The Song Rising by Samantha Shannon // a strong sequel in a complex supernatural saga

Today on the blog, I’m catching up on some (you might want to sit down for this) adult science fiction and fantasy! As it’s the third book in the series, there may be a few spoilers but I’ve tried to keep them to a minimum!

28433405Author(s): Samantha Shannon
Publisher: Bloomsbury
Publication date: March 7th, 2017
Category: 
adult, crossover
Source: Library
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

Paige Mahoney has risen to the dangerous position of Underqueen, which gives her rule over London’s criminal population. But with vengeful enemies still at large, including the lethally dangerous Jaxon Hall, the task of stabilising a fractured underworld has never seemed so challenging.

Scion are closing in on the clairvoyant community, determined to quell rebellion before it spreads. And their next step could spell the end for Paige’s bid for freedom before it has even really begun… 

I caught up on the third book in Samantha Shannon’s seven-volume high-concept science fiction and fantasy saga earlier this spring. Series opener The Bone Season had a blockbuster premise, while The Mime Order made effective use of what was essentially a murder mystery plot. However, these books are dense, their stories long, the wait between them even longer, and any faltering in pace or efficacy risks the reader’s attention wandering. The Mime Order ends on a pretty intense sequence, but by the time The Song Rising came around, it was one of the only dystopian series I was still reading – the strong presence of fantasy elements like clairvoyance give it just enough of a cross-genre feel – and it could have been make or break.

A clairvoyant with the rare ability to dreamwalk – to leave her own body and enter the subconscious or dreamscape of others – Paige Mahoney has risen from criminal mollisher to the rank of Underqueen, overthrowing her old boss Jaxon Hall in the process. But Paige wants something Jaxon didn’t. She’s mobilising London’s unnaturals into a rebellion against Scion, the all-seeing anchor which has spent centuries feeding clairvoyants to otherworldly beings known as Rephaim. Hers is a ragtag collection of voyants, from longtime friends Nick and Danica to the battle-hardened Ognena Maria. They’re joined by several Rephaim sympathetic to the cause, including the ever dark and enigmatic Warden. With Scion closing in, they’ll need to destroy the latest piece of clairvoyant-hunting technology in order to give their rebellion a chance.

It’s fortunate, then, that The Song Rising showcases some of Shannon’s best work yet. Her writing is clear and more assured than ever before. Solidly constructed and smartly plotted, with admirably tight pacing and a compelling conflict, it thrums with action, from high-octane escapes to the series’ most dramatic finale yet. Its motifs of rebellion are fierce and evocative. There’s plenty to like, from inventive names and slang to intriguing details that will surely take root and reappear in later books. Also, shout-out to seeing more of Paige’s Irish heritage – there’s even use of Irish and the Scottish equivalent Gáidhlig! Needless to say I’d like to see more of that in the sequels.

There are the requisite elements of the supernatural, but there’s notable elaboration in setting and world-building, too. Paige discovers a world north of London, one of grimy slums and ancient cities and even snowy wilderness. For the first time in this series, there’s a sense that there’s a world beyond the one Paige knows to explore. It’s finally possible to see the scope of this saga, and I’m intrigued to see just how big and bold Samantha Shannon will make it.

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A strong addition to to Samantha Shannon’s name-making series, with an enthralling, pacy plot and a vivid, action-packed finale. Surprisingly unputdownable. 

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Unconventional by Maggie Harcourt // charming, fan-respectful YA

Today on The Paper Alchemist, I’m catching up on contemporary. This was actually supposed to be a mini-review but there are just so many things to like about it (though it’s still technically a little shorter than usual)! *shoves thousand-word reviews out of shot with foot*

32820770Author(s): Maggie Harcourt
Publisher: Bloomsbury
Publication date: 1st February 2017
Source: Library
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

Lexi has grown up helping her dad with his events business. She likes to stay behind the scenes, planning and organising. Then teenage author Aidan Green – messy-haired and annoyingly charismatic – arrives unannounced at the first convention of the year, and Lexi’s life is thrown into disarray.

