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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Most Anticipated Reads of 2017 – July Check In!

Every year, the blogosphere is flooded with most anticipated lists, and before you know it, you’re knee-deep in releases which are five or six or seven months away while your current TBR stares accusingly at you from across the bookshelf. But sooner or later these posts vanish – often never to be given any kind of conclusion or follow through. This year, I wanted to check in with my most anticipated books of the year  and see whether they’ve made it off the list and onto my shelf!

Throne of Glass #6 by Sarah J. Maas

Originally slated for publication in autumn 2017, the final installment in Sarah J. Maas’ Throne of Glass series has now been pushed back to May 2018. SIGH. There’s no other term for it: this SUCKS. I was so excited for this book – Throne of Glass remains an epic and extraordinary feat of female-led high fantasy in YA – and can’t wait to find out where it goes next. Instead of an autumn conclusion for the assassin once known as Celaena Sardothien, we’re getting a spin-off Chaol novel called Tower of Dawn and more sequels to her (ugh) A Court of Thorns and Roses books. It seems Maas has joined the likes of George R. R. Martin, Diana Gabaldon, Megan Whalen Turner and Samantha Shannon in making readers wait years for the next legit book in a fantasy series.

Once and for All by Sarah Dessen

I was so delighted when I heard the premise for Sarah Dessen’s new project, and it’s out this June! The concept reads like such a burst of joy.  Weddings, family, a healthy dose of cynicism, happily-ever-afters and Dessen’s penchant for including past characters make this sound like a glossy romantic comedy to adore, and I’ll be picking it up as soon as I see it in a bookshop. Oh, I have been WAITING for a book like this in YA.

Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor

Another one whose publication date was pushed back, Strange the Dreamer was one of the most talked-about fantasy releases of spring, and when I read it earlier this month, I enjoyed it. It’s rich, immersive stuff, centred on a scholar who loves fairytales, a city bereft of its name, and a quest to get it back. It’s quite long (perhaps even a little too long) and moves at a frustratingly even pace, but Taylor’s inventive streak is unquestionable and the world-building is top-notch. The characters are clearly designed to contrast with the cast of Daughter of Smoke and Bone, but Taylor retains her distinctive, descriptive writing style and I’ll be picking up the sequel in this duology.

A Conjuring of Light by V.E. Schwab

I read the final book in the Shades of Magic trilogy – or as Schwab rather mysteriously puts it, the final book in the first arc of the Shades of Magic series – earlier this year and it was awesome. It’s a rich, chunky fantasy to get your teeth into. Full of allegiance, betrayal, bloodlust, romance, sacrifice, pirates, magical Londons and stylish coats, it’s a strong conclusion to the trio. However, I did find that after the first book, the series came to rely on plot devices and types of magic we’ve seen before. A Conjuring of Light leaves a veritable cadre of unanswered questions, so I’d definitely read more about Kell, Lila, Alucard and co!

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We Come Apart by Sarah Crossan and Brian Conaghan

I read We Come Apart quite early, and reviewed it on the blog in February! “Crossan and Conaghan, already at the top of their game as individual writers, prove once again why they are critically acclaimed Carnegie and Costa winners respectively… collaboration has indeed sparked something new in their repertoire. With a keen sense of story and an eye for detail, this dynamic dual narrative is a back-and-forth of fearless proportions. It is unflinching, engaging, sharp and occasionally, totally heartbreaking.”

All About Mia by Lisa Williamson

This is a book that had me at ‘Mother Teresa in a blazer’, to be honest. I reviewed it on the blog in March and really enjoyed it. “Messy, outrageous, vivid and engaging, All About Mia boasts a brilliant premise and some great flashes of humour. A solid cast and a satisfying style are marred only by a few duff or unnecessary turns of plot. A blistering and lively contemporary standalone ideal for fans of Trouble by Non Pratt, All of the Above by Juno Dawson or Lobsters by Tom Ellen and Lucy Ivison.”

