December 20, 2014

Wake Up

I don't do art.  I mean, I like it, but I'm not terribly GOOD at it.  However, Maggie Stiefvater last week launched an art contest to create a piece inspired by her Raven Cycle.  I planned to sadly ignore the whole thing until I walked into The Royal Museum in Edinburgh and came upon a skeleton of an Irish Elk.  So how could I not give it ago.  I took some pictures, fiddled about with them and came up with this:

It speaks to me of my very favourite moment in a series that has been filled with favourite moments and if you haven't read The Raven Cycle then I hope this intrigues you enough to pick up the first book.  And then the second.  And then... well, you get my meaning.

Small print: This image is created from an original photograph and copyright belongs to me.  All my own work.  Yup, me - doing art for the first and probably the last time.

November 06, 2014

Ghost in the Machine (Review: Echo Boy by Matt Haig)

Echo Boy
Echo Boy
Matt Haig
Random House 2014

Space year 2115 - the future! Travel the globe and beyond in seconds, live forever thanks to insatiable advancements in medical science and, if you like, never leave the safety of your home again whilst living a better virtual life on-line!  I know, what's not to like, right?  Well, murderous robots, that's what.  When Audrey emerges from her on-line school lesson one rainy morning to find her family's Echo standing over the bodies of her parents holding a bloodied knife, the future isn't looking quite so bright.

In a world of constant advancement, Audrey's father resists technology as much as possible.  He is concerned that there will inevitably come a time when the robots so widely accepted in every home will become too intelligent, too dangerous. This is a contentious point of view in 2115, especially when your brother happens to own one of the largest manufacturers of Echos (friendly neighbourhood synthetic humanoids) in the world.  At the very least it makes Christmas dinner really awkward. Audrey's uncle on the other hand is the King of the robotic revolution - where people want help there is money to be made and Alex is more than happy to take it from them.  In a world of grimy and decaying cities, Alex is literally the man in the ivory tower.

And it is during a period of bizarre enforced seclusion at her Uncle's mansion after fleeing the scene of her parents' murder that Audrey meets Daniel, an Echo that, as it turns out, isn't quite what he seems.  Can Daniel help Audrey uncover the truth about her parents' deaths?  And can he really be nothing more than a walking computer programme when he seems to be so much more?

It's sci-fi, it's romance, it's a crime thriller but in all honesty, it was all just a little too much.  I have heard Matt Haig describe Echo Boy as an amalgam of everything he loved as a teenager but sadly, this doesn't seem to gel quite as he would have hoped.  The world building, whilst vivid, seemed clunky and overly elaborate and it just killed the pacing for me.  At points I became so bogged down that I lost enthusiasm to even pick it back up.  But the biggest disappointment for me was the lack of the wonderful black humour that we have come to expect from Matt - It was all a little relentlessly grim.  The characterisation was really lacking for me also - whilst I can forgive Daniel being a little flat (you know, seeing as he's a robot) there was really no excuse for me not to feel any connection with Audrey.  She is really the only constant human character and, for such a lot of page time, there seemed to be very little effort made in getting the reader to engage with her. Latterly I just felt that I was reading a series of events that were happening to these 2 individuals, I had next to no interest in Audrey and Daniel's fate.

Whilst there is no denying that Echo Boy explores some very relevant themes very eloquently; namely morality of advancing technology; it is questionable as to whether it really hits the spot as a work of young adult fiction.  A little dry, a little oddly paced and just a little low-key.  A disappointing outing from Mr Haig for me, fingers crossed for his next apocalyptic adventure.

This review was brought to you by Polka-Dot Steph. Echo Boy is available now. Thank you to Random House, via NetGalley, for sending us this title to review.


October 29, 2014

Full Fathom Five My Father Lies (Review: Blue Lily, Lily Blue by Maggie Stiefvater)

17378508Blue Lily, Lily Blue
Maggie Stievfater
Scholastic 2014

Blue Lily, Lily Blue is the third book in Maggie Stiefvater's Raven Cycle. This review therefore may contain mild spoilers for the previous two books (reviews of which you can find here and here).

In the arena of 300 Fox Way, Monmouth Manufacturing, Aglionby and Henrietta the times, they are a’changing.  Blue finds herself with not one but two lost parents, Adam navigates a new and overwhelming reality, Gansey frets, and Ronan dreams.  Persephone guides, Calla watches, and Mr. Grey hears his life in lyrics from the stereo of a white Mitsubishi.  Meanwhile, Colin Greenmantle chases both knowledge and revenge, an old Englishman appears with his ignominious dog and underground sleepers sleep, some to be woken and some never to wake.

While the first two books in Stiefvater’s Raven Cycle have focussed primarily on one character (Blue in The Raven Boys and Ronan in The Dream Thieves), Blue Lily, Lily Blue is truly an ensemble affair.  But, as with both previous books, the beating heart of the story is Richard Gansey III.  Previously, Gansey has been both powerfully present and strangely intangible. Here he is vulnerable.  From the very start of the story, Stiefvater takes Gansey and shows him as frightened and fragile.  More than ever, she paints him as a character who walks daily a fine line between life and death.  Not only is he vulnerable, he is worried.  Worried about his friends, about his relationship with Blue and always, always about the quest that he fears may be ending – because what is Gansey without his search for Glendower?  Gansey, always a fascinating character, has never been more compelling than he is with these fears and flaws to the fore.

