Diary in a dark world: Never Let Me Go – By Kazuo Ishiguro

Dystopian, Fictional Memoir, Romance, Sci-Fi

I was around two-thirds of the way through Frankenstein when I realised I had barely read in a week. I’d enjoyed the book up until halfway, at which point I often found myself re-reading the same paragraphs, forcing myself to go on. I was in a rut. Whether this was due to the book or my state of mind I’m not sure, but I wanted to get out of it. Looking up at my stack of books for inspiration, I realised almost immediately what I should read. I’d bought Never Let Me Go a while ago after hearing about the book and the even more popular film. It’d been sitting on my shelf for a while, and for no particular reason, I had never got around to reading it.


Never Let Me Go is set in a darkly distorted version of our present – too familiar to be dystopian, but not quite true-to-life enough to be realistic fiction. The book centres on three students’ childhood in a picturesque boarding school and their lives after leaving, following their friendships and romances. Written from the near future, the narrative meanders spontaneously as Kathy H, the narrator, recalls memories from her past. It reminds me of a diary – descriptive, but not boring; somewhat digressive, with one anecdote leading on to the next, but not difficult to follow. Although it’s hard to put my finger on how, the book is definitely well written whilst also remaining highly readable – a rare feat.

Before starting the book, I read the cover’s review excerpts; one described the novel’s subject as ‘ourselves, seen through a glass, darkly.’ (Margaret Atwood, Slate.com) When I began reading, however, I was confused – I struggled to recognise any of our society reflected in the book’s skewed world. It was only as more details were revealed, near the end of the book, that the setting stopped being a distant horrific fantasy, but became conceivable, something that I could imagine happening. I was left with a scary thought, a dismal vision for the world’s future.

Overall, Never Let Me Go is a fantastic book – readable, well-written, and a familiar narrative with thought-provoking themes running beneath the surface. I would recommend the book to those who enjoy books largely about relationships; it is also great for people who like dark, somewhat dystopian stories.

My Ratings (out of 10 As):

Plot/Story: AAAAAAAA (8)

Writing: AAAAAAAA (7)

Pace: Slow/Medium

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A Unique Perspective: Nutshell – by Ian McEwan

Crime Fiction, Fictional Memoir

“So here I am, upside down in a woman.”

Intrigued yet?

When I first heard about the plot, I was skeptical. Although I have faith in McEwan’s writing (the esteemed author has written from various perspectives), a book narrated by a foetus sounded tiresome. However, after hearing the author himself speak about and read from his book at an event, there was no question that I wanted to read it (especially my signed copy!).

A foetus is just beginning to develop his first thoughts when he becomes aware that his mother and her lover (who he later discovers is his uncle) are plotting to kill his father. The book is heavily based on Hamlet, from names (Trudy for Gertrude; Claude for Claudius) to the plot itself, and sometimes even quotes:

Hamlet: “I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a king of infinite space.”

Nutshell: “To be bound in a nutshell, see the world in two inches of ivory, in a grain of sand.”

Admittedly, if I hadn’t been told of this ‘influence’, I wouldn’t have recognised it – I haven’t read Hamlet. I also can’t say whether this is effective as a retelling, or if my lack of knowledge about Hamlet affected my experience. After doing some (limited) research, however, I could certainly see the resemblance.


Perhaps surprisingly, the least realistic aspect of this book isn’t the supreme intelligence of the narrator, but in fact the conspirators’ passionate – murderous, even – anger and resentment towards the offspring’s father. It is never explained why they, and in particular Trudy, feel so much hatred for him. Progressively through the book, I was confused about where the mother’s loyalties lay.

The deficit in character analysis (due to the narrator’s circumstances), which is such a crucial element in McEwan’s novels, lets the book down somewhat. Maybe as a result of this, the characters are largely caricatures – not credible, relatable, real. I only hope this is intended, portraying the foetus’ ignorance and inexperience with people.

Although McEwan’ distinctive rhetoric – including his dry humour – is apparent in the foetus’ voice, this is (for the most part) a welcome aspect. The narrator is not believable, but this does not take away from the book’s narrative or overall realism. Sometimes, however, long rants with seemingly tenuous links to the storyline crop up from nowhere, and it’s clear that these are merely opportunities for the opinionated author to express his strong personal views. An example is when he rants about self-sheltered university students and their destructive politically correct ways. I appreciate that an author’s book is their place to do what they want (including communicating beliefs), but this only works if it is appropriate and not dropped in at random.

