‘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.

‘The Kingdom’ – Jess Rothenberg

Welcome to the Kingdom, a dazzling fantasy theme park where ‘happily ever after’ is not just a promise, but a rule . . .

The Kingdom is a place where technology helps dreams come to life. Formerly extinct species roam the park, and seven beautiful ‘Fantasists’ – half-human, half-android princesses – entertain visitors and make wishes come true. But this fairytale ends in murder, and now Ana, one of the seven Fantasists, is in the dock after finding herself experiencing emotions and romantic feelings against all her programming . . .

I wasn’t sure what to expect of this. Having completed it, I can say it was definitely one that got my attention and I’m grateful to NetGalley for allowing me access to this prior to publication. Ultimately, there were elements of the backstory and the world-building that didn’t quite answer all my questions.

Ana is a Fantasist. Essentially a machine, she is programmed to bring happiness to those she interacts with. She lives, along with her sisters, in the Disney-style theme park known as The Kingdom and she is programmed to behave within a strict set of parameters. Her focus is to provide happiness to the guests she interacts with, though she can’t feel emotions…or so we’re led to believe.

Early on, we are given details of a transcript of a trial. Through this we learn that Ana has been accused of the murder of a park worker. She maintains she didn’t do anything, and that she cannot lie.

I was fascinated by the concept, though I also found myself wanting to dig deeper into the park and its set-up. Frustrating, perhaps, but there was plenty here to get the reader’s attention.

‘My Side of the Diamond’ – Sally Gardner

I picked this up as it’s on the 2019 Carnegie Longlist. It features aliens and mysterious events so isn’t typically the kind of book I’d go for.

Jazmine is trying to come to terms with the disappearance of her best friend, Becky. There’s no trace of her, but we learn she jumped off a tower and disappeared.

We dip into the past and present to try to learn the circumstances of what’s going on. We’re introduced to the friends, learn about their relationships and their keen interest in two other characters who seemingly disappeared after jumping from a tower.

This is not a particularly taxing read, and the story is not necessarily credible. However, it explores some interesting questions about humanity and what makes us as we are.

I’ll be interested to see if this makes the shortlisted titles.

‘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.

‘The Dreamers’ – Karen Thompson Walker

An unsettling read.

Our story begins with young student Mei, an outsider in her dormitory, hearing her roommate drunkenly come home. She goes to classes and when she returns later the next day realises that her roommate is still asleep. Nobody knows why, and there isn’t anything the medical staff looking after her can do, but slowly the town succumbs to this bizarre situation.

One by one people drift off. They sleep, their heart slows and there are signs of them dreaming. There’s no explanation for this scenario, and nobody comes up with any answers about how to deal with it.

All too soon the town of Santa Lorna is placed in quarantine. Nobody can enter, and nobody can leave. Everyone is treated with suspicion, as nobody can tell who might have the virus.

We follow a number of characters through their experience.

Initially I felt the writing was atmospheric and there was a stifling feel to what was described. Sadly, the scenario doesn’t lend itself to a sustainable one for me. There’s a limit to how many people can fall asleep and how many dreams can be described before I lose interest.

This was a beautiful opening that promised much, but felt like it fizzled out. With no explanations offered for what took place and no real advancement in many of the characters I had a rather detached reaction to the closing section. Shame.

‘The Similars’ – Rebecca Hanover

Emma is reluctant to return to Darkwood Academy as her best friend, Oliver, recently died. Emma feels his loss acutely – and this is made worse when it’s announced that six clones will get a place at school. One of the clones is of her dead best friend.

The first part of the book focuses on setting up the group and trying to establish the idea that there’s something weird about this set-up. We spend a fair bit of time learning about the world of Darkwood and the group known as the Ten. Then Emma’s roommate is attacked and she has to work with the Similars to work out what’s going on.

As the story progresses it’s increasingly obvious that those in power know more about the situation than they’re letting on. The ‘evil genius’ behind the scheme has spent a long time planning this, but it’s never going to work when the kids are rather adept at finding out stuff they’re not meant to know.

Emma is a pretty determined character, though some of the scenarios she ends up in don’t really work. The developing relationship between Emma and Levi was intriguing, but the revelations at the end certainly hint at something exciting to come and go some way to explaining the responses Emma has.

‘Wildcard’ – Marie Lu

Second in the Warcross series this returns to some familiar themes while developing the story in a quite intriguing way.

Emika is not in a great place following the Warcross Championships. She feels she’s messed up some of the things that were good for her, but she is determined to do what she can to put things right.

Appalled by Hideo’s plans for his Neurolink, Emika finds herself caught up in a dangerous game to try to put things right. Though she takes huge risks to do this, it’s not always clear who’s acting out of the best of intentions and this makes for a tense and exciting read.

There’s a bit more focus on the technical stuff here, and we get some answers to the parts of book one that didn’t quite make sense. Emika surprised me with how far she was prepared to take things, but it built up to a cracking finale.

I couldn’t help but feel that the ending was slightly murky. Definitely shades of grey here, which makes me wonder if we’ll get more to this. I do hope so!

‘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.