A Thousand Nights by E.K. Johnston // a retelling in need of a bit more pace

252441111Author: E.K. Johnston
Publisher: Macmillan Children’s/Disney-Hyperion
Publication date: 20 October 2015
Category: YA
Genre(s): magical realism, fantasy, retellings
Series or standalone?: Standalone
Source: I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

This lush reimagining of A Thousand and One Nights is as enigmatic as it is evocative. It weaves out of Scheherazade’s well-known origins a different tale to the one we usually hear. Not wishing to lose anyone else to the monstrous Lo-Melkhiin, its heroine decides to take her sister’s place as his next bride so that she may save her life. Her kingdom is trapped in a nightmare which can only be ended with hope, courage and dreams of a kingdom peaceful once more, where each is free to choose their own future. 

A Thousand Nights tells the story of a girl who weaves whimsical tales not just for herself but for all those she has left behind, and the love in this book is that of sisters, families and their people. Shrouded with bewildering illusion, spilling over with myth, and crowned by magic, its blend of genres – fantasy, adventure, magical realism, pseudo-historical fiction – creates a shimmering and surreal quality: every word is carefully chosen, every page a step further into a spell. It has a stunning cover, too: a luxurious swathe of deep purple, spun with gold, pink and blue.

Even more surreal is the idea that most of the book’s cast are not given names. Much of our heroine’s family is referred to only be their relation to one another, and readers may be put off by the lack of identity and individuality involved in their characterisation. Even the heroine of the story – resourceful, self-sacrificing, brave and finding herself wielding an eerie, strange kind of magic in the face of oncoming wrath and war – never names herself, and we are left with only an imprint, an afterimage, of the person she is striving to be. It takes a lot of getting used to, and takes away a lot of her agency. It’s hard to put a protagonist on your list of favourites when she’s not given a name. The vagueness of the characters and the book’s slow pacing made it difficult to imagine them or relate – but I liked its focus on stories, particularly those of women, which have suffered the silence of centuries. A Thousand Nights makes a magnificent case for the idea that just because we don’t know a heroine’s name doesn’t mean we shouldn’t tell her story.

A Thousand Nights will sweep readers into a world of desert sands and strange magic – but it takes its time. Lavish imagery and constant metaphors are characteristic of a distinctive writing style which is at its best beautiful, but at its worst cloying. It verges on purple prose and it’s not the mostly immediately engaging style; it certainly won’t be to everyone’s taste. A dramatic finale is well-earned, but the rest of the book is slow and easy to become disinterested in. The plot is meandering, occasionally dull, and, perhaps due to the characterisation, lacks the ability to keep you reading. For me, there was always just something off about it, the absence of that indefinable ingredient which takes books from ordinary to extraordinary. The cover is probably its most memorable feature. For a more action-packed alternative, try Rebel of the Sands by Alwyn Hamilton or for more recognisable mythology, The Star-Touched Queen by Roshani Chokshi.

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Lush  and lyrical, A Thousand Nights is a story of the nameless, of the unknown heroine, of very real people who have faded into history, and very real acts of bravery and adventure which have been lost to time. Delicate and well-spun as a tapestry, it’s vagueness and slow pace are, however, major drawbacks.

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a pair of reviews // (mostly) marvellous middle grade

Today on the blog, I catch up on some middle grade I’ve been meaning to review for ages – this time, with plenty of action-adventure (and darkly-toned covers).

25613853Knights of the Borrowed Dark by Dave Rudden
Publisher:
Puffin (PRH)
Publication date: April 7th 2016
Source: I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
Genre:  f
antasy, paranormal
Category:
MG/YA

An action-orientated series opener with a hero by the unlikely name of Denizen Hardwick, Knights of the Borrowed Dark borders that line between upper middle grade and younger YA. It reads rather like a comic book, its pages splashed with gaping cliffs, flashes of lightning and lurking henchmen.

Clearly written and sometimes humourously self-aware, its straightforward prose must stretch to encompass Denizen’s rocky beginnings, high-octane chase sequences, and of course, the mysterious order of knights who are revealed to protect the world from monsters. The book is full of ghastly orphanages and enigmatic acquaintances, though I would’ve liked more thoughtful exploration, several characters could’ve been better developed and it runs the risk of casting all odd-looking caricatures as villains. Perhaps drawing on the influence of A Series of Unfortunate Events, the book drifts a little too much toward being a burlesque of every gothic trope known to fiction, but with plenty of “but how do we get boys reading?!” appeal and blockbuster backing, this planned trilogy will likely go far.

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Knights of the Borrowed Dark takes familiar ingredients of unremarkable-boy-turns-unlikely-hero fiction and mixes them with the heightened atmosphere of the almost-gothic – a kind of Rick Riordan meets Lemony Snicket recipe – to create an accessible fantasy début, though it doesn’t avoid all the pitfalls of its genres.

