Still Life with Tornado by A.S. King
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
A.S. King is one of my favourite US YA writers. She manages to weave fantasy and reality together so deftly you hardly notice it. Sarah, this novel’s protagonist, is a sixteen year old who is floundering. She feels lost, disconnected and uncomfortable in her own skin – so much so that she wants to change her name: to Umbrella. Little by little we see the cracks in Sarah. She starts to encounter other versions of herself, at 10 years old, 23 years old, and finally at 40 years old. Sometimes she is with all three. King lets Sarah, for the most part, push the story along – but there are periodic interjections from her mother, Helen. Helen, an ER nurse who works mainly at night, also reveals herself bit by bit and as we read we realise that Sarah might not be the only family member in crisis. Sarah’s absent brother, Bruce, begins to form in the story about a third of the way in and it is clear his expulsion from the family in contributing to Sarah’s fragile state. I don’t want to say too much because there are so many kernels of wonderful to explore in this novel. Sarah is a great character: sensitive; smart; funny and trying to find the girl she once was; just like her mother Helen. Can’t wait to read the next A.S. King on my list – Dig
Undying by Amie Kaufman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
The conclusion to the epic Unearthed has been worth the wait. Mia and Jules are in a desperate race against time to save Earth from an imminent Undying invasion. Stowed away on the Undying’s ancient spacecraft, Mia and Jules manage to make their way back to Earth (no details – too many spoilers) and go on the run. As they try to convince the authorities that the Undying do indeed still exist and are an exigent threat, the two adventurers develop an attraction to each other, but one that neither is brave enough to act on. The URST in this novel is great – a real bonus as it adds weight to the perilous situations in which they continually find themselves. With the help of Jules’ cousin Neal, Jules and Mia attempt to reach his Jules’ father – the one man who might be able to help them stop the invasion.
I can’t wait to see what Kaufman and Spooner come up with next. This one is a corker!
Godsgrave by Jay Kristoff
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
The second installment in the Nevernight Chronicle is breathtaking. Hot, bloody and raw, this is Jay Kristoff at his best. Mia Covere is back, on a secret mission for the Red Church, but she soon learns that things are not always what they seem. New betrayals, new allies and new love for Mia force her to examine all she believes and the purpose of her life (to avenge the death of her family) starts to become less sure. Godsgrave itself is a shady and underhanded character and those who inhabit it are its equal. Mia uncovers conspiracy on top on conspiracy and she must choose ultimately between her path of revenge and her loyalties, such as they are.
If you like your fantasy sweaty, sexy and fast-paced; this is for you!
Ages 15 and up.
Nevernight by Jay Kristoff
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I read this after reading Jay Kristoff, Amie Kaufman‘s Illuminae and Gemina and I was not sure what to expect. I had heard this was very different, but I did not realise HOW different until I read the first chapter. This book, centred around the complex Mia Corvere and her quest to become an assassin, is full of bloody action, shady characters, and a pace that never lets up. If you like your fantasy full of swords and sweat, this is for you! Couple that with fantastic character development and shadowy powers over darkness and you have an amazing read. I can’t wait to read Godsgrave because this certainly left me wanting more. Won’t write more for fear of spoilers, but I highly recommend this first book in the Nevernight Chronicles.
Due to some language and mature content I would suggest ages 15 and above.
The Marvels by Brian Selznick
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Brian Selznick won many hearts and minds with his modern children’s classic, The Invention of Hugo Cabret. His unique combination of words and images was a winner, and it was beautifully realised in Scorsese’s film. Hugo. The Marvels is set to become another classic and I sincerely hope someone is looking to film this story for the big screen.
The story begins with images, almost 400 pages of them, and they are magical. Beautifully rendered pencil drawings tell the remarkable history of the Marvel family, from 1766 to 1900. Beginning with Billy Marvel, who survives a shipwreck on the ill-fated Kraken, the tale of a family closely tied to the stage unfolds. Images of angels and fire combine to weave a tale of triumph and tragedy, and a family whose lives truly reflect their surname.
Almost 100 years after the last picture in the story, Joseph Jervis runs away from school and turns up on the doorstep of his uncle, whom he has never met, the enchantingly named Alfred Nightingale. Alfred’s house is a time capsule, held fast in the early twentieth century, and it is clear he wants nothing to do with Joseph or his family. He begrudgingly allows Joseph to stay because his parents can’t be contacted, and Joseph sets out to discover more about his family’s past.
Joseph befriends Frankie, who assists him on his quest to unravel the mystery that is the Marvels, and how they related to his family. As they work their way through clues found in Albert’s house, and at the Royal Theatre where an ethereal painting of an angel adorns the ceiling, the story of the Marvels is pieced together and takes the two friends in a direction neither of them ever expected. The truth, it seems, in stranger than fiction. This is a fantastic story filled with historical detail, visual clues and hints, and engaging supporting characters. I particularly liked Florent, the Frenchman who has known Albert for many years and who makes it his business to watch over Joseph as he gets to know his grumpy, sullen uncle, and Frankie, the feisty, no-holds-barred girl who helps Joseph discover the truth about his family. Selznick has the enviable ability to show a great deal in just one drawing – sometimes more than a whole page of text can show.
