Tag Archives: ya fiction

Throne Of Glass by SJ Maas

Every now and then I like to challenge the laws of physics by testing the aerodynamic qualities of my reading materials. Today I decided to see if SJ Maas’ Throne Of Glass could fly.

Reader, I chucked it across the room, and it did not fly.

I don’t usually throw my books around. I’m a bookseller and a book lover; I hug books when they please me and lend books to friends to spread the joy and, guys, I like books. A lot. So the fact that this book caused me to throw it is no small thing. It might have been a blip, a momentary short circuit in my usually placid personality. It probably was. But for one moment I was so enraged and disappointed and annoyed by this book that I had to lash out. I’m not proud. I’m not a child. I should be above this sort of thing. But I threw it, because for a moment there I was five years old and tantruming because the book didn’t make me happy.

Before I go on, I’ll say this – a lot of people enjoyed this book and I don’t doubt there’s much in it to enjoy. Maas has a decent writing style that is readable and engaging, and she can write pacy scenes. She has a good imagination and is more than likely capable of writing some really cool stuff. I don’t want to diss her writing or abilities at all. Throne Of Glass just totally didn’t work for me and although I wasn’t a fan, people whose opinions I respect thought it was marvellous.

It’s got great cover art, I can say that for it

The summary:

Meet Celaena Sardothien.
Beautiful. Deadly. Destined for greatness.

In the dark, filthy salt mines of Endovier, an eighteen-year-old girl is serving a life sentence. She is a trained assassin, the best of her kind, but she made a fatal mistake: she got caught.

Young Captain Westfall offers her a deal: her freedom in return for one huge sacrifice. Celaena must represent the prince in a to-the-death tournament—fighting the most gifted thieves and assassins in the land. Live or die, Celaena will be free. Win or lose, she is about to discover her true destiny. But will her assassin’s heart be melted?

A couple of months back I read Maria V. Snyder’s Poison Study which had much the same set up and didn’t impress me much either: girl on death row gets her life back in exchange for using her skills to put her life on the line for political purposes. Romance is involved. Whereas Snyder’s heroine was trained to detect poisons, developing character as she went along, Celaena appears already trained and able.

To do everything.

I don’t mean just that she can do things – she can do everything. Brilliantly. She’s good at everything from archery to playing the piano to swordfighting to climbing to detecting poison to speaking other languages. AND she loves books. This means she’s a good person, doesn’t it? NO. At the age of eighteen she’s better than everyone around her – it’s one thing to have a precocious talent but the likelihood of being more than passable at all of these skills by the age of eighteen (also taking into account a year surviving in salt mines) stretches credulity to breaking point. Older, more experienced people are nothing compared to her literally incredible skills. Celaena is SO AWESOME YOU GUYS. And Celaena KNOWS IT.

I gave the overly heroic Kvothe in Patrick Rothfuss’ The Name Of The Wind a chance even though he and his skillset are far too good to be true. He was a nice guy, just about flawed enough to keep you interested, but someone you cheered on because you could feel his decency. Celaena is nothing like that. Jessie over at Ageless Pages diagnosed Special Snowflake Syndrome which is entirely apt; I’ll go a stage further and diagnose Serious Mary Sueism. I didn’t even click all the boxes that apply and she still got a score of 113. She’s snide, rude, arrogant and so far up herself she’s become a Moebius Sue.

She glared. “I hate women like that. They’re so desperate for the attention of men that they’d willingly betray and harm members of their own sex. And we claim men cannot think with their brains! At least men are direct about it.”

I lied earlier. I threw the book twice, once before I finished it. I picked it up to continue reading. Why did I throw it? That line. That horrible, bitchy, illogical line.

Kvothe worked also because he did things that proved he was kick-ass and cool. Locke Lamora in Scott Lynch’s books proves he’s a canny conman practically every other page. Arya Stark in Game Of Thrones also kicks ass in practically every chapter. Phedre no Delaunay is awesome all the damn time without resorting to violence. Katniss proves she’s got heart and skills with every day surviving the Hunger Games. Stephanie in Skulduggery Pleasant is forever being witty and brilliant. These guys all prove that they’re ace at what they do. More than ace – fantastic. Kvothe magics, Locke tricks, Arya scraps, Phedre outwits, Katniss survives to fight back, Stephanie saves the world.

