Tag Archives: 2000s

Secrets by Jacqueline Wilson

Secrets by Jacqueline Wilson

The last Jacqueline Wilson novel on the list, #155 Secrets is the 13th I’ve read, and that’s probably enough.

Treasure and India live just a few streets from each other, but their lives are worlds apart. Treasure’s young and trendy Nan has taken her in, because her mother’s boyfriend hits her. India’s family is crumbling in a different way – her parents can’t seem to stop arguing, and it’s often about money. Both are lonely, and when they meet it’s friendship at first sight. But can they stay together when so many grown ups have other plans?

The diary and Anne Frank
The novel is told through diary entries, with Treasure and India taking it in turns to tell their story. It’s a useful structure, as it allows the reader to see both sides of the story, even before they’ve met. It also lets Wilson tie in the Diary of Anne Frank, which is India’s favourite book. She even mentions Zlata’s Diary, a book I remember reading in school as it was a child’s diary of the war in Sarajevo in the early 1990s.

Bringing in The Diary of Anne Frank is an obvious choice for a book about secrets, and I can see why Wilson would want to guide her readers towards it. I’m not entirely convinced that the gambit works. India is very intense about Anne and her diary, but the rest of the novel never quite shares that passion. I found her attachment disquieting, to be honest. It really seems like she has nothing else in her life, not even any other books.

The back of the book describes this as a ‘novel for older readers’, and talks about the girls sharing ‘their most serious secret ever’. Given this dramatic set up, and the fact that the book starts with Treasure’s step-father sending her to casualty, I expected that the book would be particularly grim. It’s not. I mean, Wilson tackles serious subjects, as she usually does, but it doesn’t need a content warning above and beyond the usual.

I was honestly a little disappointed, thanks to the blurb, as I kept expecting something awful to happen that never really materialized. I realise this isn’t fair, and I think it’s because I’ve read so many of Wilson’s novels. I’m really not the target market and I’ve read a lot of them in quite an artificial way. Although this is a longer novel that most of the other Wilson novels on the list, it felt a bit thin and unsatisfying. Perhaps it’s time for me to read something aimed at adults!

Who is the book for?
Given that Wilson has already addressed the issues in the books in ones aimed (if I remember correctly) at younger readers, there are two reasons that I can see this book being for older – or perhaps more mature – readers. First, it’s longer, and doesn’t have as many illustrations. It’s jumped the line from illustrations every page or two to illuminated chapter headings. Second, it does talk about difficult things, and it also uses the story of Anne Frank. I imagine that a lot of readers will want to go on and read Anne’s diary, which itself is probably a book for older readers. In this context, of course, older readers are probably about 9-11 as most of Wilson’s books are probably aimed at 6-8 year-olds, with some aimed at those just starting to read on their own.

I do struggle to suggest age ranges for children’s books, partly because I don’t have any kids around to experiment on, as most of my friends either live far away or have very young children, and partly because I read so much and so precociously as a child myself. I remember reading The Giver and Bridge to Terabithia (both excellent, highly recommend them) in school when I was in year 6 (about 11), and I think it was around then that I started reading Heinlein, Asimov, Austen and the Brontes. I would already have read James Herriot and had definitely read Libby Purves’ How not to Raise a Perfect Child. (I broadly agreed with her advice, incidentally.)

I’ve decided to try to read and review all 200 books on the BBC Big Read list. You can read more about the start of the project or see a list of all the books I’ve read and reviewed.

Thief of Time by Terry Pratchett

Thief of Time by Terry Pratchett

I really like #152 Thief Of Time by Terry Pratchett which is one reason I picked it as my 100th Big Read book. Yes, I’m officially half way through! It would be more exciting if I hadn’t left so many of the chunky classics for later – I may only read 4 books next year: Les Miserables, Ulysses, Moby Dick and Lorna Doone. And then I’ll still have ItThe Lord of the Rings (which I’m told means all 3 books, at least The Hobbit doesn’t mean all 3 films) and The Magician to go. So something different is in order for 2014, but for now, it’s all about fun.

