Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho // rich, inventive historical fantasy

What’s this? Adult fiction? ON MY BLOG?!

26833370Author(s): Zen Cho
Publisher: Macmillan
Publication date: October 1st 2015
Source: Library
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

Zacharias Wythe is England’s first African Sorcerer Royal. In a Regency London where magic is an everyday reality, he must juggle conflicting demands and malicious rumours. There’s the wayward Royal Society of Unnatural Philosophers, where a faction schemes to remove him from his position by fair means or foul. The Fairy Court is withholding magical resources and the British government is baying to deploy increasingly scarce magic in its war with France. And now he has to deal with something even more outrageous than any of these things: a female magical prodigy.

Prunella Gentleman is an orphan desperate to escape the school where she has drudged all her life. A visit by the Sorcerer Royal seems the perfect opportunity. For Prunella has just stumbled upon English magic’s greatest discovery in centuries – and she intends to make the most of it… 

I picked up Sorcerer to the Crown in an effort to find more adult fiction that suits my YA-honed tastes. It has so many things that I like: a richly constructed magic system, a detailed historical backdrop, an inventive story full of intrigue and memorable plot devices. Cho injects the grand architecture and glamourous parties of Regency London with a fitting and vibrant strain of magic. She also packs the novel with plenty of unfurling secrets and social questions, from themes of class and race to community and culture.

Overworked sorcerer royal Zacharias is trying to investigate a scarcity of magic in England, but he’s being hindered by a hostile magical aristocracy and hounded by rumours that he played a role in the death of his adoptive father, the previous Sorcerer Royal, Sir Stephen Wythe. Of course, this being a fantasy novel, the plot is twisty and Sir Stephen is still around as a ghost. Prunella is young, reckless and ambitious, making for solid contrast between the leads. Zacharias is African and Prunella is biracial, bringing some welcome characters of colour to a historical period too often generalised as white. Supporting characters include Zacharias’ high-born, society-fluent adoptive mother; subplots include a conflict between a sultan and some very powerful witches.

The writing style takes some getting used to, but it absolutely suits the genre and even has occasional moments of knowing humour. There’s a subtle element of romance I would have liked to have seen more of. My major issue with the book is that it’s quite slow. You can practically feel the pace dragging. If it were shorter, tighter, less agonisingly slow-moving, it would actually make for a cracking bridge between YA and adult SFF. There is supposedly a sequel in the works (it’s currently slated for March 2019), but after the initial publication date of 2017 sailed by and barely a peep about the book since, the wait for The True Queen has been as slow as reading Sorcerer to the Crown can sometimes feel. Still, if we can wait for the next series installment in A Game of Thrones or Outlander, I’m sure I’ll pick up this book’s sequel eventually.

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Zen Cho’s Sorcerer to the Crown is a slow but rich and unusual take on historical fantasy. For fans of The Watchmaker of Filigree Street by Natasha Pulley, The Dark Days Club by Alison Goodman and Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke. 

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The Skylarks’ War by Hilary McKay // an outstanding historical novel

My run of children’s fiction reviews continues on The Paper Alchemist today – with even more historical fiction!

39903894Author(s): Hilary McKay
Publisher: Macmillan
Publication date: 20th September 2018
Source: I received a NetGalley copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. Any quotes taken from this copy may be subject to change in final editions.
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

Clarry Penrose and her brother Peter live for their summers in Cornwall. They stay with their grandparents and run wild with their older cousin, Rupert. But normal life resumes each September, with boarding school for Peter and Rupert, and for Clarry, a dull return to an echoing old house and a father who doesn’t want her. 

Even worse, the shadow of a terrible war looms ever closer. When Rupert goes off to fight at the front, Clarry feels their skylark summers start to slip away from them. Can Clarry’s family survive this fearful war? And will any of them be the same when it’s over?

