The Madness Underneath

Surviving a near fatal attack by a ghostly killer will leave its mark. Seventeen-year-old Rory Deveaux has painful scars and deadly new powers at her fingertips. But without her secret ghost-fighting squad she feels brutally alone. She’s lying to her boyfriend, failing in class and, worse still, Rory fears that a terrifying horror stalks the streets of London.

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Turns out you can’t just deal with the ghost of Fake Jack the Ripper and be done with the spirit hunting scene. The Madness Underneath, book #2 in Maureen Johnson’s Shades of London series, finds Rory recuperating post-stabbing with her parents in Bristol (another British city, if you were wondering). After being pushed to sign the official secrets act in her hospital bed and removed from Wexford by her obviously traumatised parents, Rory has lost her only connections to her spiritual side: Stephen, Boo and Callum are incommunicado, and when – despite warnings not to from creepy government agents – Rory attempts to contact Stephen at his home, she finds that he, along with Callum and Boo, has vanished.

The first few chapters of The Madness Underneath have the feeling of 4 Privet Drive over the summer: nothing is going to happen until Rory goes back to boarding school. Which she does, weirdly, after the therapist she refuses to talk to decides to send her back to Wexford in a highly suspicious move.

#2 is a book of highly suspicious moves. But, honestly, when you’re trying to deal with the emotional trauma of your attempted murder by a ghost, as Rory is, you’re really too distracted by the simple tasks of getting through the day to worry about what your sketchy therapist(s) are up to.  

If I learned anything from this book, it’s to pay attention to what your sketchy therapist is up to.

The Madness Underneath retains all the best elements of The Name of the Star. Rory, though much changed from the beginning of the first book, continues to be witty and indomitably herself, even as she comes to terms with the crazy turn her life has taken. Johnson maintains the interjections of third person narrative, many of them even more gory and chilling than before. Despite a slight tonal change – I would say that the sequel is definitely darker – The Madness Underneath avoids all of the worst second book mistakes. The plot is pacey and has a strong sense of direction throughout, even when we’re unsure where, exactly, it’s taking us. I never once asked: why am I reading this? a question I regularly find myself pondering during book #2 of a YA series.

If the first book was part cute contemporary, part murder mystery then The Madness Underneath is emotional trauma with a side of how to avoid joining a cult.

We see the life at Wexford Rory had started to build slipping through her fingers. Her grades are bad, she’s lying to everyone and ghosts keep distracting her when she’s trying to make out with her boyfriend. I think we’ve all had the experience of feeling disconnected from our lives, like we are an audience member to our own fuck-ups, able to do nothing but sit and watch while the life we thought we wanted crashes and burns. At this point in the story, Rory is at a crossroads. She can either try and put the Ripper business behind her and get on with her life, or she can throw it all away and embrace the ghost hunter life completely.

Also, in book #2, Johnson takes the ships to the next level. Something I really appreciate in all Johnson’s books, is that the first guy is very rarely the guy. Though Jerome is cute and all, and maybe if Rory hadn’t choked on her dinner and developed the ability to see ghosts they would have worked out (though I doubt it), throughout the series so far Rory’s life has changed into a shape that Jerome simply doesn’t fit.

Stephen, on the other hand…

Oh, Stephen. Protective, but emotionally unavailable Stephen.

It is a truth of growing up that quite a lot of the people you spent your younger years with were just your friends/romantic partners because they were there. You had school in common, and when you’re a kid that is pretty much the entire world. Then something happens – maybe you get really into kayaking or socialism, or you develop the ability to see the dead – and suddenly a new influx of people enter your life who you bond with like you never have before.

This is why I love paranormal YA. Through all the insanity, there is a core relatability to the characters that draws me in every time.

So: We have ghost hunting, breakups, ships and creepy government agents who might actually be okay people. What more could you want? Other than book #3, obviously.

The Name of the Star

Louisiana teenager Rory Deveaux flies to London for the start of a new life at boarding school. But her arrival is overshadowed by a sudden outbreak of brutal murders, gruesome crimes mimicking the horrific work of Jack the Ripper.

‘Rippermania’ grabs hold of London, and police are stumped with few leads and no witnesses. Except one. Rory has seen their prime suspect on the school grounds. But her friend Jazza didn’t see anyone.

