Saturday, 31 January 2015

Review: All Fall Down by Ally Carter

Publication Date: 5th February 2015

Huge thanks to Netgalley for sending me a copy in return for an honest review.

This exciting new series from NEW YORK TIMES bestselling author Ally Carter focuses on Grace, who can best be described as a daredevil, an Army brat, and a rebel. She is also the only granddaughter of perhaps the most powerful ambassador in the world, and Grace has spent every summer of her childhood running across the roofs of Embassy Row.
Now, at age sixteen, she's come back to stay--in order to solve the mystery of her mother's death. In the process, she uncovers an international conspiracy of unsettling proportions, and must choose her friends and watch her foes carefully if she and the world are to be saved.

I absolutely love Ally Carter’s previous series, both Gallagher Girls and the Heist books, so I couldn’t wait to get my hands on her latest offering and get to know a whole new world. Unfortunately my anticipated love affair with ‘All Fall Down’ didn’t quite go as I’d anticipated.

The concept is great, the world is wonderful, the writing is up to Carter’s brilliant standard, but sadly there were problems. The biggest one being Grace herself. I never really felt like I connected with Grace, which is I think due in part to the fact that Grace is the most unreliable narrator I have ever come across in fiction. By about a third of the way through the book I just didn’t trust her at all, which meant that my enjoyment of the book became severely compromised.

It comes across as for a much younger audience, perhaps on that transition line for those just coming into young adult fiction. In part due to the style, but mostly again due to Grace. She never struck me as a sixteen year old teenager, she felt as though she’d gotten stuck at age thirteen. Understandable given the circumstances, but a little bit frustrating to read.

It also reads more like a film script than a book in places, due to the flashbacks that Grace keeps on having. This sort of works, but it mostly just made me feel like it was meant to be a movie, and actually became a little bit frustrating the further in I read.

I absolutely loved the characters surrounding Grace, her oddball team of espionage amateurs were fantastic, and really I just wanted more of them! The only character I wasn’t really sold on was Alexei, because like Grace we never really got to see a huge amount of character – is he good, is he bad, is he just playing her or spying on her? All questions we may see answered at a later point in the series, but for a first book I felt entirely wrong footed by too many elements, that made me question whether I would really want to invest more time in the series.

All in all it was an intriguing premise that worked in some areas and fell flat on its face in others. It’s a good set up for things to come, but there were an awful lot of awkward parts and some serious issues with Grace and her likeability and general trust developing between her and the reader. There’s a lot to love though, and the pacing means that it’s a fast and tense read that will leave you with no idea where things are going from one page to the next.

Thursday, 29 January 2015

Review: The Last Leaves Falling by Sarah Benwell

Publication Date: 29th January 2015

Huge thanks to Random House UK for providing me with a copy in exchange for an honest review.

And these are they. My final moments. They say a warrior must always be mindful of death, but I never imagined that it would find me like this…
Japanese teenager, Sora, is diagnosed with ALS (Lou Gehrig's disease). Lonely and isolated, Sora turns to the ancient wisdom of the samurai for guidance and comfort. But he also finds hope in the present; through the internet he finds friends that see him, not just his illness. This is a story of friendship and acceptance, and testing strength in an uncertain future.

I should probably be upfront that Sarah is in fact a very dear friend of mine, so whilst I would be gushing about this book already simply on its own merit, the fact that it was written by Sarah just makes it even more awesome.

There is a big surge of diverse young adult fiction hitting the shelves which is a welcome breath of fresh air, and Sora’s tale set in modern Japan is no exception. Add to it that the story itself tackles death, euthanasia and features a disabled protagonist and ‘The Last Leaves Falling’ quickly sets itself apart as something other than your average YA fiction. The truth is it is so much more.

Sora is a tragic and compelling protagonist, at times buoyed up by those around him, sometimes sinking underneath the weight of inevitability, but his narrative had me racing through the book. It is a quiet, raw tale full of the tragic sense of time crashing too fast that comes with such a story, but that in no way hinders the storytelling, or makes it feel like a waste of a book. The prose is so beautifully constructed that you are at once struck with the inevitable end, desperate for any way to alleviate it, but knowing that there is nothing that can be done except to be with Sora through his journey and listen to his story.

