Third Book Syndrome

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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?

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What Is ‘Normal’?

42-Am-I-Normal-Yet-Front-coverBook: Am I Normal Yet?
Author: Holly Bourne
Publisher: Usborne
Published on: 1st August 2015
Other Books by Holly Bourne: Soulmates (2013) and The Manifesto on How To Be Interesting (2014)

Blurb:
All Evie wants is to be normal. And now that she’s almost off her meds and at a new college where no one knows her as the-girl-who-went-nuts, there’s only one thing left to tick off her list… But relationships can mess with anyone’s head – something Evie’s new friends Amber and Lottie know only too well. The trouble is, if Evie won’t tell them her secrets, how can they stop her making a huge mistake?

I have just read the fabulousness that is Am I Normal Yet? by Holly Bourne. I saw her speak at Sunday’s Mental Health panel at YALC and picked up her book not long after. I devoured it in one sitting and my reaction was fairly excited-flaily:

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I have all the feelings.

Well done, book-excitable me, for expressing your thoughts so coherently (I went back and RT’d a few more eloquent tweets on the subject – see my timeline.)

Now as I said on twitter, I don’t actually think I can review this book in the way I usually do, because – well, it was just so good I can’t actually think of any critique to level at it. I guarantee you that in six months’ time, I will still be pressing this recommendation on everyone I speak to.

Instead, this book got me thinking. Thinking about the term ‘normal’ and why there is such an enormous drive for everyone, especially teenagers, to fit into this category that doesn’t seem to have clear parameters, that seems to change more frequently than the weather. (hello? it’s August. And I’m in my JUMPERS). One of the main problems Evie tackles in this book is her demands on herself to be ‘normal’, whilst having no idea what ‘normal’ even means. Does it mean spending all your time fancying boys? Does it mean going to places and events you don’t really like just because everyone else is? Does it mean going and getting drunk off your face at a house party?

And most importantly: Does it mean doing everything you possibly can to hide the fact that you might be in some way different?

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All of our feelings on ‘banter’.

This is such a necessary read for teenagers, and in fact all readers of YA. It challenges the assumption that we all have to hide ourselves for fear of being labelled ‘mental’, a ‘freak’ or a ‘psycho’. The odd parts Bourne drops in about the history of psychiatry are really important in informing readers of where these stereotypes come from. She takes comments that are sadly ordinary – part of what she describes as ‘mental illnesses gone mainstream’ – and challenges them, reminding people that you aren’t OCD just because you like to be tidy, that you aren’t necessarily having a panic attack (you’re just nervous) and that being in a bad mood does not make you bipolar. I’m sure we can all think of occasions where we have heard or thought or said something similar and it is so important that we check what we are saying and don’t make such ignorant, demeaning comments. Especially for teenagers, where diagnoses (diagnosis?) and labels are used so freely as insults or, perhaps worse, as the dreaded ‘banter’.

It also brings feminism to the fore (yay, feminism!) and has Evie and her two friends Amber and Lottie form a ‘Spinster Club’, reclaiming terms like spinster that are used as slurs with no male equivalent. It’s the sort of thing I wish I’d read when I was younger, as I didn’t really learn anything about feminism until university. Most importantly, it makes it clear that feminism is all about EQUALITY. Not man-hating. EQUALITY. (A fact that sadly seems lost on vast quantities of the media). With this not necessarily being brought to the attention of teenagers in the classroom – compulsory PSHE and a decent syllabus, please – it’s in books like these where young people can learn about important issues and topics like those that Bourne discusses in this book. And, perhaps just as importantly, they can learn to combine their frustration with the humour that Bourne brings to the fore; one of my favourite parts is where they are laughing hysterically over the ridiculousness of having so many movies that fail the Bechdel Test.

It’s light-hearted, it’s serious, it deals with issues that must be talked about more and more in YA fiction. And that’s why I loved it.

5 Reasons You Must Read This Book:
1) Evie is HILARIOUS. Proof that you aren’t simply defined by your illness.
2) It’s a brilliant, clearly well-researched, portrayal of having a mental illness.
3) A Spinster Club talking about how the world is a hideously unequal place. In normal teenage words!
4) It’s an emotional depiction of friendships, relationships and how they all screw around with any teenage brain.
5) It challenges what it is to be ‘normal’.

