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!

32491708

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.

4hstars-fw

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.

NameTag2.fw

Spellbook of the Lost and Found by Moïra Fowley-Doyle // a strangely satisfying second novel

Author: Moïra Fowley-Doyle30079403
Publisher
: Corgi Children’s/PRH
Publication date: 1st June 2017
Category: YA
Genre: magical realism
Series or standalone?: standalone
Source: purchased
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

One stormy Irish summer night, Olive and her best friend, Rose, begin to lose things. It starts with simple items like hairclips and jewellery but soon it’s clear that Rose has lost something much bigger, something she won’t talk about, and Olive thinks her best friend is slipping away.

Then seductive diary pages written by a girl named Laurel begin to appear all over town. And Olive meets three mysterious strangers: Ivy, Hazel, and her twin brother, Rowan, secretly holed up in an abandoned housing estate. The trio are cool and alluring, but they seem lost too. Like Rose, they’re holding tight to painful secrets.

When they discover an ancient spellbook, full of hand-inked charms to conjure back lost things, they realise it might be their chance to set everything right – unless it’s leading them toward secrets that were never meant to be found. 

Beguiling, mysterious and just a little peculiar, Spellbook of the Lost and Found is full of interesting and bewitching things: a town bonfire, missing shoes, a wishing tree, charm bracelets, sprawling tattoos, illicit alcohol, flawed friendships, LGBTQ+ characters and, of course, several dogs named after types of cereal. Penned in what is fast becoming Moira Fowley-Doyle’s trademark style, it’s messy magical realism which walks an audaciously dangerous line between the real and surreal.

Spellbook’s inexplicable happenings are told in alternate narration. Loyal, quick Olive is the most accessible and straightforward, while secretive, tough Hazel works in a pub, trying to outrun her past. Starry-eyed Laurel is being swept away in the whirlwind of an all-consuming friendship with wild, unreliable Ash and dainty, dreamy Holly, turning ominous under the influence of a new forest-dwelling acquaintance. I liked Rowan, Emily and Max, but Ivy was forgettable. Fowley-Doyle pays characteristic attention to toxic and muddled relationships, though the closeness and vibrancy of its family scenes are a pleasant surprise. Olive and Rose are the best of the main cast, while Olive’s father, Daniel – purveyor of puns and daily doses of poetry, like a sort of affectionate, booming Yeatsian alarm clock – is undoubtedly the funniest character in the book.

Atmospheric and rough around the edges, the plot is cleverly woven, with plenty of suspense and scheming to keep the reader engaged. It only wanders off the pace in the second half, but the major twist is terrific – I for one didn’t guess it – and a late resurgence in plot makes for a strong finish. It’s the kind of book you have to read all over again just to put the details together. Fowley-Doyle conjures a world which is richly multifarious, at once recognisable and eerie, modern and uncanny. The titular spellbook is an old, tattered tome of uncertain provenance which is steeped in a blend of earthy enchantments, cultural religiosity and instinctive superstition, but at their best, the most magical elements of the novel spill over into its prose.

Its so-called romances are undeveloped and overly stylised. There’s potential, but the reader can’t help but wonder how much some of the romantically-linked characters actually have in common. Some fairly serious themes are mentioned, including alcoholism, assault and unhealthy relationships, which alongside other content warnings make this one for older teens. Also the drink poitín (described here as a kind of high-alcohol Irish moonshine, and by ‘high alcohol’ we mean likely to cause blindness, hallucinations and/or death) is spelled ‘poteen’ and I really wanted to correct it, though that’s a bit of niche critique.

However, the writing is consistently strong, with moments of striking description (a newspaper ‘flutters like a giant black-and-white-winged bird’, ‘there have always been three of us: a coven, a crowd, a three-headed dog’) and playful humour (‘he looks like a cross between a farmer and a teenage Victorian chimney sweep’). There’s a more satisfying sense of explanation and conclusion than in the otherwise excellent The Accident Season (you can read my review here) but there are still a few questions left tantalisingly unanswered, and, with some unnecessary ‘twists’ which demanded more exploration or better handling, some threads left frustratingly unresolved. It leaves you wondering just what in the story is real, where its magic came from and perhaps most importantly: how old is Mags Maguire and how long  has she had that pub?

4hstars-fw

Dark, strange and littered with magic, Spellbook of the Lost and Found is a stylishly written and pleasingly clever second novel from one of the best – if not the best – Irish writers of current YA. As beguiling as it is befuddling, it’s a sometimes imperfect but frankly unputdownable addition to recent YA magical realism. I’m intrigued to see what Fowley-Doyle writes next. 

