Review: Verify by Joelle Charbonneau

Review: Verify by Joelle Charbonneau

‘Meri Beckley lives in a world without lies. When she looks at the peaceful Chicago streets, she feels pride in the era of unprecedented hope and prosperity over which the governor presides.

But when Meri’s mother is killed, Meri suddenly has questions that no one else seems to be asking. And when she tries to uncover her mother’s state of mind in her last weeks, she finds herself drawn into a secret world with a history she didn’t know existed.

Suddenly, Meri is faced with a choice between accepting the “truth” or embracing a world the government doesn’t want anyone to see- a world where words have the power to change the course of a country and where the wrong ones can get Meri killed.’

Verify is an interesting novel with a good and current message at its core, yet I feel that its narrative is and overall story is rather muddled, meaning the message itself loses its impact, particularly as we are told its core idea more than once without seeing much evidence of characters going through the process of understanding it and coming to terms with what it truly means. That many of the high stakes events happen off-screen, as it were, seems to rob the tale of much of its urgency, especially as very little to actively disturb the lives of the characters the reader is introduced to actually happens.

The idea itself is a decent one and one that I believe is important for literature to incorporate given society’s growing dependency on technology and the internet to tell us everything that we need to know, whenever we want clarification or to learn something that we need to. However, it’s the execution of the concept that made me unable to fully invest in it, as I found it very difficult to believe that it would take so short a time for words to supposedly disappear completely from language and for society to stop questioning what they are told. That children would accept everything that they are told in their lessons without forming opinions that have them questioning what they have learnt is the major hurdle that kept me out of sync with the story, for key components of learning are analysing information and points of view and examining evidence. There is almost no point to the exams that the characters sit without these skills. I completely understand the message at the novel’s heart and its relevance, notably as we seem to be staring right at the mistakes of the past and about to make them all over again, given the current political climate and frankly appalling state of affairs as regards the rise in ugly forms of nationalism, yet there are too many plot holes for it to work quite as it’s intended.

The concept of the Stewards is one of the things that kept me reading and something that I wish had taken up more of the novel (I’m hoping we get more about them in a sequel or series). I loved the idea of literature and history having been saved and pooled somewhere and I would really like to see it developed in more depth and used for greater impact in what future instalments are to arrive. Meri’s involvement with them and swift rise to practically being in-charge is something that, again, I found myself rather dubious about, but this stands to be elaborated upon as the rest of the story unfolds.

Verify is read pertinent to today’s issues as regards censorship and manipulation of the media and one I would recommend as a look at what stands to happen through deliberately limiting understanding and presenting a surface image that dissuades people from disturbing that which they have been conditioned to believe is best for them. Thank you Harper 360YA for sending me a copy! Verify is out on September 24th!

Review: Kingdom of Souls by Rena Barron

Review: Kingdom of Souls by Rena Barron

‘Born into a family of powerful witchdoctors, Arrah yearns for magic of her own. But each year she fails to call forth her ancestral powers, while her ambitious mother watches with growing disapproval.

There’s only one thing Arrah hasn’t tried, a deadly last resort: trading years of her own life for scraps of magic. Until the Kingdom’s children begin to disappear, and Arrah is desperate to find the culprit.

She uncovers something worse. The long-imprisoned Demon King is stirring. And if he rises, his hunger for souls will bring the world to its knees… unless Arrah pays the price for the magic to stop him.’

I absolutely loved Kingdom of Souls and read most it in one sitting because I just couldn’t put it down. The worldbuilding is excellent and immersive, painted in a rich and vivid manner that makes it easy to visualise both the world in which Arrah lives and the characters that inhabit it. I adored the magic system and that it, particularly for Arrah, is not always without consequence, especially as this is something that is increasingly rarely seen in fantasy and YA novels, where many protagonists seem to pay no price for powers they possess or embrace over the course of their journeys. That the magic is grounded primarily in the use of physical objects makes it all the more tangible and engaging. Both the broader subject matter involved and features of the magic itself make the story one that feels on the darker side of fantasy, for not all of it is an easy read, and at no point is it suggested that there are nothing but high stakes involves, even during the stretches of the narrative in which there is less going on than at other points, making for a tale full of tension and shifting power.