Modern publishing is obsessed with the next big thing; with flash-in-the-pan fads and blockbuster bestsellers and instant Hollywood movie deals. There is such pressure on the make-or-break debut, particularly in YA, that there hardly seems room for thinking about writers as people who may continue to exist beyond that first nerve-wracking publication day. One wonders if the likes of Sir Michael Morpurgo, who wrote seventeen books before War Horse, his most famous title, or Dame Jacqueline Wilson, who wrote dozens of books before The Story of Tracy Beaker, would be given the time to build a long-term career if they were to debut in today’s publishing landscape.

Hilary McKay certainly got out well from the starting blocks – her first novel The Exiles won the 1992 Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize – and has nudged awards from time to time since – in 2002 the first of the brilliant Casson family books, Saffy’s Angel, won the Costa, then known as the Whitbread Children’s Book Award. Her books have meant a great deal to many readers. And, in a testament to writers being allowed to hone their craft, it is in her third decade of writing for children that she has created one of her best books to date.

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The Skylarks’ War is an old-fashioned tale, written in distinctive, almost idiosyncratic prose. It is a coming-of-age story in the truest sense of the word. It follows an extended family of characters for years, from childhood to early adulthood, like Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle or Jeanne Birdsall’s The Penderwicks. Cheerful, bright Clarry is at its heart. There’s also bad-tempered, slowly-flourishing brother Pete, grammar school girl turned nurse Vanessa, and loyal, ungainly Simon. And then there’s Clarry’s favourite, her charismatic, reckless cousin Rupert (“Having endured the desertion of his parents, a Cornish winter when a gale was so strong it blew him off the cliff, a Christmas of scarlet fever and innumerable years in compulsory education, he was assumed to be indestructible and allowed to do what he liked”).

As historical fiction, The Skylarks’ War straddles a complex era in which the Edwardian period gave way to the First World War, and in which the young were faced with changes and horrors once unimaginable to their firmly Victorian parents and grandparents. It grapples with ideas of education, ambition, patriotism, trauma, and vibrant hope. I particularly liked the intense exploration of family dynamics and the use of letters. There are a few inelegant touches – an instance of (a heavily implied) ‘bury your gays’ trope, some Irish stereotypes – but on the whole it is a vivid, detailed, unputdownable novel. The book’s most astonishing achievement is its multifariousness: it has moments of appalling devastation and breathless high spirits, no-nonsense practicality and emerging aspiration, frosty distance and, finally, joyful warmth.

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Hilary McKay’s The Skylarks’ War is multi-faceted, vivid and gut-wrenching. A historical novel reminiscent of Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth, Michael Morpurgo’s War Horse and Katherine Rundell’s Rooftoppers. 

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The Lost Magician by Piers Torday // genre-hopping storytelling with some subversive twists

Today on the blog, it’s time for more children’s lit!

40126361Author(s): Piers Torday
Publisher: Quercus Children’s Books
Publication date: 6th September 2018
Category:
children’s
Source: I received a Netgalley copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. Any quotes taken from this copy may be subject to change in final editions.
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

They may have survived the Blitz, but when Simon, Patricia, Evelyn and Larry step through a mysterious library door, it is the beginning of their most dangerous adventure yet.

There they discover the magical world of Folio, where an enchanted kingdom of fairy knights, bears and tree gods is under threat from a sinister robot army. The many stories of the Library are locked in war, and the children’s only hope is to find their creator – a magician who has been lost for centuries… 

Piers Torday’s The Lost Magician emerges from the same school of fiction that recently produced Patrick Ness’ Release and Katherine Rundell’s Into The Jungle. It is a writing back to a classic, even canonical, work in the form of a novel aimed at a young audience. While Ness took on Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway and Rundell squares up to Rudyard Kipling, Torday tackles C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe. 

In terms of critical acclaim, Torday certainly has clout. His first novel for children was shortlisted for the Waterstones Children’s Book Award and nominated for the Carnegie Medal, while its sequel won the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize. Not content with merely interrogating one of the most beloved children’s books of all time, Torday also takes the opportunity here to explore themes of war, knowledge and the power of the written word.

