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I'm a librarian based in the UK who loves books. I'm happiest when I'm either talking about them, reading them or buying them. This blog is devoted to my addiction to YA fiction.

Monday, 5 September 2016

Blog Tour: The Beginning Woods - Malcolm McNeill

Today I'm hosting a stop on the blog tour for The Beginning Woods by Malcolm McNeill which has just been published by Pushkin Children's Books. 

Malcolm has written a fantastic piece which I hope you will all enjoy reading.  

Mistakes in the life of a writer

There’s a guy who takes a wrong turn and gets himself lost in a desert. He struggles across it. Has a grim, horrible experience. Finally gets near the other side, cursing his stars. Sees a caravan parked by a road and heads for it.

What kind of dumb jerk, he thinks, struggling up the last dune, ends up in a lousy desert. Sure hope I don’t make that mistake again!

At the top of the dune, right by the road, there’s a sign facing away from him. He looks back at it as he goes past.

Do not enter the minefield, it says.

That’s a bit like how I feel. I’m forty, and I’m looking back at my life. And I feel like way back there in the distance I made a very large mistake, but somehow, within it, I didn’t put a foot wrong. This large mistake of mine had space inside it for good things to happen. It wasn’t all bad. Still, I don’t want to get carried away and fall in love with my mistake. It was still a mistake.

This had nothing to do with being a writer. It was about being an actor. But it applies, because there’s something similar about both these “roads”. The act of earning money is a response to certain necessities and practical problems. A job or a career in that sense is intended (in part) to make these issues go away, or at least easier. Becoming an actor or a novelist is likely to do the opposite, and intensify them. So it’s important not to add to these issues unnecessarily, by making mistakes, because there will be enough of them as it is.

I’m going to call my mistake: The Mistake of Lack of Knowledge of my Temperament.

It’s easy to forget about your temperament, when making life choices. Remember your GCSE / A-Level in Self-Awareness? Me neither. My school, though, to be fair, did give us something called a Vocational Guidance Report. Reading it now, I wish I’d paid more attention to the dark significance of sentences like: “ … you need to choose an area in which the work load is, at least in part, determined by yourself.” Which roughly translates as: “Whatever you do, don’t become an actor.”

I became an actor. When I decided to follow this path in life, I imagined that because I was so good at acting, so modest, and so much in love with acting, that I stood as much chance as anyone. Wrong! And look, there I am now, twenty two and taking a left instead of a right, entering the vast desert that was London as a jobbing actor, and no matter how much I howl at my past self, there is nothing I can do to prevent the next seven or eight years from unfolding in the way that they did, that is to say—disastrously, that took another seven or eight years to recover from.

Why was I wrong? Because being good at acting does not mean you will be good at being an actor. There is no connection between the two skills—none. So I failed to be an actor. And I should have known I would fail, if I’d listened to that sentence buried deep within the Vocational Guidance Report.

Doing plays at school and university, I discovered, was like being an actor with all the unpleasant bits stripped out—it’s no wonder it’s so enjoyable—and in a sense this makes them a poor and misleading preparation for the life of an actor, which (for most of us) is fraught with stress, difficulty, uncertainty, and compromise. Love of acting alone will not carry you through: if you are temperamentally unsuited to this life, you will suffer the same fate as me.

The life of an actor is like that of a shark. Not only do you have to be constantly seeking work, you have to be built for the task—there has to be something fundamental about your nature that makes you good at it. You have to be able to smell work a hundred miles away, swim towards it with thrashing energy, and swallow it whole before some other shark gets it (and there are thousands of other sharks, all zooming desperately towards the same unsuspecting work). You have to be active, determined, social, tough, and self-confident. Because who gets the work? The actor who is.

I was none of these things. I was a dreamer, an observer, a listener—in other words someone passive. I was a good actor, but I was terrible at leading the life of an actor. I simply did not know how to do it. It wasn’t in my nature. I wasn’t a shark: I was a sea cucumber. If you can imagine a sea cucumber competing with a shark for a morsel of grub that lies one hundred miles away, writhing its body on the ocean floor while the shark disappears from view, you will understand what it was like for me to compete with another actor for work.

