The Guggenheim Mystery by Robin Stevens // “I would’ve gotten away with it, too, if it weren’t for you meddling kids!”

31176543Author(s): Robin Stevens
Publisher: Puffin (PRH)
Publication date: 3rd August 2017
Category: MG
Genre(s): mystery
Series or standalone?: sequel (#2 of 2)
Source: I received a Netgalley copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository 

Three months ago, Ted Spark solved the mystery of how his cousin Salim disappeared from a pod on the London Eye.

While on holiday to New York to visit Salim and Aunt Gloria, who have newly moved there, he goes to the famous Guggenheim Museum. On the same day, a highly valuable painting is stolen.

Though paintings don’t matter much to Ted, mysteries do. When Aunt Gloria, who works at the museum, is blamed for the theft, Ted realises that he can use his detective skills – and his very unusual brain, which sees more patterns and clues than other people’s – to find the painting, and discover who really stole it.

The London Eye Mystery has become something of a staple in UK literature for young people since its publication almost a decade ago. Like books by Malorie Blackman or Jenny Downham, it’s shown a capacity to appeal across age groups and is treated with a kind of reverence rarely seen in busy, snap-to-it publishing (this is partly because of late author Siobhan Dowd’s contribution to youth fiction – you can read more from The Siobhan Dowd Trust here, or see some recommendations here).

However, it may be time to dust off your dust jackets (see what I did there) and remind yourself of the crime-solving abilities of Ted Spark, as modern ace of historical kid detectives (these lines just write themselves) Robin Stevens has been tasked with writing a sequel. The Guggenheim Mystery isn’t the first book posthumously drawn from Dowd’s work, either. It joins stunning Carnegie-Greenaway winner A Monster Calls, written by Patrick Ness and illustrated by Jim Kay, and this year’s repackaged short story The Pavee and the Buffer Girl, newly illustrated by Emma Shoard. While you can read this as a standalone, and I’d recommend leaving a solid amount of time between the two to make any shifts in style or approach less jarring, reading The London Eye Mystery will fill in backstory and explain references.

It may have been ten years for readers since Ted solved the mystery of how his cousin Salim got into a pod on the London Eye at 11.32 a.m. and vanished before it touched the ground again at 12.02, but for Ted it’s only been three months. He’s travelled to New York with his mother and sister to visit Salim and Aunt Gloria, who’s now working at the world-famous Guggenheim Museum. Keeping the fan-favourites of the cast gives this story its core and several benefit from being fleshed out, particularly Kat, who’s revealed as a budding fashion designer. Stevens adds plenty of minor characters of her own as suspects, however, and while there are probably too many (they aren’t exactly memorable or compelling), efforts are made to subvert gender roles (such as having female characters in the museum’s maintenance-construction crew) and it gives Ted lots of leads to chase.

The mystery of the title is an interesting one, as Ted, Kat and Salim race to solve an art heist. More than the eventual villain(s) or culprit(s) – you’ll get no spoilers here – it’s the puzzle of the mystery that catch the eye, as Ted works through the many possibilities of the theft. I was intrigued by the choice of painting, too. Kandinsky’s In The Black Square (an abstract Bauhaus painting from 1923), is valuable yet relatively unknown, and seems to suit the story. As Stevens’ writes in her author’s note: “I thought that Ted would enjoy the weather in In The Black Square – it would stretch him in exactly the right way, and make him think about art, and why we value it so much.”

The return of Ted’s direct, distinctive first-person narration is the most obvious continuation of The London Eye Mystery. Usually, book folk (including me!) are pretty good at noticing tell vs. show, but Ted is all tell. It can be grating at times, particularly if you’re used to a more subtle or woven prose, but Stevens embraces it entirely, while occasionally dropping in details that the reader will pick up outside of Ted’s recognition. Everyone’s a bit nicer, too, with more closeness and kindness in Ted’s immediate family (mostly from Kat and their mother, as their father remains off-page in London). It’s also worth noting that the diagnoses made in the first book have fallen somewhat out of favour (autism spectrum disorder now seems more used than ‘high-functioning Asperger’s’), though Stevens makes an effort to flex an established framework in order to focus on Ted’s personality, talents and New York adventures. That said, the plot slides along a little too easily, characters spill just the right explanations to a bunch of kids at the drop of a hat, and the dialogue is very static. The book needed more complex secondary characters and the traditional detective-reveals-all speech still looks clunky in prose, but it undoubtedly sits squarely in upper children’s fiction.

