The Deathless Girls

I requested and received a copy of this from the publishers in exchange for an honest review, but I’ve since bought the beautiful, finished (and signed!) hardback edition anyway. All opinions are my own.

The Deathless Girls by Kiran Millwood Hargrave, cover art by Olga Baumert

I’m a big fan of Kiran Millwood-Hargrave’s MG books so I’ve been really looking forward to both this and her adult fiction debut, The Mercies, due out in February (snapped up the proof copy that arrived in work today!)

I’m also a big fan of anything that draws on folk or fairytale, myth or legend, cultural histories or fables so the fact that this is a spin on the Dracula legend from the ‘brides” point of view was really appealing.

And it’s testament to Kiran’s writing that I approached the end of the books invested in the sisters that I was still hoping they would ‘escape’ despite knowing their fate!

Although what I absolutely did not see coming was the way in which they finally became his brides in the final chapters, and especially Kizzy’s role in this – this was one of my favourite parts of the book which I can’t talk about without spoilers so if/when you’ve read it please let me know your thoughts!!

The sisters in question are brave and feisty Kizzy and the less confident Lil who loves her sister dearly but often feels like she lives in her shadow.

Part of a small and close-knit travelling community, they return to their camp on their divining day to find it burnt down and their families and friends killed or captured. Not without a fight, they too are taken to serve a nearby Boyar, leading them straight into the path of the much-feared ‘Dragon’ or Dracul – a mysterious, powerful figure about whom rumour abounds.

I loved this. It had everything I’ve come to expect from her younger books – rich, lyrical prose with vivid, detailed description that transports you right into the story; I felt the rawness of the girls’ emotions – their fear, anger, pain and loss especially, but also the flares and flickers of warmth, comfort, joy and love.

I’ve read mixed reviews of this and I think a lot of it comes down to expectation. So, let me say here that while this is a brides of Dracula story, it is their story not his – their backgrounds, family and the events which led them into his path – therefore, it is not the next Twilight, Buffy or Anne Rice vampire fest.

It is a story about sisterhood (both literal and figurative), family, love and loyalty; and it is a story primarily about power in all its guises – about in/equality, slavery and subjugation and it is a book which shouts, sings and echoes with indignation at abuses of power.

It is, therefore, unflinching and brutal at times and while this makes it uncomfortable to read that is as it should be to address these themes well and there is also tenderness, hope and strength.

Atmospheric, powerful and beautiful. Bring on The Mercies!

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Scavengers

I requested and received a copy of this free from the publishers, in exchange for an honest review. All views are my own.

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Scavengers by Darren Simpson, illustrated by Tom Clohosy Cole

Landfill enjoys his life in the Hinterland – running free with dogs, foxes, goats and cats; swimming with turtles and chasing squirrels. He is happy in his wild, junk-yard home with old Babagoo taking care of him, as long as he follows the rules and sticks to the routine.

The rules are Babagoo’s way of keeping them safe from Outsiders. So is the wall inlaid with glass shards which must be checked for cracks, disrepair or infiltration every day. So is the need for cover whenever the Eye passes over. So is the fact that Landfill cannot yet accompany Babagoo to the Spit Pit to rummage for useful ‘treasures’ and catch gulls to eat.

And it is this last point, along with a couple of other seemingly, but emphatically not, insignificant events that plants a seed of doubt in Landfill’s mind about Babagoo’s rules and what he has always known to be true. And it is this seed of doubt combined with a chance meeting, that gradually triggers the events which will see Landfill and Babagoo’s world turned on its head.

The world-building in this is fantastic. While very much sticking to show not tell and avoiding being at all laboriously descriptive, Darren Simpson manages to describe in intricate detail this world made up of discarded, broken and ‘good for nothing’ objects in a way which has you clambering around it, climbing over it and chasing through it with Landfill.

The thick, sweet scent of rubbish and the acrid, sour smells of living unwashed, along with a multitude of others infiltrate the pages. The swarms of butterflies we see taking flight, the joy of splashing about in a sunlit pool of water (albeit, rather dirty water!), the absolute abandon with which Landfill lives as he lopes along on all fours with the dogs – all of it is described in a way which not only makes this place incredibly easy to picture,  but in a way which makes it easy to understand both how and why Landfill is so content in this place you couldn’t imagine being a home.

