Tag Archives: debut author

Book Review Saturday – ‘Arclight’

Happy Saturday, campers.

Today we’ll be looking at a book that made quite an impression on me – not necessarily for good reasons, admittedly, but an impression nonetheless. It’s ‘Arclight’, a début YA dystopian fantasy from US author Josin L. McQuein. Unfortunately, I’m probably going to have to drop a few spoilers in here in order to discuss my issues with the plot (though I’ll try to keep them to an absolute minimum), so if you’d rather remain unspoiled you might prefer to toddle off and have a cup of tea instead, and I’ll see you on Monday.

Image: goodreads.com

Image: goodreads.com

Okay. So, you don’t mind spoilers? Are you sure? Right. Let’s get cracking.

This book sounded like it was going to be great. The protagonist is a teenage girl – Marina – who lives in a world where light is life, light is safety, and going into the Dark spells death. At some point before the story begins, she is found on the borders of the Dark in an area known as ‘the Grey’, with no memory of who she is, or how she got there. She’s taken into the Arclight – the ‘fortress of light’, for want of a better term – populated by humans, which acts as the last outpost against the Fade, creatures who live in the Dark. She is the only human to have survived an encounter with the Fade for generations; feted as a ‘Fade-killer’ and condemned as ‘Fade-bait’ in equal measure, she cannot find a place to fit comfortably in her new surroundings.

The story progresses in that slightly predictable way that all YA dystopian novels have: conflict, battle, injury, wounds, (insta-)love, powerful friendships, testing of friendships and family bonds, wrongheaded adults who refuse to listen to reason, journeys into the unknown to find out The Truth, and all that. If I sound jaded, I don’t mean to – these are the things a reader expects from a YA dystopian novel, and ‘Arclight’ delivers all this in spades, as it should. I have no problem with any of that, and the book does all of these things very well.

What I do have a problem with, though, is a book which leaves its reader feeling a bit like this while they’re reading:

Image: terisaburger.com

Image: terisaburger.com

At several points during my reading of ‘Arclight’, I have to admit that I had absolutely no idea what was going on. I couldn’t follow threads of conversation, I couldn’t get a mental hold on anything that was being described, and at several junctures I wanted to insert myself into the novel and give several characters a robust slap across the jaw. The book begins just as the Fade mount a violent attack on the Arclight (so, very much ‘in medias res’, which is not something I object to, generally, as long as the reader is given something to hold on to), and in this case I found myself flailing a little, not really understanding anything, but carrying on in the hope that it would all be explained as things went on.

Well – things did, and did not, become clearer as the story progressed.

My first issue was with the Arclight itself. I was never sure whether it referred to the physical building in which our human characters live, or merely the large circle of powerful lights which switch on as night falls, keeping the humans safe in the face of the Dark. Mention is made in several places of ‘breaches’; it wasn’t clear to me whether this meant that the enemy was crossing the light, or breaking into the physical building. It seemed to change, as required. Then, we have the Fade themselves – the enemy of the humans, and the frightening denizens of the Dark. Our first encounter with them, during the initial battle, makes them seem a lot like the Dementors from Harry Potter – tall, faceless, skinny, dressed in grey ragged robes, complete with slashing claws and gnashing fangs. They seemed like a cross between zombies and vampires, to my mind, at first; but then, midway through the book, they change completely into something entirely different.

Image: blog.8bit.io

Image: blog.8bit.io

Okay, so I can get on board with that. An author has a right to do whatever she likes to her characters, yes? Yes.

But then, we have Rue. A character who I liked, because he was strong and brave and loyal; a character whose human-seeming inhumanness did, to be honest, unnerve me a little. But, it’s also true to say that he’s a character whose actions, when he’s in the Arclight, make no sense – unless, of course, you guess at one of the novel’s major plot twists, and then things start to fall into place. Sadly, Rue’s actions mean that guessing at the aforesaid major plot twist becomes too easy, and – in essence – reading about his illogical insistence on Marina accompanying him through the Arclight compound when he’s more than strong and capable enough to do it by himself gives a Huge Giant Hint as to what the truth behind their relationship is. I thought that was a shame. To me, it was a major signpost toward the novel’s conclusion, and it sort of ruined the big reveal.

