Review: Tales From the Forest by Emily Hibbs & Erin Brown

Review: Tales From the Forest by Emily Hibbs & Erin Brown

Tales From the Forest is a delightful collection of stories based around animals and nature, covering a wide variety of creatures that is bound to include those that children know of or have seen, while introducing some that they may not be as familiar with. It is divided into four sections to cover the seasons, with animals often chosen for each season to allow for opportunities to teach something about that particular animal’s behaviour or life cycle that is unique to them.

Each story is roughly five pages long and in a clear type of a good size that makes it easy for children to trace their progress along a line with a finger or a reading aid, or to follow along with an adult reading to them. The length of the stories makes them ideal for those who are moving from picture books with only a few lines of text to something more challenging, while still maintaining those familiar features, for each story has pages in a different colour, bearing illustrations around the edges and at least one full-page picture to go with each tale. The stories themselves contain words that young readers would be familiar with and introduces more complex and nature-specific vocabulary, particularly when unique animal behaviours and features are reached. At the end of each one, there’s a rhyme that teaches and reminds children about what is unique and special about each animal, the rhyming scheme something that makes it fun to recite and doubles as an aid to remembering what they’ve learned.

The illustrations are beautiful and accompany each tale with a full-page image of the animal(s) in the story, referencing moments from the narrative. They’re a gorgeous mix of watercolour and pencil images, the details picked out in the latter and creating great depth and texture, especially when it comes to the animals themselves – it’s almost as if you can feel the different in texture between the boar’s fur and that of the mouse. The pages of the stories are edged with bits and pieces from the creatures’ habitats, and sometimes even contain full backgrounds and additional pictures of the animal that is the focus of the story. I’ve tried time and again to decide on an absolute favourite picture from the book, but I can never choose just one!

Tales From the Forest would make a lovely book to read with children at bedtime and to inspire greater confidence in reading. With Christmas approaching, it’s something that would make an ideal gift for nature-loving younger family members, and is an appealing and pleasingly put together book with a lovely cover and end-pages. Thank you, Little Tiger Books, for sending me a copy!

Review: The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V.E. Schwab

Review: The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V.E. Schwab

‘When Addie La Rue makes a pact with the devil, she trades her soul for immortality. But there’s always a price – the devil takes away her place in the world, cursing her to be forgotten by everyone.

Addie flees her tiny home town in 18th-Century France, beginning a journey that takes her across the world, learning to live a life where no one remembers her and everything she owns is lost and broken. Existing only as a muse for artists throughout history, she learns to fall in love anew every single day.

Her only companion on this journey is her dark devil with hypnotic green eyes, who visits her each year on the anniversary of their deal. Alone in the world, Addie has no choice but to confront him, to understand him, maybe to beat him.

Until one day, in a second hand bookshop in Manhattan, Addie meets someone who remembers her. Suddenly thrust back into a real, normal life, Addie realises she can’t escape her fate forever.’

The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue is a beautifully written book that I simply couldn’t put down. I particularly enjoy stories that exploit the idea of parts of the narrative happening in different time periods and, in this case, it was especially well done and never without clear purpose, focusing on the significant events that shape Addie and how her deal with the devil unfolds. How time is visited and runs over the course of the story is one of its strongest features, in my opinion, and it was often that I found myself preferring the glimpses into the past to the present day passages.

This isn’t to say that that which happens in the present day isn’t full of stunning writing, particularly its look at how Addie has left her mark through the years, despite being unable to impact the world around her as she wishes. My biggest issue here is with the pacing, for it feels as if the collection of characters the Addie meets are, in-fact, the forgettable ones (I still wonder if this is deliberate and further commentary on the nature of memory and belonging) and I found myself wanting to skip ahead to spend less time with them. Her love interest is an intriguing and engaging character in himself, but the people around him less so, which, again, I wonder if there is the possibility of it being playing with the idea of what he desires and the irony of it being his friends who are as he feels. It’s well into the story that readers finally meet him, which means that a lot of the reveals towards the end of the novel are rather rushed and are details I would have happily read much, much more about it.

