Stranger Things: Suspicious Minds – Gwenda Bond [Books]

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Suspicious Minds is the first Stranger Things tie-in novel, and as such, I was really excited to read it. I love the Netflix series, adore the characters, and was eager to find out more about the Stranger Things universe, prior to the events of the TV show. Especially as this novel focuses on Terry, Eleven’s mother.

And boy, was I disappointed.

[MILD SPOILERS AHEAD]

I read this book prior to the release of season 3, and it honestly managed to drain my excitement for the upcoming season. (Luckily, excitement was full-blown shortly into the first episode)

It is so difficult to write a novel. It’s even more difficult when it is a novel based off an existing property, where fans are already going to have their own ideas about events, especially in a prequel book.

The writing wasn’t bad. But the way the events of the novel pan out just really did nothing for me. The characters surrounding Terry felt flat, including her boyfriend, especially her sister, and even the others going into the lab. The doctor is supposed to be the big bad, but he doesn’t feel anywhere near as scary as he did in the series. And Kali…

God, Kali was so badly used in the novel.

There are references literally every page, either to 60s events or, repeatedly, LOTR. I get that LOTR is important to Stranger Things, as much as D&D is, but almost every character in here references, persistently, and it just feels forced. I could have a checklist of 60s events next to me, and have ticked them all off within the first few pages. Moon Landing. Manson Murders. Woodstock. Vietnam. Etc etc etc.

It just got a bit boring. And the ‘Fellowship of the Laboratory’ all come up with different ways to try to stop Dr Brenner, but way too often their schemes come down to

-Use Kali

-Hope she doesn’t tell

And, oops, she’s a kid! A kid who gets punished for lying to Brenner, yet these ‘adults’ put it on her over and over again.

I wanted to find out more about Brenner, and Terry, and the experiments conducted at the lab and maybe some of the other kids involved. Instead, we get very little of that. Just Terry and friends running around like the Scooby Doo gang, peeking behind doors and DETERMINED to bring down the lab. There’s no tension with this, because having seen season one of Stranger Things, we know this doesn’t happen. We know the experiments continue and Brenner takes Terry’s child and Jane becomes Eleven. It’s the same problem many sequels have – trying to build tension from events where we already know the outcome.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t work.

I think, even for diehard Stranger Things fans, it might be worth passing over this book. Nothing gets added to the wider world of the series, and personally, it left me feeling a little cold. Hopefully the other tie-in novels will be better.

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The Wicker King – K. Ancrum [Books]

wicker kingReceived this as a gift from my lovely boyfriend, because he heard me raving about The Wicked King  (which he got me for Valentine’s Day) and got confused. But this was on my wishlist, so I still really wanted to read it.

And, you know what? I loved it.

August and Jack have been best friends for years, and remain so, despite their vastly different friendship groups. Jack’s memories aren’t always real, and he relies on August to confirm events, but it soon becomes apparent that Jack is seeing something else, experiencing hallucinations that are now intruding on his day to day life. He enlists August’s help, in order to fulfil the prophecy of The Wicker King, and the two try to prevent Jack’s ‘other world’ from being destroyed. But August is torn, unsure if what Jack is seeing is real or not, only knowing that what they are doing is dangerous.

I read this book in two days.

Even for shorter books, that’s unusual for me. But the book itself was easy to read, flowed really well, with chapters broken by images, letters, notes, or mixtape lists.  They all added in some way to the plot, or gave deeper understandings of the characters. I read this book so quick because it was, in some ways, an absolute joy to read, with the relationship between August and Jack, and the people around them. In others, I was desperate to find out what would happen next, if they would be okay, if something was about to happen to disrupt their world/s.

The book focuses on these two characters, but there’s a lot of people around them, too, fully fleshed, fully realised people who pop in and out of both August and Jack’s lives, including absent adults, and well meaning teens who don’t really know what they’re doing.

The question of whether Jack’s visions are real is present, subtly, throughout, and handled really well. I found myself honestly wondering about them, even when August didn’t, and at some points, I had as much faith in Jack as August did, though I also kept hoping both sought extra help, outside of each other.

Overall, this is a really well written, fast paced book that explores mental health and relationships in an engaging way, drawing you completely into the world Jack and August inhabit. Strongly recommended by me.

Any books you’ve enjoyed recently, that explore similar themes? Or have you read The Wicker King? I’m always happy to see what other people thought!

