Third Book Syndrome

51+AoxKboxL._SX324_BO1,204,203,200_

Book: Half Lost
Author: Sally Green
Publisher: Penguin Random House
Published On: 31st March 2016
Other Books by Sally Green: Half Bad, Half Wild.

Blurb: The Alliance is losing the war, and their most critical weapon, seventeen-year-old witch Nathan Brynn, is losing his mind. Nathan’s tally of kills is rising, and yet he’s no closer to ending the tyrannical rule of the Council of White Witches in England. Nor is Nathan any closer to his personal goal: getting revenge on Annalise, the girl he once loved before she committed an unthinkable crime. An amulet protected by the extremely powerful witch Ledger could be the tool Nathan needs to save himself and the Alliance, but this amulet is not so easily acquired. And lately Nathan has started to suffer from visions: a vision of a golden moment when he dies, and of an endless line of Hunters, impossible to overcome. Gabriel, his closest companion, urges Nathan to run away with him, to start a peaceful life together. But even Gabriel’s love may not be enough to save Nathan from this war, or from the person he has become.

The third book in a trilogy is always a tricky one to master. Originally, I believed the second book to be the definer in whether a series sinks or swims, but in recent years that’s switched to the third book.

Given how much I adored Half Wild, you can understand how I approached Half Lost with both excitement and trepidation. The books so far have been so good, so gripping, and the end of Half Wild had me squealing incoherently. Would Half Lost live up to my hopeful expectations?

Continue reading

The Mime Order

9781408857397

“Some revolutions change the world in a day. Others take decades or centuries or more, and others still never come to fruition. Mine began with a moment and a choice. Mine began with the blooming of a flower in a secret city on the border between worlds.
You’ll have to wait and see how it ends.
Welcome back to Scion.”

NB: This is a review of an ARC won in a giveaway by @say_shannon .
The hardback of The Mime Order is published on 27th January 2015 by Bloomsbury.
Warning: This review will contain mild spoilers for The Bone Season.
You can read The Bone Season and my review of it here.

* * *

The Story So Far:
In The Bone Season we met Paige Mahoney: a young clairvoyant, a dreamwalker, working in the criminal underworld of Scion London. Kidnapped and taken to a prison camp in Sheol I, she was chosen by the mysterious Warden to be trained for purposes as yet unknown. But Paige was determined to break free and in The Mime Order we have returned to London, where she is suddenly a wanted fugitive, in hiding from her captors, many of her friends, and the all-seeing eye of Scion.

*

The Mime Order:

The Bone Season was one of my favourite reads last summer, and it was with eager anticipation I awaited the chance to get my hands on it’s follow-up, The Mime Order. After the high-paced action in Sheol I, we are left hanging at the end of the novel with Paige, thrust into a train with Nick, and Warden vanishing before her eyes. They’ve left Sheol I, but we don’t know yet if they are safe. What is going to happen to Paige when she is flung back into Scion? And what will the Rephaim do about their escaped harvest?

What I loved about The Mime Order was that it picked up precisely where The Bone Season left off, and it felt like a very smooth continuation. Yes, there were occasional drops of information to remind us about what had come before, but none of the “summary of the last book in a few hundred words” that can happen at the start of books in a series (one of my pet peeves). What Paige knows of the world gradually broadens in The Mime Order in comparison with The Bone Season, but it feels very much like Shannon is carefully pushing the world further out within Paige’s control – she’s not going to be stood there overwhelmed by everything all being opened up to her at once. And I really enjoyed that. I find with some fantasy that there is that tendency to go “epic” really quickly, especially with a second book in a series, but the slow-burner effect created in the Bone Season series so far has been far more successful. It makes the projected seven books very realistic, as we are left to assume as readers that things will get bigger and grander. After all, we are yet to learn much about the world outside London, so who knows where that might lead?

As in The Bone Season, the setting is fantastically brought to life. This is a place the reader can explore as if it were here in front of us: no inconsistencies, no places where it feels anything other than fully realised. Much as we learnt our way around Oxford in The Bone Season, here we explore more and more of London and it becomes familiar to us as it is familiar to Paige. We get an idea of her knowledge of the city what life must have been like for her before her adventures in The Bone Season. We see the workings of Scion, of government controls, and what it must be to live in Scion London. And most of all we find out what life is like working for Jaxon Hall, and the workings of the syndicate, which previously we had only spent a little time on. The underworld that Shannon creates is fascinating reading as we discover how the mime-lords and mime-queens govern their territory out of sight of the increasingly authoritative Scion.