Freshers by Tom Ellen and Lucy Ivison

Freshers didn’t even have a cover when I added it to my most anticipated list in December, but Tom Ellen and Lucy Ivison are a force to be reckoned with when it comes to laugh-out-loud humour and realistic UKYA, and I’m still intrigued to see what they come up with here. It will be published by Chicken House in August.

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Traitor to the Throne by Alwyn Hamilton

Another notch in my ‘actually following up on debuts by reading sequels’ belt, I read Traitor to the Throne before publication but reviewed it in April. “Rich, exciting and enthralling, Traitor to the Throne – the second book in what is rapidly becoming one of current UKYA’s most dramatic and action-packed fantasy series – is a commendable follow-up to last year’s Rebel of the Sands. This brisk but immersive foray into the world of Miraji – where rough wild west meets mysterious desert sands and long-hidden magic abounds – sees heroine Amani once again elbow-deep in fighting for her freedom and that of her people.  Hectic, pacy and bursting with plot, it’s driven by sparky bravery, simmering revolution, outrageous treachery, daring rescues, thrilling escapes, and surprise re-appearances.”

A Crown of Wishes by Roshani Chokshi

This companion to the New York Times bestselling The Star-Touched Queen picks up with a warrior princess, an unlikely ally, and a fight for survival in battle-scarred kingdom. Readers will recognise heroes Gauri and Vikram as secondary characters from Chokshi’s début. While this book published in March, it looks like it doesn’t yet have a UK publisher, which is disappointing as I was hoping it could improve where The Star-Touched Queen had lagged a bit. For the one-day-I’ll-get-around-to-it pile.

Long May She Reign by Rhiannon Thomas

My interest was piqued by the sound of this book when it was announced: a royal tale of conspiracy and inheritance, it’s pitched as an apparent edgy semi-fantasy mystery of sorts. Unfortunately, this is another one that doesn’t seem to be lined up for publication this side of the Atlantic. I’m not particularly bothered about missing out on reading it, but it reminds me how much I wanted to see more fantasy in Irish and UKYA. Publishers here really need to work on publishing more solid YA fantasy!!

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Honourable mentions (because okay, I have to keep the wordcount down but who can leave any most-anticipated list at just ten?!):

Wing Jones by Katherine Webber: you guys, I’d been waiting for this book for SO LONG. I did a lot of work talking about it and supporting it, and seemed like EVERYONE in the entire blogosphere got a review copy, but although I requested one, mine never arrived, and I was kind of too shy to say anything about it?? (Don’t worry, I’ve gotten better about that kind of thing now.) My purchased copy has been in my TBR for ages because review books often have to come first, but SOON, my pretty, SOON.

The Spellbook of the Lost and Found by Moira Fowley-Doyle: the second standalone from one of the best – if not the best – Irish writers of current YA is absolutely one to get your hands on, particularly if you liked the eerie, magical style of The Accident Season. “Dark, strange and littered with magic, Spellbook of the Lost and Found is a stylishly written and pleasingly clever second novel. 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.”

A Quiet Kind of Thunder by Sara Barnard: this book is glorious. It was my first (and so far only one of two) five star review of the year. I adored it. “This is a novel which finds in the ordinary the extraordinary: which has taken a humble premise, straightforward prose and a handful of characters and created a love story which may already be one of my favourite books of the year. (And perhaps even a possible awards contender, too).”

Spindle Fire by Lexa Hillyer: this high fantasy Sleeping Beauty retelling caught my eye last year, though it’s not really been a priority since. But again, where is the UK release date?! PUBLISH. MORE. FANTASY. YOU. GUYS.

Now I Rise by Kiersten White: A ruthless fifteenth century-set saga about a genderbent Vlad the Impaler may be an unlikely choice of subject for YA, but this sequel to the dramatic and NYT-bestselling And I Darken is just as ferocious as the trilogy opener. Set against a backdrop of empires and betrayal, it’s demanding, action-packed historical fiction. I finished it last week and will be reviewing it soon!

So far I’ve managed to read eight of fifteen most anticipated reads of the year, which I’m totally pleased with! Do you keep track of highly anticipated books in your TBR? Which of these 2017 releases have been your favourites?

