Moonrise by Sarah Crossan // Crossan dives back into solo verse fiction

33837404Author(s): Sarah Crossan
Publisher: Bloomsbury
Publication date: 7th September 2017
Category: YA
Genre(s): contemporary, verse
Series or standalone?: standalone
Source: I received a NetGalley copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

Joseph Moon hasn’t seen his brother for ten years, and it’s for the most brutal of reasons. Ed is on death row.

But now Ed’s execution date has been set, and Joe is determined to spend time with him, no matter what other people think. 

From one-time winner and two-time Carnegie Medal shortlisted author Sarah Crossan, Moonrise asks big questions. Does it cost to hope? What can you forgive? And when someone else’s past overshadows you, what does it take to find the light?

Moonrise opens with three pages of praise for Sarah Crossan’s heart-shattering, elegant verse story of sisterhood, One. And, given One’s track record – it was undoubtedly one of the most critically lauded YA novels of its release year, with extensive press coverage and collecting the Carnegie Medal, the YA Book Prize, and the CBI Book of the Year Award among others – why wouldn’t you take the opportunity to show it off? Even I gave it five stars back when I first read the advance copy in 2015 (at the time of writing, I’ve only given three so far this year). You get the feeling, then, that it could be a tough act to follow. In fact, Crossan probably could’ve pulled a John Green, waited five years to publish again and still have been given a lot of leeway by the book world. But fresh off a top-notch collaboration with fellow Carnegie and Costa alum Brian Conaghan (you can read my review of We Come Apart here), it seems she’s thrown herself into a new solo novel which tackles some seriously challenging subjects.

Joe’s older brother Ed, arrested at eighteen, has been in jail since Joe was seven. An already tenuous family life crumbled with Ed gone. Abandoned by an alcoholic mother who never showed she wanted them anyway, Joe and his sister Angela were left to fend for themselves or be taken in by their religious Aunt Karen. Ed’s kept in touch through letters from Texas, but now that he’s been given a date of execution, Joe feels one of them must answer his request for a visit. At first, the person behind the glass seems like a stranger: ten years older, tattooed, hardened and bruised by his time in the prison system. Piece by piece, Joe finds that his brother is still his brother: he talks, he cares, he hopes. But his fate rests on a final series of appeals, and Joe can’t yet bear to think beyond each visit.

Punchy, audacious and carefully constructed, Crossan’s choice of characters – many flawed, others unlikeable – in this book aligns with her established narrative interest in outsiders. The fallout of Ed’s sentence has created invisible casualties Joe and Angela, but the loyalty between them is persistent. She emphasises tremendous humanity while anticipating, and asking, questions of her audience. The minor characters are forgettable and it’s not exactly an enjoyable read, but it’s almost impossible not to get swept into Crossan’s writing. For fans of particularly stunning poetry or twisty, complex plots, her unflashy verse (‘like a rock into a river / she fell’) may be a little too close to functional here, but there is a whole story packed into its pages. There are hints of books like Ketchup Clouds by Annabel Pitcher and The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas to the subjects of Moonrise, but it’s unmistakably Crossan’s work. Confronting themes like social disintegration, family breakdown, corruption, injustice and capital punishment, if it is nominated for next year’s Carnegie – and it will surely be a potential nominee – expect to see it up for the Amnesty CILIP Honour.

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From one of the most accomplished verse specialists working in YA today comes a hard-hitting, effective, and thought-provoking novel which tackles challenging subjects through a now-familiar style. 

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The Scarecrow Queen by Melinda Salisbury // fighters and folktales face off in this fantasy finale

Today on the blog, I review The Scarecrow Queen by Melinda Salisbury (and crack out the alliteration again. Oops). You can read my review of The Sin Eater’s Daughter here; my review of The Sleeping Prince here (go on, I’m quite proud of that one); and my warning that this post may contain mild spoilers for the series, well, here!

