American War – Omar El Akkad

The story…

Set in the near future, America as we know it has been irrevocably changed by war, natural disasters and a devastating man-made virus. Old tensions between the north and the south, reignited over the issue of fossil fuels, lead to a war that spans decades. Sarat Chesnut is just six years old when the Second American War breaks out, but she and her family are changed forever by the horrors that it unleashes. As she grows up, Sarat is drawn deeper and deeper into the shadowy world of the militant resistance and splinter groups that are determined to do whatever is required to achieve their goals.

My thoughts…

Omar El Akkad describes an America that has been torn apart by civil war. In the south, refugee camps become permanent homes for those displaced by bombs, violence and the changing, inhospitable landscape. Efforts on both sides to reduce tension generally end in failure. Young people grow up and are recruited into increasingly radical militant groups, determined to defend their home against all the odds.

Sarat is one of those young people. Faced with poverty, displacement and loss from an early age, she is drawn into playing an important role in the resistance. As readers, we’re powerless to do anything but watch as she is shaped by the world around her into an instrument of war. As she becomes more and more immersed in this world, the consequences have a huge impact on her personally. Continue reading

Discussion post: Reading outside your comfort zone

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When it comes to reading, I’d say I have quite eclectic tastes. I’m just as happy reading literary fiction as I am epic fantasy. I’ve always got time for a good thriller or crime novel and if I hear about a great new dystopian or post-apocalyptic book, I’ll buy it straight away.

That said, there are a number of genres that in general, I don’t tend to read. This includes poetry, non-fiction, autobiographies and books that are too focused around war or long-drawn out battles. I’m also not a huge fan of young adult contemporaries.

Of course there are exceptions to every rule. I recently read and really enjoyed When Breath Becomes Air, a memoir by neurosurgeon Paul Kalanithi. I do enjoy character driven novels set in the time period of WWI or WWII, just not those that are overly focused on the technicalities of battles. I really enjoyed Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, which looks at a real life crime and its repercussions. I’m also hoping to explore poetry more in the future and have heard that Rupi Kaur’s Milk and Honey is a good collection to start off with.

Sometimes when browsing through other book blogs, I see reviews of books or lists of new releases that sound great or that have amazing beautiful covers – even though they aren’t in a genre I usually read. I also hear a lot of hype about particular books in the blogosphere, particularly YA contemporaries, that makes me wish that I’d read something and could join in the conversation. This can sometimes tempt me in, but a part of me is still always wary of investing in something if I know there’s a high chance it won’t be for me.

In the long run, I do think it’s best to understand your own likes and dislikes, and to accept that they might well be different from other peoples. There’s nothing wrong with trying to read outside of your genre every once in a while, especially if it’s something that’s been recommended to you, but I personally think I’d rather focus my time on genres that I know I’m more likely to enjoy based on past experiences.

What are your views on this? Are you an adventurous reader? Do you feel sometimes feel pressured to read books that aren’t generally your go-to genre or do you know what you like and stick to it?

Golden Son – Pierce Brown

Golden SonThe story: Having made it through the Institute and secured a patronage from one of the most powerful men on Mars, Darrow has continued his studies in warfare and leadership. This goes further afield than his own planet and includes commanding fleets of ships in epic space battles. He’s fully embedded in the Gold ruling classes, while also working hard to break it apart from within.

My thoughts: I’ve read enough YA thrillers to know that sometimes they fall down flat when they try and move past the trials of book one into the wider universe of their fictional book world. Golden Son manages this feat magnificently, despite having a far vaster and more complicated world than any other series I’ve ever read.

Where in Red Rising we were focused on just one tiny part of the universe Pierce Brown has created, in Golden Son we see much more of it. We also learn more about the structure of society and how it all fits together. Politics and strategy play a far greater role in this book, and there’s an emphasis on how all actions and decisions have consequences. Continue reading

Red Rising – Pierce Brown

Red RisingThe story:
Set in the distant future, where the human race is divided by a rigid class system of colours, colonies of Red miners toil under the surface of Mars, harvesting natural elements that will terraform its surface and make it an inhabitable environment in the future. Sixteen year old Darrow is one of these Reds, born underground and raised to risk his life on a daily basis. Food is scarce and life expectancy is short. The rules are enforced by a strict hierarchical class system that’s preceded over by the Gold’s – supposedly superior to all other colours both physically and mentally. When Darrow discovers that his life is built on a lie, he’s given a dangerous mission to integrate himself into the very heart of Gold society.

My thoughts:
Darrow is sent to the Institute, where young Gold’s play deadly games to win power. It’s a trial by fire that is designed to push them to the limits and teach them how to wage war and become the leaders of tomorrow. Weakness isn’t tolerated and not everyone will make it through. Parallels could be drawn to the Hunger Games, but it’s a very different type of competition. The aim here is for power and ultimate victory – achieved through intellect and strategy and the ability to command their peers.