So why could only Rory see him? And what is he planning to do next?

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If you read the news, you might be aware that we have not had a good few weeks here in the UK. We have pretty much been lurching from one disaster to the next without much in the way of breathing space.

A distraction read was definitely needed, and it was with that in mind that I turned to one of my faves: Maureen Johnson, one of my personal YA queens. Last week I binge reread the first three Shades of London books.

These books have everything you need for a good distraction.

  • Boarding school
  • Love triangle (emerging)
  • Ghosts (especially snarky ones who love The Smiths)

Really anything else is extra, but in The Name of the Star, Johnson spoils us. It’s half cute contemporary American girl in London story, half murdery ghost hunting thriller. All the elements fit together in a way that is seamless and compulsively readable.

Rory is a fantastic protagonist. She’s a New Orleans-ean (is that a thing?) figuring out the etiquette of Londoners and her newfound ability to see ghosts – and she manages it all while resisting trope-ish special snowflake behaviour. She brings with her from the US a cast of eccentric characters in the form of her family and friends back in Benouville (Ben-ah-VEEL, for the uninitiated), stories about whom Johnson uses masterfully for both comedic and dramatic effect (you wouldn’t think that a story about a guy with eight freezers could leave you feeling like someone grabbed your entire heart with their fist, but during The Name of the Star, you’ll learn that it can).

Despite a good chunk of the first book being dedicated to the non-ghost related friends Rory makes at boarding school (who are mostly plot devices for what comes later, but sweet and entertaining nevertheless), it’s a pacey read. The majority of the novel is first person and narrated by Rory, but the narrative is interspersed with third person chapters concerning people related to, but also outside of, the immediate plot – murder victims, computer hackers and journalists. It all works together to create the sense of the ‘Rippermania’ that grips the city, the fear and the obsession that is fascinating, sickening and unavoidable.

There is always something terrible happening somewhere. If you’re lucky, it’s somewhere else.

(Spoiler alert: Rory is kind of an unlucky person.)

And then Rory meets the ghost police. They are all – for somewhat tenuous reasons – teenagers, and working for the arm of the government even the government doesn’t know exists. Stephen Dene, Bhuvana ‘Boo’ Chaudhri and Callum (who I have just this second realised doesn’t have a surname? If I’m wrong about that please correct me) AKA the ghostbusters are the kind of supernatural team we all want to join. Callum, the angry, let’s ‘kill’ ‘em all soldier for justice against evil spirits; Boo, friend of the ghosts; and Stephen, the emotionally unavailable head of operations I couldn’t help but fall in love with.

This book has the right levels of teen crushes, slow burn romance, epic teamwork and bloody murder – which it is, btw. It’s about Jack the Ripper: there’s no such thing as sparing us the gory details.

The Shades of London is a refreshing series from a great and witty writer. It has something for everyone – whether you’re looking for a cute contemporary, a paranormal with a slow burn romance or a thriller so intense it’ll make your blood run cold.

Kindred Spirits

If you broke Elena’s heart, Star Wars would spill out. So when she decides to queue outside her local cinema to see the new movie, she’s expecting a celebration with crowds of people who love Han, Luke and Leia just as much as she does. What she’s not expecting is to be the last in a line of only three people, to have to pee into a collectable Star Wars cup behind a dumpster or meet that unlikely someone who just might truly understand the way she feels.

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Kindred Spirits, by Rainbow Rowell is a charming celebration of geek culture and first romance of the kind of we have come to expect from the author of Fan Girl and Carry On. My only complaint was that, as a short story published for World Book Day 2016, Kindred Spirits is far too short, coming in at only 62 pages.

As in any good story by Rowell, Kindred Spirits is character driven, and even in the brief time we have with them, Elena and her line-mates, Troy and Gabe leap off the page. Elena is a sweet geek girl whose mother won’t stop driving past the line to check on her; Gabe, the aggressively anti-social Star Wars lover; and Troy, the line veteran who knows all the cinema staff by name.