His relationship with Blue is heart-rending to read for of course there can be no relationship.  However, rather than focus on the fact that Blue can never kiss Gansey, Stiefvater chooses to focus on the delicate balance of the group as a whole and how the secret that Blue and Gansey hold might imbalance it.  Very early on, Blue muses on the fascination the characters have for each other, the intense bond that she has forged with her Raven Boys and even as she knows it is perhaps unhealthy she can no more break it than she can stop breathing.  Perhaps the most likely to upset the apple cart is Adam.  A character intricately drawn he is, with Persephone’s help, finding his way in a brave new world and, as he does so, slowly coming to terms with both his past and his present.  In terms of character development, Adam has always been the most interesting character and this continues in Blue Lily, Lily Blue.  He’s a watcher, an observer of both himself and of the others and, in Blue Lily, Lily Blue he watches Ronan.  Ronan still lives with his variety of secrets – they just aren’t all as secret as he might think.

As well as the core group of characters, Stiefvater continues to excel in weaving extremely well written adults into her story.  While the Raven Cycle is clearly aimed at Young Adults, Stiefvater doesn’t pander to this age range when writing adults – instead she has created complex characters who exist in her story world not just as obligatory padding (as often seen in YA) but as an integral part of the plot.  Standing out from the crowd are Persephone, eerie and ephemeral and Colin Greenmantle and his wife Piper, both splendidly and entirely sociopathic.

Blue Lily, Lily Blue takes the Raven Cycle to a far darker place than it has previously ventured and also one that is more frighteningly magical.  The characters literally descend to the depths and impending peril lurks in every shadow.  As with the previous books, Stiefvater uses words to pull readers expertly into a world that is familiar and unique, comforting and distressing.  This is a story that feels ageless yet new – much like Gansey himself.  It will leave readers both gasping for more (because damn you, Stiefvater, with your endings) and frightened to read on.  Mainly, it will leave them with a literary photo reel running through their minds because this is a book filled with striking imagery: a dreamer in his lonely chair; a tragedy between two mirrors; a girl stepping into a dark lake; a shadow raging against the dying of his light; a herd of skeletal impossibilities, alive in an endless cavern and a boy, sitting in a dark kitchen, touching his face for fear that death might be crawling there.  It’s amazing, it’s magical and it is by far some of the best writing I’ve ever come across.  Highly, highly recommended.

This review was brought to you by Splendibird. Blue Lily, Lily Blue is available now. Thank you to lovely Melissa at The Book Nut for sending me her ARC so that I didn't have to wait. Because waiting was TOO MUCH.


October 17, 2014

Introducing our Youngest Contributor and her First Book Review

We don't really review books for anyone under YA age here on MOI, but that's all about to change because we have a new reviewer: Lady M.  Lady M is six and has been interested in getting in about these here hills for a while. So here is her first book review, originally written out by hand before being faithfully transcribed (under Lady M's eagle eye) by Splendibird:

My Funny Family Gets Bigger
Chris Higgins
Hodder 2013

This book is about a new school term and a baby boy being born at Christmas it is also about making Christmas lists.

The main person is Mattie who is nice and tall and she loves school.  The other characters are mum, she is nice and tall and Dad who is nice and tall and V who is good at reading and is naughty and Stanley who is nice and good at reading and Anika who is nice and good and Dontie who is nice and tall and Jellico who is loud and nice and is the dog.

I liked the bit when the baby is born because I like babies. I didn't like the bit where Mattie says that the year should start in September because my birthday is in January.

I would tell my friends that the book was nice and they should read it for themselves.  I am going to read more books about Mattie.

This review was brought to you by Lady M. My Funny Family Gets Bigger is available now. Lady M plans on writing more reviews but does not plan on learning to type, as she feels it is unnecessary when Splendibird is available. She applies this logic to many things.

October 09, 2014

Weighed And Found Wanting (Review: #Scandal by Daisy Ockler)

