book reviews, spoiler free

The Starlight Watchmaker review

44097002The Starlight Watchmaker by Lauren James

Rating: XXXXX

Published July 15th by Barrington Stoke

“Doesn’t it get tiring being judged for who you are all the time?” Ada asked, “and treated like you’re less than other people?”

Wealthy students from across the galaxy come to learn at the prestigious academy where Hugo toils as a watchmaker. But he is one of the lucky ones. Many androids like him are jobless and homeless. Someone like Dorian could never understand their struggle – or so Hugo thinks when the pompous duke comes banging at his door. But when Dorian’s broken time-travel watch leads them to discover a sinister scheme, the pair must reconcile their differences if they are to find the culprit in time.

A wildly imaginative sci-fi adventure from YA star Lauren James, particularly suitable for struggling, reluctant or dyslexic readers aged 13+

At the Quiet at the End of the World event a few months back Lauren announced that she would be releasing a novella with Barrington Stoke later this year and as time went on we got a title, a cover reveal and synopsis for The Starlight Watchmaker which I’ve been excited for ever since.

I don’t normally go into much detail about publishers but I really wanted to rave about Barrington Stoke for a moment. They are a fantastic publisher who have been helping dyslexic and reluctant readers for over twenty years by working with writers and illustrators to publish super readable books as well as adding little adjustments like using a unique, dyslexia-friendly font specially created to make reading easier, Accessible layouts and spacing stop the page from becoming overcrowded and even Heavier paper with a gentle tint helps reduce visual stresses, their motto is every child can be a reader and I think reading can be so daunting for young children today that we need to do everything we can to create a space and opportunity for all readers, including those who might be reluctant or have difficulty reading for pleasure. I had read a couple of Non Pratt’s books published by Barrington Stoke previously and loved the shorter book format and just how effortless they felt to read which can be really motivating and confidence building.

I reached out to Barrington Stoke about Lauren’s new title and the lovely Kirstin sent me a proof to review in exchange for an honest review. At just 128 pages it is an extremely short read but oh the wonders Lauren can work with 128 pages. The Starlight Watchmaker is set in a universe that feels like magic and science, the academy that Dorian attends and Hugo works at is incredibly diverse, full of all kinds of sentient creatures from across the galaxy. It was absolutely refreshing to read all of these fantastic descriptions of different races and species, I was fascinated in particular with one of my favourite characters, a student like Dorian called Ada (Lady Ada de Winters – short for Adedeneumdora) who is essentially a mountain that can walk around and will eventually become a planet all of her own just like her mother, the planet Zumia. She’s well spoken, smart and fantastically quirky as well as being a brilliant departure from the usual humanoid looking alien lifeforms we usually see.

Hugo is an android and an absolute sweetheart who I love, he’s a hard worker making the best of a bad situation who enjoys what he does and is mostly content but finds himself yearning for more, things like friendship and freedom, not to mention he really likes plants. Our other main character, Dorian is a fifth-year student but also a Duke who comes to Hugo for help but comes across a little brusque at first and perhaps a bit to forward which could be misconstrued negatively but I think he really grows and learns over the course of the story and you learn more about him as well as Hugo and see how they react to each other.

Somehow, even in under 200 pages Lauren managed to fit a nice little twist into the story, the plot is simple but honestly all the more enjoyable for it, the narrative is fast flowing and straight forward but conveys every detail and emotion needed. This entire book is akin to a nice chilled glass of juice on a hot day or that feeling when you step out of your morning shower, it’s refreshing and soothing and the moment I finished it after reading it the first time I managed to put it down for five minutes before I decided to pick it back up and read it all over again. The story is well rounded and unlike with some short-form works where I find myself  wanting more in an unsatisfied way, I found The Starlight Watchmaker to be the perfect bite-size piece of cake, it felt complete and whole and I felt like I’d been on a journey after reading it which is why I read, to be whisked away on adventures and feel a better person at the other end. This is a beautiful tale of friendship and I cannot recommend it enough.

The Starlight Watchmaker will be available on July 15th, don’t let it’s smaller size fool you, it’s a fantastic little read and one that can definitely be enjoyed by a variety of ages.

book reviews, spoiler free

One Word Kill

onewordkill.jpgOne Word Kill by Mark Lawrence

Rating: XXX

Published: May 1st 2019 by 47North

“Fear is a strange thing. Along with its close friend, pain, fear is a vital part of the kit that evolution has furnished us with for keeping alive. Part of its effectiveness comes down to how hard it can be to overcome.”