Darrow is a great character. He’s definitely not perfect – he’s reckless, angry and overly bold. He’s smart but he also shows that he can be ruthless and brutal. This means that he’s not always a particularly likeable character, but you still end up rooting for him all the same. Throughout the book he goes through some intense challenges, questioning his own identity, who to trust and what actions can be justified for the greater good. Continue reading

Emily St John Mandel’s Station Eleven

Station ElevenIn Station Eleven, 99% of the population has been wiped out by the Georgian Flu. Towns and cities have been deserted, as people set out to escape the flu, which spread quickly and without mercy throughout densely populated areas. Instead, settlements have sprung up wherever people ended up when they ran out of fuel – around petrol stations or fast food restaurants – or at hotels or defunct airport lounges.
It starts with the death of Arthur Leander, who collapses on stage whilst performing King Lear at a Toronto theatre, just days before the collapse. Arthur dies in the old world, but the lives of people who knew him wind throughout the past and the present. From his ex-wives to the young child actress playing a walk-on part in Lear, he is the glue that holds the novel together.

Twenty years in the future, the national grid is down. The survivors have no electricity. Even if they can discover ways to generate their own power, the internet is down. Modern communication methods no longer exist. Kirsten, the child who once performed in King Lear, is now part of the Travelling Symphony, travelling the country performing plays by Shakespeare. They offer people much needed and wanted entertainment as they rebuild their lives again from scratch. But when travelling through one settlement, it becomes clear that something is wrong. The symphony is threatened, and has to pull together and rely on all their wits to avoid falling into the clutches of the dangerous self-proclaimed ‘Prophet’.

In the past, Arthur’s first wife, Miranda, struggles to cope with the pressures of life of Hollywood, while Elizabeth, his second, takes her young son to live halfway around the world. Arthur’s college friend, Clark, remembers the person that he used to be. Arthur’s death is a catalyst that throws them all back together.

But the backbone of this story isn’t about the plague itself, and it’s not really about the symphony’s altercation with the Prophet, which provides just a loose framework and structure for the novel. There are no huge battles for supplies or survival. Instead, this book is about how people adapt and change as a result of events that have changed the world beyond recognition. It’s about the relationships that people form and the search for answers behind a natural disaster. Continue reading

Discussing Antonia Honeywell’s ‘The Ship’

The ShipI was lucky enough to be selected as a member of the Curtis Brown Book Group, and Antonia Honeywell’s debut novel ‘The Ship’ was the first book up for discussion. It was a great pick, and there are so many points for discussion that it’s hard to know where to start!

Sixteen year-old Lalla has been raised in a world that is slowly disintegrating before her eyes. Floods, banking crashes, food shortages and disease have destroyed parts of the world and driven the survivors into small, isolated pockets. Every citizen is required to keep themselves registered. Without their cards, they are no longer considered to be the responsibility of the government and are liable to be shot on sight. The homeless and the unregistered are forced to seek shelter wherever they can – from a tent city in Regents Park to the British Museum or St Paul’s Cathedral.

For as long as she can remember, Lalla’s parents have been talking about the Ship – the vessel that will lead them to a better place along with five hundred carefully selected ‘worthy’ souls. But when Lalla finally makes it onto the promised Ship, she can’t shake the feeling that there’s something deeply wrong. She’s plagued with questions that no one is willing to answer – where are they going, who are they leaving behind, and ultimately, what are they living for? Continue reading

David Hofmeyr’s ‘Stone Rider’

Stone RiderLife on Earth is tough and fraught with violence. Pollution has destroyed the quality of the air people breathe and there’s an ever-present threat of radiation. For those on the ground, the only options are to live their life working in the mines or to become a rider, risking their lives as they take to their bykes and compete, racing to win a one way ticket to the mysterious Sky Base.

When fifteen year old Adam enters the Blackwater Trail, he knows that the majority of the riders won’t return. The landscape is unforgiving, the obstacle courses are booby-trapped and people will do absolutely anything to win, including taking out their fellow competitors. Soon enough, he’s teamed up with the dark, enigmatic outsider Kane and Sadie Blood, daughter of one of the most powerful families in town. Together, the three of them take on the course and battle every impediment hurled in their way, hoping to escape their lives for something better. Continue reading

‘A Lovely Way to Burn’ by Louise Welsh

A Lovely Way to BurnAny regular readers of my blog will know that I have a thing for dystopian fiction. I also love a good crime novel. Louise Welsh’s new novel, ‘A Lovely Way to Burn’, is a mash up of these two genres and so was always going to be hit in my book.

