Tag Archives: young adult

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.

I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith

I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith

I love #82 I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith to bits – I remember reading it several times as a teenager, and coming back to it was a pleasure. The only downside was that I was reading my original paper copy which has a terrible ’80s cover and doesn’t have the highlight function an ebook does.

I Capture the Castle tells the story of the Marchmains, a genteel family living in a crumbling rented castle, trying not to starve while their father works – or perhaps doesn’t – on his second book, already a decade in the making. The story is narrated by Cassandra, the middle child, age 17, and is set sometime in the late 1920s or 1930s.

Dodie Smith is most famous for her children’s book, 101 Dalmations but I Capture the Castle is nothing like that. It’s a book for young adults and adults.

Poor and upper class
Families in books for children and young adults written before the Second World War regularly seem to lose all their money and slide into a genteel poverty. We saw a version of it in Little Women, it’s in Ballet Shoes and The Railway Children and the theme crops up again in I Capture the Castle. It’s an odd sort of poverty – the old-fashioned phrase ‘reduced circumstances’ seems to cover it well: the family’s income is reduced, and in general, they have to get by with only one servant and cheap jam, unlike the majority of chronically poor people, seen in works by contemporaries like Dickens, who are too poor even to be servants and never see jam at all.

In this context, I Capture the Castle stands out for two reasons: first, the family is really on the edge, hunger is a constant presence and no one ever gets quite warm and second, they’re at least somewhat aware of the privileged position that education and class have given them, although one of their class markers is that they rarely talk about either – it would be complaining, which isn’t done.

Part of what causes the Marchmain’s poverty is the era’s limited options for women. The household comprises three adult women, two adult men and a school boy, and none of the women are qualified to do work which would support the family. It’s not for lack of willingness, but out in the sticks they have limited options and setting up in town requires capital – and clothes – they don’t have, making training as a secretary or similar a pipe dream.

Beautifully written
Part of the appeal of I Capture the Castle is the writing style and the tone of the book. It’s a difficult thing to describe, but I found it charming. In some ways, I Capture the Castle is a more grown-up version of the world found in classic children’s novels like Little Women and The Secret Garden so if you enjoyed books like that, this is a pleasing book to graduate to. It’s more desperate, a little closer to modern experience, a little grittier, but still has the same charm and delicacy. (Another one is The Saplings by Noel Streatfield, which I strongly recommend.)

I could spend all day teasing out little bits of I Capture the Castle to discuss – it’s a book which bears repeated readings and I think would be a good subject to study in school or at university. One of the major themes of the book is writing and story telling, how it’s done and by whom, but it’s not a lecture, it’s an interested exploration. Another facet is the setting – it’s at once very specific and very vague. The castle, the countryside and the seasons come through clearly, and yet the year is vague. The characters are held in stasis, almost, in a world where the First World War is a hazy memory, never alluded to, and the Second isn’t even on the horizon.

I strongly recommend I Capture the Castle – and as it’s now on Kindle, you can read the beginning on Amazon to see if you’re captured by it, like I am, before you invest.

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 Holders by Julianna Scott

The Holders by Julianna Scott

Becca has always protected her little brother, Ryland. When she comes home from work to find him hiding in the garden, she starts getting angry – another group of strangers have come to their home to take Ry away ‘for his own good’.  Because Ry is different – Ry hears voices.

Except this time, the strangers really do know what’s wrong with Ry: he’s growing into his magic, and has no one to teach him how to control it. Becca accompanies Ry to his new school, to help him get settled in – and finds out more about the world of magic and her own family than she ever bargained for.

The Holders is published by Angry Robot Books under their YA imprint, Strange Chemistry – here’s their page about Julianna Scott’s book. They very kindly send me a review copy, because I asked. I asked because I’ve ready a number of AR books and definitely recommend them (they include: Moxyland, Zoo City and Walking the Tree). I also really like magic, and school stories and magical school stories are definitely right up my street.

I’m telling you this, so you understand why I read – and am now reviewing – The Holders. Because although I really, really wanted to like it, and loved the opening pages, I didn’t. After the first chapter, the book heaped disappointment on disappointment, to the point where I stopped reading a couple times to complain to K about it.