Revelations, explanations and emotions collide as the novel moves to its satisfying conclusion. Once the written story is told, Selznick presents another, shorter, picture story to take us to the present day. It is a fitting end to a moving and entertaining narrative.
Heartily recommended for readers aged 8 and up.
The Door That Led to Where by Sally Gardner
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Firstly, let me admit that I had not read anything by Sally Gardner before this book. Secondly, I ask myself the question : why did I leave it this long?
The Door That Led to Where is fabulous. A time-slip/mystery/friendship/fantasy/realist novel that defies being categorised (obviously), and holds the reader right to the very end. Gardner’s characters are top-notch. You become invested in them without even noticing it is happening – until you read the last few pages with tears in your eyes.
AJ and his mates, Slim and Leon, are as close as brothers, and they are always in some kind of trouble. When AJ’s mum manages to get him an interview for a baby clerk position at a law firm she used to clean for, it seems that AJ’s life might finally be turning around.
And turn around it does, but in ways that AJ could not possibly have imagined. It is revealed early on that AJ is a Dickens aficionado, and this certainly helps him to navigate 19th century London when he unlocks “the door” of the title. He revels in the new environment and becomes deeply involved in the goings on, on the other side of the door.
There are mysteries to be solved – on both side of the door – where is Leon? What happened to AJ’s father, who was the previous holder of the key to the door? What is Mr Baldwin, a partner in the law firm AJ works for, up to?
Added to all this is the wonderful relationship AJ has with “Auntie Elsie” who lives in the same block of flats as AJ and his family. When he leaves the family flat because he can no longer stand living with his mother, Elsie becomes a grandmother figure and they look after one another. I loved this relationship and seeing it develop. The story straddles the two time zones really well – in a believable way (at least for me) – and never gets bogged down in the scientific “jargon” that so often accompanies a story like this one. Whilst it is definitely rooted in the 21st century, this is really, in essence, a mystery story that just happens to span 150 years. AJ, Slim and Leon become different people as the story progresses (or become who they were meant to be) – and they way the three end up really sat well with me. I am hoping there may be a second book in the works as there were a couple of loose ends not tied up – I think this could be a really engaging series if that was to happen.
Because there is some swearing in the text, I would say this is recommended for ages 14 and up, but if you have a mature reader who would cope with some fruity language as part of the plot (not gratuitous) I would say 12 and up. Now, to find the next Sally Gardner to read!
Afterworlds by Scott Westerfeld
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Scott Westerfeld has taken two genres and meshed them together to create a novel that, whilst requiring concentration, is still great fun to read.
There are parallel stories going on here.
Story 1: Darcy Patel has written her very first novel, Afterworlds – a supernatural romance/suspense story. She is eighteen and bashed the book out in a month. Now, she has a two-book deal, and a massive advance to finance her first move away from home – to New York City – to work on the rewrites and start fleshing out “Untitled Patel 2”.
Story 2: Lizzie is the survivor of a terrorist attack at an airport. She survives this attack by playing dead, and unexpectedly finds herself thrust into the Underworld – the land of the dead. There she meets the strange and alluring Yamaraj – and romance is born.
This idea is very cleverly pulled off by Westerfeld. He gives us enough of each story in the alternating chapters to want to read on. I thought I would find this format tedious and I struggled intially to engage with the characters (and I still don’t think I fully engaged with them), but there was enough to keep me interested all the way through to the end.
Darcy’s story gives fascinating insight into the world of YA publishing and the personalities and processes that personify it. Lizzie’s story, to me, felt the more forced of the two and I did not find myself as immersed in her world and story as I did in Darcy’s.
Still, Scott Westerfeld writes well – it is clear he loves his characters and we are taken along for a very entertaining ride.
Recommended for ages 14 and up, due to some of the content and concepts.
Nightmares! by Jason Segel
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Nightmares! is a fun little book about a scary subject. Charlie Laird lives in an imposing purple mansion in Cypress Creek with his dad, little brother Jack and his stepmother, Charlotte. When we meet Charlie, he is not sleeping well. He is plagued by nightmares every night about a witch who wants to eat him. Is the house haunted? As the dreams continue, Charlie becomes convinced that his stepmother is also a witch, who is somehow helping the witch from his nightmare. To make matters worse, it looks like the witch has kidnapped Jack so she can cook him up for her dinner!