NameTag2.fw

Reviewing the YA Book Prize Shortlist (Part 2)

yabookprize

photo courtesy of @yabookprize

Today on the blog, following in the footsteps of many a YA movie of the last ten years, we come to the second part of a what should’ve been one post as I attempt to review every book shortlisted for this year’s YA Book Prize (let’s hope it’s more Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows than Twilight: Breaking Dawn). You can read the first set of reviews – for Beautiful Broken Things, Chasing the Stars, The Graces, How Not to Disappear and Paper Butterflies – here.

25699515Orangeboy by Patrice Lawrence

Marlon never wanted anything to do with his brother Andre’s world of gangs and drug running, but when he’s implicated in the death of fellow teenager Sonya, it seems like he has no choice. Orangeboy’s set-up is quite similar to Crongton Knights (crime, family strain, a protagonist with only one parent living and an older brother who is too close to those aforementioned gangs for comfort) but differs in execution: pacy, tense and with a slightly older lead, it’s contemporary with a thriller edge. I didn’t realise it was a thriller until I’d already started reading it, as it’s not usually my cup of tea, but it’s designed to be gripping. Lawrence continually plays with the reader’s expectations as Marlon is sucked into a breakneck downward spiral, thrust from being a nerdy kid who keeps to himself into a life of knives, drugs and violence. He makes terrible decisions while trying to protect his family and absolve himself; his essentially good nature won’t stop readers from yelling in frustration at the page. Undoubtedly one of the most talked-about titles on the list, this début’s trajectory has been studded with award nominations: longlisted for the Jhalak Prize and shortlisted for the Costa as well as the YA Book Prize, if I were a betting woman I’d consider this one of the most likely choices for overall winner.

31567282The Call by Peadar O’Guilín

This fantasy-horror-dystopian by Irish author Peadar O’Guilín (pronounced padder oh gill-een) was mentioned by approximately 93% of the blogosphere in the weeks surrounding its release, but as horror is probably my least favourite genre, it was one of the books I was most wary of on this list. I met Peadar after a pun-tastic panel at a event last year (you can read more about the convention here) but even then got my sampler signed for a friend as I knew the book would be too horrific for my tastes. However, I decided that if I was going to review the shortlist, I was going to review it in its entirety. And while I still don’t intend to add more of the genre to my reading, I will say that its elements of fantasy and mythology are fascinating, heroine Nessa is gritty and gutsy, and the pace is practically relentless, making for a fast read. I would’ve liked it to be more mysterious or eerie instead of gruesome and gory, but fans of Victoria Schwab’s This Savage Song and Sarah Maria Griffin’s Spare and Found Parts may find it’s more their kind of thing. It’s not a book I enjoyed, but a win for O’Guilín would mean an Irish author has won every YA Book Prize to date, which would be brilliant – and perhaps make more people sit up and take notice of the recent outpouring of awesome Irish YA!

30133870The Monstrous Child by Francesca Simon

First of all: can we talk about this book’s cover? Continuing the trend of blue and dark-tone covers being up for this award, the sketchy, sweeping scope of its design is absolutely eye-catching, and is a little reminiscent of Patrick Ness’s Jim Kay-illustrated A Monster Calls. Unfortunately, the cover turned out to be one of only a few highlights of the book for me, as we just didn’t get on. I was expecting a kind of Rick Riordan meets Debi Gliori take on Norse mythology, perhaps both dark and tongue-in-cheek, and in some respects, that’s what the book is – but in others, it failed to spark. There’s potential in taking on a goddess of the underworld as a protagonist, but Simon’s attempt at turning YA led her to undermine the possibilities of Hel’s character. Rather than letting her own this weird and wicked predicament, Simon makes her petulant and whiny, which would be fine if there was any well-structured character development, but there really isn’t. I think this one was more critically acclaimed than reader acclaimed – it received a fair amount of print coverage and was up for the Costa – so of course it may still claim the prize, but such a bumpy transition to YA writing didn’t work for me.

