Saturday, 28 February 2015

The YA Book Prize: mini reviews

Young adult fiction has exploded over the last few years. And not just in the US, where the attention so often seems to be, but also in the UK. So it's only right that there be a prize for the UK's best YA fiction. There are 10 books (11 authors) on the inaugural YA Book Prize shortlist, and I've had fun reading them all (although there were also some tears too). So without further ado, here is what I think of the books competing for the first ever YA Book Prize (in alphabetical order by surname of author).

Disclaimer: I work for the company behind the YA Book Prize, but am in no way involved in the judging process.

Thursday, 26 February 2015

Book review: Hotel Alpha by Mark Watson

Hotels are the ultimate fantasy residence, right? A place where someone else makes your bed and cleans up after you, where you can order food to your door any time of day or night, where you can meet people from all over the world without leaving the building, and where catering to your every whim is actually someone's job.

And that's why the setting for Mark Watson's Hotel Alpha is so appealing - a high-end London hotel that is at the centre of the world. Key to the world of the Hotel Alpha is Graham, the concierge at the hotel since its boisterous owner Howard first opened it, and Chas, Howard's blind adopted son who rarely leaves the hotel.

The book alternates between the perspectives of Graham and Chas, who seem initially like opposites. Graham is old and set in his ways, while Chas is young and enthusiastic about new tech. But really, both men's differences actually turn out to mask similarities. Chas may be physically blind, but Graham purposefully chooses not to see what is happening in front of him. Both men rely on other people to jolt them into living, both live by routines, both are stuck in a rut while the world around them moves ahead at a pace, and both men will do anything for Howard.

Monday, 23 February 2015

Book review: Our Endless Numbered Days by Claire Fuller

A hut in the forest, surrounded by greenery, with a bubbling brook nearby - it's the stuff of idyllic dreams or fairytales. Only in Claire Fuller's Our Endless Numbered Days it becomes the stuff of nightmares.

In 1975 eight-year-old Peggy lives at home with her dad James, a survivalist, and her mum, Ute, a German concert pianist. In 1985 Peggy is back home with her mum, after 10 years spent living in the forest with James, who told her that everyone in the world had died, and that the two were the only ones alive.

Our Endless Numbered Days drifts between 1985 and Peggy's years spent in the forest in a kind of dream-like manner. Dreams, nightmares, fiction and fantasies play a big part in Our Endless Numbered Days - Peggy refers to The Railway Children a number of times, as though it's a factual reference point, she chooses to remember her time in the forest as though she was in a dream, and while there her nickname was Punzel, after the fairytale princess Rapunzel (and there's a hint of Hansel and Gretel about it all). Only if she had been able to let down her hair, there would have been no one around to rescue Peggy.

Thursday, 19 February 2015

Book review: A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness

I don't think I've picked up a book about vampires since I read the Twilight series, which was oh-so-addictive but which also watered down everything that makes vampires attractive. 

Thankfully, Deborah Harkness's A Discovery of Witches, the first in the All Souls trilogy, reminds me of why stories about supernatural beings like vampires can be so compelling.

Diana Bishop is an American academic temporarily in Oxford when she stumbles across a manuscript which seems to respond to her powers as a witch. Having always tried to reject her powers, Diana tries to ignore it, but when other witches, daemons and vampires start taking an interest, Diana just can't get away. And when Matthew, a vampire who has lived many, many lives, becomes curious about Diana and the manuscript, Diana is forced into confronting her own powers in order to save herself, Matthew and their families from dangerous enemies.

First off, Diana is a brilliant protagonist. She's complex, vulnerable, full of faults, super clever, brave and strong. I like that she's so layered, and so, so, so human, even though she's a very powerful witch. Harkness creates Diana the human being first and then adds in Diana the witch, so as a reader I can relate to, sympathise and empathise with Diana the human, and never feel Diana the witch is too far fetched or unbelievable, because she's motivated by her human emotions and needs.

Monday, 16 February 2015

Book review: Burnt Paper Sky by Gilly Macmillan

Having your child go missing is, I'm guessing, one of the scariest things that could ever happen to a parent. The uncertainty of knowing where your child is, the knowledge that you can't help them. But what about everything else that happens to you when your child goes missing?

In Gilly Macmillan's Burnt Paper Sky we meet Rachel Jenner, whose eight-year-old son Ben disappeared when she let him run ahead of her in the woods, and James Clemo, the detective put in charge of finding Ben.

Macmillan has obviously taken inspiration from various cases of missing children that have hit the headlines in recent years, but in Burnt Paper Sky she takes us into the world of the parents, beyond those headlines. We join Rachel a year after Ben's disappearance, as she recounts what happened - not just her feelings and fears over the disappearance and what was happening to Ben, but her paranoia, the way other people looked at her, the way the media was on her side and then wasn't, the way one simple, gut reaction resulted in everyone seeing Rachel as a completely different person. Macmillan examines the psyche of a woman who is facing judgement from all sides when all she wants is for her son to be found, and the psyche of people like us - members of the public, the media - who watch from the sidelines when something like this happens. And judge. And form opinions about something we really have no idea about.