In a flurry of late-night conversations, mixed messages and butterflies, Lexi discovers that some things can’t be planned. Things like falling in love…

You may have seen Maggie Harcourt’s Unconventional on my list of seven major YA books I accidentally hadn’t yet got around to reading last year. You’ll be pleased to hear I read it soon afterwards – and what’s more, Harcourt’s Theatrical made it onto my list of most anticipated books for 2018 partly because of its own premise and partly because I enjoyed Unconventional so much. I have a signed copy, too, which is an added delight.

This contemporary is full of fun, fandom and geeky friendships. It’s a book that says it’s okay, even brilliant, to be passionate about things, and it embraces the peculiar microcosm that is fan culture. It’s light but never vapid, and it’s written in suitably straightforward, chatty prose. It’s set at a convention – or to be more accurate multiple conventions – a great choice for a standalone, and written with the knowing, tell-tale nods of a seasoned con-goer. Lexi’s frantic behind-the-scenes scramble is all lanyards and emergency errands, so it’s not glamourous at all, but it serves to make starrier moments stand out.

One of those starrier strands is the romance. Lexi and Aidan’s first love romance is nerdy, cute and builds patiently. Lexi is smart and capable but uncertain about what she wants to do with her life, while Aidan is at first a little prickly but soon reveals himself a worthy love interest. You absolutely believe that there’s a story for them after the book ends. I also liked the sound of Piecekeepers, Unconventional’s high concept urban fantasy book-within-a-book – it’s almost enough to make you want to read more of it!

Elsewhere, Lexi has imperfect but ultimately positive relationships with her parents (her mother lives with her French girlfriend and her father is, to Lexi’s initial reluctance, about to marry his long-time partner). There are plenty of friendships too, like with best friend Sam and fellow convention stalwarts Nadiya and Bede, from which lots of humour emerges. The plot is character-centric, right down to inter-convention rivalries, and though there are some cool scenes – rooftops, a wedding, a handful of multimedia additions – it could have been a little stronger. Some of the background characters are flat, the story requires some suspension of disbelief and a scene or two more set outside the convention circuit would have been helpful. If you can make it through the slow first half, however, Unconventional makes for quirky, enjoyable contemporary YA. If you liked Geekerella by Ashley Poston or The Unexpected Everything by Morgan Matson, this is the UKYA contemporary for you.

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Unconventional is fun, fan-respectful, well-written contemporary YA fiction. Light but never airy, it has a nerdy, almost slow-build romance and makes for a neat, memorable standalone. Hugely enjoyable. 

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A Shiver of Snow and Sky by Lisa Lueddecke // an impressive, icy fantasy debut

Today on the blog, I’m diving in to some YA fantasy…

32602009Author(s): Lisa Lueddecke
Publisher: Scholastic
Publication date: October 5th 2017
Source: Library
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

On the frozen island of Skane, the sky speaks. Beautiful lights appear on clear nights, and their colours have meaning. Green means the Goddess is happy and all is well. Blue means a snow storm is on the way.

But red is rare. Red is a warning.

Seventeen years ago, the sky turned red just as Ósa was born, unleashing a plague that claimed the lives of hundreds of villagers, including her own mother. But when she sees for herself a night sky turned crimson, this time she decides she must find a way to stop the onslaught before lives are lost again.

A Shiver of Snow and Sky is one of those books I’d been intending to read for ages. I think it probably got a bit snowed under in the blizzard that is October in publishing, but when I did finally manage to pick up a copy, I found a fantasy so atmospheric and engrossing I had to go and put a scarf on while reading it.

Long ago, Ósa’s people were chased off the mainland by a monstrous enemy, the Ør. For generations, they have eked out a living on the inhospitable island of Skane, at the mercy of sudden snowstorms and half-frozen seas. When a plague outbreak threatens, seventeen-year-old Ósa sets out to find the Goddess in the mountains and ask for her help. She leaves behind her bitter father and sister, who have resented her ever since her mother died soon after childbirth, and her closest friend Ivar, a rune singer who can read the ancient words of their ancestors. Ahead of her there is great danger, but it is a path to hope.

Lueddecke’s worldbuilding is straightforward and evocative. Skane’s wind-chilled plains, snow-covered forests and hunkered-down villages seep off the page. Certain details – the runes, the caves, the fishing, the clothes – are particularly memorable. And the plot is so elegant. Ósa has a clear goal. Her story has clear structure. There’s one big twist in a handful of smaller twists. It was music to my review-hardened ears. Lueddecke’s writing style is rangy enough to handle action sequences and more thoughtful stretches. To encompass simpler (“Cold was an unforgiving intruder”) and more elaborate moments (“It would be the kind of storm the sky would have warned us about, if it hadn’t been bleeding red”; “A loneliness that made me better acquainted with myself”).