25883016Riverkeep
by Martin Stewart

Finally, an outright fantasy on the shortlist! Another one with a vividly-painted cover, I’d heard a lot of praise for Riverkeep before I read it. Named for the tough but unenviable position of those who tend a treacherous river by fishing out its dead, this is the story of Wulliam, who will one day take his place among them. Of course, like any good fantasy hero, he longs for anything but becoming the next Riverkeep. Unluckily for him, his inheritance is accelerated somewhat by his father’s apparent possession by a dark spirit. A quest to find the sea monster who can free his father, save Wull from his Riverkeep fate for a little while longer, and generally secure happy endings all round ensues. Also like any good fantasy, however, things don’t quite go to plan. Populated by characters with names like Tillinghast, Mix and Remedie, a whole host of eccentric and sometimes morally ambiguous figures turn up in this adventure, though I would’ve liked more female characters. The pacing is a little uneven and the writing style never quite endears, but there’s some terrific world-building, from the darkly conjured depths of the Danék to the harsh industrial edging of the world around them, from the smallest details of clothing and food to the overarching mythology of its mythical beasts.

29767084Crongton Knights by Alex Wheatle

This contemporary contender is the second YA title from prolific multi-genre author Alex Wheatle and has already scooped the Guardian Children’s Fiction prize. Fans of Wheatle’s Liccle Bit will recognise characters and a distinctive style in this technically-a-sequel, but it stands fairly well on its own. Set on the fictional South Crongton estate, young teenager McKay takes up the story as he battles the tensions of his family’s heavy debt, the dangers of gang culture, and the disastrous consequences of a well-intentioned, if misguided, mission to help a friend. Wheatle juggles serious, tough subjects and a surprisingly funny narrative voice which is slowed only by the intense and persistent use of invented slang – which a) has the effect of making you realise how ridiculous slang must sometimes sound and b) ultimately gives rise to prose you’ll either love or hate. Peppered with the risk of violence and sexism, Wheatle has the skill to explore his themes to an extent, but much of the book is taken up with the heart-pounding escalation of McKay’s madcap, perilous adventure.

So there you have it – the lowdown on this year’s YA Book Prize shortlist! What do you think of the books on the list? Which ones have you read? Are there any others you would’ve liked to have seen nominated?

nametag2-fw

Reviewing The YA Book Prize Shortlist

yabookprize

phoro courtesy of @yabookprize

Today on the blog, I review the first half of the YA Book Prize 2017 shortlist! I set myself the challenge of reading the entire list – whether through new purchases, the library or my review pile – a little because I think that’s what shortlists are partly for and because it’s helped me work on short reviews, but also to give you all the details! First, some thoughts…

  • The shortlist features a mix of genres, but contemporary has, not unexpectedly, come out on top with five titles (Beautiful Broken Things, How Not To Disappear, Paper Butterflies, Orangeboy and Crongton Knights).
  • Adventure and mythology make their usual appearances, but I was surprised to see no historical fiction. The closest is probably How Not To Disappear, which delves into some of the letters and recollections of heroine Hattie’s great-aunt Gloria.
  • I was also surprised to see two technically-dystopian books shortlisted, but significantly both have major elements of other genres (The Call is fantasy-horror and Chasing the Stars is science fiction), perhaps reflecting the fact that pure dystopia really isn’t what teen readers are going in for anymore.
  • There are three débuts on the list: Beautiful Broken ThingsOrangeboy and Riverkeep. That’s compared with four in 2015 (Trouble, LobstersOnly Ever Yours, and Half Bad) and just two (The Art of Being Normal and The Sin Eater’s Daughter) in 2016.
  • This is a first-time nomination for all of the authors on the list. Louise O’Neill, winner of the inaugural YA Book Prize, remains the only author shortlisted twice.
  • Irish YA also gets a look-in this year! It’s so pleasing to see the recent outpouring of (much-improved and engaging) Irish children’s and teen fiction rewarded. I wrote more about Irish YA you might like here. 
  • The shortlist is diverse (five books feature protagonists of colour, three of them by BAME writers, two have disabled protagonists, and several deal in some way with mental health and sexuality). More so in terms of authorship than the recent Carnegie shortlist (which you can read more about, from people who know more about it, here and here) but less so than the Jhalak Prize (which was created specifically to recognise writing by authors of colour and saw the wonderful Girl of Ink and Stars on its inaugural shortlist).
  • For publishing nerds like me: with three shortlistings each, publishers Penguin Random House and David Fickling Books are tied for most all-time nominations.
  • Most strikingly, dark and blue-toned covers seem to be the key to being shortlisted this year! Only Orangeboy’s cream-and-colour concoction defies the trend.

