writer, editor & phd candidate

Category: Genre: YA Speculative Page 2 of 4

Review: The Lying Game – Sara Shepard

lyinggameThe Lying Game has an extremely interesting premise, in that it’s narrated by a dead girl who is watching the action through the eyes of the identical twin sister that she hadn’t known existed. Therefore, while it is essentially told in the first person, it usually reads like a third person perspective, with the ghostly Sutton relating Emma’s experiences as she tries to fit into Sutton’s life and work out what has happened to her sister. It sounds a little confusing when described and it took me a while to adapt to the concept but, once I did, I found it a very clever take on the whodunnit format.

The plot of the novel is very engaging, and I quickly found myself guessing at who might turn out to be Sutton’s murderer. I found Sara Shepard’s mystery writing to be quite reminiscent of Agatha Christie, in that she is very good at ensuring that there are numerous suspects, all with very good reason to want Sutton out of their lives. I certainly have my own strong suspicions about the murderer, but I will most likely be proven wrong!

While Emma is a likeable character, the twin she is pretending to be is very much not, which is one of the most interesting things about The Lying Game. Ghost!Sutton has very little memory of her life, meaning that she discovers just how unpleasant she was at the same time as Emma and the novel’s readers do. I think this helps the character to be a lot more sympathetic than she otherwise would be, which is important in a book that is populated largely by people who aren’t very nice.

There are a few things that aren’t very believable here – like Emma being able to bluff her way as a tennis captain despite only having played the sport on a Wii – but it’s not so bad that it detracts from the plot. And it’s the mystery here that’s the book’s biggest strength. In the end, the characters and Emma’s charade are secondary to the question of who killed Sutton. Unfortunately, the answer to that question is not revealed in this first book of the Lying Game series. Indeed, The Lying Game does not exist very well as a stand-alone novel, lacking as it is in any real conclusions. Luckily, the story is interesting enough that I’m happy to read on to get the answers I need.

Review: Blood Feud – Alyxandra Harvey

bloodfeudThe Drake Chronicles series are marketed as standard YA paranormal romances, but I think that is underselling them a little. Sure, there has been a hint of romance in both of the instalments I’ve read so far, but the focus is so much more on the conflicts between the various vampire groups. This is particularly so in Blood Feud, where the romance between Isabeau and Logan takes a back seat to the negotiations between the Drakes and the Hounds and the ongoing struggles with Montmartre and the Hel-Blar. There’s probably enough tension here to keep paranormal romance fans happy, but there’s also enough action and world-building to interest those who prefer their paranormal without the side of UST and love.

Blood Feud is interesting in that it doesn’t continue the stories of Solange and Lucy, who were the joint first-person protagonists of the first Drake novel, My Love Lies Bleeding. At first, I wasn’t pleased to realise this. I loved Lucy’s strong and feisty voice, and it was sad to find her so little used in this second book. I soon got over my disappointment, however, because Isabeau is just as enjoyable a character. We also get to see things through the eyes of one of the male Drakes for the first time, and Logan does an excellent job of combining loyal, chivalrous and deadly in a manner that’s sure to win him a lot of fans.

Blood Feud also adds a new element to the series, in that it incorporates numerous flashbacks to Isabeau’s life before she was turned. Interestingly, these are told using a third person perspective, which should really clash with the use of the first person for Isabeau’s present-day chapters but somehow doesn’t. I’m not usually a fan of historical fiction, but the sections of the novel detailing Isabeau’s life during the French Revolution held my attention well and definitely increased my appreciation of her as a character.

The action and world development here is great, although the final climax seemed a little rushed and a lot too easy. It’s not a particularly long novel in modern terms, so an extra ten or twenty pages dealing with the final battle could easily have been incorporated. That said, it was very refreshing to finish a book in a series and feel as though it had been properly ended, rather than just cut off mid-scene!

