Tuesday, 24 January 2017

Wing Jones

Jandy Nelson meets Friday Night Lights: a sweeping story about love and family from an exceptional new voice in YA. With a grandmother from China and another from Ghana, fifteen-year-old Wing Jones is often caught between worlds. But when tragedy strikes, Wing discovers a talent for running she never knew she had. Wing's speed could bring her family everything it needs. It could also stop Wing getting the one thing she wants.

To be completely honest, I wasn't sure what I was getting into when I decided to read Wing Jones. I don't read a huge amount of contemporary YA becuase I find it so hit and miss, and when it misses, it tends to miss badly because the line between relatable and patronising is a fine one. But the bookish lovelies taking part in the #BritishBooksChallenge2017 steered me onto this one, so I decided to give it a go, thinking it might be a harmless way to pass a few lunch breaks at work if nothing else.

I wasn't expecting to absolutely fall in love with it.

From the moment Wing Jones arrived, all sprayed magenta pages with a colour fade to die for, I was hooked. First off, the book is utterly gorgeous (and yet another example of the UK cover being far superior to the US one). Second off, the story - while sounding a bit cliched and by the numbers in the blurb - is fantastic, packed with nuances, fab writing and brilliant chracters. Third off - it packs far more of an emotional punch than I was expecting, but still manages to be overwhelming uplifting. Fourth off (okay, I'm stretching it with this counting system!) - in a genre that's crying out for diversity, Wing Jones has it in spades. And not just a box-ticking exercise with a few token ethnicities or sexual orientations thrown around, but genuine, well-rounded and well-written characters that aren't your out-of-the-box, straight, white characters. Hurray!

Wing doesn't have an easy life. She lives with her loving extended, half-Chinese half-Ghanaian family, having lost her father as a child. Her football-superstar brother Marcus has it all, but Wing has never seemed to fit in anywhere. Insecure about her looks, bullied at school and almost totally friendless, she's the kind of girl that wouldn't know how to go about looking for her place in the world, if she even believed it existed at all. But after an accident turns her world upside down, Wing is forced out of the rut she's been comfortable - albeit miserable - in, out of her brother's shadow and into the spotlight.

I was on tenderhooks through the first few chapters, knowing that something bad was about to happen but not quite knowing what it would be or when it would happen. The blurb was a bit of a spoiler - the emotional gut punch would have been ten times more powerful had I not seen it coming - but even so, the events which set Wing on her journey of self discovery are suitably shattering. Katherine Webber's writing is phenomonal, reducing me to tears on more than one occasion.

The characters are what makes this book so wonderful! It wasn't so much the friendships, but the importance of family that shone through the story. From Wing's own hectic, seemingly mismatched family, to the inclusion of her brother's girlfriend Monica - ostracised by her own family for dating a black guy - and his best friend Aaron who's practically family himself, the message was clear, and it raises the valid point; that real family is what you make of it. Wing's constantly bickering grannies were the highlight - I have to admit that Granny Dee just beat LaoLao into second place for my favourite supporting character! - but Monica, and Wing's supportive running team mate, Eliza, were refreshing changes to the pretty girl hate that's so maddeningly prevalent in YA. There's no rivalry between Wing and Eliza, just mutual respect and encouragement. There's no jealousy or backbiting between Wing and Monica, just support. Sure, there's resident high school bitch Heather who pops up to antagonise Wing every now and then, but even with her, there's the suggestion of more going on beneath the surface.

And then there's Wing and her sort-of love interest Aaron. Awwwww! I just can't with these two! I was a little concerned at first that their romance was going to come off as just gross. Aaron is after all Wing's older brother's best friend, he's practically one of the family, so developing Wing's crush on him into something more could have turned majorly creepy. But instead, it just works. I think anyone with an older brother had a crush or two on his friends growing up, but, despite starting out as little more than teenage infatuation on Wing's part, their relationship develops and blossoms through their love of Marcus and their mutual passion for running. Despite the book being quite short and a lot else going on, the romance never felt rushed or contrived, which is one of my biggest issues with a lot of the contemporary YA I've read in the past. The romance often feels forced into the story for the sake of it and can end up detracting from the plot. But that didn't happen here. The romance between Wing and Aaron feel like a natural part of the story. It's a consequence of the plot, not the plot itself, and more importantly, it felt real. Some books get this wrong, but this book gets it completely right.

