Adventures at Bath Kids Lit Fest

Over the last few weekends I have been making regular sojourns to Bath to attend a multitude of events as part of their Children’s Literature Festival (check out #bathkidslitfest on twitter). Here is a summary of the amazing events I went to, featuring some of my favourite authors. Thanks to everyone at Bath Festivals for putting together such an awesome programme – I only wish I could have attended more events! Here’s to next year being just as fabulous as this one.

 

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Unfortunately I haven’t got a picture with Marcus too – but he was there, honest!

Sally Green and Marcus Sedgwick

I had booked in to this event entirely to see Sally Green, whose debut novel Half Bad I read over the summer and subsequently raved about here on the blog. I’ve dipped in and out of Marcus Sedgwick books for years, and I find them a mixed bag, but I was looking forward to hear what he had to say. Both were very interesting panellists, with a good contrast between the two: after all, Green’s novel is her debut and Sedgwick has been writing for years. We opened with Sally Green (Marcus was stuck in traffic!) who talked all about the premise behind Half Bad and the main character, Nathan: “Once I had Nathan, the rest was easy”. The host, Gill McLay, asked lots of very good questions that opened the conversation right up, especially as we had such interesting yet contrasting authors.

The section of the panel dedicated to research was the one I found the most amusing and fascinating! Marcus Sedgwick told us all about when he went to visit derelict lunatic asylums in North America (now there’s a tale!) among various other things, and it was really interesting to hear about how he approaches research for books (“It’s much easier to do research than to actually write!”). Sally Green, on the other hand, said that she does considerably less work – about “ten minutes” on witch research, and the rest is filled in with imagination, and a little help from google! It was great to see how two different authors approach the process, but with equally successful results. The one particular part that stood out to me was when discussing the violence in their books. I’ve not read Marcus Sedgwick’s current book, The Ghosts of Heaven, but Half Bad certainly has some very harrowing scenes. But, as Marcus so fantastically put it: “If you have to plumb the depths of human badness, that’s what you do”, and Sally told us that you’ve “got to make it right, and make it believable and justifiable”. I’ve found, as a reader, that this is the case in their books and there are plenty of YA books that spring to mind that deal with this topic very well and make it really powerful in their stories. They then touched briefly on what YA means as a genre – something that David Almond, Mal Peet and Melvin Burgess are talking about at a panel here, on 5th October.

 

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Garth Nix and Joe Abercrombie take questions, chaired by John McLay.

 

Garth Nix and Joe Abercrombie

This panel was an absolute hoot, as well as being fantastically interesting. Garth Nix and Joe Abercrombie entertained us without hesitation for at least an hour, whilst being interesting and insightful about writing for young people. One of the first topics of discussion was about starting as a writer. Garth Nix said “I think I started as a writer because I started as a reader” (something that I think can be easily forgotten by some), and Joe Abercrombie said it was because he had time [between his jobs as a freelance tv editor] and thought he’d better do something that “wasn’t 100% playing video games”, and that “what [he] was writing wasn’t nearly half as bad as he was expecting”. Apparently writing brings gaming down to a more conservative 90% of his time!

Both are established fantasy writers, and there were plenty of questions on the genre. Nix voiced his concerns over popular fantasy: “There was a phase of ‘all children’s fantasy should be like Harry Potter’, and now I think we’ve got the same thing with Game of Thrones”, and Abercrombie says that “the whole categorisation is about how it is sold, and nothing to do with the book at all”. This led on to some very interesting discussion (much like with Green and Sedgwick) about the category of YA. YA was described as “a subset of adult, not a subset of children” (GN) and Abercrombie said “I just wrote the books I wanted to read when I was fourteen or fifteen years old”. I found this really interesting as they considered where YA had come from, the prevalence of YA now, and the effect of trends. After all, Nix wrote Slade’s Children which is a dystopia novel – far before dystopia became popular! The general consensus was trends will come and go, and it’s hopeless to try and fit in with them – if you get lucky, you get lucky, something I agree with wholeheartedly! This went on to discuss the process of writing and we had readings from both authors. I am only gutted that Abercrombie’s book Half a King is currently only out in hardback, and so I couldn’t purchase it on the day. (Both space and money prevent me buying hardbacks now unless they are titles I have been desperate to get my hands on from my mental list of all-time favourite authors. I will, however, be getting my copy as soon as the paperback is released!) This was a very interesting panel and had us laughing all the way – thanks to Nix and Abercrombie. A great time! I also got an early copy of Clariel (squeeeee!) which I’ll review here just as soon as I’ve finished reading it!