I don’t want to give away too many spoilers, so I will say that one of the things that kept me reading was Arrah’s relationship with her mother, which, much like Arrah herself, I could never quite figure out. I didn’t want to be lured into thinking that some of the elements of her behaviour were leading to a double cross and so was quite resistant to any suggestion that she is anything other than what she is initially painted as, despite the suffering she has endured. The antagonist(s) in Kingdom of Souls are no villain-monologuing cut outs, but there is a true impression of a depth of power that perhaps even they do not quite understand to its full extent, often wielded selfishly and with a dangerous sense of their own entitlement to do as they wish. Ultimately, I think Arrah’s relationships with both her mother and her father are some of the strongest threads of the narrative, contrasted as they are. Other than Arrah herself, her father is one of my favourite characters, mostly because he is depicted as a good and kind man who plainly loves his daughter as she is.

I would say the only thing that detracted from my reading was that I did catch on to one of the plot twists rather early in the narrative, whether this is a deliberate feature of that section of the story or otherwise, and so I wasn’t terribly shocked by one particular revelation. However, it is only a very small detraction, as I love the plot element itself (it’s one of my all-time favourite narrative devices) and look forward the most to seeing where it leads the story in future instalments.

All in all, Kingdom of Souls is a fantastic read and one I would highly recommend! Thank you to Harper Voyager UK for sending me a copy!

Review: Tiger Queen by Annie Sullivan

Review: Tiger Queen by Annie Sullivan

‘In the mythical desert kingdom of Achra, an ancient law forces sixteen-year-old Princess Kateri to fight in the arena to prove her right to rule. For Kateri, winning also means fulfilling a promise to her late mother that she would protect her people, who are struggling through windstorms and drought. The situation is worsened by the gang of Desert Boys that frequently raids the city wells, forcing the king to ration what little water is left. The punishment for stealing water is a choice between two doors: behind one lies freedom, and behind the other is a tiger.

But when Kateri’s final opponent is announced, she knows she cannot win. In desperation, she turns to the desert and the one person she never thought she’d side with. What Kateri discovers twists her world-and her heart-upside down. Her future is now behind two doors-only she’s not sure which holds the key to keeping her kingdom and which releases the tiger.’

Tiger Queen is quite a light read despite some of its subject matter, and one that I read cover to cover in one sitting. It’s an enjoyable read, though one I wish had a good more depth to it, as it felt a little as if only the surface of the key characters is explored with everything quite plain to see. The plot itself is reasonable predictable, which has less to do with the actual story and more to do with the dialogue and interactions between characters that flag up the direction of the tale quite early on.

I don’t believe that a reader needs to like a character to engage with them or for them to be good, strong, viable characters, but I’m still not entirely sure how I feel about Kateri and I don’t know whether that’s a good thing or not. She has many qualities that set her up to be the hero of the story, though the focus lingers on her physical strength and ability as well as her strength of will. It’s her strong will contrasted with her naivity (she often believes anything and everything she is told – by many characters over the course of the story) that unsettled me the most, as it isn’t a case of her just being stubborn and choosing her own way, but that she accepts most of what she’s told without question. For me, she shines most in her interactions with the younger of the Desert Boys and it’s this I wish we had seen more of, as it’s in these moments that we seem to have the most character development from her and she appears most human.

The main issue I found I had with the novel is that there is a lot of telling and not a good deal of showing. Characters often simply tell other their feelings, pieces from their past, or even their evil plans with little to no prompting or invitation, and while it doesn’t seem so out of place with certain character interactions, I found it quite jarring for the villains of the piece to reveal their plans and intentions to their enemies when they had no clear victory in sight. What Rodric intends for Kateri is laid out in detail before her as if she will never find any way of circumventing it, but also in such a manner that it seems to eliminate him as a threat.

