October 25, 2011

It's only because I CARE!

Like many avid readers, and I suspect even more book bloggers, I often get asked for reading recommendations.  I secretly relish being asked - there is nothing nicer than the opportunity to introduce books that you love to people that you care about.  However, as a YA book blogger, I also often get met with suspicion, incredulity and outright laughter when trying to persuade adult readers that there is writing of note on the Young Adult shelves.

Over the last few years, I've mulled over the reluctance for adults to venture into YA territory.  I understand it - there's a certain perception that teenage fiction is likely to be a bit rubbish.  They assume it will contain giggling girls who endlessly moon over their latest vampire boyfriend (because ALL teenage fiction has vampires, right?  Or at the very least a rogue werewolf) or perhaps think that it's all about the American high school experience.  With added vampires.  Really, S. Meyer has done YA few favours in terms of potential readers who aren't inclined towards the undead.

With this in mind I've carefully honed a list of titles that I believe will hook people.  Books that even when opened in cynicism are so moving, beautifully written, exciting or downright fun that they are impossible not to enjoy.  Even when your a grown up who REALLY doesn't want to.   Now I don't give everyone the same list - like a true pusher, I stagger my gifts, dripping them honey like, one by one, until the poor unsuspecting reader finds themselves drifting towards YA sections in bookstores and libraries across the land - but the top five, in reverse order are as follows:

Hold Me Closer, Necromancer - Lish McBride

Not enough people have read this, particularly not enough adults.  It is the closest thing to an out and out adult book that I have on the list with the protagonist Sam being older than most YA protagonists. It's also extremely funny.  If you have a friend who loves the Dresden Files then buy them this for Christmas... you won't regret it.

Jellicoe Road - Melina Marchetta

This book starts out with such a striking first chapter that I'm pretty sure no-one could put it down.  At once a beautiful study of identity it's also a gripping mystery and Marchetta's writing is some of the best I've read.

How I Live Now - Meg Rosoff

This, really, is probably the book that got me interested in YA writing.  It's mesmerising, tackles a fascinating and difficult subject matter and above all is beautifully written.  It is a gem and a suprise to anyone who believes YA to be depthless.

The Knife of Never Letting Go - Patrick Ness

Really, did you think I was going to NOT include this?  Truly extraordinary, Ness writes in a way uniquely his own - you won't find anything else out there like this, adult or young adult.  It is the book that I recommend to everyone, my test book in that if someone doesn't like this I start to wonder what might be wrong with them...

So all of these are well and good and have been recommended by me with some success - they really are excellent books and when passing on a bundle of YA these usually make the final cut.  However, what you really need when recommending is that hook - the book that is so enjoyable that the reader comes back to ask for more.  And that book is, in my experience:

City of Bones - Cassandra Clare

To be honest, this has always surprised me a bit.  I would regularly pass this book on to friends just because it is one of my personal favourites.  It's the book I read when I'm not well, the book I read when I'm stuck in a reading slump - in short, I love it and have since I first picked it up.  However, it's probably the most "teenage" of my entire list, it has a good bit of swooning over a suitably handsome boy (Oh, Jace...) and it has, whisper it, vampires.  Yet, almost without fail, it is the book that has people phoning up and asking for more - usually the next book in the series. From teenage girls to men in their forties, The Mortal Instruments is by far the most useful tool in my conversion-to-YA toolkit and really, I shouldn't be so stunned.  The writing is excellent, the characters fascinating, the world intriguing and the storyline truly original.  Want to convert a friend?  Clary, Simon and the gang are there to help you do it.

Now, I know I'm not the only book pusher out there - I'm certainly not the only one who gets asked for recommendations - so share your stories, people... what books have worked for you?  What books do you wish people would read more?  What converted you to YA?  Inquiring minds wish to know!  Until then, I'm off to read City of Bones. Again.  And the rest.  Ah, Jace.... where have you been?

All of the above titles are available in your local bookshop!  Isn't that great!  And in especially exciting news, The Mortal Instruments (books 1-3) are now available as a lovely jubbly box set - why buy one when you know they're going to love ALL THREE!

