Review: The Gentle Assassin by Ryan David Jahn

Initial response on closing the book: Had me guessing all the way through. Not a ‘pacey’ thriller, more a masterclass in the subtle creation of tension. Switching perspectives and an almost claustrophobically narrow focus drive the tension ever higher. I was delighted with the twisty ending.

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Goodreads summary:gentle assassin

It wasn’t every day you had the chance to track down the man who’d killed your mother.

In 1964, Andrew Combs’ mother is killed in front of him. His father Harry vanishes soon afterwards. Twenty-six years later Andrew wants revenge. There’s only one way he can let go of his past and become the man he wants to be: track down and kill his mother’s murderer. His father.

But while Andrew thinks he knows what happened all those years ago, the truth is far darker. For Harry Combs turns out to be a man of many secrets.

As shadowy figures from Harry’s past threaten his life, and Andrew inches closer to killing him, the two men find themselves playing a very dangerous game of life and death. And only one of them can survive.

A brilliant thriller with the pace and tension of Mark Billingham and the laconic style of Ramond Chandler.

I’d never read any of Jahn’s work before but I greatly enjoyed this novel. I loved that the novel’s style was also ‘gentle’ with no excess anywhere – in tone, pace or phrasing. As with all thrillers, it’s difficult to go too much into plot and character, as I do not want to give spoilers, so please forgive me the lack of concrete detail.

However, as you can clearly tell from the blurb, the tight focus I reference above is trained on Harry Combs, the ‘gentle assassin’ of the title, and his adult son David Combs, tracking him down to seek revenge. I appreciated the shifts in perspective – and was intrigued to find that I wasn’t clearly on one side or the other, so Jahn had successfully enabled me to empathise with both parties – and welcomed the addition of the occasional flashback to the night that started it all, when David was a baby and his mother was shot. I also thought it was a nice touch that the few secondary characters also contributed to the confusion over who to trust and whose motives were more admirable/forgivable.

I read that the author has worked in film and TV and I think that might be why the book has a very ‘filmed’ feel: scenes are used quite similarly to how a film works and it was easy to imagine a camera panning across a scene or cutting to a flashback. The writing style is quite detached, leaving you to engage for yourself rather than being overly emotive. The novel overall is definitely a great example of ‘less is more’, in action, pace and writing.

All in all, I enjoyed this as a tightly controlled and tense thriller. Fans of action-on-every-page may conceivably be disappointed, but if you like close and detailed character work and tension through conflict of interests, this is definitely recommended.

Review: Darkness Hidden by Zoe Marriott

Initial reaction:

Can’t wait for book 3. This instalment of Mio’s quest is pacy, tense and heartbreaking by turns. One of my favourite things about this brilliant novel is that it progresses Mio’s big story but also absolutely wraps up its own story. I loved seeing more of the Kitsune, and learning more of Mio’s family’s story, in amongst all the danger and action.

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If you haven’t read the first in the series, don’t read on here – it’ll only spoil it. Instead, have a look at my review for The Night Itself.

This series is fantastic in every darkness hiddensense. It’s a kick-ass urban fantasy with plenty of pace and action, combined with emotional depth and satisfying character development. As much as I felt Zoe Marriott had put me through the wringer in the first book in The Night Itself, she outdid herself here.

Mio’s development as a hero figure and her relationships with those around her are stretched and tested in this novel. I loved Jack especially in the first book, and also Shinobu (of course!), so I was keen to see how things could play out next. I could never have predicted what would happen, but it was absolutely perfect, if heart-wrenching.

One of the book’s strengths is in how it works as book 2 of a trilogy. There’s always the possibility for book 2 to be either a bit limp or to not conclude  – no such problems here. The action and pace are strong, there is clear character development and the main plot threads introduced in this instalment are concluded. Yes, there is an ending that leaves you desperate for the next book, but not because it’s unsatisfying or unfinished. I also really appreciated the “story so far” summary provided at the front of the book, to refresh our memories of book 1 – very useful when the action of book 2 follows on almost immediately. I’d love to see this more often (publishers, take note!)

Overall, I’m strongly recommending this sequel and am waiting for announcements on book 3. Thank you Walker for allowing me a review copy.