 

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David Almond and Cornelia Funke responding to questions from the audience.

Cornelia Funke and David Almond

And oh my goodness me, how I wish there were more people in the world like Cornelia Funke. Her event with David Almond was simply superlative, and my personal highlight of everything I saw at the festival. I couldn’t type fast enough to note down all the brilliant, amazing things that were being said, and me and my friend who attended were lost for words at the end. (We mainly gawped at each other to express our general disbelief at all the awesome we had just heard). Personally I’ve only read Inkheart, but many of her others like Dragon Rider and Reckless have been on my to-read list for years – which says something about my to-read list! I absolutely adore Inkheart, and at today’s talk we were clearly in the presence of someone who values the importance of an amazing library – as well as every person in the room of course! There were so many things discussed, I’ll pick my highlights from the event:

“I went to the library and came back with piles of treasure”
Much time was rightly spent discussing the importance of libraries in helping young people become voracious readers. Cornelia Funke described her trips home from the library as above – as while they may not have had lots of books at home, they all went to the library regularly when she was growing up. A question later on asked Cornelia if this love of libraries and books meant that she was Maggie, the heroine of Inkheart – to which the reply was that writers all put parts of themselves in characters, and “I have that relationship with my father because he took me to the library all the time”. And of course there is nothing more magical than stories coming to life! As Funke put it: “There are so many vast realities in this world that you should explore as man of these as possible”. Who could disagree with that?!

“You cannot change the world? Yes you can! They just don’t want you to… because if you can, why didn’t they?”
I think this quote really neatly summed up the essence of what Cornelia brought across in her event. Time and again we came back to the idea of books opening up new worlds and opening our eyes, and showing us that things can be different, things might be different, and showing us how change can happen. Not didactically, but by encouraging readers to “listen more carefully” to the world around them. And, Funke argued, fantasy does this very well, as “it makes the world so much more meaningful and makes you understand… When you cannot imagine another world, you won’t change this one.” And what did she consider the role of writers to be in perhaps politically motivating young people? “We [writers] cannot be missionaries, so we have to ask the questions when the world around us pretends to know the answers”. I don’t think anyone could have wiped the beam off my face when I heard that!

“I have such a longing to own a dragon – I would even let go of the TARDIS for the dragon and that is saying something!”
This stemmed from an excellent audience question, which was if a spaceship were to arrive above the Guildhall and drop Cornelia on a desert island, what book would she bring with her? Her first response: “Well first of all, I would change the spaceship for a TARDIS, complete with the 11th Doctor!”, which went down a hit with kids and adults alike! (Her book of choice was The Once and Future King, by TH White, if you were wondering). This brought us on to where the idea for Dragon Rider came from. Apparently, from a dog! We were told that the white dragon on the cover looked suspiciously like a certain canine Cornelia owned… Needless to say I am now even more intrigued to begin Dragon Rider than before. She also read from Fearless, and her performance was excellent. There were different voices, different characters, all brought to life with her reading. I am very excited to pick up the first Mirrorworld book!

