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Review: ‘Perfect’ by Cecilia Ahern

Perfect by Cecilia AhernPerfect is the second (and it seems final) book in Cecelia Ahern’s Young Adult Series Flawed.  Everything that made Flawed such a surprise was still there, but somehow Perfect just doesn’t pack the same punch.

Celestine North was the perfect teenager until she runs afoul of the law by standing up for an elderly gentleman on a bus who just happened to be branded Flawed by an all-powerful government entity called The Guild.  Branded Flawed herself for the infraction Celestine finds herself the unwitting figurehead for the movement to destroy the guild.  On the run, with no one to trust, Celestine must find the evidence to clear her name, and stand in defence of all the other Flawed.

There is nothing new or original here.  It’s every YA dystopian novel ever written, all amalgamated in to one.  There wasn’t anything original in Flawed either, but because of the strength of the writing and the narrative style it was easy to forgive.  Perfect has as many moments of tragic, visceral violence as its predecessor, and has just as many truly emotional moments that kept me reading in to the wee hours of the morning.  So why then could I not enjoy this one as much as the first?

Cecelia Ahern made one mistake with Perfect.  She broke the fourth wall.  She made the mistake of using current pop culture references in her narrative which broke me out of my suspension of disbelief and brought the whole plot and concept come crashing down around my ears.

When something is set in a similar society with its own rules and logic I can believe how entities like the guild come to be.  But when an author suggests that this fantasy world is somehow akin to my present, then there had better be some really deep and well thought out world building to make me believe it.  But there wasn’t.  So I didn’t.

As soon as the one flaw comes out in a book the house of cards that was narrative believability came crashing down.  All of a sudden, I was thinking about what was happening in the rest of the world.  Why is the UN not stepping in for human rights violations?  Why on earth would people allow this dictatorship to start in the first place, especially since they still have a democratic voting system and the Flawed are still allowed to vote?  As soon as I was reading a book about my world, and not some alternate fantasy world, the questions just kept coming and coming and the book failed to be in any way believable.

Celestine was still a decent character, but I still needed more development of the satellite characters.  There was a feeble attempt at a love triangle that went nowhere, and Celestine’s relationship with Carrick was just not developed enough to convince me that they’d do everything that they did for each other.

Perfect wasn’t bad, and it did bring the two-book series to an end in a satisfying way.  Despite its flaws, Flawed is still a much better series than Divergent and was really fun to read.  I read the book in a day, because I just needed to keep reading to see how it ends.  No matter what else I say about the book, that’s probably the most important.  It was enjoyable. (If not entirely believable).

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Review: ‘Fir’ by Sharon Gosling

Fir - Book CoverSharon Gosling’s Fir was an interesting addition to the already extensive collection of YA horror, but like many books in the genre didn’t quite live up to expectations.

Fir tells the story of the Stromberg family, who leave their comfortable inner city Stockholm life to move to a remote tree farm where the Stromberg patriarch hopes to rebuild the lumber business.  But there is something out in the old growth forest that begins terrorising the family, while they try and survive the harshness of Sweden’s remote winters.

There were some fascinating elements in Fir.  The forest had character, and the descriptions of the woods, the cold, the dark and the isolation were incredibly well rendered.  There were some promising moments with the introduction of old world mythology which had the potential to make this a much deeper story and Gosling took the opportunity to make some important and tactful observations about environmental ethics without coming across as forceful or on the nose.

Unfortunately, despite these elements, Fir utterly failed to be believable.  Within the first few pages, it had already fallen into the YA trap of choosing just to have unreasonably rubbish parents to mask the fact that it’s difficult to write a believable relationship between a teenager and a parent once you’re past the age where you no longer rely on them.  I say difficult, which is why so many YA authors just either omit the adults of the story entirely (I’m looking at you Leo Hunt) or make them such caricatures of bad parenting that the focus naturally sways toward its teenage protagonists. Their reactions to situations and lack of communication with their daughter were simply not believable, and so made the plot feel entirely contrived.

One of the most effective elements was that the plot developed to allow for some ambiguity as to the truth of the ‘supernatural’ occurrences in the book.  I liked this, as it left it entirely open to interpretation, and made the premise of isolation even more frightening.  Letting the characters’ experiences speak for themselves made the local mythology even more interesting, as it highlighted how remote isolation could give rise to fears like these.  Had the book ended before the appendix I might have rated it far higher, but instead, Gosling chose to spoon feed the readers a supernatural ending that detracted from the whole narrative.  A book is only as good as its ending, so had it ended a few pages earlier, it would have been a much better book.

Overall, Fir was a quick and easy read.  It wasn’t particularly cerebral, certainly didn’t bring much to the YA horror genre, but was most definitely full of unrealised potential.  The plot had the potential to be unique with a critical message about environmental responsibility,  but instead just read as a generic supernatural YA story about bad parenting.

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Review: ‘The One Memory of Flora Banks’ by Emily Barr

The One Memory of Flora BanksThe One Memory of Flora Banks was an interesting if problematic book.  It tackled a very interesting subject matter, but I’m not entirely sure it did it wholly effectively.  I enjoyed the book since the narrative was sweet and interesting, but I’m not entirely sure it was the healthiest portrayal of chronic illness.

Flora Banks is a teenager who has anterograde amnesia.  A tumour when she was ten made it impossible for her to create new memories and so she lives her life in a state of confusion, with the memories of a ten-year-old, but the body and emotions of a teenager.  One night, she kisses a boy on the beach and for the first time she has a memory that stays.  What follows is the story of her trying to hang on to that memory, a story that will twist and turn and take her on an adventure to the other side of the world.

