Friday 12 November 2021

Between the Covers Series 3

 Why did I not know this had started? Stumbled upon it by accident when changing channels and have not read any of the books!

Have only just finished Amari and the Night Brothers which is why I haven't posted. Yes it has taken me since August to finish that book. Review coming soon.

All twelve main books from the series have a short description here.

Episodes (and previous series) are currently available on Iplayer.

Tuesday 10 August 2021

The Lost Soul Atlas - Zana Fraillon

From the back cover - " For as long as Twig can remember, it's been him and Da - family over everything. So when Twig finds himself alone on the streets, he feels totally lost. That is until he meets Flea, a cheerful pickpocket, who feels like the best friend he never had.

But then Twig wakes up in the Afterlife with just a handful of memories from Earth and one big did he get there?"

I am conflicted about this story. On the one hand some of the writing is beautiful, so well written and eventually I was pulled into the story but on the other hand I feel slightly mis-sold on the fantasy aspect of the book and it's based around the Oliver Twist trope which I don't like.

Firstly, the writing. I think Zana Fraillon has a wonderful knack for choosing phrases that will live with you after you've finished the story. "Fight the forgetting." which is a constant throughout the book. "Impossible is what they say when they don't want you to try." "With a map, anything is possible." It's worth reading the book for the beauty of the language.

I liked how it could have been set anywhere - the reality of children living on the streets didn't require the city to be named - which is horrifying that this is a universal reality. It could have been in any city. Some details do narrow the choices - for example the police have guns and a hotel is referred to as the Highett (Hyatt?) But those details feel incidental to the setting.

It took a long time for me to get pulled into the story - too long really - it was page 252 of a 320 page novel. If I hadn't been reading it for review I would probably have given up before then. But I think that's the point at which I was completely pulled in, all the disparate threads are coming together. The characters felt more alive and it also felt more hopeful, and that things are possible. I wanted to know how it was going to end.

I don't like the Oliver Twist trope (I really can't stress how much I dislike Oliver Twist) which is essentially what you have here in the reality based sections of the book. Twig (the Oliver character) causes things to happen and has things happen to them, but it doesn't feel like he has any agency of his own. You could say that that is because of the circumstances he is in - a child on the streets - but Flea (Artful Dodger) is a much more dynamic and engaging character. I felt for most of the book Twig was a passive character who I wasn't that interested in reading about. 

A lot of the early chapters have a downbeat hook ending. For example - "But neither the boy nor his Guardian would notice. Not until it was too late."And - "I should know by now, that if I really cared for Flea, I should never have wished at all." Basically, something is going to happen and it's going to be something bad. This is perhaps the main reason I found the first part of the book so difficult to get through.
I also think if you are buying this for the fantasy aspect of the book, you should be aware that the majority of the story takes place in the real world. Twig is tasked with opening up the Crossings between the Afterlife and our reality, so that when people die they don't forget who they are, as part of this he falls back into his memories of being alive - hence why so much of the book takes place in the real world. This allows the reader to slowly understand what happened to Twig and how he ended up in the Afterlife and combines it with a quest element of opening up the crossings.

As a fantasy reader I was looking forward to seeing more of the dynamics and creatures of the Afterlife, because what we did see was fascinating and unique. As the story is called The Lost Soul Atlas I don't think it's unreasonable to assume that the fantasy elements would play a major part. Instead they are more stepping stones between memories. This is the other reason I found the first part of the book so disappointing. We'd fall into a memory and be there for several chapters, then return to the Afterlife for one chapter before falling into another memory.

Up to page 252 I would give this book a D, and the last 60 or so pages a B because they brought everything together. So I've given it a C which I think is a fair rating.

Overall - it ended up as an okay read from me. Part of me would like to read it again to appreciate how all the story threads fit together, as I said it is cleverly written, but I don't think I could face reading the first 200 pages again. Maybe in a couple of years.

I received a free copy of this book for review.

Wednesday 28 July 2021

Starfell - Willow Moss and the Forgotten Tale

The story opens with Willow's magical power of finding things misbehaving - suddenly she's making things disappear. To make things worse her friend Nolan Sometimes has sent her an urgent letter - he's just seen ten minutes into the future and he's about to be kidnapped. Willow resolves to find her friend but with strong magical forces working against her and her own powers out of control, will she be able to do it?

I would start by saying that if you haven't read the first book you may struggle a little to make sense of what's happening as the story is carrying on from there. Having said that I couldn't remember all the details of what happened in the first story and I still very much enjoyed this one and the main plot points are covered in the first few pages which are quite exposition heavy. However, opening with Nolan Sometimes plea for help is an intriguing start. 