This is a book about time travel. About travelling forward in time at one second per second, and what might happen if you could go a little faster or a little slower or perhaps stop time altogether. Jeremy, a foundling left on the doorstep of the Clockmaker’s Guild in Ankh-Morpork, has been asked to make the world’s most accurate clock. It’ll be tied to the fundamental tick of the universe and so precise that no one will ever need a clock again…

Not the best starting point
Thief of Time is the 26th Discworld book, and it’s one that has some back story. You probably need to know who Susan, Death’s granddaughter, is to thoroughly enjoy the book. I’d suggest you read Soul Music first. It’s a light, fun read and it’s got all the grounding you’re likely to need for Thief of Time. You could also read Small Gods, which is my favourite, so I have to suggest it at every opportunity. It might also fill in a few more bits and Lu-Tze’s back story. And it features the bonsai mountains, which are rather brilliant.

However, I could be wrong about this. I’d probably read all the previous 25 Discworld books when I got to Thief of Time and that skews ones’ perceptions. Apparently I’m no judge of whether a piste is steep for skiing, either. I’m struggling to find the words to explain Thief of Time. I just love it, as it is, the thing and the whole of the thing. It’s not a book I feel compelled to disassemble, and perhaps analyzing it too hard would break it. As it’s late, I’ll have a quick bash but the short version is: I really like this book. Do read it.

Deep bits and shallow bits
I’ve read Thief of Time several times. Sometimes, like this time, I read it for the enjoyable story. For the adventure, which rattles along, and the neat physics. But there are other readings in there too. There’s a whole lot of stuff about the nature of time and the nature of self and identity, of inside the head and outside, how we know things. It’s pretty deep. And there again, there’s all the references to martial arts movies.

A book like this can tell you something about your friends. The ideas and philosophical issues it throws up are likely to boggle your brain at some point, and it’s really interesting to see who gets boggled by which bits and why. It’s fascinating to find out what people think is implausible, so if you’ve read the book, do leave me a comment. Personally, I accept pretty much anything in a Pratchett novel, and I think this one hangs together well. I enjoyed reading it a lot, and will probably read it again next year, too.

I’ve decided to try to read and review all 200 books on the BBC Big Read list. You can read more about the start of the project or see a list of all the books I’ve read and reviewed.

The Truth by Terry Pratchett

The Truth by Terry Pratchett

Back to one of my favourite authors with #193 The Truth by Terry Pratchett. I never quite know how to describe Pratchett’s books – ‘comic fantasy’ is accurate but lumps them in with just-played-for-laughs and self-consciously quirky books by authors like Tom Holt and Robert Rankin who just aren’t as good.

To recap briefly, for those who aren’t familiar with his works, The Truth is a comic fantasy novel set on a flat world where gods, barbarian heroes, wizards and guilds are all real. And now it has its first newspaper. Ankh-Morpork is a hotbed of intrigue, and now one William de Worde is poking his nose in, finding things out, writing them down and printing them for anyone to buy. The city may never be the same again.

Discworld + newspapers = ?
The Truth came out in 2000, the 25th Discworld novel. It’s one of the ones where Pratchett takes something out of our world (in this case, newspapers) and adds it, suddenly, to the Disc. The story is mostly in the effects of this collision. In The Truth, it’s not just a new technology that’s arrived, it’s a new ideal. The freedom of the press has hit Ankh-Morpork and it’s the start of its information age. 

Pratchett has written a number of ‘Discworld + tech = ?’ books (including Soul MusicMoving PicturesGoing PostalMaking Money and it looks like the new one, out next week will be in the same vein as it’s called Raising Steam) and while I usually enjoy them (particularly Moving Pictures) I generally prefer the books where the elements from our world are less obvious. That said, The Truth is one of my favourites in this genre, and I do like the enduring characters who have their first appearance in this book.

On writing
The Truth is a particularly good read for writers, as it’s primarily about journalistic integrity. Pratchett started off in newspapers, so knows rather more about the topic than an online hack like me, but it’s still interesting. In The Truth, the whole world of news reporting is brand new, so the early adopters are shaping the media as it goes. Using the Discworld’s tendency to pick up ideas from our world whole cloth, Pratchett can explore how people on both sides of the press relate to news.

