Monday 30 May 2022

Escape the Rooms by Stephen Mangan

The last thing Jack expected when he bungee-jumped at the fairground was to end up in a maze of underground rooms...Alongiside, a mysterious girl called Cally he must find the key to unlock each room and find his way home.

At the beginning when I first started reading the story I could "hear" Stephen Mangan's voice in the text. Just some of the phrasing and I think because his voice and tone are so individual that came across in the writing. The beginning of the story certainly felt stronger to me - when (as a reader) you're not really sure what's going on and everything's just a little not right.

Also my favourite funny bit is on page 28 - when they're describing Wanda's teeth which made me laugh out loud. I think at this point I had quite high hopes for where we might be going.

I loved the character of Cally who was so angry and snarky :- 

"I can be smart AND angry,"

I liked the overall theme of dealing with one room at a time and looking for answers and how you can feel like you keep coming back to the same place.

But there was more that I didn't like or just didn't work for me as a reader. Although the beginning was strong I don't think the idea of the rooms could hold up the story -  I found it became repetitive - even the strangest and weirdest thing can become boring when it keeps happening on a loop. 

I didn't like the book having no chapters - I like having a fixed place to stop. I'm presuming this was a thematic choice but for me it ended up adding to the interminable feel.

I wasn't keen on the illustrations.

There's a fair amount of gross-out humour which I think some kids will love and it does tip towards horror in a couple of places which I thought was written well. Horror and humour have always worked well together. Nothing too scary but just a little bit of fear for when Jack and Cally leave the path.

The book deals with fear, loss, grief and bereavement in a way that sometimes felt quite sensitive but at times the message also felt a little heavy-handed - Cally is angry, Jack is apathetic. As the whole book is essentially about fear, loss, grief and bereavement it felt like the message was being continually hammered home.

Do the rooms only choose bereaved children who aren't coping well with loss? I feel like it's been marketed more as an adventure fantasy because that's popular. Whereas perhaps, it's closer to the horror side of the fantasy genre. The rooms are coming to get you if you aren't able to cope in either a way or amount of time that's deemed socially acceptable.

I laughed in a couple of places but overall (the further I got into the story) found this a struggle to read as it wasn't holding my interest and in the end (like Jack and Cally) I just wanted to get through the rooms as quickly as possible so it could be over.

(I received a free copy of this book to review).

Monday 23 May 2022

The Children of Swallow Fell - Julia Green

Possibly one of the nicest dystopian novels I've read. It focusses on the promise / hope for what comes after the fall of modern society. There are still some scary and disturbing bits but they feel age appropriate. There are moments of fear, sadness and loss..."I try to smile for her, but the tears keep coming."... however the overall tone of the book is hopeful.

I don't think it's immediately obvious that this is set at some undisclosed future date - if not for the mention of mobile phones it could almost be set during World War II. 

The story begins as war breaks out in Italy where Isabella lives with her family. She and her father flee to the North of England, (through circumstances) leaving her mother and older sister behind. Once there they discover that some kind of sickness has devastated the local area. Isabella has to adapt to a new way of life - no shops, no electricity, no mobile phone. She meets two "wild" children - Rowan and Kelda - and slowly they build a new life.

The war and sickness are never fully explained. This fits with the loss of communication and isolation that occurs to the characters. I did wonder if the sickness was something to do with the lead mine that's located in the area as the water supplies to the houses are cut off. However, we are told that the spring water is still safe to drink so I think that was just me trying to solve a puzzle.

I love the two questions that frame the story. From the back cover - "What do we really need for a happy life?" and from the first page - "How do you begin life all over again?" I tried to keep these in mind whilst reading as I think they cut to the heart of the story.

I thought the beginning of the story was stronger than the end and illustrated how quickly normal can change to scary, unexpected and uncertain.

Once they arrive at Swallow Fell it's more a story of Isabella coming to terms with her new life and finding a way to live. Acknowledging that she has to let go of the past and that things are never going to be the same again.

The relationships in the story are interesting. Isabella has to take on more of an adult role as her father struggles to deal with what is happening. And her relationship with Rowan and Kelda is well drawn. Rowan is more cynical and distrusting, while Kelda is more hopeful and open. It's Rowan who opens Isabella's eyes to her new reality.

It didn't make me cry but there were a couple of moments where it came close. It's a story where I wanted to keep reading to find out what was going to happen but I'm not sure it's a book I would read again.

Overall - I found it melancholy but hopeful. 

(I received a free copy of this book for review.)

Monday 16 May 2022

The Unadoptables by Hana Tooke

 In the autumn of 1880, five "unadoptable" orphans make a daring escape from their orphanage to evade the clutches of a sinister gentleman. Embarking on a daring adventure, they begin looking for a family of their own, which may already be closer than they realise.

(It's a pity that so much emphasis and attention has been placed on the title because that really is such a small part of the story. I would say that this is a piece of historical fiction which reflects the views and beliefs of the time period in which it is set. Any prejudice is clearly shown to be a flaw or ignorance in the antagonists and is nothing to do with the children themselves.)

What I liked about the story - I loved that each of the five children is an individual with their own quirks, values and beliefs. I have a clear picture in my head of who Lotta, Egbert, Sem and Milou are. Fenna (who is selectively mute) I have less a picture of, but I think that would change on a second reading. 

I love that there is a point where Milou acknowledges she is behaving selfishly. Too often characters behave selfishly without repercussions or self-awareness and it makes them really annoying to read about! Her need to find her birth family above what the others in the group want is understandable but it does put the others in danger and it's good that this is acknowledged.

Whilst the story never made me cry, it did make me chuckle in a couple of places and also gasp out loud as there is a surprise and shock or two.

