‘The End of Men’ – Christina Sweeney-Baird

Invited to read this by the publishers Harper Collins, and I was really excited to be asked to participate in a group discussion of this upcoming release. The book arrived, I read the letter from the author and then I found myself reluctant to get started.

Being brutally honest the thought of reading a book about a fast-spreading virus that had such an extreme impact on the world felt all a little too close for comfort. How could I expect myself to have a rational reading experience, not bringing my own current experience to bear? Two days before the discussion I wondered whether I’d have to ‘fess up’ and admit to not reading it.

The day before the discussion I picked it up, felt my heart sink as we watch our doctor deal with the first case and then found myself immersed in it. While the discussion of the pandemic and its impact is bound to resonate with our current situation, I was genuinely surprised by how absorbed I became in these stories.

The description of the virus was fast, but the emotional impact on people was evident. There were some scenes I read with my heart in my mouth, holding back a dreadful sense of emptiness. The anthropologist reflecting on the experience was fascinating and it was a bold choice to focus on such a large timescale and such a broad scope of characters.

Perhaps to be expected, some elements of the story were more easy to read than others. Initially I found it hard to keep track of who was speaking and though it would have been bleak to gain little sense of resolution, some parts felt rushed because of the need to take us through to the end.

I can’t wait to see what others make of this.

 

‘Bearmouth’ – Liz Hyder

Bearmouth was one of the books recommended to my students by our 2020 Book PenPal, Holly Race, so I couldn’t resist reading it before I passed my copy round to those interested.

When I began reading I, like a number of other readers, took time to adjust to the phonetic style of writing used to mimic our main character’s voice. Initially this meant the reading felt slower than I’d like, but it certainly became one of the features of the book that I really enjoyed. The voice of Newt changed as they developed in confidence, and I enjoyed seeing the shifting patterns of language as they grew in awareness of the world around them.

Our first encounter with Newt was intriguing. We are told, very early on, that Newt is ‘not a boy nor yet a wimmin’ and though this becomes important later, it is their life in the Bearmouth mine that grips us. Newt has worked in the mine for many years, and is looked after by his team. There’s a grim sense of camaraderie to the team as they risk their lives on a daily basis to dig for coal, and to earn a living for others.

From the outset Newt points out the harshness of their life underground. We quickly come to realise the superstitions that bind these men and boys, and the injustice that they face on a daily basis as someone else controls their every move.

As the story progressed we learn more about Newt and their unease surrounding the appearance of a new boy, Devlin. With the arrival of the new face comes a sense of growing awareness of the injustice of their existence, and a slow-burning plan to change things.

While most of the reviews I’ve read of this focus on the writing style, I was also struck by the brutality of their lives underground and the grudging acceptance of death in its many guises. There are a couple of scenes that I think I will need to advise some of my students of and give them the decision as to whether or not to read, but I feel the situation that prompts Newt to develop a social conscience is sympathetically presented and Hyder should be applauded for not shying away from the less salubrious elements of their lives.

Throughout the book I was rooting for some form of happy ending and though this is rather more ambiguous than you might like in a stand-alone read, I felt our ending offered enough to leave me satisfied with Newt’s choices and their consequences.

 

‘Contagious’ – Emily Goodwin

At first, I thought this was pretty standard zombie stuff and as the book progressed I found myself getting bored. Nothing really seemed to happen and our characters were stuck in a repetitive cycle (true to form perhaps for life in a pandemic).

Part two shifted our focus and hinted at a bigger picture – though the potential romance love triangle was not appealing – and as we shifted to the end I was starting to get a little more invested in the story/where this might go. Sadly this came right at the end when we had the most frustrating ending ever…I guess it’s meant to make us desperate to read part two but it left me feeling cheated.

The whole zombie thing is not really my interest anyway, and yet there have been great books exploring the idea. This felt, at times, unnecessarily repetitive – there’s only so many zombie attacks you can describe without it getting a bit dull. I wanted to get a little more background to some of the characters, and I’m probably more interested in the bigger picture than their day-to-day survival.

I think this book and your reaction to it will come down to personal taste, and I’d certainly suggest people tried it…though I wouldn’t be shocked if they didn’t bother with the rest of the series.

 

‘Bloom’ – Kenneth Oppel

The last book I read by Kenneth Oppel was Inkling, so this was quite a different experience but similarly engaging.