The cast of characters that surround him really lift the tale up, injecting it with moments of humour and lightness in amongst the dark. I loved watching Sora slowly begin to let his friends in, to allow them to see him and then to form such a strong support system with them. It truly turned the story from a quiet dirge into something filled with quiet beauty. I loved the additional threads of their own separate stories, each of the three trying to tackle their own problems and drawing strength from the others when it all became too much.

Yes it tackles hard issues, but Sarah handles them with a deft grace that leaves the reader enthralled by the story and utterly wrecked by the emotions within. It is tragic but underpinned with lightness and a feeling that all is not lost, no matter how dark things can get. Quiet hope and dignity suffuse the decisions and actions as Sora comes to terms with himself and the legacy that he will leave.

This book stayed with me well beyond turning the last page. I had questions and thoughts and took quite some time to process through all the issues raised and feelings brought into question by Sora’s tale.

Mixed into all of this, Sarah captures the everyday internet culture that almost all teens are used to these days – something that is strangely left untouched in most books. I loved watching with Sora these teens go about their daily lives, the issues and heartaches that all feel as though they are life and death at the time. It’s something that everyone can relate to, either because they themselves are going through it or they’ve been through it in the past. But at the same time the Japanese culture creeps in and it was so wonderful to see those little touches that marked this book out from so many generic UK and US teen stories. It was like looking in a slightly skewed mirror, the same but so many little differences that make it unique – the mythology and culture and little details that really brought this tale into full technicolour.

This book will destroy you. It will creep into your mind and your heart and your soul and it will slowly pull you apart piece by piece until by the time you reach the last page you are an uncontrollable sobbing wreck. I thought this might just be me, but just look at some of the reviews already springing up about Last Leaves and you’ll see that everyone is having this reaction. It is an incredible book, an important book, and the one book that I will be saying to everyone, if you only read one book this year, let it be this one.

Buy your copy from Amazon or The Book Depository now!

Other great reviews for 'The Last Leaves Falling':

Wednesday, 28 January 2015

Author Q & A with Sarah Benwell

I feel so incredibly lucky to announce that today on the blog, I have an interview with one of the most exciting debut authors this year, Sarah Benwell. Sarah is an incredibly talented author whose debut novel 'The Last Leaves Falling' will be released in the UK tomorrow - here to tell us a little more about the book, the research that went into it, and her writing process.

For anyone who hasn’t yet heard about your debut novel ‘The Last Leaves Falling’ can you tell them a little bit about it?
The book follows Japanese teenager Sora, who has ALS, as he deals with that diagnosis… I am terrible at this. Here’s a handy blurb:
Japanese teenager Sora is diagnosed with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease). Lonely and isolated, Sora turns to the ancient wisdom of the samurai for guidance and comfort. But he also finds hope in the present; through the internet he finds friends that see him, not just his illness. This is a story of friendship and acceptance, and testing strength in an uncertain future.

What inspired you to write this story? Can you tell us about how the original idea evolved into the novel readers will have in their hands tomorrow?
Last Leaves started out as a very, very different book. I was discussing book concepts with a writing buddy, and – as it often does when you’re with friends – conversation drifted. To Japan, the creepy sadness of Aokigahara, and from there, to loneliness, and coercion, and the particular Japanese trend towards suicide pacts.The statistics are horrifying, and Last Leaves started out exploring why.
In the original, the book started with Sora, Mai and Kaito making that pact. The story was about them reaching that end (whether or not they ultimately went through with it). But it turns out the story was all wrong for the characters in my head. And I wasn’t sure I wanted to tell a story principally about letting go, any more than my characters wanted to live it. Eventually, the story’s focus shifted, to choice, control, and dignity.

The moral and legal debates surrounding end of life choices and the right to die are – correctly – impassioned. We’re all connected to it. Whether we’ve watched someone fight or languish, or have simply wondered what if this were me? Whether we’re for or against it or somewhere in between. Of course we are all passionate. It affects us all.