“Life should not always be happy, and life teaches us, in darkness, lessons… We [as writers] learn to make gold from the dark.”
Something that has cropped up time and again at events like this and when discussing where writers get their ideas from, and the opinion that writers must have had some kind of traumatic childhood to draw on ideas like this is one that has frequented Q&As. The opinion on this panel was that sadly some authors have experienced a trauma in their childhood, but this is by no means the majority of authors or indeed necessary to be able to write stories. Cornelia said that “there are pains in many moments that don’t have to be these ‘traumas’ and we have to learn to see them”. It was an interesting discussion about what ‘trauma’ implies and how this could possibly affect the writing process in different ways.

 

Overall,  I had a wonderful two weekends at the Bath Children’s Literature Festival, and I look forward to other fantastic events like these in the future! While at the festival I also attended Now We Are Ten!, which I discuss over on my writing blog – check it out!

 

Sally Green is a debut YA author, whose novel Half Bad has been a fantastic hit with readers. She is currently working on the sequel, Half Wild.

Marcus Sedgwick is a seasoned writer of both YA and adult fiction. His latest novel, The Ghosts of Heaven, follows four separate characters from different eras of history. He is famous for novels such as My Sword Hand is Singing, The Foreshadowing, and The Book of Dead Days.

Garth Nix has written over 20 novels for young readers, including the popular Sabriel series. His latest book, Clariel, is a prequel to that series. He is currently working on another Old Kingdom book which takes place after the ending of Abhorsen.

Joe Abercrombie has largely written for adults, including books such as The First Law series. His latest series is written for YA readers. The first book, Half a King, is out now.

Cornelia Funke is a popular childrens/YA author, whose work includes the popular Inkheart series, books such as Dragon Rider and her current project, the Mirrorworld series. She was born and grew up in Germany but now lives in LA, when not travelling around the world.

David Almond is a writer of popular children’s books such as Skellig and My Name is Mina. He is a Professor of Creative Writing at Bath Spa University, and Guest Artistic Director of the Bath Children’s Literature Festival.

 

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Two Boys Kissing

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“…he hopes that maybe it’ll make people a little less scared of two boys kissing than they were before, and a little more welcoming to the idea that all people are, in fact, born equal, no matter who they kiss or screw, no matter what dreams they have or love they give.”

 

This is my second foray into a David Leviathan book, having read Every Day a few months ago. I’ve heard lots of good things about this author and while Every Day didn’t blow me away, I was more than happy to give another of his novels a go.

Two Boys Kissing  is a novel about four sets of characters: Craig and Harry, going for the world record for longest kiss; Avery and Ryan, who have just met; Peter and Neil, long-term boyfriends; and Connor, who is alone and unhappy with what life has thrown his way. This is a lot of characters to fit into one story, and you could definitely end up reading one thread and skipping others. For me, the most compelling were Craig and Harry, who form the epicentre of the story and whose story runs through the storylines of all of the others. The others orbit around this main thread, some more successfully than others. In some ways they work in two pairs: Craig and Harry, with Peter and Neil, form one pair; Avery and Ryan, and Connor’s storyline, form another pair. But Craig and Harry’ story is so dominant, we hear very little from Peter and Neil – they are just there, living. That may well be the point, but it also feels slightly like they are an afterthought which is a shame, because Neil especially has stuff of his own going on which I think was worth dwelling on for longer. Avery and Ryan’s storyline was very bright and I enjoyed that part greatly, combining the excitement of meeting someone for the first time with the more negative elements of being seriously threatened and harassed because they are gay. Connor, on the other hand, is a spiral of negativity, in a horrible position where he has to keep his sexuality secret apart from during the night online when nobody else can see.

The thing I struggled with in this book was the narrative. Connor’s story, for example, could have been a short story all on its own. The whole book reads like multiple in-world short stories combined into a novel. On top of this, Leviathan uses a narrative “we”, which seems to speak both for the reader and for his generation of gay young men. I found this odd to read, especially initially, as I felt it meant we never got our teeth into the stories and the characters properly. I wanted the distance that the “we” perspective gave to be reduced, because otherwise the narrative feels to me like camera directions from a movie, panning across everything but never really zooming in for long enough for us to focus on specific characters in detail. I discussed this with others who’ve read the book, and it seems to be a polarising element – some love it, and some don’t. I feel closer to the latter – I prefer to be able to really get into specific stories, and I’ve never been keen on short stories as a form.

