BOOK REVIEWS

All Our Hidden Gifts by Caroline O’Donoghue

Caroline O’Donoghue’s foray into YA will definitely appeal to fans of the genre. Although I do have a few criticisms I can safely say that I found All Our Hidden Gifts to be an entertaining read.

Set in Ireland, our narrator and protagonist is sixteen-year old Maeve Chambers, the youngest in a big family. She has quite a chip on her shoulder when it comes to her ‘brilliant’ sisters and brothers. Unlike them she isn’t academically gifted and for a period of time she was put in a slow-learning class. Maeve now attends an all-girls Catholic school and in trying to impress her peers lands herself in trouble. It just so happens that her detention includes cleaning out a cupboard know as the ‘Chokey’ where she finds a set of tarot cards…and it turns out that she has a skill when it comes to reading the cards.

The story takes a Labyrinth turn when Maeve’s new talent results in the disappearance of her former best friend, Lily, who she’d ditched in order to climb the social ladder. Was I expected the Goblin King to be responsible for Lily’s disappearance? Maybe…
Anyhow, when the police gets involved and things get serious Maeve’s life becomes quite messy. Maeve believes that a mysterious card from her deck may have stolen Lily away so she decides to deepen her knowledge of magic. Along the way she becomes close with another girl from her school and with Lily’s older brother, Roe.
As the kids investigate Lily’s disappearance they become increasingly suspicious of a cult-like Christian group that is very vocal in opposing LGBTQ+ rights.
I appreciated the issues O’Donoghue incorporates throughout her narrative. We have characters who are discriminated against for not being white or for not conforming to one gender. Lily wears a hearing aid, which is probably another reason why her classmates bully or exclude her, Maeve’s sister is gay, Roe is exploring his gender identity. As inclusivity goes, this novel is beautifully inclusive. Maeve, who is white, cis, straight, and from a possibly middle-class family, is called out for being insensitive or naive when it comes to discrimination. She’s also somewhat self-centred, in an angsty sort of way, and this too is pointed out by other characters. Fiona also makes a point of reminding Maeve not to make other people’s oppression all about herself.

While I appreciated her growth, I still struggled to sympathise or like her. I found Roe and Fiona to be much more likeable and interesting characters. Maeve was the classic ‘I’m not beautiful like x or intelligent like y’ self-pitying kind of gall. She was boring and sounded much younger than her allegedly sixteen years of life. Which brings to my next ‘criticism’: there is a discrepancy between the tone and content of this novel. The tone, which is mainly created by Maeve’s direct narration, would have been more suited to a middle-grade book while her narrative’s content—the issues and discussions that came up in the story—are more tailored towards a YA audience. Both Maeve and the other sixteen-year olds sounded like they were twelve a lot of the time. Which made it weird when things like sex came up.
The bad American dude was somewhat cartoonish, and that whole side-plot felt rather undeveloped.
Lily was a promising character who might have been more fleshed out with some more flashbacks. And, to be honest, I would preferred this to be a friendship-focused kind of story. The romance between Maeve and Roe did not convince me, at all. She crushes on him from the get-go of the novel, but I could not for the life of me understand or see why he reciprocated her feelings. She says some pretty shitty things now and again to him and acts in a possessive way which irked me. I get she’s insecure but still….she knows she may have been responsible for his sister’s disappearance…and all she can think about are his lips?

Nevertheless, this was far from a bad or mediocre book. I like the way O’Donoghue writes and I appreciate her story’s themes and imagery so I would probably still recommend this. I, however, might stick to her adult fiction from now on.

my rating: ★★★☆☆

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The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken — book review

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“IT WAS DUSK – winter dusk. Snow lay white and shining over the pleated hills, and icicles hung from the forest trees. Snow lay piled on the dark road across Willoughby Wold, but from dawn men had been clearing it with brooms and shovels. There were hundreds of them at work, wrapped in sacking because of the bitter cold, and keeping together in groups for fear of the wolves, grown savage and reckless from hunger.”

The Wolves of Willoughby Chase was one of my favourite books as a child. We have a winter-y and atmospheric setting, an evil governess who alongside some other knavish characters is up to no good, intrepid children—possibly an orphan or two—who outsmart wicked adults, and, last but not least, wild and ferocious wolves.

The fairy-tale elements and imagery contribute to the novel’s simultaneously cozy and spine-tingling atmosphere that really brought to mind Jane Eyre (the first part of the novel, when Jane is a child).
Set in an alternative history of early-19th century England, The Wolves of Willoughby Chase follows the adventurous of two cousins as they try to escape from the evil clutches of their new governess and her cronies. We have bold Bonnie, daughter of Sir Willoughby, and her more timid cousin Sylvia who is an orphan and was raised by her frail aunt. When Sir Willoughby takes his wife onto a voyage for her health, he leaves Bonnie and Sylvia at Willoughby Chase. The two girls soon realise that their new governess Miss Slighcarp is up to no good. What follows is an engrossing adventure starring two brave children, train rides across dark forests, wicked governesses and teachers, a horrid boarding ‘school’, and many dangerous treks across forests teeming with wolves.

