YA Review: Invictus by Ryan Graudin

invictus.pngThe Premise (from NetGalley): Farway McCarthy was born outside of time. With nowhere to call home and nothing to anchor him to the present, Far captains a crew on a dangerous mission into the past. When he collides with Eliot – a mysterious, secretive girl, whose very appearance raises questions about time itself – Far immediately distrusts her. But he must take a leap of faith, following Eliot on a race against time, if he is to protect everything he’s ever loved from disappearing forever…

Thoughts: in the interests of full disclosure, I will hereby announce that I adored this book. Although, as I have frequently bemoaned, I don’t usually understand time travel, I absolutely love to read about it and the thought of Ryan Graudin – author of Wolf by Wolf, one of my favourite books of the last few years – publishing a book in this genre has had me giddy for months. Invictus doesn’t disappoint. The book gets off to a blistering start, with Farway’s mother in ancient Rome and accidentally giving birth outside of time (a concept I love), before heading 17 years into the future  to see Farway trying to graduate from time travel school. Or, as I like to think of it, the thinking reader’s Hogwarts. The pace is really fast and there aren’t any lulls as the book progresses, but somehow there’s no sense of things being rushed. If you’ve read Wolf by Wolf and Blood for Blood, you’ll know Graudin is a genius at managing loads of action alongside emotional developments, relationships you care about and fascinating backstories, and Invictus is no different. The plot is very sci-fi in ways I won’t explain because they would spoil it; it’s all very cool.

Invictus combines a few of my favourite things; aside from time travel, it almost seems like a space-set novel too, because of how much time is spent aboard the amazing-sounding time travel craft. The crew’s adventures throughout time mean that the book also contains lots of fun and impeccably researched historical details too; I particularly liked the way every detail of how this would work had been thought out, for example with the ship being crammed with historically accurate outfits fit for every era. The book only adds to the idea that time travel would be the coolest thing ever.

I loved the characters too and the rapport between Farway and his crew is both touching and very funny. The banter between those aboard the Invictus is a really entertaining part of the book and their close bond gives the dramatic bits real emotional import. Also they have a pet red panda, which is my main ambition in life.

In Conclusion: Invictus is everything I want in a book; it’s fun and exciting, with a wildly inventive plot (that actually makes sense – not always true in time travel stories), filled with fascinating characters and zingy dialogue. My only disappointment with the whole thing is that it’s a standalone book rather than the start of a series. I can’t wait to read what Graudin writes next.

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Review: Another Fine Mess by Helen Epstein

another fine mess.pngThe Premise: In this powerful account of Ugandan dictator Yoweri Museveni’s 30 year reign, Helen Epstein chronicles how Western leaders’ single-minded focus on the War on Terror and their naive dealings with strongmen are at the root of much of the turmoil in eastern and central Africa. Museveni’s involvement in the conflicts in Sudan, South Sudan, Rwanda, Congo, and Somalia has earned him substantial amounts of military and development assistance, as well as near-total impunity. It has also short-circuited the power the people of this region might otherwise have over their destiny.

Thoughts: perhaps a slightly weird choice for my holiday reading, but a really captivating and absorbing one. I have a deeply held fascination with African history and politics, and Another Fine Mess is an extraordinary exploration of both. The combination of the seemingly unbelievable events and Epstein’s vibrant and propulsive style makes this an excellent read.
Prior to reading this, my knowledge of Uganda was limited to recent LGBT oppression, Idi Amin and Joseph Kony’s horrific actions in recruiting child soldiers. Thanks to Epstein, I can now also be outraged and horrified by Yoweri Museveni, Ugandan President since the 1980s and a leader of such low morals and high corruption that it’s supremely awful every time you remember he’s a real person and not an overblown fictional character.
Epstein’s main focus here is the enabling and supportive actions of the US, whose questionable approaches of providing aid without checking where it ended up while doing nothing to ensure the democratic process is followed have allowed Museveni, a leader widely believed to have had rivals murdered and rigged elections, to systematically deprive his citizens while lining his own pockets. It makes for genuinely shocking reading. Additionally, Epstein shows how much of the chaos of modern African history has been influenced by the US, either through action or inaction, firstly as a means of scoring points against the USSR during the Cold War and, more recently, in an effort to stifle radical Islamism in Sudan and beyond. It’s mindblowing. Epstein’s broadening focus also means other nations’ troubled recent histories are discussed, giving the reader a better grasp of Somalia, Sudan, Rwanda and the DRC too. While the fact that any of these awful things is possible makes no ethical sense to me, Another Fine Mess helped me to get my head round some issues which had previously confused me, like the terrible Rwandan genocide of 1994 and the chaotic wars fought in Zaire/DRC.