Debating is good. The issues are complex and the potential for harm if we get it wrong is very, very real.

Last Leaves offers one perspective – the voice of one, lone, fictional teenager – but I hope that it’s done in such a way that readers can approach the issues and explore them safely, and make up their own minds.
The UK cover for The Last Leaves Falling

Sora suffers from ALS, your descriptions of both the condition and the effects of the drugs he has to take to combat that are incredibly realistic and really help the reader to connect with the awful situation that Sora is in, what research did you do to help you create this?
A lot of it is about imagining what it would feel like to deal with the pain and physical constraints and not-knowing – taking whatever experience you have and applying or multiplying that. It’s method-acting of the mind. It’s empathy.

But it also felt very important to portray things fairly. It will never, ever be 100% the way everyone experiences these things because no two experiences are the same. But I sought out the voices of people with ALS. And I talked to friends who use a wheelchair, or have limited mobility, friends who’ve dealt with the uncertainty, the pain, the meds.
I asked questions. I asked them to read my work and pull me up on anything I got horribly wrong.

Sure, it can be uncomfortable: it’s hard both checking your privilege (you will inevitably make assumptions or infer things without even realizing) and making yourself vulnerable to criticism, but it’s so important to be as fair and truthful as you can, and to be willing to listen, and to learn.

Luckily, people have been awesome, and this book is so much better for it.

(*Um. This answer sort of morphed into something more than getting physical details right. Whatever. It stands.)

Speaking of research, the setting is wonderful – from Sora’s family flat in the city to his grandparent’s out in the country, what research did you do to create this beautiful piece of the world that Sora and his friends inhabit?
Some degree of cultural immersion, I guess. While visiting Japan is still waiting on my bucket list, there’s a lot you can do to expose yourself to a place without visiting. I’ve had Japanese housemates, and several conversations about their homes. I’ve watched a lot of Japanese movies and series, seen photographs and read all the Japanese literature I could get my hands on. Details are everywhere. And this goes for the cultural details too.

When I was done, I asked a Japanese friend, and another who lives in Japan, to beta read/ check my work.

Diversity in novels is a hugely important thing, did you start out with the idea that you wanted to create a particularly diverse protagonist, or did it just happen that Sora’s story came to you and happened to fall into the diverse bracket?
You’re right, diversity in books is hugely important. Much as I believe this, though, I never sit down thinking ‘I must write something diverse’, or even ‘how can I get diversity into this story/ onto the shelves?’ It just happens naturally. My world isn’t populated by white, straight, cisgendered, neurotypical, able-bodied people, so why would that be all I write?

Other people, places and cultures are my crack. I’m fascinated by the similarities and differences between us all. So my stories explore that, which lends itself nicely to diversity, but it’s not a conscious, forceful thing, just the things I love.

The US cover for The Last Leaves Falling
The title and cover are absolutely stunning, you must be thrilled with the cover art (both UK and USA editions) how did you come up with the title for the novel?
Yes yes yes yes yessss. I love both covers with all my heart.
The title was a tricky thing. It started out as Death Wish – playing into the book’s ending, and nodding towards Japanese horror and anime cultures. But it was felt (rightly, I think) that this wasn’t doing justice to the story.

I suck at titles. Really, really. All credit for THE LAST LEAVES FALLING as a title goes to Kayla Whaley and her epic distillation skills.

What was the hardest part of writing ‘The Last Leaves Falling’ for you?
There were some difficult scenes, inevitably, but I think the hardest thing was actually the fear. All that research and reaching out to other people is because I really care about getting things right. Particularly where ALS and the wider portrayal of disability in books is concerned.

When you’re writing about any marginalized group – or any group of people to which you don’t belong – you have to be aware of their experiences, of the representation so far, of tropes and attitudes and bug bears, of the history you’re walking over.

It was particularly scary in regards to Sora’s disability. There is not nearly enough representation of disabilities in literature, and what there is is often met with fear and skepticism by disabled readers, who have long put up with awful tropes and stereotyping and being used as plot devices. Add to this that Last Leaves looks at assisted dying, that it broaches difficult questions about rights and control, and I was nervous about getting it right. I’d like to open up worlds and experiences and discussion, and I absolutely want to do no harm.

