Monday 22 July 2013

Reviewed by Arianne: Skin Deep by Laura Jarratt, The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater & The Hit by Melvin Burgess.

Skin Deep is a showcase of everything there is to love about UKYA. Like the book itself, I'll keep this review short and sweet - but the way in which Laura Jarratt touches on deeper issues should not go unmentioned. There's a lot of brokenness in this story and it sets a different tone for what would otherwise be an easy read.

Jenna is a very sensitive protagonist and this makes her hard to root for. I almost wish she'd become more caustic after the accident that scarred her so she could act without fear or worry, but she's only fourteen years old and can be forgiven for caring too much about what other people think of her. Ryan is sixteen and a lot more likeable. He's too tame to be a bad boy by some standards but he's no goody-two-shoes, either. He has issues of his own - his mother is bipolar and he faces discrimination because of his background - but he deals with his problems with admirable self-assurance. The age difference between Jenna and Ryan makes their romance a little unrealistic but it's paced well and I like the fact it's strongly based in friendship and trust.

The real surprise in Skin Deep is a sudden and gripping change of plot which comes about two-thirds into the book. I can't say much without giving away major spoilers, but let's just say it's a stroke of genius on behalf of an author who could have easily made her story about character progression and little else. 

In short: I'll admit there are moments in this book when some more edge is needed to make it really shine, but with a great male lead and a fantastic plot twist, it's well worth checking out.

Skin Deep by Laura Jarratt.  Publisher: Electric Monkey.  Released: March 2012. Ages: 12+    Rating:  4 out of 5. 

Like many other Maggie Stiefvater fans, I had high expectations for this book. I had some reservations about its style and premise - it's always hard to follow up a major series - but on the whole I was looking forward to it. There's a real sense that it's vastly different from anything else we've seen on the shelves lately and I really like that.

The water horses were the biggest appeal of the book for me. They're volatile creatures, but they're not caricatures - just because your feed on blood and inhabit a world full of charms and magic doesn't mean you have to conform to stereotype! There were few holes in the world-building and the island community which surrounded the famed races really drew me in.

However, entering the Scorpio Races is no joke and you're always aware of this fact as you read. There's a seriousness about the narrative that suits the huge commitment made by Puck and Sean as they risk their lives every moment they spend training for the race. And in the end, that's the problem. There's just so much build-up, such detailed prose that it lacks any of the pace or excitement you'd expect from a book that promises thrilling danger and dicing with death at every turn. 

The characters didn't strike a chord with me, either. I could barely tell the narrators apart (oh yes, it's dual perspective - not that you can tell during most of the book!) and this ruined any hope of me making a connection with them. I had hoped some the background cast would make up for this, but they didn't. 

One redeeming factor of The Scorpio Races is its timelessness. It puts Maggie Stiefvater way ahead of the pack when it comes to versatility and individuality - she's shown she can break out into unknown territory and change the way she writes to suit the story. I may not have adored it, but it's certainly memorable.

The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater.  Publisher: Scholastic.  Released: Oct. 2011. Ages: 13+    Rating:  3½ out of 5.  

As a publisher, Chicken House has been very kind to the literary world of late. It's delivered a number of fantastic standalones and quite a few blockbuster series in the past couple of years, so when I heard the idea behind this book had come straight from Barry Cunningham himself, I immediately expected big things from it. 

From the word go this book is all about the deadline - the knowledge that time is running out fast - and this creates fantastic tension. There is pace and an urge to keep the pages turning from the very first chapter. Living in the moment and basking in the excesses of youth are not concepts unique to The Hi, but  the idea of a drug that gives you more than a high, that it gives you the best week of life you could possibly imagine - that's original. The terrible price paid for taking that drug, however, is the real hook. 

It's unfortunate, then, that The Hit's writing doesn't really live up to the standard set by it's thrilling premise. There's no strength to the narrative. Adam is never fully endeared to us or given adequate motivation for his actions. I liked Anna, and Jess has a very magnetic pull for the page-time he has to work with, but even these characters felt flat and forced at times. 

Of course, there was  plenty of potential with a book like this - but it fell into the classic trap of mistaking graphic content for courageous storytelling. There was nothing brave about the way Burgess tackled his subjects. It was as if he felt obligated by the bleak backdrop to pack the pages with unnecessary violence. The uprising stirring within the pages had me filled with excited anticipation - but I soon felt alienated and bored by the relentless grit that seemed to underpin the entire novel.

In short: The Hit has a great premise, but the writing doesn't live up to expectations. I've had the pleasure of reading several outstanding books by British authors lately, but this isn't one of them.

 The Hit by Melvin Burgess.  Publisher: Chicken House.  Released: April 2013. Ages: 14+    Rating:  2½ out of 5.   Source: Received from publisher for review.


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