The things I really liked about the story. The simultaneous plot lines of what is happening to Nolan and Willow searching for him worked well especially in the first half of the book. It keeps you thinking - How on Earth can Willow solve this when she has so little to go on. 

The exploration of grief and loss is integral to the plot and was really well done - how sometimes the feelings can creep up on you and punch you in the chest with their intensity. I thought how at the beginning of the story, Willow's family not understanding or coping very well with what's happening to Willow was a realistic way that family's behave. How they deal in different ways with events and don't always handle situations as well as they could, compounded by the fact that Willow has different memories of what happened.That they doubt her, is what Willow finds devastating.

The illustrations are brilliant and bring the story to life - the few double page illustrations are well chosen allowing us to see Holloway's boat or the topiary children for example.

Favourite line - "...magic never really dies - it simply waits until we're ready for it."

The writing often foreshadows what is going to happen, sometimes this is a little heavy handed. The age range for the book is 8+, so I think this provides a good example of how storytelling can work. I am still convinced that Holloway's eye is important beyond what was mentioned in this book.

I think everything that's in the story is there for a reason with some good examples of when you should listen to your inner voice which of course Willow doesn't do. The line in Chapter 5 - 

'"Come on in child," said the witch.'

 First of all Willow thinks of her as "the witch" even though she knows her name.Secondly I'm not sure any good ever came of following someone into a building when they've invited you in by saying "Come on in child," you know it's going to end badly.

My only niggle is that the end feels rushed. The story is 291 pages and on page 235 the plot accelerates with things happening one after the other and it feels more like a series of events that have to happen to get the story finished. I wonder if the author had been allowed 350 pages if that extra 50 pages could have allowed the end of the story a bit more breathing room to pack everything in.

Overall - very good second book in a continuing series, looking forward to book 3.

(I was provided a free copy of this book for review)

Friday 23 July 2021

Map's Edge - David Hair

I feel like whoever wrote the blurb for this story should get some kind of industry award for making it sound much more exciting than it is.

"Soldier, sorcerer and exiled nobleman Raythe Vyre has run out of places to hide...Now he's found a chance of redemption for himself...a map showing a hitherto unknown place that's rich in istariol, the rare mineral that fuels sorcery. Mining it will need people, but luckily there are plenty of outcasts, ne'er-do-wells and loners desperate enough to brave haunted roads through the ruins of an ancient, long-dead civilisation, to seek wealth and freedom."

It sounds like it's going to be a rollicking read,fast paced and exciting but that's not really what you get.

There are parts of it that are gripping, the magic system is interesting though not unique and the female character Kemara has a story that I want to keep reading. Unfortunately it's also incredibly exposition heavy (especially in the beginning), the pace is far too slow not helped by overlong chapters and familiar fantasy situations kept cropping up.

Positives. On the whole the characters are well written, though I found the protagonist Raythe (ex-nobleman and sorcerer) to be one of the least interesting, however, he is the glue holding everything together. Kemara (the healer or is she?), for me, is the most interesting character and the one that kept me reading. I always wanted to know more about her.

The second half of the book is a better read than the first half. There is much more actually happening, towards the end perhaps too much and characters are actually doing things rather than talking about doing things.

The story does slowly pull you in, the quest aspect becomes more interesting and the behaviour of the various groups within the band of travellers increases the intrigue as they all decide whether to put their own self-interest first or help the others. Though the fluidity of this change among some of the characters became somewhat repetitive.

Negatives. There are lots of characters and no character list. In the first chapter I knew I was going to struggle with who was who and it doesn't improve as the story goes on and more and more characters are introduced. In the end I decide to keep track of the characters who interest me and treat the others as background because there are too many for me to remember.

The first half of the book is slow. Not helped by the length of the chapters, for example chapter 4 starts on page 70 and finishes on page 126. As someone who reads a chapter a night before going to sleep I found myself dropping off somewhere around page 100 still nowhere near the end of the chapter. It's also exposition heavy and is not subtle about it. (I may have mentioned that already).

It felt like the story took a while to find it's own identity and if you read a lot of fantasy / watch fantasy television you may find it somewhat derivative. Example at the start there's a bit where I was thinking, this feels a little bit like the Mines of Moria (Lord of the Rings) I bet I can guess what's going to happen next.

Later on a character says "You know nothing" to another character and if you've watched Game of Thrones you're automatically adding "Jon Snow" to the end of that sentence.

Overall - it's a bit of a mixed bag, maybe worth checking out if you're looking for a new fantasy read but I won't be pursuing the series any further.

Wednesday 21 July 2021

Hollowpox by Jessica Townsend

The blurb - "...a strange illness has taken hold of Nevermoor, turning its peaceable Wunimals into mindless, vicious unnimals on the hunt. As victims of the Hollowpox multiply, panic spreads. And with the city she loves in a state of fear, Morrigan quickly realises it is up to her to find a cure for the Hollowpox, even if it will put her - and the rest of Nevermoor - in more danger than ever before ..."