25995832The Blackthorn Key by Kevin Sands
Publisher
: Puffin (PRH)
Publication date: September 3rd 2015
Source: NetGalley
Genre: historical fiction, fantasy, mystery
Category: MG

I read this book in 2015, and when I was looking for titles to add to my review list I couldn’t believe I hadn’t already reviewed it! I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this one. The Blackthorn Key is clever, sophisticated and completely engaging historical fiction. Brimming with mysteries, puzzles, codes, potions, clues, danger and friendship, it holds the reader’s attention and while it generally favours adventure over detail, it’s doesn’t fall into the upper MG trap of being too simple – it’s both challenging and exciting stuff.

It’s 1665 and fourteen-year-old Christopher Rowe is in busy, bustling London, apprenticed to a master apothecary. Benedict Blackthorn is teaching him the delicate balances and steady hands required to handle and create powerful medicines, potions, even weapons – but when mysterious accidents begin to befall the city’s apothecaries and scholars, Christopher finds himself torn from the shop he’s come to know as home with only a dire warning and a page of cryptic clues at his disposal. As they uncover secrets and the net of jeopardy closes in, Christopher and his best friend Tom must decipher a plot as pacy as it is intriguing. Unfortunately, some of the characters read like cardboard cut-outs – and I particularly would’ve liked to see more complex roles for the female characters, who are reduced to minor, stereotypical background moments in a book which, with all its alchemy and adventuring, has no excuse not to feature well-realized female leads.

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An awesome, though definitely imperfect, apothecary adventure. Action-packed and easy to read with a clever, engaging mystery-solving quest at its core. 

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What’s this? YA recommendations for fans of Gilmore Girls?! YAAAAS

Today on the blog, we’re talking three of my favourite things: YA, great TV, and awesome lady characters. With just a few weeks to go until everyone’s favourite fictional mother-daughter besties Lorelai and Rory are reunited in Stars Hollow via Netflix, I thought I’d share a few reads to fill the Gilmore Girls-shaped hole in your life while you await the series’ return…

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7182579Along for the Ride by Sarah Dessen

In the inimitable Sarah Dessen’s Along for the Ride, academically ambitious teenager Auden works her way into our hearts as her usual composure begins to crumble under the combined pressure of big dreams, family relationships – there’s her force-of-nature single mother, an unexpected visit to her father, a stepmother she’s determined not to like and to top it all off her newborn half sister, Thisbe – and an unexpected break-up. Throw in a small close-knit town, the uncertainty of changing friendships and the possibility of romance, and this book makes for a classic contemporary with more than a touch of Gilmore Girls to it. Ooh, now even I’m feeling ike I need a re-read…

256003Life on the Refrigerator Door by Alice Kuipers

Simple, straightforward and often heartbreaking, Life on the Refrigerator Door is the story of a mother-relationship told entirely through post-it notes and letters left on, you guessed it, their refrigerator door. It doesn’t have as much of an ensemble cast feel but catches you right from the start as a character study. The epistolary format makes for quick reading – ideal for slipping in when you’re short of time (or in the final few days before binge-watching, as the case may be). You may want to make sure you have tissues on hand first, though, as this one’s quite (read: very) bittersweet.

The Unexpected Everything by Morgan Matson

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A fairly recent release (so new, in fact, that you can read my review here), The Unexpected Everything is big on friendships and on heroine Andie’s struggle to rediscover the warmth and closeness she once had with her now-distant politician single father. Focused, independent Andie has been on a path to med school for most of her life, but a summer full of surprises – including the last-minute offer of a dog walking job and running into sweet, bookish Clark – leads her to wonder what she really wants from life. In a list replete with beachside contemporaries, you may be pleased to note that with The Unexpected Everything there’s not a beach in sight: just a strictly-landlocked town full of familiar hangouts, friendship dramas, and some very endearing (if overly enthusiastic) dogs.

25663637When We Collided by Emery Lord

Emery Lord’s exuberant When We Collided is a book about family, fierce love and good food, set in a small beach town where teenager Vivi, recently arrived alongside her artist mother, meets local boy Jonah, who is struggling to balance running his parents’ restaurant and looking after his younger siblings with, well, actually getting the chance to be a teenager. It’s full of delicious details and there’s also exploration of themes like mental illness (which is rarely depicted so carefully or complexly on television) and how love – and help – can come from unexpected places.

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17307145Time Between Us by Tamara Ireland Stone

For a book more evocative of a Stars Hollow winter, Tamara Ireland Stone’s Time Between Us, with its snowy Chicago backdrop and cosy bookshop setting, should do the trick It’s a little older than some of the other titles on this list, but not much, and it’s still worth reading.  It’s led by a teenager who has a solid relationship with their family, and if you’re looking for a twist on the contemporary offerings elsewhere in this list, there’s the minor complication of the romance being influenced by, er, time travel to keep you entertained.