In January 1986, fifteen-year-old boy-genius Nick Hayes discovers he’s dying. And it isn’t even the strangest thing to happen to him that week.

Nick and his Dungeons & Dragons-playing friends are used to living in their imaginations. But when a new girl, Mia, joins the group and reality becomes weirder than the fantasy world they visit in their weekly games, none of them are prepared for what comes next. A strange—yet curiously familiar—man is following Nick, with abilities that just shouldn’t exist. And this man bears a cryptic message: Mia’s in grave danger, though she doesn’t know it yet. She needs Nick’s help—now.

He finds himself in a race against time to unravel an impossible mystery and save the girl. And all that stands in his way is a probably terminal disease, a knife-wielding maniac and the laws of physics.

Challenge accepted.

I decided to check this out after (enter blogger name) reviewed it on her blog (check it out here) and discovered it wasn’t quite out yet but luckily as I have an Amazon Prime account I was able to download a kindle copy early for free! I’m assuming this is some new way to help authors drum up reviews for their books just before/when they’re released which is pretty cool, I’ll have to look further in it, it as about time my poor kindle got some love.

This was a short book and I think the shorter format really suited it and kept it moving at a good pace without feeling too clunky, there weren’t too many parts that were especially boring and I almost always wanted to keep reading or pick it back up when I had to stop. Some readers who aren’t very much into dungeons and dragons might find those scenes a little boring but as an avid D&D player I really enjoyed them and some parts talking about the game really spoke to me.

“The rules weren’t even called rules; they were guidebooks, handbooks, manuals. It was all there to give just enough structure to our shared imagination that we could vanish into it for hours, unwinding a story as we went. A story unique to us, filled with our own wonders, ingenuity, and proxy bravery. And it was something that carried on week after week, building over years even, creating a shared history, bonds that weren’t ever going to appear across a Monopoly board or game of cards.”

There were some parts that irked me, mainly about “girls” which sadly seems to pop up in a lot of the cis male written/fronted MG I’ve read (which isn’t a lot so it may just be my bad luck) that girls are almost considered this other species at times or lesser and weaker because of their gender, for example:

I blinked back my surprise. One visit to the D&D table was unusual for any girl. Coming back for seconds was unheard of in my limited experience.”

Now an argument could be made for the “in my limited experience” part of that quote as yes, the main character doesn’t seem to have had many interactions with many other females at this point, let alone any interested in playing D&D, I feel like maybe the author is thinking this is the late 80’s and the gaming system didn’t really become hugely popular again until recently but honestly I know women who have played since first edition, my mum and her friends used to play before I was born and I’ve played on and off for years. There’s a lot of gatekeeping happening in the D&D community right now and this just really irked me and added fuel to that fire. I wasn’t a fan of the main character constantly mentioning just how fat, clumsy and unfit one of his friends were and that he was surprised that said friend could move quite dextrously when needed. There were more parts throughout that just really rubbed me the wrong way but I will admit I was happy that we had some queer and POC rep that was handled a little bit better I think.

Overall the story was good, I enjoyed a few of the twists and turns even with a good number of them being fairly predictable I was still fairly shocked at points, especially towards the end which I love. I did find some of the time travel stuff a little confusing, to begin with, but by the end I had (I think) almost a good grasp on it and it wasn’t a bad system. I’ve always found time travel to be confusing, to be honest so I think a good grasp is better than average for me, it did help that a tv show I love and a very popular film has just come out with similar time travel ideas which actually really helped me to understand each of them a little better.

Despite some of the problems I had with One-word kill, overall I definitely enjoyed it. There were some great moments, a good amount of tension at times and most of the characters I found interesting. I have only given it a XXX rating however because it had some issues I just couldn’t look past. There are two more sequels due out over the next year or so and I’m interested in seeing where the story goes from here.

 

book reviews, spoiler free

The Turnaway Girls – Spoiler Free Review

43232587The Turnaway Girls by Hayley Chewins

Rating: XXXX

Published January 3rd 2019 by Walker Books Ltd

On the strange, stormy island of Blightsend, twelve-year-old Delphernia Undersea has spent her whole life in the cloister of turnaway girls, hidden from sea and sky by a dome of stone and the laws of the island. Outside, the Masters play their music. Inside, the turnaway girls silently make that music into gold. Making shimmer, Mother Nine calls it. But Delphernia can’t make shimmer. She would rather sing than stay silent. When a Master who doesn’t act like a Master comes to the skydoor, it’s a chance for Delphernia to leave the cloister. Outside the stone dome, the sea breathes like a wild beast, the sky watches with stars like eyes, and even the gardens have claws. Outside, secrets fall silent in halls without sound. And outside, Delphernia is caught –between the island’s sinister Custodian and its mysterious Childer-Queen. Between a poem-speaking prince and a girl who feels like freedom. And in a debut that glimmers with hope and beauty, freedom – to sing, to change, to live – is precisely what’s at stake.