Stevie Flint is horrified when she discovers the dead body of her boyfriend, Simon. But having reported it to the police, she’s immediately struck down by a debilitating flu-like illness. When she recovers, she emerges to find that people across the country are being struck down by a mysterious, and in most cases fatal, sickness known as the ‘sweats’. It soon becomes clear that people are dying in droves – and there’s nothing that the doctors can do.

Despite everything that’s going on, Stevie is determined to find out what happened to Simon – and when she finds a package addressed to her hidden in Simon’s flat, she is convinced there’s more to the story. Continue reading

‘The Girl with All the Gifts’ by M. R. Carey

The girl with the giftsTen-year-old Melanie’s world consists of the four walls of her room, the corridor and the schoolroom. She loves school, and even more so if it’s Miss Justineau’s day to teach. To all extents and purposes, Melanie seems just like any other little girl, but it soon becomes clear that all is not what it seems. Every time Melanie leaves her room, she’s strapped into a wheelchair, unable to move or even turn her head. Her classmates have a habit or disappearing and never coming back, and the guards never relinquish their grip on their guns.

It’s hard to go much further without giving away spoilers, but we soon find out that Melanie and her classmates are anything but normal children. In the wake of an unexpected and deadly event, society is struggling to survive. Melanie’s schoolroom is on a scientific army base, where people are desperately searching for solutions, whatever the cost. Continue reading

Chatting to Joelle Charbonneau!

I’m so excited to announce the very first author interview on The Stacked Shelf. The amazing and lovely Joelle Charbonneau, author of the fantastic THE TESTING series (links to my reviews of the first two books here and here), has kindly agreed to chat about writing, her inspirations and some exciting future projects! Read on to find out more…

I hope you all enjoy reading this and gaining an insight into the workings of a writer as much as I did, and thanks again to Joelle for agreeing to take part!

The TestingTell us a bit about your background – how did you come to be a writer?

I went to college and to graduate school for music and theater and for the next several years performed in operas, musicals, children’s theater and lots of other crazy acting and singing kinds of things. It wasn’t until about 8 years after college that I started writing. I was the only person in my dressing room for the show I was doing that didn’t make the next show and I suddenly had an opening idea for a book in my head. And for some crazy reason I decided to write that book. It was a bad book, but I decided that I loved the challenge of telling a story and kept going.

What inspires you?

EVERYTHING! Honestly, I am inspired by great stories, by music, by my voice students, by my son’s laughter and by the kindness of the people I have met throughout my life. The world is filled with inspiring things and I find something new to be amazed by each and every day.

Your ‘The Testing’ trilogy is set in a dystopian future, where do your ideas come from?

The idea for THE TESTING series came out of my work with my voice students. I work one on one with teenagers on their singing. Many of those teens decide they want to go to college for singing or acting and then I work with them on their college auditions. The process is stressful and the stress can often overwhelm them. One year, I found myself wondering how the process could become more stressful. I wanted to know under what circumstances the world would turn the process of getting into college into something that could mean life or death. And the Testing was born!

Cia is a great character – she’s strong, smart and balanced. How did she develop throughout the trilogy? Is she based on anyone you know?

One of my students at the time I came up with the idea for The Testing is 5’2″ and has dark hair. So, I guess Cia’s outward appearance is probably based on her. But Cia’s starting point for her journey is really based on all of my students. They are all optimistic about the world and their future. Most of them come from good families. I wanted Cia to represent them. I also wanted her personal character growth to reflect what I see in my students as they go off to college and learn that the world is more complex and harder than they originally thought. They become more balanced and more confident. They also experience a lot of painful growing moments and come out the other side a little less happy, but a whole lot wiser.

What is the hardest thing about writing?

The middle! The middle of every book is really tough. The beginning of books are always interesting and engaging and the idea is fresh and new. The end of books are exciting because you’ve scaled the mountain. There is no better feeling than THE END. But the middle is where your doubts and unhappiness creep in. The middle (no matter how fast a writer writes) is always long and scary and filled with uncertainty.

What book/s are you reading at present?

I am reading Jason Reynold’s WHEN I WAS THE GREATEST. It’s awesome.

If you could have been the original author of any book, what would it have been and why?

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. It is still quite possibly my favorite book and the one that taught me to believe that anything is possible!

As a writer, what’s the one thing you can’t live without?

Diet Pepsi…honest! I need my Diet Pepsi.

What are you working on at the moment?

I am currently working on proofing my next book which is a young adult thriller called NEED, which involves an elite social networking site that allows anonymous users to say what they need and offered them a chance to get it. I’m also writing a brand new stand alone YA thriller that has the working title of MASKED. I’m closing in on the middle section. Wish me luck!