The Hits, Part 2

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In this post I’m bringing you my October reads: Siege and Storm by Leigh Bardugo, Birthmarked by Caragh O’Brien, and Unwind by Neal Shusterman.

Siege and Storm is the sequel to Shadow and Bone, which was published in the UK as The Gathering Dark. I borrowed the first book from the library and liked it – the fantasy element was well worked and the two main characters, Alina and Mal, were intriguing. So when I spotted the second on another library trip, I had to pick it up. It carries on from where the last left off: Alina has been living with the Grisha, but the events of The Gathering Dark have left her on the run with Mal away from the evil that has risen from within the Grisha Palace.

The story is much improved for having Mal around some more. While Alina’s time with the Grisha in The Gathering Dark was good, for me it missed the opportunity to capitalise on the orphan learning how to use her powers, something that I’ve seen executed brilliantly in one of my favourite book series, The Books of Pellinor by Alison Croggon. As a result, Alina and Mal escaping that sphere and going on the run livens the narrative up for me. Alina is very much alone with the Grisha, and misses Mal greatly; by bringing him into the narrative there is more focus on driving events forward rather than reflecting on what Alina misses.

It is also, of course, the second book in a trilogy, which automatically gives it the challenge of that awkward in-between place. It is inevitably tied to the books either side of it, and badly done can be filler rather than an engaging novel of its own. The Grisha trilogy, however, doesn’t seem like something for three separate books. Its story carries on, and happens to be split in to three. In some respects it would be stronger with three distinct plots of its own, rather than one that just moves steadily onwards, but it is executed pretty well and has me interested in reading the final book if it appears in my local library.

The next book I read was Birthmarked by Caragh O’Brien. This tells the story of Gaia, a sixteen year old midwife, who serves the women living outside the Enclave. The Enclave is the settlement inside the wall, and who take a “quota” of babies from outside the wall to bring in to their gene pool. One night Gaia’s parents disappear, and she has to go into the Enclave to find them.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. While it can easily be marketed as dystopian, to me it is good solid YA fantasy adventure. Gaia is a compelling narrator, and brings the world both in and outside the Enclave to life. When she smuggles herself into the Enclave we are treated to her careful and determined exploration of its contents and why they are so desperate to advance babies from the outside. Its sequel, Prized, carries on with the same strengths, and the claustrophobia of one small settlement with rigid laws sees Gaia work from within a system and trying to break out.

Her dealings with Leon, a guard inside the Enclave, are well constructed and never has huge overtones of “here is the boy there must be romantic interest!”. The two characters stand equally well on their own, and neither becomes weaker for meeting the other. The initially awkward acquaintance develops well, and O’Brien never lets it overpower the story arc. Gaia is never lessened for meeting other characters. She remains strong and determined and it is one of the main things I love about this book. I am just gutted that the third book is only available in the UK as an ebook.

Finally, I read Unwind by Neal Shusterman. This particular read was a recommendation from a tutor and one I’m glad I came across. The premise is that there was a war between pro-life and pro-choice campaigners, and as a result they created the rules of Unwinds – children between the ages of thirteen and eighteen can be “unwound” and their parts be used elsewhere, meaning they haven’t technically died.

It is a controversial topic and one that creates a strong dystopia from the outset. The three main characters, Connor, Risa and Lev all have varying stories from their different social backgrounds, but all have one thing in common: they are going to be Unwound. Connor and Risa are determined to escape but Lev has been brought up by devoutly religious parents who conceived him as a “tithe”, a child born to be unwound. I found Risa and Connor stronger characters than Lev, but then again the reader is exposed more to them. The on-the-run narrative is hardly a new one but Shusterman makes it work well. The only problem I had with Unwind was that I always felt the characters never quite got into top gear. They were always good, but I wanted them to be pushed further and to really grab me by the scruff of the neck and pull me into their story.

I also read Unwind as a stand-alone novel, and as such it works well. It is part of a trilogy though – what YA books aren’t? – and I’m not sure I would pick up a sequel. As one book, it is contained and works effectively. The scene of the unwinding, for example, is especially powerful. But I’m not sure where Shusterman can go from the conclusion of Unwind. It is a good read, but I don’t think I’ll be going any further.