One of the interesting things about the book is that it emphasizes that news journalists are just ordinary people with an unusual job. The phrase ‘no one believes anything they read in the papers’ pops up, usually on the professional side, while the flip side ‘they wouldn’t let them print it if it wasn’t true’ is repeated, too. Clearly, neither phrase is entirely true, but, particularly this week with the changes going on in the UK, it does give you a nudge to think about how passive you are as a consumer (or how skeptical) and, if you are a writer or publisher of any kind, even a blogger, how thoroughly you check your facts.

Now, this is almost entirely fact free, being a personal review of a novel, so instead of going into the types of sources that may or may not be acceptable resources in the internet age, I will simply close by saying that I really enjoyed this reread, and I do recommend The Truth, both as a great fantasy novel (although it’s starting to get a bit steam punky, as the Disc levels up tech wise again) and as a philosophical text.

While I’m on the topic of Pratchett, another shout out for his new book. I’m definitely looking forward to Raising Steam. It’s due out on my 30th birthday and I’ve pre-ordered it for Kindle, so that will be a nice present to wake up to. The first book in the Discworld series, The Colour of Magic,  was published the month I was born, so it’s a pleasing coincidence that the 40th one should be out on my birthday.

I’ve decided to try to read and review all 200 books on the BBC Big Read list. You can read more about the start of the project or see a list of all the books I’ve read and reviewed.

Skeleton Key by Anthony Horowitz

Skeleton Key by Anthony Horowitz

I’ve just finished #150 Skeleton Key by Anthony Horowitz and I really don’t think I have anything new to say about this, having posted about Stormbreaker and Point Blanc, the first two books in the Alex Rider series. Still, it seems fitting that I posted about the first one during last year’s Children’s Book Week and I’m finishing the third (and the last on the list) as this year’s CBW draws to a close.

Alex Rider is just 14, and yet he’s already been drawn into working for MI6. Going undercover, he foils plots to take over or destroy the world, aided and abetted by a series of quirky gadgets and his almost superhuman abilities. Skeleton Key draws on motifs established in earlier books but works well as a stand alone. In this story, Alex faces his toughest challenge yet: will his longing for an ordinary life be his undoing?

Let’s talk about spoilers
I try to write these reviews without any spoilers. This is difficult as different people find different details spoilery. Broadly, I try not to reveal anything that isn’t on the back of the book (you’ll find quite a lot of spoilers there, sadly) or that would reduce the suspense, prematurely untangle a mystery or otherwise ruin the ending or the good bits in the middle.

The Alex Rider books are difficult for me because on the one hand, the broad arcs are quite predictable but the details are not. This is to Horowitz’s credit, in a sense, because I do like to be surprised. However, I find the Alex Rider books to be like listening to a toddler tell you about their plans for the future. In both cases, the technology is unbelievable and the whole thing hangs together with only a thin thread joining it. I daren’t pull to hard on any one element in the story as the plot and locations jump around so much that simply mentioning one exploit could strip the previous pages of tension. Plus, I can’t figure out how to mention one exploit since I can’t really explain why Alex is in any of these situations or why he reacts as he does except that he is both astonishingly well trained and doesn’t always think things through.

How do you like your heroes?
Alex is pretty near perfect, except that he’s sort of intolerable, and I just don’t care. I appreciate that I’m not the target market – I may get K to read these as he was once a teenage boy and still likes films where stuff blows up – but I’m not that interested in perfection of either gender. It tends to be stultifying and entirely context driven. For example, Alex seems to be able to context switch flawlessly, operating smoothly as a junior spy or a school kid, but either set of behaviour would be completely inappropriate in the other environment. Another story with this character in would be the one where the child pushed too far too fast by demanding adults turns to drink to drown their perceived imperfections and failures. I’d believe that story, although I’m not sure I’d enjoy it.

