REVIEW: The Graces by Laure Eve

Thanks for joining me on an odyssey through the #YA10. I’ll be brutally honest about what I love and what I don’t enjoy so much about the ten books deemed worthy contenders for the only prize dedicated to UKYA. This is the third of my reviews.

ASTRONOMY 101 (1)

Everyone says the Graces are witches. The three impossibly beautiful siblings are irresistible, and River wants – no, needs – to know them. To bask in their magic. To be with them. She’s just the misfit new girl with secrets, eating beans on toast in the library, but for some reason the Graces notice her. She is chosen, and feels like she has finally found her place in the world. The beautiful Graces are not quite what they seem… but then again, neither is River.

Friends, I read this book last spring and I was so disappointed. I thought it was shallow, indulgent, irritating. When I decided to reread it so I could write this review, I knew it would be a waste of my time. But, my blogger sensibilities said Go, you must review afresh (or something). So I reread it and… I kind of… really enjoyed it. I think I misjudged it the first time round, partly because it was marketed as The Secret History meets The Craft and I LOVE The Secret History. Largely, it’s because I didn’t realise River was meant to be a terrible person. It clicked for me last night: River isn’t Bella Swan, she’s Richard Papen!

Once you understand that River is pretty awful and an unreliable narrator, the whole book breaks free from its Twilight-esque plot shackles and becomes a deliciously hideous car crash of deeply flawed rich people doing bad things, which is my absolute favourite subgenre. Once you understand that the Graces have no power other than the myths they have built around themselves and that they have been born into, they are much more compelling and fragile characters. The Graces aren’t super special, they’re super messed up.

There are some problematic elements that need addressing: the girl-hate is like nails on a chalkboard, but it is just River being horrible. More troubling is the vein of homophobia that runs through the book unchecked, and especially the bisexuality representation which is not great. (Who’s sick of sexuality-as-plot-twist? Meee!) I absolutely understand that characters’ views are not necessarily condoned by the author, and, to reiterate, everyone in this book is horrible and it delights me, but there is a responsibility when writing for young people to handle these issues with a bit more sensitivity than we see here. Also, an Eastern European character is referred to as a Gypsy, and please can we not?

Aside from those issues, I really enjoyed The Graces this time round. The characters pontificate pretentiously about death and the true nature of self, and do pagan rituals, and drink tremendous amounts of alcohol. Some reviewers have criticised this as unrealistic, especially the pontificating, but to those people I say: did you never have a Goth phase? There is nothing unrealistic about a fifteen year old believing they have a unique perspective on the meaning of life. There is nothing unrealistic about a fifteen year old feeling like they can’t show the world their “true self”. Most teenagers can’t kill people with their thoughts, admittedly, and I am eternally grateful for that.

In conclusion this is a dark, weird book peopled by flawed characters, with a killer ending. I liked it quite a bit.

REVIEW: Chasing the Stars by Malorie Blackman

It’s YA Book Prize time again! My favourite time of the year – in terms of this blog, anyway. Prepare to join me on an odyssey through the #YA10. I’ll be brutally honest about what I love and what I don’t enjoy so much about the ten books deemed worthy contenders for the only prize dedicated to UKYA. This is the second of my reviews (with the first yet to come… don’t ask, it’s all timey-wimey shenanigans.)

ASTRONOMY 101

Olivia Sindall is the teenage captain of a ship hurtling through space back to Earth. A virus has wiped out the rest of the crew, including her family – except for her brother, Aidan. It’s a pretty lonely existence, until one day they intercept a distress signal coming from an uninhabited planet in enemy territory. Vee’s life collides with Nathan’s, and nothing will ever be the same again. The confines of a spaceship are the perfect environment for love to flourish… or to suffocate. Surrounded by rumours and a spate of suspicious accidents, jealousy starts to rear its ugly head.

Othello in space – by Malorie Blackman – sounds like everything a YA nerd could want, right? Whether Chasing the Stars is a retelling or merely inspired by the Bard is up for debate. It has been a little while since I last read/saw Othello, and my literary criticism is not rigorous enough for me to have sought it out for purposes of this review, and therefore I may have missed some nods to the play in the book. Vee and Nathan are obviously Othello and Desdemona, with Aidan playing the role of Iago. Iago’s famously inscrutable motivation is rather cleverly explained here; I cannot elaborate for fear of spoilers, but I enjoyed Blackman’s addition to the canon of interpretations of Iago’s psychology.

