Birthmarked – Caragh O’Brien

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What do I see? Another Young Adult dystopian novel? Another one lost in the hubbub of similar trilogies that won’t be noticed over the noise of The Hunger Games? Yeah, pretty much. Although to be fair I did enjoy this book because it was different enough from Hunger Games, Divergent, The Maze Runner and The End Games to keep me reading. It had echoes of The Handmaid’s Tale and felt a bit more like a fantasy novel rather than a dystopian one.

Set in a world struck by natural disaster, a group of humans shut themselves away in a city behind a wall called the Enclave and developed ways to survive in the Barren New World. Of course, a load of humans stuck in one place for generations is going to get slightly inbred, so they start taking babies from the people who are left living outside the wall. Gaia is a young midwife who must hand over the first three children she delivers every month, and she accepts this – until the guards behind the wall arrest her parents for unknown reasons. Gaia must venture into the Enclave to save them, and adventure, heartbreak, humour and romance ensues.

The novel, in my opinion, was much better than the two later Divergent books, yet even though it ended on a cliffhanger it hasn’t made me want to read the next in the series. That’s largely because I feel like it’s too predictable. Maybe I’ve read too many of similar subjects to this, but I’m starting to find a lot of Young Adult books very easy to guess what’s going to happen, so unless I feel really invested in the characters or find the world utterly absorbing, there doesn’t seem any point in keeping going.

I liked the characters in this novel, I liked the writing style and I don’t have anything to complain about in particular. I just think it needed to have something to stand out over the vast array of similar novels, and at this rate it’s going to sink into anonymity.

The Journals of Sylvia Plath

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Reading this, there is no way out of Sylvia Plath’s mind. Being a worshipper of Sylvia Plath, I thought this would be the perfect read for me, but what I actually found was that I started really seeing how difficult she must have been to live with. Nonetheless, it was still absolutely fascinating to get an insight into the mind of the woman who created some of my favourite poems.

Plath only seems to have written her diary when she was suffering from writers block, or was feeling particularly despondent. This certainly doesn’t make for light or cheery reading, but at the same time the raw emotional power of her words is haunting. The journals start from the age of about 19 up until the final year of her life (ending six months before her suicide), and even at such a young age her ability to use words in an aural sense more than for meaning is breathtaking. You can tell that, however much she struggled with her perceived failings, she always had a natural talent which most of us won’t ever come close to.

What I’ve always loved about her poetry is the way it sounds – the shape of the words, the way they flow together and fit together, how the vowels are echoed and stretched to last an entire line. I becomes like music, and sometimes I’ll read one without thinking about the meaning, just hearing the shape of the words as melodies rather than loaded with meaning. This is possible to a certain extent in her journals, and it really is incredible that something so personal, that wasn’t supposed to be read by thousands, still has such skill.

Bird Box – Josh Malerman

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This book was so terrifying that it made me miss my tube stop. I was on the way to work and had nearly finished it, and so engrossed was I that I didn’t notice the train pull up in Hammersmith. That, surely, is a sign of a good author.

Bird Box is set in a world where there are things that make a person go mad and kill themselves if they look at it. As Earth becomes infested by these things (creatures? Robots? Something else? We never know), people start going into hiding, blocking the windows, and only going outside with blindfolds. Malorie, a young woman who has just found out she is pregnant, manages to find her way to a safe house and hides with a group of people who are desperate to survive against whatever’s out there.

The time-frame of the novel shifts, and we witness what happens in this house alongside what happens to Malorie four years later, when she has somehow been left alone in the house with her two children, Boy and Girl. At this point, she decides to leave, to try to escape, but must navigate her way to a safer place totally blind.

The suspense is excruciatingly good – it is impossible not to be affected by the haunting unknown, to feel the paranoia the characters feel when they sense something right in front of their faces but must not open their eyes. It’s a classic horror trope, but Malerman uses it to perfection.

Switching between the two story-lines increases the sense of mystery, as we know from the “present” Malorie that something happened to her housemates which left her alone with two children, but we don’t find out until the very end. The tension and the chilling fear of this novel are impossible to forget.

Northanger Abbey – Val McDermid

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Today marks the publication of the second book in The Austen Project – a publishing campaign to adapt the works of Jane Austen using contemporary writers. First was Sense and Sensibility by Joanna Trollope, and today we have Northanger Abbey by Val McDermid. I read this book a few weeks ago and, while not bowled over by its brilliance, was certainly entertained and intrigued by what the rest of The Austen Project has to offer.

McDermid transforms Bath of the Regency era into the modern Edinburgh Festival, explored for the first time by the young Cat Morland – a teenager not engrossed in Gothic novels as Catherine Morland, but in novels about vampires. Essentially, a Twihard. Cat befriends Bella Thorpe and her odious family, and Henry and Ellie Tilney, who live in an old Abbey (conveniently lacking Wifi). The plot is, as it was meant to be, the same as the original, but adjusted to suit the 21st Century.