October 11, 2011

Geek Chic (Review: Bleeding Hearts by Alyxandra Harvey)

Bleeding Hearts (Drake Chronicles, #4)Bleeding Hearts           
Alyxandra Harvey        
Bloomsbury 2011

Bleeding Hearts is the fourth book in Alyxandra Harvey's Drake Chronicles. If you haven't read the previous books in the series then this review may contain spoilers. You have been warned.

Christabel doesn’t get Violet Hill. Having come from the big city the hometown of her cousin Lucy seems like a quiet backwater yet Lucy, her parents and her boyfriend, Nicolas are adamant that the town is a den of danger, violence and gang warfare. It all seems unlikely to Christa – she’s ridden the subway after midnight, knows how to use her steel-capped combat boots and has dealt with an alcoholic, neglectful mother for years... surely there can be nothing to scare her in this quiet little backwater? Lucy, of course, knows otherwise. Nicolas and his siblings are still under constant attack from the vicious Hel-Blar and Solange is regularly up for assassination by persons unknown. As Christabel draws closer to the Drakes (geek-boy Connor especially) it becomes harder hide the fact that, in Violet Hill, gang warfare is the least you have to fear…

In Bleeding Hearts, Alyxandra Harvey has continued with her split narrative style this time implementing the voices of newcomer Christabel, brother number four, Connor and Lucy. As with previous books in the series, the narrative structure works extremely well allowing the author to view the incredibly detailed world created around the Drakes from three entirely different perspectives.  

Christabel is a lovely character. While she’s essentially pretty tough she also has a mellower side, wrapping herself up in words. She’s a great lover of historical fiction and of poetry and quotes it constantly (peppering Bleeding Hearts with some really beautiful lines). She’s also pretty smart and quickly realises that Lucy and chums are keeping something from her. When she finally finds herself in the thick of the action she very much takes everything in her stride, attracted by the history of the vampires she encounters. While untrained in the art of kicking ass, she’s pretty game when it comes to attempting to stake things and is really just completely likable.  

And Connor… well, I've never met a geek I didn't love and so the lovely Connor is right up my street. Twin of the confident, suave Quinn he’s almost his polar opposite, preferring computers and comics to seeking out the ladies. He also seems slightly, well, nicer than the other Drake brothers who all have a bit of an edge to them (not in a bad way, but, y’know – vampires).  However, when his less human nature does shine briefly through he’s actually pretty frightening. You still would, though. Swoon.

I must admit to heaving a weary sigh on realising that Lucy would be co-narrator of Bleeding Hearts - in the previous titles I'd found her naivity irritating and she has been downright in her lack of awareness of her own vulnerability. However, Lucy has finally gotten herself a clue and realised that hanging around with vampires, nevermind having one as your boyfriend, is really pretty dangerous. She's learnt to defend herself, started talking sense instead of wittering rubbish and is finally proving herself of worthy of the Drakes respect as well as of their undoubted fondness. While Lucy still has her moments of flippancy, she's lost the silliness that always seemed rather incongruous alongside her knowledge of vampires. Her friendship with Solange becomes increasingly interesting during Bleeding Hearts and the dynamic between them is very compelling.

As with the previous novels in the series, the basic plot of Bleeding Hearts revolves around a budding relationship. Also as previously seen, the romance is fairly intense and moves extremely quickly. However, it's written with such humour and tenderness that this can be forgiven providing the reader is  happy to suspend reality for a while (and, let's face it, this is a story about vampires). What gives the book an edge, as with the entire series, is the intrigue of the vampire court, the machinations of it's various factions, the horror of the Hel Blar and the core story of Solange and her destiny - a destiny that is looking darker by the second. Underneath the love stories, action and hilarity, these books really do have an underlying murk that never allows readers to sit completely easy. As always, Alyxandra Harvey's writing is a joy to read - her return to familiar territory in the Drakes certainly reads more easily than her recent departure in Haunting Violet (enjoyable, but not of the same ilk by any means) and reader's only complaints must surely be that her books are so short. Yet, while slim in size they manage to pack a real punch and are clearly building towards an entirely unpredictable, though surely hugely exciting finale.  Bring it on!

Bleeding Hearts is now available.  Thank you to Bloomsbury for providing me with a copy of this book to review.

