Top Five Books On My ‘To-Read’ List

So I’ve been a little bogged in work this week and haven’t finished my next book to review, BUT do not fear! For the wonderful @ellon_wheels did a Top Ten on her fab blog absobookinglutely.wordpress.com (which you should all go check out! Fab reviews) and now I’m shamelessly taking a leaf out of her book for this week’s post – but reducing it to five, because SO MANY BOOKS. 🙂

My to-read list, as anyone who has seen me tweet about it/tweet pictures of it/generally wailing about there not being enough hours in the day, is HUGE. I think at the last count it was at about sixty. So when I go to choose my next read, I’m a little overwhelmed. And as I like to subsection almost everything, the opportunity to super-organise this to-read list of epic-ness was one I simply couldn’t put off.

So, here, in no particular order, are my top five books I’m excited to read!

Winter crown

1. The Winter Crown by Elizabeth Chadwick
This is the second book in Chadwick’s Eleanor of Aquitaine trilogy. I LOVED the first book, The Summer Queen, and when I saw the cover the other day on twitter I wanted to cry at how pretty it was. Of course, that doesn’t seem a particularly good reason to be excited about it, BUT! I’ve read a few of Chadwick’s novels already and found her historical accuracy simply fantastic, her plot well thought out, and characters interesting. I’ve done a lot of research into this time period with my creative writing dissertation, and I recognised many things I’d looked up myself. Chadwick charts her research on her website and it’s clear that she knows this time period inside out. She tells Alienor’s story authentically, and get a real sense of her character. After all, this is a girl who lost her father, was swiftly married to the French Prince, and then had to try and negotiate her way around an unfamiliar court. The Winter Crown begins charting Alienor’s marriage with Henry, and towards the time where she helps lead her sons in rebellion against their father. Want authentically written historical fiction? Look no further than Chadwick’s work.

 

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2. Thief’s Magic by Trudi Canavan
I am an ardent Trudi Canavan fan, as I may have mentioned already in this blog post. It’s been interesting seeing Canavan tweet about the process of writing this novel, and I was excited to hear about her new trilogy. I adored her Magician’s Guild trilogy (and subsequent trilogy) but struggled with the Age of Five series. However, I do still own all of them, Age of Five included, and was keen to pick up her next novel. It’s another dual-storyline novel, which works well in the Traitor Spy trilogy, but confused the heck out of me in Last of the Wilds. So watch this space…! You can check out the blurb and read the first chapter on Trudi Canavan’s website .
ocean lane

3. The Ocean At The End Of The Lane by Neil Gaiman
My previous Gaiman experience came in the form of both The Graveyard Book and Coraline (which I reviewed here) and I thoroughly enjoyed both, especially the former. I read the first chapter of Ocean… in the bookshop when it was in hardback but couldn’t justify the spend, so waited until it was paperback. And also on buy one half price, so I also bought The Humans by Matt Haig, another book on my list. It seems to have the same slightly otherworldly vibes that I got from the other Gaimans I’ve read, and I wanted to try some of his adult books. The general reaction to it seems to be quite positive, so I’m looking forward to it as an intermission between swathes of YA writing I’m excited for.

 

maggot-moon

4. Maggot Moon by Sally Gardner
I was recommended this by a friend at work, who said that not only was it fab, but it was also really well designed and that the ebook came with a whole interactive element that makes it dyslexia-friendly. Frankly, I think this is an absolutely excellent thing, as it’s something that nobody really seems to cater for outside of specific ‘designed for x type of student’ books (in my experience). I’ve read and enjoyed Gardner’s work before, particularly I, Coriander, which I thought was magnificent. Maggot Moon seems a well-pitched young teen story, probably for students moving up to secondary school – much like Wonder by RJ Palacio. It also looks to be illustrated, and so far in my reading I’ve only ever seen illustrations done well: A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness, The Absolute True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, etc. I’m hoping this is another I can add to my list of great reads.