While I did find the book entertaining, I did find that I had problems with it. The most prominent was that I just didn’t feel that McDermid got teenagers. The dialogue was slightly too stilted, too contrived, and the way she wrote about using Facebook and Twitter jarred with the way we really talk about it. To an adult who doesn’t have much involvement with teenagers or social media, this wouldn’t be noticed, and no doubt McDermid’s fans won’t, but to me it was screamingly obvious that she doesn’t fully understand the way we use social media, the idioms we use, etc.

It’s interesting to compare this to JK Rowling, who I still believe writes teenagers with a huge amount of insight. Even she, in The Casual Vacancy doesn’t quite write about social media naturally, but her actual characters – whether battling forces of evil or just evil parents – are far more natural. I didn’t  I believe that Cat Morland could really suspect the Tilneys of being vampires, which was the modern twist on Austen’s story,  and I struggled to really engage with them as well as I do with Austen’s.

Paris in the Springtime

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I went to Paris for the day yesterday. I had this strange sense of how close London is to Paris (it took just over 2 hours on the train), and how similar-yet-different the two cities are. Here are a couple of things I wrote down about it before I could forget anything:

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View of Sacre Coeur from the Pompidou Centre, taken yesterday

Paris. More specifically, an other-London. The crush of Time disorientates me and it’s as though I have tumbled through a distorted mirror. It is a close reflection and yet so very not-same that it becomes an Other.

The Simulacra City stuns. It is bathed in the lemonade light of a weak Spring sun and the people fizz through the streets, making them glow effervescent with activity.

Here I think I could wander in serene silence until the end of all things: being an Absolute Outsider gives you the freedom to Not Belong.

Unlike London, which sprawls in a lazy slump over miles of land, Paris has arranged its elegant body in gentle folds, draped across the rolling hills, ready to be up in a minute; resting momentarily.  A physical manifestation of “French”.

Language trembles, uncertain, in the air before me and I am seized by the sameness and the vast, intangible distance between here and home. My tongue tastes unfamiliar words which have a nostalgic tang that clings to me and I can’t spit them out. While I can dredge them from fifteen years of shadow, they have become too large, too meaningless to utter.

And so I sit silent. Struck dumb by the unspeakable sameness; a voyeur for once at peace with her lack of language.

The Book Thief – Markus Zusak

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I first read this novel when I was 18, and after having seen the film recently I knew I had to read this again. Ironically, I find it hard to verbalise how much I love this book. Some things are better said in the most simple of words, and so I’ll just say that I understand this writer in a way that doesn’t often happen.

His lyrical language and structural eloquence took my breath away even the second time through, and I think Zusak is one of the few writers who truly does inspire me. The celebration of words and reading is something that would appeal to anyone who would rather be reading a book than anything else, and because of it you feel such a strong affinity with Liesel Meminger, the young book thief.

Narrated by Death as he observes the “haunting” human world, we are dropped into Nazi Germany during WWII and follow Liesel’s story as she learns to read and love books. The characters in this novel sparkle with life and you come to love each one of them because of their flaws and complexities and heroism. As Liesel’s foster parents hide a Jew in their basement, as her best friend Rudy will never cease to ask her for a kiss, as a woman whose library transfixes Liesel deliberately lets her steal books, we cannot let them go.

I really can’t find the words to do justice to this novel; my reaction to it is perhaps past language. Just know that I will never, ever grow out of it.

The Luck Uglies – Paul Durham

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This children’s book was just published on 27th February and is definitely something to take note of. Written with a style and story reminiscent of Anthony Horowitz and Philip Pullman, it is brimming with mystery and suspense, intrigue, action and humour. Most importantly, this book will appeal to both children and adults – I’m reading this at 21 and was still gripped or laughing.

The fantasy story follows fierce young protagonist Rye, a girl who has the bravery, dexterity and daring of Lyra Belacqua and Leisel Meminger (His Dark Materials and The Book Thief respectively). Rye lives in a land which is terrorised by Bog Noblins, huge, hideous beasts that loom out of the darkness and attack unwitting travellers. As the Bog Noblin threat resurges, there is only one realistic way of saving the village: calling in the Luck Uglies. The Luck Uglies are essentially pirates on land, but worse, and the people are reluctant to call them back, for fear of what they might do to the village when they’re done with the Bog Noblins. When Rye runs into a real Luck Ugly, she begins to wonder whether all the stories she’s been told about them are true, and whether sometimes you might just have to enlist the baddies to help…

Paul Durham’s novel plays host to a lively cast of characters, from Rye’s quirky friends, to her mother and sister, to the unique and varied array of villagers. There are some kick-ass female characters (particularly Rye’s single mother) who are just itching to inspire a new generation of assertive, cheeky girls. That’s a good thing, I promise. The writing was always lively and doesn’t let the reader rest for a second, and structurally this novel worked incredibly well.

I think The Luck Uglies could do really well, and I’d love it to do so – from such a talented debut author, I think we can expect to see a lot more like this in the future.