Saturday, 29 April 2017

ARC Review: How to Stage a Catastrophe by Rebecca Donnelly

The wonderful team at Curious Fox Books sent me a copy of How to Stage a Catastrophe in exchange for an honest review, and I thank them as I wholly enjoyed it. My review is however not influenced and is my own opinion.

The Juicebox Theater is Sid’s favorite place in the whole world. He can’t let it close. When regular fundraisers don’t work, his entrepreneurial best friend Folly steps in. With help from a couple of other theater kids, they come up with a plan that isn’t exactly extortion but might just be a total catastrophe.

As soon as I heard about this book I knew I needed to read it. As a lover of musical theatre I couldn't wait to read it, so I cracked open the spine not long after it arrived. I certainly wasn't dissapointed.
Sidney is our hero, the director of this play. He's curious and creative, and loves being at The Juicebox Theatre, so it's no wonder that he does his best to save it from closure. He sets up and narrates this wonderful tale but does so in a personal, often hilarious manner that really pulls the reader in. We're rooting for him, wanting him to win, as we follow him through the story.

Folly is Sydney's best friend, and - in play terms - the joker of the tale. A business man of sorts, it's actually his actions that drive a lot of the tale forward, whilst also providing a lot of the tale's humor. He was a wonderful character and probably my favourite simply for his one liners and anecdotes from the mind of his hero Zap Zapper.

May is Sydney's sister and is a sort of antagonistic force driving Sydney and Folly further forward, but in a good way. She has her own storyline which I won't spoil (it's part of the mystery!) but she too was a wonderful character.

The story was hectic and exciting, twists and turns pulling in every which way. A few times I did wonder how the resolution was going to play out and I was pleasantly surprised. It was certainly an enjoyable read that I recommend to anyone who enjoys theatre. 5 stars!

As always feel free to leave me a comment below, or @ me on Twitter, and thanks for reading!

Holly @The_Arts_Shelf

Wednesday, 26 April 2017

ARC Review: Strange The Dreamer by Laini Taylor

Have you ever wanted to read a book that is so powerful, so engaging, that by the time you turn that last page and close the back cover, you're dizzy and restless? If so, then this is that book. Big thanks to Hodder for the ARC.

The dream chooses the dreamer, not the other way around—and Lazlo Strange, war orphan and junior librarian, has always feared that his dream chose poorly. Since he was five years old he’s been obsessed with the mythic lost city of Weep, but it would take someone bolder than he to cross half the world in search of it. Then a stunning opportunity presents itself, in the person of a hero called the Godslayer and a band of legendary warriors, and he has to seize his chance or lose his dream forever. What happened in Weep two hundred years ago to cut it off from the rest of the world? What exactly did the Godslayer slay that went by the name of god? And what is the mysterious problem he now seeks help in solving? The answers await in Weep, but so do more mysteries—including the blue-skinned goddess who appears in Lazlo’s dreams. How did he dream her before he knew she existed? And if all the gods are dead, why does she seem so real?

Welcome to Weep.

Strange the Dreamer was a whirlwind of adventure and intrigue that left me grasping for more as it ended. A story of epic proportions combined with beautiful imagery, it was simply amazing. But then, what else did we expect from Laini Taylor?

Weep was a gorgeous setting for the story, and Laini described it in such a way that really made me feel like I was there. The imagery was so vivid and intense it was like watching it on the screen (but of course better) and it hooked me right to every single page. Laini's writing style is truly a gift.

Lazlo was an amazing hero and I really don't see how anyone could not root for him. A true dreamer, he has such a wonderful imagination that also really pulls you into the story, delivering a tale of hope and dreams, but also a tale of wonder and discovery as Lazlo finds out who he is and where he belongs. His strength and courage were unmatched and his desire to save those he cared for was inspiring. A true hero for the history books.

Sarai was my favourite character for so many reasons. Her strength and courage to were fierce but more so was her ability to love and to forgive. Her journey through the story brought tears to my eyes and I'm so excited to see where she goes and what happens next.

The other characters were also fabulous, each in their own way. Eril-Fane and Thyon especially were wonderful as warrior and nemesis, respectively, but what I loved was that they each had their own reasoning and motivation behind their actions, both of which could be understood and sympathized with.
The story as I say was a whirlwind, and I am so excited for the next book. I can scarcely wait. Strange the Dreamer is an epic 5* read and I really do urge everyone to pick it up if they get chance. I'm sure you won't regret it.

As always thanks for reading, and do feel free to leave a comment below or @ me on Twitter!

