One of Us is Lying – Karen M McManus

“A sex tape. A pregnancy scare. Two cheating scandals. And that’s just this week’s update.”

Imagine if The Breakfast Club didn’t get the chance to spend detention coming to deep and meaningful revelations about themselves, because one of them dropped dead. The brain, the jock, the princess, the criminal – all four of them were about to have some shocking secret revealed by the dead boy, Simon, the outcast and creator of a nasty little gossip app. Which means all four had really good motives for murder…

The book is told from all four points of view, with the switch between characters clearly marked with the name and a timestamp. So, as we see inside all four heads, it means one of the narrators must be lying, as they relate the events after Simon’s death, including the police interviews, sensationalist journalists hounding them, and deepening relationships as the four become the ‘murder club’, shunned by classmates who can’t believe any of them are innocent.

I really liked the idea of this story, but felt that the different voices could have been a little more disparate, and the stories told with a little more tension. There’s something just a little too cosy about the tellings of watching movies and getting haircuts, in the midst of all the drama – yes, it’s normal life going on despite everything, but it did lessen some of the potential impact for me.

The mystery unfolds well enough, but the real ‘message’ of the story is more about the secrets and lies, and the impact these have on all five lives, not to mention those around them. Go in knowing that and not just looking for a straight murder mystery, and there’s a lot to enjoy in this book.

NetGalley eARC: 358 pages / 30 subdivided chapters plus epilogue
First published: June 2017
Series: none
Read from 29th May – 4th June 2017

My rating: 7/10

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Rebel of the Sands – Alwyn Hamilton

“They said the only folk who belonged in Deadshot after dark were the ones who were up to no good.”

Amani is desperate to escape. From the one-pony dustbowl of a town she lives in, from the cruel upbringing by her aunt, and from the local treatment of women as possessions. She’s got a head full of stories. She’s taught herself to shoot better than any boy. All she needs is a way out.

But when her plans go awry it leaves room for her world to be turned upside down by a foreign troublemaker – and it seems that the wider world may turn out to be nothing like the stories – and all the more wondrous for it.

There was a huge amount to recommend this book to me: the exotic middle-eastern-ish setting, where Djinn are real and mythical creatures abound, and a strong female lead. Plus, I’ve grown to like ‘YA’ as a type of story-telling, usually quicker reads shorn of waffle superfluous to the story, and often high on imagination and drama. Unfortunately, also often high on the teenage romance, which is where this book slightly fell down for me – not that there was a dose of that, but because by the midpoint, it was overshadowing the magic, imo. Amani’s journey becomes far less about strength, and more about puppy-dog eyes – and that rather irritated me. Also, although not entirely the fault of this book, I’m getting rather fed up of world building that retains women being treated rubbishly and it’s the job of the heroine to overcome hideous sexism.

However, while the second half of the book took a turn that didn’t entirely suit me, the first half was easily inhaled in a few sittings. This is very much an opening chapter, and my hopes are high for the subsequent books to fill in more of the wonders of the world that includes shapeshifters, sand horses, and all manner of creatures we might in another realm class ‘mutants’ 😉

Paperback: 358 pages / 30 chapters
First published: 2016
Series: Rebel of the Sands trilogy, book 1
Read from 21st-26th January 2017

My rating: 6.5/10

Glass Sword – Victoria Aveyard

“I flinch.”

I wasn’t exactly over-gushing with glowing praise for Red Queen or the prequel novellas, and yet I obviously liked them well enough that when I saw book 2 of the series on NetGalley, I jumped at the chance to continue reading Mare’s adventures. Usual spoiler warning: in mentioning characters, etc in book 2, that may give away information about events in book 1. Go read that first! 🙂

I found Glass Sword rather difficult to get going with. We pick up events immediately from the end of the previous installment, and unfortunately that includes Mare somewhat wallowing in self-pity. As this is first-person perspective, that means a lot of “woe is me” waffle in the opening chapter that I found really grating. Fortunately the narrative swings back to action pretty quickly, but there are a lot of ‘inner thoughts’ drama throughout the book that remained slightly irritating at times. There’s also at least one instance of being told what’s going on inside another character’s head, which is a huge red flag for me: there’s no way Mare, our narrator, could have known such things.

Fortunately, the story itself manages to overcome most of all that. It is a rather bleak outlook, and I personally missed the little glimpses of glamour from the palace life Mare has left behind. However, she’s still very much the outsider: not silver, but not entirely red, either. The toll this takes on her psyche, especially as she goes out on increasingly dangerous Red Guard missions, does at least give the inner drama a good base!

Unfortunately, Glass Sword does the whole middle-book-ending-on-a-cliff-hanger thing – argh! As such, it doesn’t feel like a complete tale in and of itself, and I’m docking it a mark for that.

If you enjoyed the first book, I have no doubt you’ll enjoy this. But be prepared for a nail-biting wait for the third installment and some resolution!

NetGalley eARC: 448 pages / 30 chapters (including epilogue)
First published: July 2016
Series: Red Queen book 2
Read from 7th-23rd July 2016 (week off with the flu in the middle, bah!)

My rating: 6/10

Cruel Crown – Victoria Aveyard

“As usual, Julian gave her a book.”

Cruel Crown comprises two short stories, Queen Song and Steel Scars, both prequels to the novel Red Queen, which kicks off the series of the same name.

The first, Queen Song, was my favourite by far, telling the story of Coriane, the King’s first wife. This chilling little tragedy is hinted at in Red Queen, and it was quite fascinating to hear the full dark tale. It also gives more background into Elara, a key player in the main novel.