I was pleasantly surprised by the first Drake Chronicles book and Blood Feud has confirmed my initial feelings about the series, producing a strong second instalment that has ensured that I will be reading more from Alyxandra Harvey

Review: Ash – Malinda Lo

ashAsh is a loose retelling of Cinderella, with the addition of a completely new main character (Kaisa) and a completely re-envisioned fairy godmother, who becomes a rather sinister (male) fairy. However, it’s probably best known for its queer content, which is also why I picked it up.

If Ash had been much longer, I’d have put it right back down again after the first ten or so pages and not bothered to finish it. As it was, I figured I might as well keep going, despite the fact that I didn’t enjoy the style of writing at all. Unfortunately, reading to the end just confirmed that Malinda Lo’s writing is just not for me.

It’s not that there’s anything bad here, and Ash‘s legions of fans can attest to that. It’s just that there seemed to be no light and shade, no action or emotion. Ash herself read like a blank canvas that remained blank through to the final page. I didn’t feel anything for her, because I couldn’t find anything about her to feel for. She’s one of the most passive protagonists I’ve ever encountered. Things happen to her or she acts within a dream state and even in the end, when she takes a little initiative, it still feels like the motion is happening behind a veil. At no point did I feel engaged with the text; instead, it was as though I was reading it from a great distance.

I can understand why such a writing style was employed. Most of the original fairytales are narration-heavy with little character development, and Ash slots neatly into this tradition. The difficulty I had with the way in which it’s used here, however, is that it seemed to remove all conflict from the story, which left me feeling like something huge was missing from the book. Lo has an elegant turn of phrase, but there was no fire here and no spirit, so I’m afraid I can’t be counted amongst Ash‘s many fans.

Review: A Long, Long Sleep – Anna Sheehan

When Rose wakes after spending 62 years in stasis, her body is wasted and her organs damaged. Much worse, however, is the knowledge that her parents and Xavier, her best friend and first love, are long dead. As she learns to adapt to a world that has changed greatly after the Dark Times that occurred while she was asleep, she discovers a deadly threat to her safely – and some life changing truths about her own past.

After finishing A Long, Long Sleep, I jumped online to see whether Anna Sheehan had written anything else and was amazed to discover that this had been a NaNoWriMo project for her several years ago. Having participated in NaNo myself and making the word count target but otherwise ending up with an unfinished mess of writing, I’m amazed and impressed that such a great book was the product of her own NaNo efforts.

Because A Long, Long Sleep really is a fantastic book. I made it through right to the end of December thinking that Divergent was going to be the best YA book I’d read in 2011, and then I finished A Long, Long Sleep and felt like it just squeezed Divergent into second place. This isn’t as action-filled a novel, and the action scenes that are here aren’t quite as gripping, but I loved the way that the truth of Rose’s former life was revealed, layer by layer, eventually revealing a darkness that I would never have expected at the beginning of the novel.

It’s hard to name a definitive genre for A Long, Long Sleep. It’s futuristic science fiction, complete with all the tech, off-planet colonies and aliens that you would expect from that genre, but its heart isn’t in these elements as much as it is in the exploration of Rose’s character and the ways in which humans treat – and fail – each other. The tech is intrinsic to the storyline, but the characters can be recognised just as easily in the present era as in a future setting.

Rose is not a simple protagonist. The holes that Otto sees in her mind distance her a little from the reader at first. Although the novel is told in first person, we learn more from flash backs than from Rose’s own accounts of her feelings and personality. While this means that she is not immediately likeable, it also means that we discover who she is as we discover why she is. As the book progresses, she becomes more and more sympathetic and more and more impressive as the novel’s lead.

Xavier is seen mostly in flashbacks, and entirely through Rose’s eyes, which makes him something of an enigma, even by the end of the book. I felt very much that his value was in who he was to Rose and what he represented in her life, rather than in his own personality and actions. In contrast, I adored Otto. I thought he was the perfect foil to Rose and, while I was a little doubtful about the text-based conversations between the two at first, I do understand the benefit of this technique with regard to the progression of two characters who are closed to their peers in very different ways. I thought Otto was good for Rose and very important for Rose and I feel that his story serves to temper her own in a way.

