Tuesday, 19 September 2017

Book Review - The Dazzling Heights by Katharine McGee

There's no denying this series is my guilty pleasure (the first book in the series review can be found here). It's not high brow, or the most imaginative, but it's definitely addictive.

The story continues pretty much straight where it was left after the events of 'The Thousandth Floor'. All our main characters are still coming to terms with what happened on that night on the roof, and we see how each of them is struggling to cope. Of all the characters this time round, Leda was the most believable and complex. I loved her development and story line and thought it was a big improvement from the previous book. I loved  the tension between her and Watt. However, I did find that a lot of Leda's issues were skimmed over or trivialised. She just suddenly stops her addiction and moves on without any problems, and the issue with Eris being her sister is never really addressed.

We find Avery still continuing to struggle with her relationship with Atlas. I found her storyline the least appealing, as a lot of it was the same as in the previous novel but without a lot of the tension. However, I did like her interactions with Cord as it tried to add another dimension to her, as she's basically just a beautiful doll with not much of a personality. I was disappointed this was explored further, and ended with Avery mainly mooning over Atlas all the time.

Rylin had the most far fetched storyline. She's somehow picked on a scholarship to join the highliers at their school, where a Hollywood director with a ridiculous name makes her his film assistant. And it seems she's also naturally gifted at producing films (or 'holograms'). All the stuff with her ex from the previous book is conveniently forgotten. I thought the story may have picked up slightly when she goes to LA, but the peak of her storyline was a big let down as nothing really happens except her pining for Cord.

I liked the introduction of Calliope and her mother. It brought a fresh story and different characters to the tower. Calliope is an interesting character, I liked that she basically had the same opinion about Avery as I did (ie dull but beautiful) but somehow I couldn't really connect with her. I think this was mainly because for most of the story she's a bit of an enigma with no backstory other than the con artist shtick which has been done before.

Eris is spoken about, but it feels almost as if it's a different person with a completely different personality to the Eris we saw in the last novel. I didn't think she came across as 'different' or 'a magpie for anything sparkly', and it was weird to see her friends describe her like this. The scene at the graveyard is also a little strange, and cringy and felt out of place within the rest of the book. Girlfriend Mariel, who has such a predominant role previously, is also glossed over with her only having two chapters - the first and last.

As with the previous novel, there still wasn't much world building, and what there wasn't didn't make much sense. LA for some reason is in a giant bubble that displays adverts. There are weird candles that release endorphins as it melts. I would love to have seen more of an effort given to explain exactly what on earth has happened to the world and why. The climax of the novel also doesn't really feel climactic, with no proper conclusion to many of the issues raised in the novel.

So, this book is completely ridiculous, predictable, unbelievable and yet it knows it is. That's what makes it so fun. It's main purpose is to entertain, and it does exactly what it sets out to do. It's so much like a soap opera and if anything I could have done with more scandals, and more secrets. I'm looking forward to the next one.

- 3 Stars

Saturday, 16 September 2017

Book Review - Broadcast by Liam Brown

Broadcast follows David Callow, an internet vlogger who broadcasts his life to his millions of followers. Feeling like his celebrity status may be failing, and desperate to ensure his popularity doesn't wain, David accepts an offer he can't refuse to take the 'next step' in technological advancement by having a microchip inserted into his brain. What follows is the ability to see David's every emotion, thoughts and memories - broadcast live in billions of people, and David's realisation that you shouldn't always get what you wish for.

The plot for this is sort of predictable, in that you can kind of guess where this is going. Technology is bad. However, it's more of the journey that I enjoyed with this. It's a satire of our current generation, snapchatting and instagramming our way through life, with everything revolving around technology. It's the sharp look at what 'celebrity' means in this day and age, when ordinary people can become overnight sensations just by being 'normal'. But is what we see really a reflection of that person's true self or is it merely an online persona of a 'perfect life'? I liked how thought provoking this was for such a short novel. It certainly pokes a hole in the current perceptions of reality.