The recurring appearance of Wing's two guardian angel/spirit creatures was hauntingly beautiful. I was a little skeptical of the stereotypical dragon representing her Asian roots and the lion stepping up for her African heritage at first, it just seemed a little too on the nose for me (then again, I suppose if you're going for fierce creatures from those continents, I wouldn't have any better suggestions), but the strength they possessed, showing up when Wing was hurt or scared or suffering was touching to the point of making me tear up. It's a testament to how uplifting and engrossing this book is that is almost inspired me to go for a run. Almost. I'll be honest, it would take a book filled with pictures of Tom Hardy naked placed at the finish line to make me run anywhere. But the fact that Katherine Webber has managed to make running seem almost appealing to a girl who doesn't believe a person should run unless they're being chased is no mean feat.

The ending wraps up a little abruptly and a little too neatly for me (even though it does acknowledge that Wing and her family's struggles aren't over), but it's a minor nitpick that can't detract from all the wonderful chapters that have come before it. Wing Jones is an emotional, uplifting and inspiring book, one that I'd recommend to pretty much anyone. I'm so glad I decided to get in on the British Books Challenge 2017 (thanks to Chelle Toy over at Tale of Yesterday for hosting and organising this year!) and that the guys turned me onto this book because I would have missed out on what I'm sure will be one of my favourite reads of the year.

Wednesday, 18 January 2017

Carve the Mark

On a planet where violence and vengeance rule, in a galaxy where some are favored by fate, everyone develops a currentgift, a unique power meant to shape the future. While most benefit from their currentgifts, Akos and Cyra do not—their gifts make them vulnerable to others’ control. Can they reclaim their gifts, their fates, and their lives, and reset the balance of power in this world?

Cyra is the sister of the brutal tyrant who rules the Shotet people. Cyra’s currentgift gives her pain and power—something her brother exploits, using her to torture his enemies. But Cyra is much more than just a blade in her brother’s hand: she is resilient, quick on her feet, and smarter than he knows.

Akos is from the peace-loving nation of Thuvhe, and his loyalty to his family is limitless. Though protected by his unusual currentgift, once Akos and his brother are captured by enemy Shotet soldiers, Akos is desperate to get his brother out alive—no matter what the cost. When Akos is thrust into Cyra’s world, the enmity between their countries and families seems insurmountable. They must decide to help each other to survive—or to destroy one another. 

Disclaimer. I received a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Star-crossed lovers? Check. Nature versus nurture? Check? Space? Wars? Intergalactic power struggles? Check, check, check! Then why was this book not half as exciting as it should have been? All the ingredients were there, this one just didn't come together for me the way it should have based on what it contained. You know when you're really excited to read a book? You expect it to be great. Your imagination is already spinning all the ways the story could possibly go. You lock the front door, put your phone on silent and start reading. and it quickly becomes clear that the book is not going to live up to your expectations.

I read and enjoyed most of Veronica Roth's Divergant series (as in, I liked the first two, and I don't want to talk about the third one). I wasn't blown away by them, but they were enjoyable enough that I would have picked up another book by the author. In terms of writing style, story ambition and storytelling, Carve the Mark is a definite step up from Divergant. That's not to say that Divergant wasn't good, it just feels like Veronia Roth's writing has matured. The switching povs - from first person for Cyra, the third person for Akos - was a bit jarring at first, but ended up being a nice twist on the usual switching third person or standard first person pov that I'm used to reading in most other books.

That said, despite the first person perspective, I couldn't connect with Cyra as a character, mainly because she was written so inconsistently. It felt like the author wanted her to be too many things, so she came across as more of a charactature than a character. She's supposed to be in constant pain from her currentgift (or drugged up on a nauseatingly strong painkiller), yet no one bests her in a fight. She's supposed to be strong and resilient, yet she's a complete slave to her brother's whims, immediately backtracking every time she stand up for herself and refuses to do as she's told. He tells her to torture and hurt people and, despite showing on one occasion that she can easily turn this "gift" on her brother if he pisses her off, and she just does it. Even if she doesn't believe the victim deserves it, and to the point where the lingering pain she causes leads them to kill themselves. Roth wants her to be a badass with an armful of kills, but seems afraid of going all in and following through on what that would mean, perhaps for fear of making Cyra unlikable. She wants Cyra to be vulnerable and suffering, but doesn't want to get too deep into the harsh reality of what it means to live with a truly debilitating condition. And it's that level of calculated cynicism when writing a character that stops me from reading them as a real person.