A Shiver of Snow and Sky is the story of determined, serious Ósa, but it also returns to the village and an equally focused but more willingly open Ivar as their community prepares for oncoming danger. The shift from first to third person is initially a little jarring, but it really works once it settles in. What begins as a grounded fantasy actually embraces myth and magic in an intensifying fashion, and while it’s relatively short for a fantasy, in the early stages it still exquisitely draws out its pacing. It savours some of its time on the page.

What’s more, the book feels original, not because of the innovation of its parts – associating the constellations with myth is common across human history, the room sequence is reminiscent of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone,  the whole vibe is very North-of-the-Wall Game of Thrones – but because of the deft way they’re put together. The book is light on the romance, but squint and even in the freezing temperatures of Skane you could probably see it as a slow-burn. I had a few qualms – the characters could have been more developed, it was a bit grim for my tastes at times, I could take or leave the incidents with the giants, a female friendship for Ósa would have been a welcome addition, and there are some loose ends which look set to remain untied given that the next book is a prequel – but otherwise, this is a pretty great fantasy début.

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A Shiver of Snow and Sky is evocative, atmospheric and elegantly plotted. One of the best young adult fantasy books I’ve read so far this year.

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a pair of reviews // Night Owls by Jenn Bennett and Second Best Friend by Non Pratt

It’s a veritable contemporary YA extravaganza on the blog today!

25327818Author(s): Jenn Bennett
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Publication date: 13th August 2017
Source: Library
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

Meeting Jack on San Francisco’s night bus turns Beatrix’s world upside down. Jack is charming, attractive, and one of San Francisco’s most wanted graffiti artists – and he makes Beatrix wonder if art can be more than the medical drawing she’s confined herself to. 

By night and on city rooftops, Beatrix and Jack get to know each other – and each other’s secrets. But will these secrets come back to haunt him? Or will the skeletons in her family’s closet tear them apart?

Page-turning and often charming, I was surprised by how much I liked this contemporary standalone. I hadn’t heard much about Night Owls before I started reading, and I had to start and re-start reading it a couple of times before it really hooked me, but once it did I flew through it. Bennett’s writing style is straightforward, neat and fast.

Thrown together in a San Francisco of slick city streets and trendy yoga studios, Jack and Bex – a  rebellious, enigmatic graffiti artist grappling with his wealthy family’s secrets and a single-minded aspiring medical illustrator, daughter of a single mom – make an unlikely but believable pair. Their romance, which is to an extent built on friendly verbal sparring, features some miscommunication (or lack of communication), but also has considerable stretches of swoon, and there is frank communication about relevant teenage experiences like sex. Bennett’s finest achievement, however, is to conjure an almost sweeping sense of artistry and passion from two unexpected, and very different, types of art.

Bennett’s reveal of Jack’s motive and treatment of serious mental illness could have been better handled, and there’s a touch of ick factor to descriptions of Bex’s medical illustrations. The resolution relies on a suspicious number of characters existing only to offer to splash a considerable amount of money around, like very privileged guardian angels. The story needed more fleshed-out friendships and while Beatrix’s brother brings his boyfriend home to meet his family in one particularly memorable scene, the book as a whole perhaps isn’t the most memorable YA fiction.

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Set in slick San Francisco, this arty contemporary has faults but also a rich seam of swoon. For fans of Lydia Ruffles and Susane Colasanti.

352228491Author(s): Non Pratt 
Publisher: 
Barrington Stoke
Publication date:
15th January 2018
Source: I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

Jade and Becky are best friends. But when Jade’s ex lets on that everyone thinks Becky is better than she is – at everything – Jade finds herself noticing just how often she comes second to her friend. 

When Jade is voted party leader ahead of her school’s mock general election only to discover she’ll be up against Becky, she sees it as a chance to prove herself. Surely if there’s one thing she can win, it’s this election – even if it means losing her best friend.

