Robyn Reviews: The Left-Handed Booksellers of London

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‘The Left-Handed Booksellers of London’ is a fun, light-hearted YA fantasy adventure perfect for anyone looking for easy entertainment. There’s little depth to the story or characters, but the plot is fast-paced and entertaining. With the current trend in fantasy for dark, gritty stories, it’s nice to see a more cheerful take on the genre.

The story follows Susan, a just-turned-eighteen-year-old from just outside Bath who’s moving to London to start an art course. She’s also hoping to use the opportunity to finally track down her dad – a subject her mum will never talk about. However, when Susan arrives in London and goes to meet one of her mum’s acquaintances, she finds herself being rescued by a mysterious maybe-wizard named Merlin – and from there, her time in London starts to go in a very different direction than she’d planned.

Susan is a likeable enough protagonist – very much a reluctant heroine who spends the majority of the book very confused. None of the characters are ever developed in depth, but Sarah serves her narrative purpose well. Merlin and Vivian are far more interesting characters, but while details are tossed out here and there neither is fully explored. I’d happily read an entire follow-up novel about Vivian and her life when Merlin isn’t dragging her around the country because everyone’s trying to kill his latest crush.

The concept of left and right-handed booksellers and their magic system is brilliant – quite unique, and who in the reading world doesn’t want the bookseller to be the hero of the story? Again, the pace means this isn’t explored, but it’s a great take on the secret-protectors-of-normal-people-from-secret-magic trope. The rest of the worldbuilding borrows heavily from general European mythology and folklore: Fenris from Norse mythology, a variation on vampires, goblins, the power of May Day. It’s a crude mash-up but works well, blending familiar elements into something new.

The plot is the main focus. I haven’t read any Garth Nix for years – I believe I once read Sabriel, but so long ago I can barely recall it – but if all his books are in this vein, I can see why he’s so popular with younger teenage readers. The plot is conventional, with relatively predictable twists and turns, but entertaining, with witty dialogue and a teenagers-uncover-adult-incompetence slant so popular with younger readers. There are sad and tense moments, but for the most part it’s upbeat and humorous. Given that the main character is eighteen, I’m not sure if the aim was to have an older target audience, but the light tone and superficiality make it read like a younger book.

Overall, this is a fun YA fantasy adventure great for light entertainment. Recommended as a holiday read or when you need a light pick-me-up – or for a more reluctant teenage reader.

Thanks to Netgalley and Gollancz for providing an e-ARC – this in no way affects the content of this review

Published by Orion
Hardback: 24th September 2020

Robyn Reviews: Queen of Volts

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‘Queen of Volts’ is the final book in the Shadow Game trilogy, a YA urban fantasy trilogy set in the fictional city of New Reynes – the city of sin. It’s a taut, high-stakes, fast-paced conclusion to an action-packed trilogy, filled with unpredictable twists and heartbreaking losses. The ending fits the trilogy perfectly and, despite the tragedies, made me grin with delight. The Shadow Game trilogy is horrendously underrated – hopefully with this book it’ll finally get the attention it deserves.

‘Queen of Volts’ has five main point-of-view characters – Enne, Levi, Sophia, Lola, and Harvey – and alternates between them in chapters grouped by tarot cards (or shadow cards), a lovely touch. Initially, I cared about some perspectives more than others – but by the end, I appreciated them all and the different angles they offered. Harvey especially is a peripheral character in previous books but adds a different flavour here, complementing the others perfectly. His relationship with Bryce is brilliantly depicted and dissected, and his character arc is probably the strongest. Lola also has an exceptional arc – very different to the arc I expected, but cleverly done.

The fictional setting of New Reynes – likely inspired by Las Vegas – is a town of street lords and casinos, conmen and gangs. Everything is a game, and everyone a player. Enne and Levi have come a long way from who they were in Ace of Shades – the uptight girl from finishing school and the egoistical crime lord packed away like ill-fitting suits – but they remain compelling, intriguing characters. The moves that they’ve made have given them powerful allies and even more powerful enemies – but figuring out which is which is more difficult than it might first seem.

It’s hard to discuss the plot without spoiling Ace of Shades or King of Fools, but the stakes have definitely been raised. Courtesy of King of Fools, no character feels safe, so the entire book is fraught with tension. It’s entirely implausible, but this is YA fantasy – plausibility isn’t the point.

The biggest strengths of this series have always been the creativity of the worldbuilding and the relationships between the characters. By the third book in the trilogy, the worldbuilding is established – but ‘Queen of Volts’ goes further than its predecessors in testing those relationships and really shines for it. As the characters are tested, their relationships entangle and fray in complex ways, and Foody absolutely nails the feelings and changes. While the plot might be farfetched, the relationships aren’t, and that makes the entire book relatable. I especially liked the family dynamics (although I won’t spoil the story by revealing whose).

Overall, this is a brilliant conclusion to a solid YA fantasy trilogy. I don’t understand why this series isn’t shouted about more – with a finale as good as this, I hope it gains its place on people’s shelves. Recommended for all fans of YA fantasy, urban fantasy, morally grey characters, and complex character dynamics.