There are nods to Narnia everywhere. Four children go to an old house, the home to a professor, to escape the effects of the Second World War. The youngest child stumbles into a magical world, which seems a bit choosy about when it can be accessed, and is not believed by their older siblings. Smaller allusions are scattered throughout the book. Larry, Evelyn, Patricia and Simon even share the same initials as the Pevensie siblings.

But it is not a retelling. Rather than a landscape of perpetual winter full of talking animals and Turkish delight, the reader is greeted with a subversive and surprising note which casts a niggle of doubt over the entirety of the magical proceedings which follow. The world of Folio is a sprawl of larger-than-life fairytale figures (ironically in the case of Tom Thumb) and vaudeville villains. Torday’s bold, brash approach draws on a wild variety of characters and styles, allowing the Three Bears to appear in the same chapter as a War of the Worlds-esque amassing of the forces known as Unreads. The core, rather unsubtle conflict is between sides known as Reads (who represent a rich tradition of human storytelling), Unreads (robots who prefer the concrete and abhor imagination) and Never Reads (the most dreaded of all).

For me, The Lost Magician was a little didactic and the genre-jumping occasionally jarring, but it’s a book many will extol. I liked the book most when it was rooting itself in historical fiction. It teases out familial relationships and acknowledges details sometimes not seen elsewhere, like dyslexia not being a barrier to love of storytelling. For all its outlandish technicolour, the prose was perhaps at its best when at its simplest and most grounded: “It was a kind of manor house, of which there were many in that part of the world, and to the children it just looked very old and very smart. The stone was honey coloured, blazing in the afternoon sun, and there were roses clambering up the side…”

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Piers Torday’s interrogation of a children’s classic combines magic and adventure with subversion and a swirl of historical fiction. It’s not the most subtle of books, but will find fans among children and adults alike (and have more clued-up readers wondering, “Which one is supposed to be Jesus?”). 

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Interview: Sophia Bennett talks artists, teenagers, One Direction, and Unveiling Venus

Today I’m delighted to be playing host to one of the most consistently fabulous writers of UKYA fiction for teens – Sophia Bennett! I’ve loved so many of her contemporary books, and her second historical fiction novel, Unveiling Venus, was published last week (I reviewed it here on the blog). Below is the full unedited text of our interview, with, as ever, my questions in bold and Sophia’s plain text answers marked SB.

UntitledSophia Bennett’s debut novel, Threads, won the Times/Chicken House Children’s Fiction Competition in 2009. She has since published six further novels for young teens, including The Look and Love Song. For her exploration of the worlds of fashion, art and music, Sophia has been called ‘the queen of teen dreams’ by journalist Amanda Craig. Her books have sold internationally to over 16 countries and there are plans to make Threads into a children’s TV series.

Hi Sophia! We’re celebrating the release of Unveiling Venus, your second historical novel and the sequel to last year’s Following Ophelia. If you had to entice a new reader to pick up either book in fifty words or less, what would you say?

SB: “What is it like to be looked at for a living? In these lavish, detailed stories, Mary Adams discovers the joys of being admired by great artists and the dark underside of being a muse. Her adventures are for anyone who loves art, fashion, history, travel and the stirrings of feminism.” (That’s 51 words, but Mary has a lot of adventures!)

33256865Ordinary maid Mary becomes the mysterious Persephone when she enters the world of the Pre-Raphaelites. Did you always want to write about this period in art? How did you make that world come so vibrantly to life?

SB: Funnily enough, my specialist art history periods are the Italian Renaissance and the Twentieth Century. I didn’t know much about the Pre-Raphaelites until Stripes asked me to write the stories, but I love their use of colour and I really wanted to write about art. I absolutely loved the painstaking research. Every colour of every apple, brush, ribbon, eye, costume or necklace was carefully considered and matched to Rossetti, Titian (who the Pre-Raphaelites admired) or one of the other artists I talk about.