If you haven't read the previous two Nevermoor books do not start here. I do not think I can stress that enough - DO NOT START HERE! This story builds upon what has already happened and I really don't think you'll appreciate the depth of the story if you don't understand how the characters have reached this point.

The end of book 2 made me weep - if you've read it you'll know why - I actually found it emotionally devastating. I was talking about book 2 with someone (who had finished book 3) a few weeks ago and just thinking about it made me start crying. So I was slightly surprised that those events are only mentioned in passing once and that is the only niggle I have about this book. (Bearing in mind I'm reading an ARC - I am getting this book in hardcover, though, for my bookshelf).

I love how Jessica Townsend is able to combine the plot of this book - the outbreak of Hollowpox - with the everyday events that are happening in Nevermoor, superb character development, and an ongoing story arc that started in the first book.

Something that happened at the very beginning of this book made me think - damn! I need to go back and read the second book again to see how what I've just read affects what I read then.

Morrigan's character develops significantly in this book. She's definitely more of a teenager now, is quite an independent thinker but often doesn't think her actions through. It will be interesting to see how this sometimes reckless behaviour plays out in the next book, especially as it's clear that she's a person who cares a lot about her friends and adopted family but often acts on impulse. 

I think she also sees more in this book, partly the fallibility of some of the adults in her life - that they don't always have the answers, but also understanding more about how the world of Nevermoor works. 

We learn more about Ezra Squall in this book - but not enough! Very intriguing the path that his character took here, as we learn more about what he was like before he became the monster he is considered to be.

The writing is just beautiful. 

"There's three of us! And I've easily got the strength of three people, so technically there's five of us."

"Technically still three," Francis disagreed.


Cadence shrugged. "That's different."

"How is it different?"

"It's different because I'm actually good at this stuff and you're actually rubbish," she said.

Not just the quotability of it, but the use of language. How Morrigan is learning about fire in this book and there is fire imagery throughout the book just subtly (and not so subtly sometimes) woven into the story.

Page 412 of the ARC I made a note - This is not going where I thought it was - I love that! I read a lot and watch a lot of fantasy television as well. It is not often that I think  - "I wasn't expecting that." 

I love that in reading this book, it feels like I've taken a trip to another world. It's a book and a series that you can read over and over again, and each time find something new. I cannot recommend this book and series  highly enough.

(I received a copy of an ARC for review.)

Wednesday 26 May 2021

Shadow and Bone Box Set

I have been watching Shadow and Bone on Netflix and loving it. Currently on my second viewing.

I have taken the plunge and ordered the first three books as a box set. If like me you are interested in getting the books, then you may wish to know that the first three books are available as a box set from The Works for £15. These are the old covers.

Note - you will have to pay postage if you don't top up with other books to their minimum free postage amount.

If books are reissued with new covers (for example when they end up on Netflix or get made into movies) I tend to pop onto The Works just to see if the old covers are there for slightly less. Doesn't always happen but it's always worth trying.

Monday 24 May 2021

The Beast and the Bethany - Jack Meggitt-Phillips

Ebenezer Tweezer is a youthful 511-year-old, who keeps a beast in his attic. He feeds the beast all manner of things, things that are increasingly rare and hard to find and in return the beast provides him with a potion that keeps him young...but the beast grows even greedier and now it wants to eat a child. What is Ebenezer going to do?

This book has a brilliant opening line - "Ebenezer Tweezer was a terrible man with a wonderful life." Immediately you want to know more. It's a fantastical tale which requires some suspension of disbelief. This is the kind of world where if you're in need of a child you can just visit an orphanage and get one. Kind of like Despicable Me but instead of Minions in the basement there's a horrible beast in the attic.

Both Ebenezer and Bethany are not that nice to begin with and it's interesting seeing how they develop as characters. Ebenezer has kind of fallen in to being bad without too much thought over what he's doing as long as it doesn't cause his life inconvenience. Bethany's bad behaviour is caused by a much different reason and I like how this isn't spelled out but we gradually learn why she is so badly behaved.

The recommended age range is 8 and up and I think this is about right as there are some scary moments in it, especially towards the end. Something rather unpleasant also happens at the beginning which may upset more sensitive children but what's going to happen is pretty much signposted and lets you know that the beast means business.

I like that things happen early in the book and then they are referred to later in the book. Not in a big fanfare-y way. In a way that requires you to have been paying attention at the beginning to either get the joke or understand where the plot is going. I like that the author doesn't spell everything out he assumes that the children reading the book are along for the ride and he doesn't dumb things down for them.