 

wintersmith

5. Wintersmith by Terry Pratchett
I ADORE Tiffany Aching. I think she really is the character I most wish I could be. I read The Wee Free Men, the first book in the series, after Witches Abroad (at uni I planned a devilishly awesome essay on fairytale mashing that I loved far more than my tutor did…) and I didn’t think I could get much better than Granny Weatherwax. But Tiffany is just so real and relateable and sensible, and makes the kind of observations that a young person of that age would. The way she deals with the hilarious Nac Mac Feegle is delightful, and now in Wintersmith we see her move on with her training.
As a mark of my adoration for Tiffany Aching books, I save them until I am in dire need of some Tiffany to make me feel better. I have had Wintersmith and I Shall Wear Midnight on my shelf for months, and when I have finally reached the point where I just need a bit of Tiffany Aching to make the world better, she doesn’t disappoint. I was ecstatic to find out that Terry Pratchett is currently working on a fifth book in the sequence, and can’t wait to have it on my bookshelf. The more Tiffany, the better. She is, quite possibly, the YA character I feel akin to the most. (I couldn’t choose which ones I love the most. It’s like asking you to pick your favourite child!)

 

So, hopefully you’ll see reviews for these appearing on the blog over the new few months! If you’ve read any of these books already, do let me know your (spoiler-free!) thoughts in the comments. And let me know of any other books that you think I should add to my to-read list!

Check out my book reviews HERE

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The Bone Season

bone-season-cover

 

“Paige, you will have two tasks tonight,’ he said, turning to face me. ‘Both will test the limits of your sanity. Will you believe me if I tell you that they will help you?’
‘Not likely,’ I said ‘but let’s get on with it.”

The Bone Season is Samantha Shannon’s first novel, the first in a projected series of seven (seven! No more trilogies here!). It’s a sci-fi fantasy dystopia hybrid, and plays with these genres very effectively in creating the setting, scenarios, and driving the plot forward.

It’s the year 2059. The story begins in Scion London, where clairvoyants are prosecuted for their skills. We are introduced to Paige Mahoney as she works for the criminal underworld, unbeknownst to her father. She’s working for the rather scary yet charming Jax, but everything falls apart one day when she accidentally uses her illegal powers on a train. She’s spotted by Scion police, and runs for her life. But soon she ends up in Sheol I, a penal colony full of stolen voyants from the city. And they want her skills badly.

The first thing that struck me about this book, apart from being very tightly plotted and paced, was that the setting was absolutely alive. Shannon clearly has immersed herself in the setting of her book, which translates fabulously to the page. The world-building has been absolutely nailed. We have government systems (that are anti-voyant), we have rebellions, we have transportation systems, laws on recreational activities, sectioned cities, the sorts of jobs people do, and wider UK context with mention of Ireland, which leads back to more world history in terms of how Scion cities have been created and where the fear/persecution of voyants has come from. As an avid fantasy reader, I have put plenty of books down that have had woolly world-building, but as far as I can tell, Shannon’s world is watertight, and I am one very happy reader!

The opening is relatively exposition-heavy – after all, we are being introduced to another world – but by using first person, the pace keeps ticking over and it feels quite conversational between Paige and the reader. No encyclopedic info-dumping here! It gives us enough to tide us over and seems to tell us a lot. By the end of the book we know that really, we knew very little indeed. I always think that the cardinal sin of fantasy writing is info-dumping. It’s why I still stick to YA fantasy over adult fantasy. In my experience, adult fantasy books seem to think that now they’re writing for adults, they can give themselves the luxury of some unnecessary long-winded info-dumping exposition. This is not the case! I’d say that The Bone Season strikes the balance of world-building verses info-dumping generally very well. This is helped by the fact that Shannon uses very effective description in her writing. Certainly knowing your setting as inside-out as Shannon does has helped fantastically with this.