This said, as mentioned before, Tiger Queen is an enjoyable read and I wouldn’t have read it so swiftly if it weren’t! I loved the interactions between the Desert Boys and how Kateri becomes one of them, as well as what the reader sees of life beyond the city and what is being done to subvert the rule of her father. I feel as if there’s a whole world that we only got a glimpse into and I would very happily read more about it, were it not to be a stand-alone novel.

Tiger Queen is out on September 10th! Thank you, Harper 360 YA, for sending me a copy for review!

Review: The Girl the Sea Gave Back by Adrienne Young

Review: The Girl the Sea Gave Back by Adrienne Young

‘For as long as she can remember, Tova has lived among the Svell, the people who found her washed ashore as a child and use her for her gift as a Truthtongue. Her own home and clan are long-faded memories, but the sacred symbols and staves inked over every inch of her skin mark her as one who can cast the rune stones and see into the future. She has found a fragile place among those who fear her, but when two clans to the east bury their age-old blood feud and join together as one, her world is dangerously close to collapse.

For the first time in generations, the leaders of the Svell are divided. Should they maintain peace or go to war with the allied clans to protect their newfound power? And when their chieftain looks to Tova to cast the stones, she sets into motion a series of events that will not only change the landscape of the mainland forever but will give her something she believed she could never have again―a home.’

The Girl the Sea Gave Back is an immersive read written from the points of view of Tova, a young woman with the power to see the future, and Halvard, who is destined to lead his clan. I’m informed that Halvard featured in Young’s first novel, Sky in the Deep, which I haven’t read, but I will be picking up ASAP! The worldbuilding is not so detailed as to require a vast amount of exposition in the opening chapters (which is something I feel a lot of books are suffering from these days) but clear enough that it’s easy to reach an understanding of the clan systems and the environment, the focus more on key characters and the more magical elements, such as truthtelling. I’ve written many an essay on the use of prophecy and oracles as story devices in ancient literature, and I loved the use of it here and the exploration of whether fate is absolute.

Tova’s existence within the Svell community is ultimately an uncomfortable one, both in how she is treated like an outsider and openly despised by many, and in how those around her, even those who might claim to care for her, manipulate her for their own means. The threat of death hangs constantly over her head and so she is driven to cast the stones even when she has no desire to, though the threats against her physical safety are perhaps the least of what she suffers. It’s the emotional manipulation by her father figure that, to me, is the worst of what she has to live with, feeling a duty to him for ‘saving’ her (thanks to his constant reminders of what would have happened to her without him) while he uses her future sight to maintain his position within the clan. He deliberately withholds what he knows of her history to ensure that she is reliant on him, knowing full well that she has no other source of information if she is ever to learn the truth about the circumstances in which she was found. The violent threats against Tova that push her to do as she’s told even when she can face no more are certainly awful, but it’s Jorrund’s manipulation and treatment of her more as a tool and trophy than a daughter that is more abhorrent. It’s brilliant to see her grow in confidence and start to defy both him and the clan’s leaders in clever ways to forge her own path.

Though it takes quite a long time for Tova and Halvard’s paths to cross in more than the actions of their tribes impacting the other, I was glad to find that it was not a case of them instantly falling in love with a sudden shift in narrative to romance. They do wonder about each other, but it seems built more on curiosity and, in Tova’s case, a need to know more and understand the path of fate rather than romantic pining. I really appreciated that the novel stuck with what I feel is its strongest thread, being the exploration of fate and destiny, and while the two do show affection for each other in their brief interactions, their story remains one more concerned with hope for the future and claiming what they believe will be happiness rather than falling into the insta-love trap of many YA novels.

If there’s one thing that I wish we could have learned more about, it’s the Kyrr, and I hope that there will be future instalments in this universe that let us spend more time with them!

The Girl the Sea Gave Back is out on September 3rd! Thank you to Titan Books for sending me a copy!

Review: How to Be Luminous by Harriet Reuter Hapgood

Review: How to Be Luminous by Harriet Reuter Hapgood

‘When seventeen-year-old Minnie Sloe’s mother disappears, so does her ability to see color. How can young artist Minnie create when all she sees is black-and-white?