Second Best Friend is Non Pratt’s second novel for Barrington Stoke, a specialist publisher for readers with dyslexia, after 2016’s successful Unboxed. This standalone comes with the same colour-adjusted paper, clear font and novella length, but Barrington Stoke books are about more than just physically adjusting for reading difficulties – they’re a reminder that teenagers with dyslexia are interested in the same kind of content that fills the rest of the UKYA shelf. For this reason, Second Best Friend is full of school pressures, jealousy, drinking, and rapidly escalating sexual antics in utility rooms.

Like Unboxed – in which a group of teenagers return to their old school to open a time capsule – Second Best Friend has a straightforward premise: Jade and Becky find themselves facing off in their school’s mock election, and Jade, feeling insecure and always in Becky’s shadow, is determined to do whatever it takes to win. This plot is carried throughout and provides an undeniable sense of narrative drive. There’s plenty for readers to recognise, from politics and sibling rivalry to the drudgery of homework and the strange sense of competition that can overtake a school full of naive teenagers with nothing better to do.

Pratt packs Second Best Friend with real teen concerns and a veritable maelstrom of seesawing emotions. I liked the casual mention of Becky’s two mothers and even at a brisk pace, there’s a suitable denouement – though the ending is rather abrupt, and I noticed slight sense of simplicity to the story in a way I haven’t with some other Barrington Stoke titles. This may be down to the fact that the premise didn’t entirely click for me. I’ve been really enjoying seeing much-needed positive female friendship in YA – think Sara Barnard’s A Quiet Kind of Thunder, or Pratt’s own Remix – and to see it reduced to jealousy and insecurity, mostly through the interference of a boy, without enough narrative space for deeper exploration or resolution here was a bit of shame. However, to Pratt’s credit, she tackles her themes with aplomb.

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Non Pratt’s second Barrington Stoke novella does exactly what it says on the tin: it provides user-friendly, utterly teenage drama with a thematic twist. 

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The Loneliest Girl In The Universe by Lauren James // space is disease and danger wrapped in darkness and silence

I’m catching up with reviews of some recent(ish) YA releases at the moment, and this one has been in my to-review list for ages…

the_loneliest_girlAuthor(s): Lauren James
Publisher: Walker Books
Publication date: 19th October 2017
Genre(s): science fiction
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

Commander Romy Silvers is the only remaining crewmember of the spaceship Infinity, travelling to a distant planet on a mission to establish a new colony, Earth II.

Then she learns that a new ship, The Eternity, has been launched and will join her – and on it is one passenger, named J. Their messages take months to transfer across the vast expanse of space, but Romy holds on to the hope that when J arrives, everything will be different. If she can keep her increasingly eerie ship running that long… 

I love Lauren James’ books. Her début The Next Together (“charming, ambitious and surprising, once you’re hooked, you won’t want to put it down”) and second novel The Last Beginning (“Funny, chaotic and full of adventure… throws its arms around things like anomalies and paradoxes and says if there’s one there may as well be a hundred”) are among some of my go-to YA recommendations. They’ve got so much going on: time travel, science fiction, historical fiction, alternate universes, starcrossed romance, LGBTQ+ characters, action sequences, humour, post-it notes, powerpoints, KNITTING.

The Loneliest Girl In The Universe, James’ first novel not centred on rule-breaking gay time travellers the Finchley-Galloway-Sutcliffes (still need a collective noun for them), is a very different type of book. Where The Next Together is warm and messy, The Loneliest Girl is all cool tones and clean lines. Where Kate and Matthew are ridiculous and adorkable, Romy and J are single-minded and mysterious. If The Next Together and The Last Beginning draw on a remarkable array of interests and genres, then The Loneliest Girl in the Universe is almost microscopic in its focus. Set entirely onboard a spaceship – with the exception of Romy’s fan fiction sequences – it’s James’ most high-concept sci-fi book to date (with a cover to match). Short, sharp, and efficient, The Loneliest Girl packs quite a punch.

The first person born in space, teenager Romy is the only person left to pilot her ship, The Infinity, to its planned destination: a new colony for Earth. When she hears that another ship – newer, faster, and with its own passenger – is being sent to join her, she leaps at the prospect of renewed human contact. But a long, slow, perilous journey across the vastness of space is starting to take its toll on an increasingly desperate Romy and on The Infinity. Scientifically smart but incredibly naive, Romy may have the resourcefulness to keep her ship running, but to her, other humans may as well as be aliens.