It’s when we move with Paige to Sheol I (formerly Oxford) that this expands further. One of the commonly regurgitated pieces of writing advice is ‘write what you know’. Clearly Shannon isn’t a persecuted voyant who’s been kidnapped to the penal colony of Sheol I, but her author bio tells us she has lived in both London and Oxford. The influence is clear, and well utilised throughout. There are hints of Oxford, with all its grand colleges, that we would see today, but at the same time she has made it so clearly ‘other’ and different that we as readers have no issue with the transfer between what we know and what we don’t.

Paige’s character develops gradually from the beginning, and I feel like I finally have a hold of who she is by the time she’s been taken to Sheol I. She’s not a voice that grabs you with the first sentence, but you get the impression that she has plenty to say about what’s happened to her, if only you’d sit down and listen to her properly. So I did! She comes far more alive as soon as she has stuff to react to, which in this scenario works to her advantage; it is even played upon by certain characters. And a good opener to react to is when she’s kidnapped by the Rephaim to live in their penal colony.

The Rephaim have come to Paige’s world from the Netherworld, the place between life (the human world) and death (the aether). They rule over Sheol I, essentially farming human voyants. There is a huge status divide between humans and Rephs, and even more so between the humans that succeed and pass their ‘tests’, and the ones who fail – doomed to be ‘harlies’ and yellow-tunic’d cowards for the rest of their days. The kidnapped voyants are taken on by important Rephs to be trained. Paige, unsurprisingly, gets picked by Warden, who just so happens to be the fiance (blood-consort) of Nashira (blood-sovereign), who runs the colony. Warden also has a reputation for not training humans. And yet he chooses Paige. Clearly there is something else at work here, but Paige is oblivious to anything other than the fact that she has been kidnapped and has been sold off to a master like cattle. One word to describe her, in a positive way, is righteous. She’s no saintly do-gooder, but speaks her mind when she can, but also knows when to stop to save her neck. One thing we definitely know about Paige is that she has an excellent survival instinct.

I was worried that all these test and training under the Reph (and Warden) would turn the whole thing into a wannabe-HungerGames book. But it doesn’t. It might also explain why there appear to be so few tests to hop up the ranks of Reph trainees; Shannon may be trying to avoid a HungerGames-esque scenario. It definitely doesn’t feel like The Hunger Games, and for me is written a whole lot better! This is no Katniss Everdeen, come to be the saviour of the poor; this is Paige Mahoney, determined to save her skin and the few people she cares about from Scion London at the same time. It makes her far more relatable and realistic, which does her plenty of favours with the reader. Paige hasn’t come to preach.

I was also concerned with the character of Warden. My ‘oh god, a love interest which results in the lead losing the ability to think for herself!‘ klaxon was buzzing in my head. Thankfully, this fear was unfounded. Throughout the book, the relationship between Warden and Paige develops as student and teacher, with hatred – or at the very least, dislike – thrown in aplenty. It’s clear Warden has his own agenda going on, and we side with Paige in not wholly trusting him, but our curiousness as readers is also replicated in Paige. It’s this parallel with character and reader that is a real strength of the story, and keeps the reader hooked in what’s going on.

This was a book I could pause with from time to time, which was a refreshing change after both Half Bad and Cuckoo Song, which I practically inhaled. But I did reach that point where I just knew I must get to the end because everything was gearing up and I had to find out what was going to happen! Unfortunately, for me this was at about 1am when I had to be up the next day, which somewhat scuppered my desperate need to finish it. Such is the way of the late-night reader.

The only thing I did feel I wasn’t so keen on at the end was the way it flipped, in the last few chapters, from being something that I thought would be a stand-alone into something that clearly had sequels. I then expected a trilogy, so to discover a projected seven-book series was quite something! And to have a seven-book arc shows a heck of a lot of planning on the author’s behalf on plot, structure, etc. I think I’m just pining for a fabulously written YA book that doesn’t lead into a series.

 

The things I most liked were: excellent world-building, and tightly, well-executed plot. Everything felt relevant to the bigger picture. Causality rules supreme!

Things I was less keen on: I’m slightly apprehensive about sustaining this level of detailed plot and tight writing over a long series, but I look forward to the second book with curiosity.