Daisy Ockler
Simon Pulse 2014
Lavender Oaks High is online, all the time.  At least the students are… and most of the staff, too.  It’s a digital world, with Facebook ruling the technological roost – much like the majority of high school s in the Western world.  At Lavender Oaks, the hive mind is of social media is observed, catalogued and encouraged by Miss Demeanour, a mysterious figure always on the lookout for the next scandal.  Lucy Vaccaro follows Miss D. as avidly as the next person but when compromising photos of Lucy and her best friend’s boyfriend appear online, she finds herself at the heart of her very own #Scandal.
Lucy, while hardly flawless, is quick to own her mistakes and over the course of the story comes a long way in terms of maturity, friendships and perception of others.  The relationships that she has with her friends and family (all of whom are exceptionally well-realised) are extremely believable as is her confusing romance with Cole, a suitably lovely if equally flawed character.  Her attitude towards her sister is particularly interesting in that it has been skewed by her sister’s portrayal in the public eye which in turn has been influenced by her sister’s very real yet magnified issues.  But then that is what Lucy’s story is all about – perception and communication and the overload of both in the world of always accessible social media.
#Scandal is a bit of a rollercoaster ride.  It overflows with the kind of surrealist humour and youthful cynicism of Glee and Easy A and Ockler clearly has her finger on the pulse of new and less than new pop culture with references to Buffy, Veronica Mars, Twilight and The Hunger Games.  Miss Demeanour is a shameless homage to Gossip Girl herself.  It’s all highly knowing, more than a little bit meta and extremely entertaining.  Yet Ockler, rather than merely providing readers with a bit of clever fluff (and there is nothing wrong with clever fluff) adds a murkier layer to what is ultimately a morality tale. 
Cyberbullying is a pretty terrifying reality and #Scandal demonstrates how swiftly and effectively a reputation can be destroyed, while pointing out that school administrations and adults in general need to make themselves aware of exactly what is going on in a world where the millennial generation and beyond embrace new technology in the manner of fishes and water.  While highly entertaining, #Scandal is a tale of our times and I suspect we should all be taking notes. 
The kids we meet at Lavender Oaks live lives that are utterly informed not only by social but also by traditional media. Facebook might be at the heart of Lucy’s scandal, but it quickly becomes clear that the lens through which she and her friends view the world is one darkened by TV, tabloids, smart phones and Twitter.  They are both the watchers and the watched and they are hyper both of the power they hold as much as of the vulnerability engendered by the all-seeing eye of the modern world.  Ockler skilfully explores just how much can be lost through living life online rather than face to face – a lesson that Lucy learns in time but which will leave you wondering about the rest of us. Highly recommended.
This review was brought to you by Splendibird. #Scandal is available now. Thank you to the publisher, via Edelweiss, for providing us with a copy of this title to review.



September 30, 2014

Half Bad, Half Wild... and Half Lies (Sally Green sneak peaks)

Sally Green's Half Bad was the breakthrough book of the YA scene last year.  Beautifully written, haunting and unique it was an extraordinary debut.  So extraordinary, in fact that it holds the Guinness World Record for pre-publication translations and has now been sold in fifty languages around the world.

Half Bad tells the story of Nathan, a boy brought up in a world of black and white and one in which is is the only shade of grey. Oh, and they are all witches - but not quite as you've seen them before.  After meeting Marcus, his mysterious and somewhat frightening father, and receiving the three gifts that confirm him as a full adult witch, Nathan is still running from just about everyone. Half Wild, the second book in Green's trilogy, sees Nathan searches for his friend, Gabriel, and Annalise, the girl he loves, he desperately tries to control his Gift – before it controls him.

Intriguing stuff, indeed.  You can find our review of Half Bad here and if that isn't enough to tide you over you can now read the first chapter of Half Wild here.  Sadly, Half Wild won't be published until March 2015 but to tide you over further, Penguin have announced the publication of short story Half Lies:

"Set in the months before Half Bad, Half Lies takes the form of a diary written by Michele, the sister of Gabriel, Nathan’s Black witch friend.  Having fled Europe for Florida, Michele falls in love with a local White witch boy. There, she finds that the divide between the Black and White witch communities is just as dangerous as it was in the life she's left behind". 

Half Lies will be published across all digital formats on 13th November 2014.  Mark it in your diaries people, Green's writing is not to be missed!

September 26, 2014

FYA Photo-a-Day: 17 Fred Savage

Everyone knows that Fred Savage hates kissing books:

Myself, I can live with them.  Me, I really can't stand... 
New Adult.

The tropes that repeat, ad nauseum, in NA titles are both predictable and troublesome.  There is usually a strong-willed female protagonist with a troubled past.  The troubled past almost always involves sex.  While she may be a virgin, she most certainly will have experienced sexual trauma of some sort.  In the rare exceptions, she has been physically or emotionally abused instead or as well of the afore mentioned trauma.  Either way, she has usually run off to a far distant university to escape and move on.  There, she will meet a young man. This young man will be hugely handsome but will instantly ring warning bells in her head because he will be charming but edgy, often renowned for either womanising or fighting (often both) and while she will try and stay away from him he will refuse to take no for an answer be it to a date or a kiss or a sleepover (a familiar scene in NA is when he insists that they can share a bed innocently and then grinds his erection into her at every opportunity). 

Later, our protagonist will fall for his insistent "charm" and he will proceed to fix all of her past woes.  Usually with his dick. The end.

There are a few exceptions in the genre, there are some decent love interests who demonstrate kindness and understanding but they usually have a secret that they lie about and the stories always have a murky backdrop of assault, rape or emotional manipulation. It's not great and it misses the opportunity to look at a truly interesting and complicated period of change.  So, Fred, I think it's worse than plain old kissing books.  I have only reviewed one NA book (although I read several, seeking anything decent) and you can find that review below (it's one of the better ones that I read on my travails through the genre, Beautiful Disaster as pictured above, is truly ghastly on just about every level).  Read the two recommended at the end - they are excellent and exactly what NA should really be.

The Secret of Ella and Micha - Jessica Sorensen

Ella and Micha have been friends forever, seeing each other through their difficult childhoods.  However, after a series of tragic events, Ella realises that she needs to leave her past behind and flees to college, leaving Micha behind with no idea of where she is or whether she will ever return.  While Micha has searched for her, suspended in place by the night she disappeared, Ella has spent the year reinventing herself but she can’t stay away forever and, come summer break, she finds herself returning to a house full of bad memories and the boy next door who won’t take no for an answer.

