January 31, 2011

Comfortably Numb (Review: Delirium by Lauren Oliver)

Lauren Oliver
HarperTeen/Hodder and Stoughton 2011

In Lena's world love is a four letter word – a disease; an infection of which all are cured at age eighteen. After the cure, citizens are no longer cursed with the highs and lows that love can bring. In fact, they are no longer inconvenienced by anything much as the cure destroys any intensity of feeling, allowing them to float through their lives without emotional extremes. Lena is all for this. Having had a mother who loved a little to much, despite society's repeated attempts to cure her, Lena knows the dangers of the disease and cannot wait to be cured, assigned a role in life and even a husband who she will spend a life not minding very much. Then she meets a boy, Alex, who turns her life around and her belief systems upside down.  And so begins Lauren Oliver's Delirium...

Lena is an interesting narrator. While she tows the line as far as the disease is concerned, right from the start there is an undercurrent of unrest running through her. Her memories of a mother deemed crazy and ill still haunt her and, as yet uncured, she harbours strange feelings and passions for sunrise and Romeo and Juliet – a cautionary tale that she cannot help seeing as beautiful. These feelings worry her and she at first seems to look forward to her cure but it is clear that it scares her just as much. Her reactions to Alex are always believable. She doesn't know how to interact with him, having had little interaction with the opposite sex, and the way she finds herself feeling when with him clearly terrifies her. As she slowly begins to accept him she starts, out of necessity, to see through a societal structure that she has been quietly questioning for a long time. Her character development is beautiful and her voice clear, concise and honest.

Alex is a character who seems motivated both by a sense of injustice and an overwhelming loneliness. This makes him both heartbreaking and edgy – it's a winning combination. His gentleness and patience with the often confused Lena are touching. While he clearly has envisioned a future with Lena he never pushes her, nor does he ever lie about their situation, always ensuring that she knows the consequences of choices that she may or may not make. As Lena's best friend, Hana is another interesting figure. Of the two friends, Hana is clearly the freer, braver thinker and the most likely to rebel against a system that she sees as completely corrupt. Her frustration with life is tangible, she is a girl hovering on the edge of a something more that she cannot quite see. In her own way, Hana is just as lonely as Alex.

The world that Lena, Alex and Hana live in is one of the darker dystopias around at the moment. On the surface it seems familiar: hugely regulated lives, approved music, approved films – so far, so Brave-New-1984, right? Perhaps so, but Lauren Oliver has added an important dimension to her world with her clever premise. It is clear that Oliver has thought deeply on the implications of having love removed from the group consciousness and these implications rear their heads repeatedly, yet subtly throughout Delirium. Particularly thought provoking was the affect on the parent-child relationship. As the cure cannot be administered to the under eighteens, you effectively have children who love parents who cannot love them back, who merely birth and house them as caring yet distant automatons.

While Delirium is genuinely upsetting to read in many places, Lauren Oliver manages to lighten the heavy, frightening, blandness of this world with moments of great beauty. While reading there were many sections that I read more than once, so as to savour the simple, crisp, moving way in which they were written. Certainly Delirium contains some of the best writing that I have read recently and this, combined with the careful and thoughtful world building slowly builds a story that is unputdownable and the climax is intense and utterly gut-wrenching.

I suspect that comparisons may well be drawn between Delirium and recent dystopian offering Matched (Ally Condie) and I can see why this might be the case. However, to compare these two titles is both insulting to the two hugely accomplished authors and also completely arbitrary – rather than being alike, they sit together rather beautifully as companions on the dystopian shelf. If you liked Matched then read copy Delirium now, you will love it. Hell, order it anyway – this is, I suspect, one of THE big releases of 2011 and you won't want to miss it.

Delirium is available in the UK from February 3rd 2011. Thanks to HarperTeen for allowing me to review this via NetGalley.

January 30, 2011

IMM (#29/20/31)

In My Mailbox is a meme created and hosted by Kristi over at The Story Siren with inspiration from Alea at Pop Culture JunkieAll book titles link to further info at Goodreads
All books in this IMM post have been received for review/bought/gifted/loaned/UK Book Toured/NetGalley-ed/acquired through nefarious means.

Once again I've been a bit lax with the old IMM posts and this one therefore covers the last three weeks...

XVI  - Julia Karr
I've just started reading this one and it's looking good. The premise is pretty sinister and the dystopian vision interesting.

Freefall - Mindi Scott
I've wanted to read this one forever and finally got a copy for my Kindle. It looks excellent and has a male protagonist which makes a nice change.

Going Too Far - Jennifer Echols
This is only the second Jennifer Echols book that I've read and I actually enjoyed it far more than Forget You.  Probably because of Johnafter. Actually, it was definitely because of Johnafter.

The Recruit - Robert Muchamore
This is the first in Muchamore's Cherub series and has been recommended to me several times.  I got it for £1 in Waterstones - bargain!  

The Iron Witch - Karen Mahoney
Another one with an interesting premise and I also had the pleasure of meeting the author recently who was rather lovely. This one should be good.