What I have always loved most about Rowell’s writing is how she twists the expectations we have going into any given situation. Fan Girl isn’t your typical going to college story, and this line that turned out to be three people is not the days-long geek party Elena was expecting. It’s part rubbishing expectations and the detrimental roles they always play in our lives, part nostalgia for a time when, pre-internet, queuing for several days for a movie was the type of thing people would actually do.

In such a short span of time, Rowell manages to touch on absent parents, high school cliques, the unfortunate misogyny that lurks in nerd culture (the whole ‘fake geek girl’ thing) and the problems of peeing outside while female (the challenge is real).

If you’re looking to escape for an hour (and who isn’t?), and indulge in a world of nostalgia and nerd love, Kindred Spirits is the short story for you.

The Hate U Give

Sixteen-year-old Starr lives in two worlds: the poor neighbourhood where she was born and raised and her posh high school in the suburbs. The uneasy balance between them is shattered when Starr is the only witness to the fatal shooting of her unarmed best friend, Khalil, by a police officer. Now what Starr says could destroy her community. It could also get her killed.

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“Listen! The Hate U – the letter U – Give Little Infants Fucks Everybody. T-H-U-G  L-I-F-E. Meaning what society give us as youth, it bites them in the ass when we wild out. Get it?”

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas is the book we all needed about an experience of blackness in America (and the UK, even though over here we like to pretend that racism is an American problem, like obesity and not knowing how to spell aluminium). Thomas’ raw and authentic story of the murder of an unarmed black teenager by a policeman and the ripple effect his death has on the lives of the protagonist and witness to the murder, Starr, her family (the Carters AKA my new favourite fictional family) and their community is hard not to fall in love with.

Starr is straddling two worlds. At home, she lives in a poor, majority black neighbourhood. Half the time the streets around her house are the centre of a gang war, and she spends a lot of evenings at home listening to the sound of nearby gunfire. At the private school she attends, she is one of the only black students. Surrounded by wealthy white people every day, Starr never feels she can truly be herself.

Seeing Starr exist in these two polar opposite environments shines a spotlight on the insidious and institutional racism that people of colour face every day. In Starr’s high school – as in much of society – whiteness is the norm. Starr, a black girl is ‘other’ and constantly preoccupied with being less so, with appearing agreeable, avoiding the stereotype of the ‘angry black woman’ and not speaking in a way her white peers might interpret as ‘ghetto’. To try to go outside of these social parameters is to be excluded from them. On one level, this is demonstrated by social exclusion – Starr’s friend Hailey, stops following her on tumblr after Starr starts posting material about black history and Black Lives Matter. At its most severe this exclusion is demonstrated by Khalil’s murder. Power is in the hands of the white people, and it is enforced by means from micro-aggression to murder.

The Hate U Give is a complex study of what it is to be black and poor. Through Khalil’s life and death, Starr sees how people in her community get trapped in cycles of poverty and violence. One of the aspects of Khalil’s life that the news pick up on after his death is that he was a drug dealer. As if this fact somehow justifies his death (it does not). Luckily for Starr, her father Big Mav is an advocate for Black Lives Matter and a passionate change maker within the community, so through a conversation with him – one of my favourite scenes in the book honestly. I adore Starr’s father – Starr looks at the aspects of Khalil’s life that forced him down the path that he took – “he got tired of choosing between lights and food.”

The wider reaction to Khalil’s murder is familiar and heart breaking. The news paint a picture of a drug dealer who had it coming, as the officer (murderer) in question as the true victim that night.  The opinion of so many is shown again in Starr’s ‘friend’, Hailey who, rather than being concerned with the unarmed boy who was murdered can only say of the police officer, his killer “His life matters too, you know?” No, Starr replies, that’s the problem: “his life matters more.”

All the pain and the violence forces Starr to find her voice. It makes her speak out, even when to do so is to put herself at risk of harm from the police and from the gangs in her neighbourhood. It is in equal parts inspiring and heart wrenching watching Starr’s anger transform into action.

“Once upon a time there was a hazel-eyed boy with dimples. I called him Khalil. The world called him a thug. He lived, but not nearly long enough, and for the rest of my life I’ll remember how he died. Fairy tale? No. But I’m not giving up on a better ending.”