That said, there is a lot of characterisation done well in this: Connor’s character develops rapidly, although negatively, and we see him much more clearly as a result of events that he’s put through. We get a clear view of Craig and Harry, although as they are the main element of this story, it’s hardly surprising. The situation of being trapped by having to break the world record, surrounded by what happens to them from their friends, family, the press, the public, and the others in this story, gives us a real view into them as people which I don’t think we get as strongly from any of the other characters, apart from Connor right near the end. Avery and Ryan’s characters stand quite clearly, helped I think by the fact that they are new to each other as well.

I wish I could write more about this book, but I feel like as we never quite get into the characters, and that these do at heart feel like combined short stories, that there is very little more to discuss. I’m glad I read it, but it’s not a narrative style that I can get along with. If there’s one that goes into more detail with character etc I’ll more than happily try it though!

 

Things I liked about this book: The main story strand of Craig and Harry trying to break the world record. We are given a real sense of their community and what their lives are like, compared to the other characters.

Things I was less keen on were: The narrative style. It never got its teeth into particular stories, instead settling for scanning across many threads.

 

Two Boys Kissing: 6/10

If you liked this, you might like:
Every Day by David Leviathan
Paper Towns by John Green
More Than This by Patrick Ness

 

Follow me on twitter @unexploredbooks

Maggot Moon

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“There are train-track thinkers,” says Hector, “then there’s you, Standish, a breeze in the park of imagination.”

This has been on my to-read list for quite some time, after having a glowing recommendation from a colleague. I’d also heard excellent things about the e-book version, which is designed specifically to be dyslexia-friendly. It won the Carnegie last year, and I can certainly see why.

Maggot Moon is an adventure/dystopia led by a young boy called Standish Treadwell, who lives in Zone Seven with his grandad. We’re unclear initially how they came to be here, but know that everything is done “for the Motherland”. The dystopia element of the dictator-style government seems quite far away from every day, but is still hangs in the background through Standish’s every day life. The short and sharp chapters made a pleasant change from other YA offerings and gave a jigsaw-like feeling to our building up a picture of the world. This worked well in terms of building up Standish’s voice, but didn’t always give us a clear way in to the world. We know something is up, but we don’t exactly know what. This lack of knowledge makes Standish’s voice authentic, as there’s only so much a young boy would know, apart from that life is pretty rubbish and there’s no hope of improvement. What I loved about this book was that we don’t ever have the narrative zoom out to give us the super-wide context. We have what Standish knows, and nothing more. It makes Standish’s voice very realistic; we don’t even have hints of the author’s hand in the crafting of his voice. It’s so realistic that even when horrific things are happening, Standish has very little reaction. Because this is normal for life in Zone Seven.

The brilliant thing about this story is that it’s not a dystopia in the popularised Hunger Games way. It’s a dystopia in the way that I remember dystopias being before we got told what the word for it was. I think in the current climate of dystopia, if it’s not spelt out as the whole world and what’s happening in wider society and here is the horrible thing that is happening to the population, it might not be considered of that genre. This would probably classically fit into more of an adventure category. But we have the characteristics of a dystopia: a government ruling with an iron fist, controlling the media and the population and under totalitarian rule where there doesn’t seem to be any hope left. And we have a main character who, somehow, ends up retaliating in some way, no matter how large or small. However, it’s mostly retaliating in a huge way (think Hunger Games and Divergent) and Standish doesn’t respond in a massive way. He is very quiet, very subtle, and uses people’s perceptions of him to enable him to achieve what he wants.