Plus, the men in the group are so fascinating to a twenty-first century feminist: they love women and celebrate them, but objectify them and often make their lives miserable – even to the point of contributing to Lizzie Siddal’s early death. Christina Rossetti was busy writing fabulous poetry – which I quote – but doesn’t get talked about nearly as much. The more I wrote, the more I wanted to celebrate the joie de vivre of the group, but also analyse and criticise how hard it was for the women in their circle. Mary Adams comes through OK, but it’s no thanks to them!

Your books have taken you from the high fashion of contemporary London to grand, crumbling country houses and now to the streets of nineteenth century Venice. How do you approach tackling such different settings?

34483827SB: I’m glad you’ve noticed them! I find that the more I mentor new writers, the more I get them to focus on setting. The reader wants to be able to picture where things are happening and setting helps to create the mood and character of a book. It’s often what keeps me going while I’m writing. My protagonists won’t do what they’re told, the plot goes off in unexpected directions, but the houses, streets, hotels, canals and palazzos are always there to be luxuriated in. I want my reader to be tucked up on her sofa with a hot chocolate, imagining herself in these places, as I do while I write.

Often it’s weird to visit the real location afterwards and think for a moment that my scene really took place there, then remember, no – it was fiction. I’m going to Venice at Easter and I know I’ll get lots of fake déjà vu from Unveiling Venus, even though I set the story there 150 years ago.

Your 2015 standalone, Love Song (which I adored), contributed to contemporary YA’s current taste for books about boybands and fandom. What did you enjoy most about writing boybandlit? What did writing about music mean to you? (And is there any chance of a sequel about Declan, the multi-instrumentalist drummer and one of my favourite characters from the book?)

27396059SB: Thank you! I’m very fond of Love Song but it was very hard to write – or at least, the first half was. Once they all settled down in the crumbling country house it got easier. It was inspired by my (spot on as it turned out) conviction that One Direction were on the verge of splitting up and wondering how they must be feeling. As Keris Stainton knows, I have a very soft spot for Harry – although possibly not quite as soft as hers. But in the end I was more inspired by reading about the heyday and split up of the Beatles, who are closer to my band The Point. Lounging around, doing my research for the book by reading rock biographies was a pretty awesome way to make a living.

Also writing about teenage boy friendships. I have a teenager at home and he’s very funny with his mates. I wanted to capture some of that. And listening to music with my younger son, discovering Led Zeppelin and sharing that moment when you fall in love with a piece of music so that it becomes a part of you – that’s very special and I’ve been thrilled to hear from readers that they’ve discovered it through the book. Making my Spotify playlist for it was lovely too.

On the Declan front, don’t worry, that book is already written in my head. To do a controversial JK Rowling, Declan was always gay, and not acknowledging it to himself, and his story would be about coming out and taking on the profoundly homophobic rock/pop industry and finding his path. I know there are exceptions, but I still think it’s really tough for gay young people in the music industry. I wanted to put some of that in Love Song and I tried to, but it was a book in its own right and I think if you’re going to do justice to the story you have to do it properly. He and Angus are my favourite people to write about – although I’m fond of them all in their way, even Connor.

One thing your (often very different) books all have in common is that they’re for pre-teens or YAs, but what has writing for teens taught you?

thelooknewcoverSB: That it is very hard to write and sell books specifically for teens to teens in the UK! Unless they’re fantasy. The teens who read a lot have all the books in the world to choose from. I’ve always wanted to write for 11-15 year olds, but it’s a competitive market.