I’ve always loved to sing and being totally unable to imagine a world in which that was allowed had me totally intrigued, even more so when I read up a little on the author of The Turnaway Girls, Hayley Chewins. Hayley grew up in South Africa, in a household full of books. She’s studied Classical voice as well as doing degrees in English Literature and Italian. I’ve always loved when a song or a piece of music tells a story and I feel that Hayley’s particular expertise are this a perfect debut for her and gives her writing such a beautifully distinct style that I look forward to reading more of in the future.

The Turnaway Girls is by no means a long book at just shy of three hundred pages it is a pretty standard size for middle grade reads as far as I can tell and it is perfect for the story inside. The Turnaway Girls feels a little confusing to begin with as the main character talks about a world that is presumably not our own although with some similarities. Having not been able to experience much of said world or any kind of life outside of her cloister Delpherina’s knowledge is limited to what she has been told by Mother Nine, a woman charged with the care and education of The Turnaway Girls. These girls, although forbidden to sing or make any music or their own can create a substance called shimmer which is coveted by The Masters of The the city of Blightsend and as per the last kings ruling each Master may take their own Turnaway Girl from the cloister when they are twelve years old. This is the only way they can leave the cloister and as she can’t make shimmer Delpherina assumes she will have no hope of being chosen and she will be trapped with Mother Nine and her punishments forever.

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Once I was over the initial opening confusion I very quickly got into this book. I had been a little lost but things made more sense the longer I read for and as I adjusted to the authors distinct and lyrical tone. I found the writing moved well, it never dwindled too long and kept a good rhythm and pace up throughout. The plot itself is reasonably simple when you take it down to brass tacks but there are twists and turns along the way with little nuggets of information broadening the story as it goes and shedding more light on the town of Blightsend and it’s strange, short history.

I found parts of the plot a little predictable but none the less enjoyable for it as for me it was really the way the characters reacted to these goings-on. A couple of characters I felt were a little flat but this might honestly be because for me a couple of them absolutely outshined the others and became fast favourites. Although we didn’t get a huge amount of detail about characters I think this only helped to enhance feeling that this is a tale just as much as it is a book which is a lovely, refreshing take that reminds me of a Pocketful of Crows and The Blue Salt Road by Joanne Harris.

The Turnaway Girls is a humourless book but certainly not one without light or hope much like the place where it is set, Blightsend is, dark, cold, grey and harsh but looking in the right places with the right eyes you can find beauty, life, magic and rebellion and in my opinion that describes this stunning debut perfectly. The Turnaway Girls is due out very soon! January 3rd is only two days away so if you enjoy lyrical reads, a little mystery and the magic of a song keep an eye out for this particularly gorgeous cover in your local bookstore this Thursday!

book reviews, spoiler free

City Of Ghosts

40512862City Of Ghosts by Victoria Schwab

Rating: XXXX

Published September 6th by Scholastic

“People think that ghosts only come out at night, or on Halloween, when the world is dark and the walls are thin. But the truth is, ghosts are everywhere.”

Cassidy Blake’s parents are The Inspectres, a (somewhat inept) ghost-hunting team. But Cass herself can REALLY see ghosts. In fact, her best friend, Jacob, just happens to be one.

When The Inspectres head to ultra-haunted Edinburgh, Scotland, for their new TV show, Cass—and Jacob—come along. In Scotland, Cass is surrounded by ghosts, not all of them friendly. Then she meets Lara, a girl who can also see the dead. But Lara tells Cassidy that as an In-betweener, their job is to send ghosts permanently beyond the Veil. Cass isn’t sure about her new mission, but she does know the sinister Red Raven haunting the city doesn’t belong in her world. Cassidy’s powers will draw her into an epic fight that stretches through the worlds of the living and the dead, in order to save herself.

