Review: Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel

Station Eleven proof.inddDAY ONE: The Georgia Flu explodes over the surface of the earth like a neutron bomb.

News reports put the mortality rate at over 99%.

WEEK TWO: Civilization has crumbled.

YEAR TWENTY: A band of actors and musicians called the Travelling Symphony move through their territories performing concerts and Shakespeare to the settlements that have grown up there. Twenty years after the pandemic, life feels relatively safe.

But now a new danger looms, and he threatens the hopeful world every survivor has tried to rebuild.

STATION ELEVEN

Moving backwards and forwards in time, from the glittering years just before the collapse to the strange and altered world that exists twenty years after, Station Eleven charts the unexpected twists of fate that connect six people: famous actor Arthur Leander; Jeevan – warned about the flu just in time; Arthur’s first wife Miranda; Arthur’s oldest friend Clark; Kirsten, a young actress with the Travelling Symphony; and the mysterious and self-proclaimed ‘prophet’.

Thrilling, unique and deeply moving, this is a beautiful novel that asks questions about art and fame and about the relationships that sustain us through anything – even the end of the world. (summary from Goodreads)

I loved this clever, intricately plotted post-apocalyptic novel which offers no easy answers. This is not a ‘X saves the world’ type post-apocalyptic story; it’s much more chaotic, fractured and oddly realistic than that (in the characters it offers, if not the connections between them).

My initial thoughts on finishing:

Lyrical, intricate and stark; a haunting tale of the pockets of humanity left behind after a flu pandemic. Love the complex structure which circles the key players, encouraging the reader to guess at links between them, pulling it all ever tighter until revelation of those relationships becomes inevitable.

It reminded me in various ways of some of my favourite writers: Margaret Attwood, Jeanette Winterson and Angela Carter. Attwood for the lyricism similar to The Handmaid’s Tale, Winterson for the complex timeline and Carter for the theatrical links.

I’ve been merrily recommending it to sixth formers looking for interesting ‘Wider Reading’ beyond the syllabus and to my delight some have taken me up on it (and enjoyed it). I had a lovely conversation with one student about our mutual feeling of wanting to draw a diagram to map out all the links and the timelines involved – not because we were confused or struggling to keep track, but out of curiosity to see how that would pan out. I’m curious to know whether Mandel has such a set of diagrams in her planning!

I would definitely recommend this as a thoughtful, beautiful book.

Station Eleven is out now from Picador. I am grateful to have been given access to a review copy via NetGalley.

The UKYA phenomenon

If you are involved in bookish debates online, and you read YA novels, including  those written by UK authors, you may well have noticed a definite upswing in the way UK-specific YA is promoted and talked about lately. There has also been an incredible amount of attention very recently on the YA blogging community in the UK in particular. There are even awards for UKYA bloggers: and not just one set, but two! One is organised – and voted on – by authors and publishers and has an awards evening in March – very exciting! The other is blogger-run and allows us to all nominate and vote for each other in a range of categories.

Momentum in promoting UKYA in particular has been gathering over the past couple of years, but seems to have really exploded right now. There are regular UKYA Twitter chats and even a very wide range of social events (often in London of course, but not exclusively). It’s a great time to be part of this community.

UKYA extravaganza lineupOne of the most exciting things recently to come out of the UKYA phenomenon, as far as I’m concerned, is the UKYA Extravaganza being held in Birmingham Waterstones on 28th Feb. I’m planning to be there with my daughters, both of whom are excited at the prospects of seeing authors whose books they’ve loved (and me – I’m very excited too!!) The YA dept in Birmingham Waterstones have been great at building a community locally and holding lots of events. It’s so good to see big events going on outside of London.

I have always found the UKYA blogging community to be amazing and welcoming. I have attended a few events and am always surprised to be welcomed as part of ‘the gang’, even though my blog is tiny compared to some of the stars of the group. There are people who manage to post every day, many of those posts reviews (how do they do that??), people getting thousands of hits every day due to the consistent quality of their posts, and people who seem always to be on Twitter chatting about their recent reads AS WELL AS posting blogs daily. I think some of these superstars are secretly a front for a whole team of people :) Recently, several of these superstars have posted about their feelings on the community. If you’ve ever considered started up in book blogging, do take a look at what they have to say about it all:

UKYA Review: The Last Leaves Falling by Sarah Benwell

last leaves fallingBook description (courtesy of Goodreads):

And these are they. My final moments. They say a warrior must always be mindful of death, but I never imagined that it would find me like this . . .