It’s a real shame, because it’s not badly written – it’s over-troped. The Holders reads like a bingo-card example – which may mean that people who haven’t read as much fantasy as I have can still enjoy it, but when I compare it to the books I was reading and loving as a young adult, like Witch Week, Matilda, Wizard’s Hall and, of course, Harry Potter and All Those Sequels, The Holders just doesn’t make the grade.

I try not to put spoilers in a review, but I realise that what annoyed me may actually appeal to you, so here’s a list of the major things which bugged me, in no particular order:

  1. Women can’t have magical superpowers because WHO KNOWS
  2. Except, some do. And they are RARE and SPECIAL and BELOVED
  3. But their powers are never as good as the men’s
  4. An evil, evil supervillain
  5. Good guys are just good
  6. A prophesy…
  7. About a chosen one
  8. Soul mates – because an instant and unbreakable connection with someone you’ve just met is the surefire way to guarantee a happy and healthy relationship
  9. Magic is something you’re either born with or can NEVER learn
  10. Magic is something you’re just good at, and then have to learn to control – unlike, say, playing the piano, tennis or ANY OTHER HUMAN SKILL EVER
  11. Characters who are hundreds of years old but who talk and act like they’re their apparent age
  12. Magic is dying out because WHO KNOWS but probably genetics, because when a person with a rare skill or attribute (like ginger hair or brain surgery) has children with someone without that skill or attribute (like all women ever) then the children born with that skill or attribute have it in a weaker form. It’s like the power law of magic or something.
  13. No real ending because SEQUELS

If you’ve been reading my reviews on G+ and here for a while, you’ll know I can forgive a lot of these things – the Harry Potter books are all about #4, 6 & 7 with helpings of #9, Buffy the Vampire Slayer had a severe case of #11 and even my beloved Diana Wynne Jones did ‘men’s magic is different from women’s magic’ and other things which make me want growl from time to time.

I think where The Holders really fell down is: the magic isn’t fun enough and it isn’t serious enough. In the Harry Potter world, the magic is bonkers and brilliant – it’s like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory for fabulous, pleasing, silly, wonderful excess. The books are literally stuffed with amazing sweets, never mind the rest of it. On the flip side, The Magicians by Lev Grossman takes magic seriously, and asks what effect magical powers would have on the world and the people who use it. And both are good and interesting.

The Holders falls in the gap between the two – it’s neither pleasingly silly nor exploring a complex what-if in a new way, or from a new perspective. It’s not terrible, it’s just not that interesting – if it were an episode of Buffy, I’d happily watch the characters I already knew work through the problem, but as it is, despite liking Becca and Ry from page one, by chapter four I just didn’t care.

Dash and Lily’s Book of Dares by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan

Dash and Lily’s Book of Dares by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan

Lily’s Christmas break is not going how she planned: she’s bored and lonely. At her brother’s suggestion, she leaves a set of clues and dares in a red notebook in her favourite bookstore.
Dash finds the notebook, and sets his own challenges.

The story unfolds over the Christmas holidays, as the two teenagers share adventures and secrets – on paper. But can real life match up to the stories in the red notebook?

I requested a review copy of this book as I thought it would be fun to read. It looked really sweet – and it is. I enjoyed it and would look for other books by the same authors.

Sweet, like Christmas cookies
I liked both Dash and Lily, which is important to me for a romance. If I like one of the characters, the other one needs to be worthy of their affection, and if I don’t like either, well, who cares what happens, right?

But Dash and Lily are sweet but not in a saccharine way. It reminded me of watching my little brother date, or his friends – there’s that distance which means it’s all charming but not too serious (for me, that is).

However, I think if I’d read it when I was a teen, I’d have been wrapped up in it. Despite the title, it’s never clear what kind of happy ending you should expect – a love match is the most obvious, but friendship is possible too. And I liked that.

I’d also have wanted to move to New York – I grew up in the middle of nowhere, so being able to leave the house and go to the movies without either a 5km cycle ride to the train or begging my parents for a lift would have been a dream come true. New York at Christmas is just double plus yum.