0.4 - Mike Lancaster
Another debut from a British author and a dystopia at that - despite the creepy cover I'm intrigued to see what this is like.

The Truth About Forever - Sarah Dessen
Last year I decided to read everything by Sarah Dessen.  This is the fourth that I've managed to get to.  I enjoyed it, particularly the two main characters although I'm finding her plotting a tad predictable.

Right Side Talking - Bonnie Rozanski
The author of this book approached me about reviewing an e-copy and while I've heard nothing about it, it looks fantastic - especially if you have an interest in behavioural neuroscience, which I do.

In The Bag - Jim Carrington
This looks like exactly the same story as films such as Millions, Shallow Grave and A Simple Plan.  I'm interested to see if the author has managed to do anything original with such a familiar premise.

Queens Of All The Earth - Hannah Sternberg
I've never read A Room With A View, but I have seen the film and this book is a reimagining of the story - I'm quite excited about it and love the cover as well as the gorgeous title.

Dancing Jax - Robin Jarvis
I'm really glad that I got an ARC of this book because I really find the cover quite disturbing.  I've already read this and am due to review it but find myself at a bit of a loss - it's really quite odd and I can't decide if I hate it or admire it.

When It Happens - Susane Colasanti
Ach, I loved this. It's hugely predictable and not much happens but it's beautifully written, the leads are adorable and it left me feeling all warm and squishy inside.  Also, it prompted me to watch Say Anything again - yay for the '80s!

Fall For Anything - Courtney Summers
I've heard nothing but good things about this book but actually know very little about it, or the author.  A friend (thanks, Kristy!) sent me this copy and I hope that I enjoy it as much as everyone else.

The Other Countess/The Queen's Lady - Eve Edwards
I was sent these for review and have started on The Other Countess but am struggling a little.  Basically, men in doublets and hose don't really do it for me.  However, the story is quite intriguing so I'm going to persevere.

Take Me There - Susane Colasanti
After reading When It Happens, I basically just wanted more warm and squishy.

...and that's it.  I was lucky enough to have a birthday in January and thanks to the lovely Louise and her Amazon voucher I probably have more books than I usually would.  I've also benefited from the generosity of friends and other bloggers so actually have plenty of warm squishiness available to me without reading any more Colasanti!  Happy reading, everyone!

January 27, 2011

Lord, I Feel Like An Angel (Review: Unearthly by Cynthia Hand)

Cynthia Hand
HarperTeen 2011

I am quite seriously getting a bit sick of Nephilim. They seem to be flitting about the YA shelves with their feathery wings and angel-complexes and to my mind it's all getting a bit silly. Apart from the Shadowhunters, all the Nephilim can fly away. Well, except maybe the ones in Unearthly which is a fun, refreshingly different offering from debut writer, Cynthia Hand.

Protagonist Clara is sixteen and angelic. Well, a quarter angelic, really. Up until the age of fourteen, she lived a perfectly normal life then one day her mum took her aside, showed her her wings and explained that she would eventually receive visions detailing her life's purpose. Yep, every Angel-Blood (as the Nephilim are termed in this particular story) is given a heavenly quest. Rather inconveniently, said quest is filtered down from heaven in a number of confusing visions leaving the winged ones to figure out exactly what it is they are meant to do (I believe that N. Gaiman and T. Pratchett would refer to this logic as ineffable). When Clara's visions start, all she has to go on is a forest fire, a silver car and a hot boy who appear to be converging somewhere in Wyoming.

Clara herself is a great character. She's funny without being snarky, bemused by her heritage without having an attitude and regularly embarrasses herself when trying to figure out exactly who and what her visions pertain to. At first I thought that she was one of these characters who moans about being plain when she's actually gorgeous, but no – Clara just has normal insecurities about her looks and personality. I liked her a lot. Her friends and family are also an enjoyable bunch. Her mum and brother clearly provide her with a lot of comfort, being the only others who know of her angel status. Her mum can be a bit frustrating and all knowing, but that's clearly key to the storyline. Her brother, younger than her, is still struggling with the recent revelation of his heavenly ancestry and is quite possibly in danger of slipping to the dark side (because you can't have angels without having a heavenly war, right?).

Friends Angela and Wendy are obviously designed to highlight the conflicting sides of Clara's personality. This could have been clunky and over obvious (one of my pet peeves is friends as plot devices) but the two girls are so completely likable that it works really well. Angela is particularly interesting and I don't altogether trust her, although there seems to be little reason not to. Obviously, you can't really have an angel book without a love interest – it's like the rules, man. In this case we have Christian, who is hot, broody and has a girlfriend. None of which stops Clara drooling over him hilariously. Filling out the cast in surprising ways is the lovely Tucker, who adds some welcome bite and made me consider Rodeo cowboys in a way I didn't think I ever would.