Holly @The_Arts_Shelf

Sunday, 23 April 2017

ARC Review: The Bookshop Girl by Sylvia Bishop

I was lucky enough to receive a proof copy of this golden nugget of MG fiction from the wonderful team at Scholastic, for which they have my thanks. My review is however in no way influenced, and I do hope you enjoy it.

This story is about a little girl named Property Jones, so-called because she was left in the lost property cupboard of a bookshop when she was five years old. Property loves living in the bookshop, but she has a whopper of a secret... she can't actually read! So Property doesn't see the newspaper article announcing the chance to win the Montgomery Book Emporium, the biggest and most magnificent bookshop in the world! When her family win the competition, Property finds herself moving to the Emporium, a magical place filled with floor upon floor of books and a very bad-tempered cat. But all is not at it seems at the Emporium and soon Property Jones finds herself in a whole heap of trouble.

Property Jones lives in a bookstore. If that simple sentence doesn't make you want to read it, then I'm not sure what will. After all, isn't that every bookworm's dream? She got her name from being placed by her adopted brother in the lost property cupboard years ago. Now she, her brother, and their mother live in the bookstore they own, where they work, but they're struggling to make ends meet.. Help seems to come from an unlikely source when they win the world famous Montgomery book emporium in a competition, but since when is anything that easy? The adventure that unfolds before them is equal parts perilous as it is enchanting.

What I loved most about The Bookshop Girl was the setting. As I said before it's pretty much every bookworm's dream to live in a bookstore, but Bishop takes our imagination and fantasy to a whole new level with the emporium. Akin to something from a Rohl Dahl tale, the emporium is almost the book version of Willy Wonka's Chocolate Factory, It's amazing, and the wondrous descriptions only make it easier to picture this wonderland in your mind's eye. Set in London I also really feel the author captured the hubbub and bustle of the famed capital, grounding the story with a firm realism so that it's almost like the events depicted could happen to any of us.

What I've seen of the illustrations (They weren't included with the proof) enhance the story that much further. Bright and bold they depict this wonderful fantasy in a manner so beautiful, for children and adults alike, whilst still leaving room for our own imagination.

Most importantly however was property, who was an amazing heroine to follow. Bright, strong and fearless, she defied the odds and showed just how much she would do and how far as she would go for her family. She overcame overwhelming challenges for a young person to face, and came out on top better for it. She faced her own fears and insecurities, proving not only her strength but just how much family means to all of us, and how much we can rely and count on them. Her story was a joy to follow and was one that will resonate with people of all ages.

Lastly I'd like to make a note of the author's portrayal of Property's illiteracy. She dealt with the subject in a sensitive, educational manner, all whilst showing the impact of familial support in both physical and emotional development.

The Bookshop Girl is a 5* read I would recommend to everyone, but especially to Middle Grade ages which are the book's intended audience. Powerful and educational in many ways, including in the importance of books themselves, whilst still wholly entertaining, it was a wonderful read. I cannot wait to see what the author produces next.

Have you read The Bookshop Girl? As always feel free to leave a comment below or @ me on Twitter, and thanks for reading!

Holly @The_Arts_Shelf

Friday, 21 April 2017

ARC Review: The Island At The End Of Everything by Kiran Millwood Hargrave

Like The Girl of Ink and Stars, The Island at the End of Everything is another stand alone MG novel from the wonderful Kiran Millwood Hargrave. Big thanks to Jazz Bartlett and Chicken House Books for the review copy, though this in no way affects my review. Minor spoiler below in relation to a sensitivity issue I felt needed to be raised, but other than that this review is spoiler free. I hope you enjoy it.

Amihan lives on Culion Island, where some of the inhabitants - including her mother - have leprosy. Ami loves her home - with its blue seas and lush forests, Culion is all she has ever known. But the arrival of malicious government official Mr Zamora changes her world forever: islanders untouched by sickness are forced to leave. Banished across the sea, she's desperate to return, and finds a strange and fragile hope in a colony of butterflies. Can they lead her home before it's too late?

The Island at the End of Everything is very much Amman's book. It is her story and her drive that pushes each scene forward, the force behind the action. That said, underlying Ami's story - what essentially drives her - is the main theme of the story, and its key messages.

Acceptance. Respect. Care. Love. Family. Kindness. Friendship.

Essentially, this book is about accepting the differences between us all, whatever they may be, and treating each other as we wish to be treated. It is a universally important message, one that should be adopted by everyone, but the author writes in such a way that the message is not 'preaching' or 'cloying'. It is simply there, and it is beautiful. Furthermore the book educates the wider population about an affliction that affected so many people but is not known in such detail by all, myself included. Again this is not done in an overaggressive way though, as if it were nonfiction, it is simply a part of the story; a tale which educates.