 

The Bone Season: 8.5/10

 

If you liked this, try:

Divergent by Veronica Roth
Slated by Teri Terry
Ashes by Ilsa J Bick

Follow me on twitter @unexploredbooks

 

The Magician’s Guild (Audiobook)

“It is said, in Imardin, that the wind has a soul, and that it wails through the narrow city streets because it is grieved by what it finds there. On the day of the Purge it whistled amongst the swaying masts in the Marina, rushed through the Western Gates and screamed between the buildings. Then, as if appalled by the ragged souls it met there, it quietened to a whimper.
Or so it seemed to Sonea.”

The Magician’s Guild is the first book in one of my all-time favourite series, the Black Magician Trilogy by Trudi Canavan. I’ve not reviewed the series on my blog, or the other two of my favourite series (Books of Pellinor and Chaos Walking, if you were wondering) because I don’t think a good review is written by me smashing my keyboard in a fit of wild enthusiasm as I tell you all how you must read them because they are the bestest books in the whole wide world, etc etc.

But I digress.

I was recently directed to Audible by the wonderful @hatteatime . I’m always after audiobooks, as I get travelsick reading in the car, and Audible seemed to fit the bill. For me, audiobooks should be familiar, comfort reads. My current library of audiobooks consists of Pride and Prejudice and The Fault in our Stars (as well as copious amounts of Shakespeare), for example. Therefore, The Magician’s Guild was an easy choice for my free first audiobook.

This abridged version is read by Kellie Bright, whose voice warmed on me very swiftly from the beginning of the tape. She has a soft and clear reading voice, which means you can get on with imagining the streets of Imardin, the slums, and the Guild. The way she plays with voices for different characters works well, with Sonea’s friends in the slums voiced with a cockney accent, rather than the sweeping gradiose tone of the Magicians. Fergun’s voicing especially makes my skin crawl – a real’ Bad Guy’ voice!

I did think that by choosing the abridged version, I would be losing out some of the detail from a book I really love. There were a few odd cuts, which didn’t sit well, but as this originated as CDs, I imagine this can be explained as the end of a disc. I didn’t, overall, lose any detail that I remember particularly from the book, although it has been a few years since I’ve read it. This meant I could sit back and enjoy the story, rather than being jerked out of the world by cuts I was extremely aware of.

There were also rather randomly arranged musical interludes, which don’t sit so well with my CDs theory, and which was considerably louder than the reading volume which made it a little uncomfortable to the ear. I like to stick to a volume and not be forced to chop and change when I settle in for an audiobook, and what was suitably good music regarding the tone of the story was too loud.

The thing I love about audiobooks is the visual aspect and I think this audiobook does great service to Canavan’s descriptive skills. In many respects I found the audiobook visualised parts of the book for me that I had previously skimmed over, such as when Sonea and Cery are scrambling across rooftops, or when Rothen and Dannyl find her in the slums. I also felt like it gave me time to dwell more extensively on the different threads of the story, and it reminded me of characters I particularly love, and their relationships with other characters. Cery’s character springs to mind, as does Rothen’s and Dannyl’s relationship. The latter two’s cheerfulness and especially Dannyl’s sarcasm really appealed when I very first read the book, and the tone with which Bright delivers Dannyl’s character is particularly enjoyable.

The only quibble I would have with the reading of this audiobook is that, while it is beneficial to have such a range of voices for characters, some voices did slip. This happened especially in Cery/Fergun scenes, where the swing from cockney to villain was sometimes a little tricky. And Akkarin’s voice, which is intended to sound grand, came off as a little unnecessarily ghost-like. It was also very hard to audibly distinguish between actual speech and mind communication, as designated in italics in the hard copy, but that is something that cannot be helped. It didn’t impede my listening of the book, certainly.

Overall, a good first choice for an Audible audiobook! One I will be listening to again.