I also liked the issues raised around the restrictions David faces about freedom of speech and thoughts. It almost seemed to give off a 1984/Big Brother vibe. Everyone is watching David, his every move and thought is scrutinised and he's even blackmailed because of it at one point. As the plot quickened towards the end, this really came into play as we see David struggle internally to control his emotions, so as not to raise suspicions.

My only main problem with this was with David himself. He's deeply unlikable - at first coming across as selfish and self involved. He cares very little for anyone or anything other than gaining more followers and increasing his celebrity. Nobody seems to see the 'real' him, including the reader. This often made it difficult to feel sympathetic towards him, and up until about 60% of the way through his obnoxiousness was really putting me off reading any further. 

The ending for this was really good. Nothing is neatly wrapped up, reflecting the imperfect balance of the 'true' world, and I felt the despair. Normally this would drive me mad, but it seemed to fit well with the overall theme of the novel.

A great thought provoking science fiction novel, if you can get past the abhorrent main character.

 - 4 stars

Book Review - The Switch by A.W. Hill

The Switch follows 15 year old Jacobus, who pushes a mysterious switch in an odd old house, and starts an adventure into the multiverse to try and get back. Numerous versions of Jacobus exist, all slightly different from the 'original', but can Jacobus make it back to where he started? Because, no matter what you might think, perhaps your life really is better the first time round.

I loved the concept behind this.The belief that there are multiple worlds that run parallel to our own is nothing new, but I appreciated this fresh yet simple approach. One giant switch, seen in multiple forms, can lead to any number of possibilities. The plot is fast, flipping from world to world rapidly as Jacobus tries to get home with increasing difficulty. And even with a fast plot, time is still left to dedicate to world building and explaining the (sometimes quite complex) ideas behind multiverse theory and the associated physics. It could have been very easy to get either bogged down in this, or become confused, but the author does a good job of delicately balancing the two.

I also enjoyed the interactions between Jacobus, and his growing number of friends he meets along the way. In particular the enigmatic veteran Gordon, and the universally constant Jemma. I liked that there was always an underlying link between Jacobus and his 'home world', which helped to underpin the story and stop it unravelling rather quickly. The gradual build up within each universe - starting with small changes and building up to more extreme versions of Jacobus' universe was also a  great idea, as it built up the tension simultaneously within the story-line.

That said, I did find Jacobus a rather fickle character to get to grips with. When he first pushes the switch it's with friend Connor, however on entering the next universe and finding Connor an enemy, he's quick to drop him and move onto the next friend. There's no reconciliation to start with, and Jacobus doesn't really seem all that bothered. I found this lack of emotion rather odd, considering he was suppose to be his best friend. Their eventual reunion felt a little off because of this.

I sometimes also found that the continuing jump from world to world meant there was some missed potential to further explore the more 'extreme' worlds. In particular, I would have liked to have spent more time in the Red Temple/Hiver universe, as the ideology really intrigued me. However, I do understand that for a story with such a limitless potential for worlds, this may not have been practical.

I thought the conclusion was fitting for the novel, and tied together all the concepts nicely.

In conclusion, I found this a solid little YA/science fiction novel. A stronger relationship between some of the lead characters and more dedicated time to specific interesting worlds would have enhanced more rating, but I really enjoyed this.

 - 3 stars

Thursday, 14 September 2017

Book Review - The Doll House by Phoebe Morgan

The Doll House plays out as a psychological thriller, mixed within a contemporary family drama setting - but I was left feeling unsure as to whether it really 'thrilled' me.

The Doll House follows the lives of two sisters, Ashley and Corinne. Ashley is a married mother of three, with a husband who suddenly seems distant - working late at the office and easily distracted. Is he hiding something? When Ashley starts receiving mysterious phone calls, where the caller never speaks, she becomes deeply paranoid that her supposedly happy family might not be so perfect. Corinne is desperate for a baby after several failed IVF attempts. With one last shot on the horizon, can she finally become the mother she's always wanted to be? When she starts finding pieces from her old family doll house left around her flat and workplace, she starts to feel that something sinister is afoot. Will delving into her past help her uncover a secret best left forgotten?