Recommendation: Birthmarked, by Caragh O’Brien

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Siege and Storm: 7/10

Birthmarked: 9/10

Unwind: 6/10

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The Gathering Dark: 6/10

Prized: 9/10

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The Hits, Part 1

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I’m taking a rare free day to bring you ‘The Hits’ of what I’ve been reading recently. I’m still updating my reads and recommendations on my twitter feed where you can find me if I’m not able to blog super-regularly.

In this post I’m bringing you my September reads: Wonder by R.J Palacio, The Perks Of Being A Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky, and Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein. Two of these were recommendations from young adults, and I’m grateful for the suggestions!

Wonder is a story about August, a young boy who was born with facial disfigurements that have required multiple surgeries and meant he has been homeschooled for all of his life. But now he is about to try school for the first time.

The story has a wonderful pace, and the alteration of narrators throughout works, despite my initial misgivings – August’s voice is compelling and interesting and I didn’t really want to leave it behind. However, we are introduced to other characters and their perspective on August, which parallels well with August’s own narration. The only voice I was unsure of was Justin’s, but every other voice arguably has a place in the text.

Surviving school in your adolescent years is hardly new territory, but Palacio makes it shine with August as her lead character. It offers a fresh perspective as well as discussing problems such as feeling lonely, being bullied, and the usual arduous task of being a teenager – though the latter is largely through the eyes of August’s older sister, Viola. I was struck by not only the book’s warmth but its heart; this is a book that should be read by eleven year olds, fresh in their first year of secondary school and trying to find a foothold at the bottom of a new pecking order.

Another ‘coming-of-age story’, but for a slightly older age group, is The Perks Of Being A Wallflower. Again, the voice of the lead character is very strong, except Charlie writes in letters to an anonymous friend. I was apprehensive of this form, but Chbosky makes it work effectively – after all, Charlie is the wallflower, always observing and rarely sharing. Something about his voice is very compelling, and the combination of that and plot really keeps you hooked.

His negotiations of friendships is interesting; he participates, but it is a clear there are louder and more outgoing characters who could easily have stolen the limelight of the plot if it wasn’t for Charlie. By choosing Charlie as narrator it bridges the gap between the reader and the plot; you, the reader, are observing just as Charlie is. You see these teenagers growing up and how they are electing to spend their adolescence, and dealing with all the issues that brings. And as the plot tides over, Charlie has recurrent reflections on the loss of his aunt on his birthday. Chbosky wraps Charlie’s narrative together with great skill, tying together the end of the year and everything that that brings for the characters.

Finally, Code Name Verity. I picked up this book as I had heard it was good and know it was shortlisted for the Carnegie. It tells the story of a British spy, Verity, who has been captured after her plane crash-landed in Nazi-occupied France. She has agreed to co-operate with them so she won’t be tortured, even though it means, in her words: “I AM A COWARD.” She writes about everything she knows about the British war effort, through the eyes of her friend Maddie, a female trainee pilot.

Verity has a lovely tone. She is Scottish, basically aristocracy, with a cheek that gets her into frequent spats and trouble with her minder, Engel, and the officer she deals with, von Linden. She keeps this tone throughout, even if it does mean she gets into trouble with Engel and von Linden. It retains humour in the narrative which, given the subject matter, is probably needed to keep it from becoming too bleak. The plot works well as it hops between Verity and Maddie’s stories, and moves up another gear when Maddie ‘proper’ arrives to tell her story. I think the finale is well-executed, but perhaps missed the punch it could have had. Regardless, it is a well-worked YA novel and I can see how it was shortlisted for the Carnegie.

Recommendation: All are great, but I’d choose Wonder by R.J Palacio.

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Wonder: 9/10

Perks: 8/10

Code Name Verity: 7/10

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Follow me on twitter: @unexploredbooks

The Chemical Garden Trilogy

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This series was one I discovered rifling through shelves in the bookshop, before reserving the ones with potential from my local library. The setup is this: in the future, there is a virus that means all men die at twenty-five and all women die at twenty. This has created a world where girls are Gathered and sold as wives to rich men or to brothels in the many scarlet districts.

Our main character, Rhine, is Gathered and her heterochromia (different coloured eyes) makes her distinct enough to be sold to a rich man’s son – Linden – as one of three wives. They are swiftly married in one large ceremony and trapped inside Linden and his father’s mansion.