Addie’s relationship with the devil is one of the details that has a good deal of late reveals, though remains one of, if not the most engaging facet of the story. Addie herself doesn’t appear to change much in terms of personality or temperament, and ultimately with only herself and the devil for company, this is quite understandable, since it is arguably the people around us who influence us the most (this is perhaps most evident in the book’s conclusion, when it becomes very clear who she has been learning from). Instead, Addie focuses on learning and accumulating knowledge, which is maybe the best decision she could have made in terms of her sanity, literature being a way for her to experience vicariously what she never will.

A fantastic read, The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue is one of those books that feels as if it is a dream, the prose lyrical and haunting. Highly recommended.

I received a digital e-ARC from Netgalley and the publisher.

 

Review: Shine by Jessica Jung

Review: Shine by Jessica Jung

‘What would you give for a chance to live your dreams? For seventeen-year-old Korean American Rachel Kim, the answer is almost everything. Six years ago, she was recruited by DB Entertainment – one of Seoul’s largest K-pop labels, known for churning out some of the world’s most popular stars. The rules are simple: Train 24/7. Be perfect. Don’t date. Easy right?

Not so much. As the dark scandals of an industry bent on controlling and commodifying beautiful girls begin to bubble up, Rachel wonders if she’s strong enough to be a winner, or if she’ll end up crushed … Especially when she begins to develop feelings for K-pop star and DB golden boy Jason Lee. It’s not just that he’s charming, sexy and ridiculously talented. He’s also the first person who really understands how badly she wants her star to rise.’

What I love reading even more than fantasy novels are books that look at our relationship with the media and the impact it can have on people’s lives. That, and the fact that I loved K-Pop when I was a teenager, and Shine swiftly became one of the books of 2020 that I desperately wanted to read, so thank you very much to Electric Monkey for sending me an ARC for review!

Shine follows Rachel, a Korean American girl in her late teens whose family have relocated to Seoul, ostensibly so that she can try to make it in the world of K-Pop, after being signed by DB Entertainment. However, Rachel’s experience of that world is notably different to those that she is working with and who are ultimately her rivals, for her mother requires her to attend school during the week and only train with DB at the weekends, something that Rachel quite bitterly resents and sees as something that is only putting her at a disadvantage – and, at seventeen, she doesn’t have much time left to be selected as a member of the next girl group to debut.

One of the novel’s focuses is on just how much of their trainee’s lives DB Entertainment (and, we are led to assume, not so fictional companies) has complete control over. This obsession with their trainees’ weight, appearance and behaviour spills over into every aspect of their lives, to the point where it seems that the trainees are unable to think or act without fear of how the company will react and how it might punish them – and their potential careers – for any slight mistake, no matter how unintentional. DB Entertainment’s fixation on controlling every aspect of everyone’s lives opens up the potential for sabotage in a world of fierce competition, something that Rachel experiences more than once over the course of the narrative, but a particular incident early on, in which she is drugged by a rival, is the most serious and isn’t quite resolved, so I hope that we get to see it addressed in more detail at some point in Bright, the follow-up scheduled for October 2021. What’s most troubling about the company’s attitude to those in their employ is that they don’t seem to understand that they should be those in their care too. The girls are worked to exhaustion and constantly encouraged to see each other as competition, thus stripping them of any support system that they might be able to build in the stressful environment in which they work. There seem to be no boundaries as to what rivals might do in terms of sabotage, from invasions of privacy to exploiting family members, which leaves the trainees essentially isolated in their efforts to pursue their chosen career.

Rachel’s romantic interest, Jason Lee, is a somewhat conflicting character. There are times when he truly seems as if he could be a nice person, such as during his interaction with Rachel’s sister, but he remains so oblivious about who and what he is – being one of the company’s biggest successes – that his behaviour is often contemptable and makes it quite obvious that he shouldn’t be trusted, even if Rachel herself doesn’t quite see it. And yet, just as the reader may have made up their mind about him, there are instances where he seems to redeem himself, only to then ultimately undermine his acts of decency. It’s easy to see, especially in a world where no-one can be trusted, how Rachel can never quite decide whether he is ever not acting a part or under the company’s spell.