The Doll Factory – Elizabeth Macneal [Books]

the doll factoryThe Doll Factory is author Elizabeth Macneal’s debut novel, telling the story of Iris, a young woman who earns to escape the doll shop she is trapped in, and who wants to paint. A meeting with a pre-Raphaelite painter changes her whole life, but there are other dangers, lurking in the shadows.

The novel is told from three different point of views. Iris, Albie, a loveable street urchin with no teeth, and Silas, a creepy, strange man who runs a shop of ‘curiosities’. In parts, the story reads like Dickens (in a good way), completely plunging the reader into the underbelly of Victorian-era London, allowing us to see the dregs of society alongside the fairly well-off painters, as the site for the Great Exhibition is built, and the PRB try to gain some small measure of critical acclaim.

Honestly, this book is beautiful. The language is gorgeous and an absolute pleasure to read. I have to admit, I don’t often read Historical fiction. Not because I don’t like it, I just don’t seek it out, and I tend to lean more towards books with elements of fantasy or horror. But I am so glad I read this one. There are some very small horror elements in there, combined with aspects of thriller, and they all come together to create a rich atmosphere, really bringing the setting to life.

Although the characters are Victorian, and very much rooted in that era, they have a relevance to the present, as well. Iris is constantly holding back parts of herself, scared of what people will think, fretting about being alone with men, and Silas…Silas will be all too recognisable to anyone who’s ever had an unwanted ‘admirer’.

I would seriously recommend picking this up. Vibrant characters and settings in an atmospheric world, London on the cusp of change as much as Iris is, and an absolute pleasure to read.

Find out more about the author and book on Elizabeth Macneal’s website, including links as to where to buy in the book in the UK & USA.

The Boys, Volume One: The Name of the Game – Garth Ennis, Darick Robertson [Graphic Novels]

250px-The-Boys_Volume_OneWARNING: There is likely to be swearing in this review, as personally I think it might be hard to talk about The Boys without a little bit of swearing.

The Boys is a small group of people, four men, one woman, who have one job: to keep the superheroes in line. Superheroes who the public adores, who have fantastic public images, but who, in reality, are little more than ambitious, power-hungry sociopaths who think everyone else is there for their bidding only.

Our way in is through Wee Hughie, a young man from Scotland, who gets roped into The Boys after something horrific happens to him. But throughout the book, we also get glimpses of the superhero groups, of which there are various kinds in North America alone. The Young Americans, Teenage Kix, and The Seven, who are essentially the JL, but with less morals.

Admittedly, this is not going to be for everyone. It’s graphic in nature, both with sex and violence, and it strips away the clean-cut image of the hero to something much dirtier. These heroes aren’t in it to help people. They’re not Captain America, Superman, Iron Man, Captain Marvel or any of the others we’ve seen on the big screen. They are, unfortunately, a more realistic view of what happens when the wrong people get powers.

But they’re not all like that, and in Volume 1, we glimpse a young woman who achieves her dream and gets to play in the big leagues, only to find it’s not exactly what she was hoping for.

My literal reaction, just a few short pages in, was ‘HOLY SHIT’. Throughout, there are moments that make you want to weep, that stick in your throat, combined with a few instances of humour.

It seems like an odd word to use for such a graphic, err, graphic novel, but I did really enjoy reading The Boys, and I’m eager to pick up Volume Two, to find out what happens next. If you like comics with twists on the whole superhero thing, I would definitely suggest checking this out. And hopefully we’ll have the TV series to enjoy one day, too.

The Queen of The Tearling – Erika Johansen [Books]

queen of the tearling.jpgDear friends,

One thing I want you to understand, is I will never disguise my feelings about a book on this blog. I will, however, always try to find the good in something. But if I say I liked a book, I liked it. If I gush about how great it is, I absolutely loved it. If I disliked it, it’s going to be clear. And if you felt differently about a book than I did, I would love to hear from you – I’m always open to discussion.

That said, if you passionately love this book and cannot hear a bad word said against it, it might be a good idea to turn away now.

I did not like this book.

I struggled with this book, and it is one of those rare times I considered rethinking my do not DNF policy.

The Queen of the Tearling is about Kelsea, a young woman in the Tearling, who due to her heritage, has grown up isolated with no one around but her foster parents. One day, a group of men come to whisk her away to the capital and crown her queen. But they are being pursued by the Caden, a group of assassins hired by her uncle, who wants her dead before she can be crowned.

So far, so yeah this sounds interesting, right?

