Review: Sistersong by Lucy Holland

Review: Sistersong by Lucy Holland

‘King Cador’s children inherit a land abandoned by the Romans, torn by warring tribes. Riva can cure others, but can’t heal her own scars. Keyne battles to be seen as the king’s son, although born a daughter. And Sinne dreams of love, longing for adventure.

All three fear a life of confinement within the walls of the hold, their people’s last bastion of strength against the invading Saxons. However, change comes on the day ash falls from the sky – bringing Myrdhin, meddler and magician. The siblings discover the power that lies within them and the land. But fate also brings Tristan, a warrior whose secrets will tear them apart.

Riva, Keyne and Sinne become entangled in a web of treachery and heartbreak, and must fight to forge their own paths. It’s a story that will shape the destiny of Britain.’

I found Sistersong to be a hugely enjoyable read and I loved the aspects of history and myth (and what history has all but become myth) at the core of the narrative. One of the things that has always stuck with me from my studies of Classical Civilisation is conversation about how Britain changed after the departure of the Romans and how their advances in technology and architecture became something that the generations that followed started to attribute to magic and fantastical creatures, such as giants, because they simply couldn’t fathom how humans could have created the now ruined structures left behind. I got a big kick out of the comment in Sistersong about how the Romans used to heat their floors and it being something almost unbelievable and beyond the realms of possibility. A tiny detail, but I really appreciated it as one of the many things that make the world of Sistersong feel real and not so different to our own reality and version(s) of history. The rising conflict between religious beliefs and insistences about how society should function is another of the elements of the book that I found most enjoyable in an anthropological sense, given what we understand of the world at the time in which Sistersong is set – and who ultimately got to write that history and what we ‘know’.

Of the points of view, I found Keyne’s to be the most compelling. Cador and his wife obviously have a good deal of responsibilities that keep them occupied, but it feels as if they don’t truly know any of their children, and are wilfully and often hurtfully ignorant of Keyne in particular, his mother most obviously concerned about reputation and rumour instead of what is best for her child – who is truly no longer a child and being actively prevented from following his own path. Compared to his wife, Cador does begin to redeem himself and his attitude towards his son, but it does feel as if it is out of his own necessity, when he could have seen Keyne’s potential and where his strengths lie much sooner, especially for a man who ‘needs’ a son. The setting is of a time when gender roles were much more rigid and in that respect it is clear that his parents don’t have the understanding to realise the truth about Keyne, pressurised further by threats to their way of life and external, judgemental, forces, and I think it’s interesting that it’s one of his sisters that first refers to Keyne as her brother, in that perhaps this is a representation of the differences in our own generations and understanding.

In the opening stages of the narrative, there are hints that Riva could be the connection to the land and the old ways that her people need, with the presence of mind to use it, yet she soon becomes entangled in a relationship that I’m sure readers must realise is going to be her undoing, and so it becomes a case of watching Riva’s potential unravel and feeling sympathy for a girl taken in by what she longs to hear and what she believes she will never have, owing to her injuries. I felt that I wanted to like Riva more than I did (I’ve said before, liking characters is not synonymous with them being a well-written character, in my view), but found myself less and less able to forgive her blindness towards her romantic interest, which is just one of the features of the narrative that makes her story harder to read (in a good way!). There is much that she could have done differently and, like her younger sister, everything seems to spiral very swiftly out of her control and pushes her to points from which there is no return.

Of the three, Sinne feels the most self-absorbed and it’s her youth that predominantly shines through her narrative. She is willing to use her magic and those around her for frivolous means and tends not to think of the consequences of her actions, seemingly fixated on what she feels she deserves and what should rightly be hers. Her history paints her as a somewhat prideful creature with the potential to be spiteful, but with little intent to really hurt or cross the line into ‘evil’. In some ways, she is a little out of sync with reality and genuinely doesn’t appear to grasp her place in it or how it works. It feels as if a lot of what she experiences is owing to things that she cannot control, and her responses are her trying to make sense of them – she is at her most interesting when trying to learn about herself and her gifts; when realisation begins to dawn and what she’s capable of starts to become more apparent. Sinne isn’t ‘bad’, but she is very ‘young’ and ignorant of both herself and the world around her, which makes for a combination that is dangerous for her and those she’s close to.

Thank you to Black Crow PR and Pan Macmillan for sending me a proof copy of Sistersong for review!

Review: The Unbroken by C. L. Clark

Review: The Unbroken by C. L. Clark

‘Touraine is a soldier. Stolen as a child and raised to kill and die for the empire, her only loyalty is to her fellow conscripts. But now, her company has been sent back to her homeland to stop a rebellion, and the ties of blood may be stronger than she thought.

