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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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.
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

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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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.
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

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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Following Ophelia by Sophia Bennett // contemporary queen proves a dab hand at art-inspired historical fiction

Today on the blog, I take a look at Sophia Bennett’s latest! (what do you mean I haven’t reviewed Love Song yet I AM TOTALLY ON TOP OF MY REVIEW SCHEDULE).

33256865Author(s): Sophia Bennett
Publisher:
 Stripes
Publication date: 9 March 2017
Category: YA
Genre(s): historical fiction
Series or standalone?: series (#1)
Source: I received a NetGalley copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

London, 1857. Young scullery maid Mary Adams has swapped her old-fashioned Kent village for the grandeur – and grime – of Victorian London.

But it’s only when she sees John Everett Millais’ depiction of the tragic Ophelia that this new world opens up for her. Caught in the irresistible circles of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, where passionate young painters break the rules of art, dress, and society, she finds herself drawn to a host of new friends and heart-pounding capers. To survive in London’s high society, she reinvents herself as Persephone Lavelle, but even as rumours abound about the mysterious new face of London’s exciting art scene, she will learn that keeping secrets in the glamourous city is not as easy as it seems. And if she must choose, what will she sacrifice for who she wishes to be – and be with? 

Known for her chatty, ultra-modern YA – from fabulous teen fashion début Threads to brilliant bastion of boyband lit Love Song – Sophia Bennett’s first foray into historical fiction is pleasantly accomplished. Colourful, descriptive and neat, her prose here perhaps lacks the laugh-out-loud, natural feel of her contemporary work, but displays a remarkable shift to suit the genre.

This is accessible teen historical fiction for fans of Catherine Johnson, Julia Golding and Jacqueline Wilson. In fact, I couldn’t help feeling as I read that this book was everything I would’ve liked, but never quite obtained, from a Jacqueline Wilson historical if hers were not so simplistically or formulaically aimed at younger audiences: there is a richness, a patience, a stylistic satisfaction to Following Ophelia that simultaneously makes the novel engaging and refuses to underestimate readers. Bennett takes some fairly familiar ingredients (young maid, Victorian London, a well-to-do family, a secret world where class lines blur, a possible romance) and spins a story with just enough pluck to keep you reading.

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Mary Adams has one foot in the busy drudgery of life as a scullery maid and another in the tantalising escape of Pre-Raphaelitism, where rash and gifted painters are enraptured by her red hair and pale face, seeing her not as a changeling or curse but as a potential muse for great works. Finding herself drawn to talented young artist Felix, they embark on Hades and Persephone: the painting that will win him renown and free her from servitude. Mary’s secret life as Persephone sees her in cahoots with the vivacious Kitty and her scandalous brother Roly (“the most dangerous man in London”), while her everyday existence is brought down to earth with a bump by the seemingly antagonistic Annie, mysterious acquaintance Eddie, and the plight of her cousin Harriet. As the stakes get higher Bennett brilliantly takes the opportunity to explore issues involving agency, class, sexism, and lack of education. A particularly interesting look at the relationship between artist and model makes for a book which has its themes woven superlatively between escapades.

The book’s premise caught my eye because of the art, and it held my attention because of it. The discovery of the Pre-Raphaelite movement turns Mary’s narrative to glorious technicolour, and brings out the shine in Bennett’s prose. It may occasionally feel as if everything is a little too beautiful, but with entertaining cameos from some famous artistic figures – Hunt, Rossetti, Millais – and glittering insight into London’s high society, readers will be swept away by an eventful plot which cleverly segues from grimy servants’ quarters for glamourous parties sometimes within the space of a single chapter. Solidly, though not exceptionally, researched, the book glosses over some darker issues of Victorian Britain but has moments of real skill and has sequels in the pipeline, making it both an enjoyable read and a worthy recommendation for 11-14s.

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Remarkably accomplished, eventful and enjoyable historical fiction with an interesting cast and some deliciously vivid description. I’m particularly excited to learn that this is the first in a series.

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a pair of reviews // seas, ships, and some very mixed results

That’s right folks, this week on the blog, you get not one but two reviews! These are both books I read in the spring and have meant to review for ages, and both feature seas and ships – though as you’ll see, the combination is approached very differently by each.

Salt to t28103790he Sea by Ruta Sepetys
Publisher: Puffin
Publication date: February 2 2016
Source: NetGalley
Genre: historical fiction
Category: YA

Salt to the Sea weaves together multiple alternating viewpoints as the lives of four teenagers – Florian, Joana, Emilia and Alfred – briefly converge during one of the most catastrophic moments in maritime history: the boarding of the Wilhelm Gustloff in 1945 off the coast of what is now Poland. Florian and Joana are stand-out characters, their courage and instinct for survival also yielding tremendous acts of kindness and companionship.

Serious, sombre and gut-wrenching, Salt to the Sea is hugely indicative of the skill of an author who has honed a talent for weaving little-known histories into novels ideal for YA and adult audiences alike. It’s the story of characters who’ve had to leave everything they’ve ever known behind, with much of the book taking place on their journey to what seems like a last chance for sanctuary. The prose is distinctive and fairly sparse, but it’s a compelling read.

Ruta Sepetys is a writer who can take what is essentially the typical, predictable set-up of her genre – telling the story of fictional, though plausible, characters facing individual and collective struggles against the backdrop of historical, and in this case, harrowing events – and prove that it’s still worth reading; that there are still myriad tales to be reworked from history, even in periods we’ve seen explored before. The story told in Salt to the Sea doesn’t even remotely appear on this list of historical fiction I’d love to see, but Sepetys continues to surprise with her ability to draw readers in to her subjects of choice. The book’s short chapters and tough topics mean it absolutely won’t be to everyone’s taste, but the depth of her research shines from the page.

