YA Review: Traitor to the Throne by Alwyn Hamilton

traitor-to-the-throneThe Premise: Having torn up the desert and gained notoriety as the Blue-Eyed Bandit, Amani has a key role in the rebellion against the Sultan. Then she finds herself kidnapped and dropped into a situation from which her sharp-shooting skills can’t get her out.

Thoughts: I’ve been putting off writing this because my feelings about Traitor to the Throne are all over the place. I really, really loved this book’s predecessor, Rebel of the Sands; it was fun, action-packed and feminist as hell, and I am here for all these things. I liked the assembling of the rebellion, I liked the banter between Amani and Jin, the love interest, and I liked the tone. What Hamilton does by taking Amani out of the rebel camp and into the Sultan’s palace is to take away a lot of the elements I enjoyed in Rebel, and that was a problem for me. Having been kidnapped, Amani is held in the palace’s harem, surrounded by dangerous princes and devious wives; there’s nothing wrong with this per se, apart from the fact that it means the fun and excitement are sacrificed for politics and intrigue, and these just aren’t as fun.

I really love The Walking Dead, but I really hate how often the show separates all the characters just to drag out the plot and introduce bucketloads of new characters I don’t care about; I felt a little like this is what Traitor to the Throne did too. While some of these new (and reintroduced) characters are interesting – I was really intrigued by the Sultan, and the return of a character from Dustwalk is welcome too – I was frustrated by the absence of Jin for the main chunk of the novel. I didn’t even realise how much I enjoyed the exchanges between him and Amani until they were rudely taken away from me.

Look, I don’t want to be overly negative. It’s a second book in a trilogy, so obviously there’s going to be a fair bit of pushing along the plot at the expense of gunfire and escapes on horseback. I get it. And things do pick up a lot towards the end, so the feeling I was left with was far more positive than the one I had throughout most of the book. Amani is still a kickass, awesome heroine and I love her attitude. Traitor brings in new elements while developing our understanding of others, like the djinn, which sheds light on Rebel too. And there are moments of genuine feeling, which remain with the reader beyond the novel’s ending.

In Conclusion: while Traitor wasn’t everything I had hoped for, it is definitely an entertaining and engaging read, although not one I would recommend reading without having read Rebel (although why would you ever do that anyway?). The moments of action and banter between familiar characters make it worthwhile – I just really would have liked more of them…

The Unbearable Question: So, What’s Your Favourite Book?

When people discover my uncontrollable love of reading, they tend to ask me one question: “what is your favourite book?”  I hate this question. And the people who ask it. And, to be honest, everything that isn’t a book.

If you are a person who reads a lot and really enjoys so much of what you read, and have done both of these things for your whole life, is it even possible to name one favourite book? Should such a thing even be possible? If I am able to pick one book out of all the books, doesn’t that make me look like a less good reader, somehow?

Am I, perhaps, just overthinking this?

I have a lot of issues with choosing a favourite book. The first is this: all books are different, even the ones which are a bit the same, and so to choose one book to rule them all is an entirely reductive suggestion.

Additionally, I’m not much of a re-reader; there are just too many books in the world, and they keep bloody making more. How can I be expected to read all the books if I occupy my time with the ones I’ve already read? There are some exceptions; I read Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch every few years because I relate to it so strongly, and I’ve reread Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale probably half a dozen times – sometimes for teaching purposes and sometimes just to torment myself emotionally. But surely to say that The Handmaid’s Tale is my favourite book would just be a bit weird? It’s deeply traumatic to read – more so every time I go back to it – and I’m not actually a masochist, so to call it my favourite would probably be wrong. I’ve reread Pride and Prejudice and Persuasion many times, and used to read Wuthering Heights during my degree whenever it rained (I went to university in York, which meant I reread Wuthering Heights a lot).

Wuthering Heights is a strong contender to be my favourite book, apart from one serious problem; it’s too predictable. I’m a woman, and an English graduate, and an English teacher; if I say Wuthering Heights is my favourite book, I might as well start wearing my glasses on a chain around my neck, write bad poetry and tattoo Shakespeare onto my own face. It’s too much of a cliché.

Even writing this, I hear how stupid this sounds.

What about those books I long ago proclaimed to be my favourite, confidently shelved and now haven’t read for years? I’m almost scared to read The Ground Beneath Her Feet by Salman Rushdie again, having for years described it as my favourite book, despite now being unable to remember most of the plot. There’s a band. And some twins. Someone disappears, I think? Oh dear.

I’m a massive book snob, so I obviously can’t choose anything even vaguely popular as my favourite book, giving another reason for Wuthering Heights‘ exclusion. See also: Catcher in the Rye and The Bell Jar. I’m also the kind of person who says annoying things like “well, Kings of Leon were only good until the third album” and violently denounces the Star Wars prequels. I can’t possibly proclaim to like anything mainstream. I don’t know why. Maybe I need therapy.