How it was written
The authors have an interesting way of working: they each take a character and email each other chapters of the story, taking it in turns until it’s done. (And then edit the heck out of it, I imagine, but that’s not quite so unusual.)

This is described in the introduction to the book – or it is in the ARC, at least – so I knew about it before I began. As a result, I was on the look out. On the whole, I think it works. The two characters sound a little different, but not jarringly so. As someone who has played lots of writing games, I spotted a few places where I thought one author was deliberately setting up a situation so the other could do the big reveal (well, tiny reveal, usually) which would then push the next chapter along. An example (not from the book) would be one character finishing the chapter by saying ‘and here’s the thing you were looking for!’ so the next chapter can start with ‘I had always wanted a…’

It’s an unusual way of working but I think it’s fairly seamless. I’m not sure I would have noticed if I hadn’t been told – much like the two-artist illustrations in Double Act.

I’m not going to say that Dash and Lily was perfect, or that I’d read it again, necessarily, but it was absolutely charming and I’m seriously considering the other two books Cohn and Levithan have written together: Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist and Naomi and Ely’s No Kiss List.

I received a review copy of this book through NetGalley free from the publishers, Harlequin UK under the Mills & Boon imprint. You can see their page about Dash and Lily’s Book of Dares here.

The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole age 13 ¾ by Sue Townsend

The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole age 13 ¾ by Sue Townsend

I picked up #112 The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13 ¾ when it turned up as the Kindle Daily Deal a week ago. The best bit of this reread for me was when the book abruptly stopped 75% of the way through the document – the first couple of chapters of The Woman who Went to Bed for a Year were much more interesting!

About a wanker
Adrian is literally and metaphorically a wanker. He’s self-absorbed, ignorant and utterly without gorm. Because the book is written as his diary, the reader is relentlessly forced to view his world through his narrow and biased viewpoint. I kept getting the feeling that something really (or at least moderately) interesting was happening off cameraand I couldn’t get at it. Frustrating to say the least.

Most books I actively like or dislike, but I just couldn’t care about Adrian Mole. Given that I never have to meet him (or read the sequels) I’m okay with the books being enjoyed by other people. Quietly. Somewhere else.

Which is sort of the point
I find it hard to fault the book beyond saying that I didn’t like it because it’s so clearly, deliberately crafted. Townsend is a skilled writer, and although I didn’t enjoy the book, it was easy to read and flowed well, even when I was bored to tears.

Often when I reread a book I remember from my childhood I’m torn between enjoying the story and supporting the values I have as an adult. Adrian Mole is the opposite – I’m inclined to agree with the values but can’t recommend the story. I may just be entirely the wrong audience: I was born in 1983, the year the book is set, and grew up ‘abroad’ so the comprehensive – grim ’80s – Thatcherite backdrop is alien rather than familiar. I think I’m missing half the jokes and – unlike in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – the ones I understand I just don’t find funny.

My edition had an introduction by David Walliams who described the book as ‘probably the biggest phenomenon of my youth after Star Wars and Star Wars was bigger than God.’ Walliams made the book sound good – funny, irreverent, transgressive – and maybe it was. But it’s 30 years old now, and frankly the introduction was more interesting than the novel.

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.

Angus, Thongs and Full-Frontal Snogging by Louise Rennison

Angus, Thongs and Full-Frontal Snogging by Louise Rennison

Mel from The Little Wash-House asked if I was going to review any of my own childhood favourites, which gave me the perfect excuse to actually pay for #127 Angus, Thongs and Full-Frontal Snogging.

Angus is the diary of Georgia Nicholson, age 13, and covers mad scrapes, hot dates and make up. I do have a few criticisms, but can’t be too harsh as I still found it madly funny, to the point where K asked what I was laughing at (yes, I was laughing out loud) and I had to say ‘I don’t think I can explain it’. Very teenage.

Definitely for teens
While I think Angus is appropriate, for teens, I’d be reluctant to give it to younger kids as it is very much focused on boys, boyfriends, make-up, holding hands and kissing. There’s not much plot, otherwise, so it probably wouldn’t interest younger kids anyway.