I’ve heard great things about Victoria Schwab’s books. I own A Darker Shade of Magic, This Savage song, A Dark Duet and Vicious but have never managed to read them yet which is crazy because they sound like books I’d absolutely love and I’m gutted I’ve not gotten around to them yet. When I heard about City of Ghosts, I wasn’t sure about it as I don’t really read a lot of Middle Grade genre books but as time went on and I heard more about it I became intrigued. One of my local Waterstones had copies out much earlier than the cited release date in the UK of 6th September and after seeing the cover in the flesh I couldn’t resist.

I was freaked out by this book quite early on, I wouldn’t say it’s necessarily inherently scary but is certainly very spooky and quite chilling in (quite a few) places. Being one of the first “Middle Grade” books I’ve read since I was part of the target audience I wasn’t sure what to expect but really enjoyed it and I will certainly be picking up the next book! Cassidy is 12 years old and I thought I would find that a little jarring to read as an almost 30-year-old but honestly she felt like she could have been almost any age to me and I hope that will make this book easier to read for older readers as well as still relatable to the younger, intended readers.

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City of Ghosts is, like many MG books, a little on the short side but to me personally it felt a good length for the story it needed to tell. Information was presented very well and felt natural without having to have a ton of flashbacks or explaining which sometimes I wish we could experience more in other genres because I feel like it left more room for the thoughts and reactions of the characters without getting too bogged down by loads of details.

The narrative and story itself were interesting, filled with intrigue and spooky goings on but also some revelations and tense moments, City of Ghosts is a very well-rounded book and although I think I would have enjoyed it more if it were a genre I read more regularly it is still a very good book and one I think younger readers, especially those who are interested in ghostly paranormal tales will highly enjoy. I’m already very much looking forward to the sequel!

 

book reviews, spoiler free

Anyones Game – Cross Ups 2

40512258Anyones Game by Sylv Chiang (and illustrated by Connie Choi)

Rating: XXXXX

Expected publication: September 11th 2018 by Annick Press

What’s up with Cali? Why does she keep changing her gamer tag?

It’s summertime, and even though his good friend Cali moved to another city, Jaden can connect with her online almost every day to play their favorite game, Cross Ups. His mom has loosened her rules on how often he can play, and he has an amazing new controller that will make him even better at tournaments. But then he gets roped into a dorky summer camp with his buddy Hugh, and Cali starts acting really weird . . . So when a last-minute tournament spot opens up in Cali’s city, Jaden jumps at the chance to go.

But things go badly from the start. Jaden loses his controller on the train, and his reunion with Cali is awkward. She’s unhappy, and Jaden can’t figure out why, especially when she’s getting better and better at Cross Ups—and may even win the tournament.

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“from Tournament Trouble and Anyone’s Game © 2018 Sylv Chiang (text) © 2018 Connie Choi, published by Annick Press Ltd. All rights reserved. Reproduced by permission.”

I was so excited when Annick press sent me an advanced readers copy of Anyones Game in exchange for an honest review. I loved Tournament Trouble and I feel like some of the issues focused on in this book are very relevant right now in the gaming community and many others, some of which have affected me personally. That and I couldn’t wait to see what Jaden and his friends did next.

Sylv Chiang returns with her brilliant pacing, relatable characters and sometimes conflicted and confused narrator Jaden who feels like he could just jump out of the page, alongside talented artist Connie Choi who’s artwork once again really helps to illustrate events, this time things are a little more serious but Connie and her enjoyably distinctive art style are a feast for the eyes as ever while also really catching the emotions in those moments as well. I wouldn’t have thought the first book could be improved upon but I have never been more pleased to be proven wrong.

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“from Tournament Trouble and Anyone’s Game © 2018 Sylv Chiang (text) © 2018 Connie Choi, published by Annick Press Ltd. All rights reserved. Reproduced by permission.”

Characters have already been established in the first book but we get nice little short reminders throughout about who everyone is and what events have previously transpired which I think is great in any sequel but especially so in books for younger children. When I was younger a year felt a lifetime away and I could barely remember what happened the month before, let alone a year before with any great detail, (I’m not much better now). These little refresher sentences also makes Anyones Game a good jumping on point for new readers and even easier to pick up and read straight away.