I picked up A Long, Long Sleep because it looked mildly interesting and I thought it might be something that my partner would enjoy. I’m glad I did so, because it was clever and thoughtful and dark and hopeful – all the things that I love to see in a book. A fantastic debut by Anna Sheehan. I hope to see more from her very soon.

Review: Blue Bloods – Melissa de la Cruz

Blue Bloods coverDespite coming from an old and respected family, Schuyler Van Alen has never really fit in at Duchesne, her exclusive New York high school. But then she starts receiving attention from the ultra-popular Jack Force, and the untimely death of a schoolmate rattles the Manhattan elite. Soon Schuyler is shown the full extent of her familial heritage, opening her eyes to the true nature of the Blue Bloods.

Blue Bloods read to me like Gossip Girl with fangs. It centres around a group of super rich and privileged teens and their phenomenally rich and powerful families, and adorns the plot with generous smatterings of exclusive brands and (already dated) cutting edge technology and fashions. The twist is that most of these people are also vampires – although not the type of vampire you’re expecting. Melissa de la Cruz combines vampire and fallen angel mythology with historical snippets to create a being with an interesting past and form of immortality.

I picked up Blue Bloods thinking it was going to be another paranormal romance series, but it’s actually not focussed on romance at all, even though there are a few minor pair-ups within the book. Instead, it’s really about the history of the Blue Bloods, the inclusion of a new set of teenagers to their number and the danger they are facing from a threat as old as they are. In this sense, it’s an enjoyable novel and I would certainly pick up the next book in the series to see where things go.

Where it falls down a little, however, is with the individual characters introduced in this first book. The perspective mostly follows Schuyler and Bliss, but neither is particularly sympathetic or likeable. I got the impression that Schuyler is supposed to be the character that readers will identify with, but found her a little flat myself. While we are introduced to her life, we are not really led to feel anything about it. The other difficulty with the changing perspectives is that sometimes it switches mid-chapter and it doesn’t always stay with Schuyler and Bliss. There are occasional portions of the plot that are seen through Mimi or Jack’s eyes and the combination of so many limited perspectives ends up feeling a little messy and confusing.

In a more general sense, I felt like there were hints here at characters I might grow to like with more development in later books. We only see snippets of Jack and Mimi in Blue Bloods, but they seem like the most interesting members of the ensemble, especially in relation to the hints given regarding their shared past. In addition, Oliver became a lot more interesting and likeable as the novel went on. I found him quite annoying at first, but began to warm to him once he began to have a purpose of his own, beyond merely being Schuyler’s possessive friend.

Blue Bloods won’t win prizes for great literature, but it is entertaining as escapist reading. The world that de la Cruz has outlined in her novel is different enough to encourage readers to pick up the next book in the series, even if the characters are not yet intriguing enough to pull people in on their own merit.

(Oh, and because I can’t resist – Caligula was not towards the end of the Roman Empire. If you’re going to use real historical figures for effect, you should at least make an effort to use them correctly.)

Review: Vibes – Amy Kathleen Ryan

Kristi Carmichael feels forever on the outer, not least because she can read the thoughts of the people around her – who rarely have anything good to say. Her mother is a workaholic, her father’s disappeared off to Africa, the hottest boy in school thinks she’s sick and her former best friend can’t stand her any more. She responds with outlandish fashion and an impenetrable shell, but is it possible that she’s not as aware of people’s thoughts, motivations and lives as she thinks?

I picked Vibes up thinking it was contemporary realistic and only noticed the paranormal element – Kristi can read minds – once I actually started reading. As it turns out, though, this really does read like a realistic novel, with its focus being on relationships between family members, friends and potential partners. Kristi’s mind reading is almost incidental to the plot, revealing more about who she is than anything, so don’t discount Vibes as just another paranormal book!