Finally, the writing style is confusing at times, with action and commentary jumping around. Perhaps this was for effect, but if even if it wasn’t, it was manageable; it didn’t hurt my reading experience.

All in all, I enjoyed Nutshell – hooked from the first page, it is one of the better books I’ve read this year. Compared to McEwan’s other books (at least those that I’ve read), however, it wasn’t his best. The ambitious choice of narrator mostly paid off, although did make for an unusual (and sometimes lacking) read. Read if you love Hamlet and/or Shakespeare retellings, you’re looking for a ‘quirky’ book, or you’re as obsessed with Ian McEwan as I am!

My Ratings (out of 10 As):

Plot/Story: AAAAAAAA (8)

Writing: AAAAAAAA (8)

Pace: Slow

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Depressed Dystopia: The Program – by Suzanne Young

Dystopian, Romance

Often in dystopian books, one destructive force – usually an evil leader, government or science experiment – is held responsible for the world’s problems. In The Program‘s case, Sloane, the protagonist, blames epidemic teenage depression and the government’s extreme measures to combat it. She dreams of a better life without these issues, convinced that they are the root of her troubles. This is implausible, even in a fictional setting. If mental illnesses were somehow cured and the government was reformed or replaced, wouldn’t other difficulties still exist? Yes, life would be better – but it certainly wouldn’t be perfect. The irony of dystopian novels is their surprising proximity to utopian ones: they describe worlds in which everything would be perfect, if only for the elimination of a handful of difficulties. Sloane’s tunnel vision, perhaps due to the gravity of her circumstances, means that she is unable to look past them. Is this done to simplify the reader’s experience, or to encourage appreciation of their own reality? This naive approach makes for an enjoyable read. People like a black-and-white world, desperate to grasp onto something, or someone, to point the finger at. Although there’s no doubt that I love reading YA dystopias, this is their fatal flaw, a common feature that often defines them as lower-quality books.

Despite this fault, I enjoyed the book, finishing it in days (which is quick for me). Likeable – although complex and confused – characters, an interesting plot line and frustrating developments that, increasingly, create dramatic irony (the reader knows much more about the ‘bigger picture’ than the protagonist and her peers do) impelled me to read on. I struggled, however, to appreciate the extent – even the existence – of the depression experienced by many characters. From what I understand, depression is powerful yet ephemeral. It can’t simply be characterised (as this book does) by someone repeatedly doodling black spirals or vacantly staring into the distance. This lack of description and dimension diminished The Program‘s credibility and intrigue; although this could have been intentional (to make a mystery of the illness or suggest the government’s incompetence to properly cure the illness), I’m not convinced.

On the whole, I loved the characters and was captivated by the plot, but the writing is lacklustre, over-dramatised, and at times ‘world-building’ is flimsy. Read if you’re looking for a standard YA dystopia, but don’t be disappointed by its mediocrity.

My Ratings (out of 10 As):

Plot/Story: AAAAAA (6)

Writing: AAAAA (5)

Pace: Medium/Slow

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Trouble in Paradise: Journey to Death – by Leigh Russel

Crime Fiction, Historical Fiction, Romance

Recovering from the betrayal of her boyfriend Darren, Lucy Hall is dragged to the Seychelles by her parents for a needed break. Lucy’s father, George, chose the exotic location because of his memories living there. Although initially reluctant, Lucy gradually enjoys herself, making a new friend at the hotel. Apart from some strange occurrences which she dismisses as ‘nothing’, the holiday is perfect. Things turn sinister, however, when a lunatic makes trouble for her and the Halls.

Despite her tedious rants lamenting her cheating ex-boyfriend, Lucy is personable and somewhat credible; I enjoyed reading about her as an intriguing person, rather than simply a piece in the plot. However, her naivety – despite being attacked repeatedly, she convinces herself that everything is fine – frustrated me. Rambling sentences with overblown descriptions sapped my interest. My perseverance was eventually rewarded with unexpected plot twists.