Middle child Minnie and her two sisters have always been able to get through anything together: growing up without fathers, living the eccentric artist lifestyle, and riding out their mother’s mental highs and lows. But when they lose their mother, Minnie wonders if she could lose everything: her family, her future, her first love… and maybe even her mind.’

How to be Luminous is a difficult read, and I don’t mean that in a negative way, for it’s a sensitively and well-written book, and I think if it were an easy read it wouldn’t have the impact that it does. That it is a novel that is not always comfortable reading means it is effective in what it means to convey, the narrative one that primarily deals with mental illness via its main protagonist and those in her life, and that it can hit a little too close on more than one occasion means that there are characters with which readers can identify and who are portrayed in a manner that encourages empathy.

One of three sisters, Minnie finds that her ability to see colour vanishes when her mother disappears, and this is only one of many things that makes her doubt whether she isn’t losing her mind as she tries to work through the grief and uncertainty that losing the only parental figure in her life brings her. Without an explanation and without closure, Minnie is left to wonder whether her mother has simply had enough and left her and her siblings to their own devices, or whether her mental illness has driven her to it – or something worse. With the loss of colour come doubts about her own mental state, and while she very clearly suffers from depression in the face of her loss, she also starts to worry that her mother’s highs and lows of what is described akin to being bi-polar is something necessary to create the works of art that she wishes to, and whether her mother’s mental state inevitably means she will suffer the same. In dealing with her grief, she becomes convinced that she must be losing her mind, for she is convinced that she sees her more than once, while also attempting to bring her back to her and seek guidance by imagining and immersing herself in memories of what they used to do. Anyone who has lost someone they care about will surely recognise and empathise with how Minnie feels, and that the stages she goes through and the coping mechanisms she tries to employ are so identifiable is one of the things that can make How to be Luminous an upsetting read for all the right reasons.

The one feature of the novel that I wasn’t sure was entirely necessary was the love triangle. At its heart, the story is about Minnie dealing with the loss of her mother and struggling to live with the building evidence that she is not going to reappear, whether because she has abandoned her or because her bi-polar has led to her taking her own life, and I found the romantic elements more of a distraction than anything. There are some lovely moments between Minnie and Felix, don’t get me wrong, and giving her someone who has experienced the same loss that she is attempting to cope with is an effective facet of the story – I just don’t feel that it being a romantic connection was entirely in keeping with the rest of the story.

One of the pieces of the story’s structure that I enjoyed the most was the naming of colours that have been lost and what Minnie associates them with. These little sections are included between chapters and are beautiful in their insight and effective in bringing home some of the narrative features of the previous chapter(s).

How to be Luminous is out now from Pan Macmillan! I would like to thank the publisher for sending me a copy of this hard-hitting novel for review.

Review: Turning Darkness into Light by Marie Brennan

Review: Turning Darkness into Light by Marie Brennan

‘As the renowned granddaughter of Isabella Camherst (Lady Trent, of the riveting and daring Draconic adventure memoirs) Audrey Camherst has always known she, too, would want to make her scholarly mark upon a chosen field of study.

When Lord Gleinleigh recruits Audrey to decipher a series of ancient tablets holding the secrets of the ancient Draconean civilisation, she has no idea that her research will plunge her into an intricate conspiracy, one meant to incite rebellion and invoke war. Alongside dearest childhood friend and fellow archaeologist Kudshayn, she must find proof of the conspiracy before it’s too late.’

There is so much that I enjoyed about Turning Darkness into Light, particularly the format and the use of the translations as part of the story, and, despite having not read any of the previous books set in this world, I felt right at home. This is likely in no small part due to my background in Egyptology and Classical Civilisation and I just loved the time spent considering the different aspects and possible interpretations of the text being translated, along with the footnotes, all the while having some quite haunting flashbacks to studying the third declension while learning Ancient Greek. What I appreciated most about the story were the ethical considerations surrounding the appropriation of antiquities and the implications of removing them from their culture of origin, something that the UK in particular has done to an enormous extent and still, for the most part, refuses to admit fault for damage done and the harming of context through their removal. The world may not have worked in quite the same way when this was done, but this wears thin as an excuse when artefacts are still not returned to their proper homes and to those for which they bear the most significance.

