Kate and the Angels of Xara (by Brendan Hanley) is a coming-of-age story taking place in the near future. The heroine, Kate, becomes an astronaut, and grows up in the process. The story was apparently inspired by the author's admiration for brainy sassy tomboys (the kind of gals we at the Bluestocking also admire).
I enjoyed the contrast between the dangers of space and the dangers that one can encounter on Earth. I also liked the descriptions of landscape. I thought the level of technical detail in the space scenes was rather satisfying, because it really made it feel like I was there, and thinking through the dangers and the technical details makes the reader feel like a real astronaut for a bit. The fortune-telling scene was exciting, and I really liked the way it was handled - the initial scepticism giving way to fear that it might actually be true, and Sunita's reaction. I'm agog to see what happens next. I also liked the mixture of real and invented Tarot cards (rather like in T S Eliot's poem The Wasteland). I also thought the scene where the Angels rescued the boy Otto Muller from space was great - I was on tenterhooks to know if they would all get back into the spaceship safely, which shows that the characters were real enough to be cared about by the reader.
The scene where Kate watches the shuttle launch was well written, and I thought her response to it (and that of the other people present) was very believable. Another scene describes one of the characters cutting herself; I don't think I've ever seen a description of cutting in a book before; it was really well described, as it's how I imagine it would come about.
It's funny that I have written more in response to the scenes on Earth - perhaps because they resonate with experiences that I have had - rather than the scenes in space, which were also really good, but outside my experience. But the space scenes were good too - I enjoyed the bit where Kate gave Earl the controls of the ship for re-entry, that was great. Also the stunning views of Earth from from space, and the geographical detail about the Niger delta, and the really poignant bit at the end where they see the Earth and the Moon receding away from them as they set off for Mars.
It was really noticeable how much more confident and fluid the author's writing is after the first third of the book, once it gets into space; but also the emotions of family members and Angels are handled well and realistically. I also think the pace of the writing (and the handling of conversations) was better, and about right, in the latter two-thirds. I noticed a few typos here and there, but the actual writing is excellent - very clear, and I never had to go back and re-read anything to make sense of it.
For me, the major theme that emerges from the book is the tension between life and death -- wanting to live life to the full and wring every last drop of experience out of it, whilst being aware that we will die. I thought that this was explored really well. The only other book where this theme is explored at all (that I know of) is The Way of Wyrd by Brian Bates, and even there it's only touched on briefly, whereas I think this book is an extended meditation on it, and brings out the tension and the contrast, and the implications for how one should live one's life, really well. There's a great poem by Mary Oliver, The Summer Day, which includes the line "How will you spend your one wild and precious life?" It seems that the Angels of Xara have answered this question for themselves, and live in an awareness that each day might be their last, and therefore live it to the full, whilst everyone around them has not answered that question, and that's one of the reasons why the Angels make them so uncomfortable.