The use of a combination of altered, made up or old versions of words add to the sense of Landfill and Babagoo being a world apart, as do the scenes in the latter half of the book in which Landfill is slowly introduced to ‘Outside’ concepts, inventions and life. The way these are shown and described really hammer home how isolated from ‘normal’ life Landfill has been. Likewise, his innocence and naivety about the world only highlight his separation from it.

This is a coming of age story like no other. Landfill begin to question his world and rebel against Babagoo’s rules and ‘facts’. We see doubt creeping in and hurt, anger and confusion taking their turns. But ultimately, we see his love for Babagoo and his want, and need, to trust him and believe him.

However, as the reader, we are also able to see, or at least guess at, Babagoo’s dishonesty and his motives – there is no doubt he loves Landfill and wants to protect him, but his fear of Outsiders and the actions they cause may be pushing him away instead.

While part of me would have loved to know more about Babagoo’s backstory, I also liked that we were left to make up our own minds about Babagoo and his past – where do the lines of right and wrong blur, cross or meet? What should or shouldn’t he have done? Can we excuse him? What led him to his current life? Why does he do what he does? The book comes with discussion questions at the end (great for schools or children’s book groups) but there is so much to discuss from Babagoo’s character alone.

I thought the relationship between Landfill and Babagoo was incredibly well-written – the bickering and rows and the deception and disobedience juxtaposed with really tender moments where we clearly see how much they care for each other. The way this built over the book made the final chapters even more dramatic and emotive.

I did at times find the early chapters a bit slow, but the pace gradually quickens as events unfold, until the final chapters which are punchy and pacey, chaotic and tense, making this slow burning start very effective in the end. These final scenes are frenetic with panic, confusion, and desperation and a stark contrast to the contented tranquillity of their life at the start.

Again, this leaves us with questions that open up a wealth of discussion about personal vs. private lives and when we intervene and how, about mental health, homelessness and support (or lack of), about society, materialism and ‘the norm’.

I started reading this with echoes of Room or Our Endless Numbered Days, but it soon moved into its own, with its unique and detailed language and world-building to thank. There is a feel of David Almond to this, or at least there was for me, though I can’t quite place why, perhaps the coming of age narrative or the fact that the voice of this sits so well in that mid-ground between MG and YA, or perhaps for other reasons entirely! Whatever the reasons, I think if you like Almond, you’d enjoy this.

This book was a slow burner for me, but I’m glad I stuck with it. It’s incredibly moving, heart-breaking at times, and there is much to discuss, pick over and reflect on by the end.

 

Mini Monday – a YA double bill

I requested and received advance copies of both books free from the publishers, in exchange for an honest review. All views are my own.

This month I’ve read two YA books, both by authors whose debuts I read and loved last year, so I was very lucky and very excited to get early copies of both of these.

Both of these books not only take on some serious and relevant issues, but also give a voice to what have traditionally been (and continue to be, although it may be improving) under-represented members of society: a British-Pakistani teen and a young black American girl.

Up first:

Kick the Moon by Muhammad Khan. Illustrated by Amrit Bird. Cover design by Rachel Vale.

I thought Khan’s debut I Am Thunder last year was brilliant – well-written, ground-breaking in the way it looked at radicalisation and with huge contemporary YA appeal – so I was eagerly anticipating this one too.

Fifteen-year-old Ilyas is under pressure from everyone: GCSE’s are looming, his dad wants him to join the family business while he dreams of designing comic books, and he’s becoming increasingly unsure of the direction his group of mates is taking.

Serving detention one day, Ilyas finds a kindred spirit in Kelly, but when Kelly is caught up in his gang’s toxic bet, Ilyas must decide where his loyalties lie.

While I didn’t feel this broke the mould in the same way I Am Thunder did, it nevertheless tackles some difficult and important subjects – racism, revenge porn, gangs, bullying and peer-pressure not to mention culture, family and friendship – and it does so with sensitivity, awareness and realism.