Believe the hype. The Hate U Give is an extraordinary book. It’s raw, emotional and vital to our current political discourse. It also has some of the most wonderful characters you’re likely to read for a while. Starr’s family have shot right to the top of my favourite fictional families list. Her parents are complex and passionate individuals, and the strength of their relationship is Starr’s foundation. Seven is the big brother we all wish we had and Sekani is just adorable. I loved spending time with these people.

The Hate U Give is an emotional and political ride. Starr is a complex, funny, and smart character of the kind young black girls have needed for so long. The book dissects privilege and oppression, and why #alllivesmatter is not actually a thing in the face of a world where some lives are treated like they matter less.

You must read The Hate U Give. I can’t think of a more relevant novel right now.

A Conjuring of Light

Warning: ALL the spoilers.

A precarious equilibrium among the four Londons has reached its breaking point. Once brimming with the red vivacity or magic, darkness casts a shadow over the Maresh Empire, leaving space for another London to rise. Kell – once assumed to be the last surviving Antari – begins to waver under the pressure of competing loyalties. Lila Bard, once a commonplace – but never common – thief, has survived and flourished through a series of magical trials. But now she must learn to control the magic, before it bleeds her cry.

Meanwhile, the disgraced Captain Alucard Emery and the Night Spire Crew are attempting a race against time to acquire the impossible, as an ancient enemy returns to claim a crown and a fallen hero is desperate to save a decaying world…

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In my review for A Gathering of Shadows, I talked about my love for the series coming out of my connection to the characters – a connection which, to be totally honest, I don’t often form when reading fantasy novels. I wrote that I generally find that in such books, plot has a higher importance than character development, which is fine for some. But me? I’m really more of a character-driven reader.

I had started to think that maybe you could only have one element, that perhaps a dense, fantastical plot always meant two-dimensional characters.

Nope. Somehow, Shwab does both.

And she does it good.

A Conjuring of Light, on the surface, is a book about a kingdom battling for survival against a huge and inexplicable evil.

Don’t get me wrong. I was into it. Osaron is terrifying! And that scene when he kills King Maxim? Harrowing. The Ferase Stras? Let’s go. Maybe Maris will give me a job. I can totally see myself working in a magical floating market.

But perhaps even more than its twisting, breath-taking and at times, heart-wrenching plot, A Conjuring of Light was a book about change and how that fucker is always coming for you.

Kell has known since A Darker Shade of Magic that his life as a glorified messenger boy is not enough for him. This dissatisfaction shows itself in various ways, from illegal smuggling of objects between worlds, to blindly following strange women (how could he not tell Ojka was a sketchy individual? It’s as if knowing Lila had taught him nothing) into unknown dangers. Kell’s desire to leave the palace is at odds with his loyalty to his kingdom and his love for his family, especially that for his brother. As a result, this unfulfilled desire comes out in self (and sometimes kingdom) destructive behaviours. In case none of that made it obvious enough what this guy really wants, he goes and falls in love with Delilah Bard, the girl who will never stop wandering.

‘Her hands were bandaged, a deep scratch ran along her jaw, and Rhy watched as his brother moved toward her as naturally as if the world had simply tipped. For Kell, apparently, it had.’

Meanwhile the responsibility party-boy Rhy has spent almost his entire princedom avoiding becomes his own with the deaths of his parents. While most of what was childlike about Rhy has, over the course of the book been shed, it isn’t until his parents die, particularly his mother, that we really start to see him as an adult. In Emira – who’s perspective I adored – we see Rhy infantilised. When Emira found out she was pregnant, she grieved like someone had died because she knew that she would spend the rest of her life living in fear that Rhy would die. She wanted to protect him from everything to the point that she cast the boy meant to be his brother – Kell – in the role of bodyguard. She made Rhy into his party-boy self because that was safer for him than being king. And for Rhy the worst had to happen – he had to actually die – before he was able to shed the idea of himself as to be protected and become a fighter instead. It’s an identity that becomes fully realised once both his parents are gone.

I think that what made both these storylines quite so painfully real to me is that both boys had the ability to prevent the other from growing. Kell could leap in and keep Rhy from acting using magic, and Rhy at the end, ‘knew he could make him [Kell] stay, and knew he couldn’t bear to do it.