Instead, Amy Kathleen Ryan has produced a strong work about teenage relationships and self-identity. It’s a story about the barriers people put up to prevent themselves from being hurt and about learning to see the people around you in a different light. And, if that sounds a bit deep, it’s also a very enjoyable and easy read.

Kristi is a very easy protagonist to identify with. Despite her outward expressions of indifference, she is actually a lot more vulnerable than she would have people believe, and her insecurities are ones that will be shared by many readers. She jokes about her weight and her unusually large breasts (although I hope the quote about going from a training bra to a C-cup wasn’t suggesting that counts as large, because no), but it is obvious that she is not comfortable with either. She also pushes people away, believing that no one could like her, and it is good to watch this change slowly over the course of the novel.

In terms of the three main male characters in Vibes, I liked Gusty immediately, despite the name! He’s attractive and popular, and Kristi initially gives the impression that he’s also stupid and unkind, but the reader quickly learns that there is more to Gusty than Kristi is willing to admit. In contrast, I was never able to warm to Mallory. He has a cruel streak that I felt wasn’t entirely negated by his kindness to Eva in the latter half of the book and I just couldn’t see him as a good influence in Kristi’s life. On the other hand, Kristi’s friend Jacob is lots of fun, and his loyalty to Kristy, even at her most prickly, is commendable.

Although much of Vibes deals with Kristi’s relationships with her peers, it also focusses upon her family life, with her father returning from two years in Africa and her mother changing jobs and spending a lot more time with her daughter. I thought that Ryan’s exploration of Kristi’s feelings (and behaviour) towards her parents was particularly well done. It’s hard to talk too much about it without spoiling potential readers, but I think that Kristi’s reactions seem particularly realistic where her family is concerned.

Although it’s a minor thing, I have to mention that I really didn’t like the final two sentences in the book. The annoying thing is that the third last line would have been perfect to end it on. [/end picky criticism]

Vibes is an enjoyable YA novel, with well-written characters and a great voice. I read it in a day, because I was enjoying it so much, and I’m sure other readers will find it just as appealing.

Review: Across the Universe – Beth Revis

When Amy agrees to accompany her parents to a new life on a new planet, she expects to wake up there in three hundred years’ time. But then, fifty years before their planned arrival, she is woken from her cryogenic slumber and almost killed in the process. With her parents still frozen, she feels overwhelmingly alone. Can she trust Elder, the ship’s leader-elect – and can Elder trust everything he’s ever known?

Across the Universe combines two things I love – science fiction and a dystopian society – so I was pretty much fated to enjoy it. I’m a sucker for books that are set in space, and this first novel in a trilogy combines the spaceship location with an intriguing mystery that kept me reading with interest right through to the end of the book.

The narrative of Across the Universe is split between the perspectives of Amy, who grew up on Earth, and Elder, who was born and raised on Godspeed and is destined to be the ship’s next leader. Amy feels very real for a teenager who has been thrust into circumstances she didn’t choose, without the support of her family or the friends and boyfriend she left behind on Earth. Her feelings of displacement and loss are well-portrayed and her determination to understand her new world helps her to be a likeable character. At times, I wished for a deeper insight into her personality and past, but it is likely this will eventuate later in the trilogy.

While Amy is easy for the reader to identify with, Elder is less familiar a character. Despite this, it was he whom I found the more interesting and enjoyable of Beth Revis’s two protagonists. The development of Elder over the duration of the novel is very well done, and his struggle with the conflict between the truth that he’s always known and the protests of his conscience is cleverly described.

The book’s supporting characters were generally enjoyable as well. Eldest is overbearing and rather sinister from the beginning, while I never entirely knew how to feel about Doc. I was a little disappointed that we didn’t get to see more of Harley, because I liked what we did get to see, but didn’t learn quite enough to truly feel for him.

One thing I really enjoyed about Across the Universe was the lack of romance. I love YA romance, but sometimes it’s nice to have a book from a non-romance genre that doesn’t feel the need to make love a focus. While I realise that this won’t be the case for the whole trilogy, for this book I enjoyed being able to concentrate on the science fiction, dystopian and mystery elements of Revis’s world without having to dodge a love triangle to do so!