There is a whole diverse cast of characters surrounding Nathan and Vee – so many, in fact, that they quickly become interchangeable. Nobody gets very development except for the two narrators, although I did like Commander Linedecker, Nathan’s forthright and authoritative mother (Brabantio, of course). The first person dual narration creates a claustrophobic vibe and allows us to get inside the motivations behind Vee and Nathan’s often frankly baffling actions. However, the very short chapters mean that the POV often changes several times within the same scene, which didn’t really work for me.

I am glad that the sexual content in the book is not demurely skimmed over. For the reader to believe in Vee and Nathan’s dizzyingly intense romance, we have to believe they are attracted to each other. They’re young and have been isolated for so long, it would be unrealistic for them not to want to jump each other’s bones. Especially considering that they’re married. Their romance is the central part of the book, at the expense of the sci-fi element – a shame in my eyes, because what we do get to see of the futuristic world is intriguing enough.

There are some things I liked about this book, but I only managed to finish it because I was shadowing the YA Book Prize. It was easier going in the back half, where the plot picked up a little, but most of the book is flat characters delivering cringe-worthily clunky dialogue. (Seriously, here’s an example: “And weren’t those the words from a poem used in the late twentieth-century film Dead Poets Society starring Robin Williams?” Just trying saying that sentence out loud.) Nathan and Vee’s chemistry was not convincing enough for me to get swept up in their romance, or to ignore the fact that Nathan’s idea of consent is sketchy at best. I really wanted to like Chasing the Stars, and I hope other readers get something out of it, but I think I’ll stick to Noughts & Crosses, and/or the actual works of William Shakespeare. (Though I still need to read Hagseed, Margaret Atwood’s spin on The Tempest!)

What I Read in March

Spring update, continued. March is the best month: it has my birthday, International Women’s Day, World Book Day, Crufts, and, this year, London Book Fair! Also, I read some books, which I’m sure you’re just dying to hear my opinions on, so let’s get to that:

25458747TRUTH OR DARE by Non Pratt – A new Non book is a veritable event, and I was delighted to get a proof of this, a tale of tragedy, YouTube, and unlikely romance. Predictably brilliant but brilliantly unpredictable. When it comes to contemporary YA, Non Pratt is truly one of the best. (Proper review to come closer to publication date!)

coverHOMEGOING by Yaa Gyasi – Epic in scale, this sweeping novel follows seven generations of family, beginning with two half-sisters in eighteen century Ghana. Homegoing is unflinching in its portrayal of the horrors of slavery, and the continuing weight of that history. As might be expected, it’s difficult to hear at times, but it is luminous and compelling as anything I’ve ever read. The way the ties between ancestor and descendant stretch but never snap is an almost elementally powerful concept, and Gyasi successfully juggles fourteen separate voices living very different lives whilst making sure their stories are woven together subtly but effectively, making the novel more than a sum of its parts. Homegoing is brilliant and unforgettable, and I can’t wait to see what Gyasi does next.

25699515ORANGEBOY by Patrice Lawrence – I loved this tough, pacy YA novel, and… so did everyone else! I’m so pleased to see Patrice being handed accolades left right and centre. Marlon is a (mostly) sweet kid who gets caught up in his older brother’s world of gangs and danger when an innocent date at the fair ends badly. This is quite unlike a lot of contemporary YA I’ve read, but a good way, with the plot keeping me anxiously turning pages until the end. Marlon is a very likeable main character, even as he keeps making decisions you know aren’t going to work out for him. The supporting characters are great too, and the librarian mum is a fine addition to the growing canon of actually-present-and-parenting YA parents.

the_jungleTHE JUNGLE by Pooja Puri – The inaugural title of new YA imprint Ink Road, Pooja Puri’s debut had a fair amount riding on it. That’s without considering the heavy subject matter. The Jungle is a YA novel about the Calais refugee and migrant encampment. The writing is understatedly lovely, and the depiction of the situation these people have found themselves in – its essential, inhumane unfairness – is deftly done. I would have liked to know more about the characters’ backgrounds, but perhaps the point is that now they are in the Jungle, they are seen as residents of the Jungle, not as whoever they were in the past. The twists and turns the plot takes are unexpected, and Pooja avoids writing an easy narrative. Overall, this is a story that will make you think, without the get-out of a neat resolution.

CHASINGTHESTARS_9780857531414_JKTCHASING THE STARS by Malorie Blackman – I DNF’ed this when I first tried to read it. It had such an excellent pitch – Othello in space! Othello is a black teenage girl! – but I’m not sure it ever lived up to it. Longer review to come as part of my YA Book Prize shadowing.