Book review: Academy Street by Mary Costello

For a book that tells the life story of a woman, Academy Street by Mary Costello is a deceptively slim novel.

Following Tess from her childhood in Ireland to her escape to Manhattan, and to the Academy Street of the title, through to motherhood and old age, Costello conjures an image of a life fully lived.

Academy Street opens with a young Tess encountering death, and the grief she feels stretches through the rest of the book, always in the background or under the surface. Along with her shyness, this leads Tess to be an observer for much of her life, not, in my opinion, participating as fully as she could. She's a character who my heart aches for, even when good things happen to her.

Costello's writing is sparse and straightforward, but at the same time full of depth. She creates evocative pictures, and there's warmth in the story. Academy Street is the kind of novel that envelopes you before you even know it, and then builds to a shocking climax without you even realising, making the shock even worse.

Academy Street is a beautiful novel, about family and loss and opportunities missed and a life lived. It's gentle while being harsh, quiet while being loud, and shows how even ordinary lives can make compelling stories. 

How I got this book: From the room of books at work.

Sunday, 15 February 2015

TV recap: The 100 season two, episode seven - Long Into an Abyss

Last time on The 100, Abby headed into the woods with Raven to track down the signal blocking Camp Jaha's communications with the other Ark stations. Finn and Clarke got stuck together during an acid fog attack, while Octavia and Bellamy found Lincoln - who had become a reaper. And Kane and Jaha played chicken with the Grounders, with Kane winning and Jaha being beaten up and sent to tell the guys from the Ark they needed to leave.

Thursday, 12 February 2015

Book review: A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson

What if the new Kate Atkinson were even better than the last?

That's the audacious question Atkinson's publisher asks on the proof of her new novel, A God in Ruins. Audacious, yes, but there's a reason it's okay to ask that question - because the new Atkinson is even better than the last.

A God in Ruins is a companion novel to Life After Life. A companion, not a sequel, and there's a reason to not call it a sequel that you'll understand once you finish the book. The novel follows Teddy, the younger brother of Life After Life's protagonist Ursula, through the Second World War and across the years, also taking in his descendants.

And that's about all I can say about the plot of A God in Ruins, because anything further would take away from your enjoyment. What I will say is that A God in Ruins is as magical as Life After Life, and it's also a novel that is absolutely stunningly crafted, without the craft ever taking away or distracting from the story. The artistry with which Atkinson writes is awe-inspiring, and her explanation of this book in a lovingly put together author's note just adds to the beauty of the book.

Wednesday, 11 February 2015

TV recap: The 100 season two, episode six - Fog of War

Last time on The 100, Kane and Jaha were reunited in a Grounder prison, and Abby and Clarke were reunited at Camp Jaha, before Clarke headed off with Bellamy and Octavia to find Finn and Murphy. Any thoughts of a happy reunion with Finn were quashed when he was discovered indiscriminately killing Grounders in Lincoln's camp. While Finn was happy to see Clarke, she was not so overjoyed.

Monday, 9 February 2015

Book review: All This Has Nothing to do With Me by Monica Sabolo

If we've not been there ourselves, we've certainly had a friend be that person - the woman who analyses every word, every action, every glance that their current crush indulges in.

But seeing that kind of detail written down on the page, like it is in French author Monica Sabolo's All This Has Nothing to do With Me, makes that behaviour look a bit obsessive, and irrational at times.

In Sabolo's semi-autobiographical book we follow the relationship between MS, a journalist at a French magazine, and her new colleague XX, from its start to its painful end. Sabolo's book is not a straight narrative, it's interspersed with images, extracts from diaries and emails, and is told in three acts - the present, the past, and then back to the present again.

We meet MS as she meets XX, and finds him utterly gorgeous. What follows is her account of the pair's interactions - complete with photographs of all the lighters she has stolen from him, and notes about how many times they touch when they go out for after-work drinks. It's clear from the beginning that MS is way more into XX than he is into her, and her obsessive behaviour is cringe-worthy. I spent the first act laughing, feeling replacement embarrassment for MS, and thinking that I was reading an account of a 14-year-old girl's crush on a schoolboy.

Wednesday, 4 February 2015

TV recap: The 100 season two, episode five - Human Trials

Last time on The 100, Clarke and Anya found Camp Jaha and decided to form an alliance to take down the Mountain Men. Only Anya was shot to death by Major Byrne's soldiers before she could do anything. Finn and Murphy headed to a Grounder camp to try to find Clarke and the others from The 100, while Bellamy, Octavia and Monroe headed back to Camp Jaha. And Jaha himself was captured by Grounders.


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