I also have major problems with the backstory between the humans and the Fade. If even half of what the novel says about the Fade, and what they’ve done to humanity, is true (within the story world), then the whole book makes me profoundly uneasy. As ‘Arclight’ progresses, and we learn more about the Fade and how they operate, the overall question in my mind was ‘why?’ Why did they choose this particular course of action, why would an organism develop or evolve in quite the way they have, and why – why now – do they want to interact with the humans? Most importantly, I found myself asking: ‘what exactly are the Fade?’ It’s explained, sort of, but I’m not sure I fully understood that explanation. It was pleasingly SF-lite, with mention of futuristic cures for disease and the perennial ‘man tinkers with nature, and nature bites back’, which never fails to deliver, but even still. I was left with a very confused idea about this species at the end of the novel. Then, this book is the first in a series, so perhaps the story of the Fade will be dealt with more fully in future volumes.

Anyway.

There were good bits to this book, too. There were some scenes I did enjoy, and there are passages which are exceptionally well-written. A scene near the end of the book when an unexpected person saves Marina from danger is touching, and I was intrigued by the character of Rue who, despite his courage and loyalty, has touches of cruelty too; he makes a nice change from the flat and bland Tobin (the other male lead – one female lead and two male, I’m sure you can see where we’re going with this one.) I enjoyed reading about Marina’s sparky best friend Anne-Marie and her family, and I sympathised with Marina’s essential problem – which world to belong to, which identity to cleave to, which family to choose – and her need to find a way to grow up into the person she’s supposed to be without denying her past.

But, overall, ‘Arclight’ left me confused, and bequeathed unto me a headache. It wasn’t a bad book, as such, but it reminded me of a freshly-plastered wall which hadn’t yet been smoothed over. It had everything a great YA book needed, but it all seemed jumbled and spiky and hard to enjoy.

Has anyone else tried this one? If so, what did I miss?

Book Review Saturday – ‘Level 2’

Hello!

So, it’s Saturday. Ain’t life grand?

Because this is *totally* my reading nook. A hammock. In my sunny, warm, Irish garden.  Image: thewomancondition.blogspot.com

Because this is *totally* my reading nook. A hammock. In my sunny, warm, Irish garden.
Image: thewomancondition.blogspot.com

Time, I think, to do my bit to promote reading by delving right into another book review post. Today, it’s the turn of ‘Level 2’, by Lenore Appelhans. Here it is:

Image: midnightbloomreads.blogspot.com

Image: midnightbloomreads.blogspot.com

I’m sure you’ll agree that this book has a brilliant cover. In fact, the cover design was one of the things that made me want to read it; I saw it on Twitter, and other social media sites, before it ever hit the shelves. I learned that the author was a well-known blogger (check her out over at Presenting Lenore), which also piqued my interest. So, I was looking forward to reading this book long before I ever got my grubby little paws on it.

Was my enthusiasm rewarded? Well. Let’s see.

The story outline is pretty intriguing. The book is about a teenager named Felicia Ward, who dies just before her eighteenth birthday. As it opens, we don’t know what happened to cause her death, but it hardly matters – the book throws us right into a radical reimagining of the afterlife so different from anything I’d ever read or heard of before that it was immediately arresting.The Level 2 of the title is a ‘between-world’, one through which we must pass after death, and before we enter heaven, or Level 3.

Felicia, and the other deceased young women (or ‘drones’, as they’re called) who occupy her ‘hive’, exist in sterile-seeming chambers where they spend their time accessing memories of their lives. They can, as well as watching their own memories, rent and watch the memories of others; there is, of course, a cost for this. To access the memories of other people, they must first build up a level of credit, earned from other drones renting their memories and watching them. The memories can be given ratings up to and including ‘5 stars’, depending on their content, so popular memories soon rack up huge viewing rates. It’s a vision of the afterlife which may sound very strange to someone who has no familiarity with YouTube, for instance, but to the teenage audience at whom this book is aimed, the concept behind Appelhans’ idea is second nature.

