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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The Trials of Morrigan Crow (Nevermoor Book One) by Jessica Townsend // pleasingly fun and utterly immersive

dfp1adkuqaaos5lAuthor(s): Jessica Townsend
Publisher: 
Hachette/Orion Children’s Books
Publication date: 12th October 2017
Category: children’s
Genre(s): fantasy, adventure
Series or standalone?: series (#1)
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

Morrigan Crow is cursed. Born on the unlucky day of Eventide, she’s blamed for all local misfortunes from hailstorms to broken hips. Worst of all, the curse means that Morrigan is doomed to die on the next Eventide – until, that is, a strange and remarkable captain named Jupiter North appears. Chased by black smoke-hounds and shadowy hunters on horseback, he offers her the chance to escape her draughty, unwelcoming manor and enter an unpredictable but magical city called Nevermoor.

Jupiter believes Morrigan could contend for a place in the city’s most prestigious organisation: the Wundrous Society. If she can pass four difficult and dangerous trials, she will have a chance at a future full of strange adventures. But there are hundreds of children with extraordinary talents in Nevermoor, and as far as Morrigan is aware, she hasn’t got a gift anyone would want. Morrigan will need to discover more about who she is, and more importantly, who she could be – or she’ll have to leave the city and confront her fate, once and for all.

Having only recently read Katherine Rundell’s terrific historical standalone The Explorer, I was itching to dive into more new children’s fiction  – but whatever I expected when I picked up this book, it probably wasn’t something quite as wonderful as Nevermoor. It took me a few chapters to get into it, but once I had, I raced through it in a couple of hours. This is charming, utterly immersive stuff.

As Eventide draws near, the last thing cursed eleven-year-old Morrigan Crow expects is for a magical and magnificently dressed Captain called Jupiter North to offer her a chance to escape the fate she thought she’d been resigned to long ago. Exciting and rhythmic but not overstuffed, the plot is one of discovery and cleverly placed detail. It doesn’t reinvent the literary wheel but almost every page features something interesting or memorable. Townsend’s use of familiar tropes, like the whisking away of a downtrodden child hero to a secondary world or the appearance of an unconventional pseudo-father figure, is highly effective. There are requisite foes in a compelling conflict with a Big Bad called The Wundersmith and some lesser enemies made at a very intense garden party. While the final showdown is a bit anticlimactic (it’s cut short and the stakes don’t quite make an impression), there are some suitably spooky, atmospheric moments in the build up which show the shadowy side of the Republic and even of the otherwise glittering Nevermoor.

It is in worldbuilding that this book really shines. Startlingly inventive and entertaining, the sheer imagination and delight at play is astonishing. There are hints at the workings of a broader fantasy world – it is, for example, run on Wunder, a mystical medium few truly understand, and opens in the gothic ‘Great Wolfacre’ – but much of the novel 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.

Plunged into a city where the impossible seems positively ordinary, self-effacing, black-clad Morrigan is startled to realise that it is a place in which she might be able to feel she belongs. The Hotel Deucalion is full of colourful, eccentric characters. The charismatic, gregarious Jupiter North was undoubtedly my favourite, but trouble-making dragon rider Hawthorne was a close second. Even minor characters like Martha and Dame Chanda have their moments. One of the finer details of the book is that many of the core cast feel like they could be the hero of their own story, and one imagines there are thousands of untold escapades just waiting to spill from the mysterious Wundrous Society (“Tales from the Wundrous Society” is totally the title of a short story spin-off collection).

The best of the book’s prose comes from its descriptions (“Days of splashing in the sun-drenched Jasmine Courtyard pool gave way to balmy nights of ballroom dancing lessons, barbecue dinners and long lounging sessions…”, “an enormous rose-coloured chandelier in the shape of a sailing ship, dripping with crystals and bursting with warm light”). The writing is fairly undemanding, but it’s accessible and surprisingly funny (“the first day of Morningtide, Spring of One, Third Age of the Aristocrats. Weather: chilly but clear skies. Overall city mood: optimistic, sleepy, slightly drunk”). I would’ve liked a positive female friendship for Morrigan or more useful guidance from Jupiter rather than seeing her be kept in the dark, but these are small quibbles. A lack of hugely expansive explanation leaves this one feeling very much like a series opener, but then it is a story readers will likely be thrilled to return to. There is such tremendous potential in this energetic, appealing piece of storytelling.

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Vivid, imaginative and surprisingly funny, Nevermoor: The Trials of Morrigan Crow is a dazzling children’s fiction début. 

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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 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.

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

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

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Author(s): Kiersten White
Publisher: Corgi/PRH
Publication date: 6th July 2017
Category: YA
Genre(s): historical fiction
Series or standalone?: series (The Conquerors’ Saga #2)
Source: I received a Netgalley copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. All quotes are taken from this copy and may be subject to change in final editions.
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Lada has only ever wanted one thing: the Wallachian throne. But foes stand in her way at every turn. She has no allies. No influence. Even her small band of soldiers is dwindling. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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