Ella is a character who will be quickly familiar to any readers of the newly minted New Adult genre.  Damaged by a past that involves both violence and neglect, she’s trying desperately to change her life.  Brittle, suspicious and fragile she’s also resourceful and smart – she got herself to college, made new friends, funded herself and seems to generally have her head screwed on the right way.  However, she’s clearly not come to terms with the events of her past and needs someone to help her do so.   So far, so NA protagonist.  And she really doesn’t get much more original.  The best that can be said for Ella is that she’s vaguely likeable and her character’s mental health is handled with a degree of care.  Her treatment of Micha is understandable, while selfish, and her reluctance to spend time with him a measure of her desire to escape a past she doesn’t really understand.

Micha, sadly, is also all too familiar.  When Ella returns he is understandably angry and hurt, as well as worried.  This could have been a great way to create a sympathetic, conflicted character but instead Micha reacts by turning into the rapidly emerging stereotypical male of the genre.  In order to get the attention of a girl whom he knows to be deeply damaged, he flirts with people in front of her, climbs unbidden into her bed (sadly another well-worn scenario in the world of NA), slides his hand up her skirt in public and states that he “has to have her”, seeming to truly believe that his moronic, testosterone fuelled claim on her will somehow ease her troubled past.  What a PRINCE!  In the few chapters in which Micha manages to get his mind away from his nethers, he actually comes across as quite a nice, thoughtful guy and later does address Ella’s long-standing intimacy issues but it’s too little, too late.  To be honest, the fact that he recognises that she has intimacy issues at all only sheds an even nastier light on his possessive, pushy behaviour.

The Secret of Ella and Micha is frustrating in that it has the potential to be so much more.  The issues raised are interesting, the family dynamics curious and the gorgeous best friend, desperately worried for his neighbour should be breath-takingly romantic.  But this is New Adult, people, and so rather than focus on the aforementioned plot points, The Secret of Ella and Micha focuses largely on sex.  Now sex scenes are fun, hell, more books should have them, but New Adult as a genre seems to use sex instead of storyline, regularly mixing it into stories in which the girls are damaged and the boys are lined up to convince them that therapy won’t work as well as a good dicking.  Certainly, consensual sex has a role in these storylines, with Ella and Micha it certainly represents her starting to overcome some issues, but the way in which the men in NA push their desire onto the women is, quite frankly, a bit icky – I don’t care how gorgeous they are. 

This isn’t the first NA book that has disappointed me. I keep reading the genre in the hope that one will appear that will illustrate to actual New Adults (whatever they are) that the start of your adult life isn’t necessarily filled with trauma and sexual manipulation.  Thus far, the best New Adult books I’ve read haven’t been published under that particular genre label but rather remained in the YA bracket.  Both Where She Went by Gayle Forman and Lovely, Dark and Deep by Amy McNamara look at issues surrounding a troubled past and an uncertain future, both feature protagonists in their late teens/early twenties and both feature sex; both, critically, handle it all far better than anything on the NA shelves, including, sadly,The Secret of Ella and Micha.

FYA Photo-a-Day: 17 Do Not Read In Public

This one was easy:

...because of all the feelings.  And the tears.

Hazel Grace is dying. She’s been dying for quite a while from the cancerous tumours submerging her tired lungs and she is quietly resigned to the end of her personal story. This doesn’t stop her from getting a bit depressed (an understandable side effect, as she so succinctly puts it, of dying) and, some years after her initial diagnosis of fatality, she finds herself attending a support group for cancer kids.  It’s not really her bag but she gets through each session exchanging silent cynicisms with one-eyed Isaac.  Until the day that Isaac turns up with a friend, cancer-free Augustus Waters, who sweeps into Hazel’s life on one leg, a wave of bad video games and an overwhelming lust for life.  He quickly inveigles his way into Hazel’s one great passion, the book An Imperial Affliction, and her desire to find out what happens after the last page.  

Hazel is a character who jumps of the page and is far from the atypical Young Cancer Sufferer of other books.  Partly, this is due to the fact that she has no hope of survival.  From the day she was first diagnosed she has known that her illness was terminal and it is only due to a wonder that she continues to live at all.  Additionally, Hazel does not Live Every Day As Though It Were Her Last.  Rather, she watches a lot of America’s Top Model.  She doesn’t feel the need to do great things but rather wishes to leave as few ripples as possible.  She’s OK with her fate, she really is, but she’s not so sure about the fate of those left behind.  Never more clearly is this seen than in her fascination with An Imperial Affliction and particularly in her desperation to know what happens to its protagonist’s mother.  Hazel is fascinating and massively sympathetic without ever really engendering pity.  She’s simply a unique and marvellous creation.

Augustus is less likely to watch life from the side lines.  Having survived a pretty survivable cancer almost intact he is desperate to make his mark.  He doesn’t know how he’s going to do it, but he’s driven to affect the world in a way that Hazel is not.  He seems to be constantly searching for meaning and the way in which he latches on to An Imperial Affliction and its ideas is unsurprising. To say more about Augustus would detract from the pleasure you will find in reading him for yourself so suffice to say that he is a character of utter luminosity, he shall be left for you to discover alone.  The list of additional characters is small yet they strong.  From the minor (hilariously tragic and testicle-less Patrick) to the major (Isaac, eyeless and lovelorn) to the vital (every parent in the book) they are beautifully realised.  Particularly mention, however, must go to Van Houten, a man introduced largely through the excerpts of his book, An Imperial Affliction. He is a tour de force of belligerent insanity and searing truth.