Aiken’s deceptively simple language ingeniously conjures Bonnie and Sylvia’s adventures in a way that reflects their ‘young’ point of view. The adults have a certain Dickensian quality to them that is apparent through their names and appearances.

There is so much to love in these pages. We have snow, sumptuous meals, hidden passageways, shipwrecks, and daring escapes. In spite of the many injustices Bonnie and Sylvia are made to experience, there is always an undercurrent of hope in this narrative.
Perhaps I love this novel so much because it speaks of my childhood, perhaps I simply recognise for what it is (a truly lovely and entertaining tale).

my rating: ★★★★✰

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Winterhouse by Ben Guterson — book review

 

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“She was good at all sorts of puzzles—word searches, hangman, acrostics, cryptograms, any puzzle with words.”

Although I am not part of Winterhouse’s target audience, I do enjoy reading the occasional book aimed towards younger readers as they can be quite uplifting and entertaining reads. In fact, I picked Winterhouse up hoping for a light and amusing read…which it was…occasionally, and the artwork was very cute, I’m not sure Winterhouse lives up to its summary. It has plenty of clever puzzles and word-plays but it lacked…oomph.

Winterhouse has an intriguing yet familiar premise. Elizabeth Somers is an orphan, who is raised by uncaring relatives and who doesn’t have any friends. She is a precocious bibliophile (she does bring up some childhood favourites such as Inkheart, The Golden Compass, and The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe) who is a fan of puzzles, especially anagrams—and of using long or clever words (not always successfully). One Christmas her aunt and uncle decide to go on a holiday without her and so without any explanation or apology they send to the Winterhouse hotel. Once there Elizabeth meets Winterhouse’s eccentric owner, the kind librarian, a boy who happens to be as bespectacled and puzzle-lover as she is, and a sinister couple.
While there was a lot to like, once at Winterhouse Elizabeth’s behaviour becomes increasingly annoying. She is bossy towards her new friend and repeatedly jumps to silly conclusions. The mystery of Winterhouse is weakened by the incredibly cartoonish villains and by a general lack of atmosphere. The rather obvious connection between two characters did not in fact come across as a surprise.
The setting, which had so much potential, never came to life. It remained rather nondescript.

All in all this was an okay MG read. The simple writing style and story reminded me of The Mysterious Howling by Maryrose Wood. At times it seemed that the narrative was trying to be as quirky and clever as a book by Lemony Snicket but it doesn’t quite succeed.

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3 stars

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La Belle Sauvage by Philip Pullman

Overall:
There is something aesthetically pleasing about Pullman’s daemons-populated world. There is a nostalgic yet magical vibe going-on that I really enjoy. The setting merges old-fashioned elements with more contemporary ones, and which makes for a wistful atmosphere. However, this was very much a companion novel, and, to my opinion, it could have easily been wrapped up in a much shorter novella.

Content:
I do appreciate certain aspects of this novel. I was compelled – and somewhat horrified – by the whole ‘badge-wearing’: I found it worryingly plausible and interesting. Children who are urged to tell on their own parents, friends and neighbours makes for a somewhat grim reality. But I loved that Pullman did that. I know some people will see it as an attack on the Church or something along those lines, but to me, it was simply a tell-tell signs of a rule of terror, something that has happened and still happens – I hope to lesser degrees.
I do think that Pullman needs to find a balance between serious and not. In one scene Malcolm confesses feeling somewhat guilty about the ‘spying’ he does, thinking he isn’t much better than his badge-wearing peers. Dr. Relf’s reassurance that he is doing ‘good’ is incredibly simple and deeply unsatisfying:

“The difference is that I think the people I work for are good. I believe in what they do. I think they’re on the right side.”

Really? You are telling a young boy to keep helping you because you believe that you are on ‘the good side’? Isn’t that what the CCD are saying? They don’t go around shouting ‘We are the baddies, wear these badges tell on your parents, ’cause we are the bad guys!’. That is such a cheap-trick. Then, Pullman includes a rather mature attack on one of his characters…So why include that and not a more nuanced and complex rendition of ‘good and bad’? With the exception of the ‘badge-wearers’ sections, there are many instances where I think things are far too black/white.
And the story itself moves so slowly. There is a lot of foreshadowing about future events, and for that reason, I think it could have worked better as a short story. Cameos stress the impression that this is just less eventful addition to Pullman’s trilogy. And Malcolm is just not that interesting to keep you engaged throughout his ‘adventures’ which in the end are just an ‘anticipation’ of Lyra’s ones. In addition, despite that we are told the contrary, the boy wasn’t all that smart or sharp. I didn’t care for his craftsman hobby and I do think that the story would have worked without Alice.
Many of the characters were rather flat and, I’m afraid to say, yet again, simple. And that the one bad guy – who sadly features in the whole novel – has a hyena daemon…yes, we get it, he is bad.
It was all very much one-dimensional: the plot, the characters….the writing too. Lots of uninteresting dialogues set in a rather prosaic manner. Hopefully, the following instalment, which follows a mature Lyra will be more well developed.

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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