Plot wise, Unearthly maintains a nice steady pace while slowly building to a hugely exciting climax. The book has it's own lexicon of angel terminology, none of which I'd heard before and the world building is skilled. The storyline itself twists and turns and I was genuinely surprised at the route it finally took. I'd like to talk more about what happens but it's impossible to write much without spoiling it for those of you who haven't read the book yet. This is not a stand alone novel (are any of them anymore?) and the ending leaves us not so much on a cliffhanger as on a shadowy overlook with many questions to be answered and a hint of darkness to come.

I am continually surprised by the mad skills of debut authors – last year many of my favourite books were by new writers – and Cynthia Hand is no exception. Her writing is straightforward yet imaginative, her characters speak in believable voices and her plot is well thought out and fantastically good fun. She also adds more than a hint of darkness, playing it off against the beautiful scenery of Wyoming in a truly skillful manner. Most importantly she takes an idea that is rapidly becoming tired – yes, Nephilim, I'm talking about YOU – and breathes new life into it. This is one angel series that I won't be sorry to see perching on the bookshelves, and if you see it sitting there then pick it up and enjoy a lovely read.

Unearthly is available now. Thank you to HarperTeen for sending me a this title to review via NetGalley.

January 25, 2011

Life Of Crime (Review: Long Reach by Peter Cocks)

Long Reach (An Eddie Savage Thriller)Long Reach
Peter Cocks
Walker Books 2010

I can oft be found bemoaning the lack of decent crime thrillers in young adult fiction. It's a genre that I adore in adult books – a guilty pleasure. I'll read pretty much anything on the crime shelves (well, not the true crime stuff – although The Suspicions of Mr Whicher was pretty amazing) and so was quite interested when contacted about Long Reach. Until I realised that it had a gangland-ish London setting – not really my cup of tea. However, on realising my love of the genre the publisher cunningly noted that Long Reach had been blurbed winningly by Mark Billingham. Billingham is one of my very favourite UK crime authors and I was instantly persuaded to give this title a go.

Long Reach is the story of Eddie Savage. At seventeen, Eddie has just lost his older brother, Steve, to suicide. Steve seems to have been a rather elusive, if not unloving, figure in Eddie's life and it soon becomes apparent that there was a lot more to him than met the eye. Steve's colleague, a friend of Eddie's family, explains that Steve had actually been working for an intelligence gathering agency and that his sudden demise leaves an undercover job waiting to be filled. Eddie jumps straight in and is soon swimming with the sharks of London's organised crime – in deeper water than he ever could have imagined.

Eddie himself is a bit of a blank canvas. As a reader, you never actually find out his real name (Eddie Savage being the cover provided to him by his team of whatever-they-are back at the intelligence collecting ranch) and know very little about the person he was before taking up his new job. The only thing that is clear is that he is a bright guy who was perhaps floundering a bit in the face of his future. Knowing so little going in means that Eddie's character development happens entirely through his undercover persona – a persona that he becomes increasingly lost in. This is essentially a clever way of encouraging the reader to relate to Eddie's confusion over who he is and who is may be becoming. Eddie doesn't know, so neither do we. If that sounds confusing, it really isn't – the novel is narrated by Eddie in the first person so enough of his actual personality shines through that readers slowly get to know him. It's a refreshing way of introducing a character and makes the book particularly gripping.

As with many crime thrillers, the supporting cast of characters are just as important as the lead. In this case, it's the bad guys that we get to spend most time with and The Kelly family are painted very nicely. While the men take care of business, by whatever means possible, the women turn a blind eye – choosing to ignore or deny the realities of said business while enjoying the perks. Eddie's back up team are like an underpaid, less attractive version of the cast of Spooks. Certainly their premises seem a bit grubbier. Saying that, Tony and Ian are pretty interesting characters with Ian ripe for some interesting character development in future stories. The women in Eddie's life are probably the weakest strands in the whole book. Anna and Sophie aren't particularly well defined as characters and while I can see potential with Anna, Sophie seemed to exist only as a plot device – which in terms of Eddie's undercover operation, I suppose she was.

The writing and the plot of Long Reach are sparse, dark and often violent. I have no problem with this as I think that Peter Cocks is true to the world that he portrays – I doubt that the London of organised crime families is a pretty place to inhabit. My only issue was the initial conceit that a covert intelligence agency would recruit a seventeen year old. While Eddie's age is brought up in regards to this, it still seems odd – as does his grieving mother's readiness to allow her youngest son to take on a role that appears to have driven her eldest to suicide. However, once you get past this Long Reach fairly speeds along drawing both Eddie and the reader into an increasingly grim world. Cleverly, short sections of the book are written from the point of view of a Kelly henchman giving a different perspective on what is going on. These sections become increasingly brutal – this is not a book for the faint-hearted or weak of stomach – but add a dimension to the book that gives it the grittiness required for the genre.

If you are a fan of adult crime fiction then this is definitely worth a peek. It could easily be read as an adult thriller yet will also sit nicely on the YA shelves – appealing to boys of 15+ especially. I hope that this marks the start of more crime thrillers in YA as Long Reach certainly proves that it is a genre that can work just as well for a younger audience. Personally, I'm delighted to hear that there is another Eddie Savage thriller in the works as he is a character that has real potential to thrill written by a writer with real potential to be the first big thing in YA crime writing.