John Green has gone out of his way to avoid the tropes so often seen in Cancer Books (to the point where his characters witheringly decry the stereotypes throughout); apart from anything else, The Fault in our Stars is extremely funny.  Even in its saddest moments, Green is able to surprise you with a scene that will have you crying with laughter.  But not just laughter.  Lest we forget, this is a book about a dying girl and if it doesn’t have you in floods of tears at least once then, quite frankly, you should consider the fact that you may not actually have a soul.  Particularly moving are the portrayals of parents who deal constantly with the prospective loss of their only child.  Hazel’s father is especially heart-breaking as a man prone to tears and reading this book as a parent was particularly difficult.  The writing is, as one might expect from Green, excellent be it describing children leaping from bone to bone or petals strewn on water.

The Fault in our Stars is by far the most accomplished book yet from King of the Internets, Green.  While all of his previous work has been impressive, there has been a tendency on his part to use his super-smart teen protagonists as a mouthpiece for what you have to assume are Big Ideas that have been rattling around his own conciousness.  It’s always worked but has always left me with the suspicion that I’m really reading John Green being John Green (which, admittedly, is massively enjoyable).  However, in TFIOS, he avoids this almost entirely.  Hazel is his first female protagonist and he’s given her a fantastically strong, utterly unique, narrative voice.  Yes, her and Gus are very bright and yes, they have a lot of deeply philosophical thoughts on the world but John Green saves the real existentialism for Van Houten and An Imperial Affliction, a book I very much hope he actually writes one day.  

This is a book that feels like it should carry some sort of message in its worthy pages, but I don’t know it if does other than whatever the individual reader takes from it.  Green is clearly a man who Thinks Deeply and would like us all Think Deep Thoughts.  Well, mad props, Mr Green, you got me.  On finishing The Fault in our Stars, I wiped away my tears and stepped outside to observe the universe wondering if it, in turn, observed me but above all awed at the ineffable elegance of it all. I hope that, on finishing this extraordinary book, you do too. 

This review was first posted on The Mountains of Instead in 2013.

September 16, 2014

FYA Photo-a-Day 16: Drink of Choice. And no, it's surprisingly not gin.

...because who doesn't like a nice cup of tea.  Makes the world a better place.

FYA Photo-a-day: 13, 14, 15.

Favourite reading spot

When the weather is nice, I like to take a cup of coffee and my book and wonder down to the end of my street where there is a nice bench and a handy wall and the sea. And don't think for a minute I don't know how lucky I am...

Best Cover

I couldn't choose.  But at the moment I like these.  In fact, a lot of the covers that I like involve red, black and white.  You can find ten of my favourites here.

Worst Cover

I mean, FOR THE LOVE OF GOD.  Just before the release of the final book in this series, I was sent the first five and challenged by a publicist to read and review them in two weeks.  I did.  But I didn't bloody read them in public.  Everything about this cover is wrong; the colours, the composition and most of all the MASSIVE FACES.  I hate faces on covers - I feel like it robs me of the chance to see the characters in my head as I learn what they look like.  But, in this case, that is beside the point as it is shit on a hundred different levels.  Since release, the VA books have all had cover re-designs and now look a lot more palatable.  Which is good, as they are actually a lot of fun and now you can have fun reading them in front of people, too.

September 12, 2014

FYA Photo-a-Day 12: A Powerful Quote

Seventeen-year-old Lennie Walker, bookworm and band geek, plays second clarinet and spends her time tucked safely and happily in the shadow of her fiery older sister, Bailey. But when Bailey dies abruptly, Lennie is catapulted to center stage of her own life—and, despite her nonexistent history with boys, suddenly finds herself struggling to balance two. Toby was Bailey’s boyfriend; his grief mirrors Lennie’s own. Joe is the new boy in town, a transplant from Paris whose nearly magical grin is matched only by his musical talent. For Lennie, they’re the sun and the moon; one boy takes her out of her sorrow, the other comforts her in it. But just like their celestial counterparts, they can’t collide without the whole wide world exploding. (Goodreads)

The Sky Is Everywhere is a beautiful book both in terms of Jandy Nelson's gorgeous writing and visually. It is printed in lovely blue ink which and there are handwritten poems scrawled throughout its pages, photographed on paper cups, candy wrappers, bits of newspaper, bark and bathroom tiles among other things (all in full colour). I spent a good half hour just leafing through my copy when it first arrived – it was like a beautifully wrapped present. On getting over my sheer delight at getting an object d'art when all I'd been expecting was a book, my first thoughts were that the publishers must have thought it was some story if they put such a lot into the book design, as I don't imagine it was cheap to produce. Luckily for them, they were right.