Rhine is determined to escape, something that threads across all three books in the series. But the atmosphere of the mansion is given its comforts at the same time: watching the relationships develop between the wives is one of the few cheerful glimmers in a house which is essentially a prison. In the second book, we see more of these relationships as well as of Gabriel, an attendant Rhine grows close to in Wither.

I enjoyed the series enough to keep reading – I liked Rhine and her determination and desperate searching for hope even when there doesn’t seem to be any left. But while no character felt very predictable, few other characters leapt from the page. Resident villain Vaughn, whilst threatening, does not feel completely terrifying, even when his experiments come to light. DeStefano also drops one of the main characters for a long stretch in Sever, and while this is understandable within the plot, Rhine does not seem to really miss them and so we don’t either. It makes what was an engaging dynamic in Fever vanish, which is a disappointment.

The premise was attention-grabbing and I skated through Wither at speed. They’re not challenging books to read, which is part of their charm, and so my brain didn’t have to work hard to get through them. I would definitely give this as a reason why I chose to finish the series – it was little effort to read them all and satisfy my curiosity.

DeStefano’s use of first person for Rhine works really well, and allows us to feel as trapped in that mansion as she is. Rhine is a keen observer of others and so we are able to paint a picture of the day-to-day life of the house without difficulty. The same goes for the carnival in Fever. It’s not the most vivid description I have ever read, but it does the job very effectively and without really drawing too much attention to itself as you go through the pages. As well as that, the characters we meet at the carnival make a welcome and interesting recurrence in Sever that distracts us from too formulaic a conclusion to this YA trilogy.

On the Waterstones blurb it reads: The Handmaid’s Tale for a new generation. But I’m not quite sure what has led this person to this conclusion, as beyond its trading young girls as commodities I don’t really see any other connection. However, if it subsequently gets unsuspecting YA readers reaching for The Handmaid’s Tale, I certainly won’t complain.

An entertaining easy-read trilogy, worth picking up from your local library.

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Wither: 7/10

Fever: 7/10

Sever: 6.5/10

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A Little Bit Of Gaiman

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I’ve always meant to read some Neil Gaiman – his style sounds right up my street and I’d enjoyed his Doctor Who episodes. I also watched Coraline with my housemates a year or so ago and really liked it. It was fantastical and scary and everything I’d been told Gaiman’s writing was like – even if the screenplay wasn’t his own work. And so I picked up a copy of Coraline, shortly followed by The Graveyard Book, both the editions with Chris Riddell’s illustrations.

When I started reading Coraline I imagined only the film adaptation, but the further I read and the more of Riddell’s accompanying illustrations I saw, the more independent it became in my mind. It became my own. I was able to re-experience the plot without being restricted by my experience of the film. Coraline herself is a wonderful character and one that appealed to my ten-year-old self; grown-ups are boring, and she wants to explore this house she has found herself in. She thinks herself older than her age – what child doesn’t? – and spends her time exploring the area around her house.

Gaiman imbues a sense of mysticism and otherworldliness in his setting, drawing you in and making the unusual seem perfectly normal. This is also true of The Graveyard Book, with Bod and his home in the graveyard. In Coraline, however, it is the inside which seems more curious. Coraline is fascinated by a passageway that was bricked up but now is clear, leading her to the realm of the Other Mother and Other Father who replicate her real parents, but with buttons for eyes: buttons they want to sew onto Coraline’s eyes. It is this kind of detail that I really liked. I can imagine reading this when I was much younger and being completely terrified, in the best kind of way. Coraline is determined and plucky and things I want a heroine to be. She will not be cowed by this chilling Other Mother who is hunting her down.

I followed Coraline with The Graveyard Book, about a boy called Bod Owens (short for Nobody) who is raised in a graveyard by ghosts. The setting is once again Gaiman’s forte: within the first few chapters I had gone from my spot on the sofa and I was in the graveyard with Bod, exploring its grounds, and talking to all the different ghosts. And the plot paces out excellently, too. We open with ‘the man Jack’, who has come to Bod’s house and killed his parents and sister. Luckily, Bod is a natural explorer and has escaped his crib and makes it safely into the graveyard. And then we meet the ghosts of the graveyard, all discussing what to do about Bod. As a reader you don’t even hesitate to think: ‘but they’re ghosts’. It is simply the obvious.