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If Birds Fly Back by Carlie Sorosiak // summer contemporary fails to soar

34327163Author(s): Carlie Sorosiak
Publisher:
 Macmillan
Publication date: 29th June 2017
Category: YA
Genre(s): contemporary
Series or standalone?: standalone
Source: I received a NetGalley copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

Linny has been living life in black and white since her sister Grace ran away. When she witnesses the return of a cult writer and movie legend long presumed dead, she’s certain it’s a sign. Surely Álvaro Herrera can tell her why people come back – and how to bring her sister home?

Sebastian is in Miami seeking his father, a man whose name he’s only just learned. An aspiring astrophysicist, he can tell Linny how much plutonium weighs and how likely she is to be struck by a meteorite. But none of the theories he knows are enough to answer his questions about why his father abandoned him. 

As Sebastian and Linny converge around the mystery of Álvaro’s disappearance and return, their live turn to technicolour – but finding the answers to their questions might mean risking everything that matters.

If you’ve looked at any summer most anticipated list this year, you’ve probably seen mentions of If Birds Fly Back. Another one for the YA-in-2017 hype train, I was intrigued by its premise – teen girl tries to track down her runaway sister by investigating celebrity disappearances, including that of a Hollywood figure, and collides with an aspiring scientist along with the way – and figured it would be a pleasant summer read. The concept is somewhere between Nina LaCour’s Everything Leads to You and Nicola Yoon’s The Sun Is Also a Star (my review of which you can read here) but unfortunately that which made those books readable – charm, flashes of gorgeous prose – was lacking here.

Perhaps the most significant factor was the writing style. It’s choppy, jerky and off-putting. It really reminded me of Harriet Reuter Hapgood’s The Square Root of Summer (read the review here) which I didn’t enjoy either, though if you’re a fan of Reuter Hapgood, this book, also a Macmillan title, may be more your kind of thing. The book starts in media res and it’s so  confusing I had to check I hadn’t accidentally missed the first chapter of the ARC. The first half of the book is much the same, with the prose leaving readers scrambling to catch up or get even a basic sense of the characters. I have high expectations for contemporaries – not least because there are so many of them in current YA – and if a novel doesn’t bring its A-game, whether that be in beautiful prose or new twists, I’d rather use precious reading time elsewhere.

However, the second half of the book shows improvement. Once the prose is settled in, and stops rushing about so much, the emotional stakes become clearer. Linny, short for Marilyn, is desperately seeking answers to her older sister’s disappearance even as her parents become ever more restrictive, while Sebastian, raised by a single mom who refuses to answer questions about his father, is searching for the man who has shaped his life by absence. Stronger pacing and greater dramatic tension make the book’s conclusion far more gripping and powerful than its opening.

There were some stylistic details, like Sebastian’s scientific explanations, which I really like, and others which are hit-and-miss. Linny’s screenplay is interesting, but very little seems to actually happen in it, and it could have been far more dynamic. The mysterious Álvaro lacks the charisma described by many of the characters and the setting sinks into sun-bleached staleness. The secondary cast could’ve been more developed and the romance is fairly predictable. Ultimately, Sorosiak fails to make If Birds Fly Back stand out from the crowd.

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For fans of Adi Alsaid, Nicola Yoon and Harriet Reuter Hapgood, this début’s premise contains potential but a jerky writing style and predictable plot mean it fails to soar.

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The Girl’s Guide To Summer by Sarah Mlynowski // a rare mishap from Mlynowski

31199783Author(s): Sarah Mlynowski
Publisher:
 Orchard Books
Publication date: 15th June 2017
Category: YA/NA
Genre(s): contemporary
Series or standalone?: series (possibly? maybe? idek)
Source: I received a NetGalley copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

Nineteen-year-old Sydney has the perfect summer mapped out. She’s spending the next four and half weeks traveling through Europe with her childhood best friend, Leela. Their plans include the Eiffel Tower, eating gelato, and making out with très hot strangers. Her plans do not include Leela’s cheating ex-boyfriend showing up on the flight to London, falling for the cheating ex-boyfriend’s très hot friend, monitoring a delicate home life via texts, or feeling like the rope in a friendship tug-of-war.

