Book Review: City of Ghosts

City of Ghosts, by Victoria Schwab, is the first in a new fantasy fiction series aimed at middle grade readers. For those in the UK this is the younger end of YA fiction – not that I like to pigeon hole any book for particular readers. As an adult I enjoyed the story for what it is –  a tale of ghosts and eerie happenings set in a city alive with atmospheric history. Edinburgh is the perfect setting for the tale of a young girl who can step between the worlds of the living and the dead.

The protagonist is twelve year old Cassidy Blake who suffered a near death experience when she fell into a frozen river a year before the story begins. Somehow she was rescued by Jacob, a ghost who subsequently becomes her best friend. Since that fateful day, Cass has been able to travel beyond what she has named the Veil and observe other ghosts in the space they inhabited at the moment of their death. She attempts to photograph them on her vintage camera but remains unobserved by all other than Jacob.

When Cass’s parents, who write books about ghosts and paranormal happenings, are offered a TV show, the family travel to Edinburgh to shoot the first episode. Here Cass meets a girl who can also step through the Veil – she describes herself as an in-betweener. Intrigued that there are other people like her, Cass is dismayed to learn that they have a mission. Before she can process what this means she must face a dangerous ghost who wishes to harvest power from the living as well as the dead.

I picked up this book after reading The Near Witch by V.E. Schwab – the first published work from this author, written while she was still at university. Although not entirely impressed I recognised potential. City of Ghosts justified my decision to read more of Schwab’s books. It is much more tightly plotted with well balanced tension and a smattering of humour alongside the spooky adventure.

The differences in American and British expectations and experiences is just one facet that adds interest, viewing an accepted culture through fresh eyes. Being familiar with the key locations in Edinburgh added to my enjoyment. Mostly though this is a story of a young girl who does not feel she fits in amongst her peers and whose parents support but do not understand. It is a universal theme granted a satisfying twist involving peril and bravery. A story in which Cass has power but is still learning how this should be used.

An action adventure involving the lingering dead who, like the living, may be benign, hostile or seriously dangerous. For those who enjoy fantasy fiction, such as the Harry Potter books, this is a recommended read.

City of Ghosts is published by Scholastic. 

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Book Review: Disbelieved

Disbelieved, by Beth Webb, is YA crime fiction with a touch of the supernatural. Its protagonists are fifteen year old Anelise Skinner and seventeen year old Joseph Bonne, cousins whose peers refer to them disparagingly as Skin and Bone. Anelise’s mother is dead and her father is working abroad so she lives with her Aunt Genevieve, Joe’s mother. Genevieve Skinner is a professor of forensics, currently assisting in a criminal trial. Joe’s father no longer appears to be involved in their lives.

Joe is fascinated by forensics and has access to his mother’s lab at their home. Anelise is a troubled young girl, coping with her demons by dying her hair different, garish colours and snacking on highly sugared foodstuffs.

The story opens above an abandoned quarry where Anelise is out walking. She sees a fast moving cyclist lose control of his bike and plummet over the edge into the undergrowth below. Horrified she phones for help, summoning emergency services. They search the area but find no sign of the cyclist. Anelise is chastised by the police for wasting their time.

The following weekend Joe takes his cousin back to the quarry in an attempt to find a rational explanation for what she saw as it is still bothering her. They witness the same cyclist as he crashes through the fence and into the quarry. This time they can both see him after the event, lying still and bleeding below.

Anelise’s apparent premonition upsets her further and causes the police to treat her with suspicion. It also gives a local reporter something juicy to write about. Joe meanwhile is carefully sweeping the scene, taking photographs and gathering samples as potential evidence. What the cousins saw and heard suggests this may not have been an accident. The police do not take their concerns seriously, regarding them as bothersome children.

The two teenagers soon fall foul of another witness, a man who seems keen to keep them away from the damaged bike. This soon disappears but not before Joe collects traces of white powder from the frame. They recognise that if drugs are involved what they are doing could be dangerous.