Audrey’s efforts and intentions are admirable, yet, as she gradually comes to realise, she doesn’t always do what she does with a clear understanding of exactly why. She feels the pressure of having a scholarly heritage to live up to in a time when it’s particularly difficult for women to be accepted as true scholars, and, while a gifted and hardworking woman, she is sometimes a little blind beyond a desperate need to make an impact in the circles in which her grandmother is famous and respected. This is not to say that she doesn’t have good intentions, nor does she come across as selfish, but that she is struggling to find herself and her own will within what she genuinely cares about, all too often wondering what her grandmother would do (or, rather, her impression of her grandmother would do) before considering her own course of action – something that sometimes leads her astray. I truly liked Audrey and wanted her to be successful, for though she is often a little quick to make judgements, she cares both about her work and the people around her (provided that they have shown that they too care for others).

Kudshayn is adorable and his determination to do well for his people and his family (both blood relations and those he considers to be his family) is one of the most heartfelt things in the novel. He faces discrimination from Audrey’s people, who are determined to paint him and his ancestors in a negative light and find ways of making themselves feel superior, treating him and the idea of his civilisation poorly while passing around precious artefacts from their ancient history as trophies and symbols of status. I would love to be able to say that this isn’t happening in reality, but unfortunately this kind of behaviour has yet to be extinguished from our own society. His worry for what the translation might reveal about the past and what it means to be one of his kind – let alone what the humans could use it as an excuse to do – hurts him deeply, yet he refuses to take the easier path and deny that which is unfolding before him, determined to see it through to find the truth and the value in what can be learned. He endures some utterly despicable behaviour from more than one character and still he continues on the journey he has begun, determined to do the best he can.

There’s a lot I’d like to say about the details of the work on the translation itself, but I don’t want to spoil the book and so will settle for saying that I very much enjoyed the politics and the unravelling of it. Turning Darkness into Light is out on August 20th! Thank you Titan Books for sending me a copy!

Review: A Dress for the Wicked by Autumn Krause

Review: A Dress for the Wicked by Autumn Krause

‘True to its name, the sleepy town of Shy in Avon-upon-Kynt is a place where nothing much happens. And for eighteen years, Emmaline Watkins has feared that her future held just that: nothing.

But when the head of the most admired fashion house in the country opens her prestigious design competition to girls from outside the stylish capital city, Emmy’s dreams seem closer than they ever have before.

As the first “country girl” to compete, Emmy knows she’ll encounter extra hurdles on her way to the top. But as she navigates the twisted world of high fashion, she starts to wonder: Will she be able to tailor herself to fit into this dark, corrupted race? And at what cost?’

A Dress for the Wicked is out this month and I absolutely loved the world in which it’s set and the characters that the reader meets along the way. It’s never made entirely clear exactly what level of technology Brittania Secunda has, only that the country in which Emmy lives is very similar to a Britain of the Victorian era, and I was glad to find that there are no vast passages of exposition to try and explain absolutely every feature of what living there is like, for it allows for a greater focus on the narrative itself, its characters, and the fashion and politics at its core. It’s an atmospheric novel in that the Fashion House and the beauty of the fabrics and clothes that are designed are beautifully described and almost tangible, keeping the concept of fashion, design and what they mean to the central characters and those who inhabit Brittania Secunda at its heart. I really enjoyed reading the designs for the different dresses created by the cast over the course of the narrative, particularly because it feels as if there is nothing in said designs that does not have a deeper meaning, either to the character designing it, the intentions of the brief given, or the character for which the outfit is being designed. The colours and fabric are described in vivid detail that makes it wonderfully easy to picture the gowns and feel the love the characters – and, by extension, the author – have for their work. The dedication to this detail is one of the things that makes A Dress for the Wicked a beautiful read and the real world rather dull by comparison!