Long Reach is available now - thank you to Walker for sending me this title to review.

January 23, 2011

Where Have All The Flowers Gone (Review: The Iron Queen; J. Kagawa)

The Iron Queen
Julie Kagawa
Harlequin 2011

Before I start, I just want to say that having read the last two books in this series consecutively I've now had Black Sabbath's Iron Man stuck in my head for over a week... Also, The Iron Daughter is the third book in a series and this review therefore contains spoilers for the previous two books (reviews of which you can find here and here).

OK, now on with the rest...

The Iron Queen is the last in the Iron Fey series (or is it?...more on that later) and is really pretty darn good. We last saw Meghan and Ash being vanquished from the Nevernever to pursue their (finally resolved) love in the human world. Not ideal for Ash, really, but pretty good for Meghan who at first thinks that she's gotten exactly what she wanted – a get out of faery free card. Obviously, it quickly transpires that this is not the case. The Iron Fey are still intent on taking over Tir Na Nog, destroying the Seelie and Unseelie courts in the purpose and creating havoc with the human world's environment while they're at it. Meghan realises that she can't really just stand back and watch and so heads back into the fray, with Ash at her side.

Meghan really steps up to the plate in this great installment of Julie Kagawa's hugely original series. She's matured a lot and is quickly becoming a force to be reckoned with – not that she always realises this. I appreciated the selfless way that she went about attempting to help the faery courts and also loved her continued ability to stand up to their leaders. Another aspect of Meghan that really worked in this book was her desire to learn to fight – taught by Ash. She doesn't find it effortless (yay for someone actually having to work up a sweat in paranormal YA) but does get to kick some ass as the story progresses. Her relationship with Ash is slightly less angst ridden in this book and her attitude towards him also shows increased maturity even while Puck still lurks hopefully in the background.

Ash, however, bothered me a bit in this book. Overall, he's a much better character – he's less brooding, less angsty and less cold. I liked this – he's a lot more attractive when he's chirpy. However, clearly at some point during the storyline, he sneaked off and picked up the Edward Cullen book on How To Be A Good Boyfriend... He worries about being bad for Meghan, he ponders his selfishness at staying with her... he starts wittering on about his lack of soul. Meh. Meh meh meh meh meh. Ash – you are fine as you are and it's a pity that your author felt the need to include such Cullen-worthy behaviour. Again I say Meh. Ash's love rival Puck, is allowed a slightly edgier role in The Iron Queen. Rather than playing the jovial, loyal, love-sick best friend, Puck is unpredictable and angry that he might have been jilted in favour of Ash. This aspect of Puck's personality makes him far more interesting – on several occasions Julie Kagawa skillfully makes Meghan aware of how inhuman and ancient Puck really is.

Over the course of this series, the plot has been headed in one direction and one direction only and in The Iron Queen, Julie Kagawa finally takes us to where I am sure we all expected to be. However, she does this with such wit, originality and flare that the story never feels predictable. The Iron Queen's strengths lie mainly in its second half which covers an arduous trek through the Iron Realm and a breathtaking battle involving all the Fae courts. I'm usually pretty good at working things out yet I never guessed who the mysterious new Iron King was and I was totally taken aback by Meghan's final stand off with her enemies. It's all terribly exciting and I stand by my previous assertions that the Iron Fey is one of the most original series out there at the moment, despite it's occasionally Twilight-esque love trysts. Julie Kagawa, as well as creating a new and refreshing aspect to Fae mythology also riffs on the inexorable march of technology, making her series not only fun but also thought provoking. Any book that encourages YA readers to think about the dangers of disposable culture should be championed.

So, is this the end for Meghan and chums? It would seem not. While Meghan's own story would appear to be over for now, we're still left with some of her compatriots who look to be setting themselves up for some questing. Questing for what? Well, that would be telling, suffice to say that The Iron Knight is coming soon....

The Iron Queen is available from 25th January 2011. Thank you to Harlequin for allowing me to review this copy via NetGalley.

January 19, 2011

Iron Cold Iron (Review: The Iron Daughter; J. Kagawa)

The Iron Daughter
Julia Kagawa
Harlequin 2010

The Iron Daughter is the second book in The Iron Fey series and as such this review contains spoilers for book one, The Iron King (you can read my non-spoilery review of that title here). You have been warned - proceed at your own peril.

I really enjoyed the first book in the Iron Fey series – I thought it was original, fun and pretty sinister in places – however, I never quite got round to ordering book two. This all changed when I received book three (The Iron Queen) to review via NetGalley. I'm glad that I've been prompted to get back into this series because, while I may not have enjoyed this second installment quite as much as the first, it is still a great world to explore.