Undeterred they set out to uncover who may have wished to harm the cyclist and why. He was a blogger, employed by a bike shop to promote and deliver their wares. Donning disguises they investigate in key locations. With Genevieve away or busy with work they seek help from sources who treat them as the problem.

The plot is well structured, fast moving and with plenty of tension as befits crime writing. The vivid portrayal of the key moments of crisis suggests this would make fine television. My only quibble was with the denouement, a twist that was signalled but I couldn’t quite rationalise. This did not spoil my enjoyment of the story.

Young people have long relished tales in which adults are absent or do not take them seriously and are then proved wrong. Anelise may need to hone her unusual gift, and find a way to cope with it that does not require such regular sugar hits, but I would like to see this pair further developed. They have the potential to be an alluring addition to the crime fiction canon.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the author.

Book Review: The Trilogy of Two

The Trilogy of Two, by Juman Malouf, is a YA fantasy adventure story. The protagonists are identical twins, Sonja and Charlotte, who are twelve years old (I would guess the target audience to be a similar reading age). The girls are musical prodigies who live and perform with a travelling circus. The world created within these pages is dystopian with magic and imagined creatures. The baddies have the upper hand and the twins will be key in fighting against their wicked plans for wider domination.

When the story opens the girls’ place in the circus is threatened by disruptions that occur when they perform. Their mother, a tattooed lady named Tatty, comforts them but will not explain this strange development. The girls are left unhappy and frustrated. The precocious pair are used to getting away with misdemeanours, such as illegal scavenging in the growing rubbish dumps outside the expanding and filthy cities. They wonder if they would be better leaving the circus and going to a School for the Gifted where they could find friends their own age and perhaps become revered musicians.

Another resident of the circus, Tell the Fortune Teller, suggests to the twins that the mysterious occurrences may be a result of magic inside them which they could one day learn to control. Before the girls can consider this further: a cat steals their talents; the circus is raided by Enforcers from the city; Tatty is kidnapped. Tell takes the girls to stay with old friends for their own safety. They discover that few of the people they have grown up around are as they were led to believe.

A great many people are introduced and the action jumps rapidly from place to place: through the Outskirts; to the city; and on to lands where creatures conjured from the author’s imagination reside. These are all evoked in rich and colourful prose although I struggled with the lack of fluidity. A great deal happens as eclectic peoples must be brought together to fight a new evil. To keep the various reveals secret, little is explained at the time – my reading pleasure frequently stalled.

The developing emotions of the twins are well portrayed with their desire to be together but also recognised as individuals. There are fledgling romances and the jealousies these arouse. The key story idea of why the children’s artistic talents are stolen is depressingly believable and rendered effectively.

I was about three quarters of the way through before my reading became effortless (this did not happen with the Mortal Engines series or the Fleabag Trilogy, young people’s fantasy fiction I have previously reviewed). This tale had some innovative underlying tropes and threads but too often failed to hold my attention.

There are illustrations throughout that guide the reader in understanding how the author perceives her characters. My overall impression of these is that they are otherworldly.

For children who enjoy fantasy adventures this is an original slant on the power of self belief and the perceived value of the arts. Impressed as I was with the individual ideas, their joined up realisation did not engage.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Pushkin Press.

Book Review: My Best Friend’s Exorcism

My Best Friend’s Exorcism, by Grady Hendrix, is an all American story of teenage angst with a somewhat opaque plot. It charts the friendship of Abby and Gretchen, from Abby’s disastrous tenth birthday party which Gretchen just about saves, through their years together at high school and, briefly, beyond. Much of the action takes place when the girls are sixteen.

Abby’s parents struggle financially. With the help of a scholarship she attends a fee paying school where she befriends the children of the area’s wealthy patrons. She blames her parents for the life they lead.

Gretchen enjoys material privilege but must submit to her controlling parents’ staunch Republican beliefs. They welcome Abby into their home where she feels happier than with her own parents. As teenagers, both girls regard adults with disdain.