Our story takes place on a small island, and our main focus is three younger characters who are somewhat isolated from their peers. We have fostered Seth, Anaya who is allergic to everything and Petra who is allergic to water. We are not quite sure what unites these three at first, but when the rain comes we start to get little clues that there might be more going on than we might have ever dreamed of.

With the rain comes new plants…black vines that grow rapidly and spread pollen that causes extreme allergies in anyone coming into contact with them. Before too long the vines are taking over and we have a worldwide state of emergency. Something has to be done, but we see that nobody really knows what to do when they’re facing something they’ve never dealt with before (the parallels with the current situation regarding Covid-19 make this all the more terrifying). The only thing we do learn quite early on is that Seth, Anaya and Petra are seemingly immune to these plants.

What we get is a rather slow start but the tension is quickly ramped up once we find out a little more about the plants. Oppel creates a drama-filled experience and an awful lot gets thrown into the mix, but it works.

It was great to see the bond develop between the three characters, and there were positives in terms of the initial threat. They come out on top. But the chilling ending serves as a reminder that we’re dealing with something new…something that might have more to come…what will the people of Earth do when the second wave hits? I can’t wait to find out.

 

‘Supernova (Renegades 3)’ – Marissa Meyer

A fitting end to this superhero series, where we get a lot of what we expected but not everything is as straightforward as it seems.

Picking up after the events of book two, Nova is all too aware that it is only a matter of time before her double identity is revealed. While she is in love with Adrian and has come to respect the Renegades, the years preparing her have ensured she is hard to sway from her intended course of action. Determined to rescue Ace, Nova takes greater chances and there were times where I wondered if this was really the same girl we’d seen through the previous two books.

Regardless of our views on Nova’s behaviour, she is plunged into the thick of the action here. Some are determined to make her pay for her actions, but there are others prepared to look beyond what they’ve been told – who think there’s a chance of a different approach.

Nova is placed in some difficult circumstances here. Not everyone behaves honourably, and yet there’s support for Nova where we might not have foreseen it. If you’re in this for the action you won’t be disappointed, and there was a clear attempt to answer some of the questions we’ve had about these characters and their lives.

You need to know that not everyone survives. Everyone is changed, in some way. And there’s a wonderful reveal at the end – which we had been given little clues about – that hints there could be more to come.

 

‘Girls with Razor Hearts’ – Suzanne Young

Girls with Razor Hearts focuses on our group, led by Mena, after they leave their elite school, determined to bring down Innovations. We know they’re capable of extreme violence, but get the impression it’s something that happens as a consequence of the way they’re treated rather than an innate character trait.

The girls find an old student, and they are given help to enrol in a new high school as they attempt to bring down the company that made them by going after the investors.

The story focuses on their experiences in this everyday high school, and their reaction to the commonplace misogyny in evidence. We see boys being trained for their powerful roles, and the girls being primed for their role on the sidelines.

Things don’t quite go to plan. There’s always a sense of someone being just that one step ahead – which I presume sets us up well for part three. The girls are great in their love for and support of one another. They mean well, but it seems the odds are stacked against them which is a rather cynical message to convey.

 

‘The Last One’ – Alexandra Oliva

When I first agreed to buddy read this a while ago it sounded like a novel idea, experimenting with the concept of post-apocalyptic events and tying it in with the excitement surrounding social media. The idea of a group of reality TV contestants taking part in a survival show, and being unaware of the fact that the outside world they left was no more, sounded so extreme that I was imagining a thrilling read. However, recent world events and the issues surrounding the Covid-19 pandemic lent this read an eerie sense of foreboding. At times I had to steel myself to continue, gripped but not in a way I was necessarily enjoying.

At the beginning there were clues that things were going to change in ways we were not imagining. While we got to see all the characters and their interactions everything was tempered somewhat by the filter of our main character, Zoo.
I got rather frustrated by the presentation of the characters on occasion. The attempt to pigeon-hole people and force their actions to fit a preconceived notion of how they would be seen by others meant I felt a lot of events were written about in order to present a particular slant.

Where the story really picked up was once we followed Zoo through her time following her surviving whatever she had experienced. She emerges from the woods in a dazed state. She can’t see. When she meets young Brennan she is convinced he is merely part of the crew. All her experiences in her mind form part of the test she has agreed to.

Yes, a little more background to the scenario would have been good. Understanding how this occurred might have been helpful, but the isolation Zoo has experienced does mean the detachment and lack of information makes sense. A bleak ending may have been appropriate, but I actually felt heartened by the potentially hopeful resolution to this story.