Darkness Hidden is out now from Walker. More info from Goodreads here.

Review: Murder Most Unladylike by Robin Stevens

Initial reaction:

Fab combo of Agatha Christie and the best boarding school tales. Tuck, midnight feasts and murder – what more could you want! Great for its intended 9-12 audience and for those of us a little older too. I was certain I knew who it was for most of the story and was wrong – always a good sign!

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murder most unladylikeThis really is a delight and I’m looking forward to the second in the series, Arsenic for Tea. Set in the 1930s in Deepdean Academy, it beautifully captures everything that’s magical about boarding school tales, while also cleverly including all the key ingredients of a cosy mystery with the flavour of Agatha Christie. If Blyton and Christie had collaborated on a book, this – or something very like it – would be the result. It fulfils both genres and is a gorgeous reading experience.

Little Flame (my 10 year old daughter) and I both read and enjoyed this one. Aside from the book’s obvious charms, I also particularly appreciated the subtlety of its representations, using the character of Hazel Wong to introduce the experience of an Asian immigrant (as she goes about her Dr Watson-like business of documenting the case). I also, of course, enjoyed the mystery itself and the warm familiarity of many elements from the school story genre. This is a comfort read if ever I encountered one.

One of the book’s strengths is its characterisation – not only Daisy and Hazel, but the secondary characters are clearly delineated and carefully crafted. Little Flame was especially fond of the French mistress and the school nurse. It’s also a joy to see how Daisy and Hazel’s relationship develops and is tested by their detective work. Firm friends with quite different personalities, it’s refreshing and realistic to see them debate and at times argue.

As with all school stories, one of the things readers will love is the food. Who hasn’t read a boarding school story and wanted their very own tuck box? This series’ addition to the genre is the concept of bunbreak, which has certainly caused plenty of excitement on Twitter.

Overall, this book is highly recommended, both for its 9-12 target audience, and for older readers (much older readers who enjoyed boarding school stories in their youth very much included!).

Murder Most Unladylike is out now from Random House Children’s. Arsenic for Tea will follow in Jan 2015 (check out an opening extract on Robin Steven’s website!). My grateful thanks to the publisher for providing a review copy via NetGalley.

Here’s to the New School Year!

I always feel much more ‘new year-ish’ in September than in January. I think it’s true for a lot of teachers, but also for many whose home or work lives revolve around the school calendar. This one is feeling particularly good for me. Having been in quite a negative place a couple of years ago, I find myself feeling cheered by looking back over the past year, and forward to the rest of this new one.

Last year was full of hustle and bustle for me, and I occasionally felt quite stressed with all that I had to do. Looking back, though, I’m pleased with what I accomplished. Look at all these lovely books that I worked on, published over the last academic year. I feel a bit less guilty now that fiction and blog writing took something of a back seat last year, given that I was also in school full time.Jpeg

Anyway, I’m working in a lovely school for the second year in a row, now on a part-time timetable which is going to make things a lot easier for me. At this point, I’ve met all my classes at least twice and can confirm that I have lovely students. I also love that the majority of my classes are sixth form, and I’m getting to teach the new AS in Creative Writing this year. Being part-time means that I can return to my own more creative writing endeavours as well as continuing to work on interesting educational projects. So, it’s all looking good for the moment!

How is your new academic year looking?

Review: Banished by Liz de Jager

Initial reaction:

I enjoyed every minute of this (and am desperate to read the rest of the series now – if only it were out already). A very well-constructed urban fantasy in the quest tradition which draws on a ton of faery lore and mythology. Highly recommended.

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This is UKYA faery-focused fantasy at its best. Particular strengths of this book (for me) are: the structure and world-building, the central character of Kit and the adaptation of folklore.banished

Opening in the middle of a mission allows us to see Kit’s work as a Blackhart, and to get caught up in some action immediately. We quickly learn that her family’s destined role is to keep order and banish any fae who step out of line by harming humans/causing trouble in our world. Kit’s relationship to that calling (she wasn’t raised with it from birth) is something that is revealed further through the course of the novel.