The author's writing is wondrous, crafting an engaging tale whilst subconsciously educating. She crafts a rich, vibrant world that pulls you in and refuses to let go, for which some of the visual images described are simply incredible. It was a world I never wanted to leave. Magical in every way.

Ami was a wonderful main character to follow. Her strength in adversity from the very first page was inspiring, right until the last. The friends she made were equally as powerful, in their own right, but it was Ami's courage that kept me hooked.

The ending meanwhile was beautifully written, bringing a tear to my eye, but that's all I'll say about that.

In essence, it is a beautiful tale that intrigues, inspires and informs.

My only point for review (it's not really a negative, more a disagreement) would be regarding two sections of dialogue, in the last few pages of the book, regarding the 'villain' character Mr Zamora. Minor spoilers below, and possible triggering discussion.

Throughout the book Mr Zamora is shown to have a severe dislike of Culion's inhabitants, the Touched and their families, stemming from a need to stay clean. It is apparent to be so severe that in one scene he scrubs his hands raw until they bleed. In my opinion he exhibits some symptoms of OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, though symptoms can vary); a mental health disorder which can range from mild to severe in those who suffer from it. I'm not going to go into the hows and whys too much, but it is a misunderstood condition that is often made light of, to the detriment of those who suffer from it.

In the closing pages of the book Ami notes:

"By all accounts he lived in a prison of his own making in the end. His sickness got worse and worse - it was punishment enough I think." - Page 234.

"He did not have a life even a quarter as good as mine had already been." - Page 234.

As someone who suffers from OCD, I found both sections of dialogue hurtful. While I can understand the character's position, and therefore author's intention, and certainly do not condone Mr Zamora's actions, I found the choice of words somewhat insensitive. I understand that the character is insinuating that Mr Zamora felt the consequences of his actions more clearly than anyone else  could have caused, that he atoned for them despite the heroes being unable to bring him to justice, therefore providing a sense of closure to the story, but I do think it could have been worded better. To have his condition, and therefore perhaps OCD, referred to as a 'prison', 'sickness' and 'punishment' and to have it insinuated that the character didn't lead a full life because of his affliction, is hurtful, especially when reading a book where the key messages are compassion and an acceptance of difference.

That said, I have seen no similar discussion so I may be the only one who feels this way. This is, as with all reviews, my opinion. Having spoken gratefully with the author via Twitter, she has explained that while it may seem similar to OCD, Mr Zamora actually suffers from mysophobia, which she too suffered from. The choice of words are personal to how she felt though she understands how they could be seen as hurtful. It's a genuine misunderstanding, a difference in interpretation, and was never meant to be seen as damaging. You can find the full thread from this morning here, and I'm so grateful to Kiran for explaining and understanding; she truly is a wonderful author and human being.

I still award The Island at the End of Everything a 4* rating, as everything else was wonderful. Marvellous. Breathtaking. Kiran Millwood Hargrave is a wonderfully talented writer and I am excited to see what she brings out next.

Thanks for reading my review, and as always do feel free to leave a comment below or @ me on Twitter!

Holly @The_Arts_Shelf

Thursday, 13 April 2017

Review: Newsies - The Broadway Movie

I love musical theatre. I love the swell of voices, the stomp of feet, the rhythm that builds to a crescendo. I love musicals that whisk me away and don't let go until the curtain falls, and Newsies was just that.

Set in New York City at the turn of the century and based on a true story, Newsies is the rousing tale of Jack Kelly, a charismatic newsboy and leader of a ragged band of teenaged 'newsies,' who dreams only of a better life far from the hardship of the streets. But when publishing titans Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst raise distribution prices at the newsboys' expense, Jack finds a cause to fight for and rallies newsies from across the city to strike and take a stand for what's right.

One Sunday in February I got the opportunity to see the filmed Broadway show of Newsies, staring original cast members Jeremy Jordan, Kara Lindsay, Ben Fankhauser and Andrew Keenan-Bolger, in the cinema. Simply put, it was incredible.

The show itself is a rousing story with riveting numbers that nearly almost had me on my feet in the cinema, dancing along. The story is powerful, moving and really tells a story that can easily be translated into situations today. Newsies is a story of power under adversity, wholly relatable, and yet is fun and engaging at the same time. It is a show that both teaches and entertains.

The production itself is mesmerising, with only 5 or 6 main set-pieces that are moved and moulded to fit each scene so efficiently it's as if they're dancing themselves. It truly makes you feel like you're in New York, and with no fade outs between scenes, effortlessly keeps you engaged in the story.

