Holiday reading June 2017 – a bit of YA

Today has been a bit of a day for making decisions (largely of a political nature) and I got to thinking that a lot of that kind of thing goes on in YA books. The target audience (12-18 or 15-24 year-olds I guess, certainly not me….) are often having to make the first big decisions of their lives – about what subjects to study, what future careers to aim for, about what they stand for politically, about what sort of adults they want to become. They are deciding whether to form relationships, where they fall onto the spectrum of sexuality, politics, religiosity and social tolerance. Some of these decisions will be wrong. From the perspective of 20 or 30 years it is easy to see that a choice made at 17 is not final: at 17 it feels very decisive.

25458747In Non Pratt’s Truth or Dare the main characters, Claire and Sef, need to decide how to make a lot of money in order to finance Sef’s brother’s care after a catastrophic brain injury. They decide to raise cash by filming dares and promoting them on some sort of Youtube-like channel and become Truth Girl and Dare Boy. The story is told in two main sections – one each from Claire and Sef’s points of view – and no final decisions can be made until both are able to see the other’s viewpoint. Pratt really seems to be able to speak in the voice of modern young people – their doubts, fears, joys and passions. She manages to touch on issues of sexuality, race and social privilege without making them the centre of the story (which remains as Claire, Sef, their burgeoning relationship and their fundraising attempts). It is particularly refreshing that Sef is a young British muslim lad but his story is not one of radicalisation or terrorism – his cares and concerns are those of any young man of his age (although he still has to deal with racism and islamophobia, obviously).

9780141375632In One of Us is Lying Karen McManus gives us a 21st century update on that 1980s classic, the Breakfast Club. In a typical American high school five students have detention – there’s a princess, a jock, a brain, a bad boy and an outsider who is both feared and feted for his online gossip column – so far, so close to the film but then Simon, the online gossip, dies suddenly while the supervising teacher is out of the room and things start to go a bit C.S.I.

What I enjoyed most about this book is the fact that nobody is quite what they seem. The bad boy shows that he can be both kind and resourceful (although he’d never admit it), the princess is hugely insecure about her looks, the jock may not be the all-American hero he’s touted to be and the brain may not have got all her grades in the accepted way. We see these young people from their own points of view – each chapter moves from one voice to another – and yet we find that they are not as fixed in their cliques as they first appear. They each have to make choices about who they could become (with shades of Grease as the ‘brain’ makes an Olivia Newton-John style choice of boyfriend) while also trying to work out who could have killed gossip-boy.

contagionMy final YA holiday read was Contagion, the first in a new trilogy from Teri Terry. (This one is a slightly more tenuous link to my ‘decision-making’ theme since it is rather firmly in the post-apocalyptic genre but I’m sure it’s in there somewhere.) The book opens with a girl called Callie, in a mysterious facility full of doctors and nurses in biohazard suits, being sent for a ‘cure’. We switch to Shay, in a Scottish village, who sees a poster about a missing girl (Callie) and realises she saw her on the day she disappeared a year before. She contacts the number on the poster and meets Kai, Callie’s older brother. Shay and Kai end up trying to investigate Callie’s fate while dodging the effects of both a deadly epidemic and the even deadlier shadowy figures who appear to be behind it.

Again this book comes from two different voices – Callie and Shay.  They have similarities, especially in the way that they both love Kai, but also very many differences. Callie is much younger, more emotional and less rational – Shay is thoughtful, willing to make personal sacrifices but also more inclined to keep her worries to herself. Towards the end of the book we start to discover much more about the nature of the epidemic, its effects on the few who survive and the motives of those who seem to control its development. There are two more books to come – I think I’m hooked enough to need to know how this ends. Shay, and Kai’s, decisions will be important but I have a feeling that Callie will be the lynchpin (or, just possibly, the firing pin from a deadly grenade…)


Space Between the Stars – Anne Corlett

Nobody ever described space better than the much-missed genius Douglas Adams. You know the bit from the beginning of the Hitchhiker’s Guide about how big it all is?* However, like most sci-fi writers Adams was mostly interested in the bits of space with stars and planets in. Other writers, like Becky Chambers, have written about groups of people travelling through space in various ways but Anne Corlett’s book is, as the title says, about the gaps. The parts that are not there…

spacestarsLike many books this one starts with the end of the world. A virus has wiped out an eye-wateringly large percentage of the human population – a fever, spread by almost any kind of human contact, which last for three days. At the end you either recover or turn to a surprisingly small pile of dust. On a small and isolated planet we meet a small group of survivors – a vet, a preacher, an older woman who believes that God is trying to cleanse the world, a prostitute and a young man on the autism spectrum. They are rescued by a small space ship (manned by a slightly Han Solo-ish captain and his engineer who reminded me a bit of Tasha Yar) and head off to the system capital. The group travel on, eventually, until they reach Earth – and more specifically the Northumbrian coast near to Lindisfarne.