My main issue with Across the Universe was the fact that I found the chapters dealing with Amy’s dreams and thoughts while frozen dull and repetitive. It reached the point where I was just skimming them, and I feel like one short chapter could have given the same impression without detracting so much from the more interesting Elder chapters in between the Amy ones.

Although Across the Universe is the first book in an intended trilogy, it stands apart from other recent books in that, while there are some questions left unanswered, it nonetheless feels like a complete novel without the need to read the next two books. The main plotlines are all resolved and it is the universe that entices the reader to continue with the trilogy, not one of the oh-so-fashionable cliff-hangers that always leave me feeling like I’ve paid for a product that isn’t complete.

Across the Universe is a solid sci-fi addition to the young adult market.

Warning: Contains an attempted rape scene.

Review: My Love Lies Bleeding – Alyxandra Harvey

Solange Drake is both a born vampire and female – a combination that hasn’t occurred in over nine hundred years. Unfortunately, her rarity puts her in grave danger as she approaches the bloodchange, largely due to a prophecy that suggests she will be the new vampire queen. As things spiral further and further out of control, it falls to Lucy, Solange’s human best friend, and Nicholas, her youngest brother to try to save Solange from all those who want her and her family dead.

I picked up My Love Lies Bleeding, not expecting to be particularly excited by it. The cover made it seem like your average paranormal romance and, while I tend to appreciate them as brain candy, they’re generally quite forgettable once they’re done. However, while My Love Lies Bleeding contains elements of romance, it is largely an action-filled story about family, friendship and conflict between various vampire groups and their hunters.

My favourite part of the Twilight novels was the Cullen family, Edward excluded, and I know I’m not alone in that opinion. My Love Lies Bleeding was a lot like getting a whole book about the Cullens, with Edward becoming the self-sacrificing Solange and Bella her brilliant best friend, Lucy. Solange’s parents are great, with her father being a quiet diplomat while her mother is a formidable warrior, and her seven older brothers and extended family ensure that the Drake family will not be quickly forgotten.

For me, Lucy was the best part about this book. The story is split between two perspectives – hers and Solange’s – and Lucy’s chapters were the ones that I particularly enjoyed. I know that people are getting a little sick of the kick-arse heroine trope, but I’d personally take it any day over the kind of bland, weak female protagonist who is still far too common in young adult fiction. Lucy is feisty and likeable, with her loyalty to her best friend and Solange’s family being unwavering.

Solange is also an interesting character, although not as much one of my preferred character types. She is very selfless and, instead of embracing the prophesy that suggests that she will control the vampire world, she shies away from it and worries about the danger she is subjecting her family to. Although a much quieter, calmer character than Lucy, Solange can still hold her own in a fight and definitely shouldn’t be underestimated.

With two protagonists, the romance is also twofold in My Love Lies Bleeding. Neither romance dominates the plot, however. Kieran, a member of the vampire hunting group Helios-Ra, will appeal to those readers who appreciate connections that cross factions. In contrast, Nicholas may be a vampire, but first and foremost he is Lucy’s best friend’s big brother. Their attraction, therefore, is much more the kind of thing you would generally find in contemporary realistic fiction, than in paranormal romance!

In My Love Lies Bleeding, Alyxandra Harvey has created an interesting universe populated with likeable characters. I shall definitely be picking up the next book in the Drake Chronicles series.

Review: Divergent – Veronica Roth

At the age of sixteen, all teenagers are required to undergo aptitude testing and choose the faction that they will belong to for the rest of their lives. For Tris, the decision may mean leaving her family behind, if she decides not to join them in the selfless community of the Abnegation faction. Such choices, however, are only the beginning, as the world around Tris begins to rapidly unravel.

I loved this book. Loved it. I read a few pages over a couple of days, and then sat down and read the majority of its 487 pages in one afternoon, enjoying every moment of it. Divervent hits so many of my happy buttons. Dystopia, personality-based groupings, coming-of-age stories, heroic actions and deaths… this book was essentially written to be just my kind of thing.

