Summertime… and the Living is Booky

So it’s the end of summer, which I love/hate* (*delete as appropriate).  The thing is, after more than five years of living here, I still haven’t quite made up my mind about southern Spanish summers.  They are fiercely hot. I mean, it’s brutal. Every day and every goddam night. Relentless. Air sizzling; cicadas screaming. I make up excuses to visit shopping centres and other public buildings that I know have kick-ass air conditioning.  I have to sit in front of a fan on max to have a coherent thought. I can’t stand to wear underwear, anything that clings, or anything with a waistband, while dresses are out because my thighs stick together, so basically there are NO ACCEPTABLE CLOTHES IN THE WORLD.  Any footwear but flips flops is out of the question so my feet harden. The idea of any makeup is suffocating and there’s no point doing my hair because it just sweats into a hot mess within five minutes. Luckily all of the above means that nobody I run into even recognises the baggy-shorts-wearing, part-melted, mole-eyed, cloven-hooved, wild-haired woman swearing to herself in front of the warm cava at the supermarket, so at least that’s a bonus.

But I don’t work my day job for July, or for most of August (which is lucky considering the clothing issue), and we have a swimming pool in our backyard and a beach down the road, so really I don’t have an awful lot to complain about.  And there’s a certain predictability about it that makes life easier. What will the weather be like today? No need to ask. It’ll be screamingly hot, blazing blue skies, it’ll make you want to shake your fist at the sun by early evening and yell “Damn you, you flaming ball of hellfire – just set already!” – so you can go ahead and plan that picnic.

What better time to try and coax my confused brain into catching up on some reading?  Which is exactly what I did. Here’s my summer round-up (part one):

THE IMMORTALISTS

I loved this.  It starts with a great conceit.  It’s the end of the sixties in New York and the Gold siblings visit a psychic who claims to be able to tell you when you will die.  Essentially, the rest of the book concerns itself with two questions – would you really want to be in possession of this knowledge, and what would you do with it if you were?  The book then deep-dives into the lives of the siblings as they span the decades, spending time with one at a time and really getting below the surface of the different worlds in which they find themselves – their relationships, their careers, the way they feel about the twists and turns their lives take.  In doing this it gives us insight into not only the way the world (or more specifically the US) has changed over the intervening decades but also into the way people develop over the course of their lives – priorities and dreams and philosophies shifting as they move from their teens and twenties into their thirties and forties and beyond.  From San Francisco’s gay scene in the seventies and eighties, to the glitzy/seedy underworld of Vegas magic shows – there are regrets, loss, trauma, secrets and love; in each of the four sections of the novel, which feel like a story in themselves, another piece of the puzzle of the family’s fortune is traced. This is a real page-turner without ever feeling predictable.  It’s heartbreaking and melancholy and unusual and original and well crafted and slicky plotted and atmospheric and beautifully characterised. Do you remember that TV series they made in the nineties of Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City? It kind-of reminds me of that in some ways… it’s probably largely the San Francisco thing, but also just a general atmosphere, a colour palette, an unflinchingly dark undertone overlaid with humour and warmth?  Not sure, but it put me in mind of it in a good way.

THE LIGHT BETWEEN US

I love Katie Kahn because she writes in a zone in which I also consider myself a resident.  We’re literary neighbours, as it were. She writes human, up-close personal trajectories in vivid, grand-scale sci-fi settings.  If you know my books, you’ll know that her stories are pretty much literally Right Up My Street. In this one she moves from space and the future (the settings for her first book HOLD BACK THE STARS) to time travel, and I love time travel.  Ever since THE TIME TRAVELLER’S WIFE I’ve been a sucker for using time travel to explore human, emotional stories, while also throwing the reader off on some total headspins. What I love about this book is its central female foursome – academics, scientists, BFFs – and how fierce and fearless they are in their pursuit of discovery.  There’s something refreshingly lo-fi about the science in this book – it happens in barns and gardens and outhouses and is held together by sticky tape (actually I’m not sure this last one happens but it gives off that vibe). Purists might be frustrated by the lack of scientific explanation but I was relieved. One of my favourite films in the world is INCEPTION, which manages the very clever trick of getting you to completely accept a very unlikely scientific concept (lucid dream sharing and delving into someone’s subconscious) without questioning the theory behind it at all.  In a similar way, Kahn doesn’t waste time on huge info dumps or anything like that and instead concentrates on giving us character and story and setting and atmosphere and rainy bike rides through London. There was a couple of loose ends maybe… but what good story answers all of the questions it poses? Doubly true of decent science fiction, and I’m keen to see what Katie does next (see what I did there?).