I did wonder a bit at first what the purpose of Level 2, as a place, was. The norm, for an afterlife, is to move on, to come to terms with your death and reach a place of peace. But spending your time reliving your memories, particularly your most cherished ones, seems a strange way to accept your own death and allow yourself to pass on to the next level. However, Appelhans makes interesting use of this as her book unfolds – the souls in Level 2 are being held there for a purpose, and they are being encouraged to live and relive their cherished memories for a reason, too.

So. ‘Life’ (or, afterlife) continues normally for Felicia until the day the girl in the next hive (Beckah) disappears. Beckah is one of the only friends Felicia has in Level 2, and so her disappearance causes her a huge amount of upset – this is compounded when it emerges that Felicia is the only person in the hive who remembers Beckah at all, and the fact that she vanishes upsets nobody but Felicia. She begins to wonder whether someone has removed Beckah from the ‘net’ of interconnected memories shared by the hive, and why – in that case – Felicia’s memories have not been affected. Just as she is attempting to come to terms with this, a breach appears in the wall of the hive, and a figure steps through – a figure from Felicia’s past, who tells her she must come with him. He is in possession of information which he knows Felicia desperately wants, and leaves her little choice but to leave the hive.

This is a book of two halves. I really enjoyed one half, and I was ambivalent about the other. The sections where Felicia accesses her memories, and the picture she gradually paints of her life, her experiences, her fractious interaction with her family, her relationship with her deeply loved boyfriend, are fascinating. She was romantically involved with a boy named Neil, a deeply religious and honourable person, while she was alive. Neil is painted as a little too perfect, but this is probably as a consequence of our only knowledge of him coming from Felicia’s memories. Through her memories, we also come face to face with Julian, a boy about whom Felicia has complicated feelings – he evokes a sense of dread and fear in her, but her best friend Autumn falls for him in a serious way. Autumn’s fate at the end of the book, and Felicia’s actions in the weeks leading up to it, are genuinely gripping – even shocking – and it is this story, the story of her life, rather than her afterlife, which I found wonderfully well-written and engrossing to read.

It’s the sections in the hive, and the uncovering of the larger plan involving the girls in Level 2, and the role of the figure who unexpectedly turns up in Felicia’s life just as her friend Beckah disappears, which I found ill-conceived, hard to imagine, and – frankly – a little bland. The book devolves into a toothless chase around the afterlife, where people with the skills to manipulate the architecture of Level 2 with their minds find they can open doorways, access convenient memory chambers, and keep track of other people by mapping their brainwaves, which takes away any sense of urgency or drama surrounding the whole thing. I found this section of the book difficult to keep in my mind’s eye, because it is, to my taste, under-described and underdeveloped. I found the ending of the book frustrating, and the reason for the importance of Felicia’s role in the book was, in my opinion, irritating. I found the writing in the scenes drawn from Felicia’s life much stronger than that in the scenes describing the battle for Level 2. In other words, the scenes which should be gripping – the science-fiction aspects, the fantastical aspects, the ones which ought to appeal to me most – are the ones which left me cold.

In short, I would recommend ‘Level 2’. It’s a good book, with original concepts and a take on the afterlife which started off extremely well, no matter what way it ended up. I really liked the character of Felicia, and her relationship with the men in her life, and her friend Autumn. I also found Felicia’s parents, their careers, and their relationship with their daughter, interesting and different. Having said that, so much about the book made me want to just give up reading that I can’t recommend it wholeheartedly.

But – if you read it – I hope you enjoy. Particularly if you’re reading it in a hammock.

Mixed-Up, Muddled-Up

It’s Friday! So, that’s good news. In other good news, one of my best friends is coming to visit over the weekend, and I can’t wait to see her. In some further good news, I had my hair cut yesterday for the first time in three years (ahem), and it worked out rather well.

While I’m pleased with the end result, I now have two swingy-bangy bits of hair down either side of my face which are causing me a bit of consternation; I keep forgetting they’re there, so when they suddenly sweep down out of nowhere and waft into my line of vision, I tend to get a bit of a fright.