33016783THE ESSEX SERPENT by Sarah Perry – Newly widowed Cora Seaborne moves to Essex and hears the tale of the Essex Serpent, rumoured to be terrorising the parish of Aldwinter. Will Ransome, man of the cloth, has no truck with the tall tales of mythical creatures, but that’s only one thing of many he finds to disagree over with Cora. It took me some time to get into this, but once I was in, I was in ALL THE WAY. What a big, sexy, clever, lovely book. It’s about the monsters of love and desire… and also science, socialism, sensation. I couldn’t wait to get back to Aldwinter every time I went back to the book. Every character feels like a friend, and I miss them already.

What I Read in February

Looks like I spoke too soon about the returning vitality of this blog! But spring is here, the daffodils are nodding their yellow heads, and I have read a few books that I want to talk to you all about, so let’s go. (Here’s February, with March to come shortly.)

16109340I’LL GIVE YOU THE SUN by Jandy Nelson – I know this is a favourite for a lot of people. I listened to the audiobook, and griped a lot about the “English” accents I was therefore subjected to, but overall I enjoyed this book a lot. I love Jandy Nelson’s distinctive prose style. It elevates her books above the generic US contemporary mold and makes them a little more magical. In I’ll Give You The Sun, the story is told in a non-linear way by two sibling narrators, and I really enjoyed this, especially the way it digged deep into the characters and the way they changed over the years. People change so gradually for the most part, we can’t see how different we’ve become until we compare ourselves against ourselves two, three years ago. Mostly, the book is about family and truth, and how we keep secrets from those we love the most, or even from ourselves. It’s a totally charming book with all sorts of lovely and unconventional family dynamics. Thoroughly recommended.

1000x2000THE ARGONAUTS by Maggie Nelson – This beautifully lucid examination of sex, gender, birth, death, and everything else had me feeling rather smarter just by merit of owning it. Nelson has a wonderful brain and a compelling way with words. It stood out to me more as a startlingly personal piece of autobiography rather than a work of theory, as I have already discussed and thought about gender in complex ways during my academic career. Yet there is something so vital about a woman talking frankly about her body and the miracles and pleasures it can perform. You cannot read this book without your intellect and empathy being expanded, and isn’t that exactly what literature is for?

downloadSTILL by Nadine Aisha – A poetry collection about survival, and giving voice to the experience of being a woman in a world still so steeped in gendered violence. I’m basically a big Nadine Aisha fangirl. Moving, honest, bare and beautiful. If you have the chance to see the poet perform her work, leap at it. Her words form a quiet, powerful place for the reader to reflect and endure: to be still.

Farizan_IfYouCould_pbk_rgb_jkt_2MB_HR_WEBIF YOU COULD BE MINE by Sara Farizan – Heartbreaking and candid, this novel gives voice to a gay teen in Iran, in hopeless love with her childhood best friend. I enjoyed the frank tone of the narrator, and the brief window into what is in some ways a very different culture (and in other ways, not so much).

NASTY WOMEN edited by 404 Ink – The consistent quality of this essay collection is just staggering, as is the incredible spectrum of issues it covers. This should be required reading for every human being, especially men. Saying that, I found something new in every essay, even those about issues on which I already considered myself informed. Special shout-outs for Laura Waddell’s piece on the invisibility of the working-class narrative, Rowan C Clarke’s heartbreaking essay revealing homophobia to be alive and well, and Alice Tarbuck’s quietly subversive celebration of bf31247696521029a6d876ecb6d8216e_originalwitchcraft. I’ve been particularly passionate lately about the idea that when we, as women, speak out about our own experiences, what we are doing at the same time is carving out a space for other women to speak. Nasty Women is carving out a bloody huge space for women’s voices, and thank goodness for that.

 

What I Read in January

Don’t look now, but this blog might slowly… sleepily… on wobbly legs… be emerging from its slumber. Might. I might also just be laid up in bed, feeling grumpy about my achey face, and wanting to do something halfway productive.

I’ve been reading a lot less since starting my masters degree, because I’ve, y’know, got other things on. Also, I don’t take the train anywhere near as often. Look, there are excuses to be made and I’m making ’em. The upshot? I read four books last month, which puts me comfortably on track for reading fifty in the year.

labyrinth-lost-final-coverLABYRINTH LOST by Zoraida Córdova – Alex is the strongest bruja in her generation, but she hates magic and blames it for everything going wrong in her life. Unfortunately, magic this strong won’t be denied, and when she tries she ends up disappearing her whole noisy, complicated, loving family. This YA fantasy has a lot of elements I appreciate deeply: the whole cast is Latinx, and the main character is bisexual. There’s an interracial f/f romance where neither character is white! The system of magic and mythology are all intriguing and inspired by the author’s own culture. This is witchcraft as you might not have encountered it before. I loved the matriarchal vibes of Alex’s community: not having female siblings myself, I’m always fascinated by fictional sisters, and apparently the second book in the series is going to be about the eldest sister Lula, which is exciting. Overall, LABYRINTH LOST is a solid first instalment with a great premise, though I hope we get some fleshing out of Alex and Rishi’s relationship – or even just of Rishi, to be honest – in the next book.