There is a sense that these characters know what they have isn’t enough, but are afraid to let it go all the same. Lila, to an extent, serves as a foil to this. She is an expert at letting go. Running is her default setting, whereas staying presents more of a challenge. For Lila, the process was the opposite. She has to learn to let people in, rather than just let them go.

Schwab’s characters all break themselves out of their cages. While, you know, dominating evil and restoring peace to all the Londons.

Not bad.

It took me a minute, but ultimately, I adored this series. Schwab’s rich prose weaves a complicated and magical world, and her characters will live in my imagination for many years to come.

As much as I always claim not to care, I’m dreading them making a sub-standard teen movie out of this one.

 

A Gathering of Shadows

Kell is one of the last magicians with the ability to travel between parallel universes, linked by the magical city of London. It has been four months since a mysterious obsidian stone fell into his possession and he met Delilah Bard. Four months since the Dane twins of White London fell, and the stone was cast with Holland’s dying body back into Black London.

Now Kell is visited by dreams of ominous magical events, waking only to think of Lila. And as Red London prepares for the Element Games – an international competition of magic – a certain pirate ship draws closer. But another London is coming back to life. The balance of magic is perilous, and for one city to flourish, another must fall…

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For the past year, whenever I’ve seen mention of Victoria Schwab or A Darker Shade of Magic – almost always in glowing reviews or rhapsodising tweets – I’ve just sort of shrugged to myself. I read it. It was fine, but I wasn’t that into it. I guess I’m just not a fantasy person, I said to myself. It’s hard to get into a book when I can’t turn off the part of my brain telling me it’s just… silly.

I was wrong.

It isn’t silly.

When I read A Gathering of Shadows I fell in love with it like Kell did with Delilah: hard, fast and with some theft involved (of my heart, obvs).

We could analyse why A Darker Shade of Magic didn’t work for me but I think it’s pointless really. It boils down to a simple statement: book, it’s wasn’t you, it was me. It’s like when Taylor Swift released Shake It Off and I thought for a couple hours I didn’t like it. I was wrong. It’s a vital part of 1989. I love that song.

Like I love A Gathering of Shadows (and A Conjuring of Light, which I am currently about half way through. I went out and bought it, like, instantly even though it wasn’t even pay day yet).

Have I apologised enough yet for my initial lack of enthusiasm? I’m SORRY, okay.

Let’s move on.

V.E Schwab’s writing – if not her name, which I mistype at least three times at every attempt – is like unwrapping a gift, but like in a game of pass the parcel there are layers and layers to peel away before you reach the (dramatic, crazy, heart attacking-inducing) centre.

The only way I can truly describe it is that I want to EAT this woman’s prose. Honestly I think it would taste like chocolate.

I know you know what I mean.

A thing about A Gathering of Shadows is that it’s a lot like The Goblet of Fire – most of the plot is essentially pointless, but it leaves the characters distracted enough for Voldemort to regain his powers while everyone else is looking the other way. Voldemort in this instance being White London (previously of evil Astrid and Athos fame) now under the control of the mysteriously alive evil Antari, Holland.

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RIP Dane siblings

Pointless but fun, and essential in setting up the events of A Conjuring of Light (which so far are CRAZY, btw).

A problem I’ve had with fantasy in the past is that the plot driven nature of most of the books comes at – in my opinion, don’t get mad at me fantasy lovers – the sacrifice of the characters. I often feel like they are stock versions of people, rather than the sort of friends I would happily invite to inhabit my imagination for a week.

Not so in Schwab’s Londons. I was so distracted by Rhy (I’m a sucker for a prince, apparently?) in the first book that I totally failed to notice how engaging Kell’s character is. He spends much of the book with his desire for adventure and independence at war with his responsibilities to his family.

Raise a hand if you can relate to that. Or, maybe don’t actually. There’s no way I could ever count them all.

On the other side of the coin there’s Rhy, who wants his brother to be happy only slightly less than he wants him to stay. One of the interesting images of the book is that of the spell binding Rhy and Kell together, the one that keeps Rhy’s heart beating. The truth Schwab writes around is that the bond was forged way before the spell came along. One boy never knew how to live without the other a long time before death was ever involved.

And Delilah Bard is… basically everything that I want to be.

The Brave adventurer.

The pirate.

The impossible.