Shine is a ridiculously enjoyable read and a sharp look at the darker world that exists beneath the glossy surface that K-Pop presents. One of the things it does well is avoid falling into predictive narratives with the relationships that Rachel forms, swerving away from easy redemption arcs and quick forgiveness to highlight that there is no quick fix in an environment where you are constantly monitored and your life – and your decisions – aren’t your own. It develops an effective contrast between the bright and vivid performances for camera, and the pain and confusion beneath, while continuing to bring to the forefront why Rachel is putting herself through the grueling routine demanded of her: that she loves to sing and loves K-Pop, no matter what.

Out on October 15th, Shine is so fun that I didn’t want it to end! I was checking to see if there was a sequel long before I’d finished, as I was afraid I was reading too quickly and wasn’t ready for it to be over. A delightful book!

Review: The Once and Future Witches by Alix E. Harrow

Review: The Once and Future Witches by Alix E. Harrow

‘In 1893, there’s no such thing as witches. There used to be, in the wild, dark days before the burnings began, but now witching is nothing but tidy charms and nursery rhymes. If the modern woman wants any measure of power, she must find it at the ballot box.

But when the three Eastwood sisters join the suffragists of New Salem, they begin to pursue the forgotten ways that might turn the women’s movement into the witch’s movement. Stalked by shadows and sickness, hunted by forces who will not suffer a witch to vote – and perhaps not even to live – the sisters must delve into the oldest magics, draw new alliances, and heal the bond between them if they want to survive.

There’s no such thing as witches. But there will be.’

I adored The Ten Thousand Doors of January, particularly because Harrow has such a brilliant understanding of the cadence of language and the rhythm of words, and how to use them to devastating effect, and so I should have known that The Once and Future Witches was not going to be a book that I could ‘just read a couple of chapters’ of and put down. I read through at least two thirds of the novel in one go, and it’s one of those reads that surfacing from involves the return to reality being incredibly jarring.

When the reader meets the Eastwood sisters, they are not exactly on the best of terms and habour resentments towards each other and the connection between them that they cannot ignore. What becomes apparent very quickly is that much of this ill-feeling is born of guilt and, over the course of the novel, it becomes clearer and clearer that what they blame themselves for are not things that were truly within their power. That they have all fled their home for various reasons only emphasises the claustrophobic nature of an upbringing in a society that attempted to stifle them in almost every way, men intent on punishing any suggestion that a girl should be anything but an obedient and silent wife and mother. In finding themselves and each other, the sisters slowly return to their old understanding that it is only together that they are going to survive and bring back what has been all but lost.

The magic in The Once and Future Witches isn’t of your typical ‘fantasy’ variety, where there are no limits to a power that can do anything at all. It’s grounded in the reality of its setting and in literature; in the way words are crafted and handed down through generations. It doesn’t suggest that this power to heal and help and protect is exclusive to a specific bloodline or excludes anyone. It’s a magic that can belong to everyone and fights against the stereotypical images and ideas about witches that were born in ancient history, when sorceresses were no longer celebrated and started to be depicted as dangerous, unpredictable and ugly simply because men could not tolerate the idea of powerful (’emotional and reckless’) women. It laments what we lose to history by force, spells and ideas hidden in common rhymes and literature now assumed to be ‘just’ stories. As the story unfolds, the characters reclaim what has been lost to them; what they’ve been forced to hide and what has been taken and all but destroyed, and in taking back one kind of power also get to reclaim parts of themselves that they’ve felt they have to suppress and conceal.

I loved the suggestion that women’s clothing no longer has half the number of pockets as men’s because it would be dangerous to let women have pockets in which they could keep bits and pieces to cast spells, and thus keep any attempts at wielding power out in the open and easily preventable. It’s an idea that feels a little too real and not out of the realms of fantasy, because, at this point in history, what ideas and methods have not been used (or aren’t being used) to keep women from having power, even over their own bodies? It feels like so small a thing to have changed, yet so believable that it could have such a huge impact. What woman hasn’t lamented the absence of pockets? Is there a more believable reason not ostensibly related to fashion for why our clothes hardly ever have functional pockets? I honestly haven’t been able to not think about this every time I realise the dress I’ve worn to work inevitably doesn’t even have a pocket for my keys/lanyard/ID.