This is in large part thanks to some quite spectacular writing. Breathtaking and beautiful, Jandy Nelson's prose billows out of the book in huge, overwhelming waves. It should be too much, but it's not. Lennie's grief for sister Bailey is not a quiet one and screams out of her in a vicious waterfall of loss, yearning, desire and love because Lennie is not dead – she is very, very much alive. While in the very depths of mourning, Lennie finds herself drawn towards Bailey's boyfriend Toby and a whirlwind of tears, lust and raw need ensues. This could have been distasteful, but instead it is gut-wrenchingly sad. Simultaneously, a new boy enters Lennie's life in the shape of Joe Fontaine – gentle, kind, happy and above all, able to offer Lennie solace and escape as someone who knew her only after Bailey's death. The narrative follows Lennie as she moves back and forth between light and shade, Toby and Joe. I am sure that many profound things have been said about sex and death and I'm not going to try and be clever about it. In The Sky Is Everywhere sex is portrayed as life-affirming in the most literal way. Toby and Lennie's desire makes them feel alive when nothing else does and in doing so makes them feel closer to Bailey, despite the horrendous guilt that it also brings. Lennie's desire and love for Joe is also life-affirming in the truer, more existential sense. He makes her feel healthy, strong, happy and hopeful. More than anything, while Toby makes Lennie feel real in that she feels close to Bailey, Joe allows her to be true to herself and therefore feel truly alive.

For me, everything in The Sky Is Everywhere is gloriously, vividly alive. The only thing dead in the book is Bailey and perhaps the sad shadow that is Toby – a character made two-dimensional in his grief only scraping a reprieve towards the last few pages. Creaking trees, magical roses, music, tears and magnificent smiles jump off the page and it is impossible not to rejoice in the sheer vividness of Lennie's everyday life. Be it what lifts you up or what tethers you down, Jandy Nelson reminds us that it is all life and is there to be embraced and above all, lived.

On a final and somewhat lighter note, I would personally very much like to have a set of Fontaine brothers. They could live in my closet. I would take them out whenever I felt sad and they would make me feel better and save on my electricity bills.

Bat. Bat. Bat. 


All That Glitters (Review: The Jewel by Amy Ewing)

22586252The Jewel
Amy Ewing
Walker 2014

Violet Lasting is about to become Lot 197, a child-bearing commodity for the wealthy of her city who reside in the glittering confines of the Jewel.  Previously ruled by four houses and now by an Elector and Electress, it has long been known that the Jewel is barren – or at least that children borne by the elite don’t always turn out as planned – and the ladies of the district now use surrogates from the poorer parts of the city.  Violet is such a surrogate.  Sold, by a significant amount to the Duchess of the Lake, she finds herself surrounded by beauty, wealth, cruelty and death.  Destined to carry the child of a woman who plots to bring down the very society she inhabits, Violet finds herself lost, if not entirely alone…

The world that Amy Ewing has created in her debut novel is a small yet striking one, although it brings little that seems truly unique.  The glittering castles and concerts halls, combined with the many Duchesses, Countesses and Ladies bring to mind a corrupted Wonderland (not at all dissimilar to the one created by Frank Beddor in The Looking Glass Wars) while the outer districts, inhabited as they are by scruffy children and the indentured poor bring to mind the streets of Victorian London.  It’s not a bad juxtaposition, although hardly original with the Jewel itself being of far more interest than the muddy streets of the common folk.  Still, most of the action takes place in the home of the Duchess with Violet spending only enough time outside the walls to understand that things are not as pretty as they might appear.

Violet herself is likable enough.  She is clearly uncomfortable with her lot in life and shows admirable backbone when faced with the conniving coldness of the Duchess of the Lake yet she lacks passion.  She is keen to escape the story that fate has written for her but does little bar sit around and wait to be rescued.  When she meets Ash, a young man whose lot in life is as steeped in exploitative servitude as her own, she is believably swept up by her feelings, having had nothing to do with boys previous to her arrival in the Jewel. Ash is also very readable, not to mention a bit more interesting than Violet thanks to his own back story, but their relationship develops over half a dozen short scenes into what can only be described as the dreaded instalove.

The relationship that actually keeps The Jewel alive is that between Violet and The Duchess.  The Duchess is a marvelous creation and by the end of the book has emerged as a multi-faceted villain who readers will both love to hate but occasionally find themselves pitying. The scenes between the two women spark with mutual contempt and bitterness.  It is in these scenes that Amy Ewing’s writing comes alive and they kept me reading to the last page.  Another arresting character is Lucien and I sincerely hope that the small amount of back story pertaining to his character is not all we get.

The Jewel is not an unimpressive debut, it flows well and the writing is compelling enough but it suffers a little from style over content.  The descriptions of the glorious homes, verdant gardens and beautiful music overwhelm a plot in which very little actually happens.  As in Lauren De Stefano’s Wither, the relationship that Violet finds herself in seems to be there for the sake of having a love interest and felt forced, despite the attractively troubled Ash.  Additionally, the strange powers that Violet and her fellow surrogates seem to possess are so vaguely described that they become almost an irritation.

The Jewel is the first in a trilogy and while it is certainly flawed there is a lot to encourage readers to return for book two, not least curiosity about Violet’s fate the promise of more from the Duchess of the Lake.   Amy Ewing has the start of a very good story in The Jewel , it’s just a shame that she took a whole book to outline the bare bones.  Here in The Mountains of Instead, we recommend this title to those who enjoyed Eve by Anna Carey  or De Stefano’s Chemical Garden series, The Jewel has potential to be better than both but reaches nowhere near the dizzy heights of The Handmaid’s Tale (Margaret Atwood), which it has been compared to and which, if you enjoyed this, you should really pick up next.