At the end of book one, we saw our intrepid protagonist Meghan vanquish king of the iron fey, Machina, save her baby brother and prepare to fulfill her contractual obligation to Prince Ash to hand herself in to his Unseelie court. A month or two has passed by the start of The Iron Daughter and we find her twiddling her thumbs in the icy confines of Queen Mab's palace wondering why Ash (her possible lurve) has forsaken her and whether Puck (her other possible lurve) is still stuck inside a tree.

Meghan continues to be a likable enough character. She's pretty plucky (such a good word, dontcha think?), pretty focused and awfully good at saying what she thinks. However, she is also sometimes a bit stupid and slow to catch onto things – particularly where Ash and Puck are concerned... She has a tenancy to take particularly Ash at face value when it is clear that those particular icy waters run deep. Luckily, she still has the fabulous Grimalkin around to point out to her when she's being utterly idiotic. While I wouldn't say she exhibited a lot of character growth over the course of the story there is certainly a sense at the end that she is maturing, taking on more responsibility and forming less ridiculous conclusions. She's also getting better and beating the fey at their own riddly games.

While Grimalkin remains a strong contender for favourite character of the series so far, I have to say that my heart was almost won by Leanansidhe who is just...well.. fabulous, darling! She wafts around trailing multi-hued cigarette smoke and generally just being divine in a kind yet cruel sort of a way. There was also another character who absolutely stole very scene he was in, but he was such a surprise addition to Meghan's band of merry men that I don't want to spoil the reveal. You, er, CAN'T REALLY MISS HIM, though. As for Ash and Puck well, they remain as they were – Ash is dreadfully broody, Puck is dreadfully chirpy and to be honest I don't know why Meghan bothers with either of them. Actually, that's not quite true – Puck may be slightly irritating, but he's also very sweet while Ash might well be sweet but only when he finally gets over himself. All that angst. Meh. He redeems himself towards the end, though, so I'm holding out hope for book three.  The love triangle isn't terribly original - in fact, I defy you not to admit it reminds you of another well known love triangle, albeit a more sparkly, moany one.  This doesn't detract from the story, though, and the characters are interesting enough not to suffer from it.

The plot itself is pretty good. While Machina may be gone, there are still the rest of the Iron Fey to deal with and there seems to be a sinister new ruler lurking in their tangled depths. Most importantly, the Iron Court have managed to steal the Septre of The Seasons (what seemed to be a rather important bit of, um, stick) and this leads to the Seelie and Unseelie courts pitting themselves against each other in all out war. Mab and Oberon are like the worst types of politicians, never believing anything that they haven't made up themselves. Add to this mix Ash's dastardly brother, Rowan, Meghan's odd affinity with the Iron Fey and the love triangle that continues to...triangulate, and you've got plenty to contend with.

I really enjoy Julie Kagawa's writing and, as with The Iron King, her descriptions of the Nevernever, The Between and the realm of the Iron Fey are beautifully creative, capturing simultaneously both magic and menace. Again, the Iron Fey are what set this series apart from other Faery tales – they are a truly original, not to mention exceptionally clever conceit and the way in which Kagawa continues to exploit modern technological terms in their descriptions and actions is a pleasure to read. The book ends on an exciting, if predictable, cliffhanger with Meghan at a crossroads and Tir Na Nog in disarray. I'm not sure what's going to happen next but I can say that I will be starting The Iron Queen straight away to find out – if this series can maintain it's atmosphere of fun, fear and originality then it will definitely be one to add to your bookshelves.

January 17, 2011

Guest Post - Phil Earle

Earlier today I reviewed Being Billy, the debut title of UK author Phil Earle.  Inspired by his own experience as social carer, the book is haunting, thought provoking and moving.  It also highlights the plight of many kids in the UK and for that alone it should be championed.

Here, Phil talks about how he came to write Being Billy and how it was very nearly a fantasy novel instead:

I’d love to be able to write a fantasy novel.
A big fat tale as epic as William Nicholson’s The Wind Singer or as mesmerising as Garth Nix’s Sabriel, as let’s face it, these are the books the kids want aren’t they? I’m no expert, but I know that young readers have been fascinated by stories from other realms for decades, centuries even, and unsurprisingly, these are often the books that command the most excitement when auctioned to publishers, the books that dominate shelf space and bestseller charts alike. So if this is what the readers want, then why on earth write a book about an angry young man reeling from a life spent in care?

Well, it’s simple.
Because for the last fifteen years, I’ve not been able to shake that boy from my head.

I was twenty-one when I started working with looked after children. Some of them were only three or four years younger than me, but all of them, whether they were toddlers or seventeen years old, had lived more than I had. They were often angry, violent or substance-addicted, many were unable to form lasting relationships with other children or adults. They were, at first glance, the kids that you would cross the road to avoid, the youths you’d refuse to sit near on the bus for fear of getting robbed or worse. But if you spent time with them, and got past the spiky armour, you found something different, a resilience, a determination, and a bravery that no abusive parent or failed fostering placement could kick out of them. The same kid that tried to kick seven bells out of you at the start of your shift would sidle up to you at the end of it to tell you they’d had a great day, to offer a shake of the hand, or even (unheard of for them), a hug.