13625734This Is What Happy Looks Like by Jennifer E. Smith

Cheerful, captivating and easy to enjoy, Jennifer E. Smith brings a rich but straightforward style to this love story between Ellie, a girl who has spent most of her life in a small town and Graham, the boy whose accidental email sparked a friendship which has become so much more for both of them. There’s just one problem: he’s a teenage heartthrob, an actor surrounded by everyone except the one person he longs to see. Meanwhile, the knowledge that Ellie’s famous father is in no hurry to let the press or his family remember the scandalous affair which left her mother heartbroken has given her aversion to the limelight. Ellie’s close bond with her mom, affection for her hometown and dreams of being a writer give the book a splendidly Gilmore Girls feel.

And there you have it: six books to get you through the weeks until Lorelai and Rory’s return. Are any of these books among your favourites? Do you have any recommendations that fit the bill? Let us know on Twitter or in the comments below!

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Timekeeper by Tara Sim // plot-packed steampunk runs like clockwork (mostly)

25760792Author: Tara Sim
Publisher: Sky Pony Press
Publication date: 8 November 2016
Category: YA
Genre: steampunk
Series or standalone?: series  (#1)
Source: I received a NetGalley copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
Find on Goodreads

Two o’clock was missing.

In an alternate Victorian world controlled by clock towers, a damaged clock can fracture time, and a destroyed one can stop it completely.

Seventeen-year-old clock mechanic Danny Hart knows the consequences of fractured clocks all too well: his father has been trapped in a Stopped town for three years. He longs to work on the new tower which could save his father, but his fixation with staging a rescue is quickly becoming a concern to his superiors and he is instead assigned to Enfield, where the town’s clock tower seems to be forever plagued with problems, from rusting mechanisms to stolen hours.

But as a series of disasters befall the clock towers of other cities and Danny finds himself both annoyed and fascinated by a new apprentice, he begins to realize that the truth behind these mysterious events may far more complex – and dangerous – than anyone expected. 

Set in a steampunk Victorian landscape where time is tangibly tied to elaborate clockwork towers, Timekeeper has a striking premise – but more importantly, it reveals on reading enough intriguing ideas to keep the story itself entertaining, from teenage clock mechanics and mysterious clock spirits to the potential dangers of damaged time. The hallmark signs of steampunk are strict even for a niche sub-genre, so while it can’t be said that Timekeeper is original in all its details, it kept me intrigued from the start.

The book has been on the hype radar for so long that I couldn’t believe it didn’t release until November. I opened its pages with more than a little healthy skepticism, but I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it. What’s more, it’s a book where things actually happen – whether the heroes are prepared for them or not. It’s not quite unpredictable, but the idea that action can happen independently of what the heroes are planning or doing is one that I’d like to see played out more often, particularly in sci-fi and fantasy YA.

The book’s strong point is definitely its plot. It’s pacy, driven and has the feel of a mystery the reader can’t wait to solve. As Danny’s discoveries unfold, there are revelations, discoveries, action sequences, chases, dramatic twists and, perhaps most crucially, a palpable ribbon of cohesion and intrigue weaving them together. I actually guessed the final twist – on page 78, no less! – but far from making me lost interest, it made the book more satisfying. A fantastic merging of plot and sub-plot sees the series of mishaps bringing Danny back to the small town of Enfield again and again of course give him the ability to solve clues in a conspiracy which could have far-reaching consequences for the world as he knows it. It’s a rare book that rewards the reader so readily for paying attention, and like the intricate clockwork which keeps time running in Danny’s England, it slots solidly together.

There’s another surprise, too: Timekeeper has a great villain. Complex, believable, unexpected, clearly motivated – it ticks all the boxes. And I really don’t say that often, as I’m so used to YA and MG villains simply being the outlandish moustachioed bad guy whose motivations are generally just, well, to be the bad guy, that I find myself unable to invest in the story on a grander scale. It’s a tremendous feat from a fast read, too, though the book is very clearly written as a trilogy opener.

Danny’s rocky relationship with his mother and a mixture of animosity and pity from the other mechanics are very much the background noise against a quickly-developed romance. Falling in love with a semi-mythical clock spirit has ramifications not only for Danny but for the entire safe running of time (which clock spirits are supposed to dedicate their existence to). The romance will please fans looking for LGBTQ+ leads in genres other than contemporary (Danny is gay and love interest Colton is likely pan). It’s a little reminiscent of Twilight – of all things! – on occasion though (Colton’s jealousy and possessiveness, unhealthy romance cleaves main character from most other relationships, clock spirits are immortal while human Danny is mortal and breakable, yawn, you know the drill) and frequently relies on the tired “the world depends on me not doing this but I just can’t resist!” trope many readers will find grating at this stage.