I hope it doesn’t sound too stupid to say this, but I particularly enjoyed the realistic way that her developing abilities, and her feelings about her calling, are presented. Obviously the use of magic is a fantasy element in the novel, but it is presented realistically, I feel. It rings true to me that it would be a physically difficult thing, especially at first. This, and many other details which root the story in concrete reality, raise this novel in my opinion to make it not just another ‘destiny girl’ book. Details are not taken for granted, but are deftly woven into the story to create a convincing whole.

Written in the present tense, the prose has an immediacy and vibrancy that demands attention. This lively storytelling is interspersed with extracts from documents such as Blackhart family papers which offer further insight into the family’s role and the world they inhabit. This adds a further dimension to the novel and prevents information from clogging up the pacey narrative.

I love Kit (as, I think, do most of her readers). Her voice is compelling and she is easy to empathise with. She faces some difficult decisions in the story, but approaches everything in a matter-of-fact way. I hope we see more of her family in the remaining two books, as they are an intriguing bunch.

The author’s knowledge and love of folklore and the fae tradition really shine out, and this is above all a great re-imagining of some classic folklore tropes, dragged into our 21st century reality. The clash between worlds is a joy to observe and, again, I feel there is realism in the way the interaction between the fae realm and contemporary Britain is presented.

vowedOverall, I am highly recommending this book. If you enjoy urban fantasy, the odd spark of romance and a generous sprinkling of fae lore, you must read this.

The sequel, Vowed, has an equally beautiful cover and is due out in November, so you won’t have long to wait.

Banished is out now from Tor. See Goodreads for more info.

Diversity in YA and Children’s Books

I currently teach English in a 14-19 school in Leicester, with a good proportion of BAME students. One thing that my colleagues and I always notice is that the vast majority of students, regardless of their own heritage, when writing stories give their characters names that sound white British and clearly code them as white in their physical descriptions. It’s an odd thing to do and seems to support the idea that they see white characters as the norm in fiction. This is a great pity, and clearly supports the need for books (and TV and film, of course) to represent a wider range of humanity. We also rarely see gay characters, although a student who identifies as gay is quite likely to write about gay characters, while our Asian and Black students remain likely to write about characters called Dan or Emma.

I’ve been thinking about this today, having read that over the last couple of days, the marvellous Malorie Blackman has been receiving a lot of racist and critical comments online. In this Sky News piece she calls for greater racial diversity in YA and kids’ books, arguing that this is an issue of representation, that BAME children  and teens can struggle to find themselves or characters like themselves in books. This certainly fits with my experience in teaching, with BAME students assuming that stories are usually only about white characters. Malorie’s piece concludes that this state of affairs gives this group of children/teens an additional and unnecessary reason to lose interest in books. My favourite line from her is:

“But I think there is a very significant message that goes out when you cannot see yourself at all in the books you are reading.

“I think it is saying ‘well, you may be here, but do you really belong?'”

The Sky News text originally appeared to quote her as saying there are “too many white faces” in kids’ books, even using this line as its headline. Watching the video interview, it is clear that she said nothing so inflammatory, and the headline has since been amended. Nevertheless, the comments under the article, and the vitriol directed at Malorie online reveal that diverse representation is clearly needed, as many people seem to feel that ‘people like her’ are messing with ‘our culture’ and ‘our books’. Horrific, and also clear evidence that representations of British society as white are dangerous.

For more on this issue more broadly, I’d like to recommend a couple of US sites. The brilliant Diversity in YA has a blog and tumblr, which feature books that offer more diversity, along with statistics on representation and clear discussion of the issues. There is also a campaign called We Need Diverse Books which promotes lots of bookish diversity.

Review:Heir of Fire by Sarah J Maas

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My initial comments on closing the book:

heir of fireBrilliant continuation of Celaena’s story, plus some fantastic new characters. Loved it! If you liked the first two, it’s definitely worth grabbing this one too.

Warning: it’s another shocker of an ending, not that it’s half a story or anything: threads are tied, but more are shaken loose in the process. Book 4 should be amazing!