This isn’t really a book about the science of sci-fi. The virus, its transmission and effects (including the fact that it seems to render survivors infertile) are explained well but the bulk of the book is about humans: their emotions, passions and fears. This is a story about the gaps in people – their emotional voids, the people missing from their lives and, in some cases, the gaping holes where their moral compass should be. Some sci-fi readers won’t like this but others – fans of Becky Chambers, Connie Willis’s Doomsday Book or P.D. James’ Children of Men perhaps – will relish it. Science-fiction isn’t all about rockets and ray guns – psychology is a science too, after all…



*’Space is big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist’s, but that’s just peanuts to space.’

The Last One – Alexandra Oliva

I don’t really like reality tv. To be honest, I don’t find it very, well, realistic. The situations that contestants are placed in are often very unnatural, the type of characters chosen by production companies to take part in the programmes can seem deeply unpleasant and the way that audiences can forget that the people they are watching are actually people too (with feelings and a right to dignity) is, frankly, scary. Although what is most worrying is that if I do find myself forced to watch celebrities eating bugs and unmentionable kangaroo parts in the jungle or unknowns pretending they are business hot-shots I find myself being drawn in against my will…I’m only comfortable with the kind of ‘reality’ show which involves cakes or dancing (although not both at once – that would either be very silly or absolute genius). But would a novel about a reality show be any better for me?  I’d had a good experience with the Terranauts so would the Last One work too?

last-oneThe show in The Last One sounds like the mother of all reality shows, to be fair. A dozen carefully selected contestants surviving in the wilderness, completing tasks as teams and as individuals. The selection process seems to be as cynical as it was calculated – the producers making sure that there were those who were going to contribute sex-appeal, brains, medical and wilderness know-how and, of course, one person that everyone would hate (or love to hate). We concentrate, however, on a young woman the audience know as Zoo. She seems to be relatively normal – a real person – and, like the producers, the audience seem to like her. So far, so Bear Grylls, but then things get darker. In fact they get downright dystopian (yay!) and we realise that no one is watching – but Zoo doesn’t…Slight Spoiler alert. The contestants have been told that there are cameras everywhere, in places they wouldn’t suspect, so when Zoo finds bodies she is sure they are just props. She doesn’t realise that the world has far bigger problems than who is going to win a reality tv show.

I really enjoyed this book. It certainly made me realise that there could be situations which make us question what reality actually is. Zoo’s experience is, in part, to do with her quest to find out who she is, to have one last adventure before she settles to life as a wife and mother. But it is also an exploration of how the human mind can resist admitting that what it sees is the truth.


P.S. If you enjoy this sort of book but also like something a bit historical then, when you finish this, try one of my favourite books ever, Doomsday Book by Connie Willis. Same thing, different century…

Wolf Road – Beth Lewis

My house is full of books. I mean really, really full. Rob and I both buy books, we both had a bit of library each when we met (with surprisingly few duplications – a couple of Pratchetts and English dictionaries and that’s about it) and, though work, I get a lot of proofs (advance reading copies). And, to make things worse, with the ARCs I can’t pass them on to charity shops for resale when I’ve read them. I can donate them to schools, hospitals and the like but anything I don’t want to keep ends up being put in the recycling. I’ll leave you to think about that for a moment. If I don’t love a book enough to give it permanent shelf room I have to send it to be destroyed. After a particularly heavy clearing-out session I usually feel like a mass book-murderer – more than a little unclean…So that is why I have a Kindle – I can get most of my proofs as e-books and, within a few months of getting mine, I could almost feel my house getting a little lighter. If it weren’t for publishers tempting me with actual books sent to the store and having the occasional roadshow there is almost a risk of a repeat of the film Up. So, thank goodness for the lovely people at Harper Collins for inviting us booksellers to an evening of books, wine and nibbles recently over in Manchester. I came away with an almost embarrassing amount of books (three tote bags – it is an addiction…), a signed copy of The Trouble With Goats and Sheep and lots of good intentions to read them all and make sure I tag the publisher. And I’m going to start with Wolf Road.