EVERLESS

OK so you know that movie with Justin Timberlake and Amanda Seyfried where people use the time they have left to live as currency – IN TIME?  This is built on a similarish premise, but set within a world that couldn’t be more different. Let’s say it’s a fantasy version of IN TIME. I’m not at all sure if this is how Sara Holland would want it described but it’s how I summed it up to my girls’ reading group at school just before they unanimously voted to read it, and I should add that I love IN TIME.  I think IN TIME is, in fact, vastly underrated. So anyway EVERLESS is this kind of idea but more medieval and fantasy-ish and with a petrifying queen and a heroine with a special secret and a few extra twists like a town where… wait, no – that’s a spoiler and I really really wouldn’t want to spoil this. I read this on holiday in France and to this day I still can’t look at my pictures of the River Loire without thinking about my trip through the world of EVERLESS.  To say I was disappointed when I jumped straight on to the Kindle Store to buy the sequel and found out that it’s not out until January is an understatement. And I am NOT just saying this because I met Sara over the summer and she was lovely. That’s just a bonus. To sum up, if you like RED QUEEN you’ll like this, as they’re kind-of similar in vibe. But if you’re anything like me, you’ll like this a heck of a lot more – fewer crazy fight scenes, more crazy cocktails and female friendship.

THE CRUEL PRINCE

What is it about fairies?  I mean, I’ve gone on record before about how much I love SJ Maas’ A COURT OF… series, and now this.  Man there is something about a tall, dark, morally questionable fairy male I can’t resist. Ugh, that sounds terrible but you know what I mean.  For me the only problem is the title. I know Holly Black won’t lose sleep over this as she has a legion of fans and absolutely no trouble selling books, but somehow it feels like this simplistic descriptor of a title vastly undersells this darkly beautiful twisted tale and its intoxicating, uneasy atmosphere.  In the early pages I kept wondering if it was going to turn out to be a pastiche, a patchwork of all the high fey, fantasy tropes we know (and love), but it turned out to be something entirely new and unexpected, with bolshy, loveable, flawed human heroine Jude dragged off to the fairy realm by a murderous stepfather and raised among the beautiful and deadly courts of the kingdom.  Bullied at school and feeling out of her depth, Jude is looking to wrest some power for herself through her strength and skill as a warrior, but is drawn down a shadier path into espionage. I was so THERE for this story. The characters are so well drawn and nuanced in their many shades of grey. Who should and shouldn’t we trust? We as readers can never, never be sure. And there are hallucinogenic fairy fruits and wild parties and a crazy open-air magical fairy school and trips to the real world to go shopping in the mall.  Devoured it. Devoured it and left wanting more. Hopped straight onto the Kindle Store to buy the follow-up only to learn it won’t be out until January. ARGH HOW WILL I COPE UNTIL THEN???!

Aaaaaannnnd I still have six more books to review from my summer reading so…. To be continued!

Distant Beings and Falling Stars on Offer

To celebrate the release of THE TRUTH OF DIFFERENT SKIES this week, both THE LONELINESS OF DISTANT BEINGS and THE GLOW OF FALLEN STARS are now 99p on ebook for Kindle (in the UK).  Bargains!  I know deals like this are always music to my ears, so I thought I’d spread the joy.  This means that during the whole of the very merry month of May, you can complete your Ventura Saga collection for less than a tenner!  You can’t say fairer than that.  Follow the links below to make your wise purchases

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Loneliness-Distant-Beings-Book-Ventura-ebook/dp/B0119EPOKQ/ref=tmm_kin_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=1525179553&sr=8-1

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Ventura-Saga-Glow-Fallen-Stars-ebook/dp/B071LM6Z5K/ref=sr_1_1?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1525179613&sr=1-1&keywords=glow+of+fallen+stars&dpID=61V7yI9kXVL&preST=_SY445_QL70_&dpSrc=srch

The Soundtracks of Different Skies

My Spotify soundtracks for the Ventura series are a combination of:

  • songs I listened to a lot while writing the books
  • songs that (lyrically or musically) fit with the narrative and mood of the story.
  • songs that feature on my fantasy soundtrack for the movie adaptations that I daydream about ALL THE TIME. Can’t even tell you how much time I spend on this. It would be embarrassing to admit it.

