‘The Grace Year’ – Kim Liggett

‘The things we do to girls. Whether we put them on pedestals only to tear them down, or use them for parts and holes, we’re all complicit in this. But everything touches everything else, and I have to believe that some good will come out of all this destruction. The men will never end the grace year. But maybe we can.’

At its heart, the above excerpt sums up the message of this book for me.

A brutal story, chilling in its execution, but utterly compelling. A must-read, and I’m so thankful to NetGalley for allowing me to read this prior to its expected September publication.

From an early age girls in this dystopian world know that they are feared. It’s a commonly-held belief that they have the power to turn men mad with desire and to manipulate other women, driving them mad with jealousy. As a result, upon reaching sixteen the girls are forced to live apart from their community for a year in an attempt to rid themselves of their powerful magic, and prepare them to return and take up their places in the community.

We follow Tierney and her fellows Graces as they make their journey to the encampment. It’s a journey fraught with danger, but sometimes the greatest danger comes from within.

Watching the girls settle into their lives there was a sense of optimism. Under Tierney’s guidance, people started to make plans for the future and to prepare for the changing seasons. Unfortunately, not everyone is happy with this scenario and things start to go badly wrong.

The harrowing account of the girls’ camp experience was akin to Lord of the Flies. Nothing more brutal than a girl scorned, and the desire the girls show to punish one another was discomforting. This is not a read you want to ignore, but there are so many moments I wanted to weep at the senseless cruelty that pervaded every action.

In spite of the horrors that seem to be at every turning, there are glimpses of hope. Watching Tierney slowly realise just what some of her past encounters truly signified, and fighting for her deep belief in what was right was stirring. Seeing her reassess everything she thought she knew about the poachers and her home world, gave a brief glimpse of what might be…if people were brave enough. Though some of our expectations were cruelly cut down, the turns taken in this story offer hope where it’s most needed.

‘Beauty Sleep’ – Kathryn Evans

Laura and her brother are suffering with a particularly rare form of cancer, and they are given the opportunity to trial an experimental treatment. Her last memory is of sticking a picture of Prince Andrew and Sarah Ferguson into a scrapbook. When she next wakes, having been successfully ‘frozen’ until her cancer can be treated, it’s forty years in the future.

The initial focus on Laura waking up was done really well. Her confusion about interacting with the world around her was fascinating to read. As she learns about how the world has moved on since the 1980s it highlights just what rapid changes there have been, taking them to a quite logical future position that – if I’m being honest – is quite scary.

We spend a lot of time with Laura in the clinic where she was treated. The clinic’s founder, Miss Lily, has built her wealth on the back of a society obsessed with appearance, and there are hints that there may be more to this from early on.

Laura becomes something of a phenomenon – this real-life Sleeping Beauty – but the focus is on her settling into life at school as she begins to make contact with her best friend (now middle aged) and try to determine who is telling her the truth about the events that led to her being in this position.

As Laura pushed for answers I couldn’t help but feel some of her behaviours became unlikely. I found it hard to believe that people in possession of the kind of technology they had would not have realised sooner what was going on. And the actual revelation of what had been happening and the role Laura played in it didn’t quite feel as seamless as it might have.

A bold story which raises some very interesting questions about our contemporary attitudes to so many things. I can’t wait to see what some of those of the age intended for readership make of it.

‘Girls With Sharp Sticks’ – Suzanne Young

From the moment I saw this cover I couldn’t wait to read the book.

Set in The Innovations Academy, we meet a group of privately educated young girls who are being given the best education their families can provide. They are encouraged to be their best, but from the start there are signs that this might not be the best thing for the girls.

Our main focus is Mena, a model student, who shows signs of discomfort with her surroundings. She begins to question what’s happening, and starts to see signs that things are not quite what the girls have been led to believe.

The first half of part one – where we start to read the clues given about what might be happening – felt slow and I wasn’t enjoying it. However, once we started to see Mena probe further, I was gripped.

The reality of this world was, sadly, testimony to what are regarded as common attitudes surrounding gender even now. Thankfully the events of the novel showed these views being challenged, and even gave hope that they might – in time – change. Though this works well as a stand-alone, I think book two might answer some of the questions posed by events of this part of the story.

