and determination to see her through. Her refusal to compromise or give up don’t always lead to great things, but are core foundations of her character and she is true to her own mind, always.

3. Ron Weasley (Harry Potter)

My natural instinct is to go for Hermione – what book-loving girl doesn’t relate to Hermione – but actually, the older I get, the more appreciation I have for Ron. (Plus the constant undermining and maligning of Ron that occurs in the film series is unforgivable, frankly).

Ron I think is who most of us would be in that scenario. He’s fairly ordinary, unremarkable and very insecure about his place within the trio and in life generally – things we can all probably relate to. But he’s also very loyal (even when in a fight with one of the others), good at thinking on his feet, tough and funny. He’s the only one of the three who knows anything about magic and the wizarding world (without which knowledge they would be lost) and overcomes many of his insecurities and vanities to come through for his friends when required. I would argue that Ron grows the most significantly as a character over the course of the series and I love him for this.

4. Cathy (Never Let Me Go)

Never Let Me Go is a book that continues to haunt me, years after reading it. It is an utterly compelling and moving book and Cathy, as our narrator still stands out to me. Her stoicism in the face of a terrible fate, her kindness and generosity to others despite the cruelty of her situation and their sometimes unjust attitude towards her are rare and lovely qualities. She is the epitome of grace under fire to me.

5. Tris Prior (Divergent)

I am as drawn to characters that are wildly different from me as I am to those that remind me of myself. In many ways, Tris is nothing like me, aside from occasional shyness and stubbornness. While this is hardly surprising (Tris is living in a future dystopia after all) I find her courage and strength in dangerous and potentially life-altering situations awesome. Her focus and investment in herself – training relentlessly to become one of the Dauntless – is such a positive thing to read and her confidence in her own intelligence and willingness to question authority and populist ideas are inspiring.

6. Anne Elliott (Persuasion)

Always my favourite Austen heroine (closely followed by Emma – who couldn’t really be more different!) Anne Elliott is full of disappointment and regret at the start of Persuasion. But she doesn’t let this dictate her life. She looks for things to enjoy, gives a great deal of support and kindness to her friends and family. She also – importantly – never really gives up hope in Captain Wentworth, or finding a life for herself. Her slow re-growth across the novel is like a butterfly emerging from a chrysalis. She finds her inner strength again and emerges as a more interesting, more rounded person.

7. Winnie the Pooh

Who doesn’t love Winnie the Pooh? I’m always astonished when I meet people who aren’t keen as what is there not to enjoy and cherish in a bear (of very little brain, or so we are told) who possesses such kindness, wisdom (no, really) and love for all his friends and who seeks to fill the world only with good. Winnie the Pooh stories bring as much comfort now as they did when I was a child.

8. Jessica Darling (Sloppy Firsts series)

Like Tris (#5), Jessica is not much like me. She is bookish and well-behaved (mostly) as I was, but her bracing wit and willingness to chase adventure are qualities I wish I possessed. I loved Jessica’s smarts, her cynicism (which disguises her actually poetic and romantic heart) and her toughness. Her development over the course of the series feels natural and real. She softens but in the best way and I always look to her for some inner snark and bravery.

9. Bertie Wooster (Jeeves & Wooster series)

Ahhh, Bertie Wooster. I am a big fan of the Jeeves and Wooster books and I love sweet, silly Bertie. He’s almost always wrong about everything, his friends are idiots and he’s hopelessly unaware of how shamelessly Jeeves manipulates him. But he’s so upbeat and willing to look for the positive in things that it’s impossible not to love him.

10. Anne Shirley (Anne of Green Gables)

Anne Shirley is a gift to us all. She is so enthusiastic, so full of passion for life and art that it’s easy to get swept up with her. When you think of her sad lonely beginnings compared to the life she builds for herself…it’s the most uplifting story. Yes, the love and support of the Cuthberts helped, but a lot of Anne’s success is down to herself. She gets things wrong, makes mistakes, makes herself look silly and blithely ignores reality most of the time. But her earnestness, sincerity and desire to be better for herself and others are just so endearing, you know she’ll figure it all out in the end. An imperfect girl we can all relate to.

Film Review: Divergent

Full disclosure before we start: I had read (and loved) the book last year, so wasn’t an unbiased audience member going in. For the uninitiated, Divergent is based on a book of the same name, by Veronica Roth, which is the first in a trilogy (naturally). This is the first film adaptation (followed quickly by the news that – yawn – the final book would be split into two; as per) to be made of the series.

