Utterly Dark and the Face of the Deep by Philip Reeve

Cover art by Paddy Donnelly

It is always a good sign when a book starts with a map.

One of the amazing things about Philip Reeve is his ability to create and write about such vastly different worlds in such a way that they come alive on the pages, are usually characters that affect the storyline and live on in your head for a long, long time.

That the same person created and wrote Mortal Engines, Railhead, Larklight (amongst others) and now Utterly Dark is a magical mystery to me. But I am so happy that he did.

Utterly Dark is a foundling, washed up on the shores of the Autumn Isles and taken in by Andrewe Dark, the mysterious Watcher of Wildsea. When her guardian walks into the ocean one day and drowns, Utterly is thrust into the role of Watcher… can she keep the island safe from the threat of the terrifying Gorm? Unforeseen mysteries lie beneath the ocean’s surface. Adventure beckons, and Utterly will unearth astonishing secrets about the sea, her parents and life itself. Wildsea will never be the same again…

I read this in one sitting…always the sign of a good read.

Reeve has created characters with depth, with a backstory in lore, sea witches, sea and land magic and unbelievers.

As Utterly grows, develops friendships and trust in those around her, and learns of her surroundings, the Hidden Islands, the role of the Watcher, the history of Wildsea and its inhabitants over the generations, she struggles to understand her role in what is happening. The sea, its power, mystery and stories invade her dreams. She feels she is being watched all time time and wonders why.

The sea around Wildsea is alive, takes lives and sometimes offers bodies back to the land, is full of mysterious water dragons, Men o’ Weed and other lorish creatures. Why is it so interested in Utterly? Who should she believe…the written logs of her adoptive father (The Watcher)? Her uncle who moved away from the island many years ago and has forgotten the pull of belief in the folklore? Her new friends Aish and Egg (who refuse to touch or go near the sea)? The sea witch, Thurza Froy, who lost her husband to the hidden depths?

Relationships are at the heart of this story and what ultimately help Utterly when she has a choice to make. I think we can all relate to that.

P.S. I grew up crushing eggshells before throwing them away. I still do it. I had been told that if I didn’t, witches would sail to sea in them and sink boats. Uncle Will obviously got told the same story!

From Utterly Dark and the Face of the Deep by Philip Reeve

Thanks to NetGalley and David Fickling Books for the eARC.

The Memory Thieves by Darren Simpson (due out 5 Aug 2021)

What you don’t remember can’t hurt you…

Cyan has lived at the Elsewhere Sanctuary for as long as he can remember, freed by Dr Haven from dark memories of his past life. But when Cyan finds a mysterious warning carved into the bones of a whale skeleton, he starts to wonder what he had to forget to be so happy.

New resident, Jonquil, begins to resist the sanctuary’s treatment, preferring to hold on to her memories – even the bad ones. So when Dr Haven resorts to harsher measures, Cyan embarks on a secret mission to discover the truth about the sanctuary…and himself.

This is an intricately constructed dystopian world, a mixture of what we know blended with sci-fi … an island where the tide went out and never came back again, no wildlife, an invisible boundary shield, a building that can reset its rooms (like 3D Tetris), tracking devices, clocks with no hands, memory suppressing drugs and teenagers who just want to forget.

The themes tackled in this story are difficult ones and raise many ethical questions. Guilt, sorrow, medically induced memory loss, secret experimental drug trials.

Through the story, the author helps us to see that all our memories, experiences and feelings make us who we are, mould us into the people we become. Just because you cannot remember a key event or person does not mean you are no longer unaffected, even subconsciously.

Despite the difficult themes and my worry for what comes next for the characters, I thoroughly enjoyed the story and was engrossed in the lives of the characters and the world they inhabited. This is the first book I have read by Darren Simpson but it definitely won’t be the last.

Thank you to NetGalley and Usborne for the eARC.

Adam-2 by Alastair Chisholm (due out 5 Aug 2021)

Adam-2, a robot, has been locked in the basement of a lost building for over two hundred years, following a daily routine – until one day he is discovered by two children, and emerges into a world ruined by a civil war between humans and advanced intelligence. Hunted by both sides, Adam discovers that he holds the key to the war, and the power to end it – to destroy one side and save the other. But which side is right? Surrounded by enemies who want to use him, and allies who mistrust him, Adam must decide who – and what – he really is.