The Once and Future Witches is out October 13th, from Orbit Books, who very kindly sent me a proof for review (thank you!). This is one of my favourite books of the year so far: a fantasy story that isn’t entirely a fantasy; a historical novel that screams so much of what is still wrong with modern society; a reminder of the importance of our histories and what we may have unwittingly forgotten.

Review: Hide-and-Seek History – The Egyptians

Review: Hide-and-Seek History – The Egyptians

Having studied Egyptology before going into teaching, when I saw this book I knew that I had to get a look at it!

Hide-and-Seek History: The Egyptians is an absolutely beautiful book for young children that looks at the Ancient Egyptian civilisation and what archaeology is and what it involves. Every page contains a series of flaps blended seamlessly into the rich and vivid illustrations, which can be pulled to reveal more information about different aspects of culture and history. Something I think is particularly engaging about how the book has been constructed is that sometimes there are further flaps to reveal beneath the initial one, making the discovery of more details like the process of archaeological excavation and uncovering different layers of history.

The illustrations in the book are wonderfully bright and full of warm colour palettes that make the world within cheery and welcoming. My favourite is the section about the Gods, which is a lovely amber and purple twilight spread with flaps that children can pull to reveal information about many of the Gods, the range that has been selected one that includes the more common ones that students might learn about in early schooling, and some of the less so, offering up broader information and adding further opportunities for learning and discovering.

I particularly appreciated that the language chosen to convey some thoughts and ideas about Egypt makes it clear that there is not always one interpretation of what we have discovered, and so encourages children to enquire further. The written details are clear and do not use overly simple vocabulary, affording chances for readers to expand their understanding of subject specific terms and how words can be used in different contexts. The writing also makes sure to include women, men, and both historical and modern scholars in its references, and strikes a balance in its illustrations and areas of culture covered to make sure it doesn’t solely look at spheres of life for one particular gender.

The Egyptians will be on shelves on October 1st 2020 and would make a wonderful birthday or Christmas present for a child with an interest in history and ancient civilisations! Thank you, Little Tiger Books, for sending me a copy for review!

Blog Tour: Boy Queen by George Lester

Blog Tour: Boy Queen by George Lester

‘Robin Cooper’s life is falling apart.

While his friends prepare to head off to University, Robin is looking at a pile of rejection letters from drama schools up and down the country, and facing a future without the people he loves the most. Everything seems like it’s ending, and Robin is scrabbling to find his feet.

Unsure about what to do next and whether he has the talent to follow his dreams, he and his best friends go and drown their sorrows at a local drag show, where Robin realizes there might be a different, more sequinned path for him…

With a mother who won’t stop talking, a boyfriend who won’t acknowledge him and a best friend who is dying to cover him in glitter make up, there’s only one thing for Robin to do: bring it to the runway.’

Today is my stop on the blog tour for the brilliant new YA release, Boy Queen, by George Lester, and I have a review to share! I read this book from cover to cover without putting it down and loved the story – I particularly think that it deserves a spot in and some attention from school libraries, especially with its look at first relationships, identity, and the anxiety and pressures surrounding the end of secondary schooling.

Boy Queen follows Robin, who is in his last year of sixth form and has applied to drama schools as his next step towards his chosen career, his days occupied by school and extra classes in dance and the theatre arts, the latter something he devotes his time to in an effort to ace the rigorous exams that drama schools require their applicants to pass to earn a place on their courses of study. Unfortunately for Robin, he doesn’t manage to secure a place at drama school, leaving him adrift and unsure of what his next steps are, certain that going to university like some of his friends isn’t for him, even the prospect of applying again next year something that the knock to his confidence initially finds him unable to truly contemplate. Robin is presented as a young man who works hard and wants to dedicate himself to his craft, his confidence a seemingly fragile thing that fluctuates with his sense of self-worth, which is impacted by his experiences with the outside world’s reaction to his sexuality and how he presents himself. When what he has worked so hard for becomes an impossibility in the short term (which should not be downplayed, especially given the pressure that young people face to know their paths and follow them immediately at the end of schooling), he finds himself adrift, his future daunting and uncertain, and his parting from his closest friends and support network inevitable. On his eighteenth birthday, he visits Entity, a club where he gets to see drag artists live for the first time, allowing drag to make the jump from something he has experienced on-screen and at a distance, to something he realises he has the opportunity to take a much more active interest in.