Read Journey to Death if you enjoy not-too-thrilling mystery thrillers, but keep in mind that there’s no likeable detective to guide you.

My Ratings (out of 10 As):

Plot/Story: AAAAAA (6)

Writing: AAAAA (5)

Pace: Medium

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Thanks to Juliette Pashalian from Wunderkind for providing me with a digital copy of this entertaining mystery thriller.

Killer crime novel: The Cuckoo’s Calling – by Robert Galbraith (J.K. Rowling)

Crime Fiction

Cormoran Strike, ex-army investigator and illegitimate son of a rock star, struggles to find work. His fortunes turn when he’s asked to investigate the suspicious death of a fashion model. Although Strike is fairly certain the investigation will lead nowhere, he needs the money so takes the job. Delving into the model’s life, he is left largely unfazed by the wealth and fame, determinedly ploughing on with his search for answers.

A likeable, rough and flawed protagonist; vivid descriptions of London neighbourhoods; an enthralling ‘whodunit’ trail – The Cuckoo’s Calling has the ingredients to be an enticing murder mystery, despite my indifference to the genre. By the end, I loved the book; hooked and desperate for all to be explained. Forgive the cliché, but I couldn’t stop reading it. However, I was not so engaged from the beginning; in fact, it took me a while to read the (admittedly thick) novel.

Nonetheless, the book is easy and enjoyable to read; it ‘flows’ well. The plot is intriguing, magnetic – a common feature of crime fiction. Its characters are credible, interesting and ‘human’. The exception to this is the overblown mystery surrounding Strike’s relationship with his ex-fiancée Charlotte. Resourceful and grounded Robyn, Strike’s temporary secretary and ‘accidental’ assistant, balances the occasionally moody and impulsive protagonist, although she isn’t given much of a voice.

Overall, The Cuckoo’s Calling is a great read, especially suitable for murder mystery enthusiasts. Those who aren’t such big fans of the genre might still enjoy the skilled writing and intriguing characters.

My Ratings (out of 10 As):

Plot/Story: AAAAAAA (7)

Writing: AAAAAAA (7)

Pace: Medium

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The Maze Runner (Book 1) – By James Dashner

Dystopian, Romance, Sci-Fi

The premise of The Maze Runner is complicated, but well-established: Thomas wakes up in a dark elevator, which eventually opens in a courtyard with dozens of teenage boys staring accusingly at him. He can’t remember his former life or why he was there, and is utterly confused about the other boys’ acceptance of their adversity. Even more perplexing is his innate attraction to becoming a runner – a dangerous job that involves running around The Maze to map it, in the hopes of finding an escape from their predicament. When Gally takes an instant dislike to Thomas, claiming he had seen him before, the others become suspicious and start to question the new boy’s innocence; as uncertainty and unrest propagate, blame is laid on Thomas, who many see as the trigger, the root of all their problems.

After seeing the film (shamefully, I often see the film before I read the book when it comes to YA), I was worried I’d find the book boring. But, although it took away from the suspense, I enjoyed it nonetheless – the plot and setting are what really made it. Dashner’s extensive ‘world-building’ and engrossing plot kept me reading when I otherwise would have given up long before – because apart from these attributes, it wasn’t a great book. Concise chapters are employed to maintain interest and anticipation, which, although effective, become tiresome and often feel forced. Additionally, suspense is sometimes unnecessarily (and clumsily) re-built at the end of a chapter:

“And then something rounded the corner… Something unspeakable. A Griever.”

Suspense had already been built – and with more skill – earlier on when the Grievers (fictional mechanical monsters) were approaching; Dashner’s by now familiar two-word sentences were redundant, even injurious. Apart from Thomas, who is somewhat credible and interesting, and offers an insight into a typical teenage boy’s mind, the characters are largely two-dimensional, underdeveloped and cliche: there isn’t enough opportunity for Teresa to be fleshed out, and I found sympathising with Chuck difficult because of his personality’s lack of substance and appeal.

As a whole, The Maze Runner has a great, engrossing plot and intriguing setting, but is clunkily (see what I did there? – you’ll know what i’m referencing if you’ve read it) written. For someone like me who enjoys character- over plot-driven books, it’s disappointing. However, I think you’d enjoy it if you like Hunger Games-esque books and a lightning-fast pace.