Japanese teenager, Sora, is diagnosed with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease). Lonely and isolated, Sora turns to the ancient wisdom of the samurai for guidance and comfort. But he also finds hope in the present; through the internet he finds friends that see him, not just his illness. This is a story of friendship and acceptance, and testing strength in an uncertain future.

My initial thoughts on finishing:

I dithered between 4 and 5 stars for this one, so I suppose it’s 4.5 really. A lovely, well-told story, a real tear-jerker (with no sour taste of emotional manipulation). I particularly enjoyed how contemporary it is, with its focus on online socialising, while exploring timeless issues of illness and death through Samurai poetry. I really appreciated learning more about ALS and getting (what certainly felt like) a genuine insight into how it feels to have a chronic condition. A large part of the appeal for me in this book was that it offers something different, including the Japanese setting – and it most certainly delivered. I would definitely recommend this to many teen readers.

This extremely well-written book is  a brilliant example of effectively-used diversity in YA. Set in Japan, and focused on a boy with a disability (he has a chronic condition which requires him to use a wheelchair), the story is ultimately about friendship and courage.

Firstly, I want to talk about the ‘disability’ angle. Sora’s ALS is a key aspect of the plot, which I suspect will make this book, for some people, a book ‘about’ disability. This is perhaps true, in the way that a quest narrative is ‘about’ the quest, but that’s never the whole story. It also isn’t something to be criticised or seen as a negative: every aspect of Sora’s life at the point of the story is affected, or even driven by, his condition. It is a key part of his identity and this is arguably one of the main messages that those of us fortunate enough to not be in Sora’s position can appreciate about this book. Reading is often about experiencing things that you can’t or wouldn’t even want to, but are still curious about, and this novel offers that (to me at least) in terms of both its Japanese setting and its portrayal of a teen with ALS.

As well as offering ‘not-me’ experiences, however, Sora’s engagement with others online will ring true to many readers, especially teens. This part of the book was also rendered completely realistically and I enjoyed seeing his relationships with others develop. It was easy to empathise with his initial awkwardness online and his uncertainties about how much to reveal. I’m sure we all can relate to these feelings.

Another aspect of Sora’s online life was the disturbing subplot about a mysterious group targeting teens by email. This aspect added considerably to the story in terms of pace and tension, and was concluded brilliantly – this was a real high point for me.

All in all, I am absolutely recommending this book as a brilliant and beautiful  – if not always emotionally easy – read.

The Last Leaves Falling (link is to Goodreads) comes out from Random House Children’s next Thursday, 29th January. I am grateful for having had the opportunity to read a review copy via NetGalley.

UKYA Review: The Fearless by Emma Pass

fearlessHaving greatly enjoyed Emma Pass’s first dystopian thriller, Acid, I was very keen to read her second book – and I was not disappointed.

My initial thoughts on reaching the end:

Thrilling UKYA dystopian/post-apocalyptic combo with very scary zombiesque creatures, a worthwhile (but highly dangerous) quest and some brilliant characterisation (including a lovely hound). Definitely recommended for lovers of YA thrillers, dystopias and the post-apocalyptic.

The Fearless is another sci-fi thriller, with more of a post-apocalyptic vibe than a dystopian one. In this terrifying version of the UK, people are being infected with an agent that renders them fearless (and rather like zombies – strong, bloodthirsty and utterly pitiless).

Again, a strength of the work is its grounded realism – emotional, psychological and linguistic – despite the highly imaginative plot. It was extremely easy to get lost in the adventure and root for the characters, especially Cass, Myo and the fabulous wolfhound Lochie. Lochie may just be my favourite dog in a book of all time – but I do have a soft spot for hounds :)

I particularly appreciated the UK setting and loved the inclusion of Meadowhall as an important site – so nice to have an urban UK setting other than London. As noted above, the dialogue was entirely realistic to me as UK teen speech, which is important to me, and which helped me get lost in the plot. Although obviously being able to believe and get lost in the plot is a good thing as regards a well-written book, there were times when it would have been nice to remember it was fiction. Aspects of this story are, while not horror-film creepy, certainly high on the tension scale. I may have jumped or called out once or twice…

All in all, if you enjoy well-written UKYA, with interesting characters and a convincing dystopian/post-apocalyptic plot, I would definitely recommend this novel. And you might well want to give Acid a go as well.