As Sydney zigzags through Switzerland, Italy, the Netherlands and France, she must learn when to hold on, when to keep moving, and when to jump into the Riviera…wearing only her polka dot underpants.

An experienced author of fiction for both adults and teens, Sarah Mlynowski can usually be relied upon to deliver fun, funky novels with a familiar, highly readable style. And in many ways, such traits are true of The Girl’s Guide to Summer (titled in some countries as I See London, I See France). It’s entertaining, fairly light-hearted and clearly designed as an untaxing, read-while-you-hold-a-brightly-coloured-drink-with-a-tiny-umbrella-in-one-hand beach read. The premise is straightforward and will appeal to the summer YA crowd. For fans of Luisa Plaja and Deb Caletti, it’s an absorbing and modern (namely in its persistent references to things like Instagram, which will no doubt see it quickly become dated) new release.

When long-time best friend Leela’s unexpected break-up sees her offered a spare plane ticket and the chance to backpack around Europe for a month, teenager Sydney, who hasn’t taken a break from her studies or from being her mom’s carer in years, can’t resist. Unfortunately, Leela’s ex-boyfriend Matt has decided to go backpacking anyway, and within days it becomes clear that they have unfinished emotional business of the tongue-tennis kind to take care of, leaving Sydney to play gooseberry – or get to know Matt’s mysterious (and, as she frequently reminds us, surprisingly hot) friend, Jackson. What unfolds is the story of a girl learning to navigate new continents, secret romances, thorny relationships, and the London Tube with, shall we say, varying levels of success.

The Girl’s Guide to Summer is frothy, sometimes even funny, stuff. Organised, put-together Sydney is there for her friends and family, whether that’s guiding drunk friends to the bathroom or checking up on her mother from thousands of miles away, but with temperamental Leela veering from loved-up to heartbroken at the drop of a hat and constantly placing demands on her attention, readers will likely feel she’s allowing herself to be pulled about a bit too often. Both meet other backpackers on their travels, including some particularly exuberant Australians, but I would’ve liked to have seen a more balanced, mutually beneficial friendship take up the core of the book. Her resident Paris friend, Kat, also gets plenty of time on the page but where emotional depth should appear alongside her confidence, she’s defined mostly by Sex and the City levels of brassy materialism. Sydney’s romance with outgoing, handsome Jackson, meanwhile, is certainly aiming for swoony – but one can’t help feeling it’s a little shallow, as after some initial back-and-forth Sydney spends most of the book specifying only her attraction to him while meaningful conversation is glossed over.

And, perhaps most crucially, while this book is being marketed as YA, specifically to Mlynowski’s YA audience, it is not YA. It’s something resembling NA (the once-popular ‘New Adult’ category), with a touch more added for some attempt at a half-hearted transition. There’s heavy drinking, drug use and (apparently in place of taking more than one or two opportunities to explore themes in a thoughtful, interesting way) a scene entirely set at a live sex show in Amsterdam. The protagonists’ travels around Europe rely on super generalised stereotypes, the relationships lack depth, serious themes aren’t particularly thoroughly handled and the ending is completely rushed, leaving little room for wrapping up details or any narrative conclusion.

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For fans of Keris Stainton and Deb Caletti, The Girl’s Guide to Summer is entertaining but ultimately ill-categorised. I expected more from the author of Ten Things We Did (And Probably Shouldn’t Have) and Don’t Even Think About It. 

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IN THE RED(ISH) CORNER: recent cover favourites!

Today on the blog, I talk some of my favourite recent YA cover designs (and try not to tear my hair out trying to figure out who actually designed them). I’ll be doing a follow-up post on my favourite cool-tone (navy, blue, green, etc) covers soon, too!