It didn’t take me long into the book to discover I probably wouldn’t like Kelsea. She feels really bland, and makes massive judgements about the people she sees. Speaking of which, the book is very, very focused on appearances. All the men in the guard are handsome and young, despite the fact most of them have been in the guard since Kelsea was a child. People seem to age really slowly in the Tearling, for some reason – actually, almost every man (except the bad guys or slightly-bad-guys) are described as handsome. Kelsa herself keeps moaning about how plain she is, but I really don’t understand how one would think themselves plain if they’ve never seen anyone else? Also she has no mirrors, just sees herself reflected in water, and that’s not really a great one to judge appearance?

I’m not saying Kelsea has to be beautiful, or even ugly. But it just reads a bit odd, and honestly, the plain female hero obsessed with books…it’s been done. A lot. And Kelsea doesn’t really add anything to it at all.

Oh! And one of the men in her guard happens to be black. We know this, because Kelsea seems him and IS SHOCKED. She has (gasp!) never seen a black man before. But…she’s never seen ANYONE before? Like, again, her whole life has been lived in complete isolation. Oh, except in history books. She remembers that.  She has definitely seen black people in history books about…the slave trade.

And (I might be misremembering) I can;t recall anyone else’s race being mentioned again. So either he gets a special mention for being the first, or…no one else in the Tearling is black? I don’t know, but considering it’s the future, and people are descended from the Brits and Americans, it would be REALLY BLOODY WEIRD not to have anyone else who isn’t white. Speaking of which, why British-American? What happened to the other countries? Oh, except Europe. Because they came separately and have a completely different country right next door. Coincidently, all the doctors and medical supplies were on the same ship, which sank. So medicine is poor.

Which brings me to some other points. They made a crossing, from somewhere, but to WHERE, EXACTLY? Is this a different planet? Or did they find some other continent, and kill whoever lived there? None of this is explained or hinted at, and there’s really not a lot of indication as to why things have regressed so much. Don’t get me wrong – I love when worldbuilding makes you think you’re somewhere else, but it turns out (GASP) it’s the future! The problem is, this doesn’t do that. There is literally no reason to not explain these events, or where they are. It’s outright stated – not even hinted at – that this is in our future. There’s mention of Harry Potter and The Hobbit. Revealing that this was another planet would have made it more interesting, I think, but maybe that was revealed and I missed something? I dunno.

And why do people live for so long?

The book builds up the mysteries of who is Kelsea’s father and who is The Fetch but there is literally no pay off to these. To any of these! Three huge questions and by the end of the novel none of them were answered. If one of them was, I’d have found that mildly satisfying, but them all being left makes me feel like it’s a ploy just to get people to read the next one.

Honestly I could rant about this so much more, but I’m not going to. I wanted to like this book. I really, really did, but I struggled so much and as you can probably tell from the above, there were a lot of things that just nagged at me.

I would definitely not recommend this book, unfortunately. But that’s just me, and looking on reviews, it seems to be a book you either love or hate, and of course this is all just completely and utterly my own opinion.

Still, if you have read this book, I would absolutely love to know what you thought. And I promise my next review will be less ranty.

On The Come Up – Angie Thomas [Books]

on the come upWhen I read Angie Thomas’ debut novel, The Hate U Give, I knew this was an author I was going to follow for a long, long time. I was super excited when I heard about her next book, On The Come Up, and honestly, I almost squealed in excitement when I spotted it in my local bookshop.

On The Come Up is the story of Bri, who wants to be the greatest rapper the world has ever seen. To try to get her start, she competes in rap battles in the ring, and from there, the story moves forward, showing us this young, strong, argumentative, passionate girl with a powerful voice, who the world wants to silence.

There are certain elements similar to The Hate U Give, a couple of similar themes and elements, and the books are set in the same area, but they are still vastly different. I’ve seen some people say Bri was harder to like than Starr, but I didn’t find that to be the case. I adored Bri. Like Starr, she felt completely and utterly real. A teenage girl, just trying to get along in life, juggling school, social life, her passion, and boys. There were a number of times I wanted to reach through the page and hug her, and there’s little about her personality I didn’t relate to.

When it comes to character voices, Angie Thomas has an amazing gift. Bri practically sings off the page (well, raps…) and it’s so easy to imagine her talking, rapping, thinking. Small touches emphasise her character, as we see the world through her eyes, as we witness the world around her, through her.

Overall, On The Come Up is a brilliant, fantastic novel, about ambition and voice and power (and being powerless), and once again Angie Thomas had me completely hooked right from the very first page until the last. I will be eagerly awaiting her third novel. If you haven’t already, I strongly suggest reading both The Hate U Give and On The Come Up. You really won’t be disappointed.