Most of the time it’s a combination of all of the above. Either way, these are the songs that have come to be associated with my books, for me anyway, and every time I hear them I’m right there, watching the non-existent movie adaptations as they play on the big silver screen in my mind.

I’ve just finished putting together the latest, for THE TRUTH OF DIFFERENT SKIES (out this Thursday – squeeeeeee!).  One of the characters in this part of the series has an obsession with the late seventies, and most of the songs in this playlist from that era are about breaking free. The others contain the pain and longing and heat and desire that this story is imbued with throughout.  It can be found on the link below and should be listened to while reading, after reading, or just whenever you’re in the mood.  I mean, I have pretty great taste in music so – believe me – you can’t go too far wrong.

Book Review: The Sleeping Prince

Middles of trilogies are funny beasts.  They can so easily miss and end up treading water, while in other cases they are genius – a dark-hearted unfinished symphony which serenades the reader across an ocean of unanswered questions, while also bringing something totally new and unexpected to the overall arc.  The masterfully crafted THE SLEEPING PRINCE definitely falls into the latter category.  

Not picking up directly from its predecessor but rather plunging us into a new and unknown part of Salisbury’s darkly seductive and intoxicating world, we meet Errin, who is living a simple but troubled life as a countryside apothecary following the disappearance of her brother Leif.  When a war tears her world apart, Errin becomes caught up in a series of terrifying events, that bring her closer to the petrifying instigator of the conflict, The Sleeping Prince himself.

As with the first book, I found myself immediately absorbed into this story’s world – the prose is so rich in detail and unusual imagery that reading it is a fully immersive sensory experience.  Despite an initial moment of disorientation and fleeting disappointment at not immediately following on with Twylla’s story, I was soon caught up in the exhilaration of coming at the story from a brand new angle and with a new and distinct narrator.  The moving parts of Salisbury’s mythology, from the alchemists to the golems to the myth/reality of The Sleeping Prince, are so vividly realised; her characters are so textured and well-drawn in all their light and shade.  The love story element lies beneath the narrative like a bassline, or perhaps a beat, handled with subtlety but nonetheless compelling and irresistible.  Is it just me who feels there could be any number of fantastic spin-offs from the characters and world that have been created here?

This perfectly plotted middle installment weaves another layer onto the rich tapestry of this wholly absorbing and chilling epic, priming us perfectly for a finale that will bring together the gilded, deepest crimson, grubby, bloodstained strands and take us who knows where.  A wholehearted five stars, and a serious case of writer’s envy.

Book Review: Chasing The Stars

 

It will not be a surprise to anyone that I love books set in space, and when I heard about this – a take on Othello by the amazing Malorie Blackman – I knew it would be fantastic.  Othello is actually one of my favourite Shakespeare plays – it’s so complex, so rich and must have been so forward-thinking for its time.  (I even got my one and only 100% for an essay on it when studying it at A-level, but that’s a different story).

V and her brother are alone on a spaceship, lone survivors of a virus which has wiped out the rest of the crew.  Into this isolation comes Nathan and his fellow crewmembers, and he and V feel an immediate and powerful attraction to each other.  But there is trouble ahead, as the varying motivations of those around them lead to manipulation, betrayal and secrets that threaten to tear them, and the wider situation, apart.

It’s an intriguing and eerie set-up, with Blackman creating a very dark and intensely lonely world for her protagonist.  It initially stretches believability that two teenagers would be able to manage to survive in deep space alone on a huge spacecraft, but there is a good explanation for this that is later revealed (and I didn’t see it coming at all).  Blackman is typically unflinching and honest in her realistic depiction of both sex and violence, which is something I really love about her writing.  True to her well established form, she ratchets up an almost unbearable amount of tension in depicting the increasingly twisted loyalties between her cast of characters, leading to an exciting climax and an unexpected final twist, that definitely leaves you wanting more.

