Emily McKay – The Farm

emilymckay-thefarmFor Lily and her twin sister Mel there is only the Farm. . .

It’s a prison, a blood bank, a death camp — where fear and paranoia rule. But it’s also home, of sorts. Because beyond the electric fence awaits a fate much, much worse.

But Lily has a plan.

She and Mel are going to escape — into the ravaged land outside, a place of freedom and chaos and horrors, Except Lily hasn’t reckoned on two things: firstly, her sister’s ability to control the horrors; and, secondly, those out there who desperately want to find and control Mel.

Mel’s growing power might save the world, or utterly end it. But only Lily can protect Mel from what is to come . . .

When I received my review copy for The Farm I’d already seen some buzz and reviews around the blogosphere and those while quite positive didn’t do the book justice at all. They made the book out to be a bit of fluff reading, with vampires, teenaged protagonists, and the obligatory romance. So while I planned to read and review the book, I went into it with medium expectations thinking I’d probably like the story well enough, but my overall reaction would be meh. Honestly, I couldn’t have been more wrong. Instead I found a well-written, well-developed world, with three interesting main characters, and a really exciting plot. The Farm utterly won me over, despite my expectations.

To start off with, there is the excellent characterizations. The Farm is told from three different perspectives: Lily, her twin sister Mel, and Carter, past-crush and would-be-saviour. I really liked the three very different voices McKay created for these characters, especially that of Mel. McKay switches point of view at the start of chapters, not every other chapter, but each chapter is told from one perspective. Lily’s chapters are told in first person past simple, while Mel’s are first person present, and Carter’s is told from third person limited past simple. This doesn’t just make it easy to distinguish between view points, but it also helps build the way we see the characters. We get really close to Lily, because we are literally in her head, while Carter is kept at a bit of a remove. Mel’s viewpoint was brilliantly done. Mel suffers from Autistic Spectrum Disorder, and while quite high-functioning in the Before as they call it, she’s regressed quite a bit into herself. Her chapters reflect that, by showing us how Mel interprets the world around her through a musical lens and how in her own circuitous way she’s actually quite often spot on in her observations. McKay keeps Mel’s chapters few in number though, so they don’t lose their impact, both on the story and as a device.

Beyond the writing aspect of the characterizations, there is the excellent character development. The character we spent most of our time with is Lily. She’s very protective of her sister and quite distrustful of the world in general and Carter in particular, something which manifests in an extremely prickly and antagonistic attitude. Over the course of the story, she softens and she comes to realise that Mel is not just a burden; she’s also what’s kept her going on the Farm. I loved this arc, though its eventual consequences at the end of the book, took me completely by surprise. The development of her relationship with Carter was fascinating as well, both because of their interactions based on their belief that she is an abductura – a person who can control other people through their emotions – and their history together. I really enjoyed the push-pull of their attraction. Carter is a lovely lead, trying to balance both his feelings for Lily and his need to get her to safety because of the role she could play in the rebellion against the forces behind the Tick-manifestation. These three are joined by three others on their flight from the Farm: Sebastian, Carter’s vampire ally, Stoner Joe, and McKenna, who were both at school with Lily, Mel, and Carter. Each of these has their own character arc and role to play in Lily’s development and I found them all to be interesting in their own right.

Beyond the characters, what surprised me most was the wonderful world McKay created. Not that the world is such a happy place, far from it, but it was well-thought out and quite frightening. I was glad of the fact that there weren’t many info dumps beyond the initial set up at all. We got more information as it came up and was relevant to the story, in other words this was showing not telling, which I really appreciated. The events after the Tick outbreak and the way government reacted are frightening, even more so when you think about its plausibility. Not so much the Tick outbreak, as I don’t expect there to be a mass vampiric creature manifestation any time soon, but the rules and regulations and the ‘protective’ incarceration of teens in camps might not be as far-fetched as one would like.

The Farm was an engrossing read, and while fun and thrilling, it’s very much not just a bit of YA fluff. The Farm is a thoughtful exploration of what it means to love a sibling with special needs, how it’s not just a burden, but can be a gift as well. It examines why some people choose to fight and others choose flight instead of cooperation. It’s a surprising book and one that cleverly mixes dystopia, horror and vampires into a story that is as compelling as it is touching. The Farm, thus far, is the surprise of the year for me and I’m looking forward to reading the sequel The Lair hopefully later this year.

This book was provided for review by the publisher.

Jason Starr – The Pack

When Simon Burns is fired from his job without warning, he takes on the role of stay-at-home dad for his three-year-old son. But his reluctance pushes his already strained marriage to the limit. In the nestled playgrounds of the Upper West Side, Simon harbours a simmering rage at his boss’s betrayal.