Alex is perfectly suited to handle everything the world throws at him, and the world only throws things at him that he can handle. This is a real risk with any long running hero if their competence is repeatedly tested in so many outlandish ways. The Harry Potter series were at risk of this too, and dealt with it well, I think, by ‘going dark’ and throwing things at Harry he couldn’t properly handle and having him react to failure and loss. Alex, at this stage, is unformed. He is a vessel for his experiences and rarely seems to act on any emotion. He gets annoyed with his handlers but that’s about it. I’d be interested to know if he develops over the following books, but I really don’t think I can be bothered to read them.

All in all, this was another book in the vein of the previous novels, and I would recommend it to Bond fans and action movie fans who don’t usually like reading. The pace, plotting and devices are very similar. That said, I haven’t read any of the Bond novels so I may be doing Flemming a disservice with the comparison.

I’ve decided to try to read and review all 200 books on the BBC Big Read list. You can read more about the start of the project or see a list of all the books I’ve read and reviewed.

Point Blanc by Anthony Horowitz

Point Blanc by Anthony Horowitz

Although #105 Point Blanc by Anthony Horowitz is book two in the series, I liked it better than book one, Stormbreaker. I think it’s because I was better able to suspend my disbelief, having been forewarned by book one.

The Alex Rider series was, according to the author, inspired by Flemming’s James Bond, and even I could spot nods to the films (I haven’t read the books, although I’ve been told they’re well worth a look). Alex is about 15, and only works for MI6 occasionally as even spies have qualms about using children to do their dirty work. In this case, they need someone to go undercover in a school, and discover if something truly dreadful is afoot.

Totally implausible
In the style of Bond films or The Thirty-Nine StepsPoint Blanc focuses on creating a dashing adventure, not a realistic one. I didn’t really believe anything that happened could actually happen. My particular nitpick was a snowboarding scene. I’m a skier, not a boarder, but I think the best riders in the world would have found the course described a challenge in the circumstances, and Rider had only been boarding three times before and never on anything harder than a blue. I don’t think I’m spoiling too much if I say that using an ironing board as a snowboard is unlikely to work well. Having tried sledging on a whole number of things, snow can be, contrary to popular opinion, surprisingly sticky, particularly if it’s not compacted down or fresh powder. Honestly, I think Alex would have broken his neck, if he wasn’t already killed in an earlier stunt. 

Perhaps because book one had established quite a few of the Big Lies, I found Point Blanc easier to read than Stormbreaker. I’d already accepted that Alex was a teenage whizkid and that normal things wouldn’t happen very often, so it was easier to go with the flow. I’ll be interested to see what book three, Skeleton Key, on the list at #150, is like – I’ll probably read it next week. I haven’s started it yet, as I thought I wouldn’t be able to keep the two distinct in my head.

Enjoyable adventure
I don’t think I’ll buy book four but I did enjoy reading Point Blanc. It’s pure fantasy, and once I go into the swing of it, I enjoyed it. It was a very quick read (a couple of hours, maybe less) and a pleasant one. I found Alex quite annoying in book one, but rather liked him in this.

The book is aimed at teenagers, and it doesn’t contain anything that a 14-year-old won’t have seen on television. That said, the book does feature implausible consequences, severe risk taking, guns, violence and death. These are all treated lightly, which you may not think is appropriate – but if you’re watching Bond films, or any action films really, with your kids, you’ll struggle to ban Alex Rider without feeling like a hypocrite. Women’s roles are minimal and I’m not sure there were any people of colour in the book. It’s very much a boy’s own adventure for the computer game age, and as long as readers don’t want to emulate Alex, they should be fine. If you do want to copy Alex Rider: don’t. Real snow is hard and full of rocks. Real cranes aren’t that easy to operate and real trains will kill you if you hit them when they’re moving.

I’ve decided to try to read and review all 200 books on the BBC Big Read list. You can read more about the start of the project or see a list of all the books I’ve read and reviewed.

The Secret History of the Pink Carnation by Lauren Willig

The Secret History of the Pink Carnation by Lauren Willig

Set in a world where the Scarlet Pimpernel – master spy and rescuer of aristocrats heading for the guillotine – is real, The Secret History of the Pink Carnation is an absolute frolic – and as I type, it’s just £1.75 on Kindle and (in my opinion) well worth the money.