Paige grows as a character too: she avoids the trope of the “strong female character” (don’t get me started!) whilst simultaneously being an excellent protagonist. She has weaknesses, she has characteristics that sometimes land her in trouble, and she treads the line between “I will beat this” and “I’m about to die” very thinly indeed! She keeps us on our toes but in no respect pretends to be a flawless character. After everything she experienced in The Bone Season, there are plenty of fears and worries and unanswered questions that she has to deal with, but in London there aren’t people she can really speak to about what has happened. Warden is nowhere to be found, and Jaxon is hardly the first person Paige would trust. Watching these concerns manifest themselves in an environment where she is on the run from Scion and not necessarily trusted by those she has returned to in the syndicate is intriguing and tells us a lot about her character. I also liked how Shannon played out the repercussions from Paige’s relationship with Warden – it’s not a traditional situation, trying to find the man who was your ‘keeper’ in Oxford – as there were plenty of opportunities to jump down well-worn storylines and they were avoided. This has made the relationships impacted upon as a result of this feel far more realistic, and avoids the pitfalls of other YA novels where certain dynamics can then overrule the entire plot, to the detriment of the story.

I would have classed The Bone Season as adventure fantasy, but in The Mime Order we begin to stray far more into dystopian territory. It definitely doesn’t go all Hunger-Games on us, but naturally by being back in London, and being closer to Scion, we see more of the iron first of government taking action of the everyday lives of its citizens. The very existence of the underworld syndicate is testament to Scion’s determination to be rid of all clairvoyants, as are the introductions of yet more methods in The Mime Order by Scion to identify and exterminate its clairvoyant citizens. But with the focus on the syndicate, we see less of Scion than we might, which works well as it means we are still focused on Paige’s adventure. It hasn’t upscaled into dystopia rapidly in the way that books like Divergent have, which plough the characters straight into the massive, overwhelming, dystopian situation where only the big things have to matter and you don’t have time to explore how the little things interconnect. The Mime Order is very carefully weaving the web of Scion, strand by strand, and so far it’s going excellently.

And then, the ending. The ENDING! I am keeping this entirely spoiler-free, so suffice to say that it was unexpected and brilliant and I certainly couldn’t have called that! And I am now DYING to find out what happens in book three.

Which is exactly how it was supposed to feel at the end.

 

Things I liked about this book: The smooth continuation from The Bone Season; the setting (again); the balance of dystopia and adventure.

Things I was less keen on: These are only tiny things now, but I would have liked to have seen more of Nick and Zeke. While Paige’s relationship with Nick may not be the most important one to her now, as it was at the start of The Bone Season, he’s still a really interesting character and him and Zeke have a really interesting dynamic that I would love to see more of!

 

The Mime Order: 9.5/10 (because there is no such thing as a perfect book!)

 

If you liked this, try:

Divergent by Veronica Roth
Slated by Teri Terry
The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness
Slade’s Children by Garth Nix
The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

 

Follow me on twitter @unexploredbooks

The Year In Books

So, it’s been a few months hiatus on the blog as I attempt to juggle working, reading, writing and blogging, but here is my roundup of the year – and a look forward to 2015!

 

book of the year montage

2014: The Year in Books.

The Book…

…I Most Enjoyed: Graceling, by Kristen Cashore. Properly written, classic adventure fantasy novel. Exactly what I love about fantasy all wrapped up in one book. One I will re-read again and again.

…I Was Most Excited to Read: Clariel, by Garth Nix. I have loved the Old Kingdom books since I was very little, and the news that a prequel was on its way filled me with delight. Luckily I got my hands on it at Bath Kids’ Lit Fest, and devoured it shortly afterwards!

…That Made Me Bawl: Seeing as the usual suspect, Patrick Ness, hasn’t released a YA book this year, the title of book that made me bawl the most is going to be split between Maggot Moon, by Sally Gardner, and The Year of the Rat, by Clare Furniss. Both excellent reads, both tear-inducing. Read with tissues!

..That Made Me DESPERATE For The Sequel: Half Bad by Sally Green. White Witches versus Black Witches, with lots of darkness and disaster and conflict. I loved this book, and as soon as I finished it I wanted the next one! Roll on Half Wild

…I Would Recommend To A Friend: Maggot Moon, by Sally Gardner. A fresh take on dystopia, with an original voice, and while it may seem like it’s for younger readers, do not be fooled. This tale of a dystopian future can be as dark as the next – but this is a book that is simultaneously uplifting in great quantities. It shows that hope need not be forgotten or futile in a dystopia. It also comes in a dyslexic-friendly medium on e-readers.

…That I Am Never Ever EVER Going To Read Again: Allegiant, by Veronica Roth. Hands down the most infuriatingly written, frustrating, anti-climactic book I have ever had the misfortune of reading. It made me so angry that not only did I write a spoiler-free review, I then had to write a spoiler-FILLED review because I hadn’t been able to sufficiently verbalise my feelings.