31627294Author(s): Melinda Salisbury
Publisher: Scholastic
Publication date: 2nd March 2017
Category: YA
Genre(s): fantasy
Series or standalone?: series (The Sin Eater’s Daughter #3)
Source: purchased
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

As the villainous Sleeping Prince tightens his hold on Lormere and Tregellan, the net closes in on the ragged band of rebels trying desperately to defeat him. Twylla, queen’s executioner turned rabble rouser. Errin, scrappy apothecary turned prisoner. And what of Merek, prince turned runaway rebel?

But Twylla and Errin are separated, isolated, and running out of time. A final battle is coming, and Aurek will stop at nothing to keep the throne forever…

If you’ve ever read a Melinda Salisbury book – and chances are you have, what with this being the conclusion to a trilogy and The Sin Eater’s Daughter being one of the blogosphere’s most talked-about additions to recent UKYA fantasy fiction – then in many ways you’ll know what to expect from The Scarecrow Queen: high stakes, lots of twists, rebellion, betrayal, a now familiar style full characterised by pacy, businesslike prose and descriptive Scandi minimalism, more betrayal. Salisbury certainly delivers a novel that will satisfy long-time readers, including by ensuring her characters are put through the ringer seven or eight times as the pages fly by. Fans of Naomi Novik’s Uprooted and Leigh Bardugo’s Grishaverse should find this stark, eerie series is up their alley.

Banking on the existence of its established world of austere castles, shady villages, impoverished peoples, hidden enclaves and shifting priorities, readers are thrown straight into an action-packed plot. Alchemy remains central, but the emphasis is on the building of a rebellion. Twylla takes on the role of recruitment officer and unlikely symbol (there are definite echoes of Katniss in The Hunger Games to her singing tactics). Errin battles to escape Aurek’s clutches in order to rejoin the fight against him. Merek, a favourite with fans early on, also returns, as do side characters like Nia and The Sleeping Prince’s standout newcomer, Silas. I would’ve liked more of the romance between Silas and Errin, but it’s not unexpected that it often takes a backseat to tension and atmosphere. Lief – Errin’s brother and Twylla’s former love interest – turned tail at the end of The Sin Eater’s Daughter and has been doing a swandive into increasing treachery ever since, though even with this book’s twists, the character’s motivations are still a little unclear, or at least not entirely compelling.

Not so in the case of the series’ big bad, the Sleeping Prince. Sinister and steeped in folktales – a treacherous semi-mythos which undoubtedly entails one of the most interesting parts of the saga – Salisbury has written a bone-chilling villain. It may be the finest feature of the book, if not the crowning achievement of the trilogy. Aurek is utterly despicable and reeks of the creeps, yet it’s undeniably effective. Its prose is more accessible than extravagant (“Scarecrow queen. Nothing but a dupe, alone in a field, hoping to keep the crows at bay”), but this finale is at its most gripping when the looming machinations of the Sleeping Prince abound.

Both major characters helm different sections of the first-person narration, though Errin only gets about one-third to Twylla’s two-thirds. Errin proved the more active and resourceful protagonist on her arrival, but it was always evident that Twylla would return as the series’ focus. Looking at the trilogy as the whole, Twylla’s arc is very clear – from passivity as the evil queen’s executioner, to awakening as a runaway, to activity as a rebel leader (“I am tired of running away from everything. I want to be like Errin. Like Nia. Like Sister Hope. I want to be the girl who fought a golem, the girl who slammed her hands on a table and told a room full of powerful women that I was going to fight”).

Frustratingly, the relative shortness of this series as a whole somewhat compromises the true potential for character development and subplots, particularly if you delight in the sprawling richness of writers like Laini Taylor or Rae Carson. Some minor characters fall flat and there’s a touch of the ‘miracle cure’ trope to Silas’ fate. The world-building is strong in many ways, but one can’t help feeling that the books would benefit from simply having more room for it. Perhaps this tightly-paced style is just a UKYA thing, but I’ve found I definitely like my high fantasy a little more complex, a little more time-consuming, a little more luxuriating.

