Illuminae

Author(s): Jay Kristoff and Amie Kaufman

Date of Publication: 20th October 2015

Genre: Sci-Fi

Synopsis: When their world is invaded by a corporation intent on destroying any evidence of their involvement, Kady and Ezra find themselves part of a fleet of survivors battling to escape – and to make things harder they just broke up that morning. 

Rating: 5/5

Wow.

Usually when there’s this kind of hype about a book I treat it with extreme caution. I don’t know why my bookish-senses start tingling, perhaps I’m the skeptical sort. However it got to a point at which I couldn’t put this off any longer. And boy was deciding to finally read this the best decision I’ve made in a while because this is stunning

Firstly you have to read this in paperback / hardback. There is such a rich form of storytelling taking place, which is so heavily linked to the way the book is formatted – I can’t believe you would get the same out of it via e-reader. You’re led through the book via messaging between characters, transcripts of conversations, written accounts of CCTV and other various storytelling methods. It’s ingenious and works perfectly with the setting and subject matter. Everything feels exciting and imminent – the story races along and the authors easily overcome the challenge of making their audience connect with their characters. They don’t shy away from darkness and there are many grim and terrible moments to be found within. However they’re never gratuitous, always working with the story to make the reading feel all the more real.

I loved the plot – simple and complex at the same time. Kady and Ezra, the main characters, are well developed and great doorways both into the vaster world of the series and of the present action. I found myself rooting for them almost from the beginning – something which surprised me, as I usually don’t go for pre-existing relationships, instead preferring to see characters form bonds from nothing throughout a book / series. Kady especially really stood out as a great, strong female protagonist. She was a lot of fun to read about, even in the bleakest and most hopeless of situations.

For sci-fi fans this is a must read – I’ve already ordered the sequel!

Caraval

Author: Stephanie Garber

Date of Publication: 26th January 2017

Genre: Fantasy

Synopsis: Sisters escape their abusive and tyrannial Father and fall into the renowned performance that is Caraval. A race against other competitors ensues; with heavy doses of love, magic and intrigue. 

Rating: 4.5/5

This book was sent to me in exchange for an honest review. My thanks go to Stephanie Garber, Hodder and Stoughton and Netgalley for the opportunity. 

…”real or not, she must find Tella before the game is over, and her sister disappears forever . . .”

There you have it; real or not. This is for me the central theme of Caraval. Whilst this book is many other things; a tale of the bond between sisters, an account of familial abuse, a love story….despite everything else, the author is always circling around this difficult to answer question. It is what makes this so captivating to me as a reader and it is what pulled me by the hand right up until the final pages. I was, from the very first, completely willing to take part in the performance laid before me.

I have read books before where plot twists spiral around one another, linked so densely and so tightly sequenced as to confuse and frustrate. However here Stephanie Garber weaves with a deftness which leaves no doubt as to her skill as a writer. Even as shock after horror after revelation shower down upon the characters, I was never overwhelmed because it is all part of the game – and that is where Garber has struck gold. She has created a plot within which every whim and desire can be done and undone. Nothing, once decided on, is set in stone. By doing this there is no expected – leaving me as invested in the outcome as Scarlett herself – and as unsure as to where we’re headed next.

Garber has also created some wonderful characters; both Scarlett and Donatella appealed to me from the start. Scarlett is self-sacrificing, sensible and almost completely, miserably accepting of her lot in life. Donatella however, just as self-sacrificing in a less obvious way, is still full of fight and fury against their situation. The contrast really heightens Scarlett’s journey throughout the performance (note performance, rather than competition, is how I view the central conceit)- and Garber gives her the perfect partner to play against in Julian.

I feel that romance is difficult in YA Fantasy – everything has been done before. Garber earns my unending thanks for not including a love triangle here (my bane) and instead uses the time to build something between Julian and Scarlet which is bathed in all the secrecy and costume of Caraval, yet at the same time has some truly shining moments of honesty (or are they?!). There are layers upon layers to Julian’s character and he is fascinating to read – especially in conjunction with the endless veneers of plot constantly concealing his true intentions and feelings.

My only slight criticism would be that I felt there could easily have been another fifty pages added. The fast pacing occasionally stumbled in its haste, meaning important scenes felt slightly rushed in the need to not linger too long and instead move straight to the next. Sometimes a little lingering gives not only the reader time to breathe but also the characters themselves.

Why should you pick up Caraval? If you’re not interested in rich description, full and compelling characters, a beautiful world, a dark and complex plot and both romantic love and sisterly adoration then you probably shouldn’t. However you would be missing out. This is a fantastical and wholly vibrant debut which kept me guessing until the very end and made me itch to re-enter the Caraval and relive the race for the winner’s wish.

Wayfarer

Author: Alexandra Bracken

Date of Publication: 3rd January 2017

Genre: Sci-Fi

Synopsis: The sequel to Passenger sees Etta and Nicholas separated; searching through time for both each other and the infamous Astrolabe. 

Rating: 3.5/5 

This book was provided in exchange for an honest review. My thanks go to Alexandra Bracken, Hatchette Children’s Group and Netgalley for the opportunity

When I read Passenger about a year ago I was left with love hate feelings for the book. At times the pace pulled me along, breathless and excited to see what happened next. Yet also there were dense periods of unnecessary introspection and exposition which weighed down those shining moments; ultimately tarnishing them. I found the lead characters dull in comparison to the supporting ones; always aching for more of the latter and instead being weighed down by an abundance of the former.