A dark, brutal, suspenseful space tale, with plenty of twists and a fearless but believable heroine, from a seasoned storyteller at the top of her game.

Book Review: When We Collided

cover-for-when-we-collidedI thought it couldn’t get any better than the depiction of bipolar disorder in All the Bright Places, and maybe it doesn’t. But if there ever was a contender, it could be right here, in the beauteous, luminous When We Collided.

In it we are transported to a small, pretty coastal town where enigmatic, charismatic mini-Marilyn Vivi meets sensitive, handsome Jonah whose father has recently died, devastating his family. His mother’s subsequent grief and depression have left him and his older siblings caring for his younger ones, struggling to pay bills and attempting to hold together the family business. Into this world of cares and responsibilities Vivi comes like a whirlwind, or maybe a rainbow, since the particular brands of joy, fun and love she is offering extend not only to Jonah but to the rest of his family too. And in bringing the sunshine back into their lives, she also begins to expose the darkness that they are all living with, including Vivi herself.

Riding around town on her Vespa, Vivi lives up to just about every MPDG stereotype except one – unlike most of her kind she does have her own trajectory, her own story, her own journey to go on. This is assured by the clever use of the dual narrative, in which the two voices are distinct and through which we get a heartbreakingly intimate and wholly convincing first-person view of the struggles of living with bipolar disorder; the sheer colour and exhilaration of the highs (and the accompanying recklessness), versus the debilitating and inevitable self-destruction of the lows.

I literally read this book in a matter of days. This is one of those that end up responsible for a series of 2am bedtimes on my part. There was just something so compelling about these characters, their oh-so-normal and yet otherworldly setting, the sense of doom that hung over even their most star-filled, swooping and gorgeous moments. Honesty, truth and beautiful little nuggets of wisdom shine out of the rich and sumptuous prose and will stay with me, meaningfully, for a long time. I mean, it’s just so quotable I can’t even pick one to include; suffice it to say that the things it pointed out to me and made me consider left me feeling that this is a book everyone needs to read.

So I’ll end with an advisory: do not read this book unless you are prepared to be moved, to be surprised, to be compelled into staying up late to read one more chapter, to end up falling quite deeply in love with the characters, and to return from the journey it takes you on changed forever and for the better.

Book Review: Ariadnis

AriadnisFrom the start of this book, told in dual narrative from the perspectives of the Chosen Ones of two rival cities, we are coming at this unusual future dystopia from two distinct mirror-image angles. After some kind of schism in the philosophies that brought them to this post-apocalyptic point, the two societies have been heading in different directions. The vaguely steampunk city above has its ideas about where society should be heading, while that below is more focused on living in tune with nature.

Playing with the Chosen One tropes, we are presented with the super strength of Aula as set against the mute, unharnessed powers of Joomia. They have very little time remaining until the final test that will seemingly decide the fates of their respective worlds.

These worlds are distinct, unusual, fresh and well drawn. I felt I was entering a fictional future that was not as well trodden as some of them have become. Side characters were well employed and had good flesh on their bones; those designed to be likeable were just that, while dastardly villains didn’t disappoint. I don’t know if it’s just my interpretation, but I was a big fan of the androgynous, multi-racial qualities of most of the young cast. It’s a pretty nifty way of allowing all comers to the book to project themselves into and onto your story without turning into one of those super politically correct authors tripping over themselves to incorporate a rainbow into their narrative at its own expense. I don’t mean to come over cynical there (though I probably do) because I felt this aspect worked well, added to the atmosphere, and was entirely appropriate in the context.

What’s most clever and impressive about this debut however is the symmetry of the dual narrative. As I’ve said before, I’m not a big fan of these unless there is a reason for them, and in this case there certainly is. The way the stories of the two heroines intertwine – coming together, moving apart and ultimately colliding, is a smart piece of plotting and in itself a mirror (see what I did there) of the novel’s own themes.

Nicely done, and a pacey, involving read. Thanks to NetGalley and Hachette for the ARC.

Book Review: Our Chemical Hearts

Our Chemical HeartsWhen the immensely likeable, self-deprecating and sensitive Henry first encounters the enigmatic, damaged Grace, they are being made joint editors of their school newspaper. They build a tentative friendship, and Henry finds his feelings for her growing, but it soon becomes clear that Grace’s life has been complicated lately, and that this has taken its toll on her body and soul.