I love very much the connections I’ve made with readers who have taken my books to their heart. I’m honoured that they did. I wanted to write about being creative and brave, and finding your inner confidence. I wanted to reassure teens that although these years are tough – and they are – you will turn out OK. I also wanted to explore the dark side of insta-fame and show that it’s not all it’s cracked up to be. I particularly wanted to make books that would keep kids reading during those difficult early secondary school years, when Eng Lit suddenly becomes a chore and the joy can get sucked out of books. But now I’ve done as much as I can. Writing as a teen made me re-experience all those emotions and often it was hard. Now I’m moving on to other things, though I’m still grateful for anyone who comes to the nine novels I’ve written so far and finds those messages inside them.

And finally, can you tell us anything about what you’ll be working on next/?

SB: I’m currently working on two picture books, a middle grade novel set in Switzerland and an adult detective story. I need to find a new voice and that takes time. We’ll see what works…

Have you read any of Sophia’s books? Do you have a favourite? You can check out my review of her latest, Unveiling Venus, here!

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Unveiling Venus by Sophia Bennett // contemporary queen ventures back to historical fiction

Today on the blog, I’m reviewing some historical fiction! (Warning: this review will contain one (1) spoiler for the previous book in the series, Following Ophelia).

34483827Author(s): Sophia Bennett
Publisher: Stripes
Publication date: 8th February 2018
Category: YA
Genre(s): historical fiction
Series or standalone?: series (#2)
Source: I received a Netgalley copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

Mary Adams, once a scullery maid, has swapped daily drudgery for the glamourous existence of her much-admired alter ego, Persephone Lavelle. From lavish Venetian balls to luxurious Mayfair townhouses, she’s been let into the most fashionable – and enviable – lives of the age.

But somehow she can’t seem to forget those she’s left behind below stairs. In mysterious Venice and pristine Mayfair, she has the chance to rise to the very top – but will she risk her friendships to take it? And if she rose, could she fall?

Following Ophelia, Sophia Bennett’s first foray into historical fiction – after making her name with warm, chatty contemporary teen fiction like Threads and Love Song – was a pleasant surprise in my reading last year. Charming, confident and draped in the allure of the Pre-Raphaelites, I was pleased the book was slated for a sequel.

Flame-haired maid turned artist’s model Mary has found her way into high society – but her hold there is precarious. Her dalliance in the bohemian art world and reliance on admirer Rupert to keep herself off the streets has generated scandal in fashionable social circles, though her closest friend Kitty seems blessedly oblivious. Accepting gregarious, elegant Kitty’s invitation to join her at the family palazzo in Venice, she embraces her disguise as Persephone and indeed is referred to as such for the rest of the book.

Bennett’s accessible style and vivid descriptions return here, and Venice in particular shines. She evokes a hugely realistic sense of wide-eyed awe in the face of the city’s soaring patchwork of old buildings and extraordinary pieces of art, as well as the world-famous canals. Persephone’s brief time there is so believably rendered as that of an awed outsider that readers may perhaps feel that it acts more as set dressing than an exploration of its storytelling potential, but it’s the most memorable part of Unveiling Venus.

Bennett always manages to pack an amount of excitement and plot into her books. Much of the conflict emerges when it’s revealed that Kitty is about to become engaged to charismatic young viscount Arthur Malmesbury. His indulgent lifestyle and wandering eye prove troublesome. There are also appearances from friends Persephone met as a scullery maid, and I actually found myself enjoying some of those subplots most. There are servants Harriet and Annie, and the latter’s brother, Eddie, an Irish stableboy and boxer caught in the web of a Whitechapel gang’s match fixing. Previous love interest Felix is rather swiftly done away with through a handful of scenes in this sequel, so there’s a really likeable touch of romance for Persephone and Eddie, too.

While Persephone is briefly seen sitting for people like John Everett Millais, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and new figure James Whistler, these moments are flourishes rather than rich canvases; the Pre-Raphaelite world which was so crucial to Following Ophelia is  essentially only given lip-service here. The painting of the title, Titian’s fabulously scandalous portrait of a nude and reclining woman, known as the Venus of Urbino (probably painted for a Medici after he was reluctantly made a cardinal and continued to do things like spend the night in Venice with a famous courtesan) is never viewed on the page, only talked about. As a result, there’s a lack of depth and pay-off to the book’s artistic references.