This mistake of mine was not abstract. It had serious and lasting consequences, and filled my life with an extraordinary number of problems—all of which were direct or indirect consequences of the fact that I never had enough money. Being poor is no joke. You can manage it with a kind of bravura when you’re young and on your own. It can be both a misery and an adventure. But increasingly a kind of pressure begins to apply. At twenty, you think you’ll be poor for a while—OK, that’s just how life starts out. At thirty, you begin to think maybe this is it—you’re just going to be poor.

Anyway, I gradually came to the understanding (I had it beaten out of me) that I was in the wrong profession. From my mid to late twenties I focussed more and more on writing, which I was very much suited for, as the Vocational Guidance Report had told me.

Well, all I’m saying is that it’s important to be aware of what you’re getting into. You may love writing, you may be good at—but are you temperamentally suited to the life of a novelist? You need to ask yourself this question.

I know, I know. There’s no such thing as “the life of a novelist” (although, there clearly is such a thing, as many people lead it, and they do not all consult one another to make sure their lives are different in every respect—in fact the opposite is true). But let’s assume you’re doing an undemanding nine to five in your early twenties, you have an average amount of willpower and require a normal amount of sleep. I’ll give you a bonus and assume you have no dependents. Your life might look something like this:

You do an eight hour day at work. During the day many people look forward to going home and relaxing—you don’t get to do this, because when you go home you have to write. By the time you get home it’s six o’clock. You’re tired, but you still have to cook dinner, and maybe go shopping first. You cook and eat a simple meal very quickly, and by the time you are ready to write it is maybe seven, that is if there are no delays or distractions, and there will be, because you’ll say to yourself, “I’m tired, I need a bit of a rest before I begin.” If you watch a bit of TV there might be something good on TV, so maybe you don’t get started til eight. Much past that and you are too tired to begin, and you decide to go to bed early, get up early and do something before work. (But if you do this, you will be even more tired the following evening.)

Anyway, you start writing at seven. It takes you about half an hour just to get your mind settled. It is evening and this is when people might email or message or call, so you have to keep your phone off, and this means your friends are interacting with each other without you, which will have predictable results over the years. Before you know it, it is nine o’clock and you are beginning to feel very tired, because you have been up since seven. You’re fighting off all kinds of distractions, as well as the impulse to just stop and relax. But you can’t stop, because it’s important to keep up a feeling of momentum and moving forward. Sometime between ten and eleven you stop, and you’re exhausted. If you’re really into it, if you’re really steaming along, which happens maybe once a month, you might keep going until midnight. Anyway, you get something done, or not, and six months later it could all be in the bin. You go to bed. The next day is the same.

Between all this you have to find time for all the little tasks that life requires to simply keep ticking over. And because you can only just manage to do those and nothing more, all your life does is tick over. So, you have to be able to hold your nerve, and look a certain kind of future in the face.

That’s just the working week. What do the weekends look like?

Friday night comes round. You have a choice—either you write, or you go out with friends for a drink or a meal. Weekends are important for writing, though, because they are the only time in the week when you’re not tired. You have to “protect” the time. So you can’t afford to feel awful. You watch your friends getting plastered. You go home long before anyone else, feeling a bit surly, but OK, you don’t like getting plastered anyway, though you do start to wonder what sort of things happen beyond midnight. Your friends spend the weekend relaxing and recharging, pursuing hobbies, or going to events. You spend it alone at your desk, doing something that is frustrating and difficult and only occasionally rewarding. Again, in six months, it could all be in the bin.

In general the effect of this over the years is one of curtailment. Your life could still flower, but only if you’re aware of these pressures and can take steps to limit their impact. If you’ve chosen an undemanding career that allows you to devote time and energy to writing, then you are unlikely, by the time you are thirty, to be in work that you would have chosen to do for so long, had you not tried to become a novelist as well. You might start to have doubts, and be plagued by thoughts about what you “could have done” by now. Your friends will be “drawing ahead” of you, moving up the property ladder (or just getting on it), starting families, getting their promotions and so on.

Bear in mind that even if you do get published, you are still likely to be in need of work. Because writing novels is not a career, or even a job—it’s an activity. When your irascible uncle asks you what you want to be when you grow up, and you say “I want to be a novelist,” and he says, “Answer the question!” then yes, it’s true, you should in a sense ignore this “realism”. But it’s also true he has a point, and you should pay close attention to what he has to say.