The young women who have been entered for the Fashion House Interview are encouraged to see each other and almost everyone around them as competition, and what I found interesting about them is that yes, sometimes this is precisely what they do, but, more often, those who are presented from the outset as supposed threats are actually some of the more understanding and frustrated by their situation and circumstances. Many of them are fully aware of what the Fashion House and society expects from them, and this limits their creativity and what they truly wish to do, leaving them annoyed with how the world wants them to be portrayed and behave. Their frustration is just as evident as Emmy’s irritation with the prospect of their having an advantage and being set apart from them as a contestant to appease politics.

I would say that the only thing that I wasn’t too keen on was the romance between Emmy and Tristan. This isn’t to say that I was outright opposed to it, but given how Emmy so often thinks and feels and takes note of about Sophie, I was actually expecting the two of them to become a couple and was quite disappointed when this turned out not to be the case. However, this did not detract from my enjoyment of the story, especially as it was lovely to see Emmy and Sophie working together and supporting each other in a world that is set to encourage them not to – and after each of them giving in to that ingrained urge to consider each other threats and rivals. I really liked Sophie from the outset of the novel and spent quite a bit of the narrative worrying about what was happening – or going to happen – to her and was pleased to see that the choices she made were, ultimately, positive ones, when her circumstances mean that she was so full of potential to do quite the opposite.

Thank you to Harper 360 YA for sending me a copy of A Dress for the Wicked for review! I sincerely hope that we see more of this world, as it’s one that I was very reluctant to leave behind!

Review: We Hunt the Flame by Hafsah Faizal

Review: We Hunt the Flame by Hafsah Faizal

‘People lived because she killed.
People died because he lived.

Zafira is the Hunter, disguising herself as a man when she braves the cursed forest of the Arz to feed her people. Nasir is the Prince of Death, assassinating those foolish enough to defy his autocratic father, the king. If Zafira was exposed as a girl, all of her achievements would be rejected; if Nasir displayed his compassion, his father would punish him in the most brutal of ways. 

Both are legends in the kingdom of Arawiya—but neither wants to be.

War is brewing, and the Arz sweeps closer with each passing day, engulfing the land in shadow. When Zafira embarks on a quest to uncover a lost artifact that can restore magic to her suffering world and stop the Arz, Nasir is sent by the king on a similar mission: retrieve the artifact and kill the Hunter. But an ancient evil stirs as their journey unfolds—and the prize they seek may pose a threat greater than either can imagine.’

There’s a lot about We Hunt the Flame that I enjoyed, primarily in the last third of the novel, but I feel that that in itself is the main issue that I found with it: the narrative takes an awfully long time to get going anywhere. In-fact, the characters that the reader knows are going to have to meet don’t actually meet until nearly two hundred pages (out of almost five hundred) into the story. For me, this seemed far too long to wait, and while I was enjoying elements of Zafira and Nasir’s stories, that what felt as if it should be the core of the narrative didn’t take off for so long almost had me putting the book down several times. While this may have been done to ensure that the reader is equally invested in the stories of the characters while they are apart and to prevent the idea of defining who they are only as a pair (which is something I would not have liked, even if their path is a little obvious from the outset), I nevertheless found it rather frustrating and I wish I hadn’t, as it tainted my reading of the novel.

It isn’t often that I say this, but I think in this instance it was the male characters that I grew to feel for more than the women. This isn’t to say that I didn’t like Zafira, but there is something about her portrayal that I couldn’t quite get comfortable with. There’s a moment when she’s said to be afraid of being a woman, and despite knowing that, contextually, her fear of being discovered to be female is perfectly valid, the phrasing of that particular line made me flinch and I’m afraid it coloured my view of the character. I know that there are numerous ways in which the line could be interpreted, but I wish it did not also imply that she’s ashamed of her gender. She has taken on a more male role, as we often see girls doing in YA fiction at the moment, and, in the circumstances, it makes perfect sense, but I was hoping for more validation of her strength as a woman and not as a woman pretending to be a man.

