Book Review: Songs About a Girl

saagLook, I’ll admit my dirty little secret, which is – drum roll – that I have never, that’s NEVER, not even as a hormonally charged fourteen year old, been a fan of any boyband.  EVER.  I realise this makes me weird.  I even tried to cultivate a liking for (showing my age now) Take That in their original early nineties heyday just to try and fit in.  But big boots and plaid shirts and Pearl Jam cassettes kept calling me back to the dark side.  I think I was just too weird grumpy depressed cool for all that sweaty lust and screaming and waiting outside the newsagent before school on a Wednesday morning just to be the first to tear out the latest poster in the centre pages of Smash Hits, ready to blu tack to my artex bedroom wall.

Imagine my surprise therefore when I dove into Chris Russell’s “Songs About a Girl” and found myself barely surfacing for air.  This is, after all, a book that is unashamedly about a boy band, albeit one that is told from the point of view of a non fan.  In it we are treated to a rare insight into the backstage antics, the behind-the-scenes nuts and bolts, and of course the tensions and bonds that inevitably build between the people that find themselves in this rarefied position.  As readers we are elevated out of the mosh pit (do those kind of gigs have mosh pits?) and taken by the hand up onto the stage to look back out at the stadium that is screaming our name, blinded by the lights.

It’s testament to Russell’s tight plotting, dry humour and deft character development that a cynic like me found myself utterly absorbed by plucky heroine Charlie’s journey as she gets to know the band (and herself) better.  The dialogue and lively banter lifts off the page and makes the characters come alive, and the mysteries and questions at the heart of the narrative keep the pages turning right until the final few lines.  And beyond.

It’s so thoroughly fresh, modern and current that I really can’t explain why this book made me so gloriously nostalgic for the years of teen fandom I never had, but it did.  So, having missed out on it in real life, I’m glad this book gave me the chance to be a boy band fan for a little while at least.  Better late than never, and I’m sure that, were they real, Fire & Lights would undoubtedly have the edge on early-nineties Take That in any case.

Book Review: Paper Butterflies

paper-buttefliesPeople throw the term “heartbreaking” around a lot when talking about books, but with this book, there really is no more fitting description.  At first I found June’s story almost impossible to read.  The unfairness of her situation and the way she was treated just made me want to shout at the pages.  Sometimes, with books that deal with issues this difficult I end up wondering if I even want to enter the world that is being created.  Sometimes they’re just not journeys I can bear to go on.  I never felt like that with this book.  Even though June’s world is so dark, is at times SUCH a dark place to be, I was nonetheless utterly compelled.

Into June’s dark world comes the ray of light that is her best friend Blister.  He and his unconventional family are so perfectly portrayed; flawed and ordinary and perfect and extraordinary all at once, just as those people are who come into our lives at the right time to save us in whatever way they can, or try to anyway.  But it’s all the questions at the heart of the novel that keep you turning the pages – the secrets and lies and bottled up emotions that swirl in June’s unhappy home are almost physically nauseating at times as they twist together and ultimately unravel.

This is a spectacularly well written book – intimate and emotional, steeped with fear, and imbued with a hope as delicate as a butterfly’s wings (paper or otherwise).  You’ve got to be brave to read this book, but it’s worth plucking up the courage.

Book Review: All the Bright Places

atbpUrgh, writer’s envy is a terrible thing. And I felt it on basically every other page, if not more, of this book. There’s just so much I love about the surprising and original writing. And the characters are just so vividly drawn, not just Violet and the amazing Finch, but so so many others as well – their families, their school friends, even the bit parts are so solidly depicted. The love story is so well paced as well, so compelling. Literally could NOT put it down. I think this is one of the most relatable and sensitive depictions of mental health issues I’ve seen, as well as giving a fresh, original and realistic take on it. Totally jealous, and am simultaneously excited for the movie and fearful it won’t live up to my high expectations.

Book Review: I’ll Give You the Sun

fullsizerenderI was transported to the rugged California coast by this beautiful novel, which tells the story of twins Noah and Jude, coming of age in artsy surf town Lost Cove. The POV swaps between the twins and between two distinct timelines, one before the series of tragic events that drove the formerly very close siblings apart and one after. We’re left to piece the story together pretty much as they do, since the assumptions they’ve made and the secrets they’ve kept from each other mean that they only each know half of the story.

It’s not an easy task to deliver two distinct and unique voices within one book but Nelson is pitch perfect. Both protagonists are artistic free spirits so their descriptions are unusual and original and poetic, rendering the novel into life as if it itself was one of the paintings that are so vividly evoked within its pages. The love stories are believable and realistic while also being transcendent and beautiful. The entire cast of characters are interesting, engaging and deeply flawed, fleshing out the bones of the twins’ family, history and community, the whole of which is brought to life with an honesty that is deeply moving.

An engaging, page-turning plot, sumptuous prose and a cast of fascinating characters – one of the best books I have read this year and one that stays with you, long after you read the final words.