The baddies are very very bad - think evil laughs and (figurative) signs over their heads saying these are the bad guys. But other characters in the story are well-rounded with flaws and their own believable motivations.

It's well written and the plotting is tight, with things that are casually mentioned early in the books being tied up by the end. It also has some memorable lines - 

"I suppose there's only so much normal the five of us can realistically get away with."

and also:-

"I'm making you nervous? She's speaking in tongues."

Things I struggled with - At 384 pages it's quite a long read and I didn't always feel completely engaged with the story and characters. It's a book that I enjoyed whilst reading but I could put it down and not feel the need to pick it up again. However, it is a story that grows on you, probably for me starting as a D and ending as a B- hence the C review. I think you'd get more out of it on a re-read as you'd have more appreciation for the deft plotting.

Overall - I liked it but didn't love it. Lovers of YA historical fiction may find it more appealing.

(I received a free copy of this book for review)

Sunday 15 May 2022

Between the Covers Season 4

 If like me you missed any trailers for this - Between the Covers Season 4 has started. Wednesday night BBC2. I think the first episode  - which had some brilliant discussion - is available on IPlayer, as are episodes from previous series.

A great series if you like book discussion and finding out about new titles which may be out of your genre comfort zone. I just wished they publicised it better.

A link below to the main books for this series:-

Between the Covers Series 4 Books

But I get as much inspiration from the BYOB's (Bring your own books) that the guests bring every week. 

Monday 9 May 2022

Uma and the Answer to Absolutely Everything - Sam Copeland

(A complete change of pace and style from the previous review.)


"Uma Gnudersonn has a head full of questions - then she finds a genius artificial intelligence called Athena who knows everything. Suddenly Uma has the answer to any question she can imagine but Athena's sinister inventor wants her back and Athena will find out that all questions have answers."

This is narrated in the first person by the character of Uma Gnudersonn - she's an engaging narrator - occasionally a little bit snarky, especially about her best friend Alan Alan (yes his first name and middle name are the same) - but you are pulled into her story and see the world through her eyes. She has a great voice - 

" English teacher told me that tragedy is very useful in a story,'to get empathy from the reader'. Well, I hope you're full of empathy."

Before I go any further I have to say - there are FOOTNOTES! - which I love. Just little comments on what is happening in the story. Like Easter Eggs for books. There are a lot of alpacas in the book - also awesome - and my favourite footnote is on page 7 - 

"...if you don't like alpacas, then this book probably isn't for you. And if you don't like alpacas, you should probably take a long, hard look at yourself because alpacas are awesome." 

There is even an alpaca fact file at the end!

Back to the review.

We find out early on in the story that Uma's mother has died and that her dad is still grieving. Uma desperately wants to help her dad but doesn't know how. This is an ongoing thread throughout the story. The main story is her finding Athena and discovering that Minerva Industries (who created Athena) have nefarious intentions. So Uma has to save her village, stop Minerva Industries and try and reach her dad in his grief. It's a tall order but with help from Athena, Alan Alan and a pack of alpacas, Uma is going to try.

There is a scene towards the end of the book where we find out more details of what happened to Uma's mother and it did make me cry.

There is some absolutely brilliant description - 

"She had the face of a woman who would eat pizza with a knife and fork." 

And somehow you know exactly what she means.

It is a fantastical story - so if you prefer realism this probably isn't for you. The bad guys are very bad, there's a mineral called bogeymite, there are drunk (and sometimes talking alpacas), though they only ever talk in alpaca. But it's a rollicking read that goes along with it's heart front and centre. It does deal with grief and loss but I think in a sensitive way that feels organic to the story.

(I received a free copy of this book to review)

Monday 2 May 2022

This Can Never Not Be Real - Sera Milano


This Can Never Not Be Real shares the fictional experiences of initially four - Joe, Ellie, Violet, Peaches (then five) teenagers following a terrorist attack on a local festival. What follows is a series of "testimonies" from each of the teenagers as they recall the events of the night and what followed. 

Although Chapter One begins with each recollection headed in the following style -  Testimony of Joseph (Joe) Mead, 17 - and then a brief statement from the character. The following recollections for that character are just headed Joe - which I took to mean it came from a more personal experience of the character hence the emotions and detail rather than legal testimony. There are also a couple of places where there are testimonies from Police Officers - I think just to give you an idea of what is happening on the outside. 

Each chapter has multiple points of view - Chapter 1 has 35 different sections, as the POV changes. You always know which character is "speaking" as the sections are headed with their name. I wish the voices had been a little more distinct but this style certainly helps immerse you in the chaos and confusion of the situation.

It is a harrowing read, there is a trigger warning in the front of the book which tells you "...this story involves  descriptions of violence and the aftermath of violence including serious injury and death. The book also deals with suicide, some discussion of racial and faith based micro-aggressions and negative body image."

I make notes as I'm reading and for page 20 I made the note - "incredibly upsetting, intense and powerful" And I'm not going to lie there was a moment early on where I had to turn to the back of the book to find out what was going to happen to a particular character - otherwise I don't think I'd have been able to carry on. 

I expected to cry when reading this book - which I did on several occasions. I also felt an incredible amount of tension in certain sections and just had to keep turning the pages to find out what was going to happen. I didn't expect to laugh but I did in a couple of places - mainly because of Peaches self-depracating humour.

The story captures a feeling of claustrophobia and fear. The quickly switching point of views mean that you need to concentrate on what's happening because as the reader you get more of a whole picture of what's happening - you realise what happened with the phone on page 89 which might be something that the characters never do.

I didn't think this would be a book that I would want to read again. I know I won't want to read it for a while. But I think it is a book that I will read again because knowing how it ends will add a new depth to the re-read and I found it's themes of listening to the survivors, remembering the victims and not letting fear stop you living powerful and inspiring. 

(I received a free copy of this book to review).