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An action-packed, twisty conclusion with a bone-chilling villain from a writer who has established herself as a notable voice in recent UKYA fantasy fiction. This series as a whole feels relatively short and tightly paced, particularly if you prefer your high fantasy long and immersive, but it is perhaps a form of praise in itself to say that one of the only things that could’ve improved a trilogy was having more of it!

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The Explorer by Katherine Rundell // “You should always dress as if you might be going to the jungle”

34992381Author(s): Katherine Rundell
Publisher:
 Bloomsbury
Publication date: 10th August 2017
Category: children’s
Genre(s): adventure, historical fiction
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 final changes.
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

From his seat in a tiny aeroplane, Fred can see the vast Amazon jungle below him. He has always dreamed of becoming an explorer, of making history and reading his name on lists of great discoveries.

But when the plane crashes through the canopy, Fred suddenly finds himself in the jungle far sooner than he expected, along with three other children he’s only just met: Con, Lila and Max. With little hope of rescue, their chances of getting home feel impossibly small. Except, it seems, that someone has been there before them…

I love YA, but when you spend a lot of time reading and reviewing it (and its seemingly never-ending swamp of contemporary fiction), it can be a real breather to jump back into the exuberant capers and imaginative gymnastics of children’s fiction. There is a touch of that vibrancy to the work of Katherine Rundell, whose books include Rooftoppers (“A soaring story of adventure, friendship and hope set on the rooftops of Paris,” to use the fabulous Jenny’s words) and The Wolf Wilder, one of the most reviewed children’s titles of 2015. Set in the untamed wilds of the Amazon rainforest and following four children who must work together to find their way back home, there’s no other term for it: The Explorer is a good old-fashioned adventure story. 

Fred has read everything he can get his hands on about explorers, adventurers and the great expeditions which have taken them into the unknown. But with his father far too busy working and being respectable to notice (“his father always insisted so unswervingly on clean shoes and unrebellious eyebrows”), Fred’s dreams have always been a secret. That is, until a trip to Brazil sees him crashlanded in the jungle with three other children – siblings Lila and Max, and haughty Con (actually Constantia but use it at your peril). While their time in the jungle is dangerous (and involves eating spiders), it opens up something more in each of them. Fred gets braver. Con learns to climb trees and run. Lila’s love for animals, though she’s never been allowed a pet, leads her to adopt a sloth named Baca who likes to hang out in her hair. Five-year-old Max mostly wanders off into nearby trees/beehives/ant nests, but you get the idea. There’s lots of teamwork, arguing, and new friendship.

As with all good kids’ books, adult characters are a secondary consideration. There is one exception in the titular and nameless explorer, a mysterious and gruff jungle-dweller who lives in some ancient ruins and can catch fish with his bare hands (think Indiana Jones if he was more concerned with leaving things intact than putting them in a museum). Rundell makes sure to give each of her characters moments of complexity or backstory, the explorer included. The period setting isn’t entirely specific, but a little digging puts it somewhere in the mid-to-late 1920s. There were no illustrations in my early copy, which is a shame as they have the potential to really change or cement one’s experience of the book. It takes time to invest in the plot and a rushed ending is precipitated by just a little too much dialogue, but the book runs at an otherwise jolly pace. It’s packed with incident, from hair-raising river rides to tricky rock climbs.

Rundell’s prose is fairly straightforward, but also expressive (“his accent, Fred thought, belonged among good tailoring and fast motor cars”) and memorable (“I liked that it might be all right to believe in large and wild things”). The rainforest – “it was a thousand different colours; lime and emerald and moss and jade and a deep dark almost black green that made him think of sunken ships” – ultimately becomes a place more for savouring than escaping from. Rundell takes the opportunity to invoke the host of extraordinary creatures who call it home, too. Sloths, snakes, spiders, monkeys, Amazon river dolphins, whispers of big cats (“something with strong jaws and sharp manners”) all get a look in.