What even is a favourite book? Something you’d take to a desert island or save if your house was on fire? The book you reread the most often?

I’m interested in the views of other bookworms on this. Do you have a favourite book? Or does the question make you have an emotional meltdown too?

Review: Broken Glass by Alain Mabanckou

broken-glassThe Premise: disgraced school teacher, Broken Glass, sits in a bar in the Congo, writing in the notebook given to him by its proprietor. His fellow drinkers take it in turns to tell him their stories of mild embarrassment, humiliation and downright degradation.

Thoughts: I read a small profile of Alain Mabanckou and made it my mission to get hold of his books. I don’t think I’d previously read a novel by a Congolese writer (although I have read some poetry from the Republic of the Congo) so I was intrigued. On opening the book, however, my excitement turned to horror as I realised that there aren’t any full stops, or capital letters (except for names) or paragraphs. I’m an English teacher and grammar pedant; this is pretty hard for me to deal with. I almost returned it to the library unread. Almost.

Luckily, I overcame my phobia of comma splicing and did actually read Broken Glass, and I’m glad that I did because it is riotously entertaining, as well as filled with grotesque pathos. Early on, Broken Glass writes satirically of the President of the country, angry at being upstaged by a minister and his catchphrase, and this is what made me see past the dubious grammar.

Mabanckou’s book is pretty short (165 pages) and divided into two sections; in the first, Broken Glass hides behind the anecdotes of his fellow drinkers, with the reader barely glimpsing the narrator himself until part two, when the reasons for Broken Glass’ unemployment and solitude become evident. Mabanckou effectively balances expressing clearly that Broken Glass, like his drinking buddies, is responsible for his own downfall, with creating genuine pathos for his characters. While some of their antics are raucous and entertaining, there’s tragedy in Broken Glass’ description of the breakdown of his marriage, generating a note of real sadness by the end.

In Conclusion: I recommend this peculiar book; if you can look past the lack of full stops, there’s a rhythm to the writing that actually makes it very easy to read, and the story of Broken Glass and those around him is more than sufficiently entertaining to maintain your interest.


Review: The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton

miniaturistThe Premise: in 1686, 18 year old Nella is sent to Amsterdam to live with the new husband she barely knows, a wealthy but mysterious merchant with a frosty sister and no apparent idea how to treat a wife. How suspicious. As evidence of this inability to communicate with a grown woman, Johannes buys his young (but not preschool) wife what is essentially a massive dolls house, for which she has to buy furniture from a mysterious miniaturist. There are also mysterious servants and spotty people, in case you’re wondering.

Thoughts: hurray for me; I’ve read another of the books I’ve neglected for ages and felt bad about. Also hurray; I really enjoyed it. It’s a really slow-burning story, with Nella’s initial confusion about the odd treatment that greets her at her husband’s house giving way to a succession of WTF moments, and I was pleasingly surprised by some of them (although at least one of them was, I thought, glaringly obvious). Burton’s writing is beautifully suited to the historical setting; I was less convinced by her more recent novel, The Muse, but I knew little enough about this period of history and the Netherlands to not feel the need to pick holes in this one. After a slowish start, the final act of The Miniaturist is packed with action, ensuring that my attention stayed with the story throughout.

The characterisation in The Miniaturist is really strong; I loved Nella’s aloof sister-in-law, with her snooty manners and collection of skulls. Cornelia and Otto are the servants who complete the household, and I particularly liked Cornelia too; I don’t know how realistic the representation of servants being besties with their masters is, but it was enjoyable to read nonetheless. The depiction of Amsterdam, with its guilds and trade and strict rules (no gingerbread men? Seriously?) was also really enthralling.

Here’s my problem with The Miniaturist: the miniaturist. Nella pushes requests for tiny furniture under the door, with the packages being delivered by a third party, and both Nella’s and my interest in who this character was became almost unbearable. However, despite the title of the book suggesting that the miniaturist is really important, there’s no satisfying explanation. How does she know so much about Nella’s new household, in order to create pieces that preempt the secrets about to be revealed? Why does she bother? And who the bloody hell is she? Well, I was slightly distracted by my daughter watching Tinkerbell in the background, but I didn’t see any answers in the book, and this annoyed me a bit. You could take out all the bits about teeny cradles and loaves of sugar and the story would be exactly the same.

In Conclusion: I found this to be an easy and engaging read, with intriguing characters, an interesting historical setting and a twisty-turny story that kept my attention. I was disappointed not to get some proper resolution to the whole miniaturist situation, but it’s a really enjoyable book regardless.