The Loneliest Girl takes an atmospheric approach to a sinister plot, with intense action and some calamitous twists. This is sci-fi with a thriller edge, and I’ll admit I had my reservations as while I occasionally read science fiction, thriller is not a genre I usually go for. If it had strayed into horror, it would have been a definite no from me. As it was, I can’t say it’s book I enjoyed exactly – it’s just too tense and creepy! – but I can see why fans of the genre would be surprised and thrilled by it. There was a lack of logic to some of the back-story and the suspension of disbelief required throughout is considerable, but it achieves much of what it sets out to do, with a highly concentrated narrative and razor-sharp neatness.

It’s great to see an author challenge themselves so much with their third book. Rather than fall into a comfortable pattern, Lauren James has really flexed her talents and shown her versatility here, taking a cut-glass look at unhealthy relationships in ways I haven’t often seen done in YA and tackling space travel as a psychological experience as well as a physical one. And the bamboozling thing is, you get the sense that this is still just a fraction of what she can do. The prose is accessible, at times cinematic, conjuring the surrounds of The Infinity and making particularly brilliant use of fan fiction. Romy’s fandom centres on a fictional pair of TV detectives, a banshee and a selkie respectively, who team up as Loch & Ness. Her fics serve both as brief respite for the reader and character insight for the narrative, and in fact, I probably would’ve read even more of it. Clocking in at a pacy 290 pages, if you like sleek YA sci-fi – perhaps without the heft of Illuminae or the romances of Marissa Meyer’s Lunar Chronicles – then The Loneliest Girl in the Universe may be for you.

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Short, sharp and suspenseful, Lauren James’ third novel is her most focused, and darkest, yet. I still prefer the cosiness of The Next Together and the LGBTQ+ characters of The Last Beginning, but that’s not what this book sets out to be. You’ll find effective, pacy sci-fi with a knock-out twist here. Ambitious, versatile stuff.

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I’m Back + Top Ten Books of 2017

Look! It is I, returned to the world of saying effusive things about fictional escapades after an unexpected sojourn! And I come bearing gifts: my favourite books of 2017!

I read so many amazing books last year, it’s been almost impossible to choose favourites – but I have persevered and whittled it down to a top ten. (Some of the best books I read last year were actually ones I caught up on reading many years after they’d originally been published, but in the interests of not being here for three thousand words of flailing, I’ve kept this list to books published in 2017.)

A Quiet Kind of Thunder by Sara Barnard

I adored this book. I adored it in so many ways I’m just going to point you in the direction of my pre-release review, because it has ALL THE FEELS. “Romantic, expressive, warm and true, A Quiet Kind of Thunder is an irresistible second novel. It is achingly happy. It reminded me what five star books feel like: shiny, sparkling, and memorable.”

The Explorer by Katherine Rundell

While Katherine Rundell’s Rooftoppers remains my personal favourite of her books, The Explorer is a marvellous addition to her repertoire of historical fiction. Vibrant, accomplished and often clever, The Explorer is a good old-fashioned adventure story. Rundell’s prose is terrifically appealing, and it’s little wonder that this book went on to win the children’s Costa. The writing is by turns clever and challenging, tongue-in-cheek and touching (“Love is so terrifying. It is less like rainbows and butterflies and more like jumping on to the back of a moving dragon”).

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Freshers by Tom Ellen and Lucy Ivison

This is Tom Ellen and Lucy Ivison’s best book yet, and hands down the best YA-but-set-at-the-first-months-of-university book out there at the moment. “Told in fast-paced alternate narration, Freshers is a tale of mayhem, mishaps, miscommunication and inexplicable amounts of tea, written with typical Ellen and Ivison aplomb. Messy, outrageous and down-to-earth, it’s full of chaotic charm. A vibrant array of characters populate the pages, and the friendships are particularly brilliant. What’s more, it’s sharp, candid, and outrageously, unashamedly funny.”

Nevermoor: The Trials of Morrigan Crow by Jessica Townsend

Certainly one of the most talked-about books of the year, Nevermoor: The Trials of Morrigan Crow is a dazzling children’s fantasy début. It spills over with inexplicable and varied magic simply because it can. Because it’s fun. There’s a logic and yet an immense expressiveness to it. There are rooms that redecorate themselves for different occupants; carriages built like nimble metallic spiders; shadows that can wander on their own. Violinists who pickpocket entire audiences while playing; a clock with a sky for its face. Fireblossom trees and mesmerists and snowhounds and a gigantic talking cat.  I’m not yet sure if it’s going to nab a place in literary memory the same way that its go-to comparison, Harry Potter, has, but it’s still an enjoyable series opener.