The Fearless is out now from Corgi. My grateful thanks to Random House Children’s for allowing me a review copy via NetGalley.

If you’re interested in Emma’s work and UKYA in general, look out for more news on this.

UKYA extravaganza

So far, I know it’s at the fabulous Birmingham Waterstones that does so much for great YA novels, and it’s in February and 34 authors are involved…

Speed reviews (4-Star YA Sequels Edition): Chasing Stars, Crushed, Witch Hunt

 

I’m going to be featuring a few of these speed review posts over the next few weeks, as I catch up with things. As always, I only review books that I enjoyed, so you can always take a review on here as a recommendation. I’ll be theming these speed review posts and taking 2-4 books at a time.

Today, I’ve got three lovely YA sequels for you. All three of these books were 4-star Goodreads ratings (really liked it) for me, and all have some SFF elements: sci-fi (time travel), urban fantasy or historical fantasy.

chasing starsChasing Stars by Helen Douglas is the second and final part of the story from After Eden. In this instalment, Eden travels to Ryan’s time, where he is in big trouble for the events of the first book. I really enjoyed getting to see Helen Douglas’s version of the future, and seeing how both Eden and Ryan develop. The new characters introduced – Ryan’s friends, family and other key players in the future – were also interesting and varied. I found the ending a little too open for my taste, but it does wrap up the main threads, I’d just like to know what happens to them next!

After Eden and Chasing Stars are out now from Bloomsbury.

crushedCrushed by Eliza Crewe is the sequel to Cracked, and this one I enjoyed even more than the first. The main character here is Meda, who eats souls, and the main narrative thrust is her developing morality and humanity. In this book, we learn much more of where Meda comes from and what makes her so uniquely poised between the dark and the light. The characters and the voice are the main strengths of this, particularly the contrast between snarky, kick-ass Meda and the wonderfully earnest Jo. If you like unusual, action-packed urban fantasy, you should definitely check out this series.

Cracked and Crushed are both available at Amazon.

witch huntRuth Warburton’s Witch Hunt is the follow-up to Witch Finder, and completes Rosa and Luke’s story. A marvellous historical fantasy featuring a society of witchfinders and a council of witches (both of which also feature in Ruth’s contemporary witchy series, A Witch in Winter), this episode sees absolutely everyone chasing poor Luke and Rosa. I really enjoyed how these characters developed, despite everything thrown at them and would definitely recommend it to lovers of witchy and/or historical reads. Again, I found the ending a little more open than I would have liked, and was surprised when I first read it, but on thinking about it, it makes more sense than the alternatives and is entirely true to the characters.

Witch Finder and Witch Hunt are out now from Hodder.

Reading is… #1: Reading is a comfy blanket

Welcome to my new series! Reading is… where I’ll explore the reading experience, along with some recommendations for books that fit that particular category for me.

Today’s topic is how reading is like a comfy, cosy blanket, or something warming and comforting. One of the many reasons we read is for the comfort of the familiar. How often has your enjoyment of a book been enhanced by its relation to your uniqueness? Whether it’s a familiar place, experience or interest, books with that personal link never fail to make a connection.

Familiar places

sea books

I grew up in East Anglia, living on the coast for several childhood years, and on the Norfolk Broads for my mid-late teens. This makes books set in this region, or with similar characteristics, comfy and familiar to me.

That’s definitely one of the reasons I enjoyed Kendall Kulper’s The Witch of Salt and Storm so much recently – although this is very much an insular, island fishing community and I grew up in a touristy seaside town, the sounds and smells of the sea were so brilliantly evoked as to feel homely. I’m also familiar with a fair bit of fishing community tradition in the way of shanties and ballads, having spent a considerable amount of time in folk pubs in my youth and many of those old tunes came back to me as I read.

