The Secret Hour – Scott Westerfeld

I read this book in one day. Nope, it’s no shorter than most YA novels. Yep, it really is that good.

The first lesson I re-learned from The Secret Hour is ‘don’t judge a book by its cover’. Or rather, ‘don’t judge a book by its back cover’. If you’re looking at a UK copy, published by Atom/Little Brown, it reads:

As the new girl at Bixby High School, Jessica Day expected some unwelcome attention. What she didn’t expect was to feel an instant connection to a stranger in the corridor…


Who is this boy dressed in black? And why can she feel his eyes following her wherever she goes?

There is a romance subplot in Scott Westerfeld’s novel but it doesn’t kick in until a third of the way through the book. But I digress…

So, what’s the novel really about? Well, it’s not exactly boy-centric. The protagonist, Jessica, relocates to a new town to find that at the stroke of midnight, time freezes and the twenty-fifth hour begins.

Only people born at the midnight instant are able to perceive the secret hour, and only in Bixby. Jessica is befriended by four other midnighters, who help her to understand what she is experiencing.

Rex is a ‘seer’, able to perceive other midnighters by sight and read the ancient midnighter lore. Melissa is a ‘mindcaster’, or psychic, and is often overwhelmed by the amount she can sense from other people’s minds. Dess is a ‘polymath’ who’s able to use mathematics and numbers against enemies in the secret hour, and Jonathan is an ‘acrobat’, and is not subject to the same rules of gravity as the rest.

In this first book, the predators which inhabit the twenty-fifth hour, the darklings and slithers, are hell-bent on destroying Jessica. The mystery is, why? They pursue her with single-minded intent, and there are many more of them than the other midnighters are accustomed to.

Jessica spends her midnight hours avoiding the creatures who want her dead, and with the others’ help, she attempts to figure out what her own unique power is.

The characters are in their junior year of high school, and the third-person narrative flicks between them, keeping Jessica as the main focus. There are scenes set at the school, but most of the story takes place after dark, in the time before, during and after the secret hour.

And it’s fantastic! There are elements of conflict between group members, who all have their own quirks. The slithers and darklings are a strange combination of malevolent, fearful and animalistic. The romance between Jessica and Jonathan unfolds at a steady pace, yet is devoid of cliché.

I felt a little let down by the eventual revelation of Jessica’s midnighter talent, but this is the first book in the trilogy, and there’s plenty of time left for the implications of it to be fully explained. I’m willing to suspend my disbelief for a while; since I plan to dive straight into the second novel, Touching Darkness, I have a feeling I won’t be sceptical for long.

Publisher: HarperTeen (March 1, 2005)

ISBN-10: 0060519533
ISBN-13: 978-0060519537

* * * Coming Soon: Amy reviews book 2 and 3 in the Midnighter series and Bec interviews Scott Westerfeld.

On the surface, Malinda Lo’s debut novel seems like a classic Cinderella tale, and in a way, it is. However, it doesn’t turn out the way you’d expect, and if you’ve read my other reviews, you’ll know that that makes me wildly happy!

Ash is both the name of the novel and of the title character, whose name is Aisling, and Ash for short. This is an obvious play on the Cinderella/Cinders character from the fairytale, and the way Ash progresses from the start is the story we all know from our childhoods.

When Ash’s father remarries and then dies, leaving debts behind, her stepmother demands that Ash becomes the family servant to repay them. Ash longs to run away to join the fairies in the nearby woods – fairies that most people have come to deny the existence of in these modern times.

One in particular bars her passage to Taninli, the fairy realm. His name is Sidhean, and he insists that she isn’t ready… yet. Replacing the fairy godmother you’d expect from a Cinderella story, he grants her favours that come at a price – that one day, she will be his.

Unfortunately, before he spirits her away to Taninli, Ash falls for the King’s Huntress, Kaisa. On her website (, Malinda Lo explains, “In the first draft of Ash, the Cinderella character falls for the prince. It wasn’t until my good friend Lesly read it and said, ‘You know, the prince guy is kinda boring,’ that I realized that Cinderella was gay.”

Nice subversion, don’tcha think?

The story is told from an emotional distance a lot of the time – the same way the fairytales I read as a child were. More emphasis is put into the events than how the character feels about them, although Ash is far from devoid of emotion. It’s an interesting approach to take, and one that diminishes the LGBT element of the story a little.

Nothing about Ash is voyeuristic – it’s told on a much more innocent level than most young adult novels, and I’d say it’s aimed toward readers in their early teens rather than their later years. Reference is made toward romantic feelings, but sexual desire is barely mentioned.

The only complaint I’d have about the book is that it only skims the surface of something that could have been a lot deeper. There are references to village greenwitches, and mentions that Ash’s mother knew something about the subject and would have wanted Ash to study it, too. The fairy godmother substitute, Sidhean, is barely in the book, despite his claim to Ash’s future, and he had the potential to be more menacing and possessive, which would have made Ash’s plight that much more interesting.

For the most part, though, I enjoyed the story. It’s definitely worth a read, for its originality and for the authentic fairytale feel. The prequel, Huntress, should also be worth checking out when it’s published in April 2011. Watch this space!