That I found Nasir and Altair’s roles slightly more interesting is probably to do with their stronger ties to the magical elements of the story, which I won’t go into detail about, as I don’t wish to reveal a lot of spoilers for those who won’t have read the book since its release in the US. Nasir’s behaviour has much to do with what he has become, at once unashamed and intent on his goal, while guilt-ridden and dark with regret for what he has allowed himself to do (not that he is presented with any choice). Altair is a good foil for him, his irreverent humour sometimes charming and at others completely ridiculous, and I enjoyed some of their exchanges the most (and a moment when Zafira inadvertently takes on his tones). The cast as a whole seem at their best when they are together, while Zafira and Nasir are often at their most compelling during their quieter exchanges.

We Hunt the Flame is an immersive read and one for which I particularly loved the mythology and magic’s place in the story, but the pacing is something that I feel needs stressing as something to persevere with, as a lot of its most engaging story is in the second half of the novel. In the UK, We Hunt the Flame will be on Shelves from August 8th! Thank you to My Kinda Book and Pan Macmillan for the review copy!

Review: What She Found in the Woods by Josephine Angelini

Review: What She Found in the Woods by Josephine Angelini

‘After a devastating scandal breaks in her elite New York City private school, Magdalena is shipped off to her family home to spend a summer recovering under the radar. Over-medicated and under-confident, she spends her days in a fog, hiking in the woods behind her grandparents’ cottage.

But then a gorgeous boy called Bo stumbles across her picnic blanket and Magdalena starts believing she might be able to move on from her past. Bo is wild and free and he gets her – it’s like he can see into her soul. Finally she’s starting to feel… something.

But there’s something dark going on in this sleepy town, and when a mutilated body is found in the woods near Bo’s forest home, it’s clear that Magdalena’s nightmare is just beginning. She’s no longer sure if she can trust anyone – even herself…’

What She Found in the Woods is a well-paced and cleverly structured read that explores a number of issues within its overarching narrative, including mental health, family ties and unhealthy friendships and relationships. It is, admittedly, not my usual kind of read, which is why I think I have a few issues with its content – particularly a lack of consequences for a broad range of actions – but the story itself is entertaining and engaging, with suspense and tension particularly well executed and exploited in the last third of the book.

Magda herself is a difficult character to get to grips with, especially because she is, from the outset and almost by her own admittance, quite an unreliable narrator. I don’t believe that it is necessary for the reader to be able to completely empathise with a character for them to be a good and interesting character, yet there are quite large stretches early on in the story where there is more material stacked against encouraging the reader to become invested in her personally. I believe this is largely by design, because not only has she been abandoned by her parents, but her grandparents only wish to see the surface and not acknowledge anything that might be remotely unpleasant, creating a distance that is echoed in her relationship with the reader, but it does mean that it takes a little longer for her story to become one that you feel involved in.

If I had to pick one feature of the story to applaud, it’s the exploration of mental health issues. Magda’s grandparents don’t want to understand or acknowledge what has happened (and is happening) to her, nor do they want anything to disturb their day to day lives, and so they self-medicate with alcohol and make sure that they take regular doses of their own medication. It’s a relatively small detail, but a recurring element of the narrative, and interesting commentary about how damaging such behaviour can be. Magda herself is initially over-medicated to the point where she cannot feel anything and is afraid to tell people that she’s taking medication because of the social stigma of being seen to need assistance in regulating her mental state. This said, there is a point where she stops taking her pills in a way that is not medically sound and I have to say that I doubt whether this particular facet of the story is one that is particularly helpful in its representation and could actually be dangerous. Solely speaking in terms of the story, it has to happen for it to work, but the way in which it’s done feels a little careless and is something that jolted me out of the book.

On the whole, What She Found in the Woods is a skilfully executed story with a good look at the darker side of human nature and what lurks beneath the surface of what may seem idyllic and perfect. It’s out today from Pan Macmillan! Thank you to My Kinda Book for sending me a copy!

