‘The Upper World’ – Femi Fadugba

An epic read, VERY difficult to put down and I cannot wait to see how this transfers to the screen in its upcoming adaptation for Netflix. Thanks to NetGalley for allowing me the chance to read this debut novel before publication in exchange for my thoughts.

The Upper World is a place alluded to by a number of people. Nobody is convinced of its existence, and those who talk of it are not of the best mental health. The Upper World is a place that seems to exist outside our reality, where time effectively stops and where there is always the chance to affect events in the real world.

Set in Peckham, this story is mind-bending in the best possible way. It unashamedly revels in its nerd-factor, delights in the depiction of its teen characters and their lives, and yet the thing I found more challenging to read and understand was the language used between some of the characters. With the help of my own teenage sons, the finer points were explained and I could focus on working out – as best I could – the details of the story.

The main focus is Esso in the present, and then Rhia sixteen years in the future (who ends up meeting an adult Esso). These two characters are linked in a way that means they need each other for their stories to play out.

Our first meeting with Esso sets up a story like no other. After being involved in a car crash, Esso is convinced he has experienced a world where he starts to see snatches of the future. On the brink of expulsion, caught in a dangerous situation with someone he has known since childhood, he is desperate to do what he has to in order to protect someone close to him. To do this he needs Rhia…a young girl in care (in 2035) who has her own questions about her past…and who is similarly desperate to protect those close to her.

That is as much detail as I can give. Trust me, this is a cleverly-plotted and engaging story that picks you up and spits you out once it’s all over.

‘The City We Became’ – N.K. Jemisin

 

A fantasy like no other, in turns confusing and exhilarating.

In The City We Became we are asked to imagine a world under threat from a supernatural entity which invades its target, sucking the life out of it, consuming its essence and then taking its place in a new world. This could be seen as a metaphor for so many things, and though it did have me scratching my head a little initially I found myself engrossed in the fight.

These kinds of attacks have been going on for years. Nobody remembers the successful attacks as the city that is lost becomes nothing but a story. But this time is different because the city under attack is New York.

In this world, New York can be saved. It can be saved by the physical manifestations of the city – people who represent a borough of New York – working together to save the place they love.

When I started reading I really was not sure what to make of it. Manny, our first character introduced, remembers nothing of his life and can’t really place what’s happening to him. Though this makes it hard to gauge what’s happening, I felt it meant we learnt about the scenario as Manny did. Not really knowing New York I wouldn’t like to say whether the author has painted an accurate picture of these districts and cities, but it was a refreshing concept and highly entertaining.

‘Five Minds’ – Guy Morpuss

From the moment I’d seen the teasers about Five Minds appearing on Twitter, I was eagerly awaiting my opportunity to read this. I’d trawled Morpuss’s website and played the games (I struggled to even think about which option I’d go for). Eventually I struck lucky and was granted access by NetGalley to read this before publication. All I had to do was write my honest thoughts. That sounds straightforward, but having just finished Five Minds my mind seems incapable of coherent thought!

So, let’s look at what we are told beforehand…

Five Minds is set in an alternate future. In an attempt to control the Earth’s growing population lifespans are carefully monitored, and people are made to choose their life at seventeen. Some become workers…they are educated for the next five years and then take their chance as to what comes next. Some become andis…their minds are uploaded into a body requiring little physical maintenance. They are granted a lifespan of eighty years. A few become hedonists. This group have wealth and are granted free choice…but they die at forty-two. The last group are, perhaps, the hardest to understand. The schizos. Five minds are merged in one body, each having control of it for a four hour period in the day. Each mind is granted a lifespan of twenty-five years, and the host can be updated regularly. Their life ends after the fifth mind has had their twenty-five years.

Our focus is on one schizo group, or commune. Alex, Dan, Kate, Sierra and Mike have been together for some time. They regularly compete in the Death Parks, underground competitions allowing people to try and win additional time. When Kate is offered the chance to win an obscene amount of life, she takes it. Unfortunately, it results in one of their group disappearing. No one seems to know what’s happened, but all too quickly it becomes apparent that someone does…and until this person is caught, the commune is at risk.

The concept of a group under threat isn’t new. But the idea that the murderer could well be one of the minds within the commune lends it a chilling feel. As soon as the murder element comes to the fore it becomes a very different style of book to read. I was gripped, and found myself wholly immersed in the story as I tried to work out who was behind it and how – or if – they would succeed.