Over the past few years, there has been a distinct lack of Sci-fi books for children. Thankfully, this situation is changing. This is Chisholm’s second, and is even better than his debut in this genre, Orion Lost, which was excellent.

Adam-2 is told from two points of view – the robot, Adam-2, and one of the humans, Linden. It is good to finally read a story with a non binary main character (using the pronouns ze/hir), who is integral to the plot.

Adam-2 is not like the other robots, he can think and imagine scenarios, not just follow programmed orders. He can learn and apply his knowledge. He is also immune to the EMP charges that the humans use to temporarily disable robots they fight against. Adam-2 has to work out what has happened to create, and prolong, the long term war between the humans and robots and find a way to end the war to bring peace.

There are various themes throughout – war/peace, friendships, family, trust and the rights and wrong of developing AI. Via Linden, and the influence hir mother (and her death) has on hir, we witness the struggle to work out the right path to take and also the power of telling stories, both to the teller and the audience.

I enjoyed Adam-2 and thoroughly recommend it. 5 star plus.

Thanks to NetGalley and Nosy Crow for the eARC.

Mystery of the Night Watchers by A.M. Howell

MAY, 1910. As the blazing Halley’s comet draws close to the earth, Nancy is uprooted to start a new life in Suffolk with a grandfather she has never met. With every curtain drawn shut, Nancy is forbidden from leaving her grandfather’s house: no one must know that her or her mother are there.

Yet, when Nancy discovers the house’s secret observatory, she watches her mother and grandfather creep out every night… Where are they going? And why mustn’t any of them be seen? Why does the Mayor hate her grandfather? As the mysteries pile up, Nancy has to bring dark secrets from the past to light – even if doing so will put her own life at risk.

A.M. Howell has done it again. A very enjoyable, mysterious, quick-paced adventure with many secrets being revealed to Nancy about her family as she investigates what her mother and grandfather are up to. Some of the secrets she is happy to discover, a couple not so much. The story is about family, the secrets they keep (and the reasons why), trust, power (how not to use it) and standing up for what you know to be the right thing, no matter how difficult it is or who it is you are standing up against. Sometimes you can be surprised by who else will stand with you once you start.

Anyone who knows me, knows I love a map in the front of a book. A.M. Howell doesn’t disappoint, featuring a map of 1910 Bury St. Edmunds as brought to life by Nancy and friends.

I was provided with an eARC of this book by NetGalley and Usborne Publishing. It is published on 8th July 2021.

The Incredible Talking Machine by Jenni Spangler

Pull back the curtain and enter a world where mystery and magic take centre stage in a gloriously gothic, Victorian era adventure.

Twelve-year-old Tig works at Manchester’s Theatre Royale, cleaning, selling tickets, crawling along beams to light the gas stage lamps and anything else that is asked of her by her deliciously villainous boss, Mr Snell.

A strange and intriguing new act, a talking machine, arrives and behaves in a way that Tig just can’t work out. The machine appears to be hinting at a dangerous secret, so Tig must race against time to solve the mysterious clues. Just when she thinks she has, it turns out she was wrong and, because of her impetuousness, problems occur and her close friends start to mistrust her.

An action packed Victorian adventure full of ghosts, gadgets, a dress with pockets (if you know, you know) and shifty villains.

Jenni Spangler has used a real story to create a tense, atmospheric tale involving a cast of characters so well written that I read it in one afternoon. It helps that I have always been fascinated by stagecraft and inventions/curiosities like this

There is plenty of action, from Tig balancing on beams high above the stage in the dark, lighting the new gas stage lamps to mysterious thefts, disappearances and races to try to prevent the machine’s “open to interpretation” predictions of catastrophe.

However, the strength of the story lies in the characters that Jenni has created.

