Robyn Reviews: The Extraordinaries

The Extraordinaries is a fun, modern YA fantasy – funny and heartwarming in places and serious in others. The characters are cute, the LGBT representation fantastic, and I suspect modern teenagers will enjoy it. The story and setting are unoriginal – I predicted every single plot twist miles before it happened, and I’ve read several similar books before – but that doesn’t prevent it being a good read.

The main character, Nick, is sixteen and just entering Junior Year of High School in Nova City – very similar to any city in the US, except there are superheroes, known as Extraordinaries. Nick is a fan. In fact, he’s such a big fan of the city’s Extraordinary – known as Shadow Storm – that he spends his time writing self-insert fanfiction and owns a pillow with Shadow Storm’s face on it. Nick dreams of being rescued by his idol and subsequently joining him on his adventures to save the city. Of course, that’s not precisely what happens.

Nick is a sweet, naive, oblivious sixteen-year-old. He also has ADHD – this is exceptionally well written and one of the highlights of the book. With his well-known superhero crush and constant stream of random thoughts, he isn’t the most popular guy in school – but he has his own tight-knit group of friends. His relationships with them were brilliant and another strength, even if Jazz and Gibby felt more like caricatures than characters at times. LGBT rep is always brilliant, but the butch can-kick-your-ass girl and her head-cheerleader girlfriend was almost too cliché.

Seth, Nick’s best friend since they met on the swings ten years ago, is equally adorable. Orphaned at a young age in a train crash, Seth has always been a strange, chubby kid who struggled to make friends – but in him, Nick found the patient listener he needed, and Seth found the human connection he craved. I loved them – their relationship was often painfully awkward, and both of them are ridiculously oblivious, but it was pure and adorable. The reactions of everyone else around them were also perfect – their disbelief and frustration matched mine as I was reading perfectly.

Owen, Nick’s sort-of-ex and now sort-of-friend, had the potential to be an interesting character, but too much was left a mystery. I never quite knew what to think. Hopefully future books will develop him further – his arc in this didn’t feel complete.

The setting was a completely standard US city, plus superheroes, giving a thoroughly contemporary feel – except perhaps for the highly limited number of news channels, and the way everyone watched them instead of Netflix. Why the superheroes were left to continue unchecked was never explained, nor why they existed – or how. For what is essentially a YA fantasy romance, this doesn’t matter too much, but I would have liked a little more explanation.

Overall, this is a solid enough read. It’s great fun, with laugh out loud moments, and the characters are adorable – but the story is predictable, and characters just the wrong side of cliché. With the exception of Nick and Seth – who were themselves clichés – none of them were expounded on enough to take them into 3D territory, which left the novel a little lacking. But for younger teenagers, this will likely be a story to love.

 

Published by Hodder & Stoughton
Hardback: 14 July 2020

Robyn Reviews: Girl, Serpent, Thorn

Girl, Serpent, Thorn is a Persian-inspired fairytale about a princess cursed to be poisonous to the touch. Kept locked away in a tower, she dreams of the day a handsome prince will come and rescue her – but when someone does, it doesn’t quite go how she expected.

The first quarter of this is a slow read and feels very trope-y, but then the story starts to take twists and turns and becomes much more fast-paced and enjoyable. I predicted several of the twists but still found the plot holding my attention. It helps that the setting is gorgeous, and the Persian-inspired elements are intriguing and give this a fresh feel even when the plot treads over familiar ground.

The main character, Soraya, is the twin sister of the Shah – the ruler of the land, blessed with the protection of the Simorgh to protect his people from evil divs. Cursed shortly after her birth to kill every animal – including humans – that she touches, Soraya stays shut in her room at the palace with very minimal contact with the outside world. As such, she’s innocent and naive, coming across younger than her years and very vulnerable. She also has a great deal of anger and resentment – at herself, her situation, and the world. Whilst at times she’s a difficult character to like, her immature emotional outbursts and naivety felt realistic and she grew significantly as a character throughout the book. I particularly enjoyed her relationship with her mother, Tahmineh, and how that changed as secrets were revealed.

With the exception of Soraya – and to an extent Tahmineh – none of the other characters felt quite as three-dimensional. I would love to read the full story of Azad, and equally the story of Parvaneh – two highly intriguing individuals who weren’t quite utilised to their full potential. The childhood relationships between Soraya, Sorush, Laleh, and Ramin would also be interesting to know about in more detail – especially the dynamic between Laleh and Soraya. But the book would not have been as fast-paced and exciting if it had stopped to delve into side characters, and they all played their part.