Celaena, in comparison, does sod all. This book’s supposed to be the girl’s Game of Thrones (WHICH IS THE WORST THING EVER OH GOD I CAN’T EVEN BEGIN TO TACKLE THAT STATEMENT WITHOUT CAPSLOCKING) and the fantasy Hunger Games. It isn’t. The Hunger Games had great scenes full of nerves and clever writing that dealt with death, murder, heroism and self-sacrifice. There’s none of that going on here. Celaena never really proves that she’s the amazing assassin she thinks she is beyond two pretty good fight scenes and one dangling, daring rescue – some of the few scenes where I felt like the book was doing what it was supposed to do. We have all this guff about how handsome Dorian is (OH GOD NOT THE SAPPHIRE EYES AGAIN PLEASE GOD NO) or how beautiful Celaena is (GOLDEN HAIR RIGHT) or what they’re wearing (in quite some detail) but the same almost forensic level of narration isn’t given to the test the would-be assassins are put through. We don’t see enough of it, or the tons of people who die through it. It’s basically a backdrop, an afterthought, a MacGuffin. It’s the most diluted concept of violence and barely seems to matter to anyone – even those taking part.

AND there’s only enough background to act as wallpaper. The world is formed entirely around Celaena and the characters in her orbit and there’s no depth to it whatsoever. Almost everything we learn affects Celaena  in some way. Nothing we’re told about the worldbuilding is about the world itself; it’s almost all about Celaena. I’m usually okay with thinner characters set against a strong world, or a lot of strong characters set against a thin backdrop, but not both weak characters and weak worldbuilding!

When it comes to those characters in Celaena’s orbit obviously both Dorian, spoilt but very noble attractive princeling and Chaol, determined but very noble attractive guard (he’s a captain and he seems to be about Celaena’s age and to be training her which is INSANE because these skill levels MAKE NO SENSE and she’s awesome and he’s better but how? What? I don’t get this) are completely head over heels for her because she’s beautiful and good at everything. I spent half the book hoping Chaol would cop off with Nehemia. There’s a scene where Dorian gives our darling star a present and she’s immediately the rudest child ever in response, making demands before she deigns to accept this gift, and then there’s the line that just broke off all sympathy for Celaena that I’d been clinging to for most of this book:

He was kind – unnaturally kind, for someone of his upbringing. He had a heart, she realized, and a conscience. He was different from the others.

Oh good god no. She’s thinking things like this even though her best friend is a princess. A PRINCESS. Who is on the side of good. It’s been proved several times over that, no, not all the aristocracy are heartless fiends. So obviously Celaena as an inverse snob is a tremendous judge of character. OH WAIT. She can do EVERYTHING. Why am I doubting her? MY BAD. Everyone adores her even though there’s not much about her to like.

Nehemia would have been a far more interesting main character – she’s layered, clever, with a sense of duty and courage that Celaena seems to be missing. Her people are under threat and she’s prepared to do so much to protect them. She and her people have a proper story to tell that would fit an epic fantasy framework better – check out NK Jemisin’s Hundred Thousand Kingdoms as an example of just that.

In fact I’m trying to resist the urge to list a load of books I’d rather recommend reading than this. As I said, lots of people have enjoyed it, and though this feels young like it’s written for the lower end of the YA market, I’d rather recommend some Maureen Johnson, Garth Nix, Diana Wynne Jones, Margaret Mahy or Sarah Rees Brennan. They have worldbuilding and emotional connections and main characters who combine attitude with flaws and skills and wit.

I really don’t think SJ Maas is a bad author. From some of what I’ve seen about this book online this started out as a darker, more mature story and I’d give my eye teeth to see what could have been made of that. If it had been aged up a few years, if Celaena had been given some texture, if that sodding love triangle hadn’t been shoehorned in. If the worldbuilding had had just a bit more work. If there’d been more action. If, if, if.

This book should have been exactly – EXACTLY! – the sort of thing that appeals to me. Strong heroine, kickass action, a new fantasy world, political upheaval, a good son of an evil king, mysterious histories, secret pasages, ghosts, drama, murder, snark. The fact that it fell so far short of the mark is sad. Maas is going to write more, write better, and create good work – but this isn’t it.