Luca needs a turncoat. Someone desperate enough to tiptoe the bayonet’s edge between treason and orders. Someone who can sway the rebels toward peace, while Luca focuses on what really matters: getting her uncle off her throne.

Through assassinations and massacres, in bedrooms and war rooms, Touraine and Luca will haggle over the price of a nation. But some things aren’t for sale.’

The Unbroken is a fantastic read and one that I really enjoyed and look forward to reading future instalments of. I’m a huge fan of books that explore politics and history (or what is not yet truly history), and combined with its characters and setting, it’s easily one of my favourite reads of the year. It does take quite a while for the plot to get going, but without that which comes before some of the more serious events and twists in the narrative, it would rob these moments of their impact, and so while the pacing is a little inconsistent at times, I did like that events don’t simply charge ahead, but that time is spent more directly on character exploration and development.

The relationship between Luca and Touraine is one that it’s not easy to feel immediately or consistently comfortable with, owing largely to their power imbalance and an understanding that Luca is less frequently led by her feelings than Touraine is. There are times where it seems that Touraine could be dangerously expendable to the woman she is developing feelings for – and not only because Luca’s politics, but because Touraine herself doesn’t often appear to hold her own life in too high a regard. This is something impacted by her upbringing and what she is learning about her past; her questioning what she has done, in whose name, and what she feels about those who have and have had almost complete control over her life and what she has been taught to think. Their romance is perhaps not fully developed in this first book, but I liked that their power imbalance is specifically addressed in instances where Luca makes it clear that sex is not an expectation she has, and that if Touraine wants her, she wants it to be purely what she wants and for no other reason. The situations they find themselves in don’t allow for a great deal of openness or honesty, and I hope that we get to see more discussions between them in the next books.

Touraine is a conflicted – and conflicting – character, who spends much of the narrative with her loyalties pulled in so many different directions that it feels as if it simply isn’t safe to make assumptions about her or what she will do next, and this is one of the features of the story that I loved. She doesn’t always make what some might consider the smart or right decision, but she is living a life in which there are increasingly few ‘good’ decisions that she can make that won’t have consequences that she can’t anticipate due to the murky nature of the loyalties and politics of those around her. Paired with the fact that she finds herself in situations she hasn’t been in before, with personal feelings and identity involved, and she is having to make choices based on information she doesn’t necessarily have the whole (or the truth) of, and with emotions she isn’t sure she can trust further complicating matters. It feels like who Touraine wants to, could, and should be (in the eyes of more than one group of others) are all different people, and it’s no wonder that she has trouble treading the line between them, especially when she is all too frequently reminded that her best may never be good enough in the eyes of any one group or person – that to some, she is nothing more than a tool, and for others someone they need, but not exactly as they want.

I admittedly found it difficult to want to support Luca for much of the time, for though there were moments where I sympathised with her, I couldn’t really consider her motives to be ones that are easy to get behind. There are occasions where there seem to be flashes of her gaining a greater understanding of the world around her and the situation she’s in, yet it ultimately feels as if she is too much out for her own gains and willing to use those around her as and when needed. I don’t need to like a character for them to be a good character, so this isn’t to say that I don’t think she is well written – and I do wonder if the reader is meant to ‘like’ her at all, given her politics and lapses in consideration for others. Luca’s lack of understanding of her own actions and what they look like to the people she is trying(?) to support are an accurate portrayal of what has gone on through the ages and continues to this day; she just doesn’t understand why things aren’t as simple as she wants them to be and that she is more likely to be part of the problem than the solution. She feels that she is suffering and therefore can understand the suffering of others, which is a big assumption to make, and doesn’t ever really quite grasp that her world of privilege and power is one that causes damage, frustration seeming to edge her behaviour when she isn’t immediately trusted or gets her way because she claims to have ‘good’ or ‘different’ intentions compared to the rest of her people.

The Unbroken is out today! Thank you to Orbit Books for sending me a copy for review!

Review: What Love Looks Like by Jarlath Gregory

Review: What Love Looks Like by Jarlath Gregory

Ben is 17, gay, and happy most of the time. He’s finished school and is on track to a great career – all that’s missing is falling in love. Romantic but a little naive, Ben meets Peter online. But the guy of his dreams is still in the closet, his pal Soda is suddenly more interested in nights in than nights out, and his old school bully seems determined to ruin his life. Then, on top of everything else, his best friend, Chelsea, goes AWOL – just when he needs her most.

Everything is changing and Ben’s not sure what to do. But change brings all kinds of possibilities. You just have to be ready to see them.

Can Ben navigate the pitfalls of modern gay dating, with all its highly sexualised expectations, and be true to himself?’