The story follows two adventurous girls: Eloise Kelly, modern grad student, and Amy de Balcourt, living at the dawn of the 19th century. Eloise is writing her thesis on the great spies of the Napoleonic wars – the Scarlet Pimpernel, the Purple Gentian and the Pink Carnation – and one of the sources she uncovers is Amy’s diary. In 1803, Amy was following much the same quest, looking to join the spies and lend her strengths to the fight against Napoleon.

Story over fact
To be clear, while this is a novel set during the Napoleonic wars, it’s not trying to be an authentic Georgian work (or if it is, it has missed) – instead, it’s an adventure story with a strong romantic element, set in a fictional universe. The language is modern, a number of the sentiments are very modern and you could probably swap Amy and Eloise without having to do more than change references to jeans to muslins and tube trains to carriages.

This sort of thing usually drives me crazy, but in this case I could accept it because the story triumphs over the facts. It’s like complaining that action movies aren’t realistic – that’s kind of partly the point of the work. The Pink Carnationis a rollicking adventure, in the tradition of Treasure Island or The Thirty-Nine Steps: implausibility is part and parcel of the genre.

I wasn’t really prepared for the anachronisms going in, and while they didn’t bother me after the first couple chapters, I think I would have been happier forewarned. That said, as we established when I reviewed A Tale of Two Cities, I know very little about the French Revolution and its aftermath – and as it seems to be a theme in my reading this year, maybe I should get a history book or two.

I just really like this book
At this point, if you’ve met me, you can imagine me waving my hands around a lot and possibly almost falling off my seat as I try to explain why, for me, the book was more than the sum of its parts – and the parts are pretty awesome. Avoiding spoilers, I liked:

  • Traditional adventure story with girls in the lead roles
  • Kicking ass in a poofy dress
  • Family ties
  • Family support
  • Developed secondary characters
  • Secondary characters who come into their own
  • Napoleon
  • Spying – with disguises and masks and swords, oh my!
  • Romance

A bit cryptic, I’m afraid. But I was really pleased with the ending, which turned a couple of major tropes on their heads, and am saving the second book in the series for a rainy day.

I think what really grabbed me was the happy enthusiasm – Eloise is happy and enthusiastic about her thesis project, excited to make a historical discovery (such a great, geeky theme for a female lead in what’s marketed as a historical romance); Amy is really excited about becoming a spy and bringing down Napoleon (I’m not saying she’s not a little delusional, but great dreams bring great realities, right?) and the author seems to be really enjoying the story she’s writing.

Despite a number of flaws, I’m inclined to give this book my personal feminist thumbs-up – for no other reason that the women in it dream, plan and act with the same scope that male action heroes do. Take down Napoleon armed only with a hair pin and a black mask? Of course we can!

And that is rather refreshing. So if you’re in the mood for a frolic through Paris in 1803, dive in. If you’re looking for something which will help you write a history paper though – stay away.

Knitting Classic Style by Véronik Avery

Knitting Classic Style by Véronik Avery

Inspired by classic fashion designs from the last hundred years or more, Véronik Avery’s Knitting Classic Style features 35 knitting patterns. Most of the designs are for women, with a few for men and children and a number of accessories which could be for anyone.

Véronik Avery is a very talented designer who has an amazing way with cables and textures, so when I spotted this book on NetGalley, I immediately requested a review copy.

Knitting Classic Style is not a new book, although it has been released in a new edition. It was first published in 2007, which means that you can see all 35 designs from Knitting Classic Style on Ravelry as well as some designs on the publisher’s website.

The new edition is available on Kindle, which I have mixed feelings about – I knit a lot from patterns I’ve loaded onto my Kindle, but it can be very hard to see images as you can’t zoom far enough in, so following a chart might be a royal pain. That said, I haven’t seen this book on Kindle, so it may be fabulous. On to things I do know about!

Beautiful, elegant designs
Avery comes from a fashion background – she worked as a costume designer before she began knitting – and has an eye for stunning cables, particularly. I love her use of textured stitches and colourwork throughout this book.

Avery delves into the fashion history which inspired each pattern, giving you something to read and enjoy even if you never knit any of the patterns. In some ways, I feel like this would be a great coffee-table book – it’s just that pretty, and the bits of history are intriguing to dip into.