Overall, this is a solid addition to the YA fantasy genre and worth a read for anyone looking for a story that’s a little bit different. It takes a while to get going, but once you get past the first part it grows into itself and takes you on a journey.

 

Published by Hodder & Stoughton
Hardback: 7 July 2020

Book Review: Sweet Sorrow

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

David Nicholls is a fluent writer and storyteller who can draw the reader in with his gently probing insights and empathetic witticisms. Sweet Sorrow, his latest work, sits easily alongside his previous bestselling novels. The characters are relatable, their troubles universal. Events and people are recognisable from everyday life.

The story is set mostly over the long weeks of a late twentieth century English summer during which the protagonist, Charlie Lewis, leaves school and awaits his GCSE exam results. Charlie knows that he has not done well enough to move on to college and then university, a trajectory his always trying to be cool friends will rarely acknowledge they aspire to. Charlie is facing his uncertain future with a heady mixture of regret, excitement and trepidation.

In the months prior to his exams, Charlie’s family life was upended. He now lives with his unemployed father who is coping badly with depression. Charlie is worried, resentful and angry, but mostly he simply wishes to avoid parental confrontation. He needs to escape the oppressive atmosphere of home, to fill the long hours in each unstructured day and try not to think too much of the decisions he must inevitably make about what comes next.

A chance encounter leads Charlie to join The Company, a summer scheme where he must work with a mixed group of people who are very different to those he has previously befriended. Despite feelings of discomfort and detachment, he finds himself returning each day. There is a girl, Fran Fisher, and Charlie realises he is falling in love.

The joyous aspects of love stories are rarely of interest to anyone other than those directly involved. To engage the reader in such stories there need to be obstacles, misunderstandings and other problems to overcome. The author presents these aspects in the form of the difficulties inherent in being sixteen years old.

The book begins on the last day of school and introduces Charlie’s friendship group. These are boys who have ended up together through circumstance more than choice. They survive on insults and banter interspersed with regular rough and tumble. They each cultivate an image that they wear like armour.

“Though none of us played an instrument, we’d imagined ourselves as a band.”

“while some girls circled […] the group was self-sufficient and impenetrable”

Charlie is all too aware that his school friends would relentlessly mock his involvement with The Company. To take part, and therefore get to know Fran, he must learn to behave differently. There is a class and cultural divide to surmount. There is the need to work out how to talk and be with a girl like Fran.

Meanwhile, Charlie’s home life is one of fear over his Dad’s mental state and what he may find inside each time he opens their front door. There is also an interesting sub plot involving petty thieving from Charlie’s part-time job. The tension this adds got me through some of the more repetitive touchy feely sections midway where my interest would occasionally wane.

There are laugh out loud moments alongside the poignancy. Fran’s recollection of an encounter with a boy she was once besotted with is filled with humour despite the appalling behaviour. Fran comes across as surprisingly self aware for a sixteen year old. Charlie appears more typical, and it is this that is the strength of the story.

“the greatest lie that age tells about youth is that it’s somehow free of care, worry or fear.
Good God, doesn’t anyone remember?”

For anyone who has ever been sixteen years old this tale will take them back to those days with all their anticipation and fear of ridicule. The narrator, Charlie, is looking back from a distance of two decades. He offers an impressive degree of clarity as well as nostalgia. He is contemplating the lasting impact of first love.

The Shakespearean elements of the story were deployed extensively. There is, however, acknowledgement that the bard’s writing will not be accessible to all readers – something the author attempts to rectify in key passages quoted. What is captured beautifully is the maelstrom of uncertainty, angst and passion to be found in groups of young people from any era.

Any Cop?: This was an enjoyable trip down memory lane.

Book Review: The Roanoke Girls

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The Roanoke Girls, by Amy Engel, is a darkly disturbing story set in and around Osage Flats, a small town in Kansas, America. Roanoke is a rambling farmhouse a few miles outside of the town that has been added to over the years giving it a bizarrely gothic feel. The wealthy family who own it and much of the surrounding land have lived there for generations. Its comfort and isolation have been an aid to their lifestyle.

Much of the tale is told from the point of view of Lane who moves to Roanoke from New York when she is fifteen years old following her mother’s suicide. She and her mother, Camilla, had a toxic relationship so she feels little grief at her death. She is aware that Camilla was raised at Roanoke but has not been told further details of the family history.