Thanks to NetGalley and HQ Stories for providing an eARC – this in no way affects the content of this review

Published by HQ
eBook: 1st September 2020 / Paperback: 1st October 2020

Guest Book Review: Library of Souls

 

As part of their #SummerReads promotion, Quirk Books sent me the second and third books in Ransom Riggs’ Peculiar Children trilogy (I review the first one here). These books are aimed primarily at young adults and, within a day of their arrival, one of my resident young adults, Robyn, had them read. As my reading and reviewing schedules are currently somewhat packed I decided to ask Robyn to provide me with her thoughts. I posted her review of Hollow City last week – you may read it here. I plan on reviewing both books myself later in the year but, for now, I hope you enjoy reading Robyn’s take on the final book in the trilogy.

 

‘Library of Souls’ is the third and final book in Ransom Riggs’ ‘Miss Peregrine’s Peculiar Children’ trilogy. It follows the peculiar children as they attempt to locate and free their ymbryne and guardian, Miss Peregrine, and in the process save peculiardom from the threat of their mortal enemies, the hollowgast and wights. Readers are introduced to some intriguing new characters, and there are several twists before everything is neatly wrapped up – as it tends to be in young adult fantasy.

This book focuses on the myths and legends of the peculiar universe. The children have to navigate a new time zone, new peculiar abilities, and an interesting cast of new characters. One of these was Sharon, an obvious reference to Charon – the ferryman of Hades from Greek mythology. The inclusion of a Greek mythological figure seemed somewhat random, but then again the entire premise of the novels is the peculiar. It would have been interesting to have more exploration of the interplay between mythological beliefs and the peculiar in this universe. Sharon’s character was intriguing, but did seem to represent a missed opportunity. It begs the question whether more was included in an earlier draft and cut during the editorial process.

Like its predecessors, ‘Library of Souls’ is well-written, and complimented by an interesting selection of black-and-white images. The trilogy continues to hold its own against other young adult fantasy books. The main weakness with ‘Library of Souls’ is the neatness of the ending. It comes across as rushed, and almost a bit too good to be true. Perhaps the average young adult reader will like the ‘happily ever after’, but I expect some will be left with a lingering taste of disappointment. The book did not take very long to read, so there could have been more explanation without making the ending overly long.

‘Library of Souls’ – and the ‘Peculiar Children’ trilogy as a whole – makes an excellent addition to any young adult’s bookshelves. However, the first book in the trilogy is undoubtedly much stronger than its successors.

   

Robyn Law

Guest Book Review: Hollow City

As part of their #SummerReads promotion, Quirk Books sent me the second and third instalments in Ransom Riggs’ Peculiar Children trilogy (I review the first one here). These books are aimed primarily at young adults and, within a day of their arrival, one of my resident young adults, Robyn, had them read. As my reading and reviewing schedules are currently somewhat packed I decided to ask Robyn to provide me with her thoughts. I plan on reviewing both books myself later in the year but, for now, I hope you enjoy reading this, the first guest review I have hosted.

 

The second novel of Ransom Riggs’ ‘Peculiar Children’ trilogy, ‘Hollow City’ picks up immediately where the first book left off. It chronicles the children’s quest to find a cure for their ymbryne and guardian, Miss Peregrine, who has become trapped in the form of a bird. Their adventure takes them through multiple locations and time zones, and the children make both new allies and new enemies along the way. There are also some fascinating revelations about the various children’s histories. The book delves much deeper into the world of the peculiar, and contains an interesting twist towards the end to set things up for the final novel of the trilogy.

The concepts in the ‘Peculiar Children’ books are not particularly original. Children with powers who must go on a quest from their school-type environment is probably the single most common young adult plot in history, notably done in the Harry Potter and Percy Jackson series’. However, the way this is presented in ‘Peculiar Children’ comes across as new and refreshing. Ransom Riggs succeeds, as in the first book, in writing something that stands out from other books in the genre. The inclusion of peculiar animals as well as humans did come across as a little juvenile – but this could be more to do with the association of talking animals and children’s books than the writing itself.

‘Hollow City’ reads like the typical middle novel of a trilogy. It is well-written, with intriguing new characters and revelations, but it doesn’t stand alone as a strong book in the same way as the first. ‘Hollow City’ would not make much sense without having read its predecessor. As much as the plot is engaging, the feeling persists that the primary aim of the novel is to take the reader from A to B so that everything is ready for the ‘grand finale’ in the last book. It follows a linear journey rather than a traditional story arc. This is especially evident with the ending – the book never really comes to a conclusion, merely hitting another climax then leaving things to be continued in the next novel.

Overall, ‘Hollow City’ is an enjoyable book that approaches the young adult fantasy genre from a slightly different angle. Anyone who enjoyed ‘Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children’ will likely enjoy this, but they will probably find it a bit weaker.

 

Robyn Law.