Stripped of the mercurial underground of eighteenth century artistry, much of Unveiling Venus reads more as a conventional grand house or society story – sort of like a Regency novel that’s been left a bit behind on the times with some YA thrown in. Persephone’s somewhat spontaneous talent for sewing (so amazing it’s literally described as her ‘magic hands’ at one point) also grates, as does the disparate feel of plot events and dissatisfying pacing. Still, I’m curious to see what happens if there’s another book in the series, where it looks like Persephone will be heading to another famous city.

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Well-researched, incredibly vivid and ultimately enjoyable, Sophia Bennett’s Unveiling Venus is a book of two worlds: wealthy high society and grimy Victorian London. It needed better plotting and more artistic richness, but its character-focused conflict is effective and its Venetian scenes shine.

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I’m Back + Top Ten Books of 2017

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

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

A Quiet Kind of Thunder by Sara Barnard

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

The Explorer by Katherine Rundell

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

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Freshers by Tom Ellen and Lucy Ivison

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

Nevermoor: The Trials of Morrigan Crow by Jessica Townsend

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

Girls Can’t Hit by T.S. Easton

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

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Now I Rise by Kiersten White

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

A Conjuring of Light by V.E. Schwab

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

The Names They Gave Us by Emery Lord

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

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Wing Jones by Katherine Webber

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

Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor

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

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BONUS ROUND: La Belle Sauvage by Philip Pullman*

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

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

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Children’s Lit Round-Up: Historical Fiction Edition

This week on the blog, I’m taking a quick detour away from YA with some marvellous historical fiction children’s books!

17350491Rooftoppers by Katherine Rundell
Publisher: Faber and Faber
Publication date: 7th March 2017
Source:
Purchased
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

Found floating in the English Channel in a cello case after a shipwreck when she was a baby and taken in by the kindly Charles, it seems almost impossible that Sophie’s mother is still alive – but that means it is still possible, and you should never ignore a possible.

When the Welfare Agency threatens to send Sophie to an orphanage, she flees to Paris to follow the only clue she has: an address on the inside of the cello case. There she meets Matteo and his network of rooftoppers, who open her eyes to a world above the streets, close to the sky. They must find her mother before Sophie can be caught and sent back to London – and before she loses hope.

I’ve talked about how much I like Rooftoppers before (for instance here, and most recently, here in my review of Katherine Rundell’s latest novel The Explorer) but I think I should just say again how much I adore this book. I don’t even think I have quite the words to describe how much. It is wonderful children’s fiction. It’s wry and funny and self-aware (“Your powers of observation are formidable. You are a credit to your optician”) and atmospheric and clever and just a little magical. It reaps the rewards of an adept writing style but bears traces of an old-fashioned children’s classic.

It’s set in the late nineteenth century, and is very much a book of two halves: its English scenes are warm and bookish while its Parisian scenes are both grimy and starry. The book’s eccentric family focus was perhaps my favourite parts of the novel. Young heroine Sophie is tomboyish, plucky and daring (“It is difficult to believe in extraordinary things. It is a talent you have, Sophie. Don’t lose it”). Her guardian Charles is unconventional but incredibly kind (“He was thirty-six years old, and six foot three. He spoke English to people and French to cats, and Latin to the birds”). The enigmatic Matteo and his ragtag collection of street urchins add notable texture and grounding to the book’s landscape. I only wish the novel’s ending wasn’t quite so rushed. That said, while there are a lot of children’s adventure stories out there (in fact The Explorer is one of the best of 2017) but Rooftoppers remains a masterstroke. 5stars-fw

Rooftoppers is a wonderful work of elegant plot, pacy adventuring and wry humour. Katherine Rundell is fast becoming one of my favourite writers of children’s books.