They were unpredictable, chaotic, and as a result they got under my skin, where they have been ever since. A lot of time has passed, over a decade without working in the care sector at all, but still that voice nags away in my head, asking me how I would have felt if I was them? How would I feel if I’d been rejected by two different families by the age of eleven? How willing would I be to trust social workers, carers, anyone in fact, who claimed to be working in my best interests, when for so long they’d failed to find me a family or a home? All these questions bubbled around for a long time, and it was just after the birth of our second child, that I decided I wanted to write Billy’s story down.

Although his journey had taken a long time to form in my head, it didn’t take long to come out. A first draft completed within four months, and a revised version within six. It would be a huge cliché to say it wrote itself, as it stumbled along on many occasions, but at the same time I loved pretty much every minute I spent pretending to be Billy Finn. It was important for me to give a voice to the questions I still had, but more importantly to show the huge potential he held within him, and to show readers what he was truly all about, why he behaved as he did.

I suppose what I’m trying to say is that whilst I have these kids in my head, and whilst I can still recall not only their stories, but also their steel, determination and will to survive, I don’t need or want to dream up mythical creatures or far-flung lands. There is more than enough drama in the everyday without having to go anywhere else. Let’s just hope that readers out there agree, that they stay with me in the ‘here and now’ and give Being Billy a go…

Many thanks to Phil for such an interesting post (anyone who name checks the glorious Sabriel is OK by me). On reading Being Billy, I'm sure that you'll agree that it's good news for readers that Phil didn't go with his initial idea of a fantasy novel...  Although I'd certainly love to read a fantasy title from him too!

Being Billy is available in the UK now - thanks to Puffin for arranging for me to review this title and receive this post from Phil.

What Is This Life, If Full Of Care (Review: Being Billy; P. Earle)

Being Billy
Phil Earle                
Puffin 2010

To be honest, when Being Billy appeared through my door I pretty much instantly dismissed it.  I read YA mostly to try and escape the real world and a story about a kid in a care home really doesn’t fit that bill.  However, an impassioned email from the publisher encouraged me to give this title a shot and I am glad that I did.

Billy Finn is a lifer – a kid who has been in children’s care home longer than he was ever with his own family.  Child of an alcoholic mother and an abusive stepfather, he is now fifteen and has been in care since the age of seven.  After a recent and disastrous adoption attempt it looks unlikely that he will ever be placed with a family – he’s in for good.  The only positives in Billy’s life, that he can see, are his younger twin siblings and his new friend Daisy, another teenager with a less than perfect past.

Without wishing to understate, Billy’s had a pretty shitty life so far.  At only fifteen he’s had to deal with more hard knocks that most adults I know.  It stands to reason that he would be angry at life – and he’s furious.  Furious at a mother who stood by while her husband beat him; furious at a care system that attends to his needs yet not to his cares; furious at the prospective adoptive parents who let him down when he needed them most and especially furious at the carers who are able to step back into their perceived happy families at the end of each shift.  Billy is so angry that he can no longer see past this fury to anything else – all he perceives is a world full either of people who have either abandoned him and betrayed his trust or people who will surely do so in the future.  His life is bleak -  bereft of hope  - and he sees no reason why this should change.  He’s a difficult character to like and an easy one to pity.  At several points during the novel I found myself frustrated that he consistently refused to see the good in many of those around him but it’s easy to see why he can’t – he’s too scared that any faith he invests in his fellow man will be thrown back in his face again.  However, Billy has real potential – he’s clearly intelligent and has brought up his two much younger siblings with undue care and affection.  As a reader you can see that he’s a nice bloke underneath all that anger but it’s hard to envisage a sparkling future for him - he's just got too much to overcome.  

The secondary characters in this book are all strong and multi-faceted, which is an achievement considering they are all viewed through Billy’s less than objective eyes.  The twins are an excellent example of children yet to be embittered by their situation while Daisy ultimately portrays a more positive care experience.  Of the several social workers and carers that appear throughout the story, Ronnie and Dawn are the most interesting.  Ronnie is exceptionally well written and his relationship with Billy moved me to tears at points – he perfectly personifies what I have seen in friends who work in social care:  frustration at a system that is hopelessly inadequate and genuine affection for their charges.  While Ronnie has been in the care business for many years, Dawn is a young social worker yet to be beaten down by what must often be a thankless job – she, more than any other character, signifies hope for the future.

The plot of Being Billy is almost superfluous to what is essentially a moving portrait of social care in Britain.  Still, Billy’s story is interesting, heartbreaking and gripping with many facets of his experience not being fully revealed until the climax of the novel.  Most gripping, though, is Billy’s slow (and never fully resolved) realisation that everyone has at least one sad story to tell and tears to go with it.  With this realisation, Phil Earle skilfully leaves Billy in a place that suggests that his future may be brighter than first assumed.