What Love Looks Like follows Ben, who has just finished school and wants to train as a teacher, and seems certain what he wants from life, but not entirely secure in his upcoming adulthood or how to go about his romantic life. He’s a little idealistic and often makes the assumption that others will want the same things as he does from a relationship, which is less just the sexual side of things (which he often claims not to be completely ready for) and more a romantic connection, but, unfortunately for him, the connection he makes with Peter is one that only serves to make him feel bad about himself.

While Ben is out, Peter remains in the closet – and not only that, but all too willing to freely air his opinion on what he sees as the ‘wrong’ ways to be gay and how men should and shouldn’t behave in public, down to judging Ben himself and making repeated comments about what he wears and how he interacts with him in-front of others. Despite this, Peter believes that he can and should still get what he wants, which is contained purely to the physical, and seems utterly oblivious to the hateful things he says about other gay men, insisting that he’s different and not like them; that he’s a regular bloke who just happens to like men. Naively, Ben seems to think that Peter can’t possibly mean what he says, unsure what he should do when faced with his internalised homophobia, and lets him cross lines because he wants to make things work and appears to what to think the best of people. While Ben appears to understand that how he approaches his sexuality is not how everyone does, Peter is aggressive in his judgements and in his demands, and is frankly quite predatory in his approach, especially given that he doesn’t understand what no means or that he makes Ben uncomfortable.

For much of the book, Ben suffers discrimination from his peers, who find it necessary to continuously comment about his sexuality and make it clear that they don’t approve, when it’s absolutely none of their business. He’s bullied not only by them, but by other members of the public, and discriminatory behaviour even starts to become an issue in his work environment, where young children pick up on the language and less than tolerant behaviour of adults. What’s highlighted here is how easily children take on the views of their parents and those around them, creating prejudice that doesn’t naturally exist in young people. Combined with the religious views of where he lives and the ongoing struggles for gay rights and acceptance, Ben finds himself in the centre of a storm created by the views of those around him and not owing to anything that he has done wrong. For the most part, the characters in the novel who display (or who are indicated to have displayed) intolerance of the LGBTQ community and other prejudices, such as towards different races, make progress and do change by the book’s conclusion, ending the story on a hopeful note. How and why some of them change their attitudes is a little glossed over and rushed, especially in the case of Ben’s particular bully, but that there is more acceptance by the novel’s end is, in my opinion, more significant to focus on.

I don’t want to give any more specific spoilers, but I will say that I loved the resolution of Chelsea’s story and all that accompanies it. In a similar vein, I loved Ben’s family and how supportive they are of him; his home really feels like a safe space, with kind, supportive parents and it was lovely to see that he had this shelter from a less understanding outside world. Much of what Ben experiences outside his house has roots in the religious and political history of Ireland, and though good progress has been made, it’s important to be aware that there is still much of a journey to be had in terms of greater tolerance and acceptance.

What Love Looks Like is out on 15th March, from The O’Brien Press, who kindly sent me a copy for review! Thank you!

Review: Circus Maximus: Race to the Death by Annelise Gray

Review: Circus Maximus: Race to the Death by Annelise Gray

‘Twelve-year-old Dido dreams of becoming the first female charioteer at the great Circus Maximus. She’s lost her heart to Porcellus, a wild, tempestuous horse she longs to train and race. But such ambitions are forbidden to girls and she must be content with helping her father Antonius – the trainer of Rome’s most popular racing team, The Greens – and teaching the rules of racing to Justus, the handsome young nephew of the Greens’ wealthy owner. When her father is brutally murdered, she is forced to seek refuge with an unlikely ally. But what of her dream of Circus triumphs and being reunited with the beloved horse she left behind in Rome? And the threat to her life isn’t over as she faces a powerful and terrifying new enemy… the emperor Caligula.’

I loved Circus Maximus: Race to the Death and I truly hope that Gray continues to write in this genre, as the story is a wonderfully enthralling tale while being beautifully informative about the time in which it is set. The incorporation of details from history and creating characters from historical figures engages with them in a way that makes them intriguing and an excellent starting point for young readers who may already have an interest in ancient Rome or find their interest sparked by the book itself. I especially liked that the evidence from ancient writers is extrapolated upon to create whole scenarios and interactions that feel believable and are that enjoyably convincing within the fiction created that any concern as to whether there is any possibility of events ever having happened doesn’t arise. It is simply a delightful story and I would very happily read more set in Gray’s vision of the ancient world.