After Crown of Midnight, I couldn’t wait to see what Celaena would do and face next. If, like me, you thought that Sarah Maas couldn’t possibly torment her further, you’d better brace yourself for this one. And if you’re a YA high fantasy fan who hasn’t yet dived into this series, this is a mistake that you must correct.

Part of the joy of a great fantasy series is the gradual discovery of the world, so carefully and lovingly constructed by the author. This series delivers that pleasure in spades as we follow Celaena and other characters positioned around the world and learn about their histories and experiences, and their struggles in the book’s timeframe. The series as a whole so far has shown considerable richness and complexity together with deft writing that keeps all the plot threads, locations and characters under tight control.

There are a few new characters in this instalment, each of which adds to the developing story of the Adarlan King’s cruel empire. I dare you to read this without Rowan or Manon getting under your skin. Sarah Maas’ characterisation is as much a strength as her world building: no flat stereotypes populate her lands.

Overall, this is a must-read if you’ve read the others in the series. And if you haven’t and you have any interest in well-crafted high fantasy: get started now with Throne of Glass, but don’t read the blurb below.

Goodreads summary:

Lost and broken, Celaena Sardothien’s only thought is to avenge the savage death of her dearest friend; as the King of Adarlan’s Assassin, she is bound to serve this tyrant, but he will pay for what he did. Any hope Celaena has of destroying the king lies in answers to be found in Wendlyn. Sacrificing his future, Chaol, the Captain of the King’s Guard, has sent Celaena there to protect her, but her darkest demons lay in that same place. If she can overcome them, she will be Adarlan’s biggest threat – and his own toughest enemy. 

While Celaena learns of her true destiny, and the eyes of Erilea are on Wendlyn, a brutal and beastly force is preparing to take to the skies. Will Celaena find the strength not only to win her own battles, but to fight a war that could pit her loyalties to her own people against those she has grown to love?

Heir of Fire is published by Bloomsbury on Sept 2nd. My grateful thanks to the publisher for granting me access to an e-proof via NetGalley.

Things I learnt in a yurt

As both a teacher and a writer, I am pretty much destined to be ‘always on’ and not switch off and relax. Last week, however, I found the secret to relaxing and recharging in a lovely yurt in Northumberland with my family. I thought I’d share a little piece of my experience here, so here’s what I (re)discovered, in no particular order:

The joy of disconnection

No phone signal, no electricity (although we could charge our phones etc in the central kitchen block) gave us all a much needed digital detox that allowed us to reconnect to each other. The stash of board games and the handily-supplied Dummies Guide to Card Games wouldn’t have had as much use if we’d been able to tweet, facebook and bbm as normal. And that would definitely have been a shame, as even the resident teen agrees.

Fire is not just for warmth

Toasting marshmallows around the fire pit :)

Obviously, as curator of the hearthfire here, I was already familiar with fire’s magical and restorative properties, but it never hurts to be reminded.

Balancing comfort and wildness is crucial in this kind of break

and we were lucky to find a place that achieves exactly that. Glorious decor and the most comfortable bed I’ve ever slept in on holiday beautifully countered the illusion of rugged isolation (we were alone in a field, but 5 mins from the centre of the site and underfloor-heated toilet/shower block), and empowered us to tackle the terrain.

Hareshaw Linn, in nearby Bellingham. A beautiful, if occasionally challenging, walk in the rain.

My camera is not good enough!

I really wanted to capture the beauty of the candlelit yurt at night, the wood-burning stove, the stars in the pitch-black skies, but apparently I’m not equipped for that :(.  My wildlife photography skills are also lacking, unfortunately, so you don’t get to see the toads, bat or many many finches that we did, although this little fella who snuck in out of the rain was quite obliging, bless him.

 

Real relaxation is invaluable

Of course, I ‘know’ this, but I do find it hard to properly relax and not feel I should be doing something productive – something that I think is common to many. But with no laptop and no goals, no guilt was possible for this week and it was definitely the right thing for me. I’ve returned refreshed and reinvigorated and with my creativity topped right up. Bring it on!

For anyone curious, we stayed in Merle Yurt at Wild Northumbrian Tipis and Yurts and I would absolutely recommend them for family holidays or quiet getaways.

