June 24, 2011

Show Me The Pretty

I generally avoid cover reveal posts, mainly because everyone does them at around the same time and it seems silly to add one more to the pile. However, today I'm making an exception and featuring the UK cover of Richelle Mead's forthcoming Bloodlines:

Anyone familiar with The Vampire Academy series will be aware that the covers were a bit hit and miss - by which I mean awful.  Last year, gorgeous new covers were revealed  for the series and it's great to see that things are continuing in a dodgy model-less manner with Bloodlines.

Bloodlines will be released in the UK  in August and my review will be up sometime before then.  Until then, enjoy the pretty!

June 22, 2011

Stop Crying Your Heart Out (Review: Shift; Jeri Smith-Ready)

Shift (Shade, #2)Shift
Jeri Smith-Ready
Simon Pulse 2011

Shift is the second book in Jeri Smith-Ready's series, the first is Shade. If you haven't read Shade (and you really should) then this review will contain spoilers. You have been warned.

Aura is still reeling from the events of Shift.  Caught in an unimaginably painful place between her dead, yet terribly present boyfriend Logan and the new and delightful Zachary - a boy to whom she appears to be inextricably tied.  It's not the easiest position to be in and just when she thought things might be improving, they're about to get a whole lot more complicated.  With the authorities increasingly focused on Aura, her secrets are becoming harder to hide - especially with the ever spotlight seeking Logan dragging her onto the world stage.  On top of this, Aura's still trying to sort out her own feelings and tread carefully through the minefield that is high school, prom and first (not to mention second) love.

As a character, Aura starts Shade as confused and sad as she ended Shift.  Unable to let go of a boyfriend who has died yet refuses to leave, she struggles to grieve.  In fact, at points she struggles to feel anything.  Her torment is believable but so also is her increased irritation at her inability to move on.  She's pretty stubborn, and seems to be on her way to knowing what she actually wants but she's also got a tendency to be slightly over-honest and can also a little selfish.  However, she's very likable and it's hard not to feel for her and her impossible situation, particularly in regard to Zachary and their oddly shared past.

Logan starts of Shade as arrogant and cocky as ever.  He's never been one of my favourite characters and much of Shade does little to change this.  Yet, very slowly, Logan starts to mature although it takes a while, and he often ruins his good intentions with his larger than life ego.  His saving grace is that, despite his bluster and showboating, he recognises his flaws and his temptations.  While he never becomes a tragic character (and nor should he, being as ironically full of life as he is) he does eventually become a sympathetic one.  His character development is clever, skillfully staying true to the Logan seen in Shift while also showing glimpses of the man he might have become had he been given the chance.

Then there is Zachary.  Ah, Zachary, you will always be mine... I'd like to say lots of clever, insightful things about him but (due to Jeri allowing me a hand in his Scottish-isms) he has become way to close to my heart for me to be at all objective.  Seriously, he's another excellently written character, mainly because he is never allowed to become too perfect and we all know that the best boys are the slightly flawed ones.  His interactions with Aura are all beautifully written, yet he's not always nice and certainly makes a few mistakes along their complicated road.  However, he always manages to redeem himself and ends up being better than ever.  Ach, I give up - I can't write anything negative about him, you'll just have to read about him yourself and make up your mind that way.

The cast of characters that surround these three central figures is well rounded and interesting. From the rather infuriatingly mysterious Eowyn to the psychotic Becca they're all great to read.  Stand-outs in this installment are Mickey and Dylan Keeley, both dealing with the loss of their brother in both believable and heart-wrenching ways.  One of the great strengths of Shade (as with Shift) is Jeri Smith-Ready's ability to write teenage characters who actually seem like teenagers.  From the protagonist down, this lot are 100% believable.  While almost all likable to a fault, they are also flawed, sometimes selfish, indubitably awkward, confused teens who curse, drink (to varying degrees) and really, really want to have sex - all while dealing with ghostly friends and high school proms...  To go back to the sex, this is an author who doesn't shy away from the fact that many, if not most, teenagers are really quite interested in all things of that nature.  While Aura is portrayed as someone very much in tune with her body (yay for chilled out approaches to female masturbation and pleasure - yes, I went there, I used the M word...) the sexual encounters in Shade are, while sometimes pretty hot, also as awkward and fumbling as you would expect in this age group.  It is genuinely refreshing to read, particularly in paranormal YA where such things are often suspiciously perfect and entirely unrealistic.