Perhaps because of her start in sewing, most of the patterns are in the knit and sew up format, although there are a few pieces which have a more interesting construction. I think this is probably deliberate – seams give a garment structure, and it’s clear Avery knows what she’s doing – but if you’re a fan of everything in the round (like I am) this may not be the book for you.

The patterns are complex and many use fine yarn for large projects, and this is not a book which takes the beginner through step-by-step. I think the patterns are clearly written (although I haven’t tried to follow one) but there is plenty of ‘while keeping the stitch pattern correct ALSO…’ which I know drives some knitters up the wall. Read carefully, is what I’m saying.

A few qualms
The book is also a typical hotchpotch, more women’s cardigans and jumpers than anything else, but also tops for men and children, socks, hats and other accessories. It’s not a format I, personally, care for – even though I love Avery’s designs, I know there’s no way I’ll be knitting a man’s jumper in the foreseeable future, or a cardigan for an 8-year-old, so these are a waste of space for me, and I’d prefer a more targeted book.

I’d also be reluctant to buy this book because I feel like it’s not really for fat chicks. As a plus-size knitter, I know I won’t get the same drape and slouch some of the designs use, while the fitted pieces just won’t look the same either. Again, this is a matter of personal taste, and it’s clear that there has been an effort to size the designs up and down, so that individuals can choose.

Design sizes seem to go from the low 30s to the low 50s (in inches) but this is only over 4-6 sizes, which may be problematic. There’s also a wide range in available sizes: the finished size of the largest size offered on the first 3 garments is 40in, 47in and 52in respectively, and the lowest sizes varied as well, so if you’re under 37in or over 40in you can’t guarantee a fit.

I imagine that you’re supposed to pick a size (say 2XL) and stick with it throughout, so that each design will finish with the fit Avery had in mind, but as there’s no overall sizing information or ease indication I’m wary. I’m not a nervous knitter but I would hate to invest in good yarn and start in on one of these complex patterns, only to realise that, nope, I’m sized out of this design. Again, not a timid knitter – and I’ve even done a little tech editing – but altering one of Avery’s designs to fit is more work than I care for.

The accessories are also restricted in size – even the simple stripy socks are one-size-fits-some, as are the gloves and mitts, and most of the other hats and socks.

All in all, I’m happy to see this book back out again, with an ebook and a new paper edition. Avery’s designs are absolutely beautiful, and when I have a knitting lounge, I’ll buy a copy to put on the coffee table. I’m not sure I’d ever knit anything out of it though…

I received a review copy of this book through NetGalley free from the publishers, STC Craft / Melanie Falick Books. You can see their page about Knitting Classic Style here. Errata for Knitting Classic Style are here but I imagine that refers to the previous edition, rather than this new one.

Lola Rose by Jacqueline Wilson

Lola Rose by Jacqueline Wilson

Jacqueline Wilson tackles several big issues in #121 Lola Rose, and does it with aplomb, as usual. I definitely recommend the book.

Running away from her abusive father, Jayni, her mother and little brother take on new names and new identities. However, even as Lola Rose Jayni finds that life hasn’t changed much and when her mother gets cancer it seems like her father will soon be back in their lives.

Spoiler alert
When writing reviews, I try to avoid giving out any spoilers or plot information which isn’t on the cover (front or back) or in the first chapter or so. One of the interesting things about Wilson’s books is that the summaries are often include spoilers – like the mention of cancer, above – for quite far into the books. I imagine this is so that responsible adults will be able to tell at a glance what kids are reading and be ready to field difficult questions.

In this specific case, I think it’s a good idea as Wilson’s books (I’m discovering) nearly always touch on serious subjects. In general, I have mixed views – on the one hand, I would quite like warnings on books so I can avoid wasting my money and time but I hate spoilers and am well aware that the warnings I’d like are implausible (“in the future, women will be in the kitchen” “space: white people only” “really badly written” “has not been copy edited”).