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Witch Crag by Kate Cann

So here’s a problem with Witch Crag – there’s not enough book for the story. It’s odd, isn’t it? It’s as if there’s a massive story and huge character development crammed into too small a space so it can’t flourish properly. It’s like those tea flowers you buy all curled up and you have to drop into hot water to make them blossom. It’s a great story that hasn’t had the space to spread out properly.

Despite that, I really enjoyed it.

The blurb:

In a tribe where basic survival is the only priority, Kita must make a choice: to accept arranged marriages and being treated with less value then sheep, or escape and journey to the place that even the strongest men fear with their lives – Witch Crag.

But a common threat is facing the witches and sheepmen alike. The tribes must somehow overcome their prejudices and join together if they’re to win a war that threatens to destroy everything they hold as good.

I was given the proof of this one in a goody bag after the Summer Scream event at Foyles (which was ace), and I have no idea why I went for it first. It was one of those “I’ll just see what the first page is like” moments that slipped away and became two hours of being engrossed in the rather compelling scene-building that Cann very ably engages in for the first quarter of the book.

It’s an easy read, unsettling moments notwithstanding; Kita is dynamic and interesting to follow, though the other characters feel half-sketched for the most part. Arc, for instance, could have done with a bit more attitude in a scene or two more. Kita’s friends could have had just a touch more presence. Geegaw could have been coloured in a bit, made more vivid. There could have been more, really – more time in each place, more described, more filled in. It felt like we were skimming over a really detailed back story. Sometimes, that’s fine. It works. Our imaginations can fill in bits and pieces and make it feel more real. Other times, however, it just feels like we’re getting the bare bones of the story and it just feels distant and vague. Witch Crag leans towards the latter. It’s the sort of book I’d love to see a bunch of teens illustrate or write a bit of fanfic about, because there’s just such a strong feeling of there being more lurking beneath the surface. So much more. I did wonder how it would have felt if it had been written as an “adult” book, or aimed for a slightly older readership.

Arc was a particular highlight and lowlight. Towards the end everyone just seemed to stop being a character and started to become mouthpieces – little speeches sounding the same from every quarter about uniting against a common foe, doing what’s right. It got a bit preachy and Arc suffered in particular, seeming to become a completely different character in the last third of the book – not in a good-character-development kind of way, but in a way in which he became unrecognizable. It’s sort of lampshaded by Raff in a random comment, but it doesn’t feel like his arc (yes I know) makes much sense. It’s a shame, because he was one of the strongest elements of the tale. I would have loved to read it from his perspective. His character only really unravelled right at the end in the most rushed chapter – a shame, racing to a conclusion that didn’t need to be hurried and could have been open-ended in a way that tied in with the atmosphere of the book as a whole, but I get that a lot of readers want that kind of ending. I’m just annoying.

Otherwise, I loved it. I gave it four stars on Goodreads – it’s a good-hearted story which lets people change and mature and grow up, lets the main character be a girl but also strong, lets her rage and mope and whine and still be a hero, lets the love interest be a complete boy and yet seek comfort, and lets people both redeem themselves and strive to redeem others. It’s a book with an overly obvious message, which usually pisses me off in YA, but it’s done with charm and Kita is a bit of a marvel when it comes to YA main characters. It’s a great story to visualize and has a wonderful sinister undercurrent the entire way through that did make me fear for what Cann was building towards. When it’s out I know I’m going to be giving it to a couple of teenagers I know.

So yes, I’d recommend it whole-heartedly. There’s a tantalizing sense of what else could be revealed about that post-“Great Havoc” land and the people in it, and I wish Cann could have gone into more depth about the world and the history and the people and the characters and everything, but it’s a really good addition to the Dystopian YA genre, perfectly pitched to appeal to boys as much as girls. It’s one notch below The Hunger Games in my personal rankings, and two above Divergent, and I reckon it’s closer to The Knife Of Never Letting Go in tone than anything else I’ve read. So yes. I liked it.