It’s a book about a dyslexic boy who is told he is ‘impure’ but doesn’t let it weaken him. He uses this as his strength to play against the system for his little victory that he wants – to find his friend Hector. It’s got very clear themes of friendship and adventure and determination, and those aren’t ones that traditionally dovetail with popular dystopia, in my view. But these things are the things that make Maggot Moon so strong. In many ways it reminded me of Wonder, as it’s a book about someone not letting a disability or weakness define them. I like to think that most YA is about not letting things define you, but teens are reading these books in a context when the media is barraging them with negative ideas of the ‘right’ way to look and the ‘right’ way to think and the ‘right’ way to treat other people. Apart from Wonder, I don’t have a book spring to mind that I’ve read that has a main character with a form of disability – be that physical, learning, etc. And it’s so hugely important that we have books out there for teenagers that reassure them. We read books to find ourselves in them, and I don’t think YA always does that. It is very good, but could go even further. And Standish, to me, is someone who does this.

Things I liked about this book were: The fantastic characterisation. Standish’s voice is very strong and guides us with real authenticity through the novel.

Things I was less keen on were: The distancing at the start. It took me a good fifty pages to fit together the jigsaw of Standish’s context.

 

Maggot Moon: 8.5/10

 

If you liked this, you might like:

Wonder by RJ Palacio
Slade’s Children by Garth Nix
The Absolute True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie
The Wind Singer by William Nicholson

 

Follow me on twitter @unexploredbooks

The Bunker Diary

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“As soon as my eyes opened I knew where I was. A low-ceilinged rectangular building made entirely of whitewashed concrete. There are six little rooms along the main corridor. There are no windows. No doors. The lift is the only way in or out. What’s he going to do to me?”

Please note: There will be discussion of spoilers marked further down this post.

I was recommended this by many many lovely people, and got my hands on it the other day. I’ve been reading it little by little and just… wow. The Bunker Diary is really a book that stays with you after you’ve read it. I rarely go for books like this: psychological thrillers that you finish and feel like someone’s been messing with your head. But I’m very glad I gave this book a go, and it certainly induced somewhat of a book hangover after I finished it!

The atmosphere in a book like this is integral. When I was first told of this book, I thought it’d have to be something pretty special to pull of being in a bunker, seemingly alone. Who or what does the character interact with? How do you get plot, events, conflict driving the book forward? To be honest, in many ways I’m still not quite sure how Brooks carries it off.

Our narrator is Linus Weems, a sixteen-year-old runaway who’s been living rough on the streets of London. But one day he is kidnapped by a stranger and he wakes up in a bunker. Nobody else is there – but there are five empty rooms. And this story is his diary, recording everything that happens down in the bunker. He has a compelling voice; we are finding out everything with him, and he is clearly a teenager with strong characteristics. He treats the whole experience with far more of a level head than one might expect of someone that age. He doesn’t “keep his head when all about are losing theirs”, because it would be impossible to be in his situation and not have at least a few moments of crushing hopelessness, but he holds up very well given his horrific circumstances.

This book is hugely driven by relationships. Not long after Linus arrives, the other five rooms are filled. First (and, I think, most compellingly of all) we meet Jenny. She’s a little girl from Essex who’s also been kidnapped. She comes down in the lift and Linus takes responsibility for her. It’s a lovely relationship between the two of them, with Linus being something of an older brother/guardian to her. She’s obviously very confused and upset, but as the story progresses we meet this very brave little girl who does her best to stay positive and not let herself be bowed by things. In many ways, Linus and Jenny support each other, and their relationship is far stronger than that between any other characters that we meet in the novel. We have Anja, a rather stroppy woman who thinks most people are beneath her; Fred, a tough-looking heroin addict from the streets, like Linus; Bird, a snotty and generally nasty piece of work, who is your stereotypical London commuter figure; and Russell, a very old science philosopher.