Book Review: In the Dark, In the Woods

itditwWell, this book got me into a lot of trouble.  I started reading it one night and literally could NOT stop until it was almost light and I realized I’d better get some sleep.  Then, in the morning, when I should have been doing other things, I snuck away to a hammock to finish it, re-appearing at lunchtime.  Since I was supposed to be spending rare quality time with them, my husband and kids were not happy about this turn of events and I was placed firmly In the Doghouse.  But, you know what, it was worth it.  This book is THAT GOOD.

Castley Cresswell and her five siblings live in the woods under the strict control of their father, whose non-specified religious zeal keeps them prisoners to his cruel ministrations.  This doesn’t stop the siblings taking every opportunity to escape and wonder the woods at night, seeking experience of the world around them as adulthood beckons and an inevitable (and petrifying) tension builds.

Where do I start?  I mean you have the characters – the tough, funny, snarky, vulnerable Castley, the ethereally beautiful Caspar, the rebellious Mortimer, their terrifying father, the list goes on – all so well drawn and vividly rendered that, even though there’s a fairly extensive cast I never once had to stop and remind myself of their identity.  Then there’s the setting – so beautifully evoked that for the time I was reading the book I was THERE in the haunting darkness of the woods, the tumbledown repression of the house, the eerie strip malls, the intimidating high school hallways and grounds.  The atmosphere is so unsettling and dark throughout that, even though this is set in our modern day world, it rarely feels like it.  Early on, everyday things like coldsores and late night corner shops are imbibed with such horror that we as readers are able to see them through Castley’s confused and tainted eyes.  As the story progresses, we share completely in her alienation from the “normality” which surrounds her but which she is unable to be a part of.  And her voice is so strong that we are unquestionably able to see it from this perspective and feel what it would be like to be in her shoes, as one of the weird and feared, but also fascinating and charismatic, Cresswell siblings.  Descriptions of George and several other of the high school interactions were so witty and accurate I actually did LOL.  And, oh man, I was just so in love with Caspar – is that weird?  Maybe it is.

Eliza Wass has written a unique and enthralling book – dark, funny, beautiful and terrifying by turns – which kept me gripped and captured my imagination completely.  Her writing is original and unusual and many of her descriptions and images left me wishing I had thought of them first.  I have already begun to highly recommend this book to everyone I meet, and this is set to continue (starting now).  If you haven’t already – read it.

Q & Eh?

13597599_1031562760245621_1846780594_nAt the launch event for the Dutch version of TLODB, Eenzaam en Extreem Ver Weg, I Skyped in and did my first ever live Q&A with readers. I was really looking forward to it and it was actually pretty awesome to get to “meet” the bloggers who had read my book and answer their questions.

What I wasn’t completed prepared for was how hard the questions would be. Or perhaps just how hard I would find it to answer them without the kind of thinking time I usually require.

I’m not known for my fast reactions. I even failed the Spanish “physical fitness to drive” test twice for having too slow a reaction time (a fact which is made more astonishing by the fact that the examiner then told me that nobody had ever failed it before). I think this is also the reason that, while I can read and write in Spanish pretty well after seven years in Spanish speaking countries, I still can’t speak it very well. My brain just doesn’t work quick enough to provide the right words when I need them.

And this is exactly what happened to me at the Q&A. Questions I’ve been asked before were pretty easy to handle but the totally new ones utterly floored me in the pressure of the situation. Don’t get me wrong they were GREAT questions – I just really wish I could have done them justice. Here’s a couple of the ones I found particularly hard to answer on the spot, plus the answers I WOULD have given had I had time to consider my responses:

Q: If you were an inhabitant on Ventura – would you accept your arranged marriage or would you rail against it like Seren does?

My answer (with thinking time): It depends. I’m #teamdomingo so I think if I’d got matched with Dom I’d be like – jackpot! But seriously, I think if I was put in the position that Seren is in, where she has this accidental brush with real love, I would find it just as difficult as she does to put that aside and sacrifice something so precious in favour of doing my duty. I’m a firm believer in freedom of choice and free will, and I think being able to make my own choices, and my own mistakes, would be worth a lot of trouble to me.

Q: Many people think there are hints of a love triangle in the book – is this where the series is going?

My answer (with thinking time): A lot of readers have asked me about this and I guess I can see where it comes from, especially with the way the book ends. I don’t believe in spoilers, so I won’t commit to this fully, but I will say that, even though they are done quite a lot, I am still a fan of the love triangle. They’re great drama if they’re done well and the dynamics of the relationships are believable. Having said that, the last thing I would want is for the Ventura Saga to be predictable, so you’ll just have to wait and see on that one. (Actually this answer is pretty similar to my off-the-cuff response, so maybe I did better than I thought!)

Q: If you could take one of your characters and put them in another YA book, which one would it be and why? (This is a particularly interesting question, but SO HARD!)

My answer (with thinking time): I would probably take one of the characters that I didn’t feel I got to spend enough time with, but who interested me, like Jonah, or maybe Ronaldo or Annelise. It would be fascinating to give them a second chance at life in a new setting and see how they would develop. As for what book I would put them in, it would have to be completely different – maybe something contemporary or fantasy, just to give them the chance to go in a different direction and put them out of their comfort zone.