Akos fairs better in the story. His hate to love relationship with Cyra was a little by the numbers, but he was a much more believable character because he didn't suffer from the same "woe is me" backstory that Cyra was hobbled by. I liked that he wasn't a flawless, alpha-male, sweep-in-and-show-the-protagonist-that-all-she-really-need-is-a-man-to-sort-out-her-life, type of character. Instead, what we get it two flawed individuals who ultimately believe that they can be better than they are, and support each other to get there. No one is picking anyone up off the floor here, they're helping each other to stand up, and that element of the story, I was down with. I've never been a fan of stories where the supposedly strong female lead character is, despite what the author tries to tell you, ultimately rescued by the love interest, or simply swaps one guy for another as a means of clumsily demonstrating character development.
I think my main issue with this story however, was just that it never felt like the galaxy-spanning space adventure that it sold itself to be. This should have been YA Star Wars, but everything feels so oddly contained. At one point, Cyra says "this is a war" to Akos. But the problem is, it never feels like it is. The stakes never feel that high. The world - spanning entire planets - never feels that vast. Ryzek - the big bad of the story, never feels like a credible threat. It's all very well humanising your villains, but Ryzek comes across as a weasely coward, with no presence or charisma to speak of. I just couldn't believe that this man was the leader of such a fearsome people, much less that he had the Svengali-esque influence needed to rally support and overthrough governments.
There's been a lot of talk online about the racial undertones of this book, and whether it perpetuates the lazy and incredibly damaging stereotype of the dark-skinned aggressors. This is always a thorny subject, especially in a genre that's literally crying out for diversity (check out the #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign). When you read the first few chapters of this book with that in your mind, the peaceful, light-skinned Thuve people being constantly hounded and harassed by the decidedly darker-skinned Shotet does read a little awkwardly to say the least. Add in the Shotet's brutal nature - right there in the book blurb - grass skirts, face painting and tribal "kill" tattoos, and you find yourself wondering how this issue wasn't picked up by somebody, anybody, involved in bringing this book to publication.

However, I still accepted a review copy of this book, wanting to make up my own mind rather than dismissing it entirely based on other people's opinions. Did I see where people who suggested this were coming from? Yes. Would I have read it in the story had I not seen it suggested before? Probably not. There's certainly a vein of cultural supremacy at the beginning of the book that plays the more "western" culture/people/character as the good guy - something that's depressingly common in YA - but I have to admit, I wasn't absorbed enough in the book to read it this way as the story went on. I just wasn't envisioning the characters and the world the way I do when I'm really swept away by a story. Had I been, I may well have seen this as more problematic. The thing is, I do genuinely believe that the stereotyping here was unintentional, and, frustratingly, is something that could have easily been identified and remedied before this book made it to the shelves.

Ultimately, this was one of those reads for me where the sum of its parts was greater than it's total. All my "must read" boxes were ticked, but Carve the Mark just didn't grab me and the ending annoyed me more than it intrigued me. The story was wrapping up, and then there is quite literally a single sentence ending the book which dumps a completely random plot twist in out of absolutely nowhere, and further undermines an already pretty weak villain. All that said, I get why some people are raving about this book, just as I get why some people are ripping it to shreds. It has all the elements of a YA fantasy must read, and perhaps that's why it wasn't for me. I prefer stories that cover a few bases and cover them well to stories than try and cover all the bases and stretch themselves too thin.

Friday, 13 January 2017

The Fate of the Tearling

In less than a year, Kelsea Glynn has grown from an awkward teenager into a powerful monarch and a visionary leader. And as she has come into her own as the Queen of the Tearling, she has transformed her realm. But in her quest to end corruption and restore justice, she has made many enemies - chief among them the evil and feared Red Queen, who ordered the armies of Mortmesne to march against the Tear and crush them.