‘The Giver’ – Lois Lowry

For many this is regarded as the original YA dystopian novel. It’s cropped up on my recommendations time and time again, but I had never heard much about it.
In this world, everything is strictly regulated. It’s all done for people’s safety and well-being, but it’s so safe and constricted. Nobody knows this, because they’re indoctrinated into the lifestyle. From early on they’re trained to be precise in their language use (abstract nouns such as love don’t have any place here); they’re unfailingly polite; they don’t ask questions and every detail of their life is regulated. This way, people can’t make wrong choices. They can’t be upset.
They are also, it seems, not really living.

Jonas is almost twelve when we meet him, and he’s eagerly awaiting the details of his work training. On the day of the ceremony he’s left out. However, this is because those in charge have decreed he should become a Receiver. This is the highest honour that can be bestowed in the community, but nobody really knows what it entails.

When Jonas starts his training it is with a mix of eagerness and worry. He is told his new job will be to receive the memories – not just of the community, but of those that came before, and those from even earlier. He will be granted access to books, and he will – eventually – be able to see the world in colour rather than the black and white sameness that everyone else experiences.

Initially, the training focuses on pleasurable experiences. He is shown the exhilarating memory of sledging down a hill, feeling the sun on his skin and happiness at a birthday party. Soon, however, he is also given less pleasant memories. He sees war, he feels the pain of a broken limb and the loss of death.Jonas can talk to no one about his training, only the person giving him the memories (the man he will replace). In their conversations we are encouraged to consider for ourselves our own thoughts on these topics.

The ending was a curious one. I know this is part of a quartet, though it seems each story focuses on a different character. It’s hard to work out what we’re meant to feel at the end of this. While it was hopeful, there was also a melancholy to it that unsettled me.

‘Station Eleven’ – Emily St. John Mandel

The first thing to say about this book is that it’s very different to anything I’ve read before. Puzzling, but breath-taking in its approach, I have to admit that for a substantial part of the reading I was wondering quite how these characters/their stories linked.

The second thing to say is that this was a book that made me feel I was constantly reaching for something, only to have it tugged away at the last moment. It was elusive, but not in a frustrating way. Having just finished it I’m aware of feeling unsettled, as if I need to read it again to get a firmer grasp on its message.

Station Eleven is the title given to a comic book series that features at moments throughout the book. It’s a work of love by Miranda, a character within the story, that explores the idea of a hidden civilisation.

Very often when reviewing a book I focus on the general plot and give my reactions to it. Station Eleven felt, for a lot of the time, like a book with no story – more an exploration of the timeless ideas of what makes us who we are/what it means to be civilised. So, why does it feel like a book that’s so important?

There’s no simple answer.

The book opens with famous actor Arthur Leander dying on stage as he performs Lear. It’s a moment that foreshadows the events to come. For, at the same time as trainee paramedic Jeevan is trying to resuscitate Arthur, a deadly virus is spreading the world. Within hours of coming into contact with this virus, people come down with flu-like symptoms. Within hours they are dead.

Civilisation as we know it is coming to an end.

The timeline skips and, at times, I found this disconcerting. We flit between the time Arthur is dying and the immediate aftermath to twenty years after the end of the world. We also venture into the past to learn more about the five characters central to the story. They are connected in ways that seems most unlikely, but reinforces the sense of humanity.

My somewhat random thoughts here do, I think, reflect what a strange read this was. That’s a good thing, but not one that immediately feels comfortable.

‘Murder Trending’ – Gretchen McNeil

A book that will have you gripped, but groaning in places. Graphic violence aplenty, but it’s done in the Scary Movie-style which makes it seem slightly more readable.

In this near future we’re asked to imagine that an ex-reality star has become President of the US and that his attempt to sort crime is to link it to entertainment. Those found guilty of serious crimes are sent to Alcatraz 2.0 where criminals are killed off in grotesque and macabre ways by a team of executioners and their murders are televised for entertainment.

When Dee is accused of murdering her step-sister (who was obsessed with the program) she is immediately thrown to the wolves. Yet, somehow, she survives and kills her supposed-to-be executioner. As a result she tops the list of inmates betted upon to be top of the kill list. However, Dee finds increasingly bizarre ways to survive.