Unfortunately I found Wayfarer much the same – with the caveat that pacing is certainly improved here and there is lot more from the characters I loved. Alexandra Bracken did a lot of laying down of framework in the first instalment, which left Wayfarer with many, many strands to tie up. Ultimately that wasn’t a bad thing, because it kept things interesting. Yet somehow, despite everything that was going on, Wayfarer still felt far, far too long.

Firstly a potentially unpopular opinion – I liked Etta and Nicholas being separated. I found their journeys with Julian and the Thorns and Sophia and Li Minh (respectively) far more interesting than their shared adventures in the first book. Perhaps this is because the side characters are easily as compelling, if not more so, as our heroes. I know the central romance is supposed to be a massive part of the book, but it never really worked for me. Therefore the less of it, in my eyes, the better (in fact, let’s swap it for Sophia and Li Minh!).

One plot point I couldn’t get enough of was Etta and her Father. Without spoiling who that is, or their role in the book, I found every single scene they were in together to be raw and heartbreaking whilst at the same time wholly joy filled. Bracken wrote something incredibly real when she wrote that relationship and it was probably the thing that will sit with me longest in this duology.

In contrast to the good, there was the not so good. Ironwood didn’t feel like he was given the time to really dominate the lives of the characters; always a hissed name and a changing landscape as opposed to an actual presence. Whilst his actions were terrifying, I wanted more than just consequences of his actions – I wanted a character I could loathe. The other big bad, to be frank, I found faintly ridiculous, as menacing as it was supposed to be. If there had been more build up I would definitely have bought into them but, as it stands, I just didn’t see the point of their inclusion.

Wayfarer is definitely an improvement on its predecessor but for me there was always a slight sense of wistful disappointment for what might have been. Bracken is undoubtedly a talented writer. She is also to be applauded for including both a non-white male lead and non-het supporting characters into a genre sorely lacking both. However I found her plots in this case are too multitudinous; making a strong concept unnecessarily drawn out and messy. A sharper edit and this duology would be amazing. As it stands I’m still in that same love-hate place I was twelve months ago.

The Language of Dying

Author: Sarah Pinborough

Date of Publication: 1st December 2016

Genre: Fiction

Synopsis: Five siblings come together as their dying Father reaches his final days. 

Rating: 4/5

This book was provided in exchange for an honest review. My thanks go to Sarah Pinborough, Quercus Books and Netgalley for the opportunity 

Normally I wouldn’t recommend reading something so tragic and painful as the slow demise of a Father (and in some respects of a family itself) in public. However there were several moments during the reading of The Language of Dying in which I was blissfully relieved that the pressures of being in public view were there – to stop me from falling apart altogether and bursting into tears.

This isn’t an easy read. The slow and agonizing degeneration of the Father, told with brutal honesty, was starkly portrayed. It’s difficult not to get completely caught up in the horror of it all – letting your mind wander over terrible images and the thought of the finite nature of our time in this world. Perhaps this is what also made this book a kind of morbid beauty – decaying and yet doing so with a wincing kind of elegance.

Death is the tie that binds them and yet there is more to The Language of Dying than that – a family of five very different siblings are brought together not only to face the imminent loss of their parent but also to confront once again the startling dissimilarities among themselves. Pinborough writes the brothers and sisters as if they were a shattered mirror – once part of a whole but now nothing but a pile of jagged, ill fitting pieces.

This is only for the brave. But if you can screw your courage to the sticking place then this is definitely a worthy read.

The Princess Diarist

Author: Carrie Fisher

Genre: Non-Fiction

Date of Publication: 18th October 2016

Synopsis: A recounting of, among other things, Fisher’s casting in Star Wars, the genesis of the famous Leia hairstyle and Fisher’s affair with Harrison Ford – as well as some of her diary entries during the period of filming episode four of the Star Wars series. 

Rating: 5/5

“I am always disappointed with someone who loves me – how perfect can he be if he can’t see through me?”

As a lifelong Star Wars fan, this was already on my radar. However with the recent and tragic passing of Carrie Fisher, I instantly elevated it to my first read of 2017 – and what a read it was.

A warning here – often Fisher’s thoughts are disordered and chaotic; she was a rambler. If you don’t think you’d like that then perhaps this isn’t the book for you. However this is also painfully heartfelt in a way which makes you breathe that little bit harder and labour over each page – especially the diary entries themselves. Fisher’s insecurity and self consciousness radiates through in the forms of disjointed sentences and poetry. She is candid about her teenage years and the beginnings of her foray into the world of Star Wars and celebrity.

She also goes into some detail about her affair with Harrison Ford during the filming of episode four. This too is bittersweet – with Fisher clearly developing feelings which Ford doesn’t return. There’s nothing explicit or titillating about her account. Instead she reveals the emotional affair she felt she had (and the lack of one which Ford seemed to experience).

Carrie Fisher seemed like a witty, expressive, creative woman. For all her struggles she writes with a brutal and compelling honesty which captured me as a reader from the first page. Her loss is one the world is bereft by. This, her last work, is an absolute must read.