0308_WATERSTONES_Butchers Hook_Bpb.inddTHE BUTCHER’S HOOK by Janet Ellis – Anne is a young women in Georgian society, and is therefore powerless. She is fated to marry the odious Onions, but she is in love – obsessive, consuming, bloody love – with Fub, the butcher’s boy. The novel is told through Anne’s voice throughout, and she is sharp and morbidly funny, an enjoyably twisted creation. The cleaving of flesh – sex, birth, death, butchery – is the theme here, and Anne’s sexual awakenings are intimately tied with her murderous ones. I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say she kills more than once. The first murder takes place in a truly extraordinary extended scene, narrated with such pitch black hilarity that I had to read lines out loud to the people around me at times. (I’m fun at parties.) I found the novel uneven as a whole; it isn’t quite virtuosic enough to pull off its dark trick of a protagonist, but it is enjoyable and entertaining, if very weird.

thepowerTHE POWER by Naomi Alderman – Teenage girls start to gain the power to create electricity – suddenly, they can hurt and even kill with ease. Naturally, all hell breaks loose. There is a lot of buzz, if you’ll permit the pun, around this book. Around December, everyone on my Twitter feed was recommending it. I finally decided to listen to it on Audible, having had that specifically recommended at least twice, too. I’m still having mixed feelings about it; it’s very smart, often exciting and tense, but I think suffers from its characters mostly being conduits for ideas rather than feeling like people. And yet, as I walked along listening, there were certain characters I would tell (out loud) to eff off. I remember listening to a particularly agonising scene on my walk to school on a Monday, and feeling devastated. I wanted to talk about this book all the time. I would give my very patient girlfriend summaries of what happened today, and how worried I was for so-and-so, and how insightful this analogy was. THE POWER is brilliant. I am sure I will be thinking about it for a very long time. You should read it and talk to me about it, though I’m sure the conversation will be mostly nodding enthusiastically and being amazed at how clever the author is.

23513349MILK AND HONEY by Rupi Kaur – Raw but tender collection of poetry about pain, love, and survival. Honestly, I think most of the really good poems in here were ones I’d seen before on tumblr – the author is a bit of an internet celebrity – but I enjoyed the collection. I can see why it has resonated with so many readers. There is authenticity and honesty in the poet’s voice, with every piece so deeply personal that it is able to communicate directly with the reader. I probably would have enjoyed it more if I hadn’t read the collection in one sitting, as the style gets a bit monotonous after a while. Poetry is memorable speech, according to Auden, and there is some truly memorable speech to be found here, especially in the poems about identity and body image.

HIATUS

I know, I know, it’s not as if this blog ever had a regular posting schedule anyway, but I’m going to put it into hibernation for the next couple of months. (Okay, I might pop back up with some 2016 round-up posts, because they are irresistible. You all need to know my favourite ships of 2016, I’m pretty sure.)

I’m going to go away and think about how best to reshape this blog so that it looks great and more closely aligns with my passions, goals, and #aesthetic.

I’m still going to blog about YA, don’t you worry.

See you later. Here’s a #shelfie to tide you over. Tell me what I should read next!

 

Sarah in Scotland: week one

It’s been a week since I moved to Edinburgh to start my masters in publishing and I have already learnt so much.

Like, what square sausage is. And the name of the highest mountain in Canada. I’ve met dozens of Italians. I’ve already had two Ridacards. (The current one has a much, much better ID picture than the first one did.)

Most importantly, I have learnt that I now live in the greatest city in the world (the greatest city in the world!). Admittedly, I am comparing it mainly to Coventry, but every day I’ve spent in Edinburgh I have felt delighted and lucky to be in such an amazing place.

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I’ve already started work as a bookseller, joined the Society of Young Publishers, and attended an author event (with the lovely Laura Lam and Elizabeth May). I’ve met the rest of my cohort, or as I like to think of us, 40 rising stars of publishing.

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Today was my first day of school. It was very strange to be sat back in a lecture theatre. I didn’t know if that would ever happen to me again, but here I am. I’m ready to learn. I’m ready to drink vats of coffee and publish some books. Look out, Scottish publishing! I’m here!