Review: Trouble by Non Pratt

trouble raagI really enjoyed this ultra-realistic portrayal of teen pregnancy, which manages to avoid either being ‘gritty’ and ‘grim’ or (heaven forbid) glamorising the idea. Non Pratt’s sense of humour and pace ensure a fully enjoyable read.

Goodreads summary

troubleIn this dazzling debut novel, a pregnant teen learns the meaning of friendship—from the boy who pretends to be her baby’s father.

When the entire high school finds out that Hannah Shepard is pregnant via her ex-best friend, she has a full-on meltdown in her backyard. The one witness (besides the rest of the world): Aaron Tyler, a transfer student and the only boy who doesn’t seem to want to get into Hannah’s pants. Confused and scared, Hannah needs someone to be on her side. Wishing to make up for his own past mistakes, Aaron does the unthinkable and offers to pretend to be the father of Hannah’s unborn baby. Even more unbelievable, Hannah hears herself saying “yes.”

Told in alternating perspectives between Hannah and Aaron, Trouble is the story of two teenagers helping each other to move forward in the wake of tragedy and devastating choices. As you read about their year of loss, regret, and hope, you’ll remember your first, real best friend—and how they were like a first love. 

As an English Language teacher, I delight in UKYA novels that capture a teen voice effectively, and Trouble certainly does. A large part of the joy in reading this is the spot-on narration, shared between the two main characters. These strongly British voices also allow for considerable humour through tone and timing.

It is relatively unusual to see teen pregnancy presented with warmth and humour and this, coupled with a realistic depiction of sex, make Trouble an important book (but please don’t think I’m sticking the dreaded ‘issues book’ label on it). First and foremost, this is a great read, but as a teacher and parent, I’m also grateful that it presents this aspect of life in a lively and practical way, free of moralising or doom-prophesising :)

So, in conclusion, read this book for its fresh contemporary tone, its depiction of friendship and its excruciating portrayal of the complexity of the high school social circle.

 

Review: The Bone Dragon by Alexia Casale

Stunning genre-bending debut; one of those books that hangs around and haunts your thoughts after reading. A lovely piece of work.

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Goodreads summary:

Evie’s shattered ribs have been a secret for the last four years. Now she has found the strength to tell her adoptive parents, and the physical traces of her past are fixed – the only remaining signs a scar on her side and a fragment of bone taken home from the hospital, which her uncle Ben helps her to carve into a dragon as a sign of her strength.

The Bone DragonSoon this ivory talisman begins to come to life at night, offering wisdom and encouragement in roaming dreams of smoke and moonlight that come to feel ever more real.

As Evie grows stronger there remains one problem her new parents can’t fix for her: a revenge that must be taken. And it seems that the Dragon is the one to take it.

This subtly unsettling novel is told from the viewpoint of a fourteen-year-old girl damaged by a past she can’t talk about, in a hypnotic narrative that, while giving increasing insight, also becomes increasingly unreliable.

A blend of psychological thriller and fairytale, The Bone Dragon explores the fragile boundaries between real life and fantasy, and the darkest corners of the human mind.

This will be a short review to avoid spoilers – the GR info above gives all the detail you can really have before reading. You’ll see in the review-at-a-glance graphic above that I avoided declaring a genre for this one. If pushed, I’d have to go for magic realist thriller (which I realise isn’t an official genre, but it’s the closest fit I can come up with). It’s more magic realist than full-on fantasy, dragon notwithstanding, as it clearly takes place in our world and the dragon is the only fantasy element. The thriller aspect is achieved by means of very close first-person narration by Evie, who is clearly hiding many things. The reader is left to tease out the fragments of information and decide where the half-truths and omissions lie.

This is a gorgeous treat of a read – which is an odd thing to say about such a trauma-filled book – due to its dark beauty and the lyricism of its prose. If the premise intrigues you at all, you should absolutely give it a go.

This is my initial comment on closing the book:

Beautiful, startling and tense. A real struggle to classify by genre, with magic realism elements within a coming-of-age narrative which, at times, feels like a psychological thriller. Evie’s anxieties, fears and development are conveyed perfectly; I have rarely felt I’ve known a character so thoroughly (especially given all the gaps in her narrative).

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