Underage and alone, Lane has little choice but to comply when her maternal grandparents offer to take her in. She is eagerly welcomed to Roanoke by her cousin, Allegra, who is of a similar age and possesses similar traits. Allegra’s mother, Eleanor, ran away just after she had given birth and has neither been seen nor heard from since. When Lane is shown old family photographs she realises that Eleanor looked just like Camilla. They had another sister, Emmeline, who died as a baby. The previous generation endured similar fates.

‘Hearing their stories turned the faces in front of me from beautiful to tragic. They watched me now with haunted eyes. The only one left was Allegra. And me. I suddenly didn’t want a place on the wall. “Wow,” I said, goose bumps sprouting along my neck, even in the closed-in heat of the hall. “That’s a lot of dead girls.” Allegra did a quick pirouette away from me, her smile a little too wide. “Roanoke girls never last long around here.” […] “In the end, we either run or we die.”‘

To the outside world it would appear that these girls have it all. They are beautiful, wealthy, and allowed to live much as they please. Lane has never known love so is drawn to her doting grandfather who willingly provides whatever she desires. Her grandmother remains more distant.

The story unfolds over two time periods – that first long hot summer during which Lane discovers why the Roanoke girls consider themselves special, and another summer a decade later when she is forced to return to the farm because Allegra has gone missing. It is clear that although Lane may have escaped she still carries the mental scars of the family secret. The details of this are revealed to the reader early on, but the devastating effect on each of three generations of Roanoke girls is more gradually peeled away.

Although repellent to consider in places the narrative deals sensitively with the issues explored. There is a sinister undercurrent that had me anxious to know what was to happen next, fearful of what would be revealed. The tension never lets up as Lane seeks answers to her cousin’s disappearance.

This is not a story for the faint-hearted. It is tightly constructed and stunningly written but broaches topics few lay bare despite knowing they exist. The sex, drugs and small town thinking are mere backdrops to the damaging impact on all who attempt to breach the brittle Roanoke family circle.

A remarkable story that I recommend to any willing to dare. This is an electric read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Hodder and Stoughton.

Book Review: Hex

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Hex, by Thomas Olde Heuvelt (translated by Nancy Forest-Flier), is nightmare inducing in the best possible way. Horror is a genre that I have come to late. When I read a book as impressive as this I am eager to discover more.

The small town of Black Spring, situated in the picturesque Hudson Valley close to the United States Military Academy at West Point, has a secret that it hides in plain sight. The town signs welcome visitors to the home of the Black Rock Witch. What they don’t admit, to anyone, ever, on pain of death, is that she actually exists.

In 1664, Katherine van Wyler was sentenced to death for witchcraft. Back then Black Spring was a thriving trapper’s colony populated by Dutch settlers. Katherine was accused of many unnatural practices and was tortured until she confessed to her crimes. Since her death she has haunted the town, walking the streets and appearing within the residents homes. To prevent her casting evil spells former townsfolk sewed up her eyes and mouth, chaining her arms to her body that she may be unable to remove the stitches. There is a deep seated fear of what could happen should her eyes ever be opened.

The residents accept the presence of this supernatural being because they have no choice. Once they have lived in the town they are unable to leave. Those who try, die.

None resent the limitations this imposes on their lives and prospects more than the town’s teenagers whose access to the outside world is strictly monitored and curtailed. When a group of them decide that they will break the rules and post details of the witch on line they set in motion a terrifying series of events. Katherine has been provoked and the outcome is worse than any of these supposedly good, American citizens could have imagined possible.

The sinister undercurrents of the tale emanate from each page yet it is more than a simple horror story. It offers insights into the power struggles within a closed community, the bullying, mob mentality that simmers just below the surface of those who live in fear. The atmosphere evoked is one of darkness and brooding resentment. Add to this a dose of teenage rebellion and the explosive, terrifying denouement is inevitable in all but the detail. That this still had the power to shock to the core shows the strength of the writing.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book but recommend approaching with caution. It is classed as horror for a reason.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Hodder and Stoughton.

Book Review: Jakob’s Colours

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Jakob’s Colours, by Lindsay Hawdon, tells the story of an eight year old gypsy boy who is on the run from the Nazis in the final years of the Second World War. It is heartbreaking.

Based on the true but often unremarked history of the Romany holocaust it moves between three decades, each as horrific as the next. Jakob’s mother was born to a wealthy, English couple but endured unspeakable abuse in the name of a ‘cure’ for a madness that did not exist. Jakob’s father was forcibly removed from his loving, gypsy parents when the state decided that the only solution to the problem of vagrancy was to ‘re-educate’ the children.