The relationships in Boy Queen are a huge part of the story and, though there are lots that I’d like to talk about, I’m going to focus on two of them. However, I do want to say that I loved the found family features with Robin and his circle of friends, and with the drag artists that he gets to know, such as Kaye, who take him in as one of their own, not just to protect him, but also to teach and to challenge what preconceptions he has about drag and sexuality. The most supportive influence in Robin’s life is his mother, who accepts her son for who he is, while seeking to protect her child from a world that she knows is largely not as accepting as the friends he has found, and wants to keep him safe from the negative influences who will judge him and attempt to make him feel bad for being who he is. Though Robin clearly loves his mum, in his frustration and growing worry over his future he often fails to see all that she does for him, at one point accusing her of never being around, while not understanding that she is rarely home because she is working to make sure that she can pay for everything he needs to embrace his dreams. There are some things that they take for granted about each other that are challenged by Robin’s shifting evermore from child to adult, a time that is proving stressful for the both of them, yet, ultimately, his mother is his biggest fan, certain in the good heart of the son she has raised, and that he has the talent to be whatever he wishes to be.

Robin’s relationship with Connor throws up all sorts of warning signs early on for the reader, from Connor’s reluctance to acknowledge Robin in public, to his insistence that nobody find out that they’re a supposed item (I hesitate to say that they are a couple). While these things are easy for the audience to pick up on, that their relationship is one in which Robin is manipulated and emotionally wounded on more than one occasion is far less clear to him, not only because he wants to be loved, but because he believes he understands the reasons that Connor cannot be as open as he is and has many of the same fears of the consequences of expressing his sexuality. It takes Robin time and support to realise that Connor’s attitude toward him is not acceptable for someone who claims to care for him, and to stop supplying excuses for him to reason away his behaviour, both because he wants to believe better of Connor and because he has convinced himself that he may not be deserving of love and affection; that losing Connor – in whatever way he is willing to be with him – might mean the end of any chance he has at love and he would be foolish to throw it away. Further layers to his experiences with Connor are uncovered as the novel unfolds, the nature of these revelations well-structured within the overall arc of the story and Robin’s realisations about their relationship as he begins to grow into a new confidence in himself.

Boy Queen was released on August 6th and is available on shelves now! Thank you, Pan Macmillan, for the ARC and the opportunity to be part of the blog tour!

Blog Tour: Dangerous Remedy by Kat Dunn

Blog Tour: Dangerous Remedy by Kat Dunn

‘Camille, a revolutionary’s daughter, leads a band of outcasts – a runaway girl, a deserter, an aristocrat in hiding. As the Battalion des Morts they cheat death, saving those about to meet a bloody end at the blade of Madame La Guillotine. But their latest rescue is not what she seems. The girl’s no aristocrat, but her dark and disturbing powers means both the Royalists and the Revolutionaries want her. But who and what is she?

In a fast and furious story full of the glamour and excesses, intrigue and deception of these dangerous days, no one can be trusted, everyone is to be feared. As Camille learns the truth, she’s forced to choose between loyalty to those she loves and the future.’

Today is my stop on the blog tour for Kat Dunn’s new YA book, Dangerous Remedy, which is a wonderful read from start to finish and one I didn’t want to put down.

The story follows Camille and the group she has assembled to free people from prison and help them escape certain death, her view that they are doing what they must to help ordinary citizens who have no hope of influencing a corrupt system or of evading their deaths once they are in custody. As the book opens, they have been paid to free and rescue a girl their client claims is his daughter, yet it soon becomes all too obvious that they have not been told the whole story, not about the mission or the girl herself, and so their plans must change while they attempt to figure out the truth and muddle through the ethics of the situation that they find themselves in.

One of the things I most enjoyed about Dangerous Remedy was the group dynamic and the fact that it’s never entirely clear one hundred percent what anyone’s motives truly are or what they might be willing to do to protect themselves and each other. Al is perhaps the most openly scathing of their work together and quite often cuts straight to the point, but it’s quite evident that his darker humour and sarcasm are methods that he uses to protect himself from the reality of what he has experienced and the hand that the world has dealt him. Ada believes that she is doing what she must for Camille and her friends, though knows full well that the secrets she keeps would be abhorrent to the girl she loves, while Camille herself seems to struggle with her own motives and what drives her.