Dearly, Departed by Lia Habel (4****/5)

CAN YOU TELL HE'S DEAD NO I DON'T THINK SO HE'S LOOKING GREAT FOR A CORPSE

This is a pacy, bloodthirsty, hugely entertaining teen zombie novel with an unconventional but tender love story at its heart. From the ruins of a cataclysmic ice-age a new society has emerged, based on Victorian customs. Nora Dearly, a feisty teenage girl and apparent orphan, leaves her exclusive boarding school for the holidays to return home – only to be dragged into the night by the living dead. Luckily for her, this particular crack unit of zombies are good guys – sent to protect her from the real nasties roaming the countryside and zeroing in on major cities to swell their ranks. Nora must find a way to defeat the evil undead with help from Bram, a noble, sweet and surprisingly hot zombie boy for whom she starts to fall…

For all it’s riddled with issues, Dearly, Departed is a really fun read that’s so over the top it’s actually mesmerising – given half a chance it carries you with it all the way through a crazy mess of plot, rotting corpses, zombie street battles and undead romance. It’s like this book was written with a checklist in mind – what’s hot right now in SFF/YA lit? Let’s see!

  • Zombies – CHECK! with a whole new spin on this which was REALLY appreciated
  • Forbidden romance – CHECK! with bits falling off (I loved Bram, I couldn’t even hate him for the blatant name thing, he’s such a sweetheart)
  • Dystopia – CHECK! only it was literally overkill to have so much apocalypse infodumped on us. Utterly crazy.
  • Steampunk – CHECK! except not the steampunk of the Soulless books or anything, it’s more faux-Victoriana, which was really awkward in most places because it’s been shoe-horned in and doesn’t feel right at all. Except I didn’t mind it past the first few chapters. It stops grating once you just assume it’s a technologically advanced Victorian age. There’s a wonderful idea about the Punks and their tech however, which I’d love to read more of in any future books.
So, yes, it’s an attention-grabbing conglomeration of ideas, you know?

Fans of dystopias and zombies will get more of a kick out of this than romance fans – and people who enjoy well-rendered characters who are willing to get stuck in and be pro-active will enjoy this too. It’s all lampshaded of course, with every time a girl-character acts in a way which does not suit her upbringing everyone notices it and points it out. The romance feels a bit unconvincing but I loved Bram and Nora was far from annoying so, again, I didn’t mind. Once things had clicked it felt much more believable.

It’s not structured very well, however; the viewpoints are a mess and only partially feel like they’re distinct voices, but I had so much fun reading this that I didn’t really care – I can totally understand why people didn’t get into or didn’t like this book, because you need to suspend disbelief from a very high place to even get into the setting of Dearly, Departed, let alone the basic premise. It was such tremendous fun and completely different in tone and style and painted in such vivid colours that I couldn’t help but enjoy it. Seriously. Against my better judgement and everything.

It’s the most emphatically emphatic dystopian teen zombie romance you’ll ever see, and worth reading if you feel like going for an enjoyably deranged but hugely entertaining book. And yes, the horror elements were fun too. Strongly recommended if you like your YA to have a bit of backbone, decaying romance and a strong edge of dark humour to it. Anyone who liked it and wants MOAR! zombie love – Warm Bodies is your next port of call. Doesn’t have anywhere near the structural problems or the odd dialogue that DD does, and as a horror it’s a much stronger piece of work.

It isn’t, however, as much of a weird-ass dystopian teen zombie romance. With airships. Dearly, Departed has that down.

All These Things I’ve Done by Gabrielle Zevin

Not too hot on the cover, but great eye make-up!

All These Things I’ve Done starts off so strong I’m almost surprised, having finished it, that it’s the same book as the one I’ve put down. Somewhere along the line it veers off course of being a grim, guilty-until-proven-innocent tale of Anya and her family in a chocolate-less and coffee-banning dystopian future New York and becomes something soft-focused and audience-pleasing without being actually satisfying, given the opening.

Here’s the write-up:

Sixteen year-old Anya’s parents have been murdered because her father was the head of a notorious underworld gang. Now she is determined to keep herself and her siblings away from that world. But her father’s relatives aren’t so keen to let them go. When Anya’s violent ex-boyfriend is poisoned with contaminated chocolate – chocolate that is produced illegally by Anya’s criminal family – she is arrested for attempted murder. Disconcertingly, it is the new D.A. in town who releases her from jail, but her freedom comes with conditions. The D.A. is the father of Win, a boy at school to whom Anya feels irresistibly drawn. Win’s father won’t risk having his political ambitions jeopardised by his son seeing a member of a crime family. She is to stay away with him. Anya knows she risks her freedom and the safety of her brother and sister by seeing Win again. Neither the D.A. nor the underworld will allow it. But the feeling between them is so strong that she may be unable to resist him…