The Fever King – Victoria Lee [Books]

 

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Before I get into this, I just want to mention I received this book from Ashleigh (@edwardanddamon on Twitter), after winning it in one of her monthly giveaways. You should definitely go check her out because she’s awesome.

In a future version of the USA, Noam, the bisexual son of undocumented immigrants, survives an outbreak of a disease that leaves some survivors with the ability to do magic, although what kind of magic varies from one person to another. He is taken to a training centre, and put under the watchful eye of the charismatic, mysterious Calix Lehrer, former king, alongside Calix’s ‘son’, Dara.

I wanted to like this. Maybe my expectations were a little bit too high, but the premise sounded brilliant, and the writing itself is good – certain sentences were a joy to read, and some scenes were really gripping. But by the end, it just felt like there was too much crammed in, too much going on. The cast of characters is a little too big, filtering in and out, the other students a little flat compared to the actually well done characterisation of Noam and Dara.

Calix himself just read as untrustworthy, and it was hard to see why Noam trusted him so much, why he felt so willing to go along with everything.

Plot-wise, again, there were some really good elements here, but a lot got crammed in, and the moment one thing picked up, the plot seemed to take a sharp left turn into something else. There were some confusing moments, some really ‘huh?’ moments, and the ending…the ending to me just felt a little contrived, a touch rushed, with everything being a little too coincidental at certain points, and confusing at others. More than once, I found myself going back to reread a paragraph or two.

This is definitely not a bad book, nor is it badly written. The fault – to me – lays in too many ideas jammed into a fast paced scenes, with slower, meandering interruptions throughout where the students do nothing but sit around, repeated quite often, when it feels like the pace should be faster, coupled with too many characters. I really would have liked to have seen more of their training, maybe an example or two of their classes, and what life was really like for the students in this school, rather than just skipping over the interesting parts to show them in the same room or in Calix’s study.

Now, the important question. The Fever King is the first in the series, named Feverwake, and at the end I had to ask myself – will I read the next one?

The honest answer is… (drum roll please) probably yes, actually. Like I said, Lee isn’t a bad writer, and I think the next book will likely show lots of improvement, plus, by this point, I do feel invested in the story. So maybe, despite the things I disliked about it, the book has done its job, after all.

The Near Witch – V.E. Schwab [Books]

the near witchI only recently started reading Victoria Schwab’s novels. I started with City of Ghosts, then read A Darker Shade of Magic, shortly before going to an author event in Waterstones, Cardiff, where I picked up the next two Shades of Magic books and The Near Witch, money being the only thing stopping me from picking up everything else.

From the moment I started City of Ghosts, I absolutely fell in love with the writing. All the books I’ve read are vastly different, but carrying the same talent.

For anyone not aware, The Near Witch was Schwab’s first novel, which went out of print, and has recently been re-released.  Which is honestly a brilliant, great thing, because this book is an absolute delight.

For any fans who have read later books, it is well worth reading The Near Witch. There are some elements sprinkled throughout which feel like they have taken root, and branched out into other books, such as the Shades of Magic series.

The Near Witch takes place in the town of Near, where Lexi lives with her sister and mother. The people are afraid of anything unusual, including the witches who live on the town’s edge. A stranger appears one night, and shortly after, children start disappearing.

Near is described so well, it’s easy to imagine the town, and it really comes to life with the various characters dotted here and there, as Lexi explores and tries to discover exactly what happened to the children. Atmosphere plays a key role, and even the weather itself feels like an additional character, helping or hindering the characters as they move along their journeys.

The characters all feel real and fully realised, including Lexi’s family and Cole, the stranger. And as to the disappearance of the children, the reader is kept as on their toes as Lexi, trying to work through the puzzle and figure out if a fairy-tale really has come to life.

Overall, I loved The Near Witch for the same reasons I loved City of Ghosts and the Shades of Magic trilogy. For the atmospheric settings, the colourful characters, and the intriguing plot. Highly recommend this book for anyone who loves a good, haunting novel.

The Secrets of Drearcliff Grange School – Kim Newman [Books]

drearcliffAfter Amy Thomsett’s mother finds her floating on the ceiling, Amy is shipped off to Drearcliff Grange, but rather than squash this strange ability out of her, Amy learns more about her abilities, while her and her new found friends are tested in various ways.

They face off against The Hooded Conspiracy, before a new girl arrives at the school, bringing with her a strange new way of doing things.

