‘Brightly Burning’ – Alexa Donne

The gravity stabilizers were failing again. I glanced up from my sketchpad to see globules of liquid dancing up from my drinking glass. They shimmered red, like droplets of blood, though I knew it was just cherry-flavored nutri-drink. Dammit, that’s my protein ration for the day wasted.

A sigh escaped me, and resignedly I stowed my drawing tablet and stylus in the drawer under my mattress. They would be calling me any minute.

A moment later, right on time: “Stella Ainsley, please report to Area Twelve.” The speaker crackled and popped, as it had done for years. I’d tried to fix it, but on a ship as old as the Stalwart, there was only so much you could do.

With this extract from the opening chapter of Donne’s debut, due for publication in May 2018, we can see this is no ordinary retelling of Jane Eyre.

From the moment I saw this on NetGalley I have to say I was curious about how it would work. There’s a few differences in order to fit the futuristic space setting, but it’s quite faithful to the original text.

Seventeen year old Stella is determined to not end up an engineer the rest of her life. With her space home looking close to the end, her choices are limited. When she gets a post as governess on board the much better-equipped Rochester we know exactly where this is going.

Many of the expected events are there. It was good fun to spot the links (while not being too precious about the adaptations made to fit the new setting) and I could see this appealing to teens with no sense of the source material, as well as being a bit of fun for those who know what’s coming.

Thanks to NetGalley for giving me the chance to read this prior to publication.

‘The List’ – Patricia Forde

I’m finding it increasingly hard to not be too dismissive of books marketed as middle-grade simply because I’m so far away from the target age of the intended readership. Sometimes, a story comes along that just carries you away regardless of age and though this wasn’t quite there it was a story that I can see appealing to many readers.

John Noa (obvious parallels) is not a man we know much about until later on in the story. However we are told that he is the founder of the new community, Ark, and that he has made many changes to this new society to help them adjust to this future world. He’s no genial gentleman though – his actions throughout the story hint at a steely determination and a willingness to do anything he deems necessary to carry his plans to fruition.

The focus on words is what drew me, and it’s an obvious link to want to feel for the main character Letta whose job is to record the few words prescribed as permissible to use under List. Far too young to be placed in the position she is, her refusal to turn her back on an injured boy leads to some dangerous meetings that have her questioning everything she’s been led to believe.

Throughout, there were many echoes of other well-known stories but I don’t think this is a problem per se. My main issue with the plot was that it was quite predictable and that we never seemed to get a fully-developed sense of the world/people in it.

‘How to Stop Time’ – Matt Haig

This has been one I’ve wanted to read for a while, but needed to ensure I had time to do it in one stretch.

Tom Hazard is a forty-one year old history teacher. He has a passion for bringing the past to life, and is desperate to start a relationship with fellow teacher Camille. Unfortunately Tom has anageria,which means he has actually been alive for centuries, is part of a secret society and has been given only one instruction-not to fall in love.

We dip in and out of Tom’s past and present, following him through his various guises as he tries to avoid drawing attention to himself.

Though the book tells Tom’s story, and gets us to focus on his search for his daughter, I was most intrigued by the insight it offered into the human condition. What makes us human? How do we make our mark in time?

I enjoyed the sense of dipping into different times, and I feel the novel offers some interesting ideas about what it means to be human. I would award 4.5 stars, but I didn’t feel all of the extra details about Tom’s past were strictly necessary.

‘Satellite’ – Nick Lake

Satellite is one of those reads that had some wonderful moments but which also left me feeling rather flat. A tough one to review, and this will be one that I think splits views.

In this novel Lake focuses us on Leo, a young boy born in space who is desperate to ‘go home’, to earth. It’s a journey he and his two companions, Libra and Orion, have been looking forward to for as long as they can remember.

Our story is split into distinct parts. We watch the teens in space, planning their lives on earth. We see them journey to earth and look at their experiences. Then, perhaps most oddly, we return from whence we came.

Leo’s voice is distinctive. Overcoming the writing style will be a big factor in your response to the story. It’s written in what seems to mirror the language of the transmissions that Leo and the others are used to communicating in, and clearly marks Leo out as ‘other’ – an alien in his environment. However, if you can look beneath this you’ll probably find yourself quite taken with these kids.