The more magical elements of the story are reminiscent of Frankenstein in their execution, which I found quite suitable for a time in which science was often believed to be magic, and to meddle with what was considered beyond the realm of man was to invite certain doom (this also ties in nicely with the arguments against fate and choice being what determines the future). Olympe is much like the monster, created and turned into something others view as inhuman, with a power not entirely under her control and understanding of who she could be in the right circumstances – when not considered a ‘thing’ and treated as such – just beyond her reach. She has been dehumanised for so long that it would be easy for her to lash out, admitting that she does not remember what it is for people to be kind, and still, she tries, as all of Camille’s group do in their own way, to find a way to a better way.

I loved Camille and Ada and found the murky mix of their family’s pasts and elements that catch up with each of them to be some of the most engaging parts of the novel. Though they clearly love each other, how they feel about each other appears to differ, to the extent that Ada’s devotion and guilt leads her to turn towards Camille and what she can do to help her (even risking her hatred), while Camille seems to retreat inwards and fixate, not as confident in expressing sometimes uncertain feelings, instead taking refuge in action that she has not always thought through or considered the consequences of.

Dangerous Remedy was released in hardback on August 6th and is available from both online and high street book sellers! Thank you, Zephyr Books, for sending me a signed ARC and for the opportunity to be part of the blog tour!

Review: Court of Lions by Somaiya Daud

Review: Court of Lions by Somaiya Daud

‘Two identical girls, one a princess, the other a rebel. Who will rule the empire?

Amani must make a devastating choice between revolution and family in this sequel to the instant Sunday Times bestseller Mirage.

After being swept up into the brutal Vathek court, Amani, the ordinary girl forced to serve as the half-Vathek princess’s body double, has been forced into complete isolation. The cruel but complex princess, Maram, with whom Amani had cultivated a tenuous friendship, discovered Amani’s connection to the rebellion and has forced her into silence, and if Amani crosses Maram once more, her identity – and her betrayal – will be revealed to everyone in the court.

Amani is desperate to continue helping the rebellion, to fight for her people’s freedom. But she must make a devastating decision: will she step aside, and watch her people suffer, or continue to aid them, and put herself and her family in mortal danger? And whatever she chooses, can she bear to remain separated, forever, from Maram’s fiancé, Idris?’

I absolutely loved Mirage (it’s remained one of my favourite reads since its release) and was a little worried when the date for Court of Lions kept being pushed back, but I’m pleased to say that I enjoyed this sequel perhaps even more than the first instalment. I love reading about politics and court intrigue, which is what Court of Lions primarily focuses on, and I very much enjoyed reading about the different families and their histories – and how their pasts and loyalties could impact the future that seems so out of reach at the start of the novel.

I’m glad that the relationship between Amani and Maram remains central to the story and that there isn’t a huge span of the book where they don’t see each other or have any interaction. There are stretches of the novel where they don’t have a great many encounters, but what encounters they do have are significant, with consequences for them both or indications of character history or progress. Their journey doesn’t centre heavily around the imbalance of power between them, as the end of Mirage might have suggested, but how far they trust each other with their hopes and fears. Amani swiftly emerges as seemingly the stronger of the two, largely out of a desire to protect and be faithful to Maram, for she is the only one who has seen the struggles that she is experiencing and appears to understand that she is finally growing into herself and becoming more than the Vath would have her be. Though Maram is often inconsiderate in what she orders Amani to do (most ‘orders’ start this way and soon become requests) and can seem manipulative, she doesn’t have all of the information available that Amani does, nor does she understand what it is to have friends or family that she can trust with anything of her true self, and Amani has already been less than truthful to her before. They are often at their best when working together, and Maram ultimately wants Amani’s friendship and to forge relationships, in this instance and others, no matter how she struggles.