On a night out at a mutual friend’s rambling riverside home the group experiment with drugs. Gretchen wanders into woodland naked and is not found until the following day. She does not, perhaps cannot, explain what happened during her missing hours but the experience changes her. The reader is left to decide if this is the effect of the drug, anger at her friends for not looking after her better, or demonic possession.

Gretchen falls apart but, as far as Abby is concerned, her parents are more concerned with how their daughter’s behaviour makes them look than with her well-being. When Abby tries to seek help she is faced with friends who are angry and hurt by Gretchen’s change in behaviour, or adults who blame Abby for the experience that triggered Gretchen’s distress.

Determined not to give up on her friend, Abby continues to seek her company in an attempt to recover what she considers to be the real Gretchen. Meanwhile, Gretchen sets out to bring down the three girls who peer pressured her into taking the drugs. Minor punishment is not enough, she seeks their complete annihilation.

Intense friendships and alienation from adults seem to be a staple of American high school dramas. Into this mix is thrown the possibility of some darker force, fuelled by the local horror stories the young people delight in sharing. Gretchen’s actions are undoubtedly evil. The root cause and Abby’s dogged determination to help her erstwhile friend add a degree of distinction.

Chapters are headed by lyrics from eighties music, the time period during which the action is set. The book is bound to resemble a high school yearbook, not something I am familiar with. The protagonists are the clever and cool kids of the class; there is little mention of those who do not fit in.

I had expected to enjoy this story more than I did. In making the trigger to events drugs and the most likeable adults poor it felt moralistic. The casual cruelties and jealousies of the young people along with misunderstandings between generations were well enough presented. Overall though it felt extreme with too much left unexplained. I struggled to engage.

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

Book Review: Spellslinger

Spellslinger, by Sebastien de Castell, is the first book in a proposed fantasy series aimed at young adults. Its protagonist is fifteen year old Kellen, an initiate in a land where those who can pass four tests before their sixteenth birthday become powerful magicians. Kellen is from a respected family but his magical abilities are weak. He faces the prospect of a life of servitude if he fails the tests.

The story opens with a duel and the arrival of a stranger who saves Kellen’s life. Introducing herself as Ferius Parfax she shows little respect for the Mage’s ways. When Kellen’s family are ambushed as they take him home to recover from his ordeal she once again steps in to help, thereby joining them as a target for a rival family.

Such rivalry is supposedly banned but with the death of the clan prince there is a power vacuum that both families intend to fill. Kellen’s actions risk dishonouring his parents but others are taking an interest in the attention Ferius continues to pay him. The dowager magus issues a summons and requests he find out more about this enigmatic stranger in order to report back. Kellen is uncomfortable with his role as a spy but is intrigued by the dowager and her hermit like existence within the opulence of the magnificent palace.

In many ways this is a standard story of an arrogant, ruling elite and the behaviour their young people will accept as normal, and indeed aspire to, having been raised to think of themselves in a certain way. Kellen begins to question the supposed truths he has been fed, but perhaps only because his own gilded future is threatened by his lack of magical ability. His younger sister is the family protégé, the apple of his parents’ eye. Kellen is appalled to discover why he is more of a worry to them than he ever realised.

The self-importance of the mages and their sanctioned brutality in order to maintain their privilege may be universal, but the twists and turns of this story keep the reader engaged. The writing is taut with the darkness of the plot relieved by humour. The squirrel cats are a fabulous creation.

History will always be manipulated by the victors. It is the gradual reveal of truth within this tale, complete with multi faceted intrigue and nuance, which provide wider perspective and a story worth reading. This is an enjoyable adventure with a satisfying denouement that offers an introduction to a fantasy world that the author may now develop as the series progresses. I look forward to discovering where Kellen goes next.

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

Book Review: Sleeper

Sleeper, by JD Fennell, is the first book in a proposed action adventure trilogy aimed at young adults. It introduces the reader to sixteen year old Will Starling who has been training since the age of twelve with the agents of VIPER. This ruthless organisation has military links around the world, access to advanced weapons technology, and is intent on acquiring power and wealth for its elusive puppet masters.