Our protagonist is Beatrice Prior – Tris. She is 16 and living in a future, dystopian (of course) Chicago, totally unrecognisable to us. Society has been divided into five factions: Abnegation (where Tris lives) which emphasises selflessness and a removal from the desires of the self, Erudite which emphasises intelligence and the pursuit of truth, Amity which promotes good humour and kindness, Candour who value honesty and transparency and finally Dauntless, who require fearlessness, courage and umm…recklessness, frankly, of their faction members.

Every year, all 16 year olds must take an aptitude test that will determine where they belong. They must then make a choice at an official ceremony, apparently their only opportunity to exercise free will. Tris takes the aptitude test – a sort of simulated dream thing – but her results are inconclusive. She shows equal aptitude for Abnegation, Erudite and Dauntless. This ambiguity alarms her test administrator, Tori, who tells Tris she will fake the result for her and that she is a Divergent – someone who doesn’t conform to regular thought patterns – and that she must never tell anyone the truth.

At the choosing ceremony, Tris, who feels uneasy and unsuited to Abnegation, unexpectedly chooses Dauntless. She must leave her family behind and align herself with her new home: ‘faction before blood’, competing with the other initiates to win a role in the Dauntless community. Failure to assimilate properly results in ejection and joining the factionless, a desperate, destitute group who belong nowhere. Tris must find a way to survive in Dauntless as well as protecting herself against the Erudite, who begin actively looking for the Divergent.

I really enjoyed Divergent. It was fairly long, but like Catching Fire, didn’t feel like it to me. A lot of the book’s exposition and action was crammed in and I couldn’t think of too much integral to the plot that was left out (aside from perhaps the knife in the eye incident…). I went with friends who had also read the book and they weren’t sure it was that easy to follow without being familiar with the plot. I didn’t have this issue, but it might be something to bear in mind if you haven’t read the book.

While the casting could have been more diverse/interesting, the acting was excellent. I had no preconceived ideas of how Four should appear on film (I am terrible at picturing characters), but Theo James really worked in the role for me. His mannerisms, body language and attitude all chimed perfectly with the way Four comes across in the book.

In terms of supporting roles, Ashley Judd was great (she will always be great in my book: Double Jeopardy and Where the Heart Is are amazing films) as Tris’ mother, Natalie, who is harbouring some secrets of her own. Tony Goldwyn and Ansel Elgort as Tris’ father and brother weren’t really in it enough to make much of an impression (though the part was tiny, Tony Goldwyn’s kindly, gentle performance as Andrew Prior still managed to make me forget how much I want to punch him on Scandal). Zoe Kravitz was just how I imagined Christina and had plenty of toughness, despite being physically tiny. Ben Lloyd-Hughes and Christian Madsen were effective as Will and Al, although again, they hardly appeared (film time means needs must, I guess). Miles Teller was appropriately snarky as Peter (my friends thought he did a good job of being hateful) although I found his casting a little distracting; he has so much charisma and personality, he’s a bit too enjoyable onscreen for a more minor antagonist.

I loved Shailene Woodley as Tris and her performance was stellar throughout, anchoring the film and injecting some real vulnerability and visceral emotion in amongst the action. You absolutely rooted for her and she was totally convincing as a bad ass. She went comfortably toe-to-toe with Kate Winslet and created believable chemistry with Theo James. The role of Jeanine had been expanded significantly for Winslet and though she looked great, I didn’t find her performance to be cold or uptight enough. I found Jeanine’s smug superiority and arrogance to be genuinely chilling in the book and Winslet wasn’t quite nasty enough for me.

Overall, I thought it was an excellent page to screen adaptation that captured both the intensity and action of the book. It’s another great example of a tough, uncompromising and independent filmic heroine and – in some contrast to the Hunger Games – Tris was shown to be warm, well-liked and gentler than her fellow dystopian counterpart, while still being just as tough. Good for a blockbuster-y-action-film-Saturday-night-watch!

Side note: I found (like many people) the following two books, Insurgent and Allegiant to be disappointing in comparison to Divergent. I’m very interested to see if the films are able to resolve some of the narrative problems in those books and whether they take a little bit of creative licence, as they have the potential to be a rare example of a film surpassing the source material. For those that know the stories, Vulture has an interesting article on this problem here.