The majority of Maram’s story in Court of Lions centres around her trying to make peace with the two halves of her heritage: primarily, what her father wants her to be (and whether she has any desire to even attempt to please him any more) and her mother’s legacy. I loved what we get to see of Maram taking steps to learn about her mother’s people and the culture that her father has deliberately kept her disconnected and distanced from in her role as his heir, determined that she is his child, and therefore only one of the Vath, and not Kushaila at all. In the raising of her, he and Nadine have attempted to rewrite her own history and excluded her from learning all that her mother would have taught her and what Kushaila women know how to do, including leaving her struggling with the language barrier that bars her from experiencing literature and poetry in its original form, distancing her from her cultural birthright and what plays an integral role for other Kushaila. While her marriage and pressure of being her father’s heir threatens to force her into roles she doesn’t want, it’s the realisation that there are actually things in life that she wants for herself that begins to encourage her to explore her roots and feel that it’s her mother’s line she ought to honour and not her vicious father’s. This slow acknowledgement of herself as a person and not simply a heir to be used means that she does step back from the true political machinations going on in her name, making it look somewhat like Amani is the one doing all the work, but without Maram’s making this progress in terms of having her own thoughts, feelings and desires, there would be no potential leader with an investment in her people to rally behind.

I find that I’m not usually a huge fan of romances in YA fiction, but I found that both of the love stories in Court of Lions were compelling (Idris and Amani’s relationship in Mirage perhaps having been a little bit too along the lines on insta-love), and I especially liked Maram’s and how the time shifts in the first half of the novel are used to shed light on her behaviour in the present day.

Court of Lions is out on August 6th, from Hodder & Stoughton. Thank you to the publisher for the digital ARC!

I received an E-ARC from Netgalley and the publisher.

Review: Girl, Serpent, Thorn by Melissa Bashardoust

Review: Girl, Serpent, Thorn by Melissa Bashardoust

‘There was and there was not, as all stories begin, a princess cursed to be poisonous to the touch. But for Soraya, who has lived her life hidden away from everyone, apart from her family, safe only in her gardens, it’s not just a story.

As the day of her twin brother’s wedding approaches, Soraya must decide if she’s willing to step outside of the shadows for the first time. Below in the dungeon is a demon who holds knowledge that she craves, the answer to her freedom. And above is a young man who isn’t afraid of her, whose eyes linger not with fear, but with an understanding of who she is beneath the poison.

Soraya thought she knew her place in the world, but when her choices lead to consequences she never imagined, she begins to question who she is and who she is becoming . . . human or demon. Princess or monster.’

I did enjoy Girl, Serpent, Thorn, but I felt that, much as with the author’s previous work, Girls Made of Snow and Glass, around the 50% mark is where the story starts to get a little muddled. In terms of pacing and structure, it almost feels as if acts one, two and the majority of three are in the first half of the novel, leaving the second half of the third act to take up the rest of the story. However, this is only my opinion and may well not be an observation that has impacted other people’s reading. The writing itself is beautiful and I very much like the author’s style, particularly during moments of stillness and when characters’ emotions are running high.

Soraya is an engaging character for much of the first half of the book, her story and her need to uncover the truth about why she is how she is and what led to her being so interesting in its own right, but when one of her romantic interests (Azad) is introduced is when she begins to read as much younger and less capable than she is initially presented as. Though she has been without company for much of her life and feels isolated and alone, that she would so easily be drawn in by someone who flatters her so obviously doesn’t quite feel in keeping with what the reader has learnt about her. However, that she has been starved of human contact may well mean that she is not particularly well-versed in encountering deception, as is suggested by her behaviour throughout the story when faced with those who have failed to tell her the complete truth, or have chosen an edited version of it, believed to be for her benefit. Though both of her entanglements with her romantic interests involve manipulation, I was pleased to see that the other feels more based around a connection, affection, growing loyalty and a desire to see Soraya become who she could be so as to embrace all that she is, not simply to become cruel and powerful because she has the potential to be so.

Whether Soraya will embrace being ‘evil’ or try to atone for what she has done (I hesitate to call her actions a mistake, given what information she has available at the time and how she has experienced the world so far) is perhaps what takes up a good deal of the plot, yet is not quite as compelling as what I hope is the main message of the narrative (I won’t go into detail here, as I don’t want to spoil the ending). Soraya is a strong character – in that sense that her journey is compelling, not the ‘strong female character’ trope – who I would have gladly read much more about. Maybe the story would have worked better in terms of pacing and time for additional detail as a series?