29740718What’s A Girl Gotta Do? by Holly Bourne
cover design by Hannah Cobley

The Spinster Club books are funny, entertaining, fierce and, of course, have unmistakable covers. Quite unusually for contemporary YA, they rely on solid, almost clashing colour combinations: yellow and black, pink and black, and here, in the final book of the trilogy, red and black. I was impressed by how loud this one is and how much force it gives to Lottie’s empowering, feminist mission. The illustration is energetic and unique. Also I hear the proof came with lipstick and those red-lip jelly sweets you can buy (A+ work, Usborne).

29979535Mistletoe and Murder by Robin Stevens
cover design by Nina Tara

I really like the Murder Most Unladylike series covers, you guys. They have such a classic feel. The title placement, the silhouettes, the series banner… ugh, they’re just too good. Striking, fitting and easy to recognise, I’m a big fan how much they match and how bold they are, particularly this latest installment. This red (a happy red, not like, a Scorsese red) merges the series design with the Christmas theme and totally suits Daisy and Hazel. They’re usually shelved in children’s or middle grade books, but they have huge multi-age appeal.

30197201A Quiet Kind of Thunder by Sara Barnard
cover design by Pan Mac Art Dept 

This eye-catching cover is fabulous. It’s both simple and complicated, and there’s gold foil. GOLD FOIL! (Gold foil, as you will see, is a bit of theme for me when it comes to book covers). I love that it’s just close enough to Barnard’s Beautiful Broken Things to be familiar but different enough that it establishes the individuality of Rhys and Steffi’s story (which I adored, as you can read here). I like the typography, too, and white is the perfect choice. My own copy of this fell victim to the Bookshop Sticker Monster (*sob*) but I rescued it and now it is SHINY.

25756328Love & Gelato by Jenna Evans Welch
cover design by Simon & Schuster

I haven’t read this one yet, but just can’t help liking its design: if we’re talking judging a book by its cover, then Love & Gelato has absolutely rocketed up my to-be-read list because of its gorgeously simple design. It’s elegant, pretty and it has ICE CREAM. I’m not always a fan of beige but the soft pink hues to the pale background give it an almost earthy feel which is oddly satisfying. I would’ve liked to see multiple flavours or colours on the cover but then that’s just because I really enjoy gelato.

25909375Wing Jones by Katherine Webber
cover design by Marie Soler (art direction) and Luke Lucas (illustration)

Katherine Webber’s début novel has two fabulous UK and US covers, but while I love the watercolour effect of The Heartbeats of Wing Jones, I’ve chosen the UK cover as it’s the one I own! I like the colourscheme, the bounce of the trainer (or sneakers, or runners, depending where you’re from) being depicted mid-movement, and the effect of the laces as the title is obviously clever. I’m not sure about the tagline placement (CENTRE IT, CENTRE IT) but what you can’t see from this angle are the ombre pink-purple sprayed edges, which are awesome.

29852514The Sun Is Also A Star by Nicola Yoon
cover design by Dominique Falla 

I think everyone found this cover breath-taking when it was first revealed. It bursts off the page, a riot of colour. If anything, I liked it even more when I discovered the process and inventiveness behind it (you can see how the tactile, three-dimensional cover was created here). It’s a great example of a really slick, ultra-modern cover that does a lot of work in making the book stand out, and while it focuses more on impact than content, the bright and explosive feel is  evocative of its insta-love story. 

And to conclude, some observations:

  • BRIGHT COLOURS FOR THE WIN, YES? I love, love, love bright colours.
  • If you’re going to have a pattern, you better make it classy or I will run for the hills.
  • I don’t mind pink in covers at all! EMBRACE THE PINK, PEOPLE.
  • I really, really like illustrated covers. I kind of had a feeling about this before I started researching, but it became incredibly clear once I began collecting favourites. For me, illustrated or graphic design-based covers are so much more versatile and appealing.
  • Related: I loathe YA book covers with models ontumblr_mqakvcc0cV1qmn5ngo5_250 them, especially if they have anything to do with the Gothic-girls-in-big-dresses or pastel-teenager-caught-in-sunrays-muses-about-life tropes. BLECH.
  • Make the title the most important thing on the cover! Big, eye-catching typography is your friend.
  • Simple and elegant, everyone. Simple and elegant.