Girls Can’t Hit by T.S. Easton

This is a 2017 book I wish had been talked about more! Girls Can’t Hit was a surprises of last year’s spring reading for me. Satisfying and clever, this is funny, feel-good, affectionately feminist teen fiction featuring great friendships, marvellous tone and a sporting twist. Easton manages to make you want to keep reading even if the sport in question, boxing, isn’t one you like (as in my case) as it follows teenager Fleur go from reluctant new recruit to unexpectedly empowered young person. I picked up several more of Easton’s books after reading this one.

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Now I Rise by Kiersten White

The only sequel on this list, Now I Rise is the second book in Kiersten White’s genderbent Vlad the Impaler retelling. This is compelling, effective and demanding alternate history with a vicious female lead, increasingly developed characterisation and a rich choice of setting. Much of this book follows Lada’s brother Radu at the siege of Constantinople in the mid-fifteenth century, and I was pleased to see this sequel living up, but appearing distinct, to its predecessor And I Darken. 

A Conjuring of Light by V.E. Schwab

This is technically an adult book, but I’ll allow it as Schwab’s Darker Shade of Magic series is a great crossover for fans of young adult fantasy looking to read more adult fiction. Schwab’s practical, vivid prose, well-developed lead characters and strong sense of plot make for some memorable storytelling. A Conjuring of Light was a satisfying trilogy finale, but it’s since been announced that she will return to this fictional world with another trilogy, and I, like many fans, am so excited to read it.

The Names They Gave Us by Emery Lord

The Names They Gave Us is a considered and highly engaging exploration of the summer one confident but somewhat sheltered teenager’s world is turned upside down surprises and endears at every turn. I wasn’t expecting to enjoy it as much as I did, and it’s perhaps not as memorable as some of the other books I read in 2017, but this character-driven contemporary delivers on plot as well as premise. It’s warm and heartfelt, but also serious, thoughtful and, occasionally, heartbreaking.

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Wing Jones by Katherine Webber

Bittersweet yet charming, Wing Jones is big-hearted, cinematic, satisfyingly driven YA. It has a top-notch, surprisingly swoony romance and vivid running scenes as embattled biracial teenager Wing takes to the track in 1990s Atlanta. Rather like a runner finding their form, when the book hits its stride, it simply glides.

Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor

A hefty, mesmerising tome of a fantasy novel, Strange the Dreamer is the first in a duology full of things to like: librarians, desert quests, mythical cities, some flashes of wit and description, and… odd blue-skinned alien-demigod beings…? It is perhaps a little unnecessarily long, but it’s the first Laini Taylor book I’ve really enjoyed, and I’ll be reading the sequel.

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BONUS ROUND: La Belle Sauvage by Philip Pullman*

Oh, you knew it was coming. Philip Pullman’s long-awaited return to Lyra’s Oxford via the Book of Dust finally began last year (the rumour mill was such that it had actually been one of my most anticipated books of 2016 before publication was confirmed). This dramatic, often dark tale is balanced by an endearing protagonist in the shape of Macolm Polstead. And of course, The Secret Commonwealth, in which Lyra will go from baby to young adult, is slated for this year, so we get even more daemons and alethiometers and chases and unnecessary literariness and DAEMONS.

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What did you think of these 2017 releases? What were your favourite books of 2017?

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36 Questions That Changed My Mind About You by Vicki Grant // true love, tropical fish and other pressing enquiries

35698625Author(s): Vicki Grant
Publisher: Hot Key Books
Publication date: 19th October 2017
Category: YA
Genre(s): contemporary
Series or standalone?: standalone
Source: I received an e-copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. Quotes from this copy may be subject to changes in final editions.
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

Two random strangers. Thirty-six questions to make them fall in love.

Hildy and Paul each have their own reasons for taking part in a PhD studen’ts psychology study on love and relationships (in Paul’s case, it’s the forty dollar reward). They must ask each other thirty-six questions, ranging from “What is your worst memory?” to “If you could wake up tomorrow having gained any one quality or ability, what would it be?”