Title
: The Magician’s Guild
Author: Trudi Canavan
Read By: Kellie Bright
Run Time: 6hrs 32min
Released: 2006
Publisher: Hachette Audio
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Cuckoo Song

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“Sometimes, you read a book and it fills you with this weird evangelical zeal, and you become convinced that the shattered world will never be put back together unless and until all living humans read the book.”

John Green, The Fault in Our Stars

Thanks to the wonderfulness that is twitter, I saw someone recommend this book the other day and added it to my mental list of ‘books I need to check out next time I’m in a library or bookshop’. I made a beeline for a bookshop, read the first three pages, and bought it straight away.

The opening of Cuckoo Song grabs you with its very eerie atmosphere, where you feel like you should recognise it as something from your own memory bank, but it’s just ever so slightly different. This is something that is sustained through the whole book, giving a fantastic sense of unreal-ness and other.

We find ourselves with a girl named Triss, who has woken up and been told she’s ill but doesn’t remember anything that has happened to her. She is told by her parents that she might have fallen in the Grimmer – a delightfully sinister name for anything, and what I like to think is a nod to the fairy tale tradition. She struggles to remember who she is, who everyone else is, and only finds this out when other people tell her. Something has most definitely gone wrong. Triss’ panic and the sensation that she isn’t quite herself gets more and more intense, building steadily into the next phase of the story. This is, after all, a little girl – only eleven – who is ill and she doesn’t know why, and with big gaps in her memory she can’t account for.

The other character who grabs you right from the start is Pen. She is Triss’ little sister, who hates her with a vengeance, without any initially clear reason. The hook of finding out what on earth has happened to Triss is a strong one, but it is made even stronger with the added hook of why on earth does Pen loathe her so much? It was this combination, shown to the reader in the first few pages, that grabs you and pulls you in. There is a fantastic sense of unrealness and weirdness and other, but it blends this with a very realistic sibling difficulty – though hopefully with less loathing.

Pen and Triss’ relationship is one I think really guides the story as it powers forwards. These are two girls who clearly don’t get along, and yet their story lines keep crossing. They have to learn to tolerate each other and work together in certain ways, and it is this relationship that I enjoyed so much. Add in a certain lady on a motorbike and an earlier death in the family and this intricate web of characters is powering forwards through this slightly different and alien landscape.  The sinister yet ever-present antagonist – the wonderfully named Architect – hovers in the background too; he is a villain who doesn’t need to be seen to scare you. Which, in my opinion, are usually (but not always!) the best kind of bad guy!

The thing I love about this story is that it’s one of those books that just keep getting longer the more you read. The only other book I’ve read that does this is The Book Thief by Markus Zusack, and that’s one of my favourite books. It feels like you’ve read a whole novel already and then discover you have another two hundred pages to read. It’s the most fabulous feeling. And it’s all done without the pace being slow, or dragging. It’s like pass the parcel and finding all the layers underneath and you keep unwrapping it, eager to find out the final parcel. And unlocking the heart of the story is a wonderful feeling.

The other thing I enjoyed about its pacing is that just over halfway, when the story moves up a gear, it ploughs straight into a full-on adventure story. It’s still eerie, still strange, still very atmospheric, but we’ve discovered enough about the strange other side of the story that it’s no longer completely out of bounds to us. This is a section I also enjoy – the first half of the book, by the nature of the plot and the contents, is very insular and active but not in an obvious way. Once this has passed, the action jumps up a notch – helped by the presence of a character who I personally like very much – but more than that, I cannot say! (to paraphrase Sir John Middleton).

The only thing I would change about this is that I wish more had been made of the Grimmer. It sounds dreadful and threatening and to my mind there is clearly a backstory to the Grimmer, why it came to be called that, and it would be something surrounded by plentiful superstition in a town that is undergoing change after the Great War. I think it would add yet another layer to the story and I do wish that had been included.

That said, I’d absolutely recommend this book to everyone. It was one of those books that suckered me completely into the world of the story and on more than a few occasions I shouted at family members to “leave me alone, I HAVE to finish this book!” It was one of those where, if I looked up from it, I was in a bit of daze, with a moment of confusion when I realised that I was still sat on the sofa and not in the world Hardinge has created.

