Review: Hold Back the Stars by Katie Khan

hold back the starsPremise: Carys and Max float in space, adrift from their ship, with just 90 minutes of air left. All seems hopeless. The only thing they can do is reflect on the relationship that led them here and the world that pushed them together.

Thoughts: firstly, I thought this was YA and it quite clearly isn’t. Aside from anything else, the main characters are 25 and 27. If that’s young adult, that makes me feel quite youthful. Hold Back the Stars appears on a lot of ‘other customers bought this’ lists when you scroll through new YA books on Amazon, which is how it caught me out. Just so you know.

Anyway, aside from my genre-based confusion, there was loads for me to enjoy here. I love space-set stories, so the alternating chapters focusing on Carys and Max’s increasingly doomed plight really grabbed me. Khan creates a genuine sense of peril and fear in these sections, which kept me quite enthralled. The other thing I loved in this book was the creation of an actually-pretty-believable futuristic society. ┬áIn the novel’s present, America and the Middle East have destroyed each other, and the remaining countries have united to prevent conflict from causing such horror again. The main philosophy is that nobody is allied to a particular nation; from childhood, everyone goes “on rotation,” spending three years at a time in different territories. It’s isolating and disorienting, but it keeps focus on the individual, and individuals are less likely to cause mass destruction ( although the book may become more and more relevant in real life, thanks to recent political developments…). I was fascinated with the world Khan has created; it’s just out there enough to dazzle, but seems oddly sensible when you think about it.

The issue with all this is love, of course; moving every three years means you can’t develop a relationship, which is the whole point. The Man does not want people settling down until they’re 35, which causes a problem for Max and Carys; there’s a bit of a Never Let Me Go vibe to the middle part of the book, which is no bad thing. Overall, the romance aspect of the book engaged me less than the politics, but Carys and Max are both believable and interesting: people with whom I was happy to spend a few hours’ reading time.

In Conclusion: I really enjoyed Hold Back the Stars; it’s the kind of space-set story I seek out and it works well as a kind of grown-up older sibling to Amie Kaufman and Meagan Spooner’s Starbound trilogy, which I also love. Khan has created a genuinely fascinating world with enthralling plot twists and relationships to root for. I really recommend it.

Review: Relativity by Antonia Hayes

Premise: Ethan is an exceptionally smart 12 year old, with vast swathes of knowledge of physics and maths. He’s never known his dad, who left when Ethan was just a baby. But then odd things start happening to Ethan and his dad reappears, and the truth eventually emerges.

Thoughts: there were parts of Relativity that I liked. Child characters, especially precocious ones, can often be really off-putting, but Ethan isn’t; he’s believably gifted and convincingly naive, and the depiction of his gradual discoveries of his past is intriguing. From the title, you might guess that science plays a large part in the book; I am the least scientifically minded person on the planet so some of the physics went over my head, but the principles of Ethan’s newly discovered talents were interesting.

Ultimately, I developed some serious issues with Relativity, largely down to the backstory and both of Ethan’s parents. The presentation of Claire was a little cliched: she’s a single mum who gave up her dreams to raise Ethan alone, and forever blames herself for the terrible events that changed the family’s lives forever. It felt a bit hackneyed, but worse was the way in which Ethan’s estranged father was portrayed. I soon found myself really, really hating him, which I don’t think is the point. The whole plot involves him and a terrible thing he may or may not have done; this isn’t mentioned in the synopses I’ve read and, if it was, I honestly don’t think I’d have read the book. I didn’t like how the book seemed to be pulling sympathy towards him. It just all made me feel quite uncomfortable.

In Conclusion: if you know what you’re getting going into Relativity, and troubles families a la Picoult are your thing, this book won’t trouble you as much as it did me. My personal philosophy of right and wrong is very rigid (obviously because I am perfect and all my actions are beyond reproach) which meant the moral dilemma at the heart of the book was an easy call for me, rather than something I agonised over along with Claire and Ethan.

Review: The Blood Miracles by Lisa McInerney

Premise: readers of McInerney’s debut, The Glorious Heresies, will remember Ryan, teen drug dealer with the tempestuous relationship with Karine. Ryan returns here, sinking deeper into the dark underbelly of Cork’s criminal scene. And playing the piano.