25437747Beautiful Broken Things by Sara Barnard

Beautiful Broken Things is, in many ways, a love story – it’s just not the love story you’d expect. Quiet, clever Caddy longs for a Significant Life Event to make her teenage years more interesting, but she is about to find that sometimes, the most significant thing in life can be a friend, and those courageous – or foolish – enough to love her. Authentic, heart-shattering and disarming, this is a book which takes pleasure in the little details: in small joys, in sunflowers, in baking, in hilarious (realistic, and occasionally drunken) texts. Barnard’s second novel A Quiet Kind of Thunder is perhaps even more brilliant (it’s my forerunner for next year’s YA Book Prize) but I’d love to see this one win, if not because I’m quoted in it (you can read my reviews here and here), then for the prominence it gives to one of the most powerful and underrated of all loves: heartfelt female friendship.

28693621Chasing the Stars by Malorie Blackman

OTHELLO! IN SPACE! So reads every press release for the brilliant Malorie Blackman’s latest, and it joins a plethora of YA retellings that claim descent from Shakespeare. Having read Othello, I was intrigued to see how Blackman would handle a retelling when I picked this up in the library. Chasing the Stars’ alternate narration follows siblings Aidan and Olivia, known as Vee, who are travelling back to Earth after surviving an epidemic onboard their spaceship, and Nathan, rescued while travelling in the other direction. Unfortunately, it’s overly long and what Blackman takes from Shakespeare’s original play – fanatical jealousy, raging suspicion, misogyny, and a severe case of insta-love – turn out to be pretty much the worst things to put in the book for me. I found the melodramatic, unhealthy relationship at the centre of the novel undermined its twisty sci-fi mystery-dystopia set-up. Fans of Katie Khan’s Hold Back the Stars or Amie Kaufman and Meagan Spooner’s These Broken Stars (I’m sensing a bit of a theme…) might be more suited to this.

25365584The Graces by Laure Eve

Laure Eve was a terrific panellist at DeptCon last year (I wrote about the panel and Laure’s amazingly cool hair here), so her stylish approach to The Graces comes as no surprise. Definitely in the running for UKYA’s most hyped book of 2016, for a time The Graces, and its eye-catching cover, was all anyone in the blogosphere could talk about. Mysterious and richly written, this is a contemporary-pseudo-thriller wrapped in prose like incense. Unreliable narrator River introduces the reader to the beautiful and enigmatic Grace siblings, Summer, Thalia and Fenrin, who are rumoured to be witches by her small town. It’s River who becomes the most obsessed of all, ingratiating herself into their lives with dramatic consequences. However, among others things this novel’s dragging pace, unrealistic and unwieldy dialogue and sizeable dose of the “I’m not like other girls therefore I hate other girls” trope made it a less enjoyable read for me.

28383390How Not to Disappear
by Clare
Furniss

For fans of Juno Dawson’s Margot and Me and Jenny Downham’s Unbecoming, this tale of mouthy teenagers, ardent friendship, hard truths, family strife and unreliable exes is classic contemporary UKYA from start to finish. Teen pregnancy is a fairly well-travelled YA road – Non Pratt’s Trouble was nominated for the first YA Book Prize – but clever, hapless, sometimes overly loyal Hattie is more Holly Smale’s geeky Harriet than Pratt’s gobby Hannah, and it’s the weaving of her modern story with that of her elderly great aunt Gloria which makes How Not to Disappear really stand out. It’s quite a serious book but there are some brilliant dashes of warmth and humour and I loved Hattie’s chatty, sharp, charming emails. I spent most of the book wanting to punch her charismatic, self-centred friend-turned-love-interest Reuben in the face. He’s a scene-stealing character, but he’s a terrible human being. Hattie deserves better – way better. After a strong début with The Year of the Rat, Furniss’ second book was also longlisted for this year’s Carnegie Medal. 

34031732Paper Butterflies by Lisa Heathfield

In Electric Monkey’s first YA Book Prize shortlisting, one of the more difficult reads on this year’s shortlist, Paper Butterflies, is unflinching, harrowing and harsh, flecked rather than brimming with hope. Split into two intertwining timelines – ‘Before’ and ‘After’ – it tells the story of June, who finds an escape from her suffering at the hands of her vindictive stepmother and stepsister through her friendship with Jacob, also known as Blister, and his family. June’s relationship with Blister is reminiscent of Holly Bourne’s short story in the UKYA anthology I’ll Be Home for Christmas, but its new, bright colourful cover is thematically deceptive. A trigger warning for themes of horrific abuse means this isn’t one I’d recommend on the basis of its shortlisting alone; it isn’t exactly a book to enjoy, but may be your kind of thing if you have the stomach for writers like Louise O’Neill and Tanya Byrne, or indeed Heathfield’s début novel Seed. Paper Butterflies works best when it’s building extraordinary and immediate empathy not just for but with June, showcasing her voice and agency both within and beyond struggle.