The writing style will appeal to readers across the 7-12 age group, and could make a great family/parent-child choice for reading aloud or together – particularly as the writing is by turns clever, challenging, touching (“Love is so terrifying. It is less like rainbows and butterflies and more like jumping on to the back of a moving dragon”) and tongue-in-cheek (“I did not admire our prime minister. He is very well-dressed, but despite his many protestations to the contrary, I am not one hundred percent sure he can read”). Of course it requires a little suspension of disbelief, a little strategic pacing, but young readers employ logic where it suits them and it is not going to detract too much from the story here. The Explorer is about adventures, and wildlife, and kids who get their hands dirty. It’s a rollicking recommendation.

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Vibrant, expressive and often clever, The Explorer is a good old-fashioned adventure story. Rundell’s prose is terrifically appealing. Ideal for young fans of Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s The Island at the End of Everything or Abi Elphinstone’s The Dreamsnatcher. 

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A review with lots of short stories in it // A Change Is Gonna Come anthology (various authors)

34946853Author(s): Mary Bello, Aisha Bushby, Tanya Byrne, Inua Ellams, Catherine Johnson, Patrice Lawrence, Ayisha Malik, Irfan Master, Musa Okwonga, Yasmin Rahman, Phoebe Roy, Nikesh Shukla, Lucy Banaji (illustrator)
Publisher: Stripes
Publication date: 10th August 2017
Category: YA, short fiction
Genre(s): contemporary, historical fiction, magical realism, dystopian, sci-fi
Series or standalone?: standalone
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

A steady flow of YA and kidlit short story anthologies have hit the shelves in recent years: Stephanie Perkins’ My True Love Gave To Me, the Malorie Blackman-curated Love Hurts, Abi Elphinstone’s terrific array of stories for younger readers Winter Magic, Deirdre Sullivan’s upcoming dark feminist fairytales project Tangleweed and Brine. This latest addition, the strikingly covered A Change Is Gonna Come, has been creating buzz ever since it was announced. It’s a headline release in inclusive, diverse UKYA in 2017, aiming to highlight a host of stories from UK-based BAME (black, Asian and minority ethnic) writers. It merges the approach of initiatives like the Jhalak Prize (one children’s literature contender was Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s splendid début The Girl of Ink and Stars), crowd-funded adult non-fiction title The Good Immigrant, and BAME-centric issues of publications like Shift Zine. It benefits from the backing of those with enough publishing power to do something about diversity rather than just staging another panel or pondering on it, and Stripes definitely deserve a shout-out for getting there first in terms of a move like this for YA.

The ostensible theme of the project is ‘change’, but it tackles far more: racism, culture shock, friendships, family, time travel, break-ups, Victorian circuses, heritage, loss, inexplicable feathers. Like most short story collections it’s quite a quick read, and like most short story anthologies (you can read more of my short fiction reviews here), it’s a little hit-and-miss. It’s rare that all contributions to a multifarious offering will suit every reader. A partial list of issues mentioned in the anthology, some with the potential to be very affecting for teens, is noted in the first pages and listed at the back.

The stories are framed by poetry – Musa Okwonga’s resonant ‘The Elders on the Wall’ (‘while I rise toward these elders, who yell / That they made it up here without help’) and ‘Of Lizard Skin and Dust Storms’ by Inua Ellams – which is a neat, pleasing device. Catherine Johnson’s circus-set ‘Astounding Talent! Unequalled Performances!’ sits squarely in her usual repertoire of historical fiction inspired by real events. Fellow YA Book Prize alumnus (and indeed this year’s winner – read reviews of the entire shortlist here) Patrice Lawrence takes on a Hunger Games or Maze Runner style prison dystopia in ‘The Clean Sweep’, which borders on too vague but has an interesting paratext-style ending twist.

Tanya Byrne’s experienced and effective pen shows in ‘Hackney Moon’, which makes full use of the short story form. There are some really fantastic lines (‘that bright afternoon in July when the summer rolled out at their feet like a red carpet’, ‘lipstick the colour of a fresh cut’, ’so that’s how it ended – not with a bang but with a squiggle of graffiti’). She packs a lot into the story of Esther and Alesha, or as it occasionally is the story of Esther and Sam, with its LGBTQ+ characters, yellow jumpers, bonding over zines and focus on tangled relationships. If you like Juno Dawson’s All of the Above or the messy characters of Moira Fowley-Doyle’s books, this may be up your alley.