In Tournament Trouble we see how Jaden does at his first tournament and the kind of things he experiences as a gamer, in Anyones Game we see that Cali, as a girl has quite a different experience from him because of her gender. I won’t go into too much detail because being a female gamer myself I could probably write an essay on it but this book will hopefully make young boys think about the way they and others treat their female friends and classmates etc. I think it’s possibly a much harder book for young girls to read because of the way Jaden, his friends and others treat Cali, they begin to ask themselves important questions about their actions later on but even as an (almost) thirty year old woman I was pretty angry about some of the things they said and inferred. As an older woman who has read a lot of books now I understand that these moments like Jaden being upset about his friends knowing he was beaten by a girl or writing off creepy, hurtful messages from people online as just your average “trash talk” are meant to be examples we can learn from but I would worry they could be a little hurtful towards someone much younger. That being said it is refreshing to find older characters in this who point out where Jaden and others are being hurtful and help them to learn to be better people and better friends, I believe this book could help young boys to recognise hurtful behaviour in themselves and those around them and combat it. For young girls I feel that it shows they’re not alone when these bad things happen to them and that they shouldn’t just have to write these behaviours off as nothing. This is something I feel very strongly about and the main reason I think this book spoke to me. I would however have liked to have seen some of the story more from Cali’s point of view, maybe in book three?

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“from Tournament Trouble and Anyone’s Game © 2018 Sylv Chiang (text) © 2018 Connie Choi, published by Annick Press Ltd. All rights reserved. Reproduced by permission.”

Despite some of the more serious lessons to be gleaned from Anyones Game it still carries the same light and fun energy the first book did but with just a little more conflict and food for thought but written in such a way that it doesn’t drag the overall story down or make it too heavy. A great sequel and I can’t wait for the next book!

book reviews, spoiler free

Tournament Trouble – Cross Ups 1

36613399Tournament Trouble by Sylv Chiang (and illustrated by Connie Choi)

Rating: XXXX

Published March 13th 2018 by Annick Press

All twelve-year-old Jaden wants to do is be the best at Cross Ups, the video game he and his friends can’t stop playing. He knows he could be―if only he didn’t have to hide his gaming from his mom, who’s convinced it will make him violent. After an epic match leads to an invitation to play in a top tournament, Jaden and his friends Devesh and Hugh hatch a plan to get him there. But Jaden’s strict parents and annoying siblings, not to mention a couple of bullies and his confusing feelings for his next-door neighbor Cali, keep getting in the way!

Tournament Trouble marks the first book in a planned series by Sylv Chiang, a captivating new voice in middle reader fiction. With sharp dialogue and relatable characters, it chronicles the ups and downs of middle school with a relevant, contemporary twist. Accompanied by Connie Choi’s lively illustrations, Tournament Trouble invites readers into Jaden’s world, and will leave them eagerly awaiting his next adventure.

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“from Tournament Trouble and Anyone’s Game © 2018 Sylv Chiang (text) © 2018 Connie Choi, published by Annick Press Ltd. All rights reserved. Reproduced by permission.”

Tournament Trouble does a great job of capturing the spirit of young readers and gamers while also imparting important messages and lessons without ever shoving them in your face. There is a kind of smooth simplicity to the story telling as well which is absolutely refreshing. We don’t always need a whole chapter explaining how and why Jaden and Cali are friends and have been since they were little or a play by-play recreation of Jaden’s uncles back story etc. All it takes is a few lines here and there and it helps the narration feel much lighter and less bulked down in details then I feel a lot of books can be, I especially loved that this is done and written in such a way that it doesn’t feel like it’s been dumbed down either.

All of the characters are likable and memorable and I particularly liked the fact that the group of friends was diverse without being stereotypical as well as coming from differing backgrounds making them easily relatable and realistic. The main character, Jaden has a good story arc and you can really feel his deliberation and hesitancy when it comes to doing things that he knows he shouldn’t. I also feel the reactions of those around him like his parents and friends also seemed like they would be accurate and are as diverse as you would get in a real situation, not everyone always agrees.

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“from Tournament Trouble and Anyone’s Game © 2018 Sylv Chiang (text) © 2018 Connie Choi, published by Annick Press Ltd. All rights reserved. Reproduced by permission.”

This book has a great approach to bullying, honesty, gaming and more, it has great pacing and was very hard to put down. I’d like to give a special (spoiler free) mention about the ending which I highly approved of and felt natural and organic, I’m usually very fussy about my endings and was pleased to be happy about this one.

I also cannot stress enough how fantastic the artwork by Connie Choi was! It really added a whole other level to the book and I would happily display some of the pieces in my home. The art is somehow both simple but very descriptive at the same time with a great distinctive style to it that feels appropriate for the story matter and I’d love to see more!

Cross Ups Book Two coming September 11th 2018 (Review coming next week!)

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