Beyond The Wall by Tanya Landman // historical fiction effort proves a let down

34668577Author(s): Tanya Landman
Publisher: Walker Books
Publication date: 6th April 2017
Category: YA
Genre(s): historical fiction
Series or standalone?: standalone
Source: I received a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.
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Britannia. A conquered land.

Running. Weeping. Blood on her lips.
Blood in her mouth.
Blood that is not her own.

After maiming her master, Cassia has no choice but to run. With dogs on her trail and a bounty on her head, escape from the vast Roman Empire seems impossible. But beyond the river, far to the north, stands Hadrian’s Wall – the furthest limit of the empire. And beyond it? Danger. Uncertainty. Freedom.

I snapped this book up because of its premise. Historical fiction set in the Roman Empire, but not from the perspective of a Roman? A female lead and a solid cover to boot? It’s eye-catching stuff (or at least it is if like me you’re on the lookout for more historical fiction in your review pile). The book’s protagonist Cassia once didn’t even know there was a place where the Roman Empire ended, but finds hope in tantalising rumours of a wild land the Romans have failed to tame beyond what became known as Hadrian’s Wall. I particularly liked the potential for deconstructing the Roman occupation through the eyes of a character who doesn’t fit into their highly stratified society. And the greedy, cruel, violent, hubristic Romans of fourth century Britannia certainly are the villains of the piece. Cassia only dares accept aid from one or two of them, and the major Roman character, Marcus, has secrets of his own.

This is the first Tanya Landman book I’ve read – the first I’ve even heard of, though I was vaguely aware of the name, probably because of the Carnegie Medal – and there were some flashes of promising prose (‘the statue of Neptune was face down like a drowned man’), particularly in the earliest chapters. The plot focuses on Cassia’s various escapes from slavery, taking her from stately villa to chaotic Londinium, from roadside taverns to the wintry north. As well as Marcus, she’s joined by fellow escaped slaves Rufus, Silvio and Flavia, and there were some emphasised moments such as the returning of the elderly Flavia to her village in Germania. However, just when the story would have been at its most interesting – Cassia’s arrival and acceptance into a complex, cultured ‘barbarian’ tribe (probably Picts) in what was known to the Romans as Caledonia – the book abruptly cuts away .Marcus’ narration reverts to Roman society and while it provides some plot twists, it means that the increasingly pent-up curiosity built by the entire first half of the book goes unfulfilled. A near-cliffhanger in what is slated as a standalone also makes for a displeasing, rushed ending.

The book stops short of the really demanding, thoughtful exploration its themes could’ve yielded, too. It hurries along at a commercial pace, but fails to stretch itself in the thematic department, as strong YA historical fiction should. Perhaps this would’ve been fine in a title for younger readers (and even then, I say this with a pinch of salt – look at the scope and skill of books like Robin Stevens’ Murder Most Unladylike series or Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s The Island at the End of Everything) but while the cover gives it an apparent middle grade vibe, make no mistake: this book isn’t for kids. Violence, particularly sexual violence, incest and misogyny, is not only pervasive in Landman’s text but is also essentially used as a carousel of plot tropes. Landman spins from one to the other before rounding back to the start all over again. It’s tedious, unoriginal and downright tasteless in a book which makes absolutely no attempt to pursue alternative sources of ‘tension’ or ‘stakes’. The result is a book that seems at once both ‘convenient’ – as characters pass through whole swathes of the Roman Empire unimpeded or have minor plot problems solved with almost oleaginous ease – and horrific. I won’t be recommending this one.

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A solid premise is let down by a narrow, unimaginative selection of plot events and an unsatisfying shift in character which fails to capitalise on readers’ curiosity about the very thing described by the title: that is, the wilderness Beyond the Wall.

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Contemporary Catch-Up // This Beats Perfect by Rebecca Denton and Countless by Karen Gregory

33135198Author(s): Rebecca Denton 
Publisher:
 Atom
Publication date: 2 February 2017
Category: YA
Genre(s): contemporary
Series or standalone?: standalone
Source: I received a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.
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Amelie Ayres has impeccable taste in music: Bowie. Bush. Bob. So when she finds herself backstage watching one of the most famous boybands in the world perform for thousands of screaming fans, she expects to hate it – after all, The Keep are world’s most tragic band. She has to admit, though, that feels a sort of respect, not (obviously) for their music, but for the work that goes in to making them megastars. And when lead singer Maxx is not dressed up like Elvis and/or a My Little Pony, he is actually rather normal, with creative struggles not too dissimilar to her own.

But then a photo of her backstage makes her a subject of global speculation, and suddenly the world needs to know #Who’sThatGirl? for all the wrong reasons.

Immaculate is a concept. Flawless is fake. But just sometimes music, and hearts, can rock a perfect beat.

As someone who has kept an eye on boyband lit in YA fiction, I’d hoped this book would be an admirable addition to a sub-genre which is often fun, engaging and appealing to modern audiences. Unfortunately, I was left disappointed by a book which wastes its potential and, worse still, trivialises a style which has been so cleverly adapted in contemporaries like Sophia Bennett’s brilliant Love Song.