What about you?  Do you judge books by their covers? What are some of your recent favourites?

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Release by Patrick Ness // a tale of two (rather off-kilter) halves

Author(s): Patrick Ness31194576
Publisher:
 Walker Books
Publication date: 4th May 2017
Category: YA
Genre(s): contemporary, supernatural
Series or standalone?: standalone
Source: I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

Between his religious family, a deeply unpleasant boss, and unrequited love for his sort-of ex, Enzo, it seems as though Adam’s life is falling apart.

He has two people to keep him sane – his new boyfriend Linus and his best friend Angela – but over the course of a single day, old memories and new heartaches come crashing together, throwing his life into chaos. Meanwhile, lurking at the edges, something unearthly and unsettling is set on a collision course with Adam and his town. A day of confrontation and transformation will not be without sacrifice – yet in spite of everything he has to let go, Adam may also find freedom in release.

Patrick Ness – a man with his fingers in a number of metaphorical pies when it comes to writing and creating for young people – is clearly enjoying being YA fiction’s genre-hopping answer to Neil Gaiman. Even a short list of his pursuits includes two Carnegie medals, two movie deals, the top spot in writing and creating Doctor Who spin-off Class, a plethora of awards, near-innumerable newspaper inches, and a string of well-received books. His cherry-picking of projects has made itself clear in novels like More Than This, The Rest of Us Just Live Here and now an attempt to bring Virginia Woolf’s formidable Mrs Dalloway to a modern teenage audience.

Perhaps because of this freedom to choose projects that might never get off the ground in the hands of a newly signed writer, Release is a novel which basks in its own literariness. There are nods to Woolf everywhere, from the wholesale borrowing of structure or events to more subtle references which should please those who’ve read the original without becoming too unwieldy for those who haven’t. Judy Blume’s Forever is also said to have been an influence. The writing style itself echoes with familiar characters of Ness’ YA: predictable rhythm, unflashy description, serious tone, the occasional moment of light-heartedness, though it’s denser and more formal than usual.

For fans of Two Boys Kissing by David Levithan, History Is All You Left Me by Adam Silvera and The Miseducation of Cameron Post by Emily M. Danforth, the core of Release is protagonist Adam’s struggle with identity and orientation in the face of small-town mindsets and his religious, intolerant parents, who subscribe to views even they know are out-dated. Confrontation of Adam’s experiences gives the novel emphatic dramatic weight. Ness navigates implicit repression, outright rejection and other difficult topics with consistent dexterity. He places the venom of Adam’s preacher father alongside the exhilaration of his relationship with Linus and the fearless acceptance of best friend Angela – one of the best and most underrated characters in the book. Complicated characters litter the novel, with only the occasional flat note or slip into the one-dimensional among the secondary cast.

By turns bleak and busy, harsh and hopeful, Adam’s story is accompanied by a rather less effective supernatural sideplot. Essentially, a so-called queen, a faun, a murder, drug abuse and unanswered questions get turned into the kind of eerie-mystery-possibly-a-ghost-story. The reader is aware that it’s supposed to illuminate some deep and meaningful parallel to the contemporary plotline, but it’s so disparate I found it detracted from the more successful parts of the book. If you’re going to write contemporary magical realism, you’re better off really going for it, as in Maggie Stiefvater’s The Raven Boys or Moira Fowley-Doyle’s spellbinding The Accident Season.

They say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but perhaps more fitting here is Oscar Wilde’s variation on the phrase: “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery that mediocrity can pay to greatness.” Because while Release is solid, it’s not earth-shattering. In fact, the prose is sometimes, well, boring. I’m not sure that an attempted reworking of one of Virginia Woolf’s most complex books by a middle-aged white dude was something YA needed. Adam’s navigating of relationships, identity and sexual orientation sits firmly in the tradition of foregrounding the G in LGBT in teen fiction, while elements of the book designed to make it seem unique – reinterpretation of a classic, a supernatural undercurrent – don’t mesh the way they should. A Monster Calls remains Ness’ best work.

