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.

Advertisements

The Fever King – Victoria Lee [Books]

 

the fever king

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.

HEX – Thomas Olde Heuvelt [Books – SPOILERS!]

hexAs indicated by the title of this post, this post will contain spoilers. If you haven’t yet read the book (and if you have, I would love your thoughts on this!) then I suggest getting a copy, reading it, then coming back.

FINAL SPOILER WARNING PUPPY!

close up of dog on grass
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Glancing over reviews on Goodreads, this book seems to provoke a love/hate reaction. Some feel the book might have sexist tones, and an ‘obsession’ with certain aspects of the female form. But to me, the book was less sexist in itself, than portraying the attitudes of the townsfolk. Grim seems to take a very dim view of women. He goes out of his way to protect the town, to try to make things right, and has clear views of what is right and what is wrong – but he still obsesses over the appearance of women. Personally I don’t think that’s reflective of the author, but of the character. Grim might be good at his job, but clearly living in the same town, unable to leave for any extended period of time, and being forced to watch over the same people day in, day out, with actually very little power, has taken its toll on him. And he’s as dismissive of the men, too.

One argument is that there’s no ‘positive’ female characters, but I think Jocelyn is quite positive. And even if she weren’t, personally, I don’t see any particularly positive male characters, either. Jocelyn definitely comes out much better than Steve who, after Tyler’s death, is so obsessed with it he doesn’t really seem to care about Matt, and thinks bitterly about ‘her son’ still being alive.

Of course, one of the amazing things about books is that everyone takes away something different from different pieces of writing. The actions and thoughts of the characters can be seen as sexist and misogynistic, but I personally feel this was the characters, not the author, though without further works to read, it’s a hard judgement to make.

The book definitely carries a Pet Semetary vibe for me, and a complete Stephen King feel, from the strange small town where odd things happen, to the absolute humanity of the characters. They feel real, and they do things – good and bad – that make sense. They try to protect loved ones, and hurt when they fail.

It’s easy to see early on that Katherine isn’t the real evil in the town. She’s creepy, yes, but that feels like it’s because of the interference by the townsfolk. She’s creepy because they made her creepy. And in a trope any horror fan will recognise (*cough* Mama *cough*), at the end of the day she is a lost mother mourning her children, who ends up – not in the best way – replacing them. The attacks are her self-defence mechanism, and when the town becomes a nightmarish hell hole, it’s less because of Katherine and more mass hysteria.

Overall, if I haven’t made it clear already, Heuvelt has written something which has quickly become one of my favourite horror novels. This is the first English translation of one of his novels, and I really hope it’s the first of many.

HEX – Thomas Olde Heuvelt [Books]

hexI’m actually going to do two posts for this novel, because there’s a fair bit I want to talk about which would contain spoilers. This is the spoiler-free review of HEX, by Thomas Olde Heuvelt.

In the English language version of HEX, the story takes place in Black Spring, a town situated not too far from New York in the USA. Black Spring seems like a pretty normal town, with normal, small town type characters. The novel mainly focuses on the Grant family – Steve, Jocelyn, Tyler and Matt. As newlyweds, Steve and Jocelyn moved to Black Spring, with no idea what awaited them. Because Black Spring has a secret, known to the townspeople, but kept hidden from Outsiders.

That secret is the witch, Katherine van Wyler.

Katherine has a tragic history – accused of witchcraft, forced to do something horrific, and killed for it. The townspeople believe they are under Katherine’s curse – she wanders through the town, her eyes and mouth sewn shut, appearing in people’s homes and disappearing at will.

Katherine is creepy. Her presence is creepy, and Heuvelt does what any good horror writer should do – he takes what is normal, even if that normality is different for the characters than for us – and twists it. We come to accept Katherine’s presence, but similar to Stephen King’s Derry, there are trails of the curse in the town, in the population. It makes us question whether this is a result of the curse, or if people are just shit.

One of the things I really loved about this book was that the characters, and their problems – even where they involved Katherine – were so damn real. The characters are human, and relatable, from the teenager who just wants to live a normal life, to the father who would do anything for his son, and the woman just trying to protect herself and her son after an abusive relationship.

All the characters are, essentially, trying to make the best out of bad situations. But, well, it’s a horror novel. Things happen that change Katherine’s ‘routine’, and the tension kicks in, rising up until we hit the climax.

Overall, I really liked this book. The setting has been transported from the original setting to the USA, and works really well, allowing the more American elements and history to bleed into the novel. The horror is handled brilliantly, with the tension not just rising from the supernatural, but the more mundane issues of the Black Spring residents, as well.

There are some issues, a few strange moments, but these were easy to overlook amongst the strengths. A really fantastic horror novel, and one I would definitely recommend.

Star Wars: Tales of the Bounty Hunters [Books]

c_tales_bhuntersI like Star Wars, and have done since seeing the original films as a teenager. I was excited when the new films were announced, loved TFA, TLJ, and Rogue One, sort of enjoyed Solo (I guess), but it was only in the last couple of years I watched the prequel films. (Which kind of left a bad taste in my mouth)

But until now, I had never actually read a Star Wars book.