In these days of increasing xenophobia it was a difficult book to read. It left me feeling an empty despair for mankind, that this should have happened and is still happening in so many countries around the world; that man should ever find any justification for treating their fellow human beings in this way. The fear of difference, the intolerance of a lifestyle that does not conform to state sanctioned normality remains strong. Propaganda is believed and those who are different dehumanised.

The book is beautifully written, evocative and rich in its portrayal of the natural harmony by which the gypsies tried to live. Alongside the horror were individual acts of kindness and personal bravery. There remain good people despite so much accepted evil.

I was particularly moved by the scene where Jakob’s mother and father first got together and declared themselves husband and wife. This family, who struggled so hard to survive, emanated strength and love amid the pathos of their lives.

A powerful and unusual book that I want to put in front of everyone who has ever felt justified in encouraging dislike of a race or class of people. Reading this book hurt. It is harrowing but ultimately hopeful, a tale filled with colour and wonder that rise above the oppression. Read. Listen to your heart.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Hodder and Stoughton.

 

Book Review: Wolf Winter

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Wolf Winter, by Cecilia Ekbäck, is a haunting tale of isolation, superstition and murder set in a remote, mountain community in 1717 Swedish Lapland. Maija, her husband Paavo and their daughters Frederika and Dorotea have moved to the Blackåsen Mountain from their native Finland hoping to escape their past. It is not to be.

Whilst out herding goats with her sister, Frederika comes upon the mutilated body of one of the other settlers. His violent death is put down to a wild animal attack but, having examined his remains, Maija will not accept this verdict. Throughout the course of a particularly harsh season, a wolf winter, she stubbornly questions her neighbours about what preceded the man’s demise. It seems that everyone has secrets.

Overseeing the scattered community is a Church determined to suppress the Shamanism which Maija eschews but which still lurks beneath the surface on the brooding mountain. It is unclear what is real and what is conjured up through fear but it cannot be spoken of. Suspected witches will be tried and condemned.

The story is told from three perspectives: Maija, Frederika and a priest who is also new to the area. The prose is sparse, evoking the cold and bleak atmosphere of the setting and the challenges of staying alive in such a wild and isolated place.

As well as portraying the storms and darkness of the day to day lives of the settlers the author explores relationships with a sometimes uncomfortable realism. She skilfully presents Maija’s feelings towards her husband who has changed so much since they first met; the increasing distance between Maija and the teenage Frederika; Frederika’s burgeoning interest in a young Lapp man; the conflicts felt by the priest in his encounters with two of his female flock.

The layers and twists in this tale make for powerful reading. As secrets are uncovered the resultant truths precipitate reactions which must then be dealt with by all. The climax of the tale does not disappoint.

Beautifully written with a clear and haunting voice, this story takes the reader into the heart of a dark and challenging way of life. The cold seeps in along with the story. Wrap up well and enjoy.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Hodder and Stoughton.

 

Book Review: Golden Son

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Golden Son, by Pierce Brown, is an uncomfortable read. The writing is tight and the dystopian world plausible. It is Lord of the Rings meets a futuristic Game of Thrones. The pace is relentless, the politics twisted. Much of the story is of violent clashes with heroism and luck keeping the protagonist alive as his friends and foes die. It is unclear who stands for what as allegiances shift alongside the tides of battle.

The protagonist, Darrow, is fighting to bring down a rigid society based on a colour coded hierarchy. He was born a lowly Red but has been surgically changed to pass as one of the ruling Golds. Along with other rebels he has infiltrated the leadership in order to kick-start a revolution.

This is not just a tale of good trying to overthrow evil. The reason for the setting up of such a society was to create order for the sake of mankind’s future. As one of the leaders tells Darrow it replaced a system that was heading towards self-destruction, a system that sounds like the one in which we currently abide.

“Humanity came out of hell, Darrow. Gold did not rise out of chance. We rose out of necessity. Out of chaos, born from a species that devoured its planet instead of investing in the future. Pleasure over all, damn the consequences. The brightest minds enslaved to an economy that demanded toys instead of space exploration or technologies that could revolutionize our race. They created robots, neutering the work ethic of mankind, creating generations of entitled locusts. Countries hoarded their resources, suspicious of one another. There grew to be twenty different factions with nuclear weapons. Twenty – each ruled by greed or zealotry.”

Throughout the book is the recurring question of whether overthrowing the hierarchical order will lead to a better life for the majority of citizens. Darrow’s reasoning may be sound with his desire for individual choice and equality but any society requires decision makers and history shows time and again how power corrupts.

The strength of this book, aside from the quality of the writing, is that it acknowledges the shades of grey. It demands that the reader consider the many reasons behind any decision. It challenges idealism. Friendship, family, revenge and a lust for power are all explored. Key characters are multi dimensional, imperfect and believable.