Girl, Serpent, Thorn is certainly a well-written book, with a world and characters that I hope we get to see again in some form, despite it being a stand-alone.

I received a digital ARC from Netgalley and the publisher.

Review: Bookish and the Beast by Ashley Poston

Review: Bookish and the Beast by Ashley Poston

‘On the other hand, Vance Reigns has been Hollywood royalty for as long as he can remember—with all the privilege and scrutiny that entails. When a tabloid scandal catches up to him, he’s forced to hide out somewhere the paparazzi would never expect to find him: Small Town USA. At least there’s a library in the house. Too bad he doesn’t read.

When Rosie and Vance’s paths collide and a rare book is accidentally destroyed, Rosie finds herself working to repay the debt. And while most Starfield superfans would jump at the chance to work in close proximity to the Vance Reigns, Rosie has discovered something about Vance: he’s a jerk, and she can’t stand him. The feeling is mutual.  

But as Vance and Rosie begrudgingly get to know each other, their careful masks come off—and they may just find that there’s more risk in shutting each other out than in opening their hearts.’

Bookish and the Beast is the third in the Once Upon a Con series, that takes fairytales and introduces them to a modern setting, focusing on the world of fandom, conventions and the media. It’s one of my all-time favourite series, primarily because Poston writes about fandom in a way that I’ve seen no other author authentically achieve when portraying characters who have a love of a particular TV show, game, movie, book, etc, showing a real affection and depth of understanding about what fandom brings to the lives of those involved in it. There is no subtle mockery or suggestion that the reader ought to think that what Rosie (or any of the other characters in the books) feels about Starfield is odd or not as fulfilling as anything else people choose to take part in for fun. Poston writes about friendship and fandom bringing people together and giving them creative outlets, which, in my experience, is what it’s all about. I know that one of the first things I said to one of my very best friends (Hi, Laura!) was a comment about the sci-fi show Farscape way back more years than I think either of would care to admit.

Bookish and the Beast is a retelling of Beauty and the Beast, told from the point of view of Rosie, a fan of Starfield, and Vance, who turns out to be playing ‘the bad guy’ in the movie adaptations of the Starfield Universe. After having damaged a book from a collection that doesn’t belong to her, Rosie agrees to make amends by cataloguing and arranging the library from which it came, leaving her often in the company of a taciturn and irritable Vance, who is trying to avoid the public eye and adding another scandal to his unfortunate list of incidents and poor decisions. Over the course of sorting out the library, which Vance reluctantly begins to assist with (though far less reluctantly before long), the two begin to consider each other and their own behaviour and decisions in a different light, and begin to bond over the Starfield books that Rosie adores and are part of the universe that Vance is inhabiting in his role as Ambrose Sond.

As seen previously, particularly in The Princess and the Fangirl, the story contains commentary on clichés within literature and media, and the relationship between creators, their works and their fans. Bookish and the Beast looks at redemption arcs in particular, bad and ‘evil’, and how the portrayal of true love and destiny could use some more complexity and the subverting of expectations. It also contains an excellent range of representation, handles dealing with grief in a sensitive manner, and has relationships written with real warmth and an ease of affection that makes the characters a joy to read about. As with the other Once Upon a Con books, this was another that I didn’t want to end, and I hope this isn’t the last we see set in this universe.

Though each of the books in the series follows a different set of characters in the spotlight, what I love about each new instalment is that we get to hear about the characters from previous novels and encounter those the reader has heard about or has had perhaps a more minor role in a different way. For example, in Bookish and the Beast, the reader learns what is happening between Darien and Elle and what is impacting their relationship, and Imogen and others from The Princess and the Fangirl also get some screen time and have a hand in how events play out. Each of the universes (for is the series not a story about a story, about a story?) is connected nicely and there is an excellent sense of continuity, both in the ‘real’ world and the imagined series, the making and the fandom of which brings the characters together.

Bookish and the Beast is out on August 4th and is the perfect variety of warm-hearted escapism that we could all do with right now. I would recommend picking up the whole series, but each book can be read as a standalone story and doesn’t rely heavily on prior knowledge about particular characters. Thank you, Quirk Books, for sending me an ARC!