To protect her people from such a devastating invasion, Kelsea did the unthinkable - naming the Mace, the trusted head of her personal guards, Regent in her place, she surrendered herself and her magical sapphires to her enemy. But the Mace will not rest until he and his men rescue their sovereign from her prison in Mortmesne. So, the endgame has begun and the fate of Queen Kelsea - and the Tearling itself - will be revealed...

The Fate of the Tearling closes with the author acknowledgements, as most books do. What makes this one different is that it's the first I've seen that contains an almost-apology to the readers. It's unusual, to say the least! But contains a warning that not all answers are given in this series. And the author is not kidding. There are so many unanswered questions, so many dangling or unresolved (at least satisfactorily) plot threads and things that made absolutely no sense!

After the pure fantasy of The Queen of the Tearling, I was a bit surprised when The Invasion of the Tearling started to veer towards sci-fi, something that continued at pace in Fate. There's still an element of fantasy here, even if the magic powers that are wielded by some characters remain frustratingly vague and unexplained, but with religion getting a poke in the ribs and time travel thrown in, Fate seems to be more sci-fi dystopia than anything else. It's a strange mix that sits uneasily at times, leaving the story muddled and confused in places. As with Invasion, we get dual timelines, this time with a new character from the past. These parts - from the pov of character Katie - were my favourite parts of the book. The fall of the Tearling's perfect utopia to fear, suspicion and the rise of religion is fantastic.

Unfortunately, the present day story doesn't fare quite so well. There are so many disparate characters, including new ones who seem to bring nothing to the stroy (Jeval anyone?) that the central characters from the last two books get lost in the mire. What happened to my beloved Pen?! He's mentioned about twice, once drunking and crying over Kelsea, and once more telling her that he can't be around her anymore (their "relationship" is one of the many plot threads that feels like it's been short-changed), and that's it! Poor guy gets about two pages of book time! Things get a little better in the second half of the book when the ranks are thinned a bit, but it still feels like the main plot from Queen has faded rather than being enhanced. After two books of teasing, the reveal of who Kelsea's father is was indeed the damp squib I was expecting. It's revealed in a throwaway sentence and has no bearing on the rest of the story.

There's some nice humanisation of the mysterious Red Queen, who was the antagonist for book one and much of book two, but I do prefer my big bads to remain just that. Back stories and tragic childhoods do go some way to watering down a really good villain. The creepy Brenna makes a return too, but her presence feels unnecessary, and her quick departure feels totally wasted. Sure, she instigates a plot point with the Red Queen, but it's nothing that justifies the characters presence.

I absolutely loved Kelsea Glynn in Queen. She kicked ass and took names, not afraid to stand up for her beliefs and her people. The scene where she gets coronated with a knife in her back was an act of utter badassery! After becoming a pale shadow of her former self in Invasion, I was happy to see her snap out of her funk and be a bit more like the old Kelsea. Unfortunately, she doesn't get many opportunities to show off here, what with being imprisoned for most of the story, but it did remind me why I fell so in love with the first book.

The ending could be a redeemer for you, depending on how you like your twists, but for me, I just found that it came out of nowhere and was confusing as hell! I had to read the final three chapters about three times to work out what happened - not to mention how, and I'm still not 100% sure I got it right! Time travel is a tricky beast to get right, often leaving more questions than it answers, and, unfortunately, that's what happened here for me. It also meant the the big showdown that I was expecting between Kelsea and the mysterious Orphan is completely glossed over and robs the book of the dramatic showdown ending I was looking forward to.

Taking away my issues with the story, I still love Erika Johansen's writing. She's without a doubt a fantastic storyteller, and paints a vivid picture with just a few words. I really think that if the story was tighter, I'd have rated this book much higher on the strength of the writing alone. It's not utterly flawless though. There were two appallingly written sex scenes. They were just . . . weird. They came out of nowhere, were confusing as hell to read (I had to read them a few times to confirm that sex had actually occured) and were about sexy as being rubbed down with a raw chicken. I'm not sure what tone the author was going for, but it did not work. And, I'm sorry, but if you've never had sex before and someone abruptly "shoves" themselves inside you with no warm up, you don't immediately orgasm, you have to be prised down from the ceiling!