Golden Son is the second book in a planned trilogy which started with Red Rising. I have not read this first book so came to it unaware of the back story. It took me some time to work out who was who in the large cast of characters but the story is well enough written to stand alone.

Politics is a dirty game and this book is full of the selfish and duplicitous as well as the brave and patriotic. It is written for and I would recommend it to young adults not least because it could demonstrate how revolution, even for a just cause, can have unforeseen and unintended consequences. Easy to read but not an easy read this is action adventure in a dystopian science fiction that will leave the reader eager for book three.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Hodder and Stoughton.

 

Book Review: The Forever Watch

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The Forever Watch, by David Ramirez, takes a much used science fiction trope and injects it with enough excitement, pathos and originality to produce a thoroughly satisfying read.

The story is set on a massive spaceship called The Noah which is on a thousand year journey to a new planet following the destruction of Earth. The on board society is tightly controlled with hierarchies based on ability. Each citizen is wired into the Nth web, a computer system that monitors and controls all activity. When even thoughts can be read the only chance of privacy is the inability of the controllers to sift through the volume of data available to them.

The protagonist, Hana Dempsey, is a mid level bureaucrat who uncovers a disturbing secret and sets out in search of the truth. As a result, she and her partner become the catalyst for events that threaten the existence of all on board the ship. Is it sometimes better that secrets remain known only to a few?

Having read so many other books that started out with a similar premise I was around a quarter to halfway through before the plot had truly pulled me in. The first section is well enough written and the scene had to be set but I felt it lacked originality. Once it got going though I realised that the author was not going to follow the well worn path I had expected.

There are many books where a few good men overcome an evil administration but this story goes much further looking at reasons, consequences and the knock on effects of a wider dissemination of state secrets. If the price of peace and survival is a lie then should it be told?

The book is tightly written with a complicated plot that moves along at a rollicking pace. The detail is impressive making the technologies seem possible in that environment. Despite the powers that the people have, human nature with its many flaws remains and is explored. The society is satisfyingly diverse. All are expected to know their place and obey the rules or risk Adjustment.

The denouement ties up the many threads and, without descending into saccharin, left me feeling replete. The final line was inspired.

If you enjoy good science fiction then read this book. A slow burning start that could light up the way you think about the structures on which society is built.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Hodder and Stoughton.

Book Review: Brood

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Brood, by Chase Novak, is a powerful, chilling horror story which explores the emotive subject of fertility and what could go wrong if desperate, would be parents used wealth to buy experimental treatments abroad. If all that were wanted was a baby then these treatments would be considered a success. However, the side effects prove terrifying as the new parents discover the cost of their induced parenthood, and it is not just they who are affected. As the children grow and the condition of their parents deteriorates it becomes clear that what they have become is deadly and cannot be controlled.

As well as the questions this book raises about how far infertile couples will go in order to conceive, there is a sub plot that explores man’s desire to copulate when natural libido fails. There is a lucrative market in drugs that claim to improve sex life with little regard for the side effects these can have. The mutant children play a crucial role in this trade which puts them in danger as pharmaceutical companies seek them out, eager to discover their secrets in order to replicate it in a lab.

The story explores society’s need for outward conformity. Children are routinely drugged if their behaviour is deemed unacceptable. The pharmaceutical companies push drugs that offer a normality dictated by a culture that demands ideals. Children should do as they are told and outperform their peers. Adults view a sex life as a right.

These story-lines ebb and flow around the individual tales of the brood, a group of feral children who have escaped the horrors of their parents but now find themselves developing similar appetites. These children recognise that they will never find a place within approved society and seek to create a place for themselves.

Alongside there is one woman, Cynthia, who is trying to cure two of the children with love. She watched as her sister took the fertility treatments which ultimately drove her to suicide, saw first hand the effects the drugs had on behaviour. Now Cynthia is determined to become a mother to the resulting children, a task that she longed for yet which tests her to her limits and endangers her life.

The book is stylishly written. Although gruesome in places the detail is needed to fully appreciate both the pathos of the mutant offspring and the world where the wealthy can buy drugs which override nature in a way that has nothing to do with curing illness. The undercurrents are about, money, power, control and self entitlement.

The author has created a compelling tale that asks deep questions yet is written with the lightest of touches. It may be read more simply as a story of self engrossed adults and wild children, or it may be taken as a parable for a world we are not so far away from.

These are emotive subjects presented in a macabre light. This is one of the best horror stories I have read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Mulholland Books.