I think I would have given it 5 stars, except the sweet shop scene at the beginning really annoyed me, it didn't flow logically. Suspension of disbelief is required for a fantasy novel but I don't believe you can make two conflicting statements about a character within a few pages and not pull the reader out of the story. I don't think most readers would be bothered by it but like I said it annoyed me.*

Overall though - this is a great read, it moves along at a fast pace and you want to know what's going to happen next. The ending is definitely setting up a sequel. So it will be interesting to see how Ebenezer and Bethany fare against the Beast in round 2.

* On page 27 Ebenezer says "Whenever he visited the local sweet shop..." implying that he has visited the shop more than once and that presumably he goes there to buy sweets and therefore knows how much sweets cost. Then on the next page he sets up his own sweet stall and charges stupid amounts (£253) for the sweets. I thought these three pages could have been cut from the book and made it a better book. The zoo bit which preceded it was much funnier and a stronger scene.

I received a free copy of this book to review.

Saturday 6 February 2021

Here in the Real World - Sara Pennypacker

 If you like books with lots of action, thrilling chase scenes and rollicking adventure then this may not be the right book for you. The plot is very simple, two children who feel like misfits find a refuge - an abandoned church lot -  and when it is threatened the boy tries to save it. It is much more about the development and growth of the character Ware over a summer and how he finds his voice.

Ware is a boy who prefers his own company and dreads the "meaningful social interaction" that his parents believe is essential for him. He determines that to please them he needs to be "reborn" as the boy they want him to be, but through the course of the book and the characters he develops relationships with - Jolene, the girl with the garden - who tells him he needs to live in the real world; his Uncle Cyrus - who sees his potential and his Grandma (Big Deal) - who urges him to ask questions and use his voice - he comes to see that he doesn't need to become something else, he needs to become the person he actually is.

I thought this was beautifully written. The chapters are short so you fly through them. Aimed at 9 years and up, I think adults will also enjoy the story, younger children may struggle with the slow pace and lack of action. It's a story that rewards your attention, there are sections where characters see or hear things that make you as a reader think "Oh no!" but it's understandable that the characters don't immediately grasp the consequences of what they are seeing or saying.

For example, right at the beginning of the story, Ware is floating in the pool at his Grandma's living complex and an ambulance arrives. He telegraphs the words "Don't be afraid" to the person on the stretcher and you as the reader are (virtually) screaming "Get out of the pool!"

I also loved how Ware - who thinks he is so different to his parents and not the boy that they want him to be - is actually more like them than he realises - he quotes his Dad towards the end of the book, something I picked up on the second read.

Some of the observations from Ware are spot on - How "Joining in" with other children, "is a matter of geography to grown-ups" a few steps either way does the trick.

My favourite lines probably come from Ware slowly working out who he is and who he wants to be:- "Everything was something else before and will be something else after."

...and also from Ware's friendship with Jolene - the girl who is growing papayas in the church lot -  their relationship develops slowly, she has quite a spiky personality and isn't afraid to call Ware out:- 

"You spend a lot of time imagining things that aren't going to happen," Jolene said. 

There is a contrast and a friction between them - Ware wants to believe in a world with knights and chivalry, or at least a world where he can adapt those ideals; whereas Jolene has a stark view of what is and isn't possible. I think Ware offers her hope and an alternative way of looking at things, and she offers him practicality, she challenges him to offer real solutions to their problems and not dreams.

I think that this is a book that rewards the reader. I think if a young person reads it and enjoys it, I could see it as a comfort read, a book that they come back to again and again.

Tuesday 12 January 2021

Blood Heir - Ilona Andrews - First Thoughts

 This is not a review (that should hopefully come in a few days) because I have inhaled (metaphorically) this book today and I know I haven't taken everything in. Need to do a proper re-read for the review.

But first thoughts - Squuuuuuueeeeeeeeeeeeeee!

This book is everything I hoped and then more. This was the thing getting me from Christmas to nearly mid-January in lockdown.

Being honest, Julie wasn't my favourite character from the Kate Daniels books and initially I was unsure but I do hope this will be the start of a new series because there is so much I want to know.

Do you need to have read the Kate Daniels books to  enjoy this one? I think so...yes. I think there is enough explanation for you to understand Aurelia / Julie's motivation and backstory and for it to work as a standalone. However, reading the previous stories gives you an understanding of how all the characters work together - their relationships and conflicts - things you would miss if you didn't have that knowledge.

I think what I liked most of all was "seeing" how everything has changed in the years between the Battle of Atlanta and this book.These are not the same characters as at the end of Magic Triumphs they have evolved and changed, some for the better, some for the worse.

If you loved the Kate Daniels books I highly recommend this new story set in that world.