The actual dancers meanwhile are simply phenomenal. Quite clearly some of the best in the world, their talent and dedication is clear to see and a joy to behold. They give the story an undeniable pulse and weave the scenes together seamlessly with such ease and grace.

The soundtrack being composed by Alan Menken was always going to be phenomenal, but I was surprised how so. Raw, passionate ballads such as Santa Fe mixed so easily with the broad strong chorus numbers (The World Will Know) to balance so beautifully. Newsies is certainly a treat for the ears as well as the eyes; no mean feat and certainly punctuated by the wonderful vocals of the chorus but - moreover - the main cast.

Kara Lindsay was a new talent to me, but her voice is phenomenal. Though I loved her character Katherine's duets with Jeremy Jordan's Jack, it was her solo (Watch What Happens) that really proved her talent on-screen.

Ben Fankhauser and Andrew Keenan-Bolger were also new voices, but they add such a wonderful dynamic to the cast in both character and their unique vocals. Fankhauser shone in 'Seize the Day' while Bolger's new (Not on the original Broadway cast recording) solo 'Letter from the Refuge' brought tears to my eyes.

The voice that was most surprising and delightful however was the one belonging to Jeremy Jordan. Being a fan of Supergirl he was not a new talent to me and was partially how I found out about the movie, but if you've seen Supergirl you may agree that Jordan's Winn doesn't look like he could burst into song. To suddenly realise Jordan's musical background and see him singing was as I say surprising, but he is not only a phenomenal actor but singer too. His raw, passionate portrayal of Jack was wholly engaging, while his voice only succeed in drawing the audience in further. His rendition of Santa Fe was unyielding in ferocity and emotion, his New York dialect flawless. It's pretty obvious why he was nominated for a Tony in 2012 for the role, just as it's obvious why Newsies itself won the Tony for Best Choreography that year.

Simply put, the show is flawless.

If you haven't seen Newsies I really do urge you to watch it if/when it comes out on download/DVD. A highly recommended 5* evening of pure entertainment.

As always, thanks for reading and do feel free to leave a comment below or @ me on Twitter!

Holly @The_Arts_Shelf

Monday, 10 April 2017

Review: Lois Lane Fallout by Gwenda Bond

I bought this book a while ago, being a huge fan of Lois Lane, but it was only when Curious Fox Books kindly sent me book two - Double Down - to review that I got around to reading it. Wow. Don't I wish I'd read it sooner? The start to a fabulous series that really does Lois justice. I hope you enjoy my review.

Lois Lane is starting a new life in Metropolis. An Army brat, Lois has lived all over—and seen all kinds of things. (Some of them defy explanation, like the near-disaster she witnessed in Kansas in the middle of one night.) But now her family is putting down roots in the big city, and Lois is determined to fit in. Stay quiet. Fly straight. As soon as she steps into her new high school, though, she can see it won’t be that easy. A group known as the Warheads is making life miserable for another girl at school. They’re messing with her mind, somehow, via the high-tech immersive videogame they all play. Not cool. Armed with her wit and her new snazzy job as a reporter, Lois has her sights set on solving this mystery. But sometimes it’s all a bit much. Thank goodness for her maybe-more-than-a friend, a guy she knows only by his screenname, SmallvilleGuy.

The story starts with Lois being forced to attend yet another new school by her father General Lane. We quite quickly see a rebellious streak in Lois that, if you go by portrayals such as in Lois & Clark, we're unused to. For me though I enjoyed her rebellious nature as it brought another side to this already strong character. Lois tames her flame - though only slightly - and turns it to more productive uses however when Perry White visits and states he wants her on his team of reporters.

From there, the story picks up a lot of speed. Lois uncovers a dastardly plot in one of the school's classes and vows to save her new friend from its wicked claws. If she makes the front page at the same time, all the better.

I loved Lois' vivacity and fire, her strength in the face of danger, and her determination to do the right thing. I loved her friends, each one so well crafted to not only compliment the story but to compliment Lois herself. They all punctuated a vibrant world full of capers - and quite possibly aliens - and simply made each and every page.

Bond's writing was flawless, capturing Lois' spirit and yet making her her own. If I didn't love Lois before, I would now. As it is, I love her even more. Fallout is definitely a 5* read I would recommend to anyone who is a fan of Lois, comics, or just a wonderfully strong female MC.

Have you read Fallout? As always do feel free to leave me a comment below or @ me on Twitter, and thanks for reading!

Holly @The_Arts_Shelf