For all I want to complain about the course Zevin takes with the narrative, having it wander off into a teeny No Man’s Land where major plot points feel like they’ve been put on hiatus for no clear reason, I want to be clear – I loved the premise for this book, and still do. Anya is a pretty solid, somewhat noble character who demonstrates strength and intelligence and great affection and love for those close to her while still being clear-eyed and a great viewpoint to read from. The concept of a world where chocolate and coffee are banned, water’s pretty much as valuable as oil and paper’s rare is such a great concept it had me reeling with mental images of a dystopian Prohibition. If anything, it’s worth reading just for that.

It’s not without problems. There really could be more colouring in of the outlines Zevin sketches of the society Anya and her family are living in as the bare bones of what we’re given are tantalizing and she’s clearly a skilled enough writer to make something really bright and original with it. There’s no explanation for most of it other than the understanding the reader brings to the book about energy and water crises, and it’s really crazy trying to make sense of alcohol being around but coffee being a no-no. And why is chocolate okay in Europe but not in the US? I have so many questions, which on one hand is really frustrating as there could have been more background to this to make the setting stronger, but also it’s probably a good sign that I was engaged enough with it to want to know more.

But there’s a point where everything important about the plot just seems to go on holiday and then it flounders. It’s frustrating, so frustrating, because the plot begins to pull itself back together before the end but the momentum is such it just doesn’t correct itself in time. In fact, I thought it was a bit transparent what’s been going on, but even that didn’t annoy me because I was just so relieved we were back to what the beginning of the book had been about. The romance angle felt thin, bookended as it was between the real movements of plot as it were. It felt rushed and crammed in a bit, and Win is just not convincing at all. Anya falters here a bit too – a bit of omg boy! overcomes those familial instincts of hers, which goes against what we’ve come to expect of her.

All told, All These Things I’ve Done is a book I would definitely recommend, though it does feel like a good concept washed out. It’s more about the characters than the dystopia. I’ll definitely read the next in the series in the hope that it’ll answer some of those pesky questions, and now Zevin’s certainly on my list of authors to investigate further! I just wish it hadn’t meandered so totally from the plot and felt so detached from the setting – otherwise it’d be a great read.

Maureen Johnson’s ‘The Name Of The Star’

The Name of the Star (Shades of London, #1)The Name of the Star by Maureen Johnson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The day Louisiana teenager Rory Deveaux arrives in London marks a memorable occasion. For Rory, it’s the start of a new life at a London boarding school. But for many, this will be remembered as the day a series of brutal murders broke out across the city, gruesome crimes mimicking the horrific Jack the Ripper in the autumn of 1888. 

Soon “Rippermania” takes hold of modern-day London, and the police are left with few leads and no witnesses. Except one. Rory spotted the man police now believe to be the prime suspect. But she is the only one who saw him. Even her roommate, who was with her at the time, didn’t notice the mysterious man. So why can only Rory see him? And more urgently, why has Rory become his next target? In this edge-of-your-seat thriller, full of suspense, humor, and romance, Rory will learn the truth about the secret ghost police of London and discover her own shocking abilities.

Aside from some slightly jarring scenes at the beginning involving the school (for one thing the school seems massively out-of-place and oddly run from the perspective of a Londoner who went to a similarly posh London school) this was a fantastic book that I ripped (sorry) through in ONE EVENING. It is great stuff. I recommend it to anyone who enjoys a good supernatural-tinged romp – though the central character feels oddly vague and insubstantial at times she is a marvellous vehicle for the reader and really comes into her own by the rather tense climax. I respected her and enjoyed her company by the end, and there’s no higher praise than that for a first person narrative.

I won’t rehash the plot, but suffice to say it isn’t a simple Jack the Ripper retelling, nor is it trying to give us a new view of the historical murders – it’s an original plot and concept using very popular tropes (the Ripper murders, the “otherness” of London, young adult genre, secret groups operating with the government) that still feels fresh, even to the point of freaking me out about the murders even after reading much more gory and bloody (and excellent) books like Alan Moore‘s From Hell and Kim Newman‘s Anno Dracula. A true testament to how, sometimes, less can be more. (Also I read this at night, when all of this is 200% freakier than during daylight hours, I know this through SCIENCE.)