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A solid read which will undoubtedly draw in fans of The London Eye Mystery, though the prose is perhaps overly idiosyncratic at times and Stevens’ Murder Most Unladylike books are still unrivalled as recent kidlit mysteries with broad appeal. 

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Beyond The Wall by Tanya Landman // historical fiction effort proves a let down

34668577Author(s): Tanya Landman
Publisher: Walker Books
Publication date: 6th April 2017
Category: YA
Genre(s): historical fiction
Series or standalone?: standalone
Source: I received a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

Britannia. A conquered land.

Running. Weeping. Blood on her lips.
Blood in her mouth.
Blood that is not her own.

After maiming her master, Cassia has no choice but to run. With dogs on her trail and a bounty on her head, escape from the vast Roman Empire seems impossible. But beyond the river, far to the north, stands Hadrian’s Wall – the furthest limit of the empire. And beyond it? Danger. Uncertainty. Freedom.

I snapped this book up because of its premise. Historical fiction set in the Roman Empire, but not from the perspective of a Roman? A female lead and a solid cover to boot? It’s eye-catching stuff (or at least it is if like me you’re on the lookout for more historical fiction in your review pile). The book’s protagonist Cassia once didn’t even know there was a place where the Roman Empire ended, but finds hope in tantalising rumours of a wild land the Romans have failed to tame beyond what became known as Hadrian’s Wall. I particularly liked the potential for deconstructing the Roman occupation through the eyes of a character who doesn’t fit into their highly stratified society. And the greedy, cruel, violent, hubristic Romans of fourth century Britannia certainly are the villains of the piece. Cassia only dares accept aid from one or two of them, and the major Roman character, Marcus, has secrets of his own.

This is the first Tanya Landman book I’ve read – the first I’ve even heard of, though I was vaguely aware of the name, probably because of the Carnegie Medal – and there were some flashes of promising prose (‘the statue of Neptune was face down like a drowned man’), particularly in the earliest chapters. The plot focuses on Cassia’s various escapes from slavery, taking her from stately villa to chaotic Londinium, from roadside taverns to the wintry north. As well as Marcus, she’s joined by fellow escaped slaves Rufus, Silvio and Flavia, and there were some emphasised moments such as the returning of the elderly Flavia to her village in Germania. However, just when the story would have been at its most interesting – Cassia’s arrival and acceptance into a complex, cultured ‘barbarian’ tribe (probably Picts) in what was known to the Romans as Caledonia – the book abruptly cuts away .Marcus’ narration reverts to Roman society and while it provides some plot twists, it means that the increasingly pent-up curiosity built by the entire first half of the book goes unfulfilled. A near-cliffhanger in what is slated as a standalone also makes for a displeasing, rushed ending.

The book stops short of the really demanding, thoughtful exploration its themes could’ve yielded, too. It hurries along at a commercial pace, but fails to stretch itself in the thematic department, as strong YA historical fiction should. Perhaps this would’ve been fine in a title for younger readers (and even then, I say this with a pinch of salt – look at the scope and skill of books like Robin Stevens’ Murder Most Unladylike series or Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s The Island at the End of Everything) but while the cover gives it an apparent middle grade vibe, make no mistake: this book isn’t for kids. Violence, particularly sexual violence, incest and misogyny, is not only pervasive in Landman’s text but is also essentially used as a carousel of plot tropes. Landman spins from one to the other before rounding back to the start all over again. It’s tedious, unoriginal and downright tasteless in a book which makes absolutely no attempt to pursue alternative sources of ‘tension’ or ‘stakes’. The result is a book that seems at once both ‘convenient’ – as characters pass through whole swathes of the Roman Empire unimpeded or have minor plot problems solved with almost oleaginous ease – and horrific. I won’t be recommending this one.

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A solid premise is let down by a narrow, unimaginative selection of plot events and an unsatisfying shift in character which fails to capitalise on readers’ curiosity about the very thing described by the title: that is, the wilderness Beyond the Wall.

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Now I Rise by Kiersten White // a brutal, bloodthirsty sequel

Today on the blog, I review another of my most anticipated reads of the year! You can check out my review of the opener to this trilogy (And I Darken) here, or see a full list of my anticipated YA reads of 2017 here. Warning: this review may contain mild spoilers for both books!

