Starsight

All her life, Spensa has dreamed of becoming a pilot. Of proving she’s a hero like her father. She made it to the sky, but the truths she learned there were crushing. The rumours of his cowardice are true – he deserted his flight during battle. Worse, he turned against his own team.

Spensa is sure there’s more to the story. And she’s sure that whatever happened to her father could happen to her. She’s heard the stars too – and it was terrifying. It turned her world upside down. Everything Spensa has been taught is a lie.

But Spensa also learned a few things about herself, too – and she’ll travel to the end of the galaxy to save humankind if she needs to.

After ploughing through Skyward in a couple of days, I quickly picked up Starsight, the sequel to Brandon Sanderson’s story about space pilots fighting a seemingly endless war against an alien race known as the Krell. Like I mentioned in my Skyward review, aliens aren’t really my thing, but after spending two books with Spensa and her multi-planetary (and species) war, I might be willing to change my stance.

There are a lot of aliens in this book. But I’ll get to that.

I’m not going to lie, diving pretty much straight from Skyward to Starsight was a bit of a disorientating experience. There’s a time jump between the events at the end of book one and where Starsight picks up. It’s been six months – and a pretty significant six months at that. The people of Detritus, Spensa’s home planet, have seen their knowledge advance a lot since the reveals at the end of the first book in the series, and while in a lot of ways this was no bad thing – it certainly pushed the story into some new and surprising territory quickly – I did find myself feeling a little bit robbed. After gradually putting the pieces together throughout the first book to finally understand Spensa, her father and what really went down that fateful day he appeared to abandoned his army in the midst of battle, missing out on much of the development of that understanding meant that the start of Starsight did fall a bit flat for me.

But don’t fear – Brandon pulled it back. It becomes apparent within a couple chapters that he made the choice to skip over six months of Spensa’s life because he had something big in mind.

Those other planets that were hinted at during Skyward are explored during Starsight, and it’s quite a ride. As I’ve mentioned, this book things get fully alien, and we find ourselves up close and personal with the Krell (who it turns out are crab people); diones, who tend to be either blue, red or purple and are non-binary; the kitsen, who are tiny fox people; and figments, which are invisible – plus a very scary murdery force out there in the stars which I won’t go into. It’s really better if you learn about those guys yourself.

Much like in the first book where Sanderson used a story of war as a way of thinking about courage, Starsight is more than anything a novel about compassion. When Spensa first encounters the other alien races that populate Starsight she sees them as just that – alien. Other. Not on her side. What becomes increasingly apparent though is that this war Spensa has spent her entire life consumed by is a lot more complicated than she had ever imagined. She comes into the situation as the persecuted party, but as she experiences more of the war from the other side she starts to realise that her own race isn’t blameless. And not only that, but the alien races she is surrounded by maybe aren’t so alien after all. What it means to be ‘human’ – from M-Bot’s struggles to make decisions independent of its AI’s programming, to the dione who wants to be a soldier even though that really isn’t something diones do – is the overarching theme, and I was 100% here for it.

I’m not going to lie, Starsight is not what I was expecting. Spensa spends the vast majority of the story away from Detritus, and therefore the flight team I fell in love with in book one, and while to start off with I felt pretty resentful about that (I love those guys!), the unexpected places Starsight took me had me sucked in again in no time.

Bring on book three. Soon please.

She Said

On 5 October 2017, the New York Times published an article by Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey that helped change the world. For months Kantor and Twohey had been having confidential discussions with top actresses, former Weinstein employees and other sources, learning of disturbing, long-buried allegations. The journalists meticulously picked their way through a web of decades-old secret pay outs and non-disclosure agreements, encouraged some of the most famous women in the world – and some unknown ones – to risk going on the record, and faced down Weinstein, his team of high-priced defenders, and even his private investigators.

In She Said, Kantor and Twohey relive in real-time what it took to break the story and give an up-close portrait of the forces they were up against. They describe the experiences of the women who spoke up – for the sake of other women, for future generations and for themselves.

Their stories have never been told in this way before.

She Said: Breaking the Sexual Harassment Story That Helped Ignite A Movement by Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey details the journalists’ investigations into Harvey Weinstein. A work of non-fiction that reads like a gripping thriller – it feels like a movie – the book explores the day-to-day of investigative reporting, and it is fascinating. As a reader, you’re invited into the trenches of reporting with Jodi and Megan as they fit together each horrifying piece to build a picture of Weinstein’s serial abuse of women.