If you want to know what my (possibly slightly rubbish) answers were on the night, plus some fairly decent answers that I managed to come up with to different questions, follow this link to watch the video from the night itself.

http://bit.ly/2abAXaA

Book Review: Across The Universe

Across the UniverseI read this after someone posted on Goodreads about it maybe being similar to TLODB. I kind-of felt like I had to read it, but now I have I’m glad I did.

I definitely opened the book with more than a little trepidation and fear that I might have committed a vast but accidental form of plagiarism, but my fears were quickly assuaged. Even though the setting of the book is definitely similar (a spaceship with a population of a couple of thousand on a several hundred years long space mission), the plot, atmosphere, characterization and themes are actually very different.

The Godspeed is on its way to an Earth-like planet in order to set up a colony, and the story is told from the dual perspectives of Amy and Elder. Amy was brought aboard with her scientist parents, cryogenically frozen, but defrosted early in a mysterious mishap. Elder is the leader-in-training of the on-board population, an agrarian civilization under the control of the unpredictable Eldest.

Beth Revis does a great job of world-building; the Godspeed and its civilization and cast of characters very quickly come to life, as do the more sinister aspects of the necessary adjustments that have had to be made over the course of their journey.

One thing I particularly loved was the truly visceral depiction of the cryogenics – both Amy’s freezing, her experience of being frozen and her defrost had the dark quality of a particularly vivid nightmare or horror film, and actually put me in mind of a Stephen King short story I read a long time ago and was too appalled by to ever forget.

While TLODB combines the genres of sci-fi and love story, Across the Universe combines sci-fi with crime, in that there is a case in need of solving at the core of the story. I think this is a combination that works well and makes for a page-turning read. The love story was only a sub-plot at this point but it is definitely being lined up for further development as the series continues. I’m definitely going to have to read the next to find out.

BTW I know I’m pretty late to the party on this one, but I’m sure glad I finally turned up.

A Blog on a Vlog

I was recently asked to make a video for hebban.nl on my thoughts about why sci-fi is popular. Obviously I made a bit of a hash of it. I mean, I’ve never done anything like that before so I ended up recording it about eight hundred times before I could manage to say it all without massive pauses and loads of umming and ahing. It was only later I realised that what I really should have done is just edited those out. Doh. Well, you live and learn. And now I have my own YouTube channel I guess I might as well try my hand at a few more.

Here’s the link in case you want to hear me rambling on and sharing my thoughts about why sci-fi is particularly popular at the moment.

Book Review: The Long Way To a Small Angry Planet

 

TLWTASAPI was recommended this book on #ukyachat but really had no idea what to expect.  I loved the title and of course I’m a HUGE sci-fi fan, so I was looking forward to finding out what the buzz was about.

In TLWTASAP, Becky Chambers introduces us to a vast, complex, multi-racial interconnected universe in which economic, political and cultural differences have been overcome to form a fragile alliance between many of the planets, systems and alien races. This is explored in both macro scale and micro scale, in the form of the multi-racial crew of the jobbing tunnelling ship The Wayfarer, a diverse and quirky band who have accepted their differences and fallen into a close camaraderie. They land the high-paying job of their dreams, but over the time and distance it takes them to complete it, they discover that it is not without its drawbacks.

The morals and ethics of war, the greed and inevitable fate of the human race, differing philosophies and notions of love, family and friendship – there is just so much in this book to think about and discuss. I found myself thinking that there was more than one story here, that there were, in fact, potentially dozens of spin-offs I would be interested to read. For this reason I was not surprised and was happy to find out that this is the first in a series.

The dazzling world building put me in mind of Iain M Banks’ Culture sci-fi series in its epic scale, diversity and solid rendering, and will ensure that any reader is keen to revisit this world. A fantastic and highly original book with action, tension, depth and heart.

Found in Translation

Screen Shot 2016-07-04 at 18.21.10July 1st saw the release of the first translated foreign language version of The Loneliness of Distant Beings – Eenzaam en Extreem Ver Weg – in Holland.  So far, the Dutch publishers, bloggers, readers (well just about everybody involved) have been so positive and responded with such enthusiasm and I am super excited to have been translated into a language I don’t even slightly understand so that I can reach a whole new set of readers.  Can you imagine how hard it is to translate a whole book?  Crazy.

On the left is the quote card the Dutch publishers produced with a book club who sent my book out in the monthly box to their subscribers.  There were two hundred of these cards that traveled all the way to Spain for me to sign, before heading back to Holland and into the homes of new readers.  A few of them even made videos of them”unboxing” and then posted them online (apparently this is a thing).  Obviously I have no idea what anyone is saying in these videos but I still think they’re very cool:  http://www.celebratebooks.nl/unboxing/.

Tonight I will even be dropping in to an event over there (sadly only via Skype) but I am really looking forward to meeting (sort of) some of my readers over there.  Wish me luck!