And the best/most rewarding part?
All of it? As difficult as it sometimes was, writing this book has been an absolute privilege. I’m incredibly grateful for all the help I’ve had, and hope I’ve done it justice. I think I have. I’m proud of the result.

What do you hope readers will take away from the book?
I think I’d like to leave that up to you guys. But I wouldn’t say no to making people think.

Can you tell us anything about what you’re working on next?
South Africa. Music. Heartbreak. Girl-girl kissing. :D

Do you have any advice for any aspiring authors reading this? 

Research, research, research. And don’t be afraid. Or do, but write your story anyway.

So that's all from Sarah! Thank you so much for coming over and taking the time out of your crazy schedule to talk to us! 'The Last Leaves Falling' is an absolutely incredible book, but I shall wait until its release tomorrow to gush about it properly when I will be posting my review, so check back then to hear more!

You can pre-order the book on Amazon here
And follow Sarah on twitter for more updates and writerly musings!

Friday, 16 January 2015

Review: The Darkest Part of the Forest by Holly Black

Children can have a cruel, absolute sense of justice. Children can kill a monster and feel quite proud of themselves. A girl can look at her brother and believe they’re destined to be a knight and a bard who battle evil. She can believe she’s found the thing she’s been made for.
Hazel lives with her brother, Ben, in the strange town of Fairfold where humans and fae exist side by side. The faeries’ seemingly harmless magic attracts tourists, but Hazel knows how dangerous they can be, and she knows how to stop them. Or she did, once.
At the center of it all, there is a glass coffin in the woods. It rests right on the ground and in it sleeps a boy with horns on his head and ears as pointed as knives. Hazel and Ben were both in love with him as children. The boy has slept there for generations, never waking.
Until one day, he does…
As the world turns upside down, Hazel tries to remember her years pretending to be a knight. But swept up in new love, shifting loyalties, and the fresh sting of betrayal, will it be enough?

Holly Black is the Queen of revealing the true terrifying natures of the Fae.

Every book she writes plays host to a whole array of strange and fantastical creatures that are the darkest versions of faeries imaginable, and they are utterly spellbindingly beautiful books. It is an incredible book, showcasing that Holly Black becomes even more talented with each book she writes. It showcases everything she has become known for – flowing prose, strong female characters, and a warping of the world around us until anything seems possible and even the most frightening things are real.

‘The Coldest Girl in Coldtown’ ushered in a new age of Black’s books, and an even more engrossing series of novels. Standalones featuring heady and terrifying new worlds, ‘The Darkest Part of the Forest’ isn’t quite as chilling (no pun intended) as ‘Coldtown’ but it branches out to give us a peak at Fairfold and the fae terrorizing its citizens.

It’s a dark novel full of secrets, lies and lost memories, featuring one of the most unreliable narrators I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading. The narrative skips back and forth between past and present, offering glimpses into each of the main characters lives and secrets, but ultimately following the story of Hazel, whose secrets and lies and deepest darkest desires are what act as the catalyst for the events that unfold. It explores the relationships both with herself and the two people closest to her – her brother Ben and her brother’s best friend, Jack.

Everything is kept hidden from the reader, the book holding onto its secrets to make you work to piece the whole of the puzzle together, and work I did, tearing through the book in a matter of hours. I loved it. The quiet terror and determination of the town to completely ignore and disregard all the magical things happening around them. The gradual unfurling of Hazel’s character and all the choices that have shaped her into the person we are introduced to and the relationships that are built back up into working, functional things.

This is an incredible new novel from an author who seems to have no difficulty creating unique works of art with each new book. They are always raw and full of human emotion and foolishness, beautiful highs and terrifying lows and often places that most authors shy away from. Black deals with difficult or taboo subjects with finesse and brilliance and I cannot recommend her books enough, and ‘The Darkest Part of the Forest’ is no exception. For new and old fans alike, this latest offering will not fail to delight and terrify.