As we learn more about Leo’s family, and get a sense of just where he’s come from, it’s hard not to fall a little under his spell. Seeing the experience of life on earth from the view of someone who’s not physically prepared for it is intriguing. Watching the relationships Leo has develop is pretty compelling.

Unfortunately, much as I liked Leo and grew to care for him I felt the latter stages of the novel took us so far into the realms of incredibility that I really didn’t enjoy it as I’d hoped to.

Thank you to NetGalley for providing me with an advance copy in exchange for my thoughts.

‘The Power’ – Naomi Alderman

‘The Power’ is a book I’d been desperate to read since I first heard about it, but it has taken me a long time to get round to.

My initial reaction upon finishing the book was one of bemusement. In this novel Alderman highlights issues of gender and power in contemporary society, by turning our expectations and norms on their head.

I liked the fact the book focused on four separate characters during this time, but that inevitably led to a sense of detachment as we never fully get under their skin and jumping from one to the other means the links between their stories aren’t always clear.

I found the basic premise of the girls’ power fascinating, but it seemed to descend into abuse of such magnitude that I felt a real bleakness towards people and their basic humanity.

While this book seems to fit into science-fiction/dystopian writing, I think the messages it gives us about how we live now are really depressing.

I can admire much about how this has been constructed, and the writing style but it was an unnerving experience and one that I’m left uncertain about how to respond to.

‘The Dazzling Heights’ – Katherine McGee

New York City, 2118. A glittering vision of the future, where anything is possible – if you want it enough. 
Manhattan is home to a thousand-story supertower, a beacon of futuristic glamour and high-tech luxury… and to millions of people living scandalous, secretive lives.

In this novel, the story picks up not long after the death of Eris. Each of the characters on the roof that night has their secret to hide, but someone is watching and is determined to make them pay for what they did.

For large parts of the book I had the sense of things being put in place to set up our finale. This isn’t big on action as such, but there’s a manipulation of characters and events to suit where we end up.

I’m still uncertain where I stand on the Avery and Atlas relationship. I know they’re not related – so it isn’t that element that bothers me – but they seem to spend very little time trying to do the best for the other. It’s as if they’ve got into a pattern of behaviour that they can’t break away from.

The introduction of con-artist Calliope brings a different level into the mix, and she struck the right blend between participant and observer. While she is doing something awful, and we are meant to see her as shallow and unpleasant, there are moments when she offers an interesting perspective on these characters. I felt very much as though we were digging under the surface of characters a little.

Towards the end I feared we were going for a rehash of book one. Thankfully not, but there is a death and it binds our characters in a way that sets up intrigue for the final part of the trilogy.

‘Railhead’ – Philip Reeve

Railhead

I picked this up as it was on the short-list for 2017 Carnegie Awards. There’s been a fair amount of criticism over the choices for this year, so I’m curious to read those on the list and see why they’ve been selected (having read a lot of the nominations and been surprised not to see some on the final list).

This is a book that I can’t help but feel doesn’t do itself justice. The cover and blurb very strongly hint at its sci-fi/cyberpunk style, and I don’t think it screams ‘read me’ to teen readers. What a shame for those who don’t bother to pick it up!

In ‘Railhead’ – the first in a trilogy – Reeve creates a world where humans are no longer bound to Earth, and are able to move from planet to planet by passing through gateways while travelling on sentient trains. Those who travel in this way (railheads) form something of a unique community, and not all seem so keen to allow such travel to take place freely.

‘Railhead’ tells us the story of petty thief Zen Starling. He is one of the aforementioned railheads, and from the start it is strongly suggested that there is more to him than meets the eye. When we are initially introduced to Zen and his family his selfishness was clear to see. This is the boy who himself says he will always choose the winning side, but there is something admirable about him. As we see him get caught up in something we don’t fully understand it takes a while to get answers, but we soon come to realise there’s a whole lot more going on here than we first thought.

The style of the book is eminently readable, and the characters – though quite selfish and unlikeable – do act in ways that I couldn’t help but warm to. The depiction of the futuristic world was incredible, and I have to admire the way Reeve actually got me to care about what are, essentially, machines – whether that was the trains (including the Thought Fox, about which I could see myself having nightmares), the creepy Hive Monks or the wonderful Motoriks! I really liked most of the main characters and the sense of threads coming together as I progressed through the story was immensely satisfying.