Unfortunately, it’s with the characters that this book falls flat. They lack depth and, like much of the book due to choppy prose, are hard to visualise. I would’ve liked more sophisticated exploration of friendship and other relationships, and ultimately the book becomes a little forgettable without a vibrant cast. These characters are cardboard cut-outs, failing to endear in the case of the petty, one-dimensional Colton, or having their potential wasted in not being given an arc of their own, as with auto mechanic Cassie. Worst of all, the book completely lacks emotional payoff. It doesn’t make an impact or leave you reeling. A gaping misstep in a book which is otherwise pretty solid, the characters in Timekeeper just don’t leap from the page.

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Intriguing, pacy and packed with plot. It’s been a while since I’ve read a steampunk YA novel this engaging. For fans of Gates of Thread and Stone, The City of Ember and Mortal Engines, this début is let down only by lack of emotional impact and flat characters.

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The Sun Is Also A Star by Nicola Yoon // love in the time of culture shock and spontaneous snogging

29852514Author: Nicola Yoon
Publisher: Corgi Children’s (PRH)
Publication date: 3 November 2016
Category: YA
Genre: contemporary
Series or standalone?:Standalone
Source: I received a NetGalley copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
Find on Goodreads

Carl Sagan said that if you want to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe.

Natasha is a girl who believes in science and facts. Not fate, not destiny, not dreams that will never come true. So even when she meets a cute boy on a crowded New York City street and there’s something between them, the last thing she expects is to fall in love with him. Her family is twelve hours away from being deported to Jamaica, and love is not on her list of priorities.

Daniel has always been a good son, a good student, resigned to a life shaped by his parents’ high expectations. He dreams of being a poet in secret, and he definitely believes in true love, but he’s stuck on a one-way train to pre-med and he isn’t sure if he’s brave enough to pull the brakes. When he meets Natasha, all that falls away. Something about Natasha makes him think that fate has something much more extraordinary in store – for both of them. 

This book has all the ingredients guaranteed to have contemporary USYA fans a-flurry with excitement: a gorgeous cover, a magazine-friendly premise, and the prior success of a début novel already being made into a movie. But looking past all the flashing lights and blanket pre-release praise (and having learned to take hype with a more than a pinch or two of salt), does it really live up to expectation?

There’s plenty to like about the novel: its cinematic setting, a terrific mix of cultures (including some very memorable scenes involving a kind of Korean-American karaoke called norebang) and a story just interesting enough to keep you reading. Yoon has a great eye for detail and her characters’ chosen fields of idealistic poetry and sceptical science lend themselves easily to simple but sparkling pieces of prose (“sincerity is sexy, and my cynical heart notices”). If nothing else, it’s an enjoyable book. Quick, vibrant and sprinkled rather than crammed with plot – Daniel is on his way to a Yale interview which will lead to the career in medicine his parents have always pushed for, while Natasha is on a last-minute quest to prevent her family being deported back to Jamaica – The Sun Is Also A Star is told with warmth, verve and compassion.

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Of course, the twelve-hour romance at the core of the book is going to raise a few eyebrows. Unlikely as it seems under such conditions, Natasha and Daniel have a talkative, engaging dynamic – and they have a lot of chemistry. They are, however, very different people; theirs is an tale of contrast, coincidences, choices, mishaps and ultimatums thrown in with perhaps just a little bit of fate.

Unfortunately, the conflict between her scientific pessimism and his melodramatic declarations of love can seem overdone. There’s no subtlety, no delicate grace. Daniel is too willing to declare he’s just met the love of his life (who says I love you on day one?!), yet the book barely questions the idea that the stridently cynical Natasha would agree to spend hours she’s already said are her last chance to stall her deportation with a boy she’s only just met.

It’s a fast read but the pacing is erratic, with chapter-sized explorations of side characters and concepts which, while sometimes adding backstory, generally do little more than disrupt the narrative. It’s often hard to like many of the characters and if you’re looking for healthy family dynamics in teen fiction you won’t find them here. The book is heavily reliant on that particular style of American YA which involves breaking paragraphs on every second line, and regularly gives up on multi-sensory description altogether. Even worse, the book’s persistent penchant for tell over show is hugely grating. It’s a pity, too, as it’s in rare moments where Yoon allows the prose to breathe that it shines.

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Pacy, enjoyable and entertaining. A short, sharp second book which will undoubtedly find an audience in fans of Yoon’s début, Everything Everything. The writing style is curiously uneven and the path of its plot is a well-trodden one, but great chemistry between its leads binds the book together. When it comes to the ultimate love-at-first-sight YA novel, though, Jennifer E. Smith remains undefeated, while Sarra Manning’s gorgeous, whirlwind London Belongs To Us is hands down the victor if you’re looking for laugh-out-loud humour and feel-good storytelling.

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