Plot-wise, Shift shows all the originality of the initial book in the series and Smith-Ready builds carefully on her previous mythology to heap mystery upon mystery.  While some things become clearer, there is yet much to resolve and many of the events in Shift create more questions than answers.  Rather than being frustrating, though, these questions set readers up beautifully for the final book in the series, Shine.  When I initially read Shade, it restored my faith in paranormal YA, proving to me that this often hackneyed genre could be refreshing, original and also carry positive messages and provide relatable role models.  I finished Shift feeling the same way.  For all of you out there who think you've had enough of paranormal, or (heaven help us) the ghastly-monickered Dark Romance shelf pick up Shade and Shift.  You won't be disappointed.

June 13, 2011

One Of These Things Is Not Like The Other (Review: Plague by Michael Grant)

Michael Grant
Egmont 2011

Plague is the fourth book in Michael Grant's FAYZ series.  This review contains slight spoilers for the previous three books.  Consider yourselves warned.

Life in the FAYZ is not getting any easier. In fact, for all involved it’s getting a hell of a lot worse. Having survived the initial shock over the mass disappearance of all adults, the kids of Perdido Beach have gone on to weather cumulative (and seemingly endless) storms. From mutated animals (not to mention mutated humans), starvation, mutiny and megalomania to zombies, cults and cannibalism, things could have gone better. In this latest instalment, illness rears its ugly head with a mutating flu virus dropping kids like flies while elsewhere deadly insects start to emerge from, you guessed it, children. All the while it becomes increasingly clear that the entire shebang rests in the hands of one comatose autistic child and the dark, alien being known only as the Gaiaphage.

The cast of characters in Michael Grant’s series has been expanded slowly and carefully over the course of the previous novels with the result that he is now able to use multiple viewpoints through which to narrate the horrors of the FAYZ. During the course of the book he skips not only between the usual suspects (Sam, Astrid, Caine, Diana) but also views events through the eyes of Edilio, Albert, Brianna, Taylor, Dekka and Computer Jack, among others. This narrative structure works beautifully, particularly when he returns to the recurring themes of leadership and rebellion.

Sam, believing he has completely removed himself from the leadership structure has been wondering around somewhat aimlessly, used mainly as a law-keeping force. He and Astrid are struggling with their disintegrating relationship and it’s all somewhat depressing. Over the course of Plague, he slowly moves back to the top of the pecking order – if somewhat unwillingly. He remains a likeable character, bearing the brunt of some very adult decision making with believable strain and resignation. Astrid is also struggling with some difficult decisions, particularly in regard to both Sam and her autistic brother, Pete. Sadly, Astrid is nowhere near as likeable as Sam and often comes across as sanctimonious, hypocritical and sniping. Her saving grace in Plague is that she comes to truly know herself and spends much of the book over-whelmed by self loathing. It’s doesn’t make for particularly cheery reading, but garners hope for Astrid’s character development further down the line.

Other characters remain no less fascinating. Albert continues to build his business empire with dedication, nous and a degree of greed. He has always been particularly interesting in his ability to see what is required in an incredibly adult way and he continues to stand by his central ideology that hard work and a structured society are the only way that the community will survive… and if he happens to benefit from this then all the better. Dekka continues to emerge as a stand-out character and her friendship with Sam is often extremely touching in a series where few true friendships have survived. Computer Jack is another character who continues to grow and there is the delightful addition of Truth Teller Toto who is both useful and adds some necessary, if bleak, levity to the story. However, by far the most compelling characters continue to be Caine and Diana. These two are fascinating to read and their relationship paradoxically confounds and yet makes perfect sense. Caine, in particular, becomes somewhat clearer in this instalment. Due to one particularly interesting development, I suspect that these two are about to take centre stage in FAYZ life.