If you'd asked me when I'd finished Queen (which I loved) whether the conclusion to this series was a disappointment, I'd have said hell yes! If you'd asked me when I'd finished Invasion (which I hated for the most part but ended up liking overall by the end), I'd have said probably. But if you'd asked me part way through Fate, I'd have said no. This series started so strong, but I felt that it tried to be too many things and ended up losing sight of the heart of its story and characters. Maybe I wouldn't have been so hard on this book if the first in the series hadn't been so fantastic. As it is, this is a disappointing end to a steadily declining trilogy.

Sunday, 8 January 2017


A hero has fallen, and darkness threatens a splintered Camelot. In the midst of turmoil, the last hope for the kingdom is Morgan le Fay. Morgan is both feared and revered . . . and currently in prison for treason.

In the wake of King Uther’s tragic death, the wicked Mordred is closing in on young King Arthur, and the boy king turns to Morgan for help. Freed from her imprisonment through his order, Morgan searches for a way to protect him. But she is still an outcast, and no one believes her suspicions about Mordred.

To save King Arthur, Morgan must reach the greatest Royal Relic in the world—the Grail—before Mordred does. It’s a journey that will challenge her in ways she’s never been challenged before. Traveling deep into a land of darkness, she will need to overcome the ghosts of her past to find her true power.

Disclaimer; I was provided with a free copy of this book by Realm Lovejoy in exchange for an honest review.

I loved the first book in the Le Fay series, Henge. The mix of Arthurian legend, modern-world technology and magic was a winning combination for me! I wasn't as keen on the second book, Sword, which suffered from some pacing issues, but I couldn't wait to see where Morgan's journey went in book three.

Book two in the series may have been a bit slow, but Grail has no such problems! The pace zips along at a rate of knots and it kept me hooked right the way through. With the story following Morgan as she spends the first half of the book in various stages of imprisonment and the second half on a quest to beat the villainous Mordred to the mythical grail, I should have had the same issue with this book that I did with Sword. But for some reason, the "story of two halves" approach seemed to work here. It just felt more connected and engaging.

It was good to see Morgan getting back to be the badass that she was in Henge. She's a little more subdued - both by her own doubts and the ban on her using her fire magic - but this darker, more introveted Morgan makes sense after everything she's been through. Her will they/won't they relationship with Merlin continues to be one of my favourite parts of the book. Over three books, they've flitted between friends, to alternately loving and hating each other, and there's no resolution here, but it's a lovely, bittersweet relationship that changes them both. I'm still not a fan of Lancelot. I know he's not supposed to be much older than Morgan, but the fact that he's the head of the king's guards means that I automatically think of him as being much older than the teenage protagonists. As a result, I've always found him a little sleazy. I felt so sorry for Arthur though! He may be the king, but he's a borderline suicidal teenager who's hopelessly out of his depth and completely at the whims of those around him. I hope he gets himself together later in the series. I'm thinking an ass-kicking, Clive Owen in the movie King Arthur-type of character!

After Arthur is kidnapped by the rebellious Luminaries, Morgan and Merlin are sent on a quest to beat Mordred to the mythical grail, which was easily my favourite part of the book! All mysterious islands, abandoned villages and bloodthirsty creatures. I love that stuff! And the final showdown between Morgan and Mordred - magic a-blazing! - was spectacular!

I did have some issues with the story The constant plot contrivances to keep Morgan around Arthur did get on my nerves a little. I mean, this is someone who's been sentenced to death for killing of the king and conspiring to overthrow his family as far as people believe, and not only is she not executed, she's assigned to work as a sort of janitor in the new king Arhtur's castle, with the only caveat being that she must stay away from him. Again, this is someone who, as far as most people are concerned, is guilty of regicide. And she's put to work in the castle. Unsupervised on occasion. And then she's upgraded to train as a knight! Expecting me to believe that Camelot would allow their most despised criminal to be trained as a knight while roaming freely around the castle requires a huge suspension of disbelief, and I'd like to have seen a more satisfying explanation for it.

Grail ends on another cliffhanger - although this one wasn't as frustrating as the one in Sword - but manages to wrap up the story nicely while still laying the foundations for the next book.