wolf roadI’ll confess. When I got my copy from the Manchester event I already had a copy lined up on my Kindle. This meant that I was reading it without referring back to the plot outline or a blurb on the back of a physical copy and, initially, I was pretty sure I was reading a book set in late 19th century America. Think John Wayne films or Stef Penney’s Tenderness of Wolves. Think guns, bleak winters, trapping for furs and candlelight.Elka lives with her rather strict grandmother after her parents went North in search of gold but, when a big storm hits, she is taken in by a man she calls Trapper (and who, as the years go by, she thinks of as ‘Daddy’). Years pass and she learns to hunt and survive in their remote cabin  with only infrequent trips to the nearby town. It is on one of these trips that she meets Magistrate Lyons and discovers that Trapper is, in fact, a wanted killer called Kreager Hallet. The story then follows Elka as she heads North herself – away from Kreager and in search of her parents. It becomes more and more apparent that the setting is actually a postapocalyptic near future – set after something Elka herself refers to as the Damn Stupid – and that Elka herself is a remarkable woman. We get the whole story from her point of view and in her voice – everything is written in a way I can only describe as a really bleak Little House on the Prairie accent – and we discover the secrets of her past as she does. Her life seems to be nothing but hardship, sorrow and loss and yet we see her growing and developing her relationships with both people and her environment.

What I loved most about this book – aside from the plot, the voice of Elka and the wonderful descriptions of the world she lives in – was the fact that almost every character I cared about and admired was female. Some of the villains are women too but in Elka, Lyons and Penelope we are treated to three strong, flawed and very admirable females.



City of Mirrors – Justin Cronin

Every now and again you read a book which electrifies you. It is so different from anything you’ve read before, it has characters who make their way into your heart and mind or it is just so well-written that you can’t look away. The most memorable example for me, quite possibly, was way back in 2010 with The Passage. The jumps from storyline to storyline in the opening chapters and then the leap forward in time to a post-apocalypse community under siege from ‘virals’ were intriguing; the characters, and especially Amy, were engaging and the whole premise of the virals themselves (something between zombies and vampires and totally terrifying) was fascinating. To be honest this was probably my first post-apocalyptic novel and I didn’t realise they could be this good…Oddly I couldn’t settle to the second book in the trilogy, The Twelve. It was almost certainly not the fault of the book itself – 2013 was quite a busy year for me and I was not the reading machine that I am today. However, this did give me a bit of a quandary. I was happy not to re-read The Passage before starting on City of Mirrors as it was a book which has made a deep impression on me but what to do about The Twelve? In the end I picked up the final book in the trilogy deciding that I’d give it a try and if I found I needed to go back and finish The Twelve then so be it. Luckily for me, however, this book is particularly good at reminding the reader of what happened in previous volumes – my gamble paid off!

9780752897899In the first book we see the disastrous events unfold and then jump forward nearly 100 years to a community living as best it can in California. In the second volume (*rapidly checks plot outline on back of book*), we see a little more of the Twelve originally infected virals and build up to a climactic battle which sees them and Amy herself apparently destroyed. What impresses me about this trilogy is that it isn’t just about fighting the bad guys – both virals and the dregs of humanity who take advantage of the breakdown of normal society – but about how people try, and succeed, to make some sense of the new world they find themselves in.  And this is how City of Mirrors opens – with no sign of virals for years what was effectively martial law is being lifted and people are starting to move out beyond the enclosed townships they have lived in for a generation.

Of course things aren’t that simple. Because we, unlike the survivors, know that as well as the twelve there was not only Amy but also Zero – the original carrier of the virus. This book is, essentially, the story of Zero (formerly known as Tim Fanning) and how a doomed love led him to the jungle in Bolivia where he was first infected. In fact, my impression of the whole book, the whole trilogy, is that it is about love. Love going right, love going wrong, the love of children for their parents and the love men and women feel for each other. And above all it is about the love that parents, and other family, feel for the children whose task it is to be the future. If this sounds maudlin and sentimental it really isn’t – there is plenty of action, death and destruction but there is also, at the end, hope.


The Mandibles – Lionel Shriver

I think we have established by now that I do love a good apocalypse. There is something irresistible, for me, in seeing how a society breaks down and, consequently, how it attempts to rebuild itself. Of course we have been schooled to see apocalypses (apocoli? this is an issue which has concerned greater minds than mine…) as something, well, explosive. We think of radioactive fall-out, incurable and exotic diseases, zombies but what if the world ended with more of a whimper than a bang? What if the end of days is slow, gradual and rather prosaic?