This review was brought to you by Splendibird. The Jewel is available now. Thank you to the publisher for providing us with a copy of this title to review.

September 11, 2014

FYA Photo-a-Day 11: Fictional Love (a special addition for Shona and the YAckers)

Sebastian Scott from the Sadler's Wells series by Lorna Hill

A long time ago, back when the Mountains of Instead were mere hillocks, I wrote a post about the attractiveness of men who play music. I listed my favourites, or at least the ones that would have had me swooning as a teen. You can find them here and they are a lovely lot, but number one was Sebastian.  And still is. This is why:

I first read the Sadler's Wells books when I was about nine. I was really into ballet, and that is what they focus on so I was happy (there are also a lot of horses featured, but you can't have everything). Sebastian doesn't appear in all of the books, just the first two where he plays antagonist and love interest to heroine Veronica. Sebastian is smart, wickedly so and is absolutely driven by his music. He cannot live without it, or Veronica, for whom he plays while she dances (usually in some swoony outdoor setting). He is hot – all dark hair, piercing blue eyes, slightly northern accent and long piano-player fingers. He is also a bit of a bad boy – in that he can be a bit cruel, his humour sarcastic and his judgements final. Importantly, he has some issues involving family and being chucked out of his ancestral home. For years he was all I looked for in a boy – it is no coincidence that my first serious boyfriend was an immensely talented, hugely sarcastic, slightly broken piano player. And just as Sebastian informed my choices in men then, I suspect he still does. If further proof be needed, read again that description and then feast your eyes:

It can be NO COINCIDENCE.  Not only is Sebastian the reason that I am no longer a ballet dancer but still a pianist, I have been casting him in ALL THE BOOKS ever since.  The first cut clearly, in this case, is absolutely the deepest.  Sebastian – you got me at an impressionable age, and my heart remains with you....

September 10, 2014

FYA Photo-a-Day 10 - TEABS!

TEABS - for the uninitiated, The End of an Awesome Book syndrome or the end of book blues.  You know the ones... those times where you finish a book that has been so wonderful or which has emotionally slain you so badly that you wonder about for a week or two, listlessly picking books up and setting them down again because NO BOOK WILL EVER EVER SPEAK TO YOU IN THE SAME WAY EVER AGAIN.  Those.

This was an easy choice:

He's a bad man, that Mr. Ness.  With his stories and his characters and all THE FEELINGS.  Each of the Chaos Walking books gave me terrible TEABS. And the short story he produced recently didn't help.  You can find reviews of The Knife of Never Letting Go, The Ask and the Answer and Monsters of Men by clicking on the links.  Read them - they are truly extraordinary - but don't say I didn't warn you.

September 09, 2014

The 5th Wave (our review, again, because of terrible embargoes and INFINITE SEA)

One of our top reads of last year, was The 5th Wave by Rick Yancey.  Clearly, it made the top of several lists as it is now being adapted for film and the sequel has been embargoed until its release date next weeks. As we can't, therefore, review The Infinite Sea yet (much as we would really, really like to) we thought we'd share again our thoughts on The 5th Wave.

The Infinite Sea (The Fifth Wave #2)

The 5th Wave
Rick Yancey
Penguin 2013

Humanity is dying, under attack from an unknown enemy who is killing them in wave after wave of horror and blood.  The 1stwave took out electricity, communications, the backbone of today’s society; the 2nd wave decimates coasts and cities all over the world; the 3rd wave comes in the form of plague, killing billions and the 4th wave see’s the few who are left running for their lives, unsure of who to trust.  Now the world awaits the 5th wave even as the strange mothership looms above the earth waiting, ominous and silent.  Cassie finds herself alone in the woods, for all she knows, the last human on earth, running from sharp shooters, staying alive out of pure determination to keep a promise that may prove to be unkeepable.  At her lowest ebb, she meets Evan who has been living quietly since losing everything.  Evan is kind, capable and willing to do anything for Cassie, including help her keep her promise but Cassie remains scared, suspicious and sure that whatever the 5th Wave is, she’s better of facing it alone.

The 5th Wave has multiple narratives but Cassie remains at the heart of the story.  She’s something else, a girl honed by bloodshed and loss into an almost frightening automaton with a singular focus.  Her narrative takes the form of journal entries and she rages at her supposed reader even while confiding her deepest fears.  While she is undoubtedly kick-ass, she’s also reeling from the events that have overtaken the human race and her own personal existence.  She lacks understanding of the bigger picture – it seems that almost everyone does – but her focus on her small part of it is unfailing, even as she finds herself injured and alone in the snow.  Her interactions with the mysterious Evan are fraught with both longing and mistrust.  Cassie has been alone for a long time when she meets him, yet she’s also seen and done some awful things and is deeply suspicious of anyone and everyone.  Evan, for his part, doesn’t help much, remaining taciturn about the details of his past even as he cares for Cassie with real affection.  Both are intriguing characters and as their stories intertwine they become increasingly hard to predict while remaining tentatively likable.  Cassie, in particular, is always compelling.