The narrative for this is split mainly between the two sisters, with a few chapters also told from Dominic's (Corinne's partner) point of view. Interspersed throughout is also a narrative told from an unknown third person (at first a child), mainly as memories from the past. As the story progresses, these segments begin to intertwine with the sister's history, as well as the history of a house we are first introduced to in the first chapter. I thought this was an interesting premise, as it gave us an insight into the sister's minds, but also this unknown character with a very chequered past. I was desperate to know who this person was, and what their relationship was with the other characters in the novel.

The overall plot was ok. I felt that at times, although there was always a small amount of underlying tension, nothing really progressed as rapidly as I would have liked. The doll pieces are only deposited every now and again, and because of this they felt more like a far off threat. They definitely played more of a secondary role to the overall story arc involving Ashley and Corinne's paranoia and family dramas.

I also would have liked to have had more of a background story surrounding Ashley and Corinne. We never really get a feel for their history, or see their childhood from their perspective other than in brief glimpses. As the story progresses, and the past seems to play more of an integral part to the story, I felt this would have been helpful to further understand certain characters motives.

I was definitely more invested in Ashley's story line over Corinne's. I liked the relationship between Ashley and her children, and the normal struggles she faces as a mother of three. Her paranoia felt natural given her surrounding environment, and I was really invested in her. However, I did feel that most of the tension left Ashley's narrative half way through as her conflict with her husband reaches its natural conclusion. It was my interest in the mysteries surrounding baby Holly and Lucy that kept me reading to the end, and I will say that the climax to her story line was very well done. It was dramatic, suspenseful and shocking. I did not see it coming - which is always a big plus to my very cynical and calculating mind. I'm normally very good at guessing an ending. This time I didn't. Corinne's story, in comparison, felt very flat. I felt that as a character she was very over the top and dramatic, compared to Ashley's more composed nature. I also found the conclusion to her arc was over extremely quickly and felt a little rushed. I found that I wasn't really that bothered about what happened to her.

The premise for this was good, and at times I was really invested in certain characters and their story lines, however in the end it was the consistencies in the narrative that ended up being The Doll House's downfall.

The Doll House is available to purchase from Amazon now.

 - 3 stars

Book Review - The Growing Season by Helen Sedgwick

It's rare that I find a book as thought provoking as this. I found it opened a lot of questions regarding so many sociological questions, and had me really examine my opinions. On reading the blurb for this, I thought it was going to be a easy dystopian type read, but I couldn't have been more wrong or surprised, but I'm so glad I was.

The Growing Season is set in a sort-of-near future reality whereby the invention of 'the pouch' has made pregnancy obsolete. Men and women can finally share the load of childbearing and equally split their time between child rearing and working. The NHS has been privatised, abortion rates are low, and neonatal deaths are non existent. Within the novel itself we follow a series of women who are somehow intrinsically linked to FullBirth, the company behind the invention of the pouch, and their investigation into a series of coverups by the company following a tragedy.

These women include Eva, an activist who's mother taught her the pitfalls of the pouch, and her determination to expose FullBirths secrets to the world. I liked Eva a lot. I found that as the novel went on she turned from a full blown activist to something more akin to a figurehead, or spokesperson for the average person. She expressed so many opinions on equality and prejudice that I could relate to myself. I especially liked the comments she makes about discrimination in the work place, and how the pouch changes the problem instead of eradicating it in the first place.