Because of that, I’m going to struggle to review it properly. Right now, I mostly just want to rave about the fact that I’ve not been this excited by groupings since Harry Potter. The Abnegation, Amity, Candor, Dauntless and Erudite factions are what make Divergent great, and I think that, through them, Veronica Roth has created a universe that will stick with people long after the plot of her trilogy has become a little fuzzied by time.

I also really enjoy Tris as a protagonist. It is so refreshing to read about a character who is great because of who she is, rather than how she looks. She’s not pretty, she doesn’t look Dauntless-strong and yet she is always presented as having something to offer and as being a girl that people can fall for. As much as it is a book about increasing tension between factions, Divergent is a book about Tris’s personal growth. She is far from perfect and far from confident in her own abilities, but she grows a great deal over the course of the novel and will hopefully continue to do so in the other two books in this trilogy. Certainly, the events of the closing chapters would suggest so.

I also appreciated the slow development of the romance in Divergent and the fact that it is not represented as being the most important part of the story. It feels like the romance is based on common backgrounds and values, not the usual fated attraction or interest based almost entirely on infeasibly perfect appearances. Again – very refreshing.

The supporting characters are all wonderfully developed as well. Christina’s bold and tactless personality is a great counter to Tris’s self doubt and Abnegation upbringing. Four is just the right about of mysterious and always intriguing. Will steadily grew on me as the book progressed and Al is heartbreakingly complex. Tris’s family are all great in different ways and by Jove there are two scenes in the book that will stay with me for a while. The villains are good too. A little too villainous at times, perhaps, so I’m hoping that we get a bit more character development with them in the upcoming books, so that they’re a little more three-dimensional.

I could rave for ages, but instead I shall just reiterate that I loved this book and bemoan the fact that I have to wait until May for the next book, Insurgent to be released. It’s going to be a long six months…

(I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.)

Review: The Caldecott Chronicles – R.G. Bullet

The Caldecott Chronicles book coverOne hundred years after the death of the Earl of Rothshire, his great great granddaughter released his account of the strange goings on that occurred on his property in 1896. in a series of letters to his son, he recounts the story of his battles with the undead that have taken over his estate and the surrounding area.

The Caldecott Chronicles is a fun novella that combines two of my favourite things: the Victorian era and zombies. They actually fit together surprisingly well, due in part to the fantastic voice of R.G Bullet’s protagonist, Radclyffe. As well as being full of wonderfully dry humour, Radclyffe’s letters are written in a style that feels surprisingly authentic, given the subject matter of the book.

Radclyffe is portrayed very much as the lord of the manor, although his character grows and becomes less snobbish as the book progresses. Always very aware of his position in society, he is also taken to brief reminiscence about his military past. The epistolary style of the novella cleverly allows for Radclyffe to award the reader a glimpse of personal and family history without an overwhelming backstory.

The development of Saffy’s character is limited a little by The Caldecott Chronicles‘s strong focus on Radclyffe’s perspective, but the reader is nonethless shown a spirited and interesting girl who seems to thrive in the unusual conditions into which she is thrust. In age, nature and class, she is the perfect foil for Radclyffe and adds a good deal of life to what might otherwise be a narrative-heavy book.

The undead themselves are wonderfully described. Squeamish readers may shudder a little at Radclyffe’s accounts of shattered bones and splattering bodies, but I personally enjoyed the particularly gruesome detailing of the decay the creatures have undergone. What can I say – I grew up on horror!

Although this is the first of several ‘excerpts’ from Radclyffe’s letters, the story is left at an appropriate point and doesn’t leave the reader feeling disgruntled. They will want to read on, but this is due to the clever voice and fun universe, not to a frustrating cliff-hanger.

Overall, The Caldecott Chronicles is a quick read and an enjoyable one. Recommended for lovers of zombies in unexpected places.

(I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.)

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