From approaching celebrities to finding the unknown women who worked for Weinstein behind the camera (many of them muzzled by non-disclosure agreements so restrictive they hadn’t even told their loved ones what Weinstein had done to them), seeing from the inside how Jodi and Megan built up trusting relationships with the women they were asking to go on the record – and take on all that would mean for their lives – revealed the intricacies of the journalistic process. Jodi details how she got Rose Mcgowan to speak to her despite her reservations because of the NYT’s previous ‘shabby’ treatment of her by explaining her own track record on issues of gender (Amazon, Starbucks and Harvard Business School had all changed their policies as a result of Jodi’s investigations into their gender equality issues). Simply explaining what she was about and letting Rose make her own choice, Jodi reasons, was the best way forward. She was right – Rose quickly wrote back and agreed to meet. This is just one of many examples of Jodi and Megan thoughtfully building up relationships with their sources – they never came over as anything but empathetic and patient, even when they were desperate for someone to go on the record.

But She Said is a story much broader than the individuals that contributed to it. The Harvey Weinstein scandal was always much bigger than just one man, and Jodi and Megan take pains to break down the structures that allowed Harvey Weinstein’s serial abuse to go on for so long. They look at the more obvious details, like the way his company protected him from exposure. Buried HR reports, half efforts by Harvey’s brother and business partner, Bob that clearly rank the importance of the company over that of the women that work for it, and widespread knowledge among the higher ups of Harvey’s behaviour all paint a picture of a structure built to facilitate abuse. But beyond the specifics of the Weinstein company – and how those same structures that allowed Weinstein to hurt so many women can be observed in the wider culture – Jodi and Megan dig into the specific immorality of non-disclosure agreements.

Lots of the women that Harvey subjected to abuse signed these agreements. They are generally accompanied by a pay out in lieu of an apology – and an assurance that this is the most justice any woman can expect, so she should really just accept it and move on (ew) – and weave such a complicated legal trap that the women who sign them can’t tell anyone (there is one woman who hadn’t even felt able to tell her husband) what they went through. There was one example where the woman involved didn’t even have a copy of her non-disclosure agreement herself – the terms of the agreement meant that she had to go to her lawyer’s office if she ever wanted to look at it. She Said makes clear that the use of non-disclosure agreements needs to stop. They serve only one purpose – to facilitate abuse. As Harvey’s story demonstrates, losing a bit of his fortune was not enough of a deterrent for him to stop hurting women. Everyone finding out what he really was and his crimes being reported to the police, on the other hand…

Well, if you want to know how that went I’d recommend you read the news.

She Said is a wide-ranging, extensive look at the #MeToo movement from two reporters at the centre of it. It breaks down victories – taking Harvey down – and tragic backslides – Brett Cavanaugh – and the women from all walks of life who have been affected by sexual assault and sexual harassment. You’ll be gripped, you’ll be angry and you’ll be in awe – of the authors and of the women who agreed to go on the record (one of whom was going through a divorce and cancer treatment all at the same time as raising kids by herself).

It is vital reading.

(No, I haven’t read Catch and Kill yet but it is on my list. I love me some Ronan Farrow.)

Skyward

Spensa’s world has been under attack for hundreds of years. An alien race called the Krell leads onslaught after onslaught from the sky in a never-ending campaign to destroy humankind. Humanity’s only defence is to take their ships and fight the enemy in the skies. Pilots have become the heroes of what’s left of the human race. Spensa has always dreamed of being one of them; of soaring above Earth and proving her bravery. But her fate is intertwined with her father’s – a pilot who was killed years ago when he abruptly deserted his team, placing Spensa’s chances of attending flight school somewhere between slim and none. No one will let Spensa forget what her father did, but she is still determined to fly. And the Krell just made that a possibility. They’ve doubled their fleet, making Spensa’s world twice as dangerous… but their desperation to survive might just take her skyward.

I’m not really a sci-fi person generally speaking, so when one of my housemates lent me Skyward by Brandon Sanderson to occupy a couple days of quarantine I went into it with low expectations. But, actually, as so often happens, I really enjoyed it. Turns out an immersive look at a totally different world (despite the blurb saying that Spensa and the other humans live on Earth, they actually don’t) with pilots, aliens and weird genetic irregularities that may or may not make you evil/cowardly was exactly what I needed to take my mind off what’s happening in the world right now.

Who knew?

Spensa is a fun character to hang out with. When she was a kid her dad was killed during a battle after apparently bottling it and turning to run from the fight (by run I mean fly away – this was all happening in space), and her entire life she and her family have been shunned because of her father’s so-called act of cowardice. Despite the continuous bullying, isolation and poverty this has brought on her family (they make a living by selling rats as food, which Spensa spends most of her days hunting in the caves below their city), Spensa is not the type of girl to let this get her down. Brought up on stories of brave warriors by her Gran-Gran, she’s come to see her life as a heroic tale with herself at the centre. Her objective? Get into flight school, where she can prove everybody wrong – she’s no coward, whatever her father did. Spensa’s obsession with proving her bravery manifests itself in some slightly odd ways – primarily in her way of expressing herself. She has a habit of saying things like ‘I shall bathe in the blood of my enemies’, which initially I found off-puttingly weird – as does literally every character in the book, so I think you’re supposed to – but over time I came to see as part of the armour Spensa had built to protect herself from a world that said she was a cowardly nothing. If you’ve grown up with that you either accept it and live out that assumption, or, Spensa-style, you go in the opposite direction in a big way – and sometimes that involves bathing in the blood of your enemies, I guess.