I’d recommend this book to people who enjoy London in fiction, tense YA crime/thrillers, who enjoy Torchwood-like groups waging secret wars against the nasty unknown, or who simply want a solid, swift read that though it begins slowly and a bit oddly warms up tremendously once the (gory and unsettling (I feel a lack of sleep looming tonight)) murders begin. I’ve seen a few comments complaining about the ending, but I thought it was very well done and wrapped up a crackling, entertaining and at times spine-tingling read with a tantalizing suggestion of what Johnson has in her clearly devious and brilliant mind.

Can’t wait to read more.

Daily Distractables!

So I am the sort of person who needs high-grade distractions on a daily basis. I am going to share the fruits of my distraction truffle-snuffling to improve the lives of others less insanely internet-happy than myself in the hope that we can create weapons grade procrastination that will improve our moods, save the world and make everything cute and fluffy.

Lies. I am just sharing silly things. I won’t be doing these posts every day but I shall try to, I warn ye.

FIRSTLY mon petit wotsits you have until the 9th August to enter the wonderful Jessie’s most excellent (and first!) book giveaway on her blog Bibliophile Anonymous. Pick your prize! There’s YA and fantasy and bits and bobs of a most intriguing nature there, and the rest of it ain’t bad either, so go go go go go. And then come back.

For the readers and writers out there io9 recently posted an interesting list of Great Character Descriptions From Science Fiction & Fantasy, consisting of passages from George RR Martin’s A Game Of Thrones, Douglas Adam’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, The Lord of the Rings, Suzanne Collin’s The Hunger Games, Harry Potter and Kurt Vonnegut, among others. It’s an interesting, varied list, worth a look for the different styles used to different effect, even if you think a couple of the excerpts are hilariously out-of-place on such a list.

Brilliant illustrations of terrible dates and conversations on Stupid Guys I Have Dated. Many a “Oh my god what no” and “Oh man that one’s familiar” from this end, not gonna lie. There should be something general along these lines, about both Stupid Guys and Stupid Girls – if anyone knows of one, tell me, or if I’ve forgotten one, remind me. And if you find that entertaining then Hayley Campbell’s post Brief Interviews With Hideous Men is also delightful.

I am sorry to do this to you but Pony Swag (via Liam, who is the one you need to blame, go blame him).

Genius author/blogger Kate Hart investigates YA covers in response to the Wall Street Journal silliness earlier this year in her blog post Uncovering YA Covers: How Dark Are They? and it’s an ongoing thing so I can’t wait for more. Basically, if you think YA is dark and gnarly and an awful influence on the youth, you are thinking about Twilight (which is so dark and gnarly it has a forest! And its vampires are SHINY so what on earth). Also you would be wrong.

Awesome new project from fun man of Find Chaffy goodness Jamie Smart – Hairy Steve! It is a project in need of funding, and doesn’t need much, so if you have any spare monies it looks like it’s going to be delightful and I am well excited for’t.

Also should any of you fine, upstanding folks find anything of interest please do send me links for when I’m bored, even if it is yet AGAIN the slow loris being tickled, because that will never stop being so cute it breaks the language centre in my brain.

Xxx

Life As We Knew It by Susan Pfeffer

I stayed up until 4am reading Life As We Knew It.  Once I’ve written this I’m getting more coffee.  Yes, this is a read-in-one-sitting book.  It’s not hard and it’s quick and it’s compulsive.

This is not a dystopian novel. I saw it being described as such in a review (I forget where) and it’s absolutely in no way a dystopian setting for reasons that bloggers have discussed at length elsewhere – this is straight-out apocalyptic. Not even post-apocalyptic – this book charts the end of the world via the diary entries of a sixteen year old girl, Miranda, so we’ve got a ringside seat for the End of the World.

And oh man. It’s unsettling. I loved it.