…Everyone In The Whole Entire World Absolutely Must Must Must Read Because It Is The Bestest: The Mime Order by Samantha Shannon. I’ve just finished my ARC and it was so completely brilliant and I am dying to read the next one! I have been flinging The Bone Season in to the hands of every person I know. And I’ll carry on doing just that with The Mime Order! Absolutely amazing.

 

The Best…

…New Author I Read: Sally Green. Her debut novel Half Bad was excellent, and I really did enjoy her work. There were a lot of good authors I read this year, some of whom are bursting from the seams of this yearly round-up (!), but Sally Green is one to watch out for in the future. Half Bad was one dazzling debut!

…New Series I Read: The Bone Season by Samantha Shannon. Well-paced, well-written, well-plotted fantasy. I adore this series, and am not as apprehensive as I was about it being a SEVEN part series. Having just received The Mime Order, I am now practically squealing with delight. The more Scion, the better! I am only gutted that it’s another year or so until Bone Season 3 is released – but writers aren’t superhuman, so I shall just have to be patient…

…Recommendation I Received: The Bunker Diary, by Kevin Brooks. The story of a boy who is kidnapped and wakes up, alone, in a bunker underground. Gradually, he is joined by others, but they are just as confused and frightened, and it’s all they can do to stop it being every man for himself. An excellent thriller that hangs on to you for some time after you finish reading it.

…Book Event I Attended: This, without question, is Cornelia Funke at the Bath Kids Lit Fest. She was brilliant: eloquent, interesting, funny, and never lost sight of things. For an author that has been around for such a long time, she was very grounded and very normal, and fascinating to hear speak about her life, her books, her writing and her inspiration. She was so fabulous that me and the wonderful @Lucinda_Murray just stood and gawped at each other when she’d finished, so awed were we by her amazingness. And it was utterly deserved.

 

2015: The Year To Come!

The Book…

…I Am Most Excited About Being Written: Bone Season #3. See above re: The Bone Season and The Mime Order. They’re fabulous, they’re brilliant, and I can’t wait for more!

…I Am Most Excited About Being Released: The Rest of Us Just Live Here, by Patrick Ness. I have loved all of Ness’ YA books (Chaos Walking in particular) and the news that another is not far from release is very exciting!! It’s already been added to my summer reading list (release date: August 2015).

… Everyone Has Been Reading For Absolutely Ages So I’d Better Jump On The Bandwagon Already: Hunger Games. Yes, I really am this late to the party. In fairness, I have read the first one (all that time ago in my first ever blog post!) but what with all the films everyone keeps going on about it and although I have heard nothing good about the third one, I thought I’d give the second one a go. How bad can it be…?

…I Am FINALLY Going To Read: Now, my current TBR list is well over fifty, but here are a few books that I really am going to make sure I read this year: The Kite Runner, by Khaled Hosseini; The Secret History, by Donna Tartt; Wintersmith, by Terry Pratchett; American Gods, by Neil Gaiman, and the rest of Lord of the Rings (I’m on The Two Towers at the moment!) so then I can FINALLY WATCH THE FILMS.

 

The…

…Author I Am Going To Read More Of: Francis Hardinge. I read Cuckoo Song after I saw a few tweets about how good it was, and I wasn’t disappointed. Creepy, ethereal, and ever so slightly Coraline-esque, I thoroughly enjoyed Cuckoo Song and am definitely going to read more Francis Hardinge in future!

…Series I Am Halfway Through: The Falling Kingdoms series by Morgan Rhodes. It’s not very often I agree with the marketing, but it really is like reduced-down Game of Thrones for teenagers. Three warring kingdoms, with rebels, princesses and fighters, all quarreling over ruling every kingdom? Sounds very Thrones to me. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the first two, and the third is out in spring 2015.

 

And finally… the book you’ll still hear me banging on about this time next year is: The Bone Season series! My hands-down favourite of the year.

 

What books have you enjoyed reading in 2014? What’s on your to-read list for 2015? Any books you’d add to this list? Leave a comment! 🙂

Graceling

9780575085305

“When a monster stopped behaving like a monster, did it stop being a monster? Did it become something else?”

 

Cashore’s novel Graceling is exactly what a fantasy novel should be – a tight plot, fantastic characters who you travel the novel’s landscapes with, and whose journey is constantly one of fascination and interest.

Our protagonist is Katsa, niece to King Randa, who is Graced with killing. She is a master assassin, used on missions to kill those that the King needs killing. But Katsa has also formed her own council of companions, and after they discover a kidnapping, the mystery only starts to increase – and Katsa is the one who decides to figure it out.