One night after waking from a particularly terrifying nightmare, Charlie sees the witch running into the forest with Jack thrown over her shoulder. One thing is even stranger, the forest is where the wall of his stepmother’s studio used to be. Without thinking, Charlie races after them and into an amazing adventure where he must rescue Jack, and others, from the Netherworld – the world of nightmares.
Jason Segel and Kirsten Miller have penned a little gem. This story has just the right balance of dark humour, pathos and heart-warming moments to hold the attention of any child. Charlie got on my nerves a bit at the start, but I guess that was the idea – to allow the reader to see just how weird and irrational he was becoming. Charlie’s friends, particularly Paige and Alfie, are fabulous and a wonderful foil to Charlie’s lack of self-awareness. They call him on his over the top behaviour and don’t let him get away with much (as best friends are supposed to).
Because this is a book for children, there are happy endings (for some) and they are reached in a way that teaches the child reader a lesson without beating them over the head with it (always a plus in my book). There is a sequel on the way, so it will be interesting to see how that develops. Not all the ends were tied up, so there is definitely scope for more to happen in the Netherworld.
For ages 8 and up
Half Bad by Sally Green
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
This was the book hyped up at the last Penguin Teachers’ Academy meeting I went to back in March, so I made it my business to get my hands on it asap. What a disappointment it was. Half Bad is exactly the right title for this book. I found the writing derivative and lacking in figurative language, which meant many of the scenes just died on the page. When I was supposed to be shocked and moved by Nathan’s treatment in captivity I really just shrugged my shoulders. Also, the second person narrative style at the beginning was very off-putting. I nearly bailed right there. However, since I was the librarian who recommended this to Matt (a colleague) I thought I should at least finish it so we could compare notes. Central character Nathan is completely unlikable. I know he is a black (bad) witch, but I felt no sympathy for him at all. The more interesting characters were the people around him. Gabriel is the character I most want to find out about, and Rose, despite being duplicitous and manipulative, is a character I wanted more of – but Nathan? Nope.
And worst of all….where the hell was the magic? For a book about witches (and some of them supposedly badass Black Witches) there was very little magic taking place.
I will read the sequel to see where Sally Green is going to take this, but at the moment I feel like it’s not somewhere I want to go.
My verdict? It’s harmless enough but I wouldn’t break any records getting your hands on it. I just hope Matt still respects my recommendations!
The Ask and the Answer by Patrick Ness
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
The sequel to The Knife of Never Letting Go promised much and totally fulfilled that promise. At the end of Book 1, Todd and Viola fell into the clutches of Mayor Prentiss – one of the most evil villains I have ever read in fiction. Viola is sent away, to become a healer, and after a beating and interrogation by Mayor Prentiss, Todd is placed in a prison cell with Ledger, the former mayor of Haven (now New Prentisstown).
The crux of the novel is the struggles of Todd and Viola as they exist without each other, and their desire to be reunited. They are inexorably connected and the plot hinges on whether or not they will ever see each other again.
I don’t want to talk about the events of the book, as so much happens I could write pages. What I do want to talk about is the character development of the main players.
Mayor (President) Prentiss is fully revealed as a vile, manipulative man who will stop at nothing to control all the inhabitants of New World. I can’t give spoilers, but just when you think he can’t stoop any lower – he reaches down and finds a new bottom in the barrel. He is intelligent and charismatic, but he just oozes evil.
Todd, ever the pragmatist, makes the best of his life as Prentiss’s prisoner. He tends the “herds” of Spackle used as forced labour, and is repulsed by them. It is interesting to observe this device in the novel – he can’t see (yet) that the treatment of the Spackle and the treatment of the women is the same. He constantly thinks about Viola and how he can see her again. Ben once told Todd “war makes monsters of men” and through Todd we see how this happens. He does start to become what Prentiss wants him to be. Of course, Prentiss is that quote coming to full fruition. However, through Todd we also see that it might be possible to come back from it – with the right help.
Viola really comes into her own in this novel. She finds a voice (Ness switches the narrative between Todd and Viola)and as the story goes on, a purpose in life. She is not a great healer (as she tells it) and she is overwhelmed with a desire to see Todd again. This takes her into dire situations, but it also makes her a leader. Viola is more questioning than Todd (less of a pack animal than Todd?) and rises up against injustice or pain at every turn. She feels sorry for the Spackle, where Todd, even though he tries to save one, feels only revulsion and disgust. It is clear that Viola and Todd need to find each other again, so she can save him.
Davy Prentiss – this guy is such a tool, I thought I could not feel for him at all, but by the end of this book, I felt pity for him. Everything he believed in is turned back on him and he is abandoned by everyone – except Todd. No spoliers, but from me at least, there were tears.
This is a novel of growing tensions, of revelations, of war and all it’s sorrow. It ends with a match being thrown onto a tinder box. Now I have to read book three Monsters of Men to find out who survives.
A rich and rewarding novel which gripped me from beginning to end. Book three here I come!
Ages 14 and up.