All the characters are unique, and you get the hang of who is who very quickly. Most are developed effectively as characters by Brooks throughout the story, with the exception, for me, of Anja, who came across as rather two dimensional throughout. She seems a very vain, selfish, shallow character, which naturally lends itself to coming across a little more two-dimensional. Linus tells us she spends lots of time with Bird, insinuating that horrible people hang out with horrible people, but it means that we as readers gain much less insight into Anja as a character. Bird is excellently awful, with no consideration for anyone else and who needs taking down a few pegs. Linus is happy to oblige, and Linus’ reactions to Bird are very interesting as we see such opposite personalities clash. Fred seems easier to get along with for Linus, and Russell is a straight-talking old professor who automatically gains respect from some, and those who don’t are told to give that respect to him.

The fact that I could talk for hours about character on this blog rather than plot is very significant, and something that I definitely picked up on and thought about once I had finished the book. There are, of course, small events – like seeing if the lift has anything come down in it every day, or the attack dog that comes sprinting out one time. But the one character we know nothing about, and the one who intrigued me the most by the end of the book, is The Man Upstairs.

We know very little about The Man Upstairs. He kidnapped these six people and trapped them in the bunker, but we don’t know why or whether he’ll ever let them out again. The only interaction that those trapped down there have with him is putting the shopping list in the lift every day or so, and hoping that it magically materialises the following day. There are cameras and microphones everywhere, so nothing goes unnoticed by The Man Upstairs. The interesting aspect of this character is that, because we know so little of him, our understanding is based entirely on his few actions on the group, and the rest is Linus’ hypothesising. It’s this absence of solid character and motivation that really plays on your mind through the book. We have no motivation for The Man Upstairs to be doing what he is doing, so we just have to assume he’s doing it for the hell of it, or he’s a psychopath, or any number of other things. It’s the not knowing that plagues the reader with this character, and this adds fantastically to the insular atmosphere that pervades the story.

WARNING: SPOILERS BELOW.

The book leaves a lot of unanswered questions, and I can’t quite decide whether I love that or not. Part of me very much thinks “yes this is brilliant; we’re getting the unexpected; this story doesn’t play to our expectations and satisfy our wants as readers!”, but the other part of me wishes that we had learnt at least a teensy bit more. We never do find out who The Man Upstairs is. We never find out why they have been trapped there. We never find out what Linus’ relationship with his mother was like in full. It feels like a lot of teasers, with not very much reward at the end. And different styles suit different people, so some of you may be jumping for joy, some of you may be raging against the choices Brooks made with his ending. I’d personally have liked at least one thing knotted up, even if it was about Linus’ mother, but then again, if you are in Linus’ position, you may never find out the what, why and how. And I think it’s this realisation that really stays with you at the end of the book.

Some might argue that the ending was rushed, and that it just ended with very little fanfare or ceremony. I understand that perspective, but I also think the non-traditional climax was very much the point of the book. You have someone who has had all these terrible things happen to them, has met people who’ve died or gone insane or who are seriously ill, who doesn’t see any escape out of this bunker, and when something like the power goes, that could genuinely be it for them. It is a very realistic ending. No it doesn’t tick all the boxes, but I don’t think Brooks has set out to satisfy his reader. I think he’s there to do the total opposite.

 

Things I liked about this book were: The really well-crafted insular atmosphere, and the way the character relationships were developed.

Things I was less keen on were: Anja’s development compared to the others, and the ending. I still can’t decide if I love it or not.

 

The Bunker Diary: 7.5/10

 

If you liked this, you might like:

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
Lord of the Flies by William Golding

 

Follow me on twitter @unexploredbooks

Promised

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Promised is the final book in the Birthmarked trilogy, the first of which I reviewed here. I thoroughly enjoyed the first two, but as the third book wasn’t published in the UK, I had to wait for my local library to get hold of an American copy before I could finally find out what happened to Gaia and co. And when it did finally arrive in the library, I actually squealed with excitement! I don’t think the poor librarian behind me expected the surprise! But she was pleased I was enthusiastic, at least.

Warning: there will be mild spoilers for the first two Birthmarked books below.