Familiarity with the setting was also a factor in my enjoyment of The Crossing Places by Elly Griffiths. Set in North Norfolk and making great use of a fictionalised salt marsh landscape, this crime series opener felt wonderfully bleak and unforgiving.

Familiar experiences

Teentalk recommends

speech recs 2

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I teach English – mostly Language – to teens, including things like how conversation works and how language varies around the UK (and world) and between different age groups. This makes me particularly aware of how teens speak, both from being surrounded by teens most days and from teaching them to actively  analyse their own and others’ speech patterns. So, as I have blogged before, I am especially fond of UKYA and UKMG books which evoke this speech well. I have highlighted the keen skills of James Dawson, Keris Stainton and Keren David at this before, but would now add recommendations on this count for Zoe Marriott’s marvellous trilogy opening with The Night Itself; Ruth Warburton’s A Witch in Winter series and Non Pratt’s Trouble.

Familiar specialist knowledge

folklore fantasy

 

 

 

 

 

One of my interests is folklore, ranging from fairy and folk tales to beliefs in fae creatures and moon lore. I have loved many fantasy novels for their use of these elements, but recent particular folklore-focused reads have been Liz de Jager’s Banished, Katy Moran’s Hidden series and Katherine Langrish’s West of the Moon, which in quite different ways centre on the traditional notions of fae creatures as a threat. While the Banished series is a sharp urban fantasy, with occasional forays into the fae realm, the Hidden series has a more ethereal quality, feeling more timeless and less contemporary. West of the Moon is aimed at a younger audience (the others are both YA) and is set clearly in the past, in a time when belief in trolls was part of everday life.

So, these are some of the books that have evoked a comfy blanket feel for me (some despite their less-than-comfy subject matter!) due to familiar elements within them. I suppose the other large category of comfy books would be those that are repeatedly re-read. I tend not to do that, although I have read through the Harry Potter series more than once and have revisited some childhood favourites with my own children.

Of course, as well as reading to see the familiar, we also read to seek out the Other, and that will be the topic of my next Reading Is… post. What gives a book that comfy blanket quality for you?

Review: The Witch of Salt and Storm by Kendall Kulper

The Witch of Salt and StormMy initial thoughts:

Loved the atmosphere of this one – so tied to the coastal landscape and the community’s dependence on the ocean. A really lovely book about identity, power and loyalty. Felt quite ‘literary’ a lot of the time – reminded me of some aspects of Margaret Atwood or Jeanette Winterson. Definitely recommended for YA readers.

 

This is a story about 16-year-old Avery, who is desperate to take up her rightful place as official Witch of the island. Her grandmother currently has the role, but Avery’s mother swept her away so she couldn’t develop the necessary skills and knowledge.

The characterisation of Avery was complex and strong and I found her very easy to sympathise with. I also really liked the character of Tane, the tattooed and mysterious boy who wants her to interpret a notebookful of dreams for him. Their developing relationship is intriguing, even if at times I wanted to give each of them a slap/nudge – always a sign of convincing characterisation, I think!

As noted at the top of the post, this novel has a lyrical quality that I found beautiful and that reminded me of novels like The Handmaid’s Tale or Sexing the Cherry. The ‘salt and storm’ aspect of the title is thoroughly developed and a definite strength of the story.The sea atmosphere is pervasive, as is the claustrophobic influence of the small island community, making this a tense and evocative novel, with several unexpected twists.

Although it’s not an important point in selecting a book, it is nice to have a standalone read once in a while, particularly in the fantasy genre which is somewhat trilogy- and series-heavy. All in all, this was a satisfying and luxuriant read – very much a sensory experience.

I strongly recommend this one for those who enjoy any or all of the following aspects in their reading: YA, witches, sea-related settings, identity and/or family issues, secrets, tension and lyrical writing.

The Witch of Salt and Storm is available now, published by Orchard Books, to whom I am grateful for a review copy via NetGalley. More info on Goodreads.