The same story is never told twice in A Change Is Gonna Come, even when similar themes are at play. Racism is tackled and questioned head-on in ‘Fortune Favours the Bold’ by Yasmin Rahman and ‘We Who?’ by Nikesh Shukla; both seek to make messages ring true for readers, though the latter has an irresolute ending, perhaps due to the constraints of the form. If you’ve read Pooja Puri’s The Jungle (the first release from the new Scottish YA imprint at Black & White, Ink Road Books), then Ayisha Malik’s well-researched ‘A Refuge’ may appeal, though I didn’t like most of its adult characters.

‘The Unwritten Future of Moses Mohammad Shabazz Banneker King’ by Irfan Master is an out-there sci-fi which favours the serious over the wacky but still manages to cram time-travel into a post-box with the sort of concept that could only work in a short story. The titular Moses (‘named after a prophet, a boxer, an activist, a scientist and a pastor, not being able to see wasn’t going to stop Moses changing the world’) is tasked with altering reality through letters from a boy in the future called Malik. Master approaches it with ‘read now, ask questions later’ bombast. The reveal of who Malik is, and where the two will go next, gives the story an extra bit of punch.

‘Marionette Girl’ by Aisha Bushby shows a tonally as well as visibly contained approach to unfurling the life of Amani, a protagonist with OCD. Trapped by rituals such as scrubbing her hands, adhering to strict schedules and performing tasks a set number of times, there’s visceral illumination of the way Amani’s OCD affects her, but little depth expended on cause or secondary characters. The ending is abrupt, and there’s some f tell over show, also a feature of Mary Bello’s ‘Dear Asha’. Both stories have solid YA premises, however, and Bello’s conjuring of kinship and belonging in Nigeria – from markets and beaches to communities and corruption – shows flashes of immense vibrancy. There’s the odd duff line, but it’s got plenty going on for a piece of short fiction and it touches on themes like class and wealth disparity.

‘Iridescent Adolescent’ by Phoebe Roy (not, as it turns out, the same as ‘Fluorescent Adolescent’ by the Arctic Monkeys, which completely got stuck in my head while writing this review) is undoubtedly the stand-out of the anthology. Its magical realism seems almost shaped or carved, as the mysterious, feathery tale of biracial, Jewish Nathalie unfolds. Some of its imagery and turns of phrase are notable (‘the sea lived in the house’s corners’) but it’s the impact of the story as a whole which really brightens the anthology. Reminiscent of The Girl at Midnight or The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender, it showcases a glimmer of what one can do with the dreamlike in short fiction.

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For fans of non-fiction’s The Good Immigrant or Stripes’ previous anthology I’ll Be Home for Christmas, this collection does exactly what it sets out to, providing a diverse, fresh gathering of BAME authors and short stories for UKYA. I would’ve liked more humour and all its stories will be subjective, but offerings from Phoebe Roy and Tanya Byrne particularly stood out.

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Freshers by Tom Ellen and Lucy Ivison // “Just a subtle pack howl, no big deal. Keep it caj.”

Today on the blog, I review another of my most anticipated reads of the year! You can see the full list here, or catch up with my progress on it through quick reviews here. 

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Author(s): Tom Ellen, Lucy Ivison
Publisher:
 Chicken House Books
Publication date: 3rd August 2017
Category: YA
Genre(s): contemporary
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

Phoebe Bennet has been waiting all summer for uni to start and her life to finally begin. 

But for Luke Taylor, starting uni marks an unexpected ending. His girlfriend lives hours away and he’s not sure they can make it work. Or that he really wants it to. 

Phoebe’s landed on her feet, made new friends and thrown herself into the chaos of freshers. Luke is finding York the escape he thought it would be. When the two collide and a secret crush turns into something more, they get sucked into each other’s worlds in the most messy, intense and ridiculous ways imaginable.