Holly, another character, is shown as a matriarchal figure, the first woman to have a 'pouch birth' and at the start of the novel expecting her first great grandchild via a pouch birth. At first she seems to be a perfect example of the success of FullBirth and the pouches, but she comes to see that her decision may have been rash. She trusts blindly in these scientists, not knowing all the facts or possible side effects that could occur in her future generations. She also comes across as very shrewd. She makes a few observations near the end of the novel that resonated with me regarding the fact that men and women aren't identical. If the sexes aren't identical, surely the strive for equality in fertility and childbearing is pointless?

I really enjoyed the overall plot for this, although I'll admit at first it took me a little while to get into it as I was very confused by the lack of world building at the beginning. There is never really an explanation with regards to how the pouches work, and how women can 'move' naturally conceived pregnancies into the pouches and I would have appreciated it.  However, as the story progressed, I became so involved I these woman's stories, that this lack of information started to feel less important. Especially as it brought together such a surprising number of social issues for discussion, including women in the workplace, fertility, equality, IVF, and the risk vs benefits of an artificial birth. It was such an interesting and enlightening novel, and wholly unique within its genre.

The story is interspersed throughout with logs from the mysterious 'Freida', the inventor of the pouch. I wasn't as keen on these sections as I felt they stalled the story too much, and at times I got very confused about what was currently happening and what was 'in the past'. I clearer definitive sectioning of the past and present would have made things a lot easier.

Overall, however, these was a truly unique book that provoked a great amount of internal reflection and brought to the fore a greater understanding of social issues and equality.

The Growing Season is available to purchase from Amazon now.

 - 4 Stars

Tuesday, 12 September 2017

Book Review - Nyxia by Scott Reintgen

Nyxia follows Emmet Atwater, a down-on-his luck teenager from Detroit. Recruited by the mysterious Babel company into entering a mission to mine the substance Nyxia on the hidden planet Eden, he soon learns that he must fight to keep his place in the mission by competing against the other recruits on board the Genesis 11. Ten have been invited to go to Eden, but only eight will make the final cut.

The plot for this was so much fun. At first glance it appears to be a space version of The Hunger Games with young people fighting for survival. However, as the story progresses it goes beyond this, as the concept of the Nyxia substance is developed further and the secrets about the mysterious Babel company begin to unravel. I loved that when Nyxia is first introduced we see it as a rather bland black substance that can change shape under the wielders will, but develops into this incredibly dangerous 'semi-conscious' element. It changed the view of the game entirely, and added more suspense to the story above and beyond simply teenagers fighting it out.

The world building is also excellently done. Enough background is explained as the 'competition' progresses, and more examples of life on Eden are introduced into the training that I wasn't confused. However, enough of the mystery remained in the story so that I didn't get bored either. I would have liked more interaction, or explanation, about the local inhabitants of Eden however (the Adamites). I felt we were sort of left hanging with regards to what they actually are, and have the capacity to do, other than their hatred of human adults. I also would have liked to have had some more time exploring the secrets of the Babel company other than the repeated assumption that they thrive on greed and an inexplicable need to harvest more Nyxia. It is hinted that they don't fully know what Nyxia is, although extensive 'tests' have been carried out. More time going into a deeper explanation of what these 'tests' were would have been good, although I did enjoy the air of mystery that surrounded the company. 

The ten individuals on board Genesis 11 were well developed enough that I became deeply engaged in their actions, and I enjoyed the camaraderie and changing dynamics within the group as they became a dysfunctional (sometimes murderous) family. I was impressed with how multilayered the story actually was, as it began to develop upon the mistrust first ingrained and encouraged in the recruits in the beginning by Babel, and then manifested later as more new characters are introduced. 

This introduction of more new characters half way through the novel is a clever move. It helped keep the story from going stale, and continued to change the dynamics of the characters and introduced more challenges. I especially liked the rather enigmatic Morning, although I found her instant trust in Emmet rather out of character as she's suppose to be deeply loyal to her team members.