There you have it. A woman who is frightened of her own hair. What has the world come to?

Moving swiftly on. Today, I would like to talk about a book I recently read which seems to have caused very little in the way of a ‘splash’ in book-reviewing and book-blogging circles, which I think is a shame. It’s ‘Sorrowline’, written by Niel Bushnell. I believe it’s his first book, which makes the achievement all the greater.

Image: bookdepository.co.uk

Image: bookdepository.co.uk

I came across this book a few months ago when I googled the word ‘Timesmith’, which I was hoping to use in one of my own stories. I was hoping I’d be clever enough to have coined the term, but – of course – someone had got there before me! Niel Bushnell’s ‘Sorrowline’ is the first book in his ‘Timesmith Chronicles’, and it’s a really enjoyable read. It has only just been published – I’d been waiting for it for several months by the time I finally managed to buy it a couple of weeks ago – and it was worth the anticipation.

The central idea behind the book is that each person’s gravestone is connected to the day of their death by a ‘Sorrowline’ – a mysterious link made up of grief and memories, and in some cases the person’s fear and anger and pain at the time of their death – and a talented person can use this connection to travel back in time. Jack Morrow is our hero, and he finds himself being attacked by terrifying creatures in a London graveyard one night several years after his mother’s death. A strange man appears, claiming to be his grandfather. The man urges Jack to travel back to 1940, to meet him there as a teenager, and that together they’ll work out how to keep Jack safe. Jack doesn’t really have a choice but to obey, and so he does as he’s told – and it works, much to his shock. He’s a ‘Yard boy’, or someone with the power to travel through time from graveyard to graveyard.

When Jack travels back through time and meets up with Davey, his teenaged grandfather, I loved how Bushnell handled their relationship. Of course, Davey has no idea who Jack is and thinks the whole thing is an elaborate ruse – he even tries to make a bit of money by selling Jack out. Jack, despite being at a total disadvantage, uses his intelligence and strength of character to stand up for himself, work things out for himself and escape from the many tight corners he finds himself in. He’s no helpless 21st-century fool – he uses his knowledge of history to work out where he is and what’s happening, and he’s a resourceful, resilient young man. The gradual building of trust between the two boys is so cleverly handled that it makes the book’s conclusion all the more wrenching – but I’m not going to give away the twist, of course.

A further layer of loveliness is created by the author’s use of folklore. There is an object in the story, a precious object which is being sought by the terrible ‘baddie’ Rouland, called the Rose of Annwn. This set my mind spinning off through the legends surrounding Annwn, the Welsh otherworld, and the ballad which tells of the legions of men who went to claim it, of whom only seven returned. I really loved what Bushnell did with his Rose, and what it turns out to be. Rouland’s guard is a band of fierce undead warriors called the Paladin (another nod to the medieval, which is great), all of whom are female – that was a refreshing turn. I liked the character of Eloise, a rogue Paladin who commits herself to defending Jack and Davey no matter what the cost to herself. She’s a great creation, though occasionally her special powers and abilities (as a result of being an undead warrior) seem a bit too convenient. But that’s a tiny quibble.

Jack’s abilities to travel through time naturally lead him to think about his mother, and whether there’s anything he can do to keep her from dying. This is his primary motivation, and not finding the Rose of Annwn, even though he knows it’s also important to keep that huge treasure out of the clutches of Rouland. I really enjoyed the conclusion of this story, and how several plotlines were wrapped up while leaving enough to entice a reader back for Book 2. I often find myself confused and disappointed with time-travel stories, but not with this one. It all seemed to make sense and slot together, which made me admire Bushnell’s skill as a storyteller as well as his ability to create a beautiful character in Jack.

Overall, I thought this book was fantastic. It’s a book for children, of course, but there’s enough in it to please any audience. I recommend you give it a try, and spread the word!

Anyway, my fabulous hair and I are off to clean the house and get it ready for ‘comp’ny’. Hopefully I’ll get a bit of writing time, too.

Have wonderful weekends, y’all!