Perhaps I’m reading too much into this, but I felt this really held a mirror up to many of the advances/concerns of our world and will encourage readers to consider their views on a number of topics. Going into this with fairly low expectations, I am pleasantly shocked by how much I enjoyed this story. So much so I’ve ordered book two!

‘The Future of Us’ – Jay Asher and Carolyn Mackler

The Future of Us

Published in 2011, this is a romance that is unashamedly set in the past while trying to explore attitudes to what – in our contemporary world – has become the norm. What I felt throughout was that something always felt slightly off-kilter.

Emma and Josh are next-door neighbours, who have been friends forever. Naturally (this is a romance) Josh has made a move and Emma has panicked…so they’ve not really spoken for a while. This would be awkward enough, but throughout the novel we can see that the whole focus is on them trying to work out they are meant to be together.

While this might seem infuriating, the cast of friends surrounding them are interesting enough to stop it all getting too much. What irritated me was the premise used to get them to see the true state of their feelings for each other. Set in the past – way back in 1996 when teenagers had to do things like page each other if they wanted to speak or, heaven forbid, actually meet up – we are led to believe that when Emma is given a free AOL CD she finds a mysterious page called Facebook that seems to tell her the future.

Part of me really wanted to stop reading. Emma and Josh acted more like olden day peasants facing witchcraft rather than savvy teens on the cutting edge of their world. Still, it was mildly entertaining but more than a little unforgettable.

‘Replica’ – Lauren Oliver

Replica

I was fortunate enough to receive an ARC of this from edelweiss and the publishers, but it languished on my iPad until the New Year as I was trying to catch up with some other reading. At least reading it now it is published means I can tell people about it and they don’t have to wait ages to get their hands on a copy.

Lauren Oliver has been one of those writers that I’ve found excellent when she gets it right. Here, she is pretty close to doing that.

Initially the ‘flip’ element of the story might seem like a gimmick. We are given two versions of the same event, though the differences in the narratives are just enough to not make it seem like we’re reading exactly the same story. In Lyra and Gemma we have two intriguing narrators. Each girl gets to experience something new in this novel as they go on a journey of self-discovery with a difference.

The key premise of the story focuses on the Haven institute, a mysterious place that is doing something with replicas (i.e. human clones) though nobody is entirely sure what. When the institute is blown up, Lyra and one of the male replicas escape. They meet Gemma and Jake, two teenagers who have more of a stake in this story than they realise. During our encounter with these teenagers we – as they do – learn more about what Haven was and just how it links to the girls’ stories.

I don’t want to give too much away, as this is definitely a book to go into knowing no more than you’re told at the outset. Suffice to say, though I wanted to know more about the background of the institute and would have liked to see what happened afterwards, this was a clever read that only revealed itself to be so as you draw near the end of the experience.

Personally, I’m looking forward to seeing what students I teach make of this – and I’m curious to know whether reading a physical copy of this so you can flick between the stories makes any difference to the experience.

‘Paper and Fire (The Great Library 2)’ – Rachel Caine

Paper and Fire

In the world of the Great Library knowledge is valued, but it corrupts  many of those who are privy to this knowledge. The second in the series shows Jess and Glain completing their training, but their determination to ask questions about Thomas – presumed dead in the last book – causes untold trouble.

There’s little in the way of recap here, but I quickly picked up the key details in spite of it being some time since I read book one. We’re thrown into the action very quickly, and there’s a real sense of menace to this.

It was good to see the main characters from the first book together here. Throughout, I had a sense that there was something going on with Wolfe and Santi – but it wasn’t quite as I expected. Caine throws a lot of awful things at these characters as they struggle to find their way against the Library and those in control. I’m only pleased that they managed to retain their sense of self throughout – and not get too badly punished (though it came close on more than one occasion).

I think the inclusion of the extracts of contact between those in control is fascinating. It’s a great way to make us see just what Jess and those who sympathise with him are up against. An explosive ending, and it really looks like the third part in the series will be one to look out for.