Emmet, as our lead character, was charismatic and likeable. In the beginning he knows his limitations, and is shown to work hard to achieve his goals. He's also hot tempered and mistrustful of some of the other recruits at first, while forming strong bonds with others - such as Kaya and Bilal. I especially liked that he knew when he was wrong and admitted his mistakes - such as apologising to Jamie later on in the book when he realises he was wrong about him.The only thing I didn't like was the romantic aspect of the story involving Emmet. It felt forced and unnecessary. I also didn't really understand Roathy and Isadora and their persistent vendetta, although the conclusion did try to wrap up their feelings well. Bilal, by comparison, provided the perfect compliment to Emmet as the sympathetic and deeply moral recruit. He was by far my favourite character.

The interlude chapter in the middle of the novel was interesting, as it was nice to see the story from another characters perspective. However, it also felt a little out of place and didn't really add much to the story at all. I also didn't like the fact that most of the mystery's introduced in the novel were never concluded - a problem I find with most 'trilogies'. I was also disappointed that we didn't get a proper glance at Eden. All this time is spent building up the planet, and we never even get to spend anytime on it.

That said, I still thought Nyxia ended up being a high action space race, with plenty of twists and young adult drama to keep me entertained. Near the end, I couldn't put it down as I sped through to find out who would make the cut. I'm looking forward to the sequel.

 - 4 stars

Sunday, 10 September 2017

Book Review - Charlotte Says by Alex Bell

Do you like your novels with creepy little dolls and atmospheric settings? Then this is your story.

Charlotte Says is a prequel to the popular Frozen Charlotte novel from 2015. Not having read the previous instalment, I went into this knowing nothing about the storyline or characters, and I can honestly say I don't think it made any difference. This could easily be read as a standalone story.

A historical novel, this is set in 1901, with our main character Jemima excepting a job at an All Girls industrial school in the Isle of Skye following the death of her mother and step father in mysterious circumstances. Soon after her arrival an usual package arrives from Charlotte's former home which contains a number of Frozen Charlotte dolls. As mysterious occurrences start to happen, Jemima starts to suspect that the dolls may be more dangerous than they first appear.

There's instantly a feeling of foreboding and dread that surrounds the school, and the headmistress is as despicable as you would expect her to be. At times this felt almost like a Frances Hodgeson Barnett novel, with the descriptions of down trodden girls, awful maids and slave labour. I found I had a lot of fondness for all of the girls at the school, especially Estella the outcast of the group. This obviously helped a great deal as the novel progressed and they become more deeply entrenched in the dolls 'games' and misfortunes. I cared greatly about what would happen to the girls, and became anxious when they appeared to be in peril.

The introduction of dolls is cleverly done, and really sets the tone for the rest of the novel. It involves the basement lit only by candlelight and giggling. It's creepy, and scary and the author clearly knows how to set a scene and make the reader feel unnerved. This continues as the story develops, as the dolls get more adventurous in the toy room during the night and as they start to explore the dolls house.

As we move deeper into the novel, the story starts to flit between past and present. We see how Jemima came to be at Whiteladies, her former home, and how the accident with her mother occurred. I would have liked to have spent more time with these chapters as they're short, rather than have them interrupt the flow of the present story so much. Having said that, most of the novel is well paced, with plenty of action and no side stories to get distracted by. All of the focus is on the dolls, and the plot progresses quickly, which is great.

The only aspect I didn't particularly warm to in the novel was Jemima's relationship with Henry. Henry seemed a little useless at times, not really acting as any real help in times of distress, and he often came across as a bit wet. He wasn't as strong a character as Jemima and the girls, and his undying love for Jemima seemed a little far fetched considering he hasn't seen her in a number of years.  However, that said their relationship plays more of a secondary role to the plot, so didn't ruin the story for me too much.

The conclusion is satisfying and very open ended, which helps it work as a prequel. I was surprised that this is aimed at a young adult audience however, as some of the final scenes are a bit graphic in their depiction of violence. I would be cautious before letting younger readers read this. For me though, I'm already set to read Frozen Charlotte ready for Halloween season.

 - 4 stars