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Author(s): Kiersten White
Publisher: Corgi/PRH
Publication date: 6th July 2017
Category: YA
Genre(s): historical fiction
Series or standalone?: series (The Conquerors’ Saga #2)
Source: I received a Netgalley copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. All quotes are taken from this copy and may be subject to change in final editions.
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

Lada has only ever wanted one thing: the Wallachian throne. But foes stand in her way at every turn. She has no allies. No influence. Even her small band of soldiers is dwindling. 

After failing to reclaim Wallachia, Lada is out to punish anyone who dares to cross her path. She storms the countryside with her men, including her childhood friend Bogdan, looking for a way in, but brute force isn’t getting her what she wants. She needs another tactic. But her silver-tongued brother, Radu, remains in the Ottoman Empire and thinking of Mehmed – now the sultan – brings little comfort to her stony heart.

Unbeknownst to Lada, Mehmed has sent Radu to Constantinople. He wants control of the city, and for that he needs a spy. Radu envies his sister’s fierce self-possession, but for the first time in his life, his tangled loyalties lead him to reject her requests of him. He must succeed in Constantinople if he is to ever to make the young ruler look upon him with the same longing Radu does. 

The Dracul siblings must decide: how much they are prepared to sacrifice for power? How much are they willing to risk for love? And as nations quake and fall around them, will either goal be what they imagined? 

A ruthless, bloodthirsty, fifteenth-century what-might-have-been saga about a genderbent Vlad the Impaler may be an unlikely choice of subject for young adult fiction, but it’s certainly an eye-catching one. After the success of trilogy opener And I Darken – it went straight to number four on the NYT bestseller list – Kiersten White is back for more of Lada Dracul’s vicious clambering toward the throne. Sweeping and dark, it’s a sequel that commands the reader’s attention.

One does not simply walk into power in Wallachia, and the ferocious Lada has come up against foes which have her bouncing around medieval Eastern Europe like a particularly murderous ping-pong ball. She finds an unexpected ally in the formidable John Hunyadi. The relationship between Lada and Hunyadi – the closest Lada may ever come to a ‘positive’ father figure, and even then only because he’s a celebrated warrior whom she grudgingly helped out of a skirmish – is a fantastic addition to the book. Lada’s still not quite as heartless as she thinks is, and watching her wrestle with newly-complicated decisions was riveting.

This series is, however, told in dual perspective. Radu fits into noblemen’s courts with a patience and diplomacy Lada could never achieve, and their split to opposite fringes of the Ottoman empire makes for a narrative in which he can really test his wings. Unfortunately, this doesn’t preclude him from making poor choices (the Dracul siblings, really, specialise in those). His blind belief that Mehmed will suddenly return his feelings if only he does the sultan’s every bidding can get a little repetitive and tiresome, but the story as a whole is rich and engaging. It’s rare that both halves of an interwoven narrative are equally compelling. I was so absorbed by each section I kept forgetting there was a different storyline coming up, and after I got over the momentary surprise at a switch, it’d happen all over again.

Resolute, clear-headed Nazira was given welcome prominence, while newcomer Daciana quickly makes her presence known. Her relationship with a rather bemused Stefan is an effective and balancing subplot. Long-suffering soldiers Nicolae and Bogdan (poor Bogdan, Lada is treating him much the same way as Mehmed treats Radu) also return. Mehmed himself takes up less of the narrative but still manages to make himself less likeable in that time, while the holdovers of a ‘romance’ between Mehmed and Lada seem rather redundant when it’s clear neither of them are willing to love anyone the way they love power. Or themselves.

A busy, action-packed plot is driven by Lada’s ambition in the lawless wilds of Wallachia and Radu’s activities as a double agent in Constantinople. It was this latter backdrop – much of the book takes place during the Fall of Constantinople in 1453 – that made the book stand out for me. It’s an immersive, brilliantly-conjured plunge into a superstitious, crumbling city. I’d like to see more YA set there. White’s writing style is closer to functional than illustrative, with some unnecessary intrusions from modern terms (e.g. ‘block’ for a street) but it does the trick. There are even flashes of flair (‘The moon did not take sides. But the blood-washed expanse of the Byzantine full moon seemed to promise otherwise’, ‘the teeth of the castle and the people it devoured’) and even, very occasionally, humour (‘the sultan is the son of a donkey!’) (donkeys get a very bad rap in this book, tbh). That said, it is at times too brutal, unnecessarily grim, and it definitely won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. It reads like the middle of a trilogy, with plenty yet to be resolved. I would’ve liked even more detail and history – though it is even clearer here than in And I Darken that this is reimagined historical fiction, and it remains to be seen if White will throw in some unpredictable twists for the finale.