Book Review: Killing the Dead

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Killing the Dead, by Marcus Sedgwick, is one of this year’s World Book Day £1 books for young adults. Having read and enjoyed The Ghosts of Heaven I noted the spiral on the cover and was eager to get hold of a copy before bookshops sold out. These specially produced offerings are only available for a short time.

Set in an exclusive girls’ boarding school in the nineteen-sixties the story explores the aftermath of a pupil’s apparent suicide. Like the four stories in The Ghosts of Heaven it contains references to spirals and suggestions of superstition. The writing is taut with undercurrents of mystery and unanswered questions. The atmosphere evoked is spooky in places but always believable.

At just over 100 pages this book can be quickly read but is a complete and thought provoking tale. Within the confines of dormitory life what impact does one girl’s actions have on others? What secrets do they keep? While teachers continue to believe that the beautiful and clever are good how can those who go unnoticed survive the casual cruelty inflicted by the entitled? The denouement brings home how lonely and difficult life can be for those who do not fit within society’s view of that which one should admire and to which one should aspire.

This is the third book that I have read by the author and cements my admiration for his style of writing. He spins a compelling tale that is hard to put down.

“The most important person in this story is the one you will never meet. She is gone and yet she lingers, in the memories of those who knew her and lived with her. This is how the dead survive; they live in our memories, and some of the times that is a good thing and beautiful, and other times it is not good, and then the dead are like a virus in the blood, an infection of the mind. Then, although we might wish to get rid of them forever, we cannot. We might even wish to kill them, but that is a mighty and nigh impossible thing, for killing the dead is very hard to do.”

Book Review: The Last Leaves Falling

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‘look close and you see the hidden buds of spring’

The Last Leaves Falling, by Sarah Benwell, is not a comfortable book to read dealing as it does with the imminent death of a teenager. It takes us into a world coloured by exam stress; parental expectation; the excitement and pressure of future unknowns that, for the protagonist, have been stolen away. This is not another ‘Fault in our Stars’. It is a darker and harsher tale.

Sora is seventeen years old and has rapidly progressing ALS (motor neuron disease). He lives in Kyoto, Japan with his mother and feels a burden of guilt for her grief over his condition. Sora has been forced to leave his school which could not offer the access and support he would require as his body deteriorates. Discomfited by onlookers pity he chooses to spend much of his time alone in his room. From here he reaches out through internet chatrooms to teenagers who did not know him before, finding friends who will see beyond his condition but not shy away from what is to come as the adults in his life are wont to do.

The writing interweaves narrative with on line screenshots and chat threads. These work well at showing the importance of the internet in modern, teenage life. As Sora’s new friends agonise over schoolwork and university applications he must cope with his degenerating body. He obsesses over how it will feel to die and if there is a hereafter, frustrated by his doctor’s and mother’s refusal to discuss his concerns.

The story is undoubtedly bleak but there are chinks of light which are uplifting. The friends learn to appreciate how precious life is and that it should not be wasted. They allow themselves to dream.

The attitudes portrayed reflect Japanese culture but there are wider truths to consider. Throughout the world adults aim to guide and protect young people who may then struggle to find a way to have their voices heard. Sora turns to his friends when his mother’s love becomes a burden, finding relief when they listen and accept.

A powerful tale that is very well written. It is moving and challenging, exploring difficult issues with painful honesty. People die, then for those left life goes on. What matters is to use the time we have to create memories, to be open to new ideas, to live.

 

 

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: Timebomb

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Timebomb, by Scott K. Andrews, is the first book in a planned, new, time travel trilogy for young adults. It follows the adventures of three teenagers plucked unexpectedly from lives that seem ordinary in the 17th, 21st and 22nd centuries to face a foe they are told little about. They are flung into an unknown world where they are constantly threatened and do not know who to trust. As may be expected if time travel became a possibility there are those who wish to control the few who can master it and thereby use it for their own nefarious means. In this first book in the series it is unclear who the enemy they must face is or what they want, only that the three teenagers are seen as instrumental in a deadly game that is being played out across many centuries.

Keeping track of the various timelines can be confusing in places as the travellers meet their future selves when they step in to perform rescues from life threatening situations. These glimpses suggest adventures to come with an increase in knowledge and skills. In this book however they are still learning and each of the protagonists folds under pressure at various times. Despite their unusual abilities they are not presented as superheroes.

I enjoyed the descriptions of present day advances as seen through the eyes of a traveller from the past. What was made less clear were the limitations of technologies that could be carried back in time. Toasters and fridges it seems were transportable but not the helpful computer chip that future person carried in her head and which her enemies wished to acquire. I wondered why all those capable of time travel did not possess the best the future could offer.

The plot lines are complex but move along at a rollicking pace making this book a compelling read. It offers but one adventure and the reader is left with many questions and a desire to have them answered. With two more books planned this bodes well for the author, although I would have liked to have seen a little more coherence here. Throughout the excitement it was hard to grasp reasons for much of what was going on.

Having said that I enjoyed the book and will look out for the next instalment. Many of the characters are intriguing with several who played bit parts in this book perhaps being set up for future roles. This is an unfolding story filled with action and conspiracy that presents time travel as an ability that the world is probably better off without.

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