Huge thanks to NetGalley and Viper books for letting me read this early, and thank you to Guy Morpuss for a fascinating debut that makes me wonder what on earth could come next.

 

‘One Last Stop’ – Casey McQuiston

 

I started this just after seeing a post on social media commenting on the fact that a member of the blogging community had expressed their dismay over this book and not been able to finish it…because it had lesbian characters. That, in a nutshell, seemed to sum up why such a book is needed.

This book had so much going on. While not all of the strands fully worked for me, it was a joyous read – and one that I could not help but feel happy to have read.
Our main character is a rather innocent young girl, who has moved to New York to try and finish college – and to move away from her mother’s attempts to get her to investigate the disappearance of a relative. She finds herself living in a rather strange apartment-share, with a mixed bunch of characters who quickly show themselves to be warm-hearted, caring and better than many families. She gets a job in a 24-hour diner, in spite of having no previous experience, and finds herself intrigued by the daily meet she has on the subway.

August is not particularly confident, but she is determined to try and make the best of situations she ends up in. When she finds herself meeting the same girl, Jane, on her daily commute it quickly becomes a crush she does not want to ignore.

This could have been the story and it would, probably, have worked. Seeing these two together was entertaining, and you cannot deny the attraction between them. However, we have a rather unusual twist…Jane is incapable of leaving the subway and – for reasons we are not quite sure of – actually lived in the 1970s.

I would heartily recommend this to anyone who enjoyed Red, White and Royal Blue though the tone/style is more reflective. As we drew towards the end I have to say I was nervous about reading on – just in case things didn’t quite go as expected.

‘Project Hail Mary’ – Andy Weir

As part of my attempts to read out of my comfort zone I decided to try Project Hail Mary. I was reticent, wondering if I’d be blinded by science or whether I’d be engaged by such a story…pleased to say I needn’t have worried.

Our story is not straightforward and there is a lot of science (which I followed in a rather detached clueless way) but I found myself completely invested in the story of Ryland Grace.

When we first encounter Grace he is just waking up after being in an enforced coma. He discovers he’s on a spaceship, the two companions with him are dead and his memory is rather muddled.

Of course I had questions, and over the course of the novel we learn exactly how he came to be here and what his mission is.

The premise that Earth needs to be saved and a team have been sent on a suicide mission is pretty obvious. The sun’s energy is being removed and, unless something is done, the Earth will experience a major extinction event.

I found myself liking the to and fro of this, being given details as Grace recalled them so we learn relatively slowly about what is happening. However, as I found myself wondering where on earth this story would go we got a rather unexpected arrival and the book took off in a wonderful direction.

Without giving too much away, Rocky was – for me – what made this book. We were offered a plausible scenario to introduce some complexity to what could have been an otherwise bleak story. The dynamic between Rocky and Grace offered some interesting exploration of the human psyche and how we communicate. It lent a very real element to what could have, otherwise, felt a rather sterile read.

Not at all what I expected, and I’m pleased to have enjoyed something so different to my usual fare.

 

‘The One’ – John Marrs

I am kicking myself for not having read this earlier. From the moment I picked it up I found myself rifling the pages, desperate to see where this was going. With a large cast of characters and over a hundred chapters I wasn’t sure how this would work…but everything is paced well, and each character is very quickly identifiable. Piecing together the details was an absorbing process.

The concept is intriguing. A test has been discovered that, in exchange for a DNA sample, gives you the identity of your Match…the person you are destined to be with. Taking the risk out of choosing love seems to appeal, and the success of the Match Your DNA app shows this. Since its inception, the app has appeared to change society. However, the premise raises some intriguing ethical issues and the book’s success depends very much on the fact that people are not always honest.

Upon starting the book I was immediately struck by how quickly I raced through the opening quarter. Learning the details of the various characters who’d signed up to the app and their motivations definitely added something to reading about their reactions and subsequent behaviour. Though the characters were all very different, I was keen to see what would happen.

Certain characters stuck out: Christopher, Mandy, Kevin and Nick. Though I won’t reveal why, their stories engaged and captivated me. Though the details are not always palatable, it was hard not to get sucked into trying to work out what would happen for each of them.

There was a point in the story – a little over halfway through – that my attention wandered a little. We were learning the details of these characters, but I was struggling to see the significance of their tales to the overall book. It felt as if we were going to have to be given a reason for these very different stories to be threaded together. It took a while, but we got there…and certainly made me review some of the interactions.

