Another year, another reading challenge for me to tackle. For reasons that are probably obvious now, I'm only giving myself a target of reading 52 books this year - less than half my total last year. My hope is that I can sit with a sleeping baby in one arm and my Kindle in the other so I'll actually be able to read more than ever, but suspicion (and anecdotal evidence from friends who are parents) suggest that is a rather unlikely scenario. S0, I'm just going to try and get as much reading done before July and then we'll see, shan't we? Luckily, this set of books was a rather wonderful way to start a reading year...
Heartless by Marissa Meyer*
Heartless is a retelling of Alice in Wonderland from the perspective of the Queen of Hearts (you know, "off with their heads!")... before she became the Queen of Hearts. If you're after an unputdownable read, then I think this might be the one for you: you've got a star-crossed love story, controlling parents, unexplainable events, delicious descriptions of pastries and some familiar characters sprinkled in there.
Catherine is a favourite of the unmarried King but, unlike her social-climbing parents, she's not fussed about becoming the Queen. She wants to open a bakery with her best friend - a goal that seems to be slipping out of her reach with every new attention from his majesty. At a royal ball, she meets the handsome and mysterious Jest, the new court joker and the two begin a secret love affair. Cath wants to follow her heart, but in a land filled with magic, madness and monsters, is that even possible?
Marissa Meyer manages to capture so much of the quirky, surreal, nonsense quality of the original Alice in Wonderland tale in this novel, which has twists and turns around every corner. Characters that you know and love, from the Cheshire Cat to the Mad Hatter, are given new depth and personality, whilst you can't help but fall in love with both Cath and Jest. My heart ached for them, for the impossibilities of the stifling sexist society they live in, and for the ending that you know is coming. As a re-telling you sort of know where the story is going, although the ending did manage to shock me and break my heart regardless. There's a really good balance between the original and Meyer's own innovations that make this feel so fresh - I wish there was another one to come!
This Is Where It Ends by Marieke Nijkamp
As more school shootings happen, so, too, do books about them seem to proliferate as people try to make sense of something that seems nonsensical. There's the infamous We Need To Talk About Kevin, the darkly funny Vernon God Little and plenty more - including this young adult offering, This is Where It Ends. At 10am, the principal of Opportunity High School finishes her welcome speech, marking the start of a new semester. At 10.03am, the auditorium doors won't open. At 10.05am the shooting begins. Told from the perspective of four different students with personal connections to the shooter, this book tracks the incident minute-by-minute in heart-stopping detail. At moments, it is truly terrifying. The shooting, as I imagine it is in reality, is brutal, indiscriminate and all the more scary for it, and the scenes inside the auditorium were incredibly powerful.
However, for me, it just wasn't nuanced enough; school shootings are such a complex issue and tackled so well elsewhere, that this felt a bit bland at times. The four voices we hear all felt quite similar; although the characters ostensibly had quite a few differences between them, they spoke in the same way and were all quite clearly the 'good guys' when put against the shooter. There were moments were the narrative tried to give him redeeming qualities, but they were weighed down by how 'evil' he was portrayed in other moments. I'm not sure it's always as clear cut as that, and I wish that he'd had a chance to speak in the same way as his 'victims'. There was so much potential, but I feel like the other books I mentioned do a better job of tackling such a deep and difficult topic.
Clover Moon by Jacqueline Wilson*
Jacqueline Wilson was one of my favourite authors when I was a child, and my favourite book of hers (at the time) was The Lottie Project, with half of the novel set in Victorian England. So it was with no small amount of childlike excitement that I set about reading 'Clover Moon', a novel set in the Victorian slums about a plucky young girl with a lucky name. Clover's imagination is her best escape from her poverty-stricken life, but when tragedy strikes she realises that everything she once loved about her home is gone, and her abusive step-mother and indifferent father loom large in her life. She's heard of a place that girls like her can run to, but can she find the courage (and the opportunity) to break free and find a new home?
Wilson excels when she's writing about hardship, never shying away from the details - a skill that I think is the reason why she is so beloved as a children's author. In Clover, we have a brave and brilliant heroine that you will root for from the very first page, and despite the moments of darkness, there is a huge amount of hope within this book - again, a typical feature of Jacqueline Wilson. Clover encounters some real characters on her travels, including the kindly Mr Dolly, a hunchbacked doll-maker who will bring tears to your eyes, and Hetty Feather, the eponymous heroine of another of Wilson's books. Whilst the happy ending might not be realistic for most children in Victorian England, this heart-warming tale has all of the elements of the perfect story. There's a reason why Jacqueline Wilson is a national treasure, and I've yet to read one of her books that proves otherwise. I hope to be able to read many more of her books in years to come!
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