The vast majority of the book takes place in flight school, a cut throat training programme to join the military in charge of fighting the Krell, the alien race trying to kill the humans – that the humans weirdly know nothing about, despite fighting them for many years. Flight school is brutal. Of the recruits in Spensa’s class, only a few will make it to earn their pilot’s pin – the rest will either drop out, get kicked out or, worst of all, die during battle. The relationships Spensa builds with the other members of her flight are the heart of this book. I don’t know about anyone else, but for me what always draws me to a story more than anything else is the relationships – I think I could read a story set in almost any scenario and keep going through it if the relationships were compelling enough. The personalities in Spensa’s flight are distinct, and even those members who don’t stick around for very long (not a spoiler, Sanderson tells us from the off that not everybody is going to graduate) felt complex and real – they all served a purpose in the story and I liked that. There is nothing that turns me off more when the main character – especially one with as much personality as Spensa – is surrounded by people who feel less than her.

There’s a hate-to-love ship in this too that it very easy to get behind. He’s duty-driven and emotionally unavailable – so, exactly my type.

The plot really drives this book forward, but within it Sanderson spends some time dwelling on ideas of bravery and cowardice. Like I’ve mentioned, cowardice is considered really the worst thing a person can be in Spensa’s world. But throughout their training, Spensa and her cohort find that bravery is actually a much more complicated concept than they had been raised to believe. It’s not the absence of fear, and it certainly isn’t pride – something too many young pilots don’t figure out until it’s too late – and, sometimes, it’s even saving your own life. More than anything though, as Spensa demonstrates, bravery is an absolute refusal to give up. And that is an idea I can 100% get behind.

So… maybe I’m into sci-fi now? If you have any recommendations do throw them my way. Right now, I’ve got nothing but time.

Orangeboy

Sixteen-year-old Marlon has made his mum a promise – he’ll never follow his big brother, Andre, down the wrong path. So far, it’s been easy, but when a date ends in tragedy, Marlon finds himself hunted. They’re after the mysterious Mr Orange, and they’re going to use Marlon to get to him. Marlon’s out of choices – can he become the person he never wanted to be, to protect everyone he loves?

Orangeboy by Patrice Lawrence is a gripping story about gang warfare and revenge. It’s a page turner, to put it mildly. I finished this book mostly during a train journey (back when we were still allowed to go outside) and clambered out of the carriage with it still stuck to my face, walked down the steps to the station exit and barely closed the book to say hi to my mum, who I was going to visit – to give you some idea of quite how hard it is to put this one down.

Lawrence’s carefully constructed tale of downfall grabs you by the throat and doesn’t let go.

The worst part is, Marlon is an innocent kid, a good boy dragged into somebody else’s mess. It all starts with an unlikely date; Sonya, cool, worldly and with a pocket full of ecstasy should never have shown up at Marlon’s door. But she did, and he went – how could he not?

And it all goes downhill from there.

There are lots of times during Orangeboy when, as the reader, you want to throw your hands over your eyes, such is the intensity with which Marlon’s life barrels off course. You want to shout “No! Don’t go in there!” like he’s a girl going down to the basement at the beginning of a horror movie, but realistically in his position it is hard to judge his decisions, as bad as most of them are. Failed by the institutions that are supposed to protect him – the police assume the worst of him because of his brother’s history, and because he’s a black kid, and his school much the same – it’s easy to see how Marlon feels there is nowhere to go but further down the rabbit hole of violence and destruction.

It’s a thriller with a compelling mystery at its heart, but the novel also makes a vital social commentary on cycles of violence. Marlon’s brother Andre was a criminal until a car chase led to a tragic accident – one that killed his best friend and left Andre with a head injury he’d never fully recover from. Marlon has always carried the weight of that on his shoulders, and the pressure to be the good kid that his mother could rely on – but despite all his best intentions the world that consumed his brother comes for him anyway. Such is the depth of Lawrence’s writing though, that even as my heart was beating out of my chest, fearing for Marlon’s life during a terrifying chase scene, she was challenging me to consider the structures that had failed these young people – the ones doing the chasing – to take them down this path in the first place. I can’t get into it in too much depth without heading into major spoiler territory, but suffice to say the life of these scary kids is not one they’d choose if they had any better options.

Lawrence has quickly established herself as a vital voice in the UK YA scene, and I’m really looking forward to reading the rest of her books. Especially now I’ve got all this time on my hands.