Book Review: Sweethearts by Sara Zarr

 

I had heard a lot about Sara Zarr’s Sweethearts and, being on something of a YA kick, decided to give it a go.

The story centred on Jennifer Harris, a former outcast and bullied child, now grown up and remodelled as Jenna Vaughn. Jenna has gone from feeling like an outsider; unwelcome and unwanted by the other children, to becoming the image of a straight-A, popular, ‘normal’ teenage girl. She has worked tirelessly on ways to fit in, eradicating the things the other kids used to tease her about: her lisp, being overweight, not having the right clothes, being too sensitive etc. The catalyst for all this change was the loss of her best friend Cameron Quick, who was equally despised by their classmates, but who loved and accepted Jenna for who she was.

One day Cameron stops coming to school and Jenna believes he’s died. However, on Jenna’s 17th birthday, nearly 10 years later, Cameron comes back into her life and overturns everything Jenna believes she wants, forcing her to confront her past and consider whether she really is Jenna Vaughn or if she still wants to be Jennifer Harris.

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Culture Vulture (or: Meanwhile, on the Internets)

Happy Thursday everyone! It seems astonishing that it’s April already and that Easter is just around the corner. Phew, time goes fast sometimes.

This week’s little collection of links below:

Can you believe it’s been 15 YEARS since The Matrix first came out? Man, do I feel old now. Read Vulture’s dissection of the film and why it’s still a groundbreaker.

This month is National Poetry Writing Month (or, the catchier NaPoWriMo). The challenge is 30 poems in 30 days. Not sure I can quite manage that, but I think I should try writing a few, in honour of the challenge! Take a look at all the sites that are taking part.

For the dance fans amongst you, the Royal Ballet has announced its new season programming. I’m most excited about ZooNation‘s The Mad Hatter’s T Party and Woolf Works, the first full length ballet for the RB from Wayne McGregor. How about you?

I’m very excited to be going to see Other Desert Cities at The Old Vic in a couple of weeks and I loved this great article with its three formidable and uber-talented leading ladies.

Finally, I loved this chat between two of my favourite contemporary YA writers: Megan McCafferty and Sarah Dessen, as part of a joint series between Megan and Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls, called Ask! Authors! Anything! The next guest will be Laurie Halse Anderson, who wrote the astounding Speak.

Book Review: The Truth About Forever – Sarah Dessen

You know that feeling where a book is so good all you want to do is keep reading to find out what happens, but you also never want it to end? That’s how I felt about The Truth About Forever.

This was the first time I’d ever read any Sarah Dessen, and picked this one up after seeing it recommended at Forever Young  Adult. I am a sucker for any coming-of-age/romance story (proof is here, here, here and here). TTAF is exactly that, with a down to earth, sympathetic heroine, fully realised supporting characters and totally swoon-worthy boy (or sa-woon, as Kristy would say)

TTAF is narrated by Macy, who is 17 and dealing with some pretty horrible stuff. About 18 months previously, her father died completely unexpectedly, dropping dead at the side of the road, Macy by his side. Since this happened, Macy and her mother have compressed all their sadness somewhere deep inside themselves and have told themselves (and everyone else) that they are fine. Just fine. With Macy’s outspoken older sister married and living away, the two of them build their own little world of quiet, repressed grief and calm, each trying to compensate for their pain by being as perfect as possible. Perfect is Macy’s world now; she gets perfect grades, dresses neatly and has the perfect boyfriend who is obsessed with order and rules, all of which makes Macy feel safe. Life, essentially is boring and monotonous – but easily managed and very well planned with no nasty surprises.

Jason, Macy’s boyfriend, goes away for the summer, leaving her to fill in for him at the library. After a particularly hard day of feeling lonely and rebuffed by her co-workers, Macy reaches out to Jason via email and breaks one of their unspoken rules – she admits to feeling disordered and emotional. Jason promptly suggests they ‘take a break’ and Macy is left even lonelier before. She bumps into a motley crew of caterers at an event thrown by her over-worked mother, and is totally drawn in by Wish Catering and their odd team of staff: Delia, Bert, Monica, Kristy and Wes. Lovely, lovely Wes. But more on him in a minute. Macy, on whim, ends up taking a second job with Wish and suddenly life starts to pick up – both in chaos and in fun – and Macy starts to wonder whether perfect is worth it, and what she might have been missing, feeling afraid and alone all those months.

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