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An ambitious offering from the ever-versatile Patrick Ness, who is clearly punching for the literary side of critical acclaim with this Mrs Dalloway-inspired novel. Unfortunately, a misjudged supernatural subplot and prose that dulls more than it shines leave this effort curiously askew.

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The Names They Gave Us by Emery Lord // outstandingly thoughtful, feel good YA

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Author(s): Emery Lord
Publisher:
 Bloomsbury
Publication date: 1st June 2017
Category: YA
Genre(s): contemporary
Series or standalone?: standalone
Source: I received a NetGalley copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
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Lucy Hansson was ready for the perfect summer with her boyfriend, working at her childhood Bible camp on the lake. But when her mom’s cancer reappears, Lucy falters – in faith, in love, and in her ability to cope.

When her boyfriend ‘pauses’ their relationship and her summer job switches to a different camp, this time for trouble kids, Lucy isn’t sure how much more she can handle. Thrown into a world of broken rules, close-knit coworkers and relentlessly energetic third graders, she attempts to regain her footing while keeping her Sundays with her mom to herself. But she’s not the only one with secrets, and she may find that in the summer she thought she needed it least, her new world – and the people in it – could be what she needs most. 

The Names They Gave Us is a considered and highly engaging exploration of the summer one confident but somewhat sheltered teenager’s world is turned upside down surprises and endears at every turn. It’s character-driven but delivers on plot as well as premise. It’s warm and heartfelt, but also serious, thoughtful and, occasionally, heartbreaking. I wasn’t expecting to enjoy it as much as I did, but it really blew me away. I gave Lord’s last book quite a high rating (you can read my review of When We Collided here), but I’m glad I left room for just a little more for this standalone.

Capable, put-together Lucy finds herself completely thrown by the recurrence of her mother’s cancer and by her dependable, upright boyfriend’s subsequent checking out of their relationship. When an old friend seeks an emergency replacement for a counsellor who quit at the summer camp across the lake, Lucy agrees at her mother’s request. At first feeling both out of place and way out of her depth, Lucy must navigate a new world where kids who have seen too much could do with someone on their side. Kind, accepting, hard-working Lucy is a well-realised protagonist. She does her best in the face of challenges and is slowly realising she is in a place where it is okay to feel as she does – angry, conflicted, afraid, guilty for the chinks showing in her once-dutiful armour – and what’s more, where new friends and unexpected allies will feel it with her.

Among them are fellow counsellors like friendly Anna, guarded Keely, and outgoing Tambe, each with histories and complexities of their own. Best of all, however, is the bespectacled, lively, flaweed Henry Jones. Their romance is realistic, passionate and honest. Lucy and Jones actually spend time together and get to know each other – their shared talent for music and equal devotion to the kids of camp are particular highlights – turning theirs from sweet romance to gorgeous relationship in a way that soars. I liked Lucy trying to figure out her young chargers, too, whether by teaching shy Thuy to swim to giving Nadia a shoulder to lean on. Vibrant, diverse and individual, these characters leap from the page.

The Names They Gave Us is filled with the requisite moments of plot and drama, secrets and revelations, humour and heartbreak. Frank, compassionate and incredibly empathetic, the vivid portrayal of its characters’ multifarious, and sometimes traumatic, experiences is exemplified by Lord’s unabashed confrontation of themes as varied as grief, sexuality, and religion. The immense sensitivity with which Lord depicts faith allows her to capture both Lucy’s belief and struggles. This is YA with present parents in the shape of Lucy’s funny, loving mom and open, good-natured pastor dad, and with fabulous, imperfect friendships, too. The ending is quite rushed and abrupt, and the prose style is a little choppy, but the book is absorbing from start to finish. A worthy choice for what is, at the time of writing, only my second five star rating of the year.

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I adored this book. For fans of Sara Barnard, Sarah Dessen and Jennifer E. Smith, this is feel-good, heart-rending contemporary. The characters are fantastic, the romance well-written and the story sweeps you away. Emery Lord is improving with every book she writes.

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