I had no idea whether I was good at writing novels or not. But I knew I was happy in my own company. I knew I had a resilience to having no money, because I’d never had any. And I had no other hobbies or distractions, now that I was drifting away from acting. Whatever free time I had, I could use all of it on writing, if I wanted.

So I took to it—like a sea cucumber to water.


Saturday, 3 September 2016

Review: The Deviants - C.J. Skuse

The Deviants by C.J. Skuse, published by Mira Ink on 5th September 2016

Goodreads synopsis:
Growing up in the sleepy English seaside town of Brynston, the fearless five – Ella, Max, Corey, Fallon and Zane – were always inseparable. Living up to their nickname, they were the adventurous, rowdy kids who lived for ghost stories and exploring the nearby islands off the coast. But when Max’s beloved older sister Jessica is killed, the friendship seems to die with her.

Now years later, only Max and Ella are in touch; still best friends and a couple since they were thirteen. Their lives are so intertwined Max’s dad even sponsors Ella’s training for the Commonwealth Games. But Ella is hiding things. Like why she hates going to Max’s house for Sunday dinner, and flinches whenever his family are near. Or the real reason she’s afraid to take their relationship to the next level.

When underdog Corey is bullied, the fearless five are brought back together again, teaming up to wreak havoc and revenge on those who have wronged them. But when the secrets they are keeping can no longer be kept quiet, will their fearlessness be enough to save them from themselves?

I loved C.J. Skuse's previous book 'Monster' which was one of my top reads of 2015. I was so excited to read her new novel as the premise sounded utterly brilliant - the Famous Five with a twist.  I thought that 'The Deviants' was a brave book to write and tackled some extremely difficult issues, but while I can admire Skuse's writing and choice of subject matters, I can't say that this is a book which I ended up loving.  Don't get me wrong, it was very good but I also found it extremely dark and hard to read at times. 

The novel's main protagonists are teenagers Ella and her boyfriend Max.  They have grown up together and have been a couple since they were thirteen.  Although they practically live in each other's pockets, Ella has a big secret she's hiding which threatens to change everything forever.  Along with Ella and Max, there's also their old friends Fallon, Corey and the mysterious Zane.  They used to do everything together until Max's sister Jessica died and things changed between them.  Brought back together, the gang are reunited in their thirst for revenge, but secrets begin to spill out and it's obvious from the start that Ella knows more than she's letting on about Jessica's death. 

I thought that the story started really well and I was intrigued about the direction in which Skuse was going to take the characters.  The first few chapters flew by quickly and I knew that there were going to be some twists and turns ahead.  Everything got very dark in the second half of the book and it dealt with an extremely heavy, hard-hitting topic.  To be completely honest, I'm not sure if I was quite in the mood for something so serious.  It was pretty graphic at times and quite a turbulent ride for the reader.  The ending totally took me by surprise (which seems to be Skuse's trademark) but with reflection, I think I would have actually liked her to have gone in a slightly different direction. 

Overall, 'The Deviants' didn't quite meet my extremely high expectations, possibly because it was turned out to be very different to what I was expecting.  That's not to say that this wasn't a good book but I did find it tough going at times.         

Thursday, 25 August 2016

News: Hashtag Reads - Simon and Schuster

One of my favourite publishers is Simon and Schuster who have provided readers with some of the best YA titles of recent years. Today is the launch day of the very first newsletter for their online community Hashtag Reads.

Hashtag Reads is home to some of the best-loved YA authors including Cassandra Clare, Gayle Forman, Paige Toon, Morgan Matson and Darren Shan. It’s a great place for readers to find out about the latest YA reads, hear more from their favourite authors, read exclusive material and enter the hottest competitions.

You can find them online via:
Twitter: @hashtagreads

Sign up to the Hashtag Reads newsletter using the handy form below and you will automatically be in with a chance to win your height in books. Wow! That's one prize I would absolutely love to win!

Monday, 15 August 2016

Review: The Boy Most Likely To - Huntley Fitzpatrick

The Boy Most Likely To by Huntley Fitzpatrick, published by Electric Monkey on 9th June 2016

Goodreads synopsis:
Tim Mason was The Boy Most Likely To find the drinks cabinet blindfolded, need a liver transplant, and drive his car into a house.

Alice Garrett was The Girl Most Likely To . . . well, not date her little brother’s baggage-burdened best friend, for starters.