Plot wise, Plague follows the same basic structure as the previous books in the series. The kids are faced with a new, horrific challenge to overcome while continuing to deal with the basics of survival and the threat of the Gaiaphage and its minions. While this all works just as successfully as previously, the duel challenge of both killer flu and killer, er, cockroaches seemed to be somewhat over egging the pudding. The narrative would have been equally successful had Grant focussed on just one new horror. The flu virus is particularly nasty and certainly had this reader feeling quite squeamish at times (a real feat) – it would have been nice to have seen this focussed on in favour of the more obvious thrill of bug battles.

Grant has successfully built up an entire world inside the FAYZ and no aspect that has been added over the course of the series has been entirely resolved nor forgotten. Rather, they have combined into one deliciously hellish mess, all overseen by a group of children who are rapidly turning into the kind of adults that most adults wish to avoid. Michael Grant pulls no punches with his writing – there is gore, violence and extreme cruelty on almost every page, combined with deep depression, existentialist worry and exasipated teenage angst. No character is entirely loveable, no situation entirely clear and no end in sight, with two further books in store before the inhabitants of the FAYZ find out their fate. I’ll certainly be along for the ride and recommend that those of you who have yet to try this series give it a go. It’s not great literary fiction and nor is it intended to be but it is a dark and clever take on humanity under a bubble.

June 09, 2011

Help Me Today and I'll Love You FOREVER... Volunteers Required

I’m launching a new blog! Recently, there has been a distinct trend in YA fiction towards series of books – every second title seems to be the first in a series and, while this is often welcome, there is usually a gap of a year between titles. Now, perhaps I am old and my memory is ailing, but I often find myself struggling to remember the details of previous plots/characters/mythology/world-building/twisty-turniness… Such is the standard of writing on the YA shelves that there is often much to remember and I, for one, rarely have the time (nor always the inclination) to re-read a title before moving on to the next.

In my laziness, I’ve often wished there was some handy site that I could turn to that would give me a basic breakdown of the story so far, preferably in an enjoyable/funny/snarky manner. If there is such a site, then I’ve been unable to find it (please point me in the direction of any you know) and so I’ve decided to create on. This idea has been met with huge enthusiasm, particularly from my teenage audience (I know, actual…whisper it… young adults – hark at me pandering to the yoof demographic) and I’m keen to get going.

However, there are many, many, many series out there – both ongoing and complete – and for me to sit down and re-cap all of them would be a massive job. Therefore, I’m asking you, dear readers and fellow bloggers, for your assistance. I’m looking for a core group of about 10 initial contributors to help me get going on this project. Is there a series you particularly love (or hate, I’m not fussy) and would like to re-cap? Then let me know. Once I know who is interested, we can discuss tone and I can give you a basic template. Your help would be repaid in, er, mad props from me.

Additionally, I’m also looking for a clever title for said site. Whoever comes up with it gets a prize. Seriously.

So, be it mad props or dubious prizes you’re interested in please contact me either through Facebook (Mountains of Instead), Twitter (@splendibird) or right her on The Mountains of Instead and we can take it from there.

Bisous et ecouter (and yes, I know my French is pigeon at best)


June 03, 2011

Quis Separabit? (Review: The Dark And Hollow Places; Carrie Ryan)

The Dark and Hollow PlacesThe Dark And Hollow Places
Carrie Ryan
Gollancz 2011

The Dark and Hollow Places is the third in Carrie Ryan's excellent series.  This review, therefore, contains spoilers regarding both The Forest of Hands and Teeth and The Dead Tossed Waves.