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For fans of Elizabeth Wein, Sarah Crossan and Jennifer Donnelly, Salt to the Sea is a well-researched, incredibly sombre and often moving novel which expertly twines historical events with distinct, vocal teenage characters.

25950053The Girl from Everywhere by Heidi Heilig
Publisher: Hot Key Books
Publication date: 3 March 2016
Source: NetGalley
Genre: fantasy, urban fantasy, sci-fi(ish)
Category: YA

The Girl from Everywhere caught my eye because of its premise: a swashbuckling tale featuring the motley crew of a time-travelling ship and a girl with the world at her feet and a whole menagerie of magical creatures and mythology at her fingertips? It sounded like a slam dunk read. Even the title and cover conjured up images of beautiful prose, luxurious detail and fantastical landscapes; storm-tossed seas, old maps, the creak of magnificent ships plunging from one world to another. I wanted spectacular fantasy, full of sweeping adventure. Unfortunately, the book fails to live up to its potential.

There are so many extraordinary things in this book’s world – pristine beaches, mystic creatures, exciting adventures – yet the writing does justice to none of them. To say this book disappoints is an understatement: it was published amid a torrent of hype, and as is so often the case, it was not worth that hype at all. The prose is brash and forced. Key details are mentioned as brusque asides. The book squanders its possibilities on secondary plots and one-dimensional characters, and the resulting story is unengaging.

At one point I actually wondered if I’d missed out several early chapters, but no, it’s just a book with totally inexplicable pacing. Maybe it would have worked if readers had any time to get to know the characters, instead of being flung abruptly into unexplained chase sequences and scenes which are probably supposed to have some kind of great significance but which flounder in a writing style that seems to reject meaningful description from the outset. I wanted to like protagonist Nix, but the writing style never allows for her character to be endeared to the reader. I liked Kashmir, but the rest of the cast fall flat: in trying to be all things to all readers, they end up lacking any depth. Later improvements in the book’s details and style are too little, too late: there’s no emotional resonance, no breath-taking descriptions or any real sense of thrill. Throw in underutilized dragons (I really do not like underutilisation of dragons), an out-of-the-blue love triangle and a plot which initially intrigues but lapses into predictability, and The Girl from Everywhere is, to put it mildly, a let-down.

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I’m a fairly generous reviewer, but I just wouldn’t recommend this one. Sarah J. Maas and Leigh Bardugo are still your best bet for sprawling YA fantasy, or if you’re specifically looking for a take on magic and maps, look to Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s The Girl of Ink and Stars.

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a pair of reviews // (mostly) marvellous middle grade

Today on the blog, I catch up on some middle grade I’ve been meaning to review for ages – this time, with plenty of action-adventure (and darkly-toned covers).

25613853Knights of the Borrowed Dark by Dave Rudden
Publisher:
Puffin (PRH)
Publication date: April 7th 2016
Source: I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
Genre:  f
antasy, paranormal
Category:
MG/YA

An action-orientated series opener with a hero by the unlikely name of Denizen Hardwick, Knights of the Borrowed Dark borders that line between upper middle grade and younger YA. It reads rather like a comic book, its pages splashed with gaping cliffs, flashes of lightning and lurking henchmen.

Clearly written and sometimes humourously self-aware, its straightforward prose must stretch to encompass Denizen’s rocky beginnings, high-octane chase sequences, and of course, the mysterious order of knights who are revealed to protect the world from monsters. The book is full of ghastly orphanages and enigmatic acquaintances, though I would’ve liked more thoughtful exploration, several characters could’ve been better developed and it runs the risk of casting all odd-looking caricatures as villains. Perhaps drawing on the influence of A Series of Unfortunate Events, the book drifts a little too much toward being a burlesque of every gothic trope known to fiction, but with plenty of “but how do we get boys reading?!” appeal and blockbuster backing, this planned trilogy will likely go far.

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Knights of the Borrowed Dark takes familiar ingredients of unremarkable-boy-turns-unlikely-hero fiction and mixes them with the heightened atmosphere of the almost-gothic – a kind of Rick Riordan meets Lemony Snicket recipe – to create an accessible fantasy début, though it doesn’t avoid all the pitfalls of its genres.

25995832The Blackthorn Key by Kevin Sands
Publisher
: Puffin (PRH)
Publication date: September 3rd 2015
Source: NetGalley
Genre: historical fiction, fantasy, mystery
Category: MG

I read this book in 2015, and when I was looking for titles to add to my review list I couldn’t believe I hadn’t already reviewed it! I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this one. The Blackthorn Key is clever, sophisticated and completely engaging historical fiction. Brimming with mysteries, puzzles, codes, potions, clues, danger and friendship, it holds the reader’s attention and while it generally favours adventure over detail, it’s doesn’t fall into the upper MG trap of being too simple – it’s both challenging and exciting stuff.

It’s 1665 and fourteen-year-old Christopher Rowe is in busy, bustling London, apprenticed to a master apothecary. Benedict Blackthorn is teaching him the delicate balances and steady hands required to handle and create powerful medicines, potions, even weapons – but when mysterious accidents begin to befall the city’s apothecaries and scholars, Christopher finds himself torn from the shop he’s come to know as home with only a dire warning and a page of cryptic clues at his disposal. As they uncover secrets and the net of jeopardy closes in, Christopher and his best friend Tom must decipher a plot as pacy as it is intriguing. Unfortunately, some of the characters read like cardboard cut-outs – and I particularly would’ve liked to see more complex roles for the female characters, who are reduced to minor, stereotypical background moments in a book which, with all its alchemy and adventuring, has no excuse not to feature well-realized female leads.

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An awesome, though definitely imperfect, apothecary adventure. Action-packed and easy to read with a clever, engaging mystery-solving quest at its core. 

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