For Tim, it wouldn’t be smart to fall for Alice. For Alice, nothing could be scarier than falling for Tim. But Tim has never been known for making the smart choice, and Alice is starting to wonder if the “smart” choice is always the right one. When these two crash into each other, they crash hard . . .

I was really looking forward to read 'The Boy Most Likely To' the follow-up to Huntley Fitzpatrick's novel, 'My Life Next Door'.  I loved the latter which featured the romance between Samantha and Jase and I was excited about picking up with all the characters again.  I was however, a little worried about the fact that the story this time around focuses on the relationship between Jase's sister Alice and Tim who we were previously introduced to.  Alice I liked but I didn't feel the same about Tim.  I just had my fingers crossed that he would begin to grow on me. Sadly that didn't happen and while I enjoyed elements of this book, Tim failed to win me over. 

Alice has a lot on her plate and has taken on responsibility for helping to keep her family together while her father is in hospital recovering from an accident.  She is trying to finish nursing school, at the same time as supporting her mother with babysitting and keeping track of the family finances.  She definitely doesn't have time for romance and certainly not with Tim who comes with his own set of issues.  Whereas Alice is extremely adult in nature, Tim is the complete opposite.  He is royally screwing up his life and seems much more immature. 

There is a pivotal event in the book which begins to change Tim's outlook on life.  I won't spoil it and mention what it is but I didn't like this element of the storyline and I found it quite contrived.   

I was also slightly disappointed that we didn't get to see more of Jace and Samantha.  They appeared at various moments in the book but they were always in the background and didn't feature in the main plot at all.  I would have much preferred a follow-up to their story, rather than Alice and Tim.

What I did love was the Garrett family.  The children are all adorable, especially George who is so sweet and asks the best questions.  I enjoyed reading about them and they pop up a lot throughout the story. 

This book took me a long time to finish which is unusual for me as I normally read very quickly.  I think I was really looking for something which was a bit more light-hearted for summer and this most definitely wasn't it. 

Review: And I Darken - Kiersten White

And I Darken by Kiersten White, published by Corgi Childrens on 7th July 2016

Goodreads synopsis:
No one expects a princess to be brutal. And Lada Dragwyla likes it that way.

Ever since she and her brother were abandoned by their father to be raised in the Ottoman sultan’s courts, Lada has known that ruthlessness is the key to survival. For the lineage that makes her and her brother special also makes them targets.

Lada hones her skills as a warrior as she nurtures plans to wreak revenge on the empire that holds her captive. Then she and Radu meet the sultan’s son, Mehmed, and everything changes. Now Mehmed unwittingly stands between Lada and Radu as they transform from siblings to rivals, and the ties of love and loyalty that bind them together are stretched to breaking point.

'And I Darken' is the first in a new trilogy by author Kiersten White, who has reimagined Vlad the Impaler as a female called Lada and has set about breathing new life into a series of historical characters. 
I loved the start of the book.  I was absorbed by the story and the characters and I couldn't put it down.  I'll admit that my interest waned a little in the middle when I felt the pace of the story got a bit bogged down but then it picked up again at the end and I was sucked back in. 
I haven't seen a female heroine like Lada before in YA.  She is most definitely an anti-princess.  She refuses to be beholden to anyone, she fights as well as any man and she is determined not to let anyone control her or own her.  Occasionally, I found her quite difficult to like.  She's so tough and prickly that it's hard to get past the armour she surrounds herself with.  Her achilles heel (if indeed she has one) is her love for her younger brother Radu. 
Radu was my favourite character in the book.  There is a lgbt angle to his storyline which was well written and depicted.  He spends a lot of the story conflicted about his feelings but I really felt that he came into his own in the second half.  He and Lada have a complex relationship which only becomes more complicated when they meet Mehmed, the son of the Sultan. 
Brutal and bloody, 'And I Darken' pulls no punches and spares you nothing.  It's very in your face.  It blends historical fiction and fantasy together brilliantly and is an extremely intriguing opening to the series.    

Thursday, 11 August 2016

Review: Run - Kody Keplinger

Run by Kody Keplinger, published by Hodder Childrens Books on 14th July 2016

Goodreads synopsis:
Bo Dickinson is a girl with a wild reputation, a deadbeat dad, and an alcoholic mom. Everyone in town knows the Dickinsons are a bad lot, but Bo doesn't care what anyone thinks.