Teenage singer-songwriter Amelie Ayres, visiting her sound engineer father, finds herself backstage at the gig of one of the biggest boybands in the world – the only problem is, she has zero interest in the peppy pop and flashy outfits that have made them famous. She’s surprised by what it’s like to meet the boys behind the band, but when one of them snaps a selfie with her, the rumour mill goes into overdrive. Caught up in the world of the band whether she likes it or not, Amelie must navigate jealousy, paparazzi, hints of romance and her own stage fright if she’s to find where she truly wants, or needs, to be.

Unfortunately, the most interesting elements of this plot – the pressures of fame, behind-the-scenes figures, exploration of the sometimes-manufactured nature of boybands, possibilities for complex characterisation – are lost in a soup of bad dialogue, flat characters and poor prose. There is far better writing out there in YA than appears in this book. This Beats Perfect is patronising, vapid and full of the pseudo-dialogue that would half make you think the author had never actually heard a real teenager speak. It underestimates and undervalues its intended readership, insulting their intelligence and inadvertently making a mockery of the passion which is poured into fandom and musicianship.

The interest in music that’s supposed to make Amelie stand out quickly reveals itself to be music snobbery of the worst kind, transplanted onto a protagonist presented as knowing and somehow superior to other girls (and you know how much I dislike the ‘I’m not like other girls’ trope) but who is ultimately incredibly immature, particularly considering she and her friends are supposed to be sixteen. I liked Amelie’s interest in music production and there was potential in her relationship with her family, but Denton does a disservice to real teenagers in her stilted characterisation and in not being able to make her mind up about what the book is trying to say.

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I wanted to like this one, but This Beats Perfect wastes its potential and fails to deliver the intelligent and complex depictions of fandom, passion and music teenage readers deserve. Sophia Bennett’s Love Song and Jenny McLachlan’s Flirty Dancing are more enjoyable alternatives.

34299826Author(s): Karen Gregory
Publisher:
 Bloomsbury
Publication date: 4 May 2017
Category: YA
Genre(s): contemporary
Series or standalone?: standalone
Source: I received a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.
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When Hedda discovers she is pregnant, she doesn’t believe she could ever look after a baby. The numbers just don’t add up. She’s young and still in the grip of an eating disorder that controls every aspect of her daily life. She’s even given it a name: Nia. But as the days tick by, Hedda comes to a decision: she and Nia will call a truce, just until the baby is born. 17 weeks, 119 days, 357 meals. 

Karen Gregory’s début novel is a story of love, heartache, and how sometimes the things that matter most can’t be counted.

I find books like this one – serious, relentless, grotesquely eerie – difficult to rate mainly because while I appreciate the effectiveness of the point the writer is trying to make, my star ratings are influenced by enjoyment, and I did not enjoy this book. Torn between the vice-like grip of her eating disorder and the desire to keep her daughter strong, teenager Hedda is engaged in a narratively violent struggle with the anorexia she calls Nia.

Countless is gritty, efficient and reminiscent of work by Melvin Burgess, Nick Hornby and Clare Furniss. It’s peppered with difficult choices, old habits and skewed relationships, with some characters failing while others step up to the plate. There’s unexpectedly kind neighbour Robin, honest fellow new mother Lois, Hedda’s distant, critical and painfully unforthcoming parents, her perfect, detached sister Tammy, and, never too far away, the reminders of the protagonist’s eating-disorder existence. It’s not a terribly diverse book, but YA readers looking for books without a romance may find the focus on character, topical issues and Hedda’s personal journey works for them.

Gregory explores themes of love, self-esteem, family breakdown and flashbacks to the weird world of ED units, where Hedda and her fellow sufferers go ostensibly for treatment but wind up building toxic friendships and becoming locked in some bizarre race to be thinnest, sickest, cruellest. She writes with both immense empathy and unflinching characterisation, but the book is undoubtedly triggering and I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone who has had or come into contact with real-life eating disorders. Moments of hope and Hedda’s unquestionable love for daughter Rose are really the only features that make reading a book that might be gripping if it weren’t so chilling possible.

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A mix of Jacqueline Wilson’s Dustbin Baby, Nick Hornby’s Slam and Laurie Halse Anderson’s Wintergirls, this is a brutal, almost raw rendering of hyper-contemporary YA, dominated by its theme of eating disorders but somewhat salvaged by its empathy and the depth of Hedda’s feeling for Rose. Not an enjoyable or an easy read, and not one I’ll be leaping to recommend.