Bush-era Pennsylvania. Welcome to Miranda’s diary! Miranda likes figure skating. A lot. Miranda and her two best friends have drifted apart since they lost a friend to illness. Miranda’s younger brother Jonny is a massive fan of baseball while her older brother Matt is studying at Cornell. Miranda’s parents are divorced. Miranda’s dad’s new ladyfriend is expecting a baby and has asked Miranda to be the godmother. Miranda’s excited but wary. Miranda is sixteen, normal, and an extremely likeable protagonist – she’s not overly bratty (except for moments, understandable moments!), her point of view has emotional weight, and Pfeffer’s writing is extremely teen with moments of gorgeousness and depth that adds a real resonance, like this excerpt from the run-up to the asteroid collision:

“I guess Ms Hammish thinks this moon thing is historical, because in history that’s what we talked about. How people throughout history have looked at the moon and comets and eclipses. Actually, that was kind of interesting. I never really thought about how when I look at the moon it’s the same moon Shakespeare and Marie Antoinette and George Washington and Cleopatra looked at. Not to mention all those zillions of people I’ve never heard of. All those Homo sapiens and Neanderthals looked at the very same moon as me. It waxed and waned in their sky, too.”
— p.13

That hasn’t got the air of impending doom about it at all, does it? No, not a hint.

There’s so much I want to say about this book. It’s about isolation and fear and life without all the modern amenities we’re used to – running water, reliable (or any!) electricity, communications, stores, fuel, even social lives and fresh air. It’s about family, about the connections between people when they’re strained and when we need to rely on other people for our own survival, and that point at which it’s not about us individually making it through, but making sure the people we love make it through (on that note Miranda’s mother is an absolute hero and there should be a mother like her installed on every street in case of emergencies). It’s about the responsibilities that come with growing up and becoming an adult, running a home, supporting other people. It’s about the waxing and waning of hope in dire circumstances and what it does to people, whether it breaks them or weakens them and what it takes to endure without losing it.

Miranda’s diary is excellent, full of everyday details that make every facet of this impossibly scary world from the mundane to the insane (the passage where her mother talks about the volcanoes actually made me shudder) feel so realistic, I actually had to look up from the book and out of the window at the night sky to make sure it wasn’t real every few chapters. It was the early hours, don’t laugh. Everything feels more real after 1am when you’re alone in the dark! We also see something of an unreliable narrator at work – her perspective is great but one can’t shake the grim knowledge that there’s a lot in what she’s not saying, what she doesn’t know, that is utterly chilling. Her mother’s reactions and behaviour is as informative as Miranda’s notes. From the moment the tidal waves sweep in we know this family isn’t experiencing the worst of it (anything but!) and Pfeffer leaves out just enough detail for these events to loom over them in their apparent absence like the ash clouds themselves. For such an uneasy read Miranda’s not actually in danger that often – an excellent approach because we know she makes it because it’s a DIARY and it goes ON.

SLIGHTLY SPOILERY PARAGRAPH BUT ONLY SLIGHTLY! Ignoring the sequels for a moment (I can’t wait to get to the second – the protagonist is right in the chaos that’s NYC, and I’ve never read a book with a Puerto Rican main character before so that’s two elements I’m very interested in), the first person perspective got me wondering a few times if Miranda’s not hallucinating, or lying, especially towards the end, or with the sickness that she miraculously didn’t get. Moments that we suspect are too good to be true feel actually far too good. I got an actual rush of relief at one point, and bearing in mind the book actually ends it suggests the end of the diary itself for whatever reason – and I liked the idea that she started making her entries up as things got too bad to write about, using fiction to escape the awfulness, pretending there’s a glimmer of hope. I suspect this is because I’ve always mistrusted first person narrations since Tyke Tiler.  ALL’S COOL slightly spoilery bit over.

And there’s more I want to say. Layers of fiction and history and she’s called Miranda like Miranda from The Tempest who was stranded too with an over-protective but damned wise parent and how it’s got a bit of an American pioneer feel to it without being overly American and how claustrophobic it felt and I need other people to read it and talk about it. I love apocalyptic fiction, I really do.

Forget dystopias for a bit. They’re epic tales of teenage angst against the system and they’re marvellous but this is a YA novel in the vein of The Day Of The Triffids, The Stand and various classics, except without the science fiction moral lessons and faintly supernatural air; this a straight-on account of a family at the end of the world struggling to survive. It had such atmosphere it was a relief to finish and look out of my window to see dawn creeping in (4am! FOUR AM!). It’s a hell of a book that actually makes you thankful for what you have. Can more teenagers read it? And more adults? Please?

Just don’t read it at night. Read it when you can look up and be reassured that you can still see the sun, or that the moon’s the right size.