Tom Ellen and Lucy Ivison’s début collaboration, Lobsters, was nominated for the YA Book Prize and is set in the heady no-man’s-land of a summer between finishing school and starting university. Their second, Never Evers, remains my go-to recommendation for the bridge between early teen and young adult fiction. Here it seems they’re filling another gap as it’s revealed that someone has finally (finally!) written a smart, plot-packed, realistically ridiculous book about teenagers in the first months of university. What’s more, Freshers is outrageously, unashamedly funny. It’s sharp, candid, and laugh-out-loud engaging. It’s so entertaining – and the ending so nearly perfect – that I couldn’t help being won over by its messy, rollercoaster style.

Phoebe Bennet might be mistaken for the girl next door: friendly, upbeat, ordinary, and entirely invisible to people like Luke Taylor when they were at school together. But when they happen to go to the same university and end up helping the same drunk fresher get home on a night out, it seems Phoebe’s daydreams are about to become a reality. Unfortunately for her, freshers’ week is not the place for straightforward romances. On the upside, she’s making some hilarious friends in her corridor, bags herself a job at a posh café and has plenty of first year antics to keep up with. Told in fast-paced alternate narration, what follows is a tale of mayhem, mishaps, miscommunication and inexplicable amounts of tea, written with typical Ellen and Ivison aplomb.

A brilliantly vibrant array of characters populate the pages. I adored forthright, unabashedly individual Frankie, deadpan but determined Negin (“like if a newsreader fronted an indie band”) and level-headed Rita. Even out-of-it Arthur, bubbly Liberty and no-nonsense latecomer Thrones (actually called Ed, nay, Edmund) have their moments. Ellen and Ivison make an unlikely but enthusiastic bond between very different characters thrown together essentially at random seem believable and dynamic. Minor characters such as Bowl-Cut Mary (“How do you even become a person who is brave enough to get a rainbow bowl cut and wear boys’ trackies on a night out? What does your life preceding that point even look like?”) and Frankie’s mum make an impression, too. The outstanding friendship of Freshers, however, is that of Frankie, Negin and Phoebe. It’s incredibly positive, excruciatingly funny female friendship, and one of the most natural I’ve seen in YA so far this year.

Freshers is character-driven contemporary. Both leads make mistakes, and Ellen and Ivison’s skill with complex, flawed characters is evident when it comes to Luke. He consistently retains an element of the reader’s sympathy, though he’s ultimately less easy to like. He’s immature, muddled, and self-absorbed. He’s not yet realised that he can, and should, take responsibility for his relationships and stand up for things even when it’s not the popular choice. This is a book of growth and learning, though. Josh, meanwhile, is a character I’d have loved to have seen even more of. He’s confident, generous, realistic – a good egg, to borrow We Come Apart’s phrase – and completely underutilised! I’d definitely read a sequel to this book, and one of the reasons would be to see more of Josh in it.

There is some plot (“better to have loved and lost than to have… accidentally declared your love via text message”) and for a book that doesn’t seem long, it’s busy. There’s a lack of actual studying going on in this university setting but in a broomstick-to-academia ratio Harry would be proud of, there is a Quidditch society. The downside to Ellen and Ivison’s terrific characterisation is that the villains of the piece (one of those villains is ‘laddishness’) are totally awful. The last sixth has some slight pacing issues and there are one or two unresolved threads. However, it also means they take opportunities to contrast different types of relationships and explore themes like being more in love with the idea of someone than the person themselves. Theirs is suspiciously clever, brazen writing. If you’re a fan of Holly Bourne, Lisa Williamson or Non Pratt, this is the book for you.

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Funny, messy, outrageous and down-to-earth, Freshers is full of chaotic charm. The friendships are particularly brilliant. Even if you’re new to brassy, frank contemporary UKYA, you may as well throw yourself in at the deep end and start with this. One of Tom Ellen and Lucy Ivison’s best books yet. 

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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.
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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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