Annah has been alone ever since Elias left her – three long years in the Dark City, scavenging for food, weapons and survival amidst the throng of Unconsecrated. Scarred and desperately lonely, Annah merely survives, her life barely meriting the word. Unsure of why Elias left, she’s convinced herself that his departure must have been somehow tied to the fact that they abandoned her twin sister alone in The Forest of Hands and Teeth as children, an event that has been eating Annah from the inside out in the intervening years. It is this memory that finally spurs Annah into action. She decides to return to the forest, to search for her sister. However, as she begins her long journey she sees, amazingly, the sister she lost so very long ago, captured by recruiters after trying to save a strange young man and so Annah finds her life intertwined with that of Catcher as she tries to atone for past mistakes by finally finding Gabry.

Annah is perhaps the least accessible character yet feature in Carrie Ryan’s series. She’s so entirely consumed by her scars, her guilt and her abandonment by Elias that it’s hard to see what kind of girl actually lies beneath it all. In all truth, the original Annah was lost in the Forest of Hands and Teeth as surely as her sister was. However, as the novel progresses and Annah gains purpose it quickly becomes clear that she has extraordinary fortitude both mentally and physically. She has, over the course of her life, survived against impossible odds and when she now finds her back once more against a wall she fights with a determination and fervour that is nothing short of exhilarating. Cleverly, Carrie Ryan has matched Annah in character not to Gabry, Elias or even Catcher, but to the head recruiter Ox and this embodies Annah with a moral ambiguity that makes her even more fascinating.

As with all Ryan’s books, the supporting characters are no less interesting than the protagonist. Elias clearly feels guilt over abandoning Annah but he also understands his reasons for doing so and explains them clearly and with little apology. Off all the characters, he is the one who makes the toughest decisions and places his friends in the hardest of situations yet his driving force is love – and an inherent hope – and so it is hard to criticise any of his actions. Gabry, in comparison to Annah, seems calm and composed. The differences between the sisters are stark and Gabry is clearly aware that her luck in being brought up by Mary has much to do with this. She could have been portrayed as fragile, or suffered from survivors guilt but she remains strong and fights a quieter and more hopeful fight than her sister. Catcher, though, is certainly the most fascinating. Caught between life and death he is at times almost consumed with both self-loathing and fear. Able to walk unharmed among the Unconsecrated, he is overwhelmed by his ability and yet inability to help his friends. Of all the characters featured he is the least ambiguous, ironically the shining beacon of humanity in an increasingly inhumane world.

The plot of The Dark and Hollow Places is less complex than that of The Dead Tossed Waves. There are fewer characters and the situation that they find themselves in is a simple one. Ryan, once again, writes beautifully, using simple prose to illustrate the horror of her characters’ plight. And it is horrific. However, as previously, Carrie Ryan holds back from outright shock and awe, saving this for only a few memorably grim sequences. Annah’s bone-chilling journey through frozen subway tunnels is particularly frightening. Ultimately, like all the best in the genre, the horror of The Dark and Hollow Places is not created by the hoard of Unconsecrated but rather seen in the inhumanity that man can show to man when pushed to extremes. Ryan embodies this in the form of the hideous Recruiters and it is in this group of men that the true terror of The Dark and Hollow Places really lies. The ending of the book is surprising, imaginative and while at first it may seem rather fantastical provides readers with starkly beautiful imagery and hope while leaving the characters in a situation that in reality would garner neither.

As a series, The Forest of Hands and Teeth, The Dead Tossed Waves and The Dark and Hollow Places stand above many others on the YA shelves. They most certainly stand head and shoulders above the many other zombie offerings. Largely this is to do with Carrie Ryan’s shocking yet simple vision of a world overwhelmed by an unstoppable plague and her ability to focus on just two or three personal stories within this hell. I highly recommend these books not only to readers who love the horror genre, or a good zombie story, but also to those who have little interesting in either – for you, these should be truly eye-opening.