Similarly, when I first started reading the book, it felt like there were a lot of stereotypes at play. However, as I read on, they felt necessary, believable and, perhaps most importantly, familiar.

There’s a lot in this book teens will recognise and all of it feels well-described, with voices that sound natural and real, not forced or too ‘adult’. There is a lot of slang used in the dialogue and this feels carefully considered, well-researched and integral to the characters and the story which just would not have the same effect without the characters speaking as they really would.

Immensely relatable, my heart went out to Ilyas as he struggled with feelings of hopelessness and helplessness, but it also cheered as he found the courage to stand up for what he believed in and grew in confidence.

This is a book which really understands how hard it can be to find yourself trapped in a bad situation and how it can be even harder to get out of it again. The increasing desperation came across powerfully and will be so familiar to so many. It shows how confusing and difficult teenage years can be as you try to find your way, your goals, your ‘people’ and of course yourself.

A story of hope, change and self-belief: I really enjoyed this and it deserves to be a big hit with contemporary YA fans.

And next…

On the Come Up by Angie Thomas. Cover design by Tim Marrs.

Bri wants to be one of the greatest rappers of all time. As the daughter of an underground hip hop legend who died right before he hit big, Bri’s got massive shoes to fill.

But when her first song goes viral for all the wrong reasons, Bri finds herself at the centre of controversy and portrayed by the media as more menace than MC. And with an eviction notice staring her family down, Bri no longer just wants to make it – she has to. Even if it means becoming the very thing the public has made her out to be.

The Hate U Give was one of my favourite books of last year – powerful, hard-hitting and brutally honest, it was truly something else.

On The Come Up returns to ‘The Garden’ (Garden Heights) where THUG was set and – while it isn’t a sequel and reads perfectly well as a stand-alone book – there is much overlap, with events from THUG seeing their consequences reaching into On The Come Up.

As with ‘Kick the Moon’, this didn’t feel quite so ground-breaking as THUG, but still tackles some very important issues – racism, poverty, class, misrepresentation, drugs and gang affiliation – in a compassionate but unsentimental way which very much holds a mirror up to certain aspects of society and the media.

Angie Thomas is an incredible writer – her characters feel real and complex, their relationships and lives the same. Bri’s mum in particular struck a chord with me, while the changing dynamics of Bri and her best friends’ relationships will no doubt hit home for many readers.

Bri herself is incredibly likeable – and if you’ve read THUG and liked Starr, you’ll love Bri just as much if not more: fiercely determined, stretching her wings and aiming for the sky, she is a character with big dreams, plenty of hope and just as much fire…which, whether rightly or wrongly, can lead to trouble.

It was near impossible for me to like this as much as I did THUG, but it was still brilliant and readers from all backgrounds will find both things they relate to and other things which open their eyes or make them pause for thought. It is a book brimming with friendship, love, hip hop and hope!

Six for Sunday: Books I Wish I’d Had As a Teen

Six for Sunday is hosted by Steph at A Little But A Lot. She gives a prompt for a list of six books each Sunday – the list can be found here. This week it’s

Books You Wish You’d Had as a Teen

I’m really interested to see what others come up with for this. I’ve struggled with it; I honestly can’t think of any books I’ve read as an adult that I wish I’d read as a teen – maybe I’ve just forgotten when I have thought this or maybe it’s because it feels so long ago!

Either way, I’ve decided to pick 3 books I’ve read as an adult that I think teen me would have liked and 3 books I’ve not yet read that I think both teen and adult me would/will like.

I’d probably also squeeze in a music biography of some sort too, but I’m not sure which. Any recommendations?!

First, the three I’ve read:

Clean – Juno Dawson

The Bees – Lalline Paul

The Book Thief – Marcus Zusak

And for the 3 I haven’t:

Vox – Christina Dalcher

Smoke and Mirrors – Neil Gaiman

Alice – Christina Henry

Interestingly, there’s not many actual YA books on here. I wonder if that’s because it wasn’t a big thing when I was younger and I mostly read adult fiction? Or whether it’s because of children’s, YA and adult books that I read now, YA is still what I read least… I’m not sure!

Have you read any of my choices? What do you think?

Have you taken part in #SixforSunday too? Leave me a link to your list!