Now, as Boris Johnson has just announced a lockdown in Britain with immediate effect this seems like an apt time to find something a little cheerier to dip into…

 

‘Firefight’ – Brandon Sanderson

Having now acquired the nickname of ‘Steelslayer’ David has got himself in position with the Reckoners and they are on the tail of another Epic. This time, they are heading to the former Manhattan – a hippy-like place that has been submerged by water – in order to fight the epic known as Regalia.

Unfortunately, David has to deal with the fact that he is in love with Megan, the epic known as Firefight, whom everybody else wants to kill because she murdered one of their own. His mentor, Prof, is also an epic and is clearly more than accustomed to using his powers when he needs to.

From the outset, it is evident that nobody is being entirely honest with anyone else. They do a bit of scouting and find another couple of lesser epics that they decide to try and take down in an attempt to draw out their primary target. David masters the art of using his jet-pack (for want of a better term) and the new characters lend a bit of an alternative view to events.

Throughout this I was intensely irritated – probably more than I should have been – by David’s repetitive comments about being bad at metaphors. The obvious error each time he did this really annoyed me and i was amazed that nobody had spotted it. Of course, we learn later, it was deliberate just to set up what is meant to be an endearing moment near the end. It wasn’t, but that’s just my opinion.

Once we got underway with the nitty-gritty of this it did get more interesting. It seemed unevenly paced though, although the final moments were definitely interesting. Not entirely sure what we’ll get to see of David in the next one – there’s more to this boy than we’ve been led to believe I’m sure of it – but it definitely looks like it’ll be worth checking out.

 

‘The Unadjusteds’ – Marisa Noelle

Now that’s what I call an exciting YA fantasy…full of action from start to finish, and with a great cast of characters.

In this world people are used to adjusting their appearance through the taking of nanites, an advanced technology that alters a person’s physical appearance and capabilities. Silver Melody’s parents invented the technology, but she has always been vehemently anti-nanite. Having watched close friends die, she is understandably nervous about the implications.

From the opening drama, which succinctly outlines Melody’s perspective, we’re plunged into a nightmare scenario. There are plans to force anyone ‘unadjusted’ to take nanites, so Melody and her father are forced to flee.

Unfortunately, there are people in power who are very keen to get their hands on Melody and her father.

What follows is a fraught battle. Melody is forced to develop skills she never knew she had, and rely on a very mixed group to help her.

While I enjoyed the ending, it left me with an awful lot of questions. I can’t help but wonder whether we haven’t heard the last of Melody Silver…

 

‘Skyward’ – Brandon Sanderson

‘Claim the Stars’ is what Spensa’s father tells her from early on. She recalls standing with him and seeing a gap in the clouds above them, and has always felt that she can hear things others can’t, but when he is shot down for deserting his squad life changes for Spensa and her family. Known as the daughter of a coward, Spensa has spent the last nine years facing people’s judgments of her.

Dreaming of becoming a pilot is the one thing that keeps Spensa focused.
In this futuristic world, humans live on a planet where they are regularly attacked by what they call Krell. Nobody knows what the Krell look like, or what they hope to achieve, but everyone fears their attacks. The heroes are the pilots who face them, and Spensa yearns to take on this role. However, because of her father’s actions Spensa seems to be destined to be cut off from this opportunity.

From the outset we see Spensa’s determination and stubbornness. She doesn’t back down, and her outspoken attitude is one of the things that seems destined to get her into trouble. However, these very traits also serve her in good stead.
For reasons that we come to see eventually, Spensa earns the opportunity to train as a pilot. She loves it, but with these new opportunities come the realisation that not everything is as clearcut as Spensa has always believed. Sometimes when you go rooting for answers to difficult questions you get them, and more than you were expecting.

While a substantial part of this book focuses on the day-to-day training of the pilots (which definitely had me reminiscing about Top Gun), there’s a lot of other things to keep you focused. I wanted to know what this ‘defect’ was that everyone kept talking about; I wanted to know more about the background to the people surrounding Spensa and their situation; I wanted to see Spensa grow as a character and I couldn’t wait to see just what was going on with M-Bot, the mysterious ship that Spensa finds and repairs. Some of these questions were answered, but not all.

I loved the pacing of this and the gradual heightening of tension as Spensa draws closer to coming to understand a little more of who she is. There was a good range of characters, and some unexpected humour.

All in all, this was a read that kept me focused from the start. I am now eager to read book two and learn a little more of this situation. Sometimes trying new things pays off…this was one such occasion.