In addition to Cassie there are three additional narratives.  One is that of Private Zombie, a young man, shell-shocked and sick who ends up recruited to the fight against the Others (as they have become known, clearly the military were big fans ofLost).  Realising that he has the opportunity to take up arms against those who took away life as he once knew it, Zombie slowly transitions from a thoughtful and relatively gentle boy into a hardened soldier, a person which even he himself is unsure of.  The third narrative is that of another recruit, Private Nugget (these names all make sense on reading), an impossible soldier who clings to Zombie in a way not encouraged by their seniors.  Nugget’s voice is more than a little heart-breaking but his character is nothing short of inspiring even though he gets less page-time than the rest.  The final narrative appears only once or twice and is from the point of view of a character who was once human but who has become distinctly Other.  Yet their humanity remains, causing confusion, pain and ultimately becoming the crux of the entire story and these small sections of the book are both eerie and moving.

The 5th Wave is a bit of a triumph in terms of its careful construction and gripping storytelling.  The waves are described from different viewpoints, in which Yancey creates a horrifying world that he continues to expand upon throughout the book while adding in additional layers and levels (most effective in the sections that focus on Zombie’s training) of trust, lies, truth and doublespeak.  His core plot is incredibly strong but this first book (The 5th Wave is the start of a series) focusses largely on world building with readers only truly discovering the nature of the 5th wave at the books climax.  And what a climax it is, full of twists, turns and breath taking action.  Good Sci-Fi is rarely seen in YA, particularly recently (with only Beth Revis’s Across The Universe immediately springing to mind) and it’s a pleasure to find such a well written example of the genre.  The 5th Wave is utterly compelling and impossible to put down (I stayed up well into the night in order to read it in one sitting) and should be added to your wish lists straight away.

This review was brought to you by Splendibird. The 5th Wave is available now and The Infinite Sea will be published on September 16th. If you REALLY CANNOT WAIT until then, check out #BePrepared over on Twitter and whet your Alien-ocalypse appetite.

FYA Photo-a-Day 9: Most Anticipated... and why I love The Raven Cycle

When having to choose my favourite series, for day whatever it was in the last week, The Raven Cycle by Maggie Stiefvater was the first series that came to mind.  The thing is, it isn't finished and it just didn't seem fair to let an unfinished symphony win over the many series that I have finished and loved.  Ask me again in about a year, however, and I have no doubt that The Raven Cycle will have replaced all of the rest.

I've thought long and hard as to why I have been so entirely won over by Stiefvater's story of psychics, dead kings, dreamed of ravens and ley lines and I think I've hit on the answer.  It's not the characters, although with them she has taken worn silhouettes - Angry Boy, Kooky Girl, Rich Kid, Poor Kid, Dead Kid, all of which we've seen again and again in YA literature - and woven them into characters of real depth, originality and pathos.  Nor it is entirely the story line itself, although a good quest never did anyone any harm.  It isn't quite the world that she has created in both Monmouth Manufacturing, 300 Fox Way or Aglionby, although said world is as addictive as any of the beautifully drawn characters. No, these aspects are all quite brilliant (and you can read more about them in my reviews of both The Raven Boys and The Dream Thieves) but they are not what I think of first, when I think of The Raven Cycle.  No, what immediately comes to my mind... is Cabeswater.

As a child I adored stories like The Secret World of Polly Flint (Helen Cresswell) and The Snow Spider by Jenny Nimmo, which I've already written about this week.  They contained hidden, magical worlds that both enchanted and frightened me. Similarly, Maggie Stiefvater has taken the old and the new, the ancient, the modern and the disconcerting to create Cabeswater, a wondrous and terrible well of strangeness, beauty and sacrifice. A place of impossible pools, talking trees, dark visions and old bones, she has placed Cabeswater at the heart of her story imbuing it with an air of magical unreality that spills across the pages of each book turning her contemporary setting into one that seems to exist out of time.  Cabeswater binds her story together, allowing the characters and their stories to come to life around it.  It is Polly's forest and Gwyn's mountain and every murksome yet miraculous dream you've ever had.  And it's out there, waiting, for you to pick up Blue Lily Lily Blue and return. Which you can't do, unfortunately, until the 21st of October.

September 08, 2014

FYA Photo-a-Day 6/7/8. Because Weekend.

As a quick refresher, I'm taking part in Forever Young Adult's Photo-a-Day September.  It's a lot of fun and you can find out more about it here.

Day 6
My Shelves

These are not all of my shelves, nor all of my books.  This makes me both happy and slightly concerned.  But mainly happy.

Day 7
My Bookmark

I don't use bookmarks - I just remember the page number.  In fact, I don't even really do that.  I have the ability to pick up the book and open it where I last stopped reading.  I'd attribute this to good spacial awareness but I don't have any.  So I will instead just attribute it to MAGIC.

Day 8
Most Read

 “The snow in the mountains was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we came to understand the gravity of our situation.”

That is my favourite first line of all time.  It is the start of a compelling and disturbing story that twists and weaves through the choppy morality of ambiguous friendships, college excess, twisted philosophy, wealth, murk and murder.  It's quite brilliant and I have re-read it at least yearly since first picking it up ten years ago.  And after taking this picture today, I started it all over again.  It's still good.