Thoughts: the follow-up to the Bailey’s Prize-winning The Glorious Heresies leaves behind the different narrative strands of the first book to focus on Ryan, the young, troubled drug dealer. Other characters from McInerney’s debut do pop up, so it’s helpful to flick through that book in advance as a refresher. It’s also an enjoyable tie to the first book, particularly when Maureen reappears; the world depicted here isn’t exactly charming, but Maureen definitely is. There are added complications; Ryan’s difficult relationship with his father remains a problem, and his efforts to diversify into club culture prove trickier than he expected. There’s the added complication of a break-up with childhood sweetheart Karine and a new liaison with Natalie. If Ryan was a real person, I would strongly advise him to be seeking fewer issues in his life rather than more, but I suppose that would make for a far less interesting book.

As a big fan of McInerney's first book, I was not disappointed by The Blood Miracles. The gritty world she set up in the first book is maintained here, showing the seedy underbelly of Cork and its criminal population. It's not a world you'd particularly want to live in, but it's absorbing to read about. I really like McInerney's writing style; it's as unflinching here as it was in her first book and, as someone whose reading doesn't usually include this kind of story or setting, I find it really refreshing and vibrant.

Would she mind if he detailed reality? It's about moving around all day, talking shite and throwing shapes at those in the same boat but knowing it's all chestnuts and mottos and platitudes, like you're working off a script. It's meaningless but you're disassociated and with disassociation comes hangovers, a bad diet, a smoker's cough. It's a false and empty function and there's no point to it, no comfort in it; you're a boil on the arse of your own country. So you deflect reality with notions like brotherhood, loyalty, hierarchy. Stupid dick-clutching fantasies. Stories Natalie wants to hear.
This is not part of Ryan. It's something Ryan does to keep the wolf from the door, even though the bears are inside picking their teeth by the fire.

As with The Glorious Heresies, there's a real sense of menace pervading The Blood Miracles. Subject to the violent whims of the bosses of the criminal underworld, the sense of danger Ryan lives with is palpable; I actually felt quite stressed reading this. It's not like Ryan's a particularly loveable character, but those around him are so unpleasant it's hard not to root for him.

In Conclusion: I definitely recommend this to fans of The Glorious Heresies and, if you haven't got to that book yet, you absolutely should. McInerney has such a gritty and refreshing style; it's brutal and at times alarming and disturbing, in a way that marks her out as a really unique voice. The Blood Miracles is an excellent follow-up to a superb debut; I can't wait to see what she writes next.

YA Review: The Circus by Olivia Levez

The Premise: Willow has run away repeatedly, but her millionaire father’s impending marriage with a woman half his age is the last straw; this time she’s going for good. Disappearing on the eve of the wedding, Willow flees across England, soon finding that life on her own is not quite what she expected.

Thoughts: I’ll start with positive things. The novel is divided into four distinct sections, each of which provides the reader with a different kind of reading experience. The first shows Willow in her enormous house, talking nonchalantly about her posh boarding school and her pony; I don’t think this part is meant to be funny but I couldn’t help but be amused by Willow’s ultimate first-world problems. At one point, she gets really angry because her father bought her a horse, but ruined it by getting one for her stepmother-to-be too. I know: how incredibly traumatic.

Reaching Hastings, Willow realises the depth of her own naivety when her money is stolen and she ends up sleeping rough. This part is gritty and quite affecting, but the fact that Willow could just go back to her afore-mentioned palace at any time reduced the impact for me. Her tragic friend Suz is what gives the novel its emotional thrust; it would make sense if she was in the book to highlight how ridiculous Willow is being, but that’s not really what’s going on.

I requested this book via NetGalley because I’m a bit of a sucker for circus-set stories. Since reading The Night Circus, I’ve been keen for other stories set in big tops and I don’t think I’m alone in this. Be warned; a circus does feature and the depiction of it is quite detailed, but it takes a long time to get there and it doesn’t last long.

In Conclusion: I am sure some readers (perhaps teen readers with a greater appreciation of angst and melodrama) will lap up Willow’s misasdventures. There’s loads going on in The Circus to keep the reader engaged. I just couldn’t deal with Willow; I kept waiting for an actual reason for her running away and it never came. There are hints at her having some form of mental illness, but these aren’t developed into anything that makes sense of her actions. Overall, this book wasn’t for me.