In Conclusion: a niche book, I suppose, but a fascinating, eye-opening and comprehensive one. Epstein brilliantly guides the reader through some incredibly complex political machinations, always bringing it back to the effects on ‘real’ people. I was enthralled by this book and I highly recommend it to readers with an interest in the history, present and future of the East African region.

Review: We Shall Not All Sleep by Estep Nagy

we shall not all sleep.pngThe Premise: (borrowed from NetGalley) It’s 1964. The Hillsingers and the Quicks have shared the small Maine island of Seven for generations. But though technically family–Jim Hillsinger and Billy Quick married Park Avenue sisters Lila and Hannah Blackwell–they do not mix. Now, on the anniversary of Hannah’s death, Lila feels grief pulling her toward Billy. And Jim, a spy recently ousted from the CIA on suspicion of treason, decides to carry out the threat his wife has explicitly forbidden: to banish their youngest son, the twelve-year-old Catta, to the neighboring island of Baffin for twenty-four hours in an attempt to make a man out of him.

With their elders preoccupied, the Hillsinger and Quick children run wild, playing violent games led by Catta’s sadistic older brother James. The island manager Cyrus and the servants tend to the families while preparing for the Migration, a yearly farming ritual that means one thing to their employers, and something very different to them.

Thoughts: I love a family saga, which is why I was interested in reading We Shall Not All Sleep. The idea of two interconnected families and a secluded island made me anticipate a kind of grown-up We Were Liars, and there are certainly aspects of the story which do recall that book; the gradually unravelling secrets and revelations make the latter part of We Shall Not All Sleep far more engaging than its opening chapters, which I struggled to get into.

There’s plenty that’s intriguing about Nagy’s novel. The island itself is interesting; it’s almost as if normal social rules don’t apply on Seven, with children left to their own devices in their own house, and adults only interfering in the lives of their offspring to dump them on spooky islands. I remain confused about why this happened, to be honest.

I became particularly engaged in the story when the flashbacks began to reveal what happened to Billy Quick’s wife; the addition of a Communist witch-hunt in the background added intrigue and impetus to the story and I found myself most interested when the author took me back to the past. The way in which all this ends up influencing the present is clever too, and the whole atmosphere of the novel is made creepier and more effective once this background story is fleshed out.

The problems the characters experience in We Shall Not All Sleep are often the result of their immense privilege, which did make me roll my eyes occasionally, but the occasional appearances of the servants (yes, there are servants. These people are like Jay Gatsby but less self-aware) created a voice of reason with which I could identify. The close juxtaposition of such contrasting characters and world-views definitely adds to the claustrophobic tension of the novel.

In Conclusion: while not a perfect novel, there’s certainly enough secrecy, intrigue and drama in We Shall Not All Sleep to keep even the hardest-to-please reader interested. There were aspects I would have liked to see more of (i.e. more Communism, please), but, overall, it’s a well-balanced book and one that holds the reader’s attention.

YA Review: Moonrise by Sarah Crossan

moonriseThe Premise: Joe hasn’t seen his brother for ten years, and it’s for the most brutal of reasons. Ed is on death row. But now Ed’s execution date has been set, and this might be the last summer they have together.

Thoughts: Sarah Crossan has a proven record of writing things that break my heart a little bit. I can’t walk past the bookshelf where Apple and Rain sits without having a little sniffle and please don’t ever make me talk about One unless you’re prepared to watch me rock gently and weep for several hours. Moonrise fits firmly into this tearjerker category, with the story of Joe’s struggle to process his brother’s fate creating plenty of pathos.

As with One and Crossan’s other verse novel, We Come Apart, the nature of the poetry in Moonrise only amplifies the emotive aspects of the story, particularly when Joe dwells on his ambivalent feelings towards Ed and the catastrophic effects of his arrest on the family as a whole. Just seventeen as his brother faces the lethal injection, Joe has had the kind of fictional life that might seem overly tragedy-filled, but which is dealt with in such a nuanced way here that the reader can only sympathise.

I’m always interested in YA novels that deal with difficult or political issues, and Moonrise does both; through Ed’s situation, Crossan questions the morality and logic of the death penalty as well as detailing some of the legal processes involved, with various appeals and reflections on Ed’s initial arrest and court case.  Joe’s family is just getting by financially, and so Crossan adds another layer of topical plotting here, subtly conveying the idea that, the poorer you are, the less likely you are to be able to pursue justice.

In Conclusion: I thought Moonrise was really pretty stunning. It hit me in all the right places emotionally, it’s realistic despite its often dreamy verse, and it’s a story that’s compelling, relevant and not often explored in YA. What impresses me with Crossan’s writing is that she’s able to upset and challenge her reader without her books being depressing or mawkish. Moonrise is no exception, and it’s a book I absolutely recommend.