Things take a turn when he meets a tight-knit trio of dads at the playground. They are different from other men Simon has met, stronger and more confident, more at ease with the darker side of life – and soon Simon is lured into their mix. But after a guys’ night out gets frighteningly out of hand, Simon feels himself sliding into a new nightmarish reality.

As he experiences disturbing changes in his body and his perceptions, he starts to suspect that when the guys welcomed him to their ‘pack’, they were talking about much more than male bonding…

The Pack was a very enjoyable read, though I had a bit of a problem with the ending. The first bit read more like a contemporary fiction book than an urban fantasy novel, but the kind that comes after the ‘boy meets girl’-part, the one that deals with ‘we’re in a relationship, now what do we do?’ This was actually kind of pleasant and it read away at a great clip. I was quickly drawn into Simon’s life and cares. The scenes with his son are adorable and at times very relatable, but then they would be to most parents, even if you don’t live in Upper East Side New York.

From the start it was clear to me that this is a book with werewolves in it, thanks to the title and some of the quotes on the press pack. To my surprise however, the actual word werewolf doesn’t get mentioned until the last third of the book. Instead, a lot of the book covers Simon’s discovery of his new found abilities, his reactions to them and his search to find answers to the how and why of these changes. As such, the book was a far more psychological thriller kind of book, than an action-based one; only in the climax of the novel does the action ramp up. I found this an interesting approach, though at times it was rather frustrating as the clues are all there in the text from the beginning and it takes Simon quite a while to connect the dots. Once he does though, I really liked his reaction: from initial disbelief to anger at being tricked into the situation he finds himself in. Because make no mistake: the book is set in contemporary New York City and the supernatural is very much not a feature of this town. In fact, apart from the pack, there doesn’t seem to be any other form of supernaturalism going on. This is one urban fantasy book that is very light on fantasy elements. Starr takes one fantastical element and builds his novel around this, an approach that works singularly well.

So The Pack isn’t heavy on the world building – even if Starr draws us a lovely, vibrant view of his home town, New York – and fantasy elements, instead it relies on its characters to draw the reader in. And it does so in style. Simon as the protagonist is a likeable fellow, the reader can easily identify with him and his situation. From being laid off – something many people fear in the current economy – via his struggles to reconnect with his wife emotionally to his difficulties parenting an energetic three-year-old – okay, so my toddler is two, but currently her favourite word is no, so I feel his pain – his problems are something any of us might encounter in our lives. That is until he meets Michael, Ramon and Charlie. When Simon starts changing, his character became more fascinating to me. I liked the way Starr shows Simon’s confusion and his both being attracted and repulsed by his new abilities. This internal battle is powerful as it’s not just about himself, but also about his marriage and it forces him to really take a close look at himself and become a better person, regardless of his physical enhancements. Simon’s wife Alison at first seems a little harsh in her reaction to Simon, but once we get passages from her point of view, she gets more reasonable, which I liked, though at times I wanted to shake her, especially when she started to listen to her sister.

One character that I didn’t like was Michael. I didn’t like his vibe and the way he ordered everyone around. The reason for his behaviour is quite clear and as such he was well-written, as it seems that the reader isn’t meant to like him, but he got on my nerves, both as a character and the way he was written. I wonder whether this will change in future books in the series. In the same vein, I really disliked Olivia as well. She made me want to scream, both in her Carrie Bradshaw-like desire for a man and later on in her wilful blindness to the weirdness of her relationship with Michael. She felt a little cliché, especially as she’d fit into a contemporary fiction novel with shoes on the pink cover seamlessly, but again this may have been exactly what the author was aiming for, making fun of the meat market that is the New York dating scene, but she didn’t really do it for me.

While The Pack ends on an action-filled note, there is no actual resolution to the story. It feels as if we exit the book during a five minute break at a film-watching marathon when everyone gets to take a breather and can go and refill their drink and get snacks. The story hits pause, not the end, something which made me feel let down a bit; I like at least some closure at the end of a novel. On the other hand, it has left me looking forward to the next instalment as I really want to know what happens now. Luckily The Craving, book two, has been already handed in to the publisher and is expected later this year.

If you like your urban fantasy a little different, without tramp stamps, vampires and leather-clad heroes – well, actually Simon does wear a leather jacket at one point, but only the once – or you like psychological thrillers with a twist, The Pack is a good book to pick up. I had a great time with this story and it even had me sneaking in one more chapter after feeding the baby in the middle of the night, which has to say it all about how captivating the book is. The Pack will be out from Penguin’s new SFF imprint Berkley UK on April 26th as both a paperback and an eBook.

This book was sent to me for review by the publisher.