By the time they’ve made it to the end of the questionnaire, they’ve laughed and cried and lied and thrown things and run away and come back again. They’ve also each discovered the pain the other was trying so hard to hide. But have they fallen in love?

A straightforward, eye-catching hook led me to pick up 36 Questions That Changed My Mind About You after a brief sojourn from contemporary fiction. I wasn’t expecting much as I’d heard very little about the book beforehand, but then I do like to open up new books away from the hype, and I was surprised to soon find myself racing through this one. Engaging, entertaining and hurtling along at a brisk pace (it clocks in at around 280 pages), it tells the unfolding story of two strangers who turn up for a study which asks whether a close relationship can be manufactured through a series of intense, highly personal question-and-answer sessions. Bubbly, loquacious overtalker Hildy is eighteen and curious about the potential of the study, while artistic, taciturn teenager Paul is, at first, only there for the money.

Sizeable chunks of 36 Questions That Changed My Mind About You are told in transcripts, texts, messages and other epistolary additions. It became my favourite thing about the book. It relies heavily on dialogue – something I’m not always a fan of, particularly if it comes at the expense of description, as happens here – but in this case it’s pleasingly deliberate, effective and realistic. It’s sharp (“That was a ten-second cover-up of a thirty-six part docudrama”) and often funny (“You have very good emotional antennae” “I love it when you talk dirty, but could please just finish your answer”). Hildy and Paul have a sparky dynamic which ranges from emotional to witty to furious to solemn; they’re remarkably expressive given that when you take away descriptors or adverbs most authors would, at least initially, flounder, but Grant takes it in her stride (it was only after reading the book that I discovered she’s also a screenwriter, which probably contributes to this). The prose sections are fairly unexceptional, but lo and behold, a book that shows just how much you can get done without dialogue tags!

 

LOOK AT THEM, IN ALL THEIR DIALOGUE-TAG-FREE GLORY. Significant sections of the book are told in texts and messaging, too, and FINALLY, the first YA book I’ve read for ages that gets teenage textual voices right. It’s not cringe-worthy or overly stylised, instead taking cues from character (Hildy is all long sentences and correct capitalisation; Paul is lowercase and fine with shortening the occasional word) and punctuation, or lack thereof (“hey! watch it with the !!! someone could lose an eye”).

This is undoubtedly character-driven contemporary. Hildy and Paul are interesting and, particularly in Paul’s case, intriguing enough leads to keep you reading. For a book that seems to be about romance, there is relatively little of it in swoony Stephanie Perkins or sweet Sarah Dessen terms. It’s definitely an opposites-attract relationship, with spiky back-and-forth (“normally I’d challenge you to a duel for the insult but I’ve got the sniffles”) and a touch of the bad-boy exterior, but there’s a sense that they matter to each other (“You’re just the way you’re supposed to be”) which is a tricky balance to pull off. You’d be surprised how many other YA romances don’t have their characters spending any time actually getting to know each other, and if there’s one thing you can say about Hildy and Paul’s story, it’s that they certainly do.

Family drama, a last-minute dash to find each other and an unusually prominent tropical fish are thrown in for plot. Hildy’s well-off family life has been ruptured by a startling revelation – a subplot I ultimately wasn’t delighted by, though it’s cleverly only hinted at for much of the book and provides a twist for Hildy and Paul’s first date – with her brother Gabe and friends Max and Xiu making up most of the secondary cast. The psychology study, which isn’t conducted in any believable way in the first place, isn’t followed up much in the latter stages, so if you picked up the book for that, you’ll be disappointed. It looks like there’ll be illustrations in the final edition, though they’re not in the advance copy, which is a shame as illustrated YA is a really fun concept. The book’s ending is fairly sudden and completely lacking in resolution, and there are too many stereotypes in its characterisation. However, despite their differences – and despite the book’s abrupt ending – the reader is invited at least theoretically to hope for Hildy and Paul’s opposites-attract romance.

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A surprisingly funny, fast-paced contemporary with a solid hook and some great dialogue, though the ending is rather abrupt and it lacks the spark of truly brilliant YA. If you like books by Keris Stainton, Emma Mills or Sarah Mlynowski, you may find something to like here.

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