Flora is an incredibly memorable character.  As the narrator, her quirks and mannerisms show themselves in interesting ways.  A lot of the narrative is repetitive for that reason, because we are experiencing the way that Flora’s mind works, but the repetition had just enough difference as to keep it interesting.  I found the way it was written fascinating rather than boring.  Flora writes things down (think Memento) to remind herself of them, and builds a physical trail of memories for her future self to follow.

The other characters in the book have no real characterisations of their own.  Instead we experience them through Flora’s eyes, and for obvious reasons she proves herself a rather unreliable narrator.  What is true of the people that she knows in one chapter can be completely turned on its head the next.  We see Flora’s parents how she sees them at certain times in the narrative, and the same goes for the boy she kissed and her best friend.  It made for very interesting reading and stylistically I simply can’t fault this book.

The big problem with this book, and indeed with so many books dealing with any kind of chronic illness, is that it doesn’t always deal with said illness in the best possible way.  Despite the characters of the novel responding to her positively and appreciating her for everything that she is, Flora herself latches on to the one thing she feels she needs to be; normal.  It is this idea of normalcy that makes this novel so problematic, especially when we factor in the layers of self-deception practiced by her family, and by herself on more than on occasion. It is this self-deception that needed to be tackled to give this book the depth that it needed.  For me, one of the most tragic and underdeveloped characters of the whole novel is Flora’s mother.  At times she is painted as a villain, but reading between the lines you can see a deeply troubled woman with her own mental illness to deal with who is given virtually no page time.  The One Memory of Flora Banks had the potential to delve so deeply in to the subject of chronic illness, but instead it seemed to romanticise it and ultimately raised more problems than it solved.

I thoroughly enjoyed the experience of reading The One Memory of Flora Banks, even if I didn’t really love where it went.  It was beautifully written, with a unique style and a memorable protagonist.  With a bit more depth I think it could have been a great, and indeed important work of YA fiction, but it is not quite there yet.

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Review: ‘The Dead Boyfriend’ by R. L. Stine

The Dead Boyfriend by R. L. StineWow, I mean I remember Fear Street books being pretty bad in a tacky, yet fun way, but The Dead Boyfriend, R. L. Stine’s fifth instalment in the Fear Street reboot was just a whole new level of trash. The plot was on rails with a completely nonsensical twist and characters that barely bothered to show up.

There was something almost visceral, and sexy about the old Fear Street novels. The Fear Street Saga is still one of the trilogies I remember most from my childhood.  There was gore, romance, horror and thrills galore! I re-read them recently and found myself laughing at how implausibly silly the whole thing was, bit I still had fun reading them. The Dead Boyfriend just left me disappointed and nostalgic for some Point Horror.

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Review: ‘Eight Rivers of Shadow’ by Leo Hunt

Eight Rivers of Shadow book coverEight Rivers of Shadow, while an improvement on Leo Hunt’s first book in the series Thirteen Days of Midnight, still proved itself to be an overwhelmingly shallow novel with little characterisation or originality.  Most of the novel felt like a rehash of Thirteen Days  mixed with some Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Orpheus and the Underworld with our protagonist, Luke Manchett, growing as a character on a scale of ‘very little’ to ‘none at all’.

After the events of Thirteen Days, Leo Hunt was in the perfect position to develop Luke Manchett’s character in a way that would help him discover his power in a world where magic and Necromancy exist.  Instead, Luke bumbles his way through his new found powers relying on everyone around him who appears to be more capable than him on almost every single level.  The idea of Necromancy is such a great premise and one that’s been pretty under-utilised in genre fiction that this could have made the book about a thousand times more interesting!  Luke has these powers, but what do they mean, how do they develop, how can he harness them for good, evil, anything?  These questions weren’t asked in the first book, and while Eight Rivers does raise some interesting moral questions, they are outside of the bounds of Luke’s newfound skills.

My main issue with Eight Rivers of Shadow is that we are given characters that we already know from the first book in the series, and yet they are simply not developed any further.  The lives of Hunt’s characters remain largely static and most of the plot’s development seems to rely wholly on Luke being completely inept and slightly stupid.  This issue is exemplified once more in one of the biggest criticisms I had about Thirteen Days and that is the complete lack of adult supervision in these novels.  Parents are either just rubbish at parenting or completely absent during the whole series creating a world where it essentially feels there are no adults around.  While this can be an interesting plot device as we’ve seen in books like Michael Grant’s Gone series, it is painfully clear that Leo Hunt has not put this in to his narrative intentionally.  Instead he’s tried so hard to create a realistic teenaged boy who his readers can relate to, but instead created a limbo world that neither adults nor young adults will feel any kinship.

From a pacing perspective the bland and lifeless characters make it pretty difficult to invest in the plot in any kind of meaningful way.  This book should have been an easy read, but I felt myself so poorly invested in its narrative that three weeks later and I’d barely grazed 75%.  It wasn’t that I didn’t enjoy myself when I was reading it in at least a superficial way, I just didn’t feel motivated to make the time to pick it up.

Ultimately I think Eight Rivers of Shadow didn’t differentiate itself in plot and scope enough from the first book in the series.  It felt pretty same, only without developing anything.  As far as YA literature goes there are numerous better books out there.  This one wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t good enough for me to want to recommend it to anybody.  Reading it was an entirely ambivalent experience, as is its memory.

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