My Ratings (out of 10 As):

Plot/Story: AAAAAAA (7)

Writing: AAAA (4)

Pace: Fast

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Stories of Loss and Redemption: Pieces Like Pottery – by Dan Buri

Short Fiction

Pieces like Pottery is an anthology of seven stories and two poems; each explores an aspect of life, including parenthood and anxiety, in a unique setting.

Before evaluating this anthology, I ought to confess that I did not pick up on the author’s references to biblical stories; in fact, only after I read Buri’s comments on Goodreads did I see that this was the case. Although I noticed the ‘Sorrowful Mystery’ layout, I was unaware of its significance and so didn’t understand the correspondences between stories. Hopefully this doesn’t devalue my review – my perspective as an ‘ignorant’ reader may be a common one, and I believe not considering the author’s intended links and deeper meanings probably didn’t take away from my reading experience.


After a couple of pages, I was reasonably interested in the book – the characters were credible and interesting, if a little two-dimensional, and the story was intriguing. The power of the short story is leaving the reader wanting more, and The Gravesite (the first of nine pieces) is no exception.

The power of the short story is leaving the reader wanting more, wondering what more there is to know and what has been left unsaid.

My favourite of the stories is Expect Dragons; I cried when reading it. It’s an emotive, thought-provoking narrative: a young man is visiting his old high school English teacher for the last time (before he passes away). On the journey to see him, he reflects on his traumatic childhood and the prevalence of his teacher during his formative years; after he arrives, his old teacher imparts one more invaluable lesson to his former student. Although the account was a little clichéd, I empathised a great deal with the characters and felt thoroughly involved in the plot. 

The last story, entitled The Ballad of Love and Hate, featured characters from other stories at different stages in their lives. This was a welcomed contrast to the other pieces in the collection, offering context and intrigue to an otherwise mundane storyline.

The second story, The Dominance of Nurture, is set in a dystopian (although not entirely distant) world, with the core idea being that ‘nurture’ (the way people, especially parents, treat their children) is paramount and ‘nature’ is irrelevant. It’s an interesting concept, and was executed well; it had the potential to be far greater if explored further in a book.

Twenty-two is a moving story about two men going about their daily lives, living with their tortuous pasts. I enjoyed reading it and loved the ending, although it was stilted and cliché at times, particularly in parts with dialogue. An interesting idea, but the weakest in the collection.

Overall, this is a unique collection of provocative stories; you’ll find at least one that you relate to and enjoy – for me, it was Expect Dragons. Buri doesn’t promise a first-class quality of writing or ground-breaking ideas, but what he does, he does pretty well: interesting, ‘relatable’ commentaries on normal life.

My Ratings (out of 10 As):

Plot/Story: AAAAAA (6)

Writing: AAAAA (5)

Pace: Medium/Slow

Unfortunately, as far as I know this book is only available on Kindle.

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Thanks to Dan Buri for providing me with a digital copy of this compelling collection of short stories.

Top Five ‘Coming of Age’ books

Top Five books

This is a little different to what I usually do, but as we’re coming to the end of the academic year, I thought it was appropriate – we can all get a little sentimental. Here are my favourite coming-of-age books, spanning from beloved classics to iconic YA’s.

to_kill_a_mockingbirdInspiring classic: To Kill a Mockingbird – By Harper Lee 

I have this book to thank for inspiring my sense of justice and love for books. I read it for the first time when I was around ten, and have since re-read it, regarding it from a completely different perspective; I’m sure I will go on to read it many more times. Scout Finch, the protagonist, lives in Alabama with her brother Jem and doting father Atticus. The book accounts parts of her childhood, including a devastating trial that Atticus, an esteemed lawyer, was involved in. A tale of life in the South, justice and morality, it’s one for the ages.