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Contemporary Catch-Up // All of the Above and The Square Root of Summer

In which I attempt to catch up on some of the best (and worst) releases which have slipped my scheduling net. Contemporary is one YA’s busiest genres, so I’ll be tackling these through the medium of (relatively) quick reviews. And probably snark.

alloftheaboveAll of the Above by Juno Dawson
Publisher: Hot Key Books
Publication date: September 1st 2015
Series or standalone?: standalone
Source: purchased

When sixteen-year-old Toria arrives at a new school, she finds herself caught in a storm of exam pressure, new friends and doubting if she’ll ever fit in. Funny, foul-mouthed Polly – the coolest and weirdest girl Toria’s ever met – and her cohort of fellow outsiders take Toria under their wing, but with loyalties tangled and secrets being kept, fast friendships may hit the rocks even faster. Thrown in Toria’s crush on the irresistible lead singer of a local band set for stardom, and she may find that love and friendship have a funny way of going round in circles…

Eventful, outrageous and biting, All of the Above is practically bursting with character: between artistically talented newcomer Toria, fierce but secretive Daisy, bolshy pack leader Polly, awkward Beasley, book-mad Freya, uber-cool musician Nico, permanently-entwined-and-coolly-disinterested Alex and Alice, and of course, Geoff the cross-dressing squirrel, readers are from the off confronted with a colourful cast of teenagers – and the knowledge that some of these friendships will not survive the book. Polly, Daisy and Nico were the stars of the ensemble for me, but the story itself is championed by heroine Toria.

Chatty, frank and uproariously funny, Toria’s narration was one of my favourite things about the book. Brutally honest and littered with pop culture references, it both keeps you reading and packs a punch. Toria’s experiences as a biracial British-Punjabi teenager only occasionally influence the plot but inform her forthright (“Brompton-on-Sea isn’t exactly a cultural melting pot”) and warmly wry (“Worst. Hindu. Ever”) voice. It is through Toria’s humour and  Dawson captures the chaos of teenage experience.

Arriving at Brompton Cliffs, Toria finds that the year which follows is one torrid whirlwind of sexual confusion, startling revelations and surprisingly bittersweet heartbreak. Relying on the base ingredients of the YA tradition – opening with an arrival in a new place, focusing on friendship drama and coming-of-age issues – Dawson adds few twists to the general formula, but packs the book with themes relevant to modern audiences: mental health, sexuality, alcoholism, break-ups, make-ups, strained family relationships, music, hormones.

There’s so much going on in this book. It’s like an episode of Hollyoaks, only better written. This style does have its drawbacks, however. There are moments where the book fails to charm and where plot gets lost in the muddle. The prose is so busy rushing around that it’s difficult to feel many of the tough subjects tackled have been explored as deeply as needed (it’s not an easy read for some issues and requires a trigger warning) or to imagine some of the central relationships, built as they are on hastily-constructed speed-paint foundations, will last beyond the pages.
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Fans of Alice Oseman’s Radio Silence, Liz Kessler’s Read Me Like A Book and Lisa Williamson’s All About Mia will find this lively, if occasionally overbusy, contemporary companion appeals. Funny, sharp, and distinctive. 

27420164The Square Root of Summer by Harriet Reuter-Hapgood
Publisher:
Macmillan
Publication date: May 5th 2016
Series or standalone?: standalone
Source: ARC

Reeling from the twin heartbreaks of a summer ago – the loss of her grandfather and a tough break-up – Gottie is lost and busy burying herself in equations.  

Until Thomas comes home: former boy next door, former best friend, former everything. And until Gottie starts to experience strange blips in time. They take her back to last summer – back to all she should have seen then – where she must navigate grief, world-stopping kisses and the space-time continuum as she tries to reconcile her first heartbreak with her last.

The Square Root of Summer had plenty of potential and no small amount of pre-publication hype. The premise is a collection of things which regularly appear in YA – summer timeframe, tough break-up, bad ex-boyfriend, the boy next door, a struggle with loss – with the added complication of mathematics-laden time travel. Its contemporary framing has echoes of Emery Lord, Amy Zhang and Kasie West, but for me the rest of the book didn’t click.

Unfortunately, the book’s writing style is baffling. And I say this as someone who is all for unusual and striking contemporaries! One moment it’s classic contemporary, the next it’s confused, clunky and completely unenjoyable. Choppy prose weighed down by jargon made it difficult to invest in Gottie’s time travel adventures or the passion for science which litter the novel. The writing style is idiosyncratic, disjointed and jarring, with irritatingly short paragraphs and sentences – all admirable attempts at toying with convention, and perhaps they would’ve worked in the hands of a more skilled or experienced storyteller, but it just doesn’t work here.

This book is, for want of a better phrase, all over the place. The suspension of disbelief, not to mention the supposed romances on which so much of the book hinged, just wasn’t persuasive. The characters are forgettable, the pacing is uneven and the plot is submerged in inexplicable jumps from scene to scene. For a character-driven novel, the individual or intersecting emotional stories must be compelling, but here it’s like someone threw vaguely-contemporary-shaped spaghetti at a wall and decided to write a book out of what stuck. IT MAKES NO SENSE.

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I just didn’t enjoy this one. A summer read which fails to live up to its potential. If you’re looking for an unusual writing style in contemporary, expert hands like Sarah Crossan or Jenny Valentine are still your best bet.

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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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