We quickly learn Dee has secrets, and it soon becomes clear that her current situation is linked to these secrets. The actual links weren’t immediately obvious.
No real message here, but it was an interesting idea to see how the characters acted under pressure, and the style was likeable (even though the content was not).

‘The Rule of One’ – Ashley and Leslie Saunders

In the near-future United States, a one-child policy is ruthlessly enforced. Everyone follows the Rule of One. But Ava Goodwin, daughter of the head of the Texas Family Planning Division, has a secret—one her mother died to keep and her father has helped to hide for her entire life.

She has an identical twin sister, Mira.

Mira and Ava are the twin daughters of a high-ranking government official. Though they break the law daily, nothing about their behaviour suggests why this should be a problem. They play by their father’s rules and yet, very early on in the story, their secret is discovered.

With their father imprisoned and tortured for breaking the law the girls are forced to go on the run and rely on a network of sympathisers to support their attempts to challenge the status quo.

Told from alternating viewpoints we see the girls develop a very clear sense of their own identity and we observe how such a law might affect the world. Things aren’t perfectly resolved, but there’s a definite step in the right direction.

‘The Towering Sky’ – Katharine McGee

Welcome back to New York, 2119. A skyscraper city, fueled by impossible dreams, where the lives of five teenagers have become intertwined in ways that no one could have imagined.

So, last part in the trilogy and I really didn’t know what to expect.

The opening sets up an idea very clearly and had me wondering what on earth might lead to that conclusion. Then our action switches to three months earlier and we are shown some of the details that bring us to the end-point.

I found myself trying to recall some details from the previous two books, but here we see how the teens have been affected by Mariel’s death and the way they’ve been coping with events since then.

Avery has herself a new boyfriend, Max, and is toying with the idea of moving to study in Oxford. But her love for Atlas is not going to die easily, and their father’s election leads to some awkward situations.

Watt and Leda – possibly my favourites of the group – drift together and we see them piecing together the events of the last few months. Rylin and Cord are very different, but we learn sometimes the differences aren’t such a barrier. Calliope, stuck in her con for the first time ever, is struggling to stay true to herself. Thankfully, some matters aren’t left in her hands.

While the ‘ending’ was dramatic, I was pleased that not everything was as clear cut as we expected. I was surprised by one or two revelations, but it felt this could have been tightened up.

‘The Survival Game’ – Nicky Singer

Thank you NetGalley for granting me access to this prior to publication. A chilling tale of what might yet come to pass.

In our future climate change has reached what might be seen as an inevitable conclusion. Parts of the world are inhospitable. The world’s population is moving northwards and, inevitably, some react better to this than others.

We follow 14-year old Mhairi as she escapes the detention centre she’s placed in after travelling illegally from Cairo following the death of her parents. She is determined to walk to Arran, the home of her grandmother. Along the way she reveals snippets of her story which it might be easy to miss as they’re quite understated. These snippets build a truly terrifying picture of this new reality.

Once she – and a young boy she saves en route – make their way to Arran it would be lovely to think their story was over. Far from it. In fact, it’s once they arrive with Mhairi’s grandmother that the difficult questions start.

Some very difficult questions raised in this, and the ending of the novel rather took my breath away.

‘Vox’ – Christina Dalcher

‘Vox’ is being heralded as ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ for a new generation. If that’s the push people need to pick this up then so be it., as this is a book that really should be read. By everyone.

Dr Jean McLellan is an eminent neuroscientist. She has her personal flaws but in her career she was at the forefront of studies into the brain and how it’s impacted by illness. I use the past tense because when we meet Dr Jean her role has been drastically reduced, like that of many women.

In this America women are no longer part of the work force. Their role is to nurture children and keep the home. Their rights have – as we learn in bits and pieces – been eradicated. This alone was enough to anger me, but the fact their voices are taken away was jaw-dropping. Each female wears a wrist counter. It allows them 100 words a day. 100!

The fact that nobody openly questions this tells us just how different things are in this imagined world.

The premise of this story was absorbing. I particularly liked the way we learn how such a situation came into being. Like so many periods in history where such things happen it’s always easy to look on in hindsight and question the actions of those alive at the time. Sadly, Dalcher paints all too vivid a picture of how this came to pass.

The story was chilling as we come to understand just what is at risk here. A timely reminder of the need to question decisions made by those in power.

Thank you NetGalley for granting me access to this prior to publication.