And I can’t give much better of an endorsement than that.

 

CUCKOO’S SONG: 9/10

 

If you enjoyed this, you may like:
Coraline by Neil Gaiman

Follow me on twitter @unexploredbooks

 

Half Bad

 

Choices may be unbelievably hard but they’re never impossible. To say you have no choice is to release yourself from responsibility and that’s not how a person with integrity acts.”
Patrick Ness, ‘Monsters of Men’

Half Bad introduces us to a brilliant development in YA writing – witches. Vampires have long been on the way out, and come to fill their shoes is this excellent debut novel from Sally Green.

We are introduced very quickly to the novel’s world: a version of the UK where White Witches and Black Witches live in enmity. (Think Capulet and Montague but with everyone belonging to one house). Black Witches are seen as vicious and not to be trusted, and the White Witches have plenty of methods available to stop them from doing anything deemed ‘dangerous to White Witches’. There is no fifty-fifty split between Black and White; the Whites clearly have supremacy, and run the Council that is in charge of all witch-related things.

It is in this world that we are introduced to Nathan, half-Black half-White Witch, and son of one of the most powerful Black Witches ever. He’s being brought up by the White side of his family after his mum died, and for the first big chunk of the book we see his troubles at school. This was a very cleverly worked approach by Green – it allows the reader to jump into this unfamiliar world but with sense that will be all-too-familiar to teenagers negotiating the perils of senior school. Bullying obviously crops up, and gives a fantastic way in to the sentiments on both sides of witch lines as to how the other is perceived. There is a one bullying scene that is particularly harrowing, and excellently pulled off. It reminded me distinctly of A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness, where you see the protagonist being bullied and you feel like an awful observer, powerless to help your character escape the horrors of what is happening to them.

But this is all after the opening, which is very distinctive. It’s written, initially, in second person which is notoriously hard to pull off well. The only YA book I’ve read in second person is Stolen, by Lucy Christopher, and that does pull it off exquisitely. I wasn’t convinced by the second person viewpoint initially, but it is only done in bursts, and for the rest of the story we have Nathan’s first person narrative guiding us through. Bar the one or two exceptions, of course. This second person narrative does wrap into the main story relatively quickly, and the second person viewpoint does do a great job of building the sense of isolation and atmosphere for the setting and context of these sections.

The book settles out about two-thirds of the way through into familiar ‘here comes a series’ territory, but it doesn’t drop the pace or slack. Longer is spent in certain places or on certain things, but after finishing the story I believe that it is paced correctly for something that will presumably become a trilogy – because who DOESN’T publish a trilogy these days? But at the moment it feels like one fluid, well-paced story. Hopefully the sequels will carry on this way, like the Grisha Trilogy did, in terms of plot and pace.

You also get a strong feel for the characters. Well-plotted books can have poor characters and vice versa, but here it does feel a fairly even balance – and Nathan is a very strong protagonist, I think. By choosing someone half-White half-Black – the latter side of which is very powerful – it becomes far more about the choices he makes rather than any genetic tendencies. Of course, the assumption that good V evil is genetic in the Half Bad world is rather entrenched in their culture, and seeing this from Nathan’s perspective is really interesting as he wrestles with choice versus genetics as to his behaviour. It’s the classic nature versus nurture debate, and it plays out very well in the first book.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and having borrowed it from the library I am now eager to go out and get my own copy. I feel it’s one I’ll certainly read again, and I await the next book in spring 2015 with great excitement! If purchasing/borrowing this for a friend, I would suggest a 13+ age range.

HALF BAD: 8.5/10

If you like this book, you may enjoy:
A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness
Stolen by Lucy Christopher
Slated (first of a series) by Teri Terry
The Chaos Walking Trilogy by Patrick Ness
The Grisha Trilogy by Leigh Bardugo

Follow me on twitter: @unexploredbooks