The story of Bod’s survival churns on as the book progresses, and meanwhile Gaiman uses the opportunity to show us through Bod’s everyday life. His education at the hands of various graveyard residents, meeting another child, and his relationship with Silas. Mr and Mrs Owens are his adopted, ghostly parents; Silas is his guardian. I loved the character of Silas. He is that dark, knowledgeable figure who comes and goes, never quite tells the whole story, and who is endlessly fascinating to a young child like Bod – or indeed, like any of us. It seems a fairly standard fantasy character, but somehow Silas doesn’t seem the stereotypical dark mysterious mentor. Gaiman manages to avoid that pitfall, and I’m still not sure how. He just sort of… does. It’s definitely a feature of his writing, as no other book comes to mind that is so very fantastical and other, yet is so straightforward to the reader.

My only regret with this first foray into Neil Gaiman’s works is that I was not younger when I first read them. I think there is a certain element to both of these books that needs you to be a child when you read them. But that hasn’t stopped me from ordering them both for my bookshelves – I’m pretty sure these are books I’m going to be re-reading in future, particularly The Graveyard Book.

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Coraline: 8/10

The Graveyard Book: 8.5/10

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More Than This

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“A book… it’s a world all on its own too. A world made of words, where you live for a while.”

It seems appropriate to open with this quote, from Patrick Ness’ latest YA offering, More Than This. I have spent the last day or two in its world, and it has been a fascinating ride.

The book opens with the line: “Here is the boy, drowning.” And in the first three pages the boy, Seth, dies. So where to go from here? Ness spends most of the book answering this question. More Than This is an exercise in curiosity, teasing you further and further inside its pages until you’re totally sucked in and can’t fathom how you got this deep into it. After all, Seth is in a world all by himself. You would think that with only one character, things would get stale rather quickly.

But Ness really plays on this idea of isolation. Even the tiniest movement in this empty place has you jumping with fright. Aside from the lack of people, where are the animals? The sounds? The eeriness of this abandoned setting sinks in to you, and just as you’ve become accustomed to Seth’s immediate surroundings you are thrown completely off by the introduction of something new.

I wish I could be more specific, but as Patrick Ness says in his video here, the book relies greatly on its mystery, and I don’t want to spoil it for any of you who might not have read it. The unfurling of the mystery is what I love the most about this book. Ness has done it previously, in his acclaimed Chaos Walking trilogy, where he opens in the isolation of Prentisstown and slowly spreads outwards and uncovers greater and bigger things. But here it is even more pronounced, as you do not have the distractions of an action-packed plot to take away from it. This is not to lessen the effect – by taking a more minimalist approach, as this story demands, its impact is heightened and made more impressive. And as a reader you get these glorious nuggets of realisation, where enough things are unfurled to allow you to unlock another part of the puzzle.

It might not seem like the most obvious book to sit in the YA category, but yet again Ness has gauged his audience perfectly. Within the scope of this novel he covers a multitude of themes from relationships to bullying to parental trouble and of course, friendship. It is not a book ‘about’ any of these things, but he covers it all within exploration and narration of this world Seth has found himself in. That is one of the reasons I think Ness is such a great YA writer: he threads all of these themes in to make one seamless whole.

His Chaos Walking trilogy is something I find very hard to criticise, both plot-wise and linguistically. More Than This is not far off. However, in the carefully paced opening section of the novel his use of new single-line paragraph for effect can be a little much, overemphasising more than he needs to. This technique faded for me in the second half of the book though, although this may have been because of the steady increase in pace throughout the novel. I initially found the pace unsettling, but then again I should have expected it after being treated to the first few chapters at the Hay Festival. And I don’t see how this novel could have been approached any faster without ruining its wonderful tension.

I thoroughly enjoyed More Than This, and am grateful that Patrick Ness has chosen to once again write for the YA market. Inside the back cover it informs us that he has won every major prize in children’s fiction, including the Carnegie – twice! If he carries on producing works like this, I will be very much surprised if he doesn’t win them all over again.

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More Than This: 9/10

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My review of A Monster Calls HERE

Listen to Patrick Ness talking about Chaos Walking HERE