I’ve got a guest post to run from Phil (up later today) in which he’s going to tell you all about how he really wanted to write a fantasy novel. I'm sure he could -  his writing style is fantastic and his storytelling ability beyond question.  However, I’m glad that for his debut novel he chose to use personal knowledge of being a carer to such great effect.  There are nearly 90,000 children in Britain being cared for in group homes or by foster parents - Being Billy may not be a happy nor easy read but it is an important and thought-provoking piece of writing that draws much needed attention to the kids on our own doorstep who it is so easy to overlook.

Being Billy is available now - thank you to Puffin for sending me this title to review.

January 11, 2011

Let Me Live, Unheard, Unknown (Review: The Replacement; B. Yovanoff)

The Replacement
Brenna Yovanoff
Simon Pulse 2010

I've always been fascinated by stories of changelings. Since childhood, I've pored over fairy tales based around nasty Fae stealing into family homes in the depths of night and stealing an innocent child away. Of course, they don't just steal the child they also replace it with a changeling – a Fae creature who is invariably grumpy, spiteful and hideous. I assume that these stories grew from the deep seated fear that all parents have of something taking their child from them and their inability to do anything about it. In The Replacement, Brenna Yovanoff has skillfully woven a modern tale round these ancient tales and fears and it is more than a little successful.

Protagonist Mackie is a changeling child. Left in the crib of Malcolm Doyle, he has grown up completely aware that he is different to his friends and family – in fact, his sister has such strong memories of the night he was left that she has been able to relate the tale to him since childhood. As well as feeling like the odd one out, Mackie is becoming increasingly ill. Iron, blood and consecrated ground make him more and more sick. He's starting to lose the will to live when a small child dies in his hometown of Gentry – something that's not all that unusual, in fact he could probably just let it go, except that this child's sister won't drop it. Slowly, Mackie finds himself drawn back towards his original heritage and into a dark and dangerous world.

Mackie makes an interesting lead. In this paranormal story, it's the paranormal who narrates it and that, combined with the fact that he's male (as opposed to the mainly female protagonists out there) make him refreshingly different. At first he's pretty depressed. He loves his family and friends but he's excruciatingly aware that he isn't like them. Also, he's really pretty sick and spends a lot of his time trying to hide his odd allergies and basically maintain as low a profile as possible – as advised by his dad. As the story progresses he finds his feet a little, slowly becoming aware that he perhaps could have a life in the human world as well as finding out more about his less human compatriots. He's likable, layered and sympathetic.

Mackie's small group of friends fit none of the usual stereotypes with the inventive twins and stoically loyal Roswell all being a pleasure to read. Roswell is actually quite fascinating – their friendship is beautifully drawn and I would have liked to have seen more of it. It's nice to see a friendship between two boys written so nicely and with such subtlety. Mackie's family is also multi-layered with his parents struggling to love and bring up a child that they know is not theirs while his older sister tries definitely to make up the deficit of affection. As love interest/part time antagonist Tate is also well written. She clearly takes no nonsense from anyone and I like that in a female character. However, she's also heartbreakingly vulnerable and the growing relationship between her and Mackie is well balanced and believable.

The plot itself is nothing less than dark and deliciously wicked. The world of the slag heaps, populated by toothy children and living dead girls is at times very frightening. The characters that Mackie encounters there embody the world that he is from-yet-not-from perfectly. The Morrigan and The Lady are each terrifying in their convictions yet oddly delightful in their simplicity of thought, opposing in principles but matched in child-like petulance and desire to see their kind survive. These are a race of ancient creatures, with ancient morals and rituals – most importantly they are completely devoid of humanity or human aspects, unlike many of the fey creations that pop up in YA. What makes The Replacement truly chilling, though, is the town of Gentry itself. I can't say much about it without taking away from the reading experience but Yovanoff skillfully weaves into her plot themes of ignorance, denial and greed. As with all the best horrors (and The Replacement certainly edges into that genre) it is the human rather than the inhuman that sends the shivers down your spine.

As a debut novel The Replacement is accomplished. The writing is often haunting and the characters have real depth. In particular the author's imaginative powers when it comes to the non-human world are exceptional – the world of the slag heaps is so fantastically described that the visions they engendered in my head will stay with me for a long time to come. Most importantly, Brenna Yovanoff has stayed true to the horribly sinister nature of the original changeling tales and written a story that is rooted firmly in nameless fears and ancient horrors. Readers should not class this with the many urban Fae stories that have recently appeared on the YA shelves – The Replacement is altogether different, altogether darker and altogether worth a read.

January 09, 2011

IMM (#28)

In My Mailbox is a meme created and hosted by Kristi over at The Story Siren with inspiration from Alea at Pop Culture JunkieAll book titles link to further info at Goodreads
All books in this IMM post have been received for review/bought/gifted/loaned/UK Book Toured/NetGalley-ed/acquired through nefarious means.

Cat Clarke
Quercus 2010
I actually read an ARC of Entangled a few months ago and you can find my review here. It was a lovely to find that Quercus had sent me a finished copy and the cover art is really something.