My BF has an extensive library, including quite a lot of the Star Wars novels. He did want me to read one originally linked to the prequel films, but I shot him down, pointing out if I didn’t like the first one I read, I likely wouldn’t pick up the others, because life’s too short to waste on books I don’t enjoy.

Anyway, I ended up reading Tales of the Bounty Hunters, and it was actually a good place to start. Even if some of it is now invalidated by both the prequels and sequels, but even though it’s no longer ‘canon’ to Star Wars, it was still enjoyable.

The collection of short stories, edited by Kevin J. Anderson, was released in 1996. Before the prequels, before the Disney films, before…well, before I’d ever seen Star Wars. (It was a simpler time) Each story focuses on a different bounty hunter, but all contain one key scene – the moment when Darth Vader sends the hunters out to find Han Solo.

Bounty-Hunters

Therefore I Am: The Tale of IG-88

This was a good story to start the collection. It’s not the best, but it’s compelling enough, watching the assassin droid advance and ‘evolve’.

Payback: The Story of Dengar

I really liked this one, and it had me completely rooting for Dengar, wanting to see him succeed in some way, though not in the way he wanted to.

The Prize Pelt: The Tale of Bossk

First things first, Bossk is not a likeable character. So it’s good that this story gives us two completely new characters – a human and a wookie, who offer to help Bossk hunt down Solo and, more importantly, Chewie, as Bossk desperately wants his pelt. Works nicely, and I think I’d have rather seen a film with these two characters than Solo.

Of Possible Futures: The Tale of Zuckuss and 4-LOM

I found this to be kind of sweet. Zuckuss is gravely ill, and 4-LOM is constantly trying to learn new skills – the latest being that of ‘intuition’, which he hopes to learn from Zuckuss. But the bond between them, I think, also teaches 4-LOM a bit of empathy, as they try to gain enough credits to pay for Zuckuss’ treatment. This and The Prize Pelt are my two favourite stories out of this collection.

The Last One Standing: The Tale of Bobba Fett

Maybe because there’s so much ‘weight’ to the character of Bobba Fett, but this, to me, was the weakest story. Not because it contradicts anything that came after (I am more than happy for that to happen) but because it just felt at odds with what little we knew of Fett in the original films, and parts of it felt a bit…mundane. I think I would have preferred to see Fett continuing from the end of Payback, but instead we get a short story that spans decades, jumping forward to relevant points. This version of Fett is obsessed with ‘justice’, but that justice seems awfully dependent on the Empire’s view of black and white, rather than any internal moral compass. It felt a little weak.

bounty-hunter

Overall, I really would recommend this book, if you like Star Wars. If you’re a fan of the prequels OR don’t want to get into the now non-canon extended universe, however…maybe give it a miss? All I can say is, I really enjoyed it, despite knowing nothing about these characters except their brief on-screen appearances in the original films.

Book VS Film – Bird Box

bird box.pngSomething that can often be said for book to film adaptations, but I think really is worth repeating here – the book explains it better.

For those not aware, Bird Box follows Malorie, as the world becomes a strange, frightening place full of creatures the human mind cannot understand nor comprehend. To combat this, survivors wear blindfolds whenever they are outside their homes. They cover windows, learning not to look.

At the start of the story, Malorie is pregnant, meaning she must not only learn to survive in this scary new world, she has to learn how to raise children in it, as well.

There were a number of…interesting changes made between the book and Netflix’s film. They make sense, in a way, because they probably make for better watching, but whereas I finished the film thinking meh, not that scary, not really invested in any of the characters, I found the book to be a good horror novel, really gripping and definitely with more interesting characters.

There are some…strange changes made between book and film. I’m sure there are valid reasons for some of these, but some of the changes include –

