The Storm Keeper’s Island by Catherine Doyle // Doyle comes home with island tale

Today on the blog, it’s time to dive back into middle grade with this latest review…

36634765Author(s): Catherine Doyle
Publisher: Bloomsbury
Publication date: 12th July 2018
Category: children’s fiction, middle grade
Genre(s): fantasy, magical realism
Series or standalone?: series (#1)
Source: I received a proof copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. Any quotes taken from this copy may be subject to changes in final editions.
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

Fionn Boyle and his older sister Tara have been sent to stay with their grandfather on the tiny Irish island of Arranmore for the summer. Fionn has never met his grandfather before – an eccentric old man who lives in a cottage brimming with candles – though he knows his islander ancestors have long lived in tandem with the sea, a force city-born Fionn is afraid of.

Unbeknownst to Fionn, an old magic is stirring deep inside the layers of Arranmore. A dark storm is coming. The same kind of storm that took his  father twelve years ago. To protect his family, Fionn must embrace his destiny as an heir to the storm keepers, for their island is calling out to him…

Catherine Doyle made her début as one of the bolder contributors to Irish young adult fiction with the Blood for Blood trilogy, a teen twist on movies like The Godfather set in the dark, dangerous underworld of the Mafia, but her first middle grade offering, The Storm Keeper’s Island, couldn’t be further from the blood-soaked streets of Chicago. With the temperamental skies and sea-salt tang of the island of Arranmore, it seems that Catherine Doyle has come home.

The island setting is undoubtedly one of the book’s stand-out features. Doyle offers up vivid, whirling descriptions, adding to an already interesting landscape an ancient mystery which stirs as soon as Fionn sets foot on its windswept shores. On Doyle’s Arranmore, tea is a must and magic is everywhere. This elemental magic is protected by a storm keeper and, in one of my favourite touches, gathered amid memories in the colourful array of candles Fionn’s grandfather Malachy makes by hand. The island is steeped in history, from miraculous lifeboat rescues to strange caves.

The book’s higher powers, Dagda and Morrigan, are plucked straight from Irish mythology, and while the pairing is not a new one, the appeal of the dichotomy is understandable (if you’ve read this post, you’ll know I have something of a soft spot for The Dagda). There are hints of fantastical worldbuilding – water-dwelling merrow, a flying horse identifiable to those literate in Irish mythological cycles – but there’s definitely a sense that this is an opening gambit written with laying groundwork in mind. Any sequels worth their salt will delve deeper into the rich and complex seam of myth teased here.

The story is enchanting enough to keep you reading through info-dumping and erratic pacing; explaining the fate of the SS Stolwijk before Finn sees it play out, for instance, sucks the tension out of what would otherwise be a strong sequence. As I was reading I couldn’t help feeling that I knew there was a plot in there somewhere, but it just kept getting caught up in an ill-defined structural muddle. It needed more textured secondary characters and more developed motive for the villains. One seemed to be mainly characterised as ‘bearded’ (“Where is he off to with a beard that big, anyway?”). And, while this may be a bit niche, making more use of the Irish language could have added to the magic, as the real-life Arranmore, just off the coast of Donegal, is known for its Irish-speaking.

Still, The Storm Keeper’s Island is a fast read and practically unputdownable. I liked the focus on the relationship between Fionn and his grandfather (I’d only recently written this post about grandparents in YA and teen fiction). I was racing to get to any scenes which expanded on Fionn and his father, Cormac, one of the book’s most compelling emotional cornerstones. A dramatic, action-packed finale – always one of Doyle’s strong suits – provides hope of a series with plenty more to give.

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The Storm Keeper’s Island isn’t the most subtle of books, but it is a vivid, energetic adventure with a great setting. This is magical realism-turned-fantasy for younger fans of Martin Stewart’s Riverkeep, Dave Rudden’s Knights of the Borrowed Dark and Jessica Townsend’s Nevermoor. 

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Brightstorm by Vashti Hardy // an exciting tale of skyship exploration

lt’s time for some more marvellous middle grade with this latest review…

375947291Author(s): Vashti Hardy
Publisher: Scholastic
Publication date: March 7th, 2018
Category:
children’s, middle grade
Source: Library
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

When Arthur and Maudie Brightstorm receive word that their famous explorer father has died in an attempt to reach South Polaris, the last thing they expect is for him to also be accused of breaking the Explorer’s Code by trying to steal fuel from his competitors on the journey.  

Unable to believe it, the twins answer an ad seeking crew for a new southern expedition in the hope of piecing together the truth and salvaging their father’s reputation. As the winged skyship Aurora sets sail, the twins must keep their wits about them and prove themselves if they are to restore the Brightstorm name. But what answers await them in the perilous unknown?