This is Rennison’s first book, and it doesn’t have the same finesse or social awareness that the Jacqueline Wilson books I’ve been reading have. On the one hand, nothing really bad happens (maybe a detention or two) but on the other hand, I’m not sure Georgia is a good role model for dealing with friends, school, boyfriends, etc as she lives in a zany made-up world with a lot of the hard edges rubbed off.

The book is written as Georgia’s diary, which means it focuses entirely on her priorities and as she seems to have no real empathy for anyone else’s point of view it’s a bit one sided. This does make it funnier though, as it’s hard to make sharp jokes about a teacher, parent or friend when you’re feeling sorry for them too. And perhaps Georgia will grow up over the next 10 books – 13 year-olds aren’t renown for being social paragons.

Good fun
I don’t think I can explain what I found funny in Angus, but the character of Angus definitely helps, so I’ll leave you with an excerpt. Angus is Georgia’s pet, found on a holiday in near Loch Lomond, probably part Scottish wild cat. He is completely bonkers and constantly terrorizing next door’s dog.

I should have guessed all was not entirely well in the cat department when I picked him up and he began savaging my cardigan. But he was such a lovely looking kitten, all tabby and long-haired with huge yellow eyes. Even as a kitten he looked like a small dog. I begged and pleaded to take him home.

“He’ll die here, he has no mummy or daddy,” I said plaintively.

My dad said, “He’s probably eaten them.” Honestly, he can be callous.

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.

Lord of the Flies by William Golding

Lord of the Flies by William Golding

In #70 The Lord of the Flies, a group of boys, age 6-15, find themselves stranded on a tropical island after a plane crash. The paradise soon reveals a dark side, both to the natural surroundings and the boys’ own nature.

It is a very powerful book – I wouldn’t say I loved it and would read it again, or that it was an easy or comfortable read, because it wasn’t. But I do highly recommend it and it is an excellent counterpoint to the sappy Victorian children’s literature – like Little Women, like Swiss Family Robinson, like Heidi, like (apparently) Coral Island – where everything is for the best and everyone is for the best in the best of all possible worlds.

Boys will be human
I’m going to be vague as it’s hard to discuss this book without spoiling it. It’s a deeply emotional book and discusses the social fallout from the crash in detail. The book is beguiling and horrifying, at once a ripping yarn and a warning that humanity is in each of us – and so is unbearable cruelty.

The cast is exclusively male – all the children stranded are boys – but (unusually) this isn’t a problem for me. British society is still very strongly gendered, even for young children, and in creating a mixed-gender group the author would have had to deal with a much wider range of issues – some of the boys are old enough to be well into puberty, for example – and the book covers enough as it is.

In many ways the book is a fable, and just as the old stories are stripped down to the essentials and told and retold without losing the message or the drama, the group of stranded children stripped of inter-gender relationships, sexual tension (a product of having imaginary 1950s adolescents, I imagine, rather than modern ones) and gender-roles are free to symbolize all humanity.

Everyday hero
Clearly the situation the boys face on the island is extreme, but the heroism of Ralph, Piggy and friends is not the brash, physical courage we discussed in Stormbreaker but the more ordinary courage required to uphold one’s beliefs in fairness, freedom, society and other human inventions when it’s easier to let them go. I’m not sure I would have thought of it in this way, but it may be the kind of courage, of steadfastness, which is easiest to put into practice. You don’t need to leap (off) tall buildings, but simply to trust another human being. To believe that the beggar knows their own priorities best, and will spend your money wisely (even if that’s on drugs). To believe the stranger on the internet is honest – whether honestly hurt, honestly naive or honestly deluded – and offer sympathy not scorn. To keep an eye on kids playing in the street, just in case, or the couple arguing in their car.

And yet – as Lord of the Flies shows – it’s hard to be civilised (whatever you, personally, mean by that word) when all about you encourages chaos. And it’s easy for people to get hurt, to protect that soft centre by shutting out the world.

In the last few months I’ve been going back and forth between London (where making eye-contact is seen as a sign of aggression or panhandling) and rural Switzerland (where you say hello to everyone, even strangers, even if you see them eight times in a day). The barrage of good wishes can feel like an intrusion, but it’s also a clear sign that the social contract is alive and well. ‘Bonjour’ says more than ‘hello’ – it says ‘I see you’.

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.