October 05, 2011

Let Me Live, Unseen, Unknown (review: Ashes by Ilsa J. Bick)

Ashes (Ashes Trilogy #1)
Ilsa J. Bick
Quercus 2011

Alex is half way up a mountain when it happens, where she’s been undertaking a personal quest and coming to terms with a terminal illness – a monstrous brain tumour that she is tired of fighting… Alex, really, is all fought out. In the middle of a chance meeting with an old man, his granddaughter and their rather frightening dog she suddenly finds herself wracked by terrible pain, vomiting blood and rolling on the forest floor.  At first she assumes that her end has come, that the monster in her head has won their long battle… that is until she realises that the old man is dead, the little girl covered in blood and the dog terrified. Whatever has just happened to Alex has also happened to them.  The thing is, Alex feels different – stronger and she’s not the only one who’s different.  As Alex and the child move through the woods, they quickly realise that those who haven’t been killed by the strange event have been changed into the most unimaginable of horrors…

Alex is a remarkable character.  Living with a brain tumour, she has also lived through the death of both parents, having to face difficult realities far more than a normal seventeen year old.  Things don’t really get any better for her over the course of Ashes with mortality, violence and bitter survival raising their heads around every corner.  She is at once extremely strong, yet believably vulnerable throughout the book, showing real grit as well as real fear. She’s also extremely confused by her bodies reaction to what comes to be known as the “zap” – is her tumour still killing her?  Or could it actually be aiding her?  Her initial reaction to Ellie, the small girl landed in her care, could seem cold but in actual fact seems to be a fair response to a somewhat recalcitrant child in an impossible situation and their growing friendship is very touching.  Later in the story, Alex’s conflict over what path to take is again extremely believable – her struggle in deciding between easy and right is understandable and it’s surprisingly difficult to predict her ultimate decision.

Ellie herself is particularly nicely drawn.  Like Alex, she too has been faced with the reality of death but unlike Alex she’s been too young to really process it and has been left angry, frustrated and terrified.  As she slowly thaws she becomes a well rounded, realistic character and her growing friendship with her dog, Mina, is particularly moving.  As the third major character, Tom is again a young man who has faced his own mortality, in his case as a soldier in Afghanistan.  Tom injects a modicum of warmth into their small group, balancing out the sometimes cool Alex and the frightened Ellie with a calm, centered reassurance.  However, he is clearly not without his own demons and while the friendship that grows between him and Alex is believable, it is also full of secrets.  Other characters come and go throughout with a fuller cast appearing towards the end of the novel.  Of these, Chris is the most interesting with Jess, Kincaid and the frankly skin-crawlingly creepy Yeager deserving honourable mention.

The mythology of Ilsa Bick’s apocalypse drips through Ashes at a sometimes frustratingly slow rate, for readers and certainly for the characters.  The “zap” has seems to have been caused by multiple electromagnetic pulses causing a technological black out and wreaking havoc with peoples brains.  While some have somewhat, er, improved senses the majority seem to have become completely feral – if not completely stupid, often illustrating a shrewd and terrifying intelligence.  I’m no scientist and I suspect the science in Ashes may be stretching the realms of possibility to the extreme but it’s so well written and the situations are portrayed with such assurance that it really doesn’t matter. With the “zap”, Bick has created a world with multiple problems, all catastrophic.

What sets Ashes above many other post-apocalyptic offerings is the standard of debut author Bick’s writing. Sometimes stark, often extremely frightening it is also strangely beautiful.  In particular her description of scent is extraordinary – from blood smelling like “wet pennies” to the smell of snow still to come being described as “frozen aluminium” it is all amazingly evocative.  She also is able to counter scenes of brutality and violence with those of extreme warmth and comfort, cunningly luring readers to a place of relaxation before ending chapters with such bombs as “It was the last good time they would have” – and that’s fairly early in.  Don’t get attached to anyone is the message that this book carries, and it is one worth keeping in mind when reading.  Increasingly, these days, I find myself sighing wearily at the thought of another trilogy, but in the case of Ashes I’m full of hope.  Post-apocalyptic fiction, when done well, can be utterly chilling and extremely compelling and Ashes is both – Shadows, released 2012 can should be anticipated eagerly as, despite its somewhat unrelenting bleakness, this is a story that I can’t wait to hear progress.

Ashes is available now.  Many thanks to Quercus for sending me this title to review.