  • Tig, the feisty, impetuous, determined heroine.
  • Nelson, the sensible, cautious friend.
  • Mr Snell, the villainous, permanently nagging boss.
  • Gus, the ambitious but sneaky stagehand.
  • Mr (oops, sorry, Professor) Faber, the eccentric German inventor of the talking machine.
  • Eliza, the stage manager, who does her best to look after Tig when her “act first, think later” attitude gets her in trouble.
  • Euphonia, the talking head…does she have a mind of her own?
  • Annie…you will need to read the book to find out about her.

Chris Mould’s brilliant illustrations capture perfectly the array of characters and the gothic feel of the time, adding even more texture to an already well woven story.

Bone Music by David Almond

“It’s no good rewilding the world , if we do not rewild ourselves.”

Sylvia has been brought from her city home in Newcastle to the vast, never-ending landscapes and skies of rural Northumberland for a break. She feels cut off, isolated and, in a strange way, enclosed by the depth of seemingly endless darkness that first night.

She then meets enigmatic Gabriel, who shows her the countryside and links to the past. Their walks and talks enable Sylvia to look within herself and within the landscape for connections to the past, her past, the past of the landscape and nature. This is deepened by her making of an ancient musical instrument from the wing bone of a buzzard.

Sylvia is concerned about humans and the destruction they bring to the planet. By embracing her surroundings, the history, the music and the people, by letting herself get lost in them, she finds her true self as well as hope and light, which gives her a deep, deep sense of belonging and courage to fight for the future.

David Almond is a master wordsmith, painting stunning images in the reader’s head. His prose is poetic, lyrical. It evokes the infinite landscape and skies of Northumberland, the musicality of nature and the wilderness through time.

As I read this, I could not help but reference the words and images of The Dam (2019, David Almond, illustrated by Levi Pinfold), which has the same modern/ancient, music/ghostly themes. The flooded village is later mentioned in Bone Music, the lake now part of the natural, ever changing but constant landscape.

The themes of humans verses the environment, ancient verses modern, light versus dark, destruction versus creation are deep. Sylvia’s journey to Northumberland and inside herself provide hope, light and music that will strengthen and heal.

Whilst Sylvia is the main character, for me the landscape and music are the unconventional stars of this story.

The cover design, by David Litchfield, is hauntingly beautiful. It encapsulated so much of the meaning in this story.

I was provided with an eARC of this by NetGalley and Hachette Books. Thank you.

The Follower by Kate Doughty (due to be published 23.3.2021)

The Follower is a YA story that follows the story of teenage triplets, Cecily, Amber and Rudy Cole. They are the personalities that front the family’s social media influencer account about house flipping. They take on multi million dollar makeovers, live-streaming and photoshopping their way to sponsorships that increasingly become needed due to the family finances. The majority of followers (The Cole Patrol) are in awe.

The triplets each had their own “thing” on social media. Cecily does make up and wanted to delve into the chemicals and science of the make up. Amber has been relegated by mum to the behind camera operations, despite wanting to promote her plus size fashion tips and Rudy has become the “host with the most”, when all he wants to do is investigate and dabble in his music.

But all is not as “prefect” as it seems, both on social media and in their lives. The triplets are increasing fed up with their mother’s control of their output (mainly due to financial pressures) and the never ending need for the perfect shots to up the follower count.

When they take on a house in the New York suburbs that has been empty for a few years after a suicide, the locals are none too happy and neither is one particular follower. This is when things start to totally unravel for the Cole family.

The Follower posts messages to their account warning them off “my house”. The family ignore these until strange things start to happen. Items are moved or disappear, doors are locked that were previously open, shadows are seen, footsteps heard…but no solid evidence. The normally encouraging and cheerleading followers start to take notice of The Follower’s postings and accuse the Coles of fake news and faking accidents for internet hits, turning against the family.

I wanted to tell them to stop posting, but like all horror stories, characters always do things we all know would be sensible not to.

The incidents become increasingly life threatening but are difficult to prove to the police. Rudy takes on his own investigation, with the support of his sisters and a couple of local teenagers they have befriended. This just increases the rage of The Follower.

The tension builds during the story, clues lead in a range of different directions until the final, slightly bemusing denouement. I felt there were not enough hints earlier in the story to have possibly worked out who The Follower was. However, the explanation added to the depth of the back story. There is no final “happy” ending…we are left wondering what will happen next.