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Now I Rise is compelling, effective and demanding alternate history with a vicious female lead, increasingly developed characterisation and a rich choice of setting. Sweeping and unputdownable.

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Most Anticipated Reads of 2017 – July Check In!

Every year, the blogosphere is flooded with most anticipated lists, and before you know it, you’re knee-deep in releases which are five or six or seven months away while your current TBR stares accusingly at you from across the bookshelf. But sooner or later these posts vanish – often never to be given any kind of conclusion or follow through. This year, I wanted to check in with my most anticipated books of the year  and see whether they’ve made it off the list and onto my shelf!

Throne of Glass #6 by Sarah J. Maas

Originally slated for publication in autumn 2017, the final installment in Sarah J. Maas’ Throne of Glass series has now been pushed back to May 2018. SIGH. There’s no other term for it: this SUCKS. I was so excited for this book – Throne of Glass remains an epic and extraordinary feat of female-led high fantasy in YA – and can’t wait to find out where it goes next. Instead of an autumn conclusion for the assassin once known as Celaena Sardothien, we’re getting a spin-off Chaol novel called Tower of Dawn and more sequels to her (ugh) A Court of Thorns and Roses books. It seems Maas has joined the likes of George R. R. Martin, Diana Gabaldon, Megan Whalen Turner and Samantha Shannon in making readers wait years for the next legit book in a fantasy series.

Once and for All by Sarah Dessen

I was so delighted when I heard the premise for Sarah Dessen’s new project, and it’s out this June! The concept reads like such a burst of joy.  Weddings, family, a healthy dose of cynicism, happily-ever-afters and Dessen’s penchant for including past characters make this sound like a glossy romantic comedy to adore, and I’ll be picking it up as soon as I see it in a bookshop. Oh, I have been WAITING for a book like this in YA.

Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor

Another one whose publication date was pushed back, Strange the Dreamer was one of the most talked-about fantasy releases of spring, and when I read it earlier this month, I enjoyed it. It’s rich, immersive stuff, centred on a scholar who loves fairytales, a city bereft of its name, and a quest to get it back. It’s quite long (perhaps even a little too long) and moves at a frustratingly even pace, but Taylor’s inventive streak is unquestionable and the world-building is top-notch. The characters are clearly designed to contrast with the cast of Daughter of Smoke and Bone, but Taylor retains her distinctive, descriptive writing style and I’ll be picking up the sequel in this duology.

A Conjuring of Light by V.E. Schwab

I read the final book in the Shades of Magic trilogy – or as Schwab rather mysteriously puts it, the final book in the first arc of the Shades of Magic series – earlier this year and it was awesome. It’s a rich, chunky fantasy to get your teeth into. Full of allegiance, betrayal, bloodlust, romance, sacrifice, pirates, magical Londons and stylish coats, it’s a strong conclusion to the trio. However, I did find that after the first book, the series came to rely on plot devices and types of magic we’ve seen before. A Conjuring of Light leaves a veritable cadre of unanswered questions, so I’d definitely read more about Kell, Lila, Alucard and co!

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We Come Apart by Sarah Crossan and Brian Conaghan

I read We Come Apart quite early, and reviewed it on the blog in February! “Crossan and Conaghan, already at the top of their game as individual writers, prove once again why they are critically acclaimed Carnegie and Costa winners respectively… collaboration has indeed sparked something new in their repertoire. With a keen sense of story and an eye for detail, this dynamic dual narrative is a back-and-forth of fearless proportions. It is unflinching, engaging, sharp and occasionally, totally heartbreaking.”

All About Mia by Lisa Williamson

This is a book that had me at ‘Mother Teresa in a blazer’, to be honest. I reviewed it on the blog in March and really enjoyed it. “Messy, outrageous, vivid and engaging, All About Mia boasts a brilliant premise and some great flashes of humour. A solid cast and a satisfying style are marred only by a few duff or unnecessary turns of plot. A blistering and lively contemporary standalone ideal for fans of Trouble by Non Pratt, All of the Above by Juno Dawson or Lobsters by Tom Ellen and Lucy Ivison.”