What do you think of (the first half of) this year’s YA Book Prize shortlist? Are there any other books you’d like to have seen included?

nametag2-fw

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.

3hstars-fw

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.

4Stars.fw

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

NameTag2.fw

The Sun Is Also A Star by Nicola Yoon // love in the time of culture shock and spontaneous snogging

29852514Author: Nicola Yoon
Publisher: Corgi Children’s (PRH)
Publication date: 3 November 2016
Category: YA
Genre: contemporary
Series or standalone?:Standalone
Source: I received a NetGalley copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
Find on Goodreads

Carl Sagan said that if you want to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe.

Natasha is a girl who believes in science and facts. Not fate, not destiny, not dreams that will never come true. So even when she meets a cute boy on a crowded New York City street and there’s something between them, the last thing she expects is to fall in love with him. Her family is twelve hours away from being deported to Jamaica, and love is not on her list of priorities.

Daniel has always been a good son, a good student, resigned to a life shaped by his parents’ high expectations. He dreams of being a poet in secret, and he definitely believes in true love, but he’s stuck on a one-way train to pre-med and he isn’t sure if he’s brave enough to pull the brakes. When he meets Natasha, all that falls away. Something about Natasha makes him think that fate has something much more extraordinary in store – for both of them. 

This book has all the ingredients guaranteed to have contemporary USYA fans a-flurry with excitement: a gorgeous cover, a magazine-friendly premise, and the prior success of a début novel already being made into a movie. But looking past all the flashing lights and blanket pre-release praise (and having learned to take hype with a more than a pinch or two of salt), does it really live up to expectation?

There’s plenty to like about the novel: its cinematic setting, a terrific mix of cultures (including some very memorable scenes involving a kind of Korean-American karaoke called norebang) and a story just interesting enough to keep you reading. Yoon has a great eye for detail and her characters’ chosen fields of idealistic poetry and sceptical science lend themselves easily to simple but sparkling pieces of prose (“sincerity is sexy, and my cynical heart notices”). If nothing else, it’s an enjoyable book. Quick, vibrant and sprinkled rather than crammed with plot – Daniel is on his way to a Yale interview which will lead to the career in medicine his parents have always pushed for, while Natasha is on a last-minute quest to prevent her family being deported back to Jamaica – The Sun Is Also A Star is told with warmth, verve and compassion.

thesunisalsoastarsmall

Of course, the twelve-hour romance at the core of the book is going to raise a few eyebrows. Unlikely as it seems under such conditions, Natasha and Daniel have a talkative, engaging dynamic – and they have a lot of chemistry. They are, however, very different people; theirs is an tale of contrast, coincidences, choices, mishaps and ultimatums thrown in with perhaps just a little bit of fate.

Unfortunately, the conflict between her scientific pessimism and his melodramatic declarations of love can seem overdone. There’s no subtlety, no delicate grace. Daniel is too willing to declare he’s just met the love of his life (who says I love you on day one?!), yet the book barely questions the idea that the stridently cynical Natasha would agree to spend hours she’s already said are her last chance to stall her deportation with a boy she’s only just met.

It’s a fast read but the pacing is erratic, with chapter-sized explorations of side characters and concepts which, while sometimes adding backstory, generally do little more than disrupt the narrative. It’s often hard to like many of the characters and if you’re looking for healthy family dynamics in teen fiction you won’t find them here. The book is heavily reliant on that particular style of American YA which involves breaking paragraphs on every second line, and regularly gives up on multi-sensory description altogether. Even worse, the book’s persistent penchant for tell over show is hugely grating. It’s a pity, too, as it’s in rare moments where Yoon allows the prose to breathe that it shines.

4Stars.fw

Pacy, enjoyable and entertaining. A short, sharp second book which will undoubtedly find an audience in fans of Yoon’s début, Everything Everything. The writing style is curiously uneven and the path of its plot is a well-trodden one, but great chemistry between its leads binds the book together. When it comes to the ultimate love-at-first-sight YA novel, though, Jennifer E. Smith remains undefeated, while Sarra Manning’s gorgeous, whirlwind London Belongs To Us is hands down the victor if you’re looking for laugh-out-loud humour and feel-good storytelling.

NameTag2.fw