Tuesday, 20 September 2016

Reviewed: As I Descended by Robin Talley

As I Descended - Robin Talley

In a world of ambition, where would you stop to get what you want? It all starts with a Ouija board and what Maria Lyon thinks she is asking for is to win the coveted Kingsley Prize, an all-expenses paid pass to the best school in the country. But what she is actually asking for is something much darker and more sinister. Who was it who said, “be careful what you wish for”?

Maria, Brandon and Lily are seniors at Acheron Academy, a campus located on an old plantation, built by slaves and the home of unbearable tragedy over the centuries. What they begin on that dark night with the Ouija board soon descends into a fiery web of horror and devastation that will continue to burn out of control until it has destroyed everyone in its wake.

What is really happening on the campus? A series of unfortunate accidents or a force that will bring each character in the story to their knees? When does ambition end and true horror begin?

As I Descended is the powerful new young adult release from Robin Talley, author of the critically acclaimed Lies We Tell Ourselves which won the inaugural Amnesty CILIP Honour in 2016. Set in a privileged boarding school, on the surface it is a story of high ambition and competitiveness but it is also a book that tackles racism, depression, mental illness, suicide and physical impairment.

One of the greatest calls in 2016 is for more diversity in books and Robin Talley is known for writing diverse characters into her stories. Rather than writing token or stereotypical supporting characters, As I Descended features diverse characters who are central to  the story – Maria is Spanish and gay, Lily and Brandon are gay too and Lily is physically impaired following a car accident.

None of the characters is static either, cardboard cut-outs waiting to come to life when the protagonist is in the room. We learn about the thoughts, fears and histories of Maria, Lily and Brandon, but also of the people around them including Brandon’s boyfriend Mateo, Maria’s rival Delilah and to some extent, siblings Austin and Felicia.

As I Descended - Robin Talley - coverAs I Descended is a book that will keep you guessing until the final pages. Is there really a supernatural element to the story or is this a case of serious mental illness? Does it have to be one or the other? Without divulging any spoilers, Robin Talley gives the rarest of gifts and lets the reader choose for themselves.

One thing I can say is that As I Descended is as scary as heck and reading it alone, in the dark, is not one of the finest ideas I’ve ever had. There are bumps and scratches, apparitions and fatalities and this is not a book for the faint-hearted.

Ultimately, this is a story about redemption and the power to make the right decision, no matter how long that choice is in the making.

I give As I Descended an excellent four out of five stars and would recommend to fans of both paranormal young adult fiction. This is the first of Robin Talley's books that I have read but I already have Lies We Tell Ourselves on my Kindle waiting to be read.

4 Stars

I received an electronic copy of this book from Netgalley for the purposes of this review. I’d certainly recommend joining Netgalley if you read and review books online.


Friday, 16 September 2016

New Music Friday: Mackenzie Shivers – Living In My Head EP

Mackenzie Shivers

There is a moment I recall from my early twenties. It was 3am on a Sunday morning and I was standing on the balcony in our nightclub, gazing down onto the dancefloor. Kate Bush’s “Wuthering Heights” came on and I remember being absolutely consumed in that moment. Nothing else mattered except for that time and that place: I was utterly present.

It was something that I never forgot but sometimes memories can be elusive, we tuck them away and they emerge at the most unexpected times. The first time I listened to “Tell Me To Run” by Mackenzie Shivers, I was unexpectedly transported back to that balcony. As the track built up and then crashed into an anthemic chorus, I was suddenly standing there, watched the flashing lights and swaying dancers and caught up once again in that far away moment.

It is easy to see the parallels between Mackenzie’s work and that of Kate Bush. She has a piercing voice, full of emotion yet as clear as crystal. Her tracks build up with frenetic intensity and then crash into crescendos of piano and melody. In a word, Mackenzie writes epic music, and it is easy to see why comparisons are being drawn to Joni Mitchell and Florence and the Machine. I’d even add influences of Bat for Lashes and PJ Harvey.


Mackenzie Shivers promo shot

Mackenzie Shivers wanted to make music for as long as she can remember and wrote her first song at age 4. She famously said that her mother would walk in on her at night to find her fingers playing the piano in her sleep and young Mackenzie exclaimed that she had music in her head that needed to come out.

Mackenzie's music has a distinctively Celtic sound, borne of her Irish and Scottish heritage. There is also an unmistakeable touch of the South, where Tampa-born Mackenzie spent summers visiting family in Florida, Georgia and Texas.

With this wealth of musical influence and inspiration, Mackenzie honed her skills with a degree in music composition from Vanderbilt University before moving to New York City.

The Album

The Living in My Head EP was released on 2 September 2016 and is the follow up to Mackenzie's 2014 album Neverland. The first track from the album is "Lily Rose" which you can listen to below.


Recommended if you like: Joni Mitchell, Florence and the Machine, PJ Harvey, Bat for Lashes, Kate Bush.


The epic track that started all of this - Mackenzie Shivers - "Tell Me To Run" from the album Living in My Head EP.



The Living In My Head EP is availble to buy from Bandcamp


Twitter | Facebook | Soundcloud | Official Website

Image Credits © Juan P. Zapata


Tuesday, 13 September 2016

Amnesty's 'Here I Stand: Stories That Speak for Freedom'

Here I Stand - Stories That Speak for Freedom

Freedom: we take so much of it for granted. The freedom to be who we are, to follow our preferences, to live free of discrimination and persecution. But are we free? One only has to look around us at post-Brexit Britain and the refugee crisis to know that freedom is elusive.