Readers alight in a world of sky-ships and expeditions in this plucky adventure. An eye-catching blue-and-gold cover peels back to reveal a plot with plenty of vigour and an accessible, effective writing style. While it touches on some big themes like loss and letting go, Brightstorm’s cartoonish villains and exciting set-pieces should go down a treat in the hands and classrooms of readers aged 8-11.

As twins Arthur and Maudie Brightstorm set off to discover the truth about what happened to their explorer father, they inadvertently enter into the very same race to the bottom of the world on which he vanished. Maudie has a knack for engineering – so much so that she built and maintains Arty’s prosthetic arm – only matched by the twins’ penchant for getting themselves into sticky situations. They face a variety of ghastly ne’er-do-wells out to crush their spirit, but receive a helping hand from young sky-ship captain Harriet Culpepper, larger-than-life cook Felicity, disgruntled butler turned second-in-command Welby and sapient pets Parthena and Queenie. Where there’s a race, there’s a rival, and the crew of Maudie and Arthur’s adopted sky-ship The Aurora must also face-off against the ominous and influential Eudora Vane, captain of the sky-ship Victorious. 

Hardy’s world-building is straightforward but fit for purpose. Arthur and Maudie’s quest takes them from the crowded streets of Lontown through the arid, wild-west deserts of the nearest continent into the cold reaches of the unknown South Polaris. They meet kings and bandits and (in my favourite addition) galloping thought-wolves. Hardy enriches the exploration angle with nods to nature and some vivid action sequences. I probably would have given it five stars if not for parts of the bittersweet ending, but there is terrific series potential to what otherwise works as a standalone début. Arthur, Maudie and Harriet could easily helm a whole trilogy of sky-ship escapades.

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For fans of Sky Chasers by Emma Carroll and The Boy Who Went Magic by A.P. Winter, Vashti Hardy’s Brightstorm is an accessible, Victoriana-lite fantasy adventure set in a straightforward secondary world.

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Love Songs and Other Lies by Jessica Pennington // boyband lit book won’t trouble chart-toppers

35034369Author(s): Jessica Pennington
Publisher: Tor
Publication date: 28th April 2018
Source: I received a NetGalley copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

Two years after a heartbreak worthy of a rock song, Virginia Miller is looking forward to a carefree summer. Her friends just landed a spot on a battle-of-the-bands bands reality show, and Vee is joining them for her dream internship. 

Then she learns she’ll also be sharing the tour bus with Cam. Her first love. The cause of that first heartbreak. Now she’s dodging cameras and her ex, who has secrets the show’s producers would kill to get their hands on. What’s more, she’s starting to wonder if their breakup anthem deserves a new ending…. 

Love Songs and Other Lies is a quick YA contemporary clearly going for the ‘American summer read’ approach. It appeared sporting the hallmarks of boyband lit – a phenomenon I’ve written about here and here – and I decided to see what’s being done with the genre across the pond, given that much of what I’ve read from it has come from UKYA.

Vee’s been the songwriter behind her best friend’s band for most of her teenage life, and when Logan’s band wins a spot on a battle-of-the-bands reality TV show, she gets pulled along for the ride – only to come face-to-face with Cam, her heartbreaker ex-boyfriend, who’s been called back into the band at the last minute. Cam is determined to win her forgiveness, but as the story of his secret is slowly unravelled and the competition gets more intense, it looks like things are going to get messy for the both of them once more.

This début has got music, mystery, and the added intrigue of the close-quarters setting. It’s told in dual timeline alternate narration, revealing how Cam and Vee fell for each other the first time around while also following a bitter reunion over the battle of the bands. It takes some getting used to, but showcases a bit of narrative ambition, which I liked. Reminiscent of Sarah Dessen or Emery Lord’s When We Collided, Cam and Vee’s first romance is enjoyable and heady, full of one-on-one moments and beaches at midnight. Vee’s friendship with Logan and the other band-members is interesting, too. The book deals with some intense stuff – fame, heartbreak, loss – and I was drawn into the pages by that unexpected level of intensity.

However, once you’ve closed those pages, the feel of the book is less captivating; it’s one of a modish, fleeting contemporary which doesn’t delve deep into exploration of theme or character. Most of the relationships don’t have depth, the secondary characters are thinly sketched and the prose is dialogue-heavy. The reader sees very little of the actual battle of the bands. Increasingly unbelievable decisions result in correspondingly unbelievable, too-easy, undeveloped successes. The ending could have been braver. There are so many warm, rich, thoughtful, well-written takes on this genre to be found elsewhere – Love Song by Sophia Bennett, Remix by Non Pratt, I Was Born For This by Alice Oseman – that this one became forgettable.

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This contemporary has its heady and intriguing moments, but it just doesn’t compare to the more accomplished additions to boyband lit on the shelf.