Ash – Malinda Lo

$16.99 – Paperback

Hodder Headline


I’ll start with the bottom line: I really enjoyed this book! It’s completely different from the other teen novels I’ve read recently, which is due mainly to the fact that it’s set in the 1890s.

Michelle Zink crafts a Gothic, immersive atmosphere for her story, complete with realistic social values for the time period, without sacrificing the essence of what normally concerns teenage girls – boyfriends, the opinions of peers, family and friends. Despite the fact that the fate of the world is at stake, there’s a refreshing lack of melodrama.

And product placement. And music artist name-dropping.

In fact, I didn’t just enjoy this book. I loved it!

The protagonist, Lia, is the joint head of the family estate following her father’s death, along with her twin, Alice. Of the two, Lia is the more responsible – except when it comes to James, her boyfriend and the library custodian’s son. Then, Lia’s like any other teenage girl with her first love – taking advantage of any precious stolen moment alone. Only, it’s the 19th century, and so nothing even close to X-rated happens.

As another change from the usual teen dark fantasy format, Lia’s story doesn’t revolve around her relationship with James. In fact, romance takes a distant backseat for most of the time – insert reviewer cheer here!

Family and friendship are very much the central themes in the story. Lia learns that since she and her twin were born, they’ve been destined to play a role in the plan of Samael – a demon who needs to pass through the Gate into the mortal realm. Assuming he does, the apocalypse will then ensue. The catch is, one of the twins is the Guardian of the Gate, and is charged with preventing Samael from being summoned. The other twin is the Gate itself, with the power to call forth Samael.

The twins are turned against each other, and Lia relies on new friends Sonia and Luisa, who bear the same strange wrist markings as Lia, to help her unravel the truth.

If I have any criticism to direct at this book at all, it’s only minor. One thing that surprised me is that Lia seemed to have a very distant relationship with her twin from the outset, and I didn’t really get a sense of much of a bond between them. A closer tie between Lia and Alice could have been unravelled in a very interesting way, and I think it’s a shame that it wasn’t explored more deeply.

Having said that, the distance does make sense if you factor in the things we learn about Alice toward the end of the book… so I can’t complain too much.

The only other thing I’d criticise is that I saw one of the major twists coming about a hundred pages in advance. I’m around ten years older than the intended audience, though, and they were a great hundred pages, so don’t let that put you off! Even if you do see it coming, it won’t be a waste of your time.

There are twists and turns aplenty in this book, and there wasn’t a single moment that jarred me out of the 19th century world and back into the 21st century. It’s a well-written, compelling story that ends with Lia setting out for England to continue her struggle against evil in the second book, Guardian of the Gate, and I’ll definitely be reading along.

Michell Zink Publisher Website
Michelle Zink Official Website

I have to admit, I approached Melissa Marr’s Wicked Lovely with more than a little trepidation. While I was growing up, the Point Horror series was at the peak of its popularity, and the emphasis there was definitely on the supernatural side of things, rather than the sexual chemistry between the two main characters.

Since reading a certain series of books within the past two or three years, I’d begun to think that plot in YA novels now comes second to how totally hot the main male character is, and how much the female protagonist wants him. Wicked Lovely, the first in Melissa Marr’s bestselling series of the same name, was a refreshing change.

The novel revolves around faeries, and one teenage girl’s ability to see them, despite the fact that most humans can’t. The trait is hereditary, and her grandmother has passed down rules to keep the girl, Aislinn, safe: never let on that you can see faeries, never speak to them, and above all, never attract their attention.

The story begins when, despite following the first two rules, Aislinn inadvertently breaks the third: the Summer King of the faeries, weakened by his lack of a Summer Queen, decides that Aislinn must be his. The novel details Aislinn’s struggle against this fate, and her desire to hold onto her life, family, plans for the future, and her human boyfriend. Refusing, however, will have dire consequences for the faeries and the world in general…

This novel’s strongest point is definitely its protagonist. Aislinn is a very positive role model for teenage girls; instead of giving herself over to the inevitable and allowing herself to be seduced by the Summer King, Keenan, she rejects the plans he has for her and makes her own decisions. She has a sensible head on her shoulders when it comes to drugs, alcohol and sex, and there’s definitely a lot to relate to in her character.

The concept of faeries running around the world, completely invisible to humans and wreaking havoc amongst their own kind, really did appeal to me. There has been such a huge focus on vampires and werewolves in teen fiction lately that it was good to read something a little different, where the supernatural race is mostly mischievous rather than intense.

The one thing I did feel let this book down was that the plight of the faeries didn’t feel all that severe. The Summer King seemed more confused and petulant at Aislinn’s resistance than dismayed and desperate. It was never properly specified what would happen if Aislinn refused, and the Winter Queen, the book’s antagonist, didn’t seem to have a focused goal except to stop Aislinn becoming the Summer Queen. A little more depth and detail would have helped, here.

Overall, though, I thoroughly enjoyed reading this. There were some fantastic little moments between Aislinn and Seth, her friend-turned-boyfriend, and the faery lore was well-researched and explained. I’ll be picking up the next book, Ink Exchange, the next time I’m wandering around the local book shop!

Wicked Lovely – Melissa Marr

11 September 2008 by Harper Collins

Paperback, 336 pages

ISBN: 9780007263073 (ISBN-10) 0007263074

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