When the story opens it is 1941 and England is at war. Will is near Hastings on the mission for which he has been groomed. He is to infiltrate a country house and steal a notebook containing codes and instructions. He has been ordered to kill anyone who gets in his way. Will is backed up by other VIPER agents who are unaware that the teenager has been duping them. Will intends to keep the notebook and hand it on to others equally keen on gaining control of the secrets held within.

A running battle ensues and Will ends up half drowned in the sea. He is rescued by a passing fisherman but has no memory of who he is or why he was being pursued. The notebook he finds in his blazer pocket is his only clue. He sets out to uncover his past, but must first escape killers who are hot on his tail.

Will’s combat skills are impressive and he discovers that he is not the only teenager who has been trained in this way. With the help of associates he meets at a school for underage spies he starts to unravel the secrets of the notebook. To save London he must find the Stones of Fire before VIPER catches and defeats him. A ruthless psychopath known as The Pastor is also intent on recovering the notebook, and Will is not the only double agent.

The action is relentless and the death count high with short chapters and concise, fluent narrative keeping the reader engaged. I became a little frustrated at Will’s reluctance to kill but this adds to the character’s ambiguity which I hope to see developed further in subsequent instalments. Although aimed at young adults, who will likely enjoy the vicarious thrill of out-witting evil adults and solving ancient puzzles, it is an entertaining adventure for any age.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Dome Press.

Book Review: Traction City / The Teacher’s Tales of Terror

2017 is the first year since I became aware of the event’s existence that my children did not return from school on World Book Day eagerly clutching either their choice of book or a voucher to be exchanged at a bookshop. My youngest is now in sixth form and is presumably no longer a part of the target demographic.

Recently, however, he has urged me to read a series of books that the rest of my family have already enjoyed – the Predator Cities Quartet by Philip Reeve. Having posted the reviews for these over the past few weeks I decided to pick up an associated, former World Book Day publication to see how it slotted into the fantasy world.

Traction City is a short story set in a time shortly before the first book in the quartet. London is on the move and a young boy, Smiff, is creeping through the city’s bowels searching for dropped or discarded items that may be saleable. Instead he finds a dead body. Smiff then witnesses a violent attack on the outlaw men who roam this abandoned area. A tall, human like figure with glowing green eyes allows the boy to escape. Despite his aversion to the police, a terrified Smiff reports what he has seen. He finds a sympathetic ear in Sergeant Anders.

Anders rarely has much to do during his shifts at the lower level police station where he was assigned when his home town was eaten by London. This evening, however, he has a prisoner to process. A young girl has flown in and been apprehended carrying a small amount of explosive. Her shabby airship is named the Jenny Haniver.

There follows a chase, the discovery of body parts, and a run-in with the Guild of Engineers. As ever in this series, where a potential weapon exists, all sides vie to harness its power for their cause, whatever the cost to the wider population.

This was an interesting add-on but was not as compelling as the excellent quartet. I will now need to decide if I wish to read the prequel trilogy starting with Fever Crumb. These are set around the time cities first started to move.

As with many of the World Book Day offerings, a second story is included on the flip side of the book. In this case it is an addition to Chris Priestley’s chilling Tales of Terror, not a series I am familiar with.

The Teacher’s Tales of Terror is appropriately set in a school on World Book Day. A supply teacher has been called in to cover for an ill colleague. The head teacher is pleased to note that Mr Munro, the rather austere looking gentleman who presents himself for this role, has got into the spirit of things and dressed for the chosen theme, celebrating a Victorian heritage.

Mr Munro soon takes control of his rather unruly class and informs them that his lesson will be to read them some stories. What follows are a series of deliciously creepy tales. These are short and spine tingling but not too scary.

The denouement was unexpected and added an extra dimension to the overall story arc. This was an engaging, nicely constructed, and satisfying read.