There are some difficult themes in this book: loss, disfigurement, stalking, death, suicide, as well as the overarching theme of social media portrayal of life vs reality (lies vs truth?), which leads the narrative and is very uncomfortable at times.

There are some follower posts between each chapter, on a background of a shadow (The Follower). These add to the creepiness of the story. I noticed that the shadow is not always in the same place, which added to my unnerved feeling.

Cover and other illustrations are by Hana Anouk Nakamura.

This is a story loosely based on an ongoing true story. It is deeply unsettling.

Thanks to NetGalley and Amulet Books/ABRAMSbooks for an eARC.

Girl 38 by Ewa Jozefkowicz

Girl 38 is three stories in one. Kat finds herself, as a teenager, feeling lonely and realising her best friend since nursery is actually very controlling, bullying her into things she does not want to do.

As an escape from this, Kat creates comic strip stories set in the future about Girl 38, a strong, brave character. People in her life provide her with inspiration for the qualities, both good and bad, of the comic strip characters.

At the same time as a new boy joins her school, annoying her best friend, Kat finally meets and begins a friendship with the elderly Polish lady, Ania, who lives next door.

Ania begins to tell Kat about her search for a friend in World War II, a story that includes jumping from a train, sewers and grim determination. Kat, without telling Ania what is happening in her own life at the time, reflects on Ania’s experiences and makes links to her own situation.

As the tale unfolds, will Kat find inspiration and courage from Ania’s experiences to finally stand up for herself? Will she find the right ending for Girl 38?

This is one of those books that has been on my tbr pile for too long. I cannot believe I did not read it before now.

The author deals with the difficult subjects of control, bullying and the occupation of Poland in WWII with aplomb. There are themes of moral courage, bravery, friendship, hope and finding light in the dark, which Ewa Jozefkowicz tackles with a sure touch, enabling the readers to enjoy the story whilst also contemplating the impact people in your life have.

The stylish cover illustration, by Anna Hymas, beautifully depicts the three stories told in the book.

Space Oddity by Christopher Edge

Do you want Cosmic capers? UFOs? Alien Abductions? Killer Robots? Smelly aliens? Embarrassing dads? Zorbs?

Then this is the book for you.

It also has numerous references to Star Wars, Doctor Who and a certain David Bowie Song…”and there is nothing I can do”.

Space Oddity is a fast paced adventure. Jake thinks his dad is embarrassing (is that not the role of parents though?) and when asked at a dad and son space adventure weekend if he would rather have a boring dad or an out of this world dad, he really wants to say the first option. But then, when his dad is abducted, he will do anything to get him back.

This is a story about relationships, perception of others and how you feel others see you. It is also about songs and music but I won’t spoil that part.

There are, in my opinion, not enough sci-fi novels for children. This is an excellent entry to that category for 8+ to read on their own or, even better, to enjoy as a bedtime shared read.

Christopher Edge has also created an out of this world book soundtrack to go along with the book. You can find it here: https://open.spotify.com/playlist/0gcbXz0uHZePqLDMermKyJ

The Monsters of Rookhaven by Pádraig Kenny

Nothing is as it seems in Rookhaven. No one is as they seem in Rookhaven.

Mirabelle and her family are suddenly exposed to the outside world when two orphan siblings, Tom and Jem, accidentally find their way through the invisible shield that protects them from the outside world…or is it the other way round? Who wouldn’t want to be protected by carnivorous plants?

The family are a bit of a mismatched group, all with their own past experiences and special skills. Especially the enigmatic Piglet, the being locked in the cellar. Is everything as it seems? Would it make things better or worse if Piglet is released?

Pádraig Kenny has written a classic gothic tale for children. There are echoes of other fictional worlds but the author has created a unique world with unique characters. Every one of them finds out more about themselves and we as readers are led to think one thing then forced to re-evaluate what we already thought we knew.

Themes of family, friendship, trust, fear, community, grief, morality and mortality are tackled deftly.

Edward Bettison’s illustrations are used to superb effect throughout the book, like light shining through the dark.

Endpapers…I love them and these by Edward Bettison are stunning. They are an added extra that echo the illustrations throughout the book that complement the story telling.