Monday, 15 June 2009

The Declaration by Gemma Malley


Anna keeps a secret diary in a pink journal. She hides it away every night because she doesn't want to get into trouble for breaking the rules. Life at Grange Hall is governed by rules, rules that have to be learnt in order to make up for breaking the biggest rule of all.

Anna knows she has to be grateful for her place at Grange Hall because her parents were irresponsible when they had her. They broke the rule about not having children and now Anna must repay society for their selfish act. She must learn to be a Valuable Asset.

Then one day Peter arrives and starts to tell Anna shocking things - about her parents, and the Declaration, and life outside Grange Hall. Soon Anna is wondering about everything she has learnt to believe.

*

I picked this up second-hand, mainly because of the eye-catching cover, and I am so glad I did. It's a fascinating and gripping novel set in a dystopian world, and I couldn't put it down. The sequel is already on my tbr list.

The Declaration is set in 2140. Death and old age have been conquered by Longevity drugs - but the world cannot support an ever-growing population, so children are now illegal unless the parents agree to die. In some countries, new babies are put to death. In more 'civilised' Britain, they are raised in Halls to a life of harsh slavery to atone for their existance.

The main character, Anna, has been raised in one such Hall. She is a prefect there, and well on her way to becoming a Valuable Asset. She genuinely believes that she is worth nothing, and hates her parents for giving birth to her. Despite this, she has a spark of rebelliousness, keeping a forbidden journal. When Peter arrives, he forces her to start thinking for herself. Her transformation is fascinating, but also real, and she remains deeply affected by her traumatic childhood.

I wasn't sure about the big twist, but that's the only real negative. I also loved the questions this book raised. Who has more right to life: adults prolonging their lives past natural limits, or children who, by law, should never have been born? And would you have children if it meant giving up your own life?

Friday, 12 June 2009

Catcall by Linda Newbery


Josh's family is used to changes - but now they are hurtling into even more. Although Josh has always had an affinity with animals, it's his younger brother Jamie who falls under the wild cat spell. 'Leo' seems to have taken over Jamie's life. Soon it becomes impossible for the family to cope with his frightening, unpredictable behaviour. Only Josh understands, but is he brave enough to break through Jamie's unhappy mask, and save them all?

*

Josh and Jamie have been having a rough time. Their parents are divorced, and now their Dad's girlfriend and her son are moving in with him, while their Mum and her new partner have just had a baby girl. Catcall is essentially the story of how these events affect the two of them.

Josh, the narrator, is a bit of a geek. He likes facts and is a little obsessed with cats. He writes about them in his 'Book of Cats' he created and has spent hours on. He turns to it whenever he feels stressed and needs an escape. He worries that his dad's stepson and his mum's new baby will replace him, and that neither of them will have any time left for him. Jamie presumably feels the same, although he handles it slightly differently. One day at school he stops talking, and then begins to behave in frightening and unpredictable ways. At first he will only talk while wearing a cat mask, and becomes scared of something called 'Leo'.

I felt for Josh. He was struggling for much of this book, but for various reasons never got the attention he needed from his parents, all of whom were distracted by Jamie's much more dramatic problems. There was a deep bond between the two brothers, and Josh clearly cared deeply about Jamie. The parents (all four of them!) were, I thought, well written - trying their best, and sometimes failing, but mostly doing as well as they could.

I think this would be a good book for young teens going through similar issues. Josh's emotions felt real, to me, from his sense of injustice that Jamie was getting all the attention, to his horror of the brief flashes of rage he felt towards his baby sister. The writing was good, and showed understanding of how a boy Josh's age might feel.

However, it didn't stand out for me. I didn't like the ending, and there was nothing about it to make me go 'wow'. So, in conclusion, good but not great.

Thursday, 11 June 2009

Ringmaster by Julia Golding


Operation Ringmaster seriously compromised. Agent Michael Lock missing in pursuit of suspect. Lock's daughter, Darcie, now in danger. Request her immediate evacuation from Kenya.

Request denied.

Darcie's sheltered expat life among the rich of Nairobi is about to change. Another side of Africa awaits - a world of international smuggling, espionage and corruption. And that's only where the madness begins...

*

I challenge anyone to read this and not be reminded of the Stormbreaker books. A parent/guardian goes missing, MI6 recruits a teenager, and the SAS get involved to help defeat some criminal mastermind. Ringmaster, I think, is better. It's not sci-fi - rather than smallpox viruses in high-tech computers, the bad guys are involved in drug dealing, attempted coups and terrorism. Darcie gets no high-tech gadgets, but instead has to improvise with whatever she can get hold of (such designer dresses, high heels, and at one point, bagpipes). And I love that Ringmaster has a heroine rather than a hero, and that there are several strong female characters.

Darcie herself is a feisty, funny tomboy. She likes playing football and fencing, and has no interest in being a girly-girl. I liked most of the other characters as well, especially Stingo, her SAS bodyguard. The evil and lecherous bad guys were easy to hate, and Darcie's inevitable victory was very satisfying. There was also a (very) little romance, which I would have liked to see developing further. Maybe in the sequel!