Also she has a very utilitarian, purpose driven dress sense that I can’t help but respect.

Lila never met a challenge she wasn’t up for.

As women, we are so often unsure of ourselves, unsure of our legitimacy, if we’ve really earned our place, if we’re allowed to occupy the spaces we’re in. Not Lila. I don’t get the impression that doubting herself ever even occurred to her. As The Least Sure Girl Ever*, I find this to be hella inspiring. In my daily life I think I’m going to start asking WWDBD? What would Delilah Bard do? Though of course the only answer that that question is whatever she damn well pleases.

Altogether, I can’t recommend this book enough. The magic tournament everyone is taking part in has fight scenes that’ll make your heart pound, enemies of Red London, though distant, will keep you on edge throughout. You get to see Lila being a pirate. You’re introduced to Alucard Emery, the new love of my life I would write about at length if this weren’t far too long already.

This wasn’t so much a review as extended fangirling. But, as I’ve mentioned, I have a lot of that to catch up on.

What was your favourite part of A Gathering of Shadows?

*anecdotally proven

 

 

 

 

 

Wires and Nerve

In her first graphic novel, Marissa Meyer extends the world of the Lunar Chronicles with a brand-new, action-packed story about Iko, the android with a heart of (mechanized) gold. When rogue packs of wolf-hybrid soldiers threaten the tenuous peace alliance between Earth and Luna, Iko takes it upon herself to hunt down the soldiers’ leader. She is soon working with a handsome royal guard who forces her to question everything she knows about love, loyalty, and her own humanity. With appearances by Cinder, Cress, Scarlet, Winter and the rest of the Rampion Crew, this is a must-have for fans of the bestselling series.

Wires and Nerve

I don’t think it is possible for me to get enough of the Lunar Chronicles. I just adore these women and their politically complex world. It’s like Meyer’s mission with this series was to take the idea of the one special snowflake girl and smash it to pieces. It’s like a snow storm in the Alps.

It’s weird now, having read Wires and Nerve, that it had never occurred to me that the series felt somewhat incomplete without a story written from Iko’s point of view.

Of course that needed to happen.

(Like the best writers, Meyer knows what I need before I even think of it).

This story has everything a fan of the Lunar Chronicles could possibly want – a new romance, Cinder kicking ass at the whole queen thing (with Iko and some new friends coaxing her into more queenly attire than her beloved overalls) and plenty of time spent on the Rampion with Cress and Thorne (as well as an interesting look at Thorne’s life pre-criminal mastermind phase). It was so easy to slip back into the world and immerse yourself in the dynamics of these characters.

(Lunar Chronicles re-read, anyone? I think I might have to).

There were two really interesting elements in Wires and Nerve that I’m particularly excited to see Meyer expand on as the series continues. One was Iko admitting her desire to be human, and the other, the villains of the story: the wolf hybrids.

It becomes apparent early on that in all the stories told on Earth and Luna of the now mythic takedown of the evil Queen Levana, Iko is missing. Whereas the other members of the Rampion crew are famous and in one case, queen, Iko’s role has been dismissed by the people. We get the feeling as the reader that this has served as the catalyst for Iko’s sort of ingrained self-hatred (although it feels weird to call it that since Iko has always presented as such a joyful character). She has been deeply invested in so many human experiences – loss, love, war, success, failure – and yet by people’s attitudes toward her excluded from them. Meyer explores this through Iko’s relationship with her love interest, Kinney, a guy determined to see her as nothing more than a simple robot. I love how Iko’s presence causes Kinney in particular, but also everyone who encounters her, honestly, to question what humanity really is, and whether only people who are officially ‘human’ can have it.

Speaking of complexity, I find Meyer’s approach to the new villains, the wolf-hybrids created by Queen Levana, to be super interesting. While, as the reader, we’re theoretically against them (they want to hurt Cinder! WTF?! GET THEM!), their anger and complete distrust of a government that turned them into terrifying mutants and (in their view) refuses to turn them back makes total sense. Though their actions and appearance are certainly monstrous, it’s hard to consider them monsters. They are really more the victims of the story than the villains.

My only issue is that I have to wait a year for volume 2.

HOW AM I SUPPOSED TO DO THAT?