9780007560769Lionel Shriver’s tale of how one family, the Mandibles, copes during such an event is fascinating. And it is mostly so because it is just so plausible being based on an economic system we can see at work today. High national levels of debt, a reliance on the transfer of money rather than the cash itself and an almost total disconnect from manufacturing or manual labour. And of course all the generations following on from the Baby Boomers who are relying on inheriting the fortune their parents have built up to cover their debts and losses. The Mandible fortune has been built up first by the manufacture of diesel engines, then in the generation of the current patriarch, Douglas, in publishing. Subsequent generations are journalists, writers, academics – the move away from the making of actual physical stuff is there. When the American economy goes into free fall – wiping out the fortune which the whole family was anticipating (yet trying not to – there is a feeling that wishing for the death of the grandfather is in poor taste and the Mandibles are, if nothing else, tasteful). It is a gripping arc to the story where we see the family, in a country which is rapidly falling apart, realising that things are going to go beyond having to give up luxuries like imported wine, meat or holidays. We even go beyond the point where essentials like a decently paid police force, basic medication like laxatives or even toilet paper are available. Don’t think that just because there are no zombies or wars this is not a very, very grim affair.

For me this book contains my apocalypse – the death of books. Not just of publishing or print books – bad as that would be – but of authorship itself. A generation raised to expect that, once they have paid for a device (like an e-reader or a smart phone), they can get unlimited content for free leads gradually to the end of paid writing. I have a number of writer friends who self-publish and who, occasionally, produce work which is low-cost or even free but they do need to make money from their work. Although this whole book was, frankly, terrifying at times I think I’m most afraid that this is the part which will come true first…


Last of Us – Rob Ewing

A part of my job which I really, really enjoy (aside from the reading and the cake) is recommending books to customers. You get kind of a warm glow when customers come back in and tell you how much they enjoyed the book you suggested to them – although sometimes they do return to tell me off for getting them hooked on a new author/series. I tell them I’m not just a bookseller, I’m an enabler for book addicts.  But, of course, someone has to put books in my hand too – I read fast but I can’t get to everything which is published/reissued/promoted because of a film or tv adaptation each month. Not and actually go to work anyway. So, who do I turn to when I want a book recommendation?

The very clever people at our Head Office – the buyers and all-round geniuses who select things like our Books of the Month and Book Club titles – are a great source. Obviously I can’t love absolutely everything but they have set up some wonderful titles recently: the Reader on the 6.27, for example, as fiction book of the month, or Enchanted April as our monthly Forgotten Classic. Customers are also a great source of inspiration, whether they are regulars, tourists or a class of seven-year-olds, and publishers too. Of course, when publishers send out advance information they try to make everything sound amazing but often they are right (and a lot of the reps know just what sort of thing I like). But recently I’ve been getting an awful lot of heads-up on forthcoming books from friends and colleagues on social media. It helps that on both Facebook and Twitter I’m in contact with some inspirational booksellers (like @Leilah_Makes and @ShinraAlpha) and authors (who, contrary to popular belief, always seem to be hugely generous in their praise for other author’s work). And of course most of my friends in real life are big readers too…

9780008149581.jpg.pagespeed.ce.8oqvpiIdnEAll this is leading up to the fact that most of the people I admire in the world of books and reading have been suggesting (sometimes in the strongest possible terms) that I read Rob Ewing’s The Last of Us – and, dagnabbit, they were right. The plot centres around a small group of children, aged from 5 to early teens, who survive an outbreak of a virulent (and fatal) illness and particularly features eight year old Rona. They are the last survivors on a remote Hebridean island and the story explores the dynamics of the group as they come to terms with the fact that the adults are, probably, never coming back. There have been some comparisons to Lord of the Flies but I think it is probably more realistic than that (while, obviously, being about a very unreal if plausible situation). These are real children – some angry, some confused, some trying their hardest to be sensible and grown-up – and they are upset, brave, spiteful and loving in the way that real children are. The plot moves backwards and forwards from the time before, when parents were around but the panic of the epidemic itself made everything very confusing for Rona and the others, to a couple of weeks when things come to a head.

The story was absolutely gripping (thanks for the late nights there, Rob…) and the characters were so realistic. It was heartbreaking to see these children, these incredibly real children, suffer so – but it was also uplifting to realise that each of them, in their own way, could be brave and funny and selfless. This is Ewing’s first novel – I really hope it won’t be his last.