I also liked the setting. It mostly revolved around the ex-pat community of Kenya, meaning that there were characters involved from all over the world. There were also some glimpses of what live for most Kenyans is like, with Darcie uncomfortably aware that her own privileged upbringing was not the norm.

I'd recommend this to anyone who liked the Stormbreaker books, or who thinks the idea of a teenage girl playing the James Bond role sounds interesting! It's good fun, and I can already think of a 14-year-old to whom I want to send my copy.

The God Box by Alex Sanchez


High school senior Paul has dated Angie since middle school, and they're good together. They have a lot of the same interests, like singing in their church choir and being active in Bible club. But when Manuel transfers to their school, Paul has to rethink his life. Manuel is the first openly gay teen anyone in their small town has ever met, and yet he says he's also a committed Christian. Talking to Manuel makes Paul reconsider thoughts he has kept hidden, and listening to Manuel's interpretation of Biblical passages on homosexuality causes Paul to reevaluate everything he believed. Manuel's outspokenness triggers dramatic consequences at school, culminating in a terrifying situation that leads Paul to take a stand.

*

This is the third book I've read by Alex Sanchez. I already own Rainbow Boys and Rainbow High, and enjoyed them both. The God Box is, in some ways, fairly similar. All are about gay teenagers either coming to accept their identities or struggling against homophobia. In The God Box, however, there's an added religious element.

This is essentially a romance, so I'll focus on that first. I enjoyed the developing relationship between Paul and Manuel: there were no big flashy moments of epiphany, just Paul's initial denial then slow realisation that, actually, he was gay. It was slow and sweet, and I found it very believable. There might have been attraction at first sight, but it wasn't love. Both of them were struggling with their own issues (Paul moreso than Manuel) which got in the way of them getting together. In the end, it took a suitably dramatic event for Paul to let go of everything he'd believed growing up - and snog Manuel!

The religious element also played a large role. Here I should probably point out that I'm not religious, my family isn't religious, and I don't live in an overly religious society (unless you count the football!). So I did struggle with the idea that teenagers - popular teenagers, even jocks - would go to a Bible club and discuss scripture. But I'll trust Alex Sanchez if he says that they do. Sometimes, I found it dragged a little. The problem was that I'd heard all these interpretations of the Bible before - both the homophobic and non-homophobic ones, so there was a lot of dialogue where characters were repeating what I already knew. But if you've not read much about the Bible and homosexuality, you'll doubtless find it more interesting. Paul's religion meant a lot to him on a personal level, and I think it's nice that Sanchez showed the positive side of religion as well as the negative - the friendly minister as well as the homophobic one, the support Paul's dad recieved.

As you may have guessed, this isn't a book that shys away from tackling homophobic. It's realistic about it, as well. There's no happy sparkly moment where everyone realises how wrong they were and that gay people are actually beautiful. They keep on hating.

But there were also characters, and not just Manuel, prepared to stand up against it, something I liked. Manuel himself sometimes seemed a little too good - he always had a perfect response, stayed brave, and forgave his enemies. I found Paul more realistic, struggling with his beliefs and his fears. I did like Manuel, however, simply because I sometimes wish I could be like that!

I'd recommend The God Box to anyone interested in the issues mentioned - or anyone who simply wants a YA gay romance with some deeper issues thrown in!

The Demon's Lexicon by Sarah Rees Brennan



Nick's been on the run his whole life, ever since his mother stole a charm from the most feared magician of them all, and the only person he trusts is his brother Alan. Alan's just been marked by a demon. Only Nick can save him, but to do so he must face the magicians - and kill them. The hunt is on, and Nick's going to discover things he never dreamed were out there...

*

This is Sarah Rees Brennan's debut novel. I think that does show, as some of the writing is a little awkward at first. It smooths out once the story gets going, however, and this is a fantastic story. The plot is fast-paced with plenty of twists and turns, and the ending cleverly pulls together hints I hadn't even noticed SRB dropping. It was one of those surprises that made me feel like I should have guessed what was coming.

The narrator, Nick, is a fascinating character, and I loved him right from the beginning - although I realise I might be in a minority here! It maybe says bad things about me that I felt like I understood him, but I did - his incomprehension of social rules, his frustration with the emotions of those around him, how he was incapable of empathy and yet, in his own screwed-up way, deeply loved his brother Alan. He was violent and ruthless, but could still feel hurt and pain. I was left desperate to know how he'll handle what happened at the end of this book (which is the first part of a trilogy).

Alan obviously cared deeply for Nick, and came across as patient and loving. However, his desire for a normal life, and his many lies, saved him from being too good. The other two main characters were Mae and Jamie, sister and brother. At first I shared Nick's frustration with Mae, but as she grew on him she grew on me too. Initially some of Jamie's wisecracks felt a little forced, but as the character developed he became much more interesting. And it's brilliant to see a gay character for whom being gay is not a huge part of the plot - there's no drama over his sexuality, it's just accepted.