Freshers by Tom Ellen and Lucy Ivison

Freshers didn’t even have a cover when I added it to my most anticipated list in December, but Tom Ellen and Lucy Ivison are a force to be reckoned with when it comes to laugh-out-loud humour and realistic UKYA, and I’m still intrigued to see what they come up with here. It will be published by Chicken House in August.

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Traitor to the Throne by Alwyn Hamilton

Another notch in my ‘actually following up on debuts by reading sequels’ belt, I read Traitor to the Throne before publication but reviewed it in April. “Rich, exciting and enthralling, Traitor to the Throne – the second book in what is rapidly becoming one of current UKYA’s most dramatic and action-packed fantasy series – is a commendable follow-up to last year’s Rebel of the Sands. This brisk but immersive foray into the world of Miraji – where rough wild west meets mysterious desert sands and long-hidden magic abounds – sees heroine Amani once again elbow-deep in fighting for her freedom and that of her people.  Hectic, pacy and bursting with plot, it’s driven by sparky bravery, simmering revolution, outrageous treachery, daring rescues, thrilling escapes, and surprise re-appearances.”

A Crown of Wishes by Roshani Chokshi

This companion to the New York Times bestselling The Star-Touched Queen picks up with a warrior princess, an unlikely ally, and a fight for survival in battle-scarred kingdom. Readers will recognise heroes Gauri and Vikram as secondary characters from Chokshi’s début. While this book published in March, it looks like it doesn’t yet have a UK publisher, which is disappointing as I was hoping it could improve where The Star-Touched Queen had lagged a bit. For the one-day-I’ll-get-around-to-it pile.

Long May She Reign by Rhiannon Thomas

My interest was piqued by the sound of this book when it was announced: a royal tale of conspiracy and inheritance, it’s pitched as an apparent edgy semi-fantasy mystery of sorts. Unfortunately, this is another one that doesn’t seem to be lined up for publication this side of the Atlantic. I’m not particularly bothered about missing out on reading it, but it reminds me how much I wanted to see more fantasy in Irish and UKYA. Publishers here really need to work on publishing more solid YA fantasy!!

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Honourable mentions (because okay, I have to keep the wordcount down but who can leave any most-anticipated list at just ten?!):

Wing Jones by Katherine Webber: you guys, I’d been waiting for this book for SO LONG. I did a lot of work talking about it and supporting it, and seemed like EVERYONE in the entire blogosphere got a review copy, but although I requested one, mine never arrived, and I was kind of too shy to say anything about it?? (Don’t worry, I’ve gotten better about that kind of thing now.) My purchased copy has been in my TBR for ages because review books often have to come first, but SOON, my pretty, SOON.

The Spellbook of the Lost and Found by Moira Fowley-Doyle: the second standalone from one of the best – if not the best – Irish writers of current YA is absolutely one to get your hands on, particularly if you liked the eerie, magical style of The Accident Season. “Dark, strange and littered with magic, Spellbook of the Lost and Found is a stylishly written and pleasingly clever second novel. As beguiling as it is befuddling, it’s a sometimes imperfect but frankly unputdownable addition to recent YA magical realism. I’m intrigued to see what Fowley-Doyle writes next.”

A Quiet Kind of Thunder by Sara Barnard: this book is glorious. It was my first (and so far only one of two) five star review of the year. I adored it. “This is a novel which finds in the ordinary the extraordinary: which has taken a humble premise, straightforward prose and a handful of characters and created a love story which may already be one of my favourite books of the year. (And perhaps even a possible awards contender, too).”

Spindle Fire by Lexa Hillyer: this high fantasy Sleeping Beauty retelling caught my eye last year, though it’s not really been a priority since. But again, where is the UK release date?! PUBLISH. MORE. FANTASY. YOU. GUYS.

Now I Rise by Kiersten White: A ruthless fifteenth century-set saga about a genderbent Vlad the Impaler may be an unlikely choice of subject for YA, but this sequel to the dramatic and NYT-bestselling And I Darken is just as ferocious as the trilogy opener. Set against a backdrop of empires and betrayal, it’s demanding, action-packed historical fiction. I finished it last week and will be reviewing it soon!

So far I’ve managed to read eight of fifteen most anticipated reads of the year, which I’m totally pleased with! Do you keep track of highly anticipated books in your TBR? Which of these 2017 releases have been your favourites?

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