My favourite hero
Jayni / Lola Rose has it rough, and I was impressed throughout with how practical, sensible and brave she was. The character seemed entirely plausible, reminding me of certain friends I had at school, and I think she provides an excellent role model. I’m happy to conclude my week of heroics with a whole-hearted recommendation: this is what I think heroism is: doing what’s right as best you can, even when you’re scared or broke or small or powerless. Even when you can’t win.

I’ve decided to try to read and review all 200 books on the BBC Big Read list. You can read more about the start of the project or see a list of all the books I’ve read and reviewed.

Stormbreaker by Anthony Horowitz

Stormbreaker by Anthony Horowitz

A spy story for kids, #107 Stormbreaker is explicitly based on, and has numerous hat-tips to, Flemming’s James Bond. After his uncle’s death, 14-year-old Alex Rider gets dragged into the shady world of international espionage.

There are a lot of similarities between The Princess Diaries and Stormbreaker. Published in 2000, both books focus on a popular, well-established and strongly gendered wish-fulfillment situation: girls want to be pretty princesses and boys want to be daring spies. It’s a false dichotomy which shows up again and again –  I remember it from the Happy Meal toys of my childhood and saw it in the toy aisle just last week.

Both characters are dragged into their adventure unwillingly, thanks to information which their parent/guardian has hidden from them. While Mia’s life remains within the realm of the ordinary (if going to an exclusive school, having a body guard and etiquette lessons can be considered ordinary) Alex’s rapidly enters a dangerous adult world where being under-age might not be enough to keep you from being killed.

Physical courage
Alex’s adventure involves mainly physical rather than moral courage: he has to undergo frightening and physically grueling challenges but is pretty clear about who the bad (or at least worst) guys are. Like in the Bond films, this junior spy never has to make any tough decisions about who to save or choose between two evils. The peril is larger than life and fairly sanitized – we’re dealing with Dasterdly Plots To End The World, not child labour or famine.

Following firmly in the footsteps of The Thirty-Nine Steps, Stormbreaker is implausible, macho and features a very lucky, surprisingly well equipped spy. While I’m not inclined to consider the Bond school of amateur demolitions heroic, it would be a terrifying situation for a normal 14-year-old and Alex acquits himself with aplomb.

I’ve decided to try to read and review all 200 books on the BBC Big Read list. You can read more about the start of the project or see a list of all the books I’ve read and reviewed.

The Princess Diaries by Meg Cabot

The Princess Diaries by Meg Cabot

Begging for a Disney adaptation, #99 The Princess Diaries follows the transformation of an ordinary girl into a princess.

When Mia’s dad tells her she’s the heir to his tiny kingdom of Genovia, she’s not best pleased. Her friends aren’t going to believe this – and it means spending more time with her terrifying grandmother, learning to be a proper lady.

Wish fulfillment
Although Mia doesn’t want to be a princess, as Disney movies, Barbie dolls and the mass media are all fascinated with princesses, so it’s no surprise that many other little girls want to be one. The Princess Diaries follows a familiar path as a teen discovers a new, special, powerful side to themselves and – after a rocky start – learns to live with and enjoy their new talent.

Instead of a superpower, Mia got a country and instead of learning to control her magic, speak a dozen language or karate-chop villains, she’s got to focus on place settings, paperazzi and proper forms of address. It’s a raw deal, actually – I couldn’t see how Mia was any better off or happier with her new status at the end of the book, although perhaps this changes as the series progresses.

Centre of attention vs hero
Princesses are usually the centre of attention, whether that’s in a Disney movie or a Daily Mail double-page spread. And being a princess can royally suck but getting through those struggles doesn’t necessarily make one heroic. Mia’s struggles, triumphs and disasters don’t seem to touch her deeply enough, require enough fortitude, to make me call them heroic – they are too ordinary, and my definition of a hero requires a bit more.

However, The Princess Diaries does gloss over the invasive media interest – and dealing with that can be a Herculean task for young women in the spotlight. Mia gets off relatively lightly, perhaps because she is under 18, but I do wonder what the effect would be on a shy, introverted teen thrust into the world news pages.

I’ve decided to try to read and review all 200 books on the BBC Big Read list. You can read more about the start of the project or see a list of all the books I’ve read and reviewed.