  • Ageing up the characters – this is understandable, and not completely a bad thing, but in the book, Malorie and most of the ‘housemates’ are in their early to mid twenties. To me, this makes a lot of sense – not that women past their thirties wouldn’t have one night stands, but I feel like it’s more likely for Malorie to have one AND get pregnant if she’s younger. That might just be me, but a few of the character’s actions make sense when they’re just that little bit younger.
  • Things move slower. Again, a change that makes sense when transferring from text to film, but the ‘creatures’ don’t just suddenly appear to everyone at once at the same time. They creep in, affecting some people and leaving others untouched, rather than everything going from “oh there’s stuff happening in Russia” to “OMG it’s here panic panic panic.” It’s more gradual, leaving people with more time to prepare.
  • Tom. Ah, Tom. Intelligent, keen to help everyone, very flirty with Malorie. In the book, it’s hard to say she’s in love with him or not (I would think she is), but without a doubt, she admires him, respects him, and he gets her through a lot, whether he’s physically present or not. Tom conducts ‘experiments’, pushes for change, BUT (and here’s the kicker) some of what he does in the film, or that the group does as a whole, is done only by Malorie in the book. She learns to survive, and raise the kids, on her own. The film, to me, took away a lot of that strength given to her in the book.
  • The other housemates. On the whole, the other housemates are pretty decent. Even Don, who triggers some problems in the house, doesn’t do it out malice. The characters are more nuanced than in the film. Including Gary, though he is still a dick.  And those two characters who steal the car? Doesn’t happen in the book. (Though maybe they found they needed an excuse to get rid of MGK?)
  • Mental illness. Okay, I’ve been thinking about this one a fair bit. In the film, the implication is that anyone who is just a little bit off the line of what is considered ‘normal’, would be fair game to the creatures. But in the book, it’s more complicated than that. There is an element of that, but it’s more like people who could be susceptible to that sort of thing anyway can be drawn deeper down the path, like someone who believes man didn’t land on the moon might be more likely to believe the conspiracy theories surrounding JFK. And, well, anyone who lives through an end-of-the-world scenario is going to have mental health problems. Cooped up in a house for so long is going to work on your mind, as well as seeing some of the horrific imagery these characters do, it’s going to trigger depression, PTSD, anxiety, and other issues. I feel like it’s more clear in the book, whereas the film simplified it to the point where anyone with any mental illness ‘might’ worship the creatures, disregarding the fact that anyone living isn’t going to be the same person they were before the creatures arrived.
  • Dogs. If I’m remembering correctly, there are no dogs in the film. The book features three, with one ‘main one’, but considering this is horror novel…maybe it is a good thing they dropped them for the film.

Overall, the book definitely wins out over the film. The film felt like a physiological thriller packaged as horror, and though it was enjoyable, elements of it just felt a little too weak. The book was a gripping, engaging horror novel with stronger characters and less plot-holes.

Book wins.

 

Why I Love Short Story Anthologies

And no, I’m not just saying this because I happen to be in a few. I’ve enjoyed anthologies and collections since I was a teenager, picking up any book I could get my hands on. At the time, I read a few horror ones, and fell completely in love with short stories.

In terms of writing, short stories and novels come with their own difficulties. A novel has time to meander a little, to slowly build up the world and its characters. Yes, there should be a connection from the moment you start reading, but I think most readers are happy for a little leeway on this. A novel can flash back and forth between past and present, allowing deep glimpses into characters and why they might be the way they are. The main trick with a novel is to keep the reader completely invested for 50K+ words.

It’s easier to keep a reader interested in a short story, but there’s obviously a lot less room to play around. Character and plot have to grab the reader from the first word, and what could be a flashback scene in a novel, to explain an important turning point in the MC’s childhood, must become a single sentence in a short story.

Good writing amazes me, no matter the length, but something about a fantastic short story just feels different from reading a brilliant novel. To me, a novel is like a TV show; more time, more depth, more subplots. Characters A & B can study moral philosophy & ethics, while Characters C & D can fall in love without even realising they’re doing it.

the good placde
I might be a little bit in love with this show

A short story feels more like a film. Less time to really delve into the characters, pace needs to remain high, and the focus should be on one MC, maybe two or three at a stretch, if done well. And that’s not even going into POV.

Good writing is good writing but it does feel like all too often the short story gets overlooked. Yet it is everywhere. Online fiction magazines, in-print mags, short story competitions and anthologies. Personally, I like in-print magazines and anthologies (not to mention author collections). I love reading short stories, and one of my favourite things about anthologies/magazines is discovering new-to-me writers.

I remember picking up horror anthologies as a teenager – Mammoth Books springs to mind, but there were a number of others buried among my brother’s Horrible Histories, Goosebumps, and Point Horror books. I devoured them. In my early twenties, I read collections by Stephen King, and later, after finishing the Song of Ice & Fire series, I picked up Dreamsongs by GRRM. After that, I started Wild Card.

The last few days, I’ve been reading issue 60 of Black Static, containing stories from Carole Johnson, Tim Lees, Ray Culley and Stephen Hargadon. My favourite story, by far, is Johnson’s Skyshine (or Death by Scotland). It does everything a good short story (or, in this case, novella) should do. Captures you from the moment you start reading, keeps a tight hold, and doesn’t let you go. And Skyshine feels very much, in a good way, a story for the #MeToo era, as a young woman struggles with how, exactly, she is supposed to deal with men who make lewd comments as she walks past. (This issue is actually from Sep – Oct 2017, meaning the story predates the movement)

As soon as I finished reading it, I looked up Johnson on Amazon, and added to my Wish List more of the anthologies she has been featured in.

It’s something I find myself doing often with short stories.

I’ve been doing it while listening to old episodes of Starship Sofa, or Tales to Terrify. Especially if I can find an anthology with the story that’s been read on the podcast.

Novels are like new worlds, but short stories are the gateways to those worlds. Anthologies (and podcasts, of course) are a great way to discover new authors, or even reading where some favourites started. They’re samples, in a sense, and when they work, they work so brilliantly well, it’s hard to not want to instantly read more by the same author.

Do you have any favourite anthologies, or any authors you discovered through anthologies? Let me know! I am, after all, always looking for me to read.