Book three of the trilogy finds us with Gaia and co, leaving Sylum and heading back towards the Enclave. They can’t stay any more, and they plan to return to Wharfton and form New Sylum. Unfortunately, the Enclave rears its ugly head again, causing havoc for all involved.

I found the pace across this whole series well done, with the three books clearly being set phases of the overarching story, without being hammed in or unnecessarily extended. In terms of story structure and execution, it it done very well. Nothing feels rushed, and yet there is tension where tension is required, added pace where needed, and slowing down for moments that need dwelling on some more. This is one of the main reasons I have got on so well with this series, and I hope others have found this too. The first third of the book is Gaia, as Matrach, negotiating with the Protectorat. There is a moment where you think “so where’s the rest of the book got to go?”, but very quickly O’Brien unravels a few more layers of the Protectorat’s disturbing regime.

The premise of the Birthmarked books is a deeply disturbing one. The idea that women are turned into harvesting machines feels both dystopian but horribly real at the same time. It’s a clear result of the Enclave having an unreasonably small population, which doesn’t allow for gene diversification. Everyone will grow closer, biologically. The introduction of the ‘baby farms’ that the Protectorat is starting, to get more and more genetic diversity into the Enclave, is awful, and there are other disturbing things occur too (but which I will leave for you all to discover, otherwise I will have spoiler-ed it!). The way O’Brien handles this is neatly done, with observations from both sides as to what has happened. We see the Protectorat’s view, and the need for diversification, but at the same time women are being held ransom, essentially, by their own reproductive system. It’s a horrifying thought that this might one day happen – but then, a good dystopia goes into that territory.

In other aspects, however, it is a journey/adventure narrative. This is no black-covered doom-predicting YA book about how the apocalypse is coming to get us. I don’t have a problem with those kinds of books, but the Birthmarked series is not simply a dystopia. It’s about Gaia’s journey from Wharfton to the Enclave, to Sylum and back again. It’s about the friendships she develops, and the systems she has to work with. Sylum itself, in the second book, has just as many issues as a settlement as the Enclave does – but flipped. Watching Gaia negotiate these challenges gives us a greater understanding of her character, and we are invested in her journey very quickly.

In an interview at the end of Promised, Caragh O’Brien says she chose the opening scene of Gaia giving a baby to the Enclave as “having [her] main character do something so henious right from the start, but [she] was hoping readers… would give Gaia a chance.” And we are rewarded by giving Gaia that chance. She is no born leader, and we see her struggles against people who clearly think they are there to rule. Her reluctance in leadership, however, pairs off very well with Leon’s skills, and the two balance each other out very effectively.

The Leon relationship is one that I think has been strong from the start: introduced excellently in Birthmarked, and then experiencing that relationship through the trials and tribulations of Sylum, gave us a deeper understanding of both their individual characters, which meant that as readers we go into the final book knowing them almost as well as ourselves. And this character-building through the series feels perfectly natural. Lots of show, and very little tell! The exploration in this book of Leon’s relationship with his father, building on our earlier knowledge, dovetails very well with the plot, and always feels relevant to the wider happenings of the book. There is no info-dumping, and no lengthy exposition. If only all books did this!

The only thing I was less keen on was how much things were unpacked. Especially with the end of the book, and the changes in the order of things, it could be far more unpacked than it was. We, as readers, got that satisfying ending which I was hoping for, but as a result the actual world-development was left to be skimmed over somewhat. I would have liked to read more of the fallout after the climax of the story, but we don’t get as much of that as I would have hoped.

 

The things I most liked were: The pacing and quality of the writing, and making Leon more substantial than simply a love interest.

Things I was less keen on: I feel like it could have been unpacked more, and that while it was very enjoyable the length it was, there were elements that were fractionally underdeveloped.

 

Promised:  7/10

 

If you liked this, try:

Slated by Teri Terry
Slade’s Children by Garth Nix
Half Bad by Sarah Green

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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.

 

17302559

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!

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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

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