I thoroughly enjoyed Kim Newman’s novel, about strange, powerful girls who can do strange, wonderful things in a strange, creepy school. The book reads very much like the old pulp novels, mixed with the great British boarding school novel tradition. The characters are likeable, though a bit numerous, and it was fun to read the clever ways the girls came up with to get themselves out of dire situations.

Newman has a gift for immersing the reader in the time period, as evident in Anno Dracula and Drearcliff, and a solid love for whatever literature he is using as a base for his work. Drearcliff isn’t Hogwarts, Miss Peregrine’s or Xavier’s School. These girls aren’t witches, Peculiars or mutants. Some of them don’t have abilities, but may have other skills. Some just have interesting family backgrounds, but a few, like Amy, are Unusual. In the girls of Drearcliff, Newman has created a brand new batch of teens with abilities, with his own twists. The main core all feel fully fleshed out, though when it came to some of the more background characters, I did find myself losing track of who was who, now and then, especially as a couple of the girls had similar sounding names.

But overall, I really did enjoy this, including the more Lovecraftian aspects filtering in throughout the novel. The novel is set in the 1920s, with the girls using exclamations such as, “Crumpets!” and with that time period in mind, there’s an interesting parallel as the Black Skirts slowly infiltrating the school, mirroring the rise of fascism in Europe.

Some things aren’t as clear as they could be, and some of the characters can get a touch grating, but the clarity feels like a purposeful choice, and Amy Thomsett is enjoyable enough to counter the others.

The Secrets of Drearcliff Grange School is a fun, creepy, enjoyable read, with masterful use of language and a solid sense of place and time. Definitely one for fans of more subtle but fantastical horror, and a good twist on the British school literary novel.

Twisted Tales: Mirror, Mirror – Jen Calonita [Books]

mirror mirrorTwisted Tales is a series of books presenting different twists on various well-known Disney stories, and Mirror, Mirror is the sixth in the series, following on from novels about Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast, Sleeping Beauty, The Little Mermaid and Mulan. Five of the previous novels were written by Liz Braswell, with Reflection, the Mulan story, written by Elizabeth Lim.

Both authors are tough acts to follow, bringing fresh new perspectives on beloved classics. With this being the second book penned by a different author, I think Disney are taking a great approach, rather than just leaving it all down to one writer.

The combination of different authors, plus taking different characters, means a vast difference in the books, and I think from what I’ve seen online and conversations IRL, various people have different favourites from the series. I see this as a really good thing – people are responding in different ways to the same series, and I feel it’s working well for Twisted Tales.

However, I do think Mirror, Mirror might be the weakest book of the series (so far). This, despite the fact Jen Calonita is clearly a talented writer, and I would definitely pick up mirror mirror2one of her other books. So, the writing is good, the characters actually read really well, but the plot itself is a little weak.

One of the things I like most about previous books in the series is the fact the twist actually changes everything for the characters. It forms the crux of the plot, and prevents the characters reaching the happily ever after point we know from the films. In some instances, by the end things are right with the world and we know the characters are going to continue as they would from the films, but they are still changed from their animated counterparts.

The difference with Mirror, Mirror is that the twist – printed plainly on the cover – doesn’t actually affect much of the story. Instead, the changes made don’t feel like they fit into the world of Snow White, and it doesn’t make sense why these changes happen in the context of the animated film. If this was just a retelling, it would work well, but as it is, it doesn’t have the same feel as the previous books.

Sections of the book just simply take us through what happens in the film, but do allow us – as books do – to get deeper into the head of Snow White, as well as the Evil Queen, named Ingrid in the novel. The Ingrid chapters are where the book really comes alive, as we see her transform into the sort of woman who can order a child’s killing.

The plot, in places, feels rushed, and especially the ending. But despite this, the characters themselves give off that feel of real, living breathing people. Snow White is definitely a far cry from the passive princess in the film, given a stronger, more prominent role, as she realises what her people have been through. We also get a better idea of why she cleans so much. The prince, as well – Henri – is more of a character, rather than just the guy who rides in and out. We see the relationship between them blossom, and can feel why they fall for each other. Those aspects of the book work really well.

Overall, although I did have a few niggles with the book, and although it maybe wasn’t up to the same standard as previous books in this series, I did enjoy it. And the additions to the characters worked nicely, giving more depth to Snow White, the prince, the Evil Queen, and even the dwarves. I would definitely recommend this, and although it might not have been my favourite in the series, it’s bound to be someone else’s.