Humorous and thought-provoking: Holes – By Louis Sachar

515ml3nzwxl-_sy344_bo1204203200_This is another book that was a big part of my reading ‘career’ – I’ve read every one of Sachar’s books at least once. There’s something fantastic about a well-written tale of misfortune, and this one’s no exception. The Yelnats’ curse was passed on to Stanley, who was unjustly sent to a juvenile detention centre because he was in the wrong place at the wrong time. At Camp Green Lake, where he’s sent, there’s no lake – only countless holes, where boys have dug holes to ‘build character’. Soon, Stanley and his newfound friends realize that the holes aren’t just for character improvement – the warden is looking for something, and the boys embark on a mission to find out what. A funny, creative story of punishment and redemption, Holes is the quintessential light read for all ages.

61t67xhl2cl-_sx321_bo1204203200_
Eye-opening and reflective: Perks of Being a Wallflower – By Stephen Chbosky

Part of the reason that I’m so crazy about this book, and film, is that I really relate to it; I could see myself in Charlie, the protagonist – and I know that a lot of people feel the same way. An awkward, introspective freshman (in high school – equivalent to a year 10), Charlie is a wallflower attempting to find his way around the unchartered realms of new friends, parties, dating and mixtapes. But his story is deeper than that, as the reader quickly deduces, because he has deep-rooted, previously unaddressed issues that have a had a huge effect on his life. You’ll love, laugh and cry reading this moving book.

Entertaining: The Manifesto on How to be Interesting – By Holly Bourne

I owe much of my perspective and knowledge on popularity and ‘being interesting’ to this book, which I have read so many times I’ve lost count (that seems to be a recurring fact in this list – take it a22533460s a good sign). The protagonist, Bree, takes it upon herself to become more interesting to write better books – she’s an aspiring – in her words ‘failed’ – author whose books have been rejected by every publisher in the country. She’s also a cynical teenager who’s considered a nobody at school. Determined to leave behind her insipidity in search of popularity (for book success), Bree resolves to become someone worth reading about, infiltrating the popular set and becoming a new, more confident – and bitchier – version of herself.


Haunting and enlightening: The Bell Jar – By Sylvia Plath

‘It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.’

The Bell Jar is an iconic, semi-autobiographical account of Esther Greenwood’s slide into plath04depression and her consequent rehabilitation. Famed for its wry humour and intense, credible descriptions of mental illness, Plath’s only novel questions the roles of women in society and the meaning of life. This book is deeply haunting – I’m not sure I truly understood everything that was going on, or picked up on every metaphor, but the story and the characters ‘spoke to me’ in a direct way; I felt guided by the book. Famed as a rite of passage, t
his book is a must-read for those looking to branch out into the world of ‘readable’ classics about being young.

 

What are your favourite ‘coming of age’ books? Comment down below 🙂

A Window into the Privileged of London: A Week in December – by Sebastian Faulks

Romance, Tragicomedy

A Week in December is a window into the lives of London’s wealthy. It’s narrated by diverse people connected, directly or through mutual friends, by a dinner party; they’re chosen by the host, socialite Sophie Topping, to reflect well on her husband, the newest Conservative MP Lance Topping. Of the list, a handful at most are not millionaires – including unsuccessful barrister Gabriel Northwood and cynical, bitter book reviewer R. Tranter. The rest are a familiar mix of obnoxious businessmen and their skinny wives, a repugnant TV magnate and a surprisingly endearing Polish footballer who is new to the country. As they go about their daily lives, they emulate the ‘spirit’ of the city, with many of them questioning (or unintentionally urging the reader to question) the lack of purpose in their existences. Although many of these people are not kind or likeable, they’re intriguing; I wanted to know what would happen, what decisions they’d make. More than anything, many of them seem like real people, reminding me of people I know or know of.

I suppose this sensation, along with my new-found cynicism of hedge-funds, is unsurprising; I’m expected to challenge our society and its materialism after finishing Faulks’ satirical, aspiring ‘state of the nation’ novel. Many of Faulks’ characters are stereotypical wealthy Londoners: egotistical, self-important and money-obsessed. I deduce that the ‘moral’ of the book is that, despite their privilege, their lives aren’t happy. No amount of money or insincere socialising can give a life substance or enjoyment. Near the end of the book, during the dinner party, minor character Roger Malpasse drunkenly berates Veals for the ruthless and underhanded practices of the Financial industry, his rant highlighting the pinnacle of Veals’ disgusting personality, demonstrated in hid unrelenting mission to bring down a major bank – and a load of African farmers with it.