The Iron Queen
Julie Kagawa
Harlequin Teen 2010
I loved The Iron King and am just waiting for my copy of The Iron Daughter to come in the post before I read this final instalment. Really looking forward to it.

The Replacement
Brenna Yovanoff
Simon Pulse 2010
I've wanted to read this for ever so long. I always really enjoy Brenna's short stories on Merry Sisters of Fate and can't wait to read her debut novel.  I've read several reviews that say it's quite dark and am curious to see if I agree.  Kind of wish I could have gotten an American version, though, as I much prefer that cover.

Across The Universe
Beth Revis
Razorbill 2010
Is there anyone who doesn't want to read this? The buzz around this title is huge but I've been intentionally staying away from any early reviews as I'm wary of my expectations being too high (my last sci-fi read was I Am Number Four so you can understand my concern). It looks great, the cover is beautiful and I will be getting stuck in to this one soon.

The Snowman
Jo Nesbo and Dan Bartlett
Harvill Secker 2010
Every now and again I need a fix of adult crime fiction - I love it and this book looks awesome. Serial killer?Check. Using creepy snowmen as his creepy calling card (I have no idea if this actually happens but it should, right?) Check. Awesome.

The Long Reach
Peter Cocks
Walker Books 2010
And speaking of crime fiction, the book is a rare example of the genre within YA. Set against gangland London this looks like a thrilling read and has been rated by Mark Billingham (one of my favourite adult crime authors) so must be good.

January 05, 2011

Blog Tour Stop for Wereworld: Rise Of The Wolf

I'm delighted to be a stop on the blog tour for exciting new fantasy title Wereworld: Rise of The Wolf by debut author Curtis Jobling.  I'm lucky enough to have had him write a fascinating post for this here blog, all about combining horror, fantasy and his love of both:

My love of fantasy and horror stems from my misspent childhood, watching old black and white horror movies and indulging in roleplaying games. Lon Chaney Jr and Dungeons & Dragons have an awful lot to answer for. I was always a fan of horror – I think being scared is no bad thing, it reminds us that we’re alive. Furthermore if that fright comes from the pages of a book or an image on the screen, then we’re safe – it’s not real! As a big reader I’ve always found fear to be a very healthy emotion. If we fear what’s going to happen to our favourite character then that means the author has done his or her job. We’re engaged in the adventure and we care about what happens. If one feels scared when reading Wereworld: Rise of the Wolf, then I hope that means I’m doing things right!

Fantasy has always gone hand in hand with horror for me. When I used to run roleplaying games in my teens I invariably would allow both genres to come together, mixing things up in an imagination melting pot. Fantasy adventures would incorporate classic gothic horror characters, and horror games would have epic, fantasy story arcs to them. That’s where I learned to tell tales and spin yarns, putting my friends into terrifying but thrilling predicaments from the safety of their kitchen tables.

I didn’t get to read a great deal of Werewolf literature when I was younger, instead learning all about the hairy, toothy, monstrous beasts from Bee Gees documentaries. Sorry. Back on topic! My fascination with Werewolves started when I saw The Wolfman as a nipper, my dad letting me stay up late. I know it looks corny now compared to the special effects Hollywood has at its disposal these days, but as an 8 year old in the 70’s it was pure horror dynamite! There are other great examples of Werewolves in cinema, but I’m not about to list them – they’re 18 certificate movies for goodness sake, how irresponsible of me would that be?

They’re more commonplace in literature today than they’ve ever been, battling against vampires in certain well-known “dark romance” book series as well as popping up in Buffy, Doctor Who and many other genre TV shows. I like my vampires, I love my zombies, but there’s something primal and bestial about Werewolves that grabs me by the throat and shakes me silly. That’s why I’m drawn to them. Plus they’re hairy so I like to stick to my own kind...

My love can be traced back to Fighting Fantasy books and The Hobbit. It took me a whole summer holiday (and lots of library fines) to read Tolkien’s novel as a ten year old but it was worth it. My imagination has never really deviated from the path The Hobbit put me on. Epic fantasy, grand villains, do-or-die scenarios and life and death choices; I’m sure these things are recognisable in Wereworld, it’s very hard to hide those influences when one is writing fantasy. Good versus evil is the age old contest that features in most classic fantasy literature. I personally like the tales where the lines are blurred, where villains have a shot at redemption and heroes can be flawed. That’s even more engaging to me, more human.

Hope you dig Wereworld: Rise of the Wolf, in fact I hope it excites and scares the pants off you in equal measuredo follow the adventure on the official website www.wereworldbooks.com and keep up to speed over on the Jobling blog!
Enjoy your reading and Bada Bling!

Mad props to Curtis for such an excellent post - Wereworld: Rise Of The Wolf is out TOMORROW, so be sure to skip down to your local book shop and pick up a copy (you can read my review here).  To while away the lonely hours until then, check out some other stops on the epic Wereworld blog tour.