Agnes Atwood has never stayed out past ten p.m., never gone on a date and never broken any of her parents' overbearing rules. Rules that are meant to protect their legally-blind daughter, but Agnes isn't quite sure what they are protecting her from.

Despite everything, Bo and Agnes become best friends. And it's the sort of friendship that runs more deeply than anything else. But when Bo shows up in the middle of the night, police sirens wailing in the distance, Agnes is faced with the biggest choice she's ever had to make. Run, or stay?

I normally always enjoy a new Kody Keplinger book.  Her writing is refreshingly real and honest and that's something that really appeals to me.  I have to be totally honest myself though and admit that 'Run' didn't really do it for me.  I didn't out and out dislike it but it didn't compare well with some of my favourites from her other titles, such as 'The Duff' which still holds the top spot.

The story is about two girls who could not be more opposite but who end up becoming best friends.  Bo is the wild girl about town who has a big reputation but is it all talk?  Agnes is visually impaired and has always been the one to follow others.  She is not a risk taker or a rule breaker but her relationship with Bo might well change all of that. I did like Agnes but Bo was a lot harder to warm to.  I felt that she took advantage of their friendship a lot and never fully developed into someone who I could end up rooting for. 

I also wasn't particularly keen on the format of the book which jumped backward and forward a lot of the time.  I usually prefer a much more linear structure and found myself losing interest a lot of the time.  As well as the timeframe, the narrative also alternated a lot too.  Bo and Agnes both get to tell the story from their own points of view.  I found Agnes's chapters fairly enjoyable but I ended up skimming through some of Bo's narrative. 

The ending was unusual and wasn't really what I was expecting.  Frankly it just fell flat and for me, the book didn't finish on a high note.  It's a shame because I have enjoyed most of Kody Keplinger's books in the past.  I'm going to chalk this one off and move onto anticipate her next offering.    

Review: To Have and To Hold - Lauren Layne

To Have and To Hold by Lauren Layne, published by Headline Eternal on 26th July 2016

Goodreads synopsis:
Discovering her fiance is a con man moments before they exchange vows devastates LA celebrity wedding planner Brooke Baldwin. With a fresh start in New York and her first Wedding Belles bridal client, things are looking up. Until she meets the uptight businessman who's holding the purse strings...

Seth Tyler wishes he could write a blank cheque and be done with his sister Maya's wedding, but micromanaging the event is his only chance at proving that Maya's fiance is a liar. He needs the help of her stunning, sassy wedding planner who he finds both irritating - and undeniably tempting.

Can Seth persuade Brooke to unplan a wedding? And, more importantly, how will he convince her that the wedding she should be planning...is theirs?

'To Have and to Hold' is the first book I've read by Lauren Layne and kicks off her brand new series, The Wedding Belles.  An indulgent treat, this was exactly the kind of book that I was in the mood for.  It was sweet and romantic and reminded me a lot of some of my favourite Jill Shalvis titles.  I'm so pleased that there is a whole series about the Belles to look forward to.  I'm going to be reading them all!

Brooke is a wedding planner who has recently moved to New York and has got a job working for the Wedding Belles - a service which helps brides to plan their dream weddings.  She's been hurt in the past but wants to put all of that behind her and move on with her life.  I liked the steely centre that Brooke has and the way that she is always looking for the positives in a situation.  She is one tough lady but she 's also a real sweetheart and I'm sure readers will identify a lot with her.  In the course of helping to plan the wedding of Maya Tyler, she meets his brother, handsome businessman Seth.  Although she is instantly attracted to him, he is much more of a closed book.  He is gruff and appeared controlling at first, but it soon becomes evident that he is just trying to look out for his sister and ensure that she doesn't get her heart broken.  Once you get past his tough exterior, he is a real softie underneath. 

Brooke and Seth both have issues to deal with and there are some ups and downs as they traverse the numerous obstacles in their path.  I never doubted though that they would perfectly compliment each other if only they could truly open up their hearts. 

I thought that the book was sweet, sexy and romantic and very well written.  The characters were rounded individuals who I really liked and there were some intriguing secondary characters too, who I'm hoping to see more of in the future.  They all seem to have their own stories to tell. 

The ending genuinely made me cry and Lauren Layne made me a very happy reader indeed.   

Bring on more of the Belles!  'For Better or Worse' is next in the series and I can't wait.    
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