“Until we are all free, we are none of us free” ― Emma Lazarus

There has never been a better time to open up the human rights debate and Amnesty International UK and Walker Books have collaborated to curate a collection of stories and poems to bring the topic of human rights to the young adult audience.

Here I Stand AmnestyHere I Stand: Stories That Speak for Freedom features twenty-five leading authors and illustrators including Neil Gaiman, John Boyne and Matt Haig who have contributed stories and poems that tackle issues such as gender equality, racism, human trafficking and child abuse. The result, is an incredibly powerful collection.

I’ve always found that short story collections can be a bit of a hit and miss. The stories often appear to be more akin to short novellas than a quick read and they often lack a central thread that ties all of the stories together. My usual strategy is to pick one of two stories that appeal to me and I leave the rest.

Here I Stand: Stories That Speak for Freedom was the opposite of that. Each story is vastly compelling and I read each and every single one of them. Not only that, I read them in order (rare for me for a short story collection) and I stayed up way too late on more than one occasion as I read ‘just one more’.

If you are looking for a book to truly move you, then this collection is a very good place to start.

For me, the best story in the collection was Bali Rai’s “The Colour of Humanity”. Written in response to the murder of Liverpool teenager Anthony Walker, this story was so powerful that it took my breath away. As I finished it, with heart rattling against my ribcage, I had to put the book down for a moment to catch my breath again.

Likewise, “Harmless Joe” by Tony Birch was an incredibly interesting story about a man on the edge of a community and who we choose to ostracise. Tony Birch wanted to write about the most marginalised people in society and he did so with absolute grace, weaving together a story that was both fascinating and disturbing.

That was the most valuable aspect of this collection – after most pieces, the authors took a moment to explain why they had written their stories and the inspiration behind them. In her story “Love Is A Word Not A Sentence”, Liz Kessler wanted to write about how being gay is illegal in many parts of the world but she realised that it can be a death sentence in other societies too due to bullying and hatred.

Issued in hardback with an eye-catching yellow jacket, Here I Stand: Stories That Speak for Freedom has been designed to be shared and reread and displayed proudly on any bookshelf. This is a book that begs discussion and debate and that will inspire the most introverted reader to argue their position.

I give Here I Stand: Stories That Speak for Freedom a superb five out of five stars and would recommend this collection to everybody, adults and young adults alike. It is an important book but more importantly, well written and expertly curated.

5 Stars

The book is available from Amazon on Kindle or hardcover.

Here I Stand: Author Event

If you are a teacher or librarian, you might want to attend the following event on using fiction to explore human rights at Amnesty’s offices in Shoreditch.

What: Author event - Here I Stand: using fiction to inspire teens in the classroom

Who: Award-winning authors Elizabeth Laird, Bali Rai, Sita Brahmachari and performance poet Amy Leon with teachers and librarians

When: 6pm, Thursday 15 September

Where: Human Rights Action Centre, Amnesty International UK, 17-25 New Inn Yard, London EC2A 3EA

Price: Free

Register for a place at www.amnesty.org.uk/events/here-i-stand-author-event-and-teachmeet

I’d like to thank Amnesty for providing me with a copy of this book for the purposes of this review. This post contains affiliate links.


Friday, 9 September 2016

Reviewed: Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds - Skeleton Tree

Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds

It was never going to be an easy album to listen to. At various points in my life, Nick Cave has taken my heart and torn it to pieces, leaving it in the dust and blood and imagery of the words he created. Cave is a poet and visionary, the man who made us relate to the impossible figures of Euchrid Eucrow and Stagger Lee. His work ranges from the almost commercial Murder Ballads to the practically inaccessible Grinderman.

And then there is Skeleton Tree. I wish I could listen to this album without knowing, without the expectation that it was going to be hard work. But I do know and I did expect this. Nick Cave is not the first musician to lose a child but when someone as talented as Nick Cave in writing discursive, heart-wrenching lyrics, someone able to create entire fortresses of emotion in a handful of lines, when that someone experiences the most impossible tragedy then you know it will result in ruin.

Of course, Skeleton Tree wasn’t initially about grief, in fact much of it was written before the events of July last year but in his own words:

“What happens when an event occurs that is so catastrophic that you just change? You change from the known person to the unknown person, so that when you look at yourself in the mirror, do you recognise the person that you were?” – Nick Cave, One More Time With Feeling

The thing is, when you strip out the publicity and the knowing, when you put on the album and sit back to listen, it is utterly compelling and infinitely dark. On a busy day, with mounting deadlines, I buy the album and promise myself just a quick listen to the first couple of tracks. Suddenly it’s three hours later and I’m on my fourth listen and I’m spiralling down a rabbit hole of grief and inspiration.

I sometimes wonder how people come back from something like this, how they pick up the pieces and move on. But some people create something so flawed, so raw that it captures the spirit of devastation and renders a work of clarity and beauty.

Nick Cave has shared his grief and it is a priceless gift.

I think that is the answer. You can’t ignore what happened, what led up to these events. It is a part of Cave now as much as his music and poetry. But as you listen to the album it begins to transcend thoughts and ideas. When his voice cracks over the words, “nothing really matters when the one you love is gone”, the intimacy and privacy of the album causes the listener to cast an inward eye. With the perspective of introspection, Skeleton Tree becomes one of those albums, the ones we turn to again and again, the soundtracks for our tribulations and the salve for our pain.

Could it be the perfect album?

Photo credit: Sam Barker

© 2005 - Mandy Southgate | Addicted to Media

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