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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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I Was Born For This by Alice Oseman // a sharp, serious take on teen fame and fandom

Today on the blog, another addition to the phenomenon that is boyband lit in YA…

34325090Author(s): Alice Oseman
Publisher: HarperCollins
Publication date: 3rd May 2018
Series or standalone?: standalone
Source: I received an advance copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

For Angel Rahimi, there’s only one thing that matters: The Ark, a teenage pop-rock trio. The Ark’s fandom has given her everything – her dreams, her place in the world, a sense of belonging. 

Jimmy Kaga-Ricci owes everything to The Ark, too. He’s the frontman of one of the world’s most famous bands – but recently, his gilded lifestyle has started to seem more like a nightmare. 

That’s the problem with dreaming – eventually, inevitably, real life arrives with a wake-up call. And when Angel and Jimmy are unexpectedly thrown together, they will discover just how strange facing up to reality can be.

Having written this discussion post on the trend, I still occasionally poke my head round the door of boyband lit – and I Was Born For This really piqued my interest. A contemporary from the perspective of both fan and boyband? A hijab-wearing fangirl and transgender boy as narrators? A super striking cover? Consider me intrigued.

I’ll admit right off the bat that I really didn’t like Alice Oseman’s début novel, Solitaire (there’s a reason we use the term ‘in exchange for an honest review’!). But not every book is to everyone’s taste, and when I spotted this premise, I figured it was worth giving a shot. Perhaps there is something to the idea that publishing’s emphasis on make-or-break débuts is at best dubious, because I enjoyed this standalone (Oseman’s third) much more than I expected. There’s a vast improvement at play here. I Was Born For This is, in many ways, absorbing and dynamic and nuanced.

Angel is a devoted fan of The Ark. She’s the conspiracy theorist to her friend and fellow fan Juliet’s cutting romantic, though they both spend hours hypothesising and shipping ‘their’ boys: handsome Lister, lyricist Rowan, and lead singer Jimmy Kaga-Ricci. Jimmy is Angel’s favourite – charismatic, elfin, perfect. In less than a week, she’ll be going to their meet-and-greet and seeing them perform live, and then she’ll be happy. Won’t she?

Unbeknownst to Angel, the band’s skyrocketing public fame is overlapping with a downward personal spiral. Jimmy feels surrounded by grabbing hands and unseen dangers. Rowan’s relationship with his girlfriend, who he’s had to keep secret from the press, is suffering. Lister’s drinking is becoming a problem. Their manager wants them to a sign a new contract so they can break America, and that means hitting the road for years. This is all Jimmy’s ever wanted. Isn’t it?

Oseman nails her hook in I Was Born For This. Fuelled by Angel and Jimmy’s distinct alternate narration and plenty of interwoven, character-focused subplots, it makes for compelling contemporary. The short timeframe is intense and chaotic, but it is mostly engaging and readable – the book gets you on side and I read it in one sitting. By turns glitzy and serious, Oseman’s straightforward prose takes a sharp, unromanticised look at boyband culture, wealth and fame. Angel and Jimmy are two of the more likeable characters in a flawed, imperfect cast, which includes multiple LGBTQ+ characters. The best – certainly the most well-rounded – character was sweary, ambitious, vibrant Bliss, though Jimmy’s kind-hearted grandfather Piero should get a nod too.

I Was Born For This is an unexpectedly thematic book. It explores modern fandom, the perils of idealisation, and what happens when obsession blinds people to their own potential. Sometimes it’s subtle as a spider’s web and sometimes it’s about as subtle as being hit over the head with a frying pan, but both are, to be fair, effective in their own way. I was particularly surprised by the prominence of different faiths and prayer. There’s a Joan of Arc motif (taken a bit out of context, but still) and an attempt to explore fandom as a kind of substitute for or relative of religion. There’s only one minor romance in the book, but I actually didn’t notice until I’d finished, as Oseman finds plenty to mine from friendships and family relationships.

Admittedly, there are too many rhetorical questions in the latter half where an author could be attempting to provide answers, and for a book all about bands and music, we hear more about The Ark’s fame than the music behind it. Some major incidents happen and are then never explored again, probably due to a constrained timeline. Even when highlighting fandom’s positive effects, on balance the book is still ultimately fan-negative. The dialogue is stylised and, along with the many social media references, will mean the book will date quickly. Its confused closing stages see characters kept in close proximity for inexplicable reasons. However, I can see what Oseman was trying to do, and if you’re looking for boyband lit that keeps you reading while getting its thinking cap on, this may be the book for you.

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The fame, fandom and boyband lit of Zan Romanoff’s Grace and The Fever meets an unravelling of flaws reminiscent of Sara Barnard’s Goodbye, Perfect in this gripping, diverse contemporary standalone. Busy, serious and biting, I Was Born For This isn’t without fault, but I appreciated its surprisingly thematic approach and fast-paced alternate narration.

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