There’s quite a lot of YA books that deal with similar subject matter to that of Krystal Sutherland’s Our Chemical Hearts – first love, heartbreak, grief – but I have rarely seen them dealt with from so fresh a perspective. The real nuts and bolts, the most truthful of emotions, are sensitively depicted. There are no platitudes here. What’s more, each character is given the space to show their darkest and lightest sides (and every shade of grey in between). We are not presented with heroes and villains, or innocent victims – Grace, for example, is depicted as someone who is cruel and difficult, as well as someone who is deeply wounded by what has happened to her. The visceral pain of unrequited love, loving someone even when we know we shouldn’t, is all here, but treated with so light a touch that there is also space for lively, witty dialogue between the leads, and a great many warm and charming comedy moments from the quirky ensemble cast.

At times, Sutherland overlays a contemporary and familiar setting with some beautiful imagery, elevating ordinary suburban locations into something as ethereal and otherworldly as the philosophical questions posed in the themes of the book itself. There are a number of tonal shifts in the story, but not one of them seems abrupt or inappropriate. In fact, as with life, the collection of different moments, moods and emotions captured in this narrative come together into a compelling and mutually enriching whole, which is wistful, beautiful, thoughtful, truthful and sad, while also managing to be funny, unusual and irresistibly readable.

Book Review: Seven Days of You

sdoyThere is nothing like the last week in a country you’ve been living in for several years: the intensity of every moment, the burning desire to absorb every sight and sound, the constant postponement of final goodbyes, the sheer exhilaration that is mixed in with the fear and pain of everything that has made up your life disappearing around you.  I should know, I’ve done it several times in my life.  And this is the genius premise behind Cecilia Vinesse’s Seven Days of You, which I just devoured and am already missing.

It’s not just that her characters are unusual and well drawn and likeable (but they are), or that her Tokyo is so vividly described it literally leaves the taste of miso soup in your mouth (but it is), it’s also that her narrative is beautifully crafted around a literal countdown to the moment it must all end, so that we’re feeling every second that ticks by.  I love the peppering of Japanese throughout the prose and, despite having zero experience of the country, never felt disorientated by it.  Instead I felt like I was part of the cool Tokyo scene, heading off to karaoke, buying weird candy at the konbini, watching the sun rise over the neon galaxy of the cityscape.

SDOY is a gorgeous exploration of something that any long-term expat (or in fact anyone) can identify with – where is home?  Once you’ve been gone a certain amount of time from where you started, will anywhere ever really feel like home again?  But what even is this thing we call ‘home’ anyway?  Sensitive, gripping, beautiful – SDOY is an exhilarating, sparkly, all-night stroll through Tokyo, and I loved every minute.  

Many thanks to Little, Brown Books For Young Readers and NetGalley for the eARC.

Book Review: Optimists Die First

optimists-black-ukAs soon as I read the title of this I had to read it.  I mean, this is actually a philosophy I hold pretty dear.  I go into most situations expecting the worst – after all, that’s the only way to guarantee you’ll only be pleasantly surprised.  

But there’s a lot more to the path of Nielsen’s protagonist than pessimism.  She’s recovering from a horrible horrible tragedy, and doing it by pushing people away and approaching every situation with dread.  We see everywhere the tatters and echoes of a formerly happy life, which imploded the day her baby sister died.

There is a love story at the heart of this novel but at all times it feels like there is also a lot more.  Petula (great name!) is in the process of rebuilding her shattered soul piece by piece, and this means a lot more than just falling in love.  It’s about her friendships, her family, the things she used to love doing and all through the narrative these are woven together into a rich tapestry.

I love the quirky details of Petula’s world – the endless cats (and cat videos), the crafting and particularly the band of misfits at her art therapy group.  I’ve been in one of those myself actually and so I don’t think of this part of the story as far-fetched at all – they’re pretty interesting places.

What’s even better is that this isn’t all about the big happy ending; this is about the way people fight to survive, even when it seems impossible.  Inspiring, touching and funny by turns, Optimists Die First is a vivid and absorbing read.

Thanks to NetGalley for the eARC.