The second tale, Steel Scars, didn’t impress me as much. It’s told by Farley, as she takes her first mission command as part of the Red Guard. There are hints as to why she joined, but not really the same character exploration, I felt, as the first tale. Starting before the events in Red Queen, it covers the period up to Farley’s introduction in the main novel. It also fills in a bit of back/side story between that and the end of the novel, but still felt rather slight and uninvolving. I also really disliked the ‘memo-style’ communication – I’ve always found it hard to slow down my reading enough to pay attention to such ‘to’ and ‘from’ type things, so find them irritating.

Overall, then, I’d give the first story 6/10 and the second maybe 4. For fans of Red Queen, these are nice little additions to the background, but nothing you have to read for the main narrative.

The version I read also included a sizable chunk of preview of the next book in the series, Glass Sword.

NetGalley eARC: 208 pages / 2 stories
First published: 2016
Series: Red Queen, prequels 0.1 and 0.2
Read from 19th-22nd April 2016

My rating: 5/10 for the pair, but the first one is definitely better than the second.

Red Queen – Victoria Aveyard

“I hate First Friday.”

Sometimes when I’m struggling to ‘get into’ a book, it helps to pick something of an entirely different genre – usually something fluffy and/or undemanding. That’s what I went looking for with Red Queen, and it fit the bill marvellously. Well, not so much on the ‘fluffy’…

Mare Barrow is a Red (and yes, instantly I’m having flashbacks to Red Rising, but stick with it!), one of the downtrodden, poor folk who slave away for their Silver (ah, not Gold – we’re fine, right?!) masters. But then, how else could it be when the Silvers have god-like superpowers? Super strength (strongarms), fire controlling (burners), power over nature (greenwardens) – these and so many more, each Silver blessed with one ability.

After various things go wrong for Mare in her own life, she finds herself deep in the Silver city. First as a servant, it’s only when something goes horribly wrong that Mare discovers… well, I’ll leave that to the reader. And let’s just say, with great power comes great burden, too!

I’ve mentioned one similar-ish book in Red Rising (which is far superior, tbh) and really, there are a lot of ‘borrowed’ ideas in Red Queen, but from a diverse enough range of sources that it does carve out its own little space in a packed genre. The tropes – poor girl has hidden powers, rags to riches, warring noble houses, rebel uprisings, etc etc – come thick and fast and on another day that might have bothered me more, but as it was I was looking for a quick and easy read and that’s exactly what I got.

Kindle: 401 pages / 29 chapters
First published: 2015
Series: Red Queen book 1
Read from 15th-18th April 2016

My rating: 6/10

Allegiant (2016)

AKA Allegiant part 1, or part three of the Divergent series – a trilogy in four parts, as is so popular with YA adaptations (see Hunger Games, Twilight (or Harry Potter’s 7-in-8)). The twist here being film 4 is getting a new title, Ascendant, so the ‘part 1’ is missing from the title here – which is a bit of a cheat, given it really only is half a story. So be warned: there is no resolution to be had from this movie.

That aside, I was surprised by Allegiant. The YA adaptation train has been trundling for a while, and I confess it’s now boring me a bit. The books were great; the movies are increasingly samey and disappointing (hello, Scorch Trials and Mockingjay). Even this series’s previous installment, Insurgent, didn’t feel as good as first. So my expectations here were pretty darn low – and I was very pleasantly surprised!

Which isn’t to say this is perfect. For a start, it seems to have strayed quite far from the novel, and not for particularly good reasons that I could see. I’m also still finding Tris a somewhat annoying character, and her actions here don’t do much to help that. None of the characters get a desperately good time here, and I don’t just mean in plot terms: development has more or less ceased for the main cast (although Peter still gets the best and funniest lines), and other characters, particularly Evelyn, are bafflingly stuck in their single-trait motivations.

On the plus side, the action remains high and some of the visuals are quite stunning. The story still held my attention (even though I do remember what happens next!) albeit with the caveat that there is another half of this movie to come – argh!

Released: 10th March 2016
Viewed: 11th March 2016
Running time: 121 minutes
Rated: 12A

My rating: 6/10 – better than expected, but suffers from ‘half missing’ syndrome

The Scorch Trials (2015)

Well, that was disappointing.

When I saw The Maze Runner last year I was so enthralled with the story that I rushed out to read the book and its sequels. Sadly, neither (or the dreadful prequel) lived up to the promise, but even at that this film disappointed me.

Now, I’m the first to admit to having a terrible memory for books and movies (one of the reasons for the reviewing!), but very little in The Scorch Trials helped me to remember the book’s plot – not surprising, really, as the movie not only grabs a chunk from book three, but changes a few other things. Certainly, there’s a different level of technology, and of danger… dare I say, the movie misses out bits that would cost a fair bit of the CGI budget to show on screen?!

Despite veering away from the book, the film does give the sense of trying to cram in all the ‘highlights’. Alas, this made for a lot of noise and flashing lights, but – for me – little sense of real drama. Oh, we’re running away from this. And now this. And here’s another thing to run from.

And yet, between all that are moments that I really cannot understand why they were allowed in the final cut – perhaps all the headache-inducing flashing lights needed a calm counterpart, but did they have to be so dull? It really doesn’t help that the dialogue verges on dreadful (or at least repetitive).

Overall: meh. I was hoping for more.

Released: 10th September 2015
Running time: 131 minutes
Rated: 12A

My rating: 5/10