Review: Rose, Interrupted by Patrice Lawrence

Review: Rose, Interrupted by Patrice Lawrence

‘Eighteen months ago, 17-year-old Rose and 13-year-old Rudder escaped a strict religious sect with their mum. They are still trying to make sense of the world outside – no more rules about clothes and books, films and music, no more technology bans. But also no more friendship with the people they’ve known all their lives, no community and no certainty. It doesn’t help that their mum has to work all hours to pay rent on their cramped, smelly, one-bed flat above a kebab shop in Hackney. 

While Rudder gorges on once-taboo Harry Potters and dances to Simon and Garfunkel and show tunes, Rose swaps the ankle skirts and uncut hair of the Woodford Pilgrims for Japanese-cute fairy dress and her new boyfriend, Kye. Kye, who she wants with all her being. But there’s loads of scary stuff about their new life that Rose and Rudder have no idea how to handle – it’s normal for girls to let their boyfriends take naked pictures of them, right? 

When Rudder accidentally sets a devastating chain of events into action, Rose must decide whether to sacrifice everything and go back to the life she hates, in order to save the people she loves.’

There are many things about Rose, Interrupted that should be praised, and so many elements of the story that I would love to discuss that I’m going to contain myself to only a few, for fear of this review running rather too long! Needless to say, I enjoyed this novel and more than once have considered its use in the classroom. It’s a story about learning who you are and who you want to be, while different worlds try to pull you in different directions and tell you everything, from what you should wear to how you should behave, and trying to cope with all the different messages people and societies endeavour to have you listen to.

Rose has spent her childhood as part of a religious group who call themselves Pilgrims and seek to separate themselves from the rest of society, to the extent that they don’t send their children to state schools, but take control of their curriculum by educating them within the organisation, and treat women as inferior to the men who control everything. She has experienced the outside world here and there, from briefly attending a normal school and playing with toys that her mother has smuggled in, but she finds the outside world a bigger shock than she realises and spends much of the novel looking for someone or somewhere to provide her with the structure she’s lived with and rules that she’s followed, while acknowledging that the Pilgrim life is not an acceptable one and trying to forge her own identity by choosing what to follow now. It seems that Rose is intent on going against everything the Pilgrims believe in, including acquiring a boyfriend and dressing as wildly differently from them as possible by adopting the fairy kei (the wearing of cute pastels and neons) style, yet she doesn’t entirely know why, beyond rebellion, she is doing these things, leading her to eventually submit to her boyfriend’s determined efforts to photograph her while she’s in a state of undress, for fear of losing him.

Rose is a highly sympathetic character, her loyalties pulled in a lot of different directions, and one of the things I loved most about her was her devotion to her little brother, Rudder. While she often finds his behaviour frustrating (particularly because he wants to go back to the Pilgrims), she spends much of the novel protecting him and trying to do what she believes is best for him. When she makes mistakes, she tries to put them right while still learning how the world around her works, with very little to guide her and suggest what the best course of action will be. She is as lost as he is, if in different worlds, Rose focused on the newness of the world while Rudder seeks refuge in the world of Harry Potter.

One of the things I appreciated most about the novel is how it handles safeguarding and the laws surrounding the sharing of sensitive (inappropriate) material such as that which Rudder receives, in that it isn’t only a matter of legality if the material is shared, but in receiving in and storing it. Rudder shares the material he does because he is desperate for help and needs support, and despite there being obvious sympathy for his unenviable situation, the consequences of his inadvertent actions are not shied away from. It is my hope that young people who read Rose, Interrupted and who may not be fully aware of the specifics of the legal system’s required response to such material will become better informed about it. This said, I’m not sure that the teaching staff’s reaction in attempting to ensure that Rudder has a parent/guardian informed and a safe place to go is carried out in as in-depth and conscientious a manner as it should be, given what they know of his family history, but this is an element that has to fail to a certain degree for the story to work, and so not a comment about the narrative, but what being in the profession had me feeling.

Rose, Interrupted is an excellent read full of sympathetic characters (not always the ones expected) and a story that addresses a wide range of issues sensitively and with elegant writing. You can find it on shelves on July 25th! Thank you to Team BKMRK for the proof copy!