I also liked the world SRB created, and I'd like to see more of it. She's got a new take on the idea of the Goblin Market - after finishing I rushed to look it up, as I couldn't remember what I'd read of it before. In Christina Rossetti's poem, the Goblin Market was the work of the Unseelie Court, and involves the taboo of eating fairy food leading to death. In The Demon's Lexicon, the Goblin Market is a human invention, where those who aren't magicians trade magical items and summon demons through dance. So, very different! I hope it's something we get to see more of. I loved the imagery and descriptions, and the acknowledgement that even when opposing evil, people are going to try and make a profit. There were a few great cameo characters as well - I hope Sin reappears in later books.

Overall, I loved this book, and cannot wait for next summer, when the next is due to be published. I'd recommend it to anyone who enjoys dark urban fantasy and ambiguous characters.

Tuesday, 19 May 2009

Sapphique by Catherine Fisher


Finn has escaped from the terrible living Prison of Incarceron, but its memory torments him, because his brother Keiro is still inside.

Outside, Claudia insists he must be king, but Finn doubts even his own identity. Is he the lost prince Giles? Or are his memories no more than another construct of his imprisonment?

And can you be free if your friends are still captive? Can you be free if your world is frozen in time? Can you be free if you don't even know who you are?

Inside Incarceron, has the crazy sorcerer Rix really found the Glove of Sapphique, the only man the Prison ever loved. Sapphique, whose image fires Incarceron with the desire to escape its own nature. If Keiro steals the glove, will he bring destruction to the world?

Inside. Outside. All seeking freedom. Like Sapphique.

*

This is the sequal to Incarceron, which I loved - but then, I love most things Catherine Fisher writes, so that's no big surprise. This is a true 'can't put down' put, with a plot so engrossing and intricate I still felt surprised the second time I read it. The world she's created is detailed and beautifully described. Nothing is quite what it seems, and that includes the characters. As always with Catherine Fisher, even the good guys are deeply flawed and approaching ambiguous. But that's why I love them.

Finn was my favourite, with his mix of morality and deceptiveness. He cared deeply for Keiro, and possibly Claudia, but didn't let that stand in his way from trying to manipulate the two of them. Claudia was ambitious and cunning, plotting and scheming, but redeemed by the love she had for her tutor, and by the fact that her plots served others as much as herself. Keiro spent most of the book believing he'd been betrayed, but even so, I never felt sure how much of his hurt came from the betrayal of a friend, and how much came from jealousy of someone who'd 'escaped' while he remained trapped.

I couldn't honestly see how she would be able to end this happily, and while the ending probably couldn't be described as happy, it wrapped up the plot in a way that felt believable and hopeful (and in a way that satisfied my socialist tendencies).

This is serious fantasy, exciting and original, and unafraid to shine a light on the darker side of human nature. Catherine Fisher is possibly my favourite ya fantasy author, and Incarceron and Sapphique just cements that position.

Tuesday, 12 May 2009

Graceling by Kristin Cashore


In a world where people born with an exceptional skill, known as a Grace, are feared and exploited, Katsa carries the burden of a skill even she despises: the Grace of killing. She lives under the command of her Uncle Randa, King of the Middluns, and is expected to carry out his dirty work, punnishing and torturing anyone who displeases him. Breaking arms and cutting off fingers are her stock-in-trade. Finding life under his rule increasingly unbearable Katsa forms an underground Council, whose purpose is to combat the destructive behavior of the seven kings - after all, the Middluns is only one of the seven kingdoms, and each of them is ruled its own king with his own personal agenda for power. When the Council hears that the King of Liend's father has been kidnapped Katsa investigates . . . and stumbles across a mystery. Who would want to kidnap him, and why? And who was the extraordinary Graced fighter who challenged her fighting skills, for the first time, as she and the Council rushed the old man to saftey? Something dark and deadly is rising in the north and creeping across the continent, and behind it all lurks the shadowy figure of a one eyed king . . .

*

First things first: I love Katsa. Seriously, she’s going straight down on my list of all-time favourite heroines. She’s violent and ruthless, but cares deeply about others. She struggles to understand other people, and never wants to marry or have kids – and she refuses to let anyone tell her that she should think differently. She's struggling to find her place in the world, has issues with her self-esteem, and still manages to be so strong and determined and just generally kick-ass. I loved her strength and her super-girl powers, but her personality most of all.

The other characters were also good, especially Po and Bitterblue. I liked that Po wasn’t threatened by Katsa. He respected her strength, and, in turn, made it possible for her to trust him. Normally when a child appears I get nervous, but I loved Bitterblue as well. It would have been nice to have gotten a bit more about the main baddie. He’s obviously some kind of psychopath, but I can’t remember any real mention of why he ended up that way.

It wasn't all perfect. I think the twist was quite easy to work out, and the first few chapters suffered from infodump. But the story was fast moving and exciting, and the writing very good. But what really makes this shine for me is Katsa. I'd recommend this to anyone looking for a strong, well-rounded, feminist heroine - if there are any Tamora Pierce fans out there, you should definitely pick this up!