Reading Challenges for 2015

I’ve had a good nosey through various reading challenges (I actually really like PopSugar’s checklist of 50 categories below, but I did want to personalise it) and came up with this minimum reading challenge for myself:

  • 1 UKYA or UKMG each month
  • 1 of my own (i.e. non-review, non-work-related) books per month
  • 1 review TBR-lingerer per month (I may chip away at my shameful NetGalley backlog here…)

I’ll be participating in the British Books Challenge, which is run this year by the lovely Michelle at Fluttering Butterflies. For this challenge, you need to read at least  12 British-authored books within the year. I’m not yet sure which titles I’ll be covering for this, but I’m planning to start with The Last Leaves Falling by Sarah Benwell, which I’m really looking forward to.

I also want to draw attention to diverse books this year, so am also joining in with the Dive Into Diversity Challenge run at Reading Wishes, which has no number of books stipulated, but I’m hoping to make as many as possible of my books diverse reads this year.

As well as these, across the year, I’d like to fulfil these twelve interesting categories (mostly borrowed from other challenges):

  • a book that came out the year I was born (1974)
  • a book recommended by a friend or family member who doesn’t usually share my reading tastes
  • a book written by someone with my initials (BK)
  • a book set in my home region (East Anglia)
  • an early book by an author I like
  • a book from a genre I don’t usually read (romance? hard sci-fi? memoir? war? espionage?)
  • a re-read of a book I haven’t read for at least 20 years
  • a book set in a place or time I haven’t read about before
  • a non-fiction book that isn’t about education or writing
  • an adult award winner (e.g. Booker) from the last five years
  • a literary classic that I’m ashamed not to have already read
  • a classic in its genre that I’m ashamed not to have already read

Obviously, an individual book may well satisfy more than one of these challenges at once. Having set myself the challenge, I absolutely reserve the right to count a book for as many categories as can reasonably be argued :)

PopSugarReadingChallenge

Mission Statement for the Hearthfire

I haven’t posted in a while, and that is something that makes me sad. I love having this little corner of the internet (a cosy snug, obviously, with the hearthfire and all) to indulge my bookishness, and neglecting it is one of my biggest regrets of the last couple of years.

I did have a much longer post of all the whys and wherefores of why I haven’t been blogging – and why I should have been. It was very boring though, so here we are: I haven’t been blogging, and I should have been. It’s good for my mental health, so I’ll be doing more of it in 2015.

So here’s what you’ll see around here over the next few months:

  • twice weekly posts
  • at least one review a week
  • other bookish posts
  • occasional personal stuff: writing, dogs, opinions

Happy New Year!

Memorable Parents in UKYA

For many reasons – not least the need for teens to be free enough to do things – parents are often absent in YA novels. So, I thought I’d celebrate some cool parental characters in recent reads. OK, so some of them are not actually the character’s birth parents, but sometimes that’s the important thing.

parents titles

Parents getting it right

These are the parents that fly the flag for good parenting. Loving and supportive, if not always perfect (since they are human…), these are the good guys of UKYA parenting.

Pearl’s Dad in The Year of the Rat

Poor man – bereaved of his wife and with a new baby and a not-always-coping-terribly-well teen daughter, Pearl’s Dad has it hard. I think one of the multiple things this novel succeeds at is extending reader sympathy to many of the secondary characters as well as Pearl, and Dad certainly has that.

Foster and adoptive parents in Blood Family

One of the many, many strengths of this beautifully written novel lies in the characters of Eddie’s foster and adoptive parents. There may be mistakes made, but for a wonderfully human depiction of learning to live together and care no matter what is thrown at you, this is a fabulous read.

Parents we’re glad aren’t ours

(or that we hope we’re not like, for the more mature YA reader like myself…). Not actually cruel and abusive parents, but those that are just downright getting it wrong.

Blossom’s parents in Weirdos vs Quimboids

OMG. How much would you die if your parents danced naked in the back garden at each full moon? I loved this not-so-gentle send-up of hippy vegan right-on parents. Poor Blossom!

Taylor’s Dad in The Weight of Souls

I really liked that, instead of the standard urban fantasy/chosen one type trope of the family being unaware, Taylor gets a Dad who utterly refuses to accept her position of being ‘marked’ by ghosts to make her help them resolve their deaths. Despite her curse being inherited from her mother, he has spent most of her life searching for a cure for the skin disease and associated mental illness. A nice additional layer of complication for poor Taylor.

Find out more about these titles at Goodreads:

Personal blog: mostly bookish, plus some dogs, feminism and whatever else occurs.