So, given all these positives, why not five stars? It’s hard to explain without giving away details of the plot. However, Ellie’s story hadn’t captured my attention sufficiently to really engage me by the time key information came out later. The moral ambiguity surrounding Ellie in the closing stages rather concerned me. There’s also a part of me that thinks relationships don’t come with hard and fast guarantees, and anyone so desperate to seek such affirmation is trying to ignore their personal responsibility for their choices and the way they impact on others. Perhaps on a different day this would have got five stars from me, and it’s certainly a read I’d recommend highly.

 

‘Piranesi’ – Susanna Clarke

Piranesi was a shifting, mercurial delight of a story.
I was lucky enough to be granted access to an ARC of the audiobook narrated by Chiwetel Ejiofor, and I found myself carried along by it. There were moments where I found meaning elusive, and we’d be given hints of what was happening but could never be quite certain. Normally this would frustrate me beyond belief but in this story it is a very necessary part of the experience.
Piranesi, our narrator, journals avidly and spends his days curating the house in which he lives. Twice a week he meets with The Other and discusses the things he observes within the many rooms he journeys to. There are allusions to a sixteenth person, and the perceived threat from an unwelcome visitor.
Suffice to say, nothing is quite as it seems.
Once I came to the end I found myself full of longing to return. This is a world that you will fall in love with.

 

‘The Boy I Am’ – K.L. Kettle

 

Thanks to NetGalley for granting me access to this prior to publication. It’s an explosive read, forcing us to question the extent to which we would allow power to go unquestioned.

In this world boys are seen as dangerous and it is essential they are kept apart, given no power and kept subdued. They are not allowed to view the faces of the women who pay for their time, and if they are not bought at auction before the age of seventeen they are sent to the mines.

Our main character is Jude Grant, facing his last auction and desperate to escape the destiny laid in front of him.

Without giving too much away, Jude is enlisted in a daring attempt to overthrow the Chancellor, to topple her from power and bring about change.

Things don’t go to plan. Jude is a determined young man, but we see he is a cog in a much larger machine. That aside, it only takes that one cog to be slightly out of alignment to cause problems.

I found the pacing of this problematic at times and definitely felt I wanted to know more about the mysterious Vor women and how this environment came to be. Very minor niggles, but enough to stop me awarding five stars, which is a shame as this is a book I can see raising a storm amongst readers.’The Bo

‘Game Changer’ – Neal Shusterman

Game Changer will, I think, be one of those books that will polarise opinion. I’m grateful to NetGalley for granting me access to it prior to its scheduled February 2021 publication, and I think I would recommend it to people, but there are issues that make me wonder if this was quite the right way to get the intended result.

Our story focuses on Ash, a fairly typical privileged white American boy. He plays football. He has relatively open relationships with his friends and family, but there’s a sense of things being held back. This doesn’t cause undue concern, but then Ash is involved in a play that has far-reaching consequences. We journey with Ash as he experiences these strange events, the result of being knocked into another dimension.

Initially, until we have an explanation for what has happened, I was quite disengaged with this. Ash is not a particularly interesting character and I found his processing of events and the implications for him just a little patronising. There seemed to be just a little too much focus on him articulating his reasoning for behaving in the way he did, and trying to justify some of the choices he makes. He seems to comment lots on everyone around him, but to be quite unaware of his own shortcomings and this annoyed me on occasion.

Thankfully, quite early on we get some answers that what has happened to Ash is out of the realms of the ordinary. He has shifted reality and each time he does this he is able to change things. Sometimes this works well; sometimes not. Each time it happens, Ash learns something new about himself and the world around him. His only guides through this are twins (who are added to each time he changes things) keen to see if this time round the thing placed at the centre of the universe can make things better.

Ultimately, in each reality Ash experiences there are unpleasant things to address: racism, sexism, homophobia. You name the issue, we get it. Ash gets to live in different realities, each experience opening his eyes to the issues faced by many and the ignorance that many of us live in without even realising it. There was a clear sense of him growing as a person, albeit sometimes this feeling seeming forced on him.

After a rather slow start, the book became more engaging. I got quite caught up with Ash’s experiences and found the interactions between Ash and the other characters quite interesting. Unfortunately, though there were lessons to be learned – and Ash clearly set out his growing self-awareness in a way that often felt unnecessary – the fact that he ended up in the situation he did suggested that in a world of possibilities we will often settle for what is familiar enough to not be overly threatening. For me, this was not so much a Game Changer as a way of highlighting that change can be necessary and we should look for opportunities to improve things.

 

‘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.