34045334The Island at the End of Everything by Kiran Millwood Hargrave
Publisher:
Chicken House Books
Publication date:
4th May 2017
Source:
Library
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

Ami lives with her mother on an island where the sea is as blue as the sky. It’s all she knows and loves, but the arrival of malicious official Mr Zamora changes their world forever: the island is to be made into a leper colony. Taken from her sick mother and banished across the sea, Ami faces an uncertain future in an orphanage. There she meets a honey-eyed girl named for butterflies, and together they discover a secret that will lead her on an adventure home. Ami must go back to the island of no return, but will she make it in time?

A pattern is emerging in Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s children’s books: both The Girl of Ink and Stars and The Island at The End of Everything have – to name just a few similarities -long titles, young female protagonists, tropical island settings, and officious male villains who use bureaucracy to ruin that tropical island home. However, while The Girl of Ink and Stars is magical realism or light fantasy, her second standalone novel certainly leans toward historical fiction. The Philippine island of the title, Culion, was a real leper colony for over ninety years (though it should be noted that in the book ‘leper’ is seen as a slur and the word ‘Touched’ is use to describe those who have contracted the disease). Set in the early twentieth century, it makes use of such implied isolation to create a microcosm that could seem ghastly (as the reader is aware of the seriousness of the illness) but has the capacity to amaze, particularly as Ami discovers the butterflies of the cover.

The Island at the End of Everything is a very bittersweet book. It echoes with a (perhaps not-unexpected) melancholia that saps some of the potential magic of the prose. I liked the descriptions, the kindness of several of its characters and the interesting twist in perspective that comes just over halfway into the book. I would’ve liked a stronger plot and a more memorable cast, but Millwood Hargrave writes with an effective and descriptive style. If you liked The Girl of Ink and Stars (my review of which can be read here), this one is worth checking out.

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A relatively short and often bittersweet second novel, with an unusual choice of subject and an effective, descriptive writing style. 

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The Mystery of the Clockwork Sparrow by Katherine Woodfine
Publisher: Egmont
Publication date: 4th June 2015
Source: Library
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

When a priceless and bejewelled clockwork sparrow is stolen from the glamourous London department store known as Sinclair’s, shop girl Sophie finds herself on the trail of some of the city’s most dastardly criminals. Joined by rookie porter turned aspiring detective Billy and extroverted, beautiful chorus girl Lillian, she must crack codes, devour iced buns and vow to bring the villains to justice…

This is the opener in what looks set to be a marvellous historical mystery saga – there are already several sequels and I can’t wait to read them. Woodfine builds an Edwardian London of great contrast, from the shimmering luxury of the shop to the shady backstreets of the city’s criminals. I loved the choice of time period and the setting, which give the mystery a really distinctive feel, and there are some fabulous panoramic scenes in the store. The plot is engaging and an intriguing mystery brings a quick pace. Its young characters are neatly individualised, particularly heroine Sophie and runaway Joe, and there are some interesting adult secondary characters. There was one over-long exposition scene, but the writing is otherwise strong.

Fans of Robin Stevens’ cracking Murder Most Unladylike Mysteries (I recently reviewed each of the books so far) will find plenty to like here – though the busy Edwardian shop floor contrasts sharply with a 1930s boarding school, and Sophie and Lillian are very much accidental detectives. There’s a sense that a series-long villain is on the cards here, while Stevens’ mysteries are decidedly more self-contained and murderous. Woodfine’s work probably bears more resemblance to glossy period drama Mr Selfridge, as Selfridge’s is clearly the inspiration for Sinclair’s, from its opulent displays to its gregarious American owner. (Of course, these books being aimed at kids aged 9-13, it skips out on the television series’ rampant adultery and, alas, the absurdly beautiful Grégory Fitoussi.)

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An engaging, pacy mystery with a terrific historical setting and fantastic series potential.
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*I’d like to make it clear that the stars are for the book, not just the Grégory Fitoussi gif.