One of the strongest parts of Graceling is the characters. Especially in stories with long journeys, characters have to be brilliant to keep you engaged with the lesser action. Katsa is very distinctive very quickly and while some may think that Katsa’s manner fills the trope of ‘feisty female character’, I think Cashore has armed her much better than that. To me, having a ‘feisty’ character is only a problem if the character is two dimensional and that is their only distinguishing feature. Katsa has a depth to her character that continues to grow and change as the novel goes on: from the girl whose Grace is manipulated by her uncle to someone who realises what she wants and goes about getting it. For Katsa it’s a fight for her independence and she is surrounded by a wonderful supporting cast. Her friends at Randa’s court are engaging, and Helda is a particularly well-worked contrast – especially given she’s the only real female friend Katsa has. Katsa’s fighting grace has not gained her many female friends in the court and we sympathise with her loneliness when nobody wants to go near her when they hear of her Grace. The culture of her uncle’s Kingdom towards Graced children never feels too info-dump-y, and is always linked back to Katsa. The part I admire especially about Cashore’s characterisation is that every character feels vivid and real, and like they have their own fascinating stories to tell – even minor characters, some of whom might not even be named beyond ‘innkeeper’! They really are alive instantly as people, which must be very difficult to do; to bring life into even the most minor characters is a rare occurrence, I’ve found. It’s this that I think helps Cashore’s prose run so beautifully – characters who might only show the tip of their iceberg feel like there is a whole iceberg underneath that might have a story hidden inside. The even greater skill is keeping the iceberg submerged if it’s not needed; fantasy can occasionally show every detail just because it can – but these details should work for their place on the page.

And then the journey itself, the well-peddled trope of many a fantasy novel. It’s filled with many conversations and a lot of Katsa’s thought process but because of the nature of it (no spoilers!) that’s actually entirely relevant and necessary, as well as giving us the luxury of delving further into Katsa’s character. The fact she rides at breakneck speed doesn’t hurt either! There is not excess detail which is helped by Katsa’s practical way of thinking. If there’s a rabbit to be skinned, she doesn’t waste time telling us what it feels like. It’s a rabbit, it’s cooking, and she’s off getting on with something else. It offers a good pace to the whole novel that never wavers, which works really well. It means we’re not left twiddling our thumbs during any point of the journey. Nobody is hanging around in this story!

The other thing I loved about this is that at no point does Katsa either become reliant on one of her many male friends and colleagues, or throw away her story for the sake of a love interest. She says she’s not interested in marriage or babies, and the reaction within the novel isn’t one of “oh well maybe she’ll have changed by the end of the novel INSERT MALE INTEREST HERE”. I love that about it, and that it doesn’t ever say that Katsa is somehow wrong or crazy for not wanting to become a wife and mother. Without being too “and this is my opinion!”, Cashore explores Katsa’s opinion but doesn’t question it, which I think isn’t done enough when female characters go against their expected eventual roles, once they’ve finished gallivanting around whatever country in whatever story needs saving. And that’s shown as okay and there’s not a song and dance made about the fact that Katsa rejects the traditional roles the society of the novel has decided to hand down to her.

Other readers may consider Cashore’s writing sparse in terms of description, but I find it an excellent example of ‘less is more’. Cashore (and Katsa!) don’t waste words, and this is something that makes Graceling such a resounding success for me. Because it doesn’t waste words, the story is constantly ticking over and the reader, while not feeling rushed, doesn’t have chance to lose interest in any particularly descriptive passages, for example. No scene feels like it could be lost, as it all contributes to the overall plot arc. It’s a style of writing that I am both a great admirer of and greatly envious of at the same time!

Katsa’s story is one I absolutely adored, and one I’ll certainly return to. It reminded me of a cross between the Books of Pellinor and Magician’s Guild, two of my three all-time favourite series, and I don’t think I can pay it a greater compliment than that. I’ll be re-reading this many times in the future.

Things I liked about this book: The pace, the characterisation, the plotting… everything!

Things I was less keen on: If I was being indulgent I’d say it could have been longer, but only because I was sad when it was over and I wanted it to just keep going!

 

Graceling: 9.5/10 (I hear the sequels are EVEN BETTER :O )

 

If you liked this, try:
The Gift by Alison Croggon
The Magician’s Guild by Trudi Canavan
Sabriel by Garth Nix
The Forging of the Sword by Mark Robson

Follow me on twitter @unexploredbooks

Two Boys Kissing

twoboyskissing

 

“…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

41mzdjZeAGL

“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

bunker

“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

13010211

 

 

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

Follow me on twitter @unexploredbooks

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

 

Cuckoo Song

image

“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