At the other end of the spectrum is Hassam al-Rashid, who is a jihad-in-training and son of entrepreneur  Farooq al-Rashid (an invitee of the Topping’s party). In Hassam’s sections of the novel, he broods on the Kafir (consumerist, irreligious) world and its disgusting ways, viewing his terrorist activities as an ever-important mission from God, an escape from impiety. Although I enjoyed his character as a change from the others and an insight into a world I know nothing about, I didn’t find him wholly convincing.

Their cynical, circumspect voices work as within an orchestra to render life in London and its diversity. Many of them are realistic, interesting and even likeable, but there were also some that were unpleasant and desperately boring – in particular, Veals, who gives a shameful face to his business and, most disappointingly, doesn’t change at all during the book. I’m sure he is intended to disappoint, representing everything wrong about the rich of London and their inauthentic means of earning money, but I couldn’t help finding him plain annoying – especially his monotonous descriptions of financial deals.

At times, sentences read disjointedly due to their length and uninteresting subject content, and I wasn’t always compelled to pick the book up. However, after about half way, I started to enjoy it more as I became more hooked into the ‘plot’ (although loose). Overall, A Week in December is a good-quality, well-written book – an interesting commentary on life in London. I can’t, however, guarantee it for ‘grip’ or sustained interest. If you like The Casual Vacancy, or perhaps Ian McEwan’s books, then you’ll love it.

My Ratings (out of 10 As):

Plot/Story: AAAAAAA (7)

Writing: AAAAAAA (7)

Pace: Medium/Slow

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Another Hunger Games? The Selected – by Kiera Cass

Dystopian, Romance

The Selected, a dystopian YA romance, sounds anything but unique. Lovable, grounded female lead? Check. Two attractive love interests? Check. A protagonist who gains fame and opportunity by chance, yet wants neither? Check. Its similarities with The Hunger Games are unnumbered – I felt like I’d read parts of it before. Yet despite all of these things, I powered through it at break-neck speed: I was desperate to know what would happen, even though the plot was fairly predictable; I couldn’t help myself loving it, sucked into the fandom like so many others.

Set in the future United States, The Selection is about America, who works as a musician, born into a family of artists with low social status. The book opens soon after a notice has been sent out to the teenaged girls of Illéa (their country), inviting them to sign up to a competition, the Selection, in the hopes of winning the heart of Prince Maxon, and being made his wife and Queen. 35 girls are chosen – ostensibly randomly – to live in the palace, where they will meet the prince and train to become a member of the aristocracy. However, America might be the only girl in the country who has no interest in being one of the Selected – in fact, it’s her worst nightmare, because it would mean leaving her secret love Aspen; after a series of unexpected events, she meets Prince Maxon, and all of her certainties disintegrate.

I’ll be the first to admit that the book doesn’t sound especially promising from the synopsis, and there’s no question that the plot is often predictable, and the characters two-dimensional. As I’ve said, the book definitely has its problems, but – not to be condescending – you kind of expect these things from a YA book. As I approached it with such low expectations, I was pleasantly surprised: the characters were more realistic, the plot was more interesting, and the setting better established than I had hoped; what really made the book was that it exceeded my expectations. So what if it’s not the next War & Peace? It’s not meant to be! It’s a fun, enjoyable YA book that offers an entertaining, easy-to-relate-to escape from life; it does its job well!

Regarding its likeness to The Hunger Games, it’s important to point out that, although the worlds and plots are alike, they are portrayed in different lights and from contrasting perspectives. America isn’t looking to lead a rebellion – in fact, she fears the rebels and is perplexed as to what they’re angry about (despite being a slave to the country’s merciless caste system). Unlike the famed Katniss, The Selection‘s protagonist is only interested in love, and perhaps charity – they’re all she knows.

I commend this book to anyone who loves a good dystopian YA, especially The Hunger Games – but with plenty of romance and no gruesome fighting. It’s short, fairly fast-paced and very easy to read; I don’t suggest it to those who don’t like YA books, or those which are ‘plot-based’ (rather than ‘writing-based’: merited for their good writing, not an interesting plot).

My Ratings (out of 10 As):

Plot/Story: AAAAAA (6)

Writing: AAAAA (5)

Pace: Medium/Fast

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