October 03, 2011

Gilding The Lily (Review: Bloodlines by Richelle Mead)

Richelle Mead
Razorbill 2011 

Bloodlines is the first in a new series that follow the events of Spirit Bound, the final book in Richelle Mead's Vampire Academy series. If you haven't read all of the Vampire Academy books then this review WILL contain spoilers.  However, it is spoiler free for Bloodlines itself.  You have been warned.

The Moroi, Dhampir and Alchemist worlds are still reeling from the events triggered by Rose Hathaway, Dmitri Belikov and Vasilisa Dragomir. With Lissa now on the throne, things are no less settled and her half-sister Jill has become a target for dissenters. As Lissa needs one family member in order to remain the Moroi monarch, Jill is spirited into hiding until laws can be changed. Given the rather dubious honour of helping Jill fit into the human world is Alchemist, Sydney Sage who’s already had more of the vampire world that she would care for. Now babysitting not only Jill, but Dhampir Eddie and notorious party-Moroi, Adrian, Sydney once more finds herself drawn into a world that both scares and intrigues her.

Many Vampire Academy fans expressed concern when it was announced that the protagonist of spin off series, Bloodlines, would be the rather straight laced Alchemist, Sydney. However, they needn’t have worried as Sydney proves to be an interesting protagonist. Her strict upbringing and somewhat puritanical views make her almost the complete antithesis of VA’s, Rose although they often have the same focus and determination. Having never attended mainstream school, Sydney finds herself slightly lost posing as Jill’s sister at boarding school but she’s pretty smart and uses her vast knowledge of, well, everything to get by in social situations that often confuse her. She has a pleasingly analytical approach to most things but is far from the cool, almost unfeeling character she sometimes appeared to be in VA. Rather, she is compassionate and genuinely believes in her cause. Ironically, it is this belief that causes her most conflict as she begins to rather like her strange group of charges. However, while she does become slowly more comfortable, her horror over the Moroi lifestyle and use of magic never leaves her entirely. Latterly, a different side of Sydney is revealed - one that is darker, less scientific and a little frightening. It is testament to Mead’s writing that this revelation doesn’t appear incongruous.

Of the core group of characters, Adrian is (rather inevitably) the most compelling. A favourite of mine, he remains as screwed up as ever. When readers last encountered him he had been deeply hurt by Rose and in Bloodlines he is still suffering. While he is ostensibly with the group to keep an extra eye on Jill (to whom he has become inextricably attached), one suspects that he has also been sent away from the Royal Court in order to keep his distraught mind off his lost love. His interactions with Sydney are insightful, sometimes touching and often hilarious (his description of a desired tattoo is laugh out loud funny) but there is, realistically, little hint of romance between the pair allowing a believable friendship to grow in its stead. While bad guys are less obvious in Bloodlines than in VA, Sydney's fellow Alchemist, Keith is an extremely unpleasant character and school bully Lauren is infuriatingly nasty.

The plot of Bloodlines at first appears pretty simple and it would be easy to assume that it might take a predictable turn concerning Jill and the many dissenters out for her blood. However, Mead cleverly turns the title into a mystery thriller surrounding odd, metallic tattoos and suspicious deaths of both Moroi and human girls.  She really does keep readers guessing until the very end and, while I had my suspicions, I really wasn't sure how the plot was going to develop or conclude. The ending itself sets things up beautifully for the second book in the series, introducing a fantastic new premise and re-introducing some familiar faces.

On reading the VA series over the course of a month last year, I was surprised that I didn't get a little Richelle Mead-ed out yet Bloodlines captured my imagination in just the way the first series did. The world is so well constructed that it's impossible not to be curious to find out more. Allowing readers to now view the Moroi et al from an outsiders perspective is a clever and entirely successful way in which to start a new series. Cleverly, Mead doesn't stray far from her VA characters - and why should she? Most refreshingly, she allows her cast to act in believable ways. From Rose's previous rejection of Adrian and his ongoing grief to Jill's teenage insecurities and Dhampir Eddie's haunted past, nothing is too easy for this lot - rather, it's all remarkably easy to relate to despite the fantastical setting. I look forward to the second book in the Bloodlines series with interest and have no doubt that this new venture for Richelle Mead will become as successful as the initial series.

Bloodlines is available in shops and online now.  Many thanks to the publisher for sending me this title to review.