The narrative follows Dido, whose greatest wish is to become a female charioteer, but who finds this obviously out of her reach in a world where doing such a thing is out of the question for a woman. Hers is not some idle dream that she hasn’t dedicated herself to, for Dido has worked with horses under the watch of her father and often picks up details that others fail to notice, and she’s also developed the skills to train the horses and drive a chariot better than the boys who take their right to do so for granted. It would seem all that is stopping her is her gender. Any chance she has of eventually getting her way seems lost when her father is murdered and she overhears what she shouldn’t, forcing her to abandon her current life and seek out another, away from Rome, and piece together fragments of information that she has about her family and history. I don’t want to delve too far into spoiler territory, but I enjoyed seeing Dido forge new relationships and seeing how far (or not) those she meets are willing to assist her and why.

One feature of the narrative that I particularly liked was that there isn’t a huge focus on how being a girl is what would make Dido any less than her male counterparts. The emphasis feels more on the fact that her difficulties in this respect are purely owing to Roman customs of the time, in which many women have little freedom to make their own choices and are expected to operate only in the domestic sphere. Though there are those who put her down and remark that how she behaves and what she wants is unnatural for a woman, it is plainly painted as jealousy and a desire to dismiss a level of skill that they find threatening. She has worked to be as skilled as she is and quite obviously loves all that she does; her achievements feel more owing to her dedication and determination than any twist of fate that might help her.

Circus Maximus: Race to the Death is out today and is recommended for children aged 9 – 12, though I can see some slightly older children enjoying it a good deal as well. Thank you, Zephyr Books, for sending me a copy for review!

Review: Rumaysa by Radiya Hafiza

Review: Rumaysa by Radiya Hafiza

‘Rumaysa, Rumaysa, let down your hijab!’

For as long as she can remember Rumaysa has been locked away in her tall, tall tower, forced to use her magic to spin straw into gold for the evil Witch and unable to leave. Until one day, after dropping a hijab out of her small tower-window, Rumaysa realizes how she might be able to escape…

Join Rumaysa as she adventures through enchanted forests and into dragon’s lairs, discovers her own incredible magical powers and teams up with Cinderayla and Sleeping Sara!’

I love retellings of fairytales and Rumaysa is a fantastically re-imagined collection of three tales, linked together by appearances by the protagonist of the first story, which is a retelling of Rapunzel, with hints of the Rumpelstiltskin fairytale woven (pun not intended) in. Rumaysa is a young Muslim girl who has been stolen away from her family and discovers she has more power than she knows – both magical and otherwise – and wields her open heart and bravery to help other girls who, like her, find themselves at the mercy of others. The next stories are retellings of Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty, each rewritten to be far more inclusive than the originals – and to remind young girls that are more than capable of saving themselves and don’t need to wait for a prince to rescue them.

Something that really stood out to me in the first of the stories, which is Rumaysa’s adventure about her efforts to escape the witch who is keeping her locked in a tower, is how the witch’s supposed inability to pronounce or care about Rumaysa’s name is used to highlight how often this happens to girls and boys who have beautiful names that many simply don’t take the time or care to learn how to pronounce. In having the witch repeatedly refuse to pronounce her name correctly, it demonstrates a lack of respect that is all too often perpetuated by others, especially if children see an adult unwilling to learn or even ask how a child or adult peer would like their name pronounced. It is all too obvious that the witch does know Rumaysa’s name and how to say it – she just doesn’t bother and uses her dismissive mispronunciation to hurt her until she actually needs something from her (which is when she magically manages to give her her proper name). The battle between Rumaysa and her captor, with Rumaysa finding power in her name, is hugely symbolic and one of the features of the collection as a whole that I most enjoyed.

After finding freedom in the first tale, Rumaysa travels to meet – albeit inadvertently – Cinderayla, who, as one might expect, is suffering at the hands of her step-mother and step-sisters. In this, Rumaysa takes on the role of the fairy godmother, and it’s with this narrative choice and the decision to have the step-sisters choose to make apologies and show a willingness to learn and make up for what they have done that the tale demonstrates how young women should work together and not become the rivals society and the media all too often wants them to be. It also dismantles the idea that true love can happen in a matter of hours/overnight, and that all women need to be married to be happy, for Ayla has her own ideas about the arrogant prince who has preconceived notions about her and what his status in the world means others should do.

The final tale is a twist on the story of Sleeping Beauty, full of dragons and politics and more girls saving themselves (and the day). This one wraps up the trio on hopeful notes for Rumaysa and the journey she’s on, while also leaving the proverbial door open for further adventures before she (hopefully) finds what she’s been looking for and gets back to the parents she was stolen from. I would love to see another volume of stories retold in this way, and I hope this isn’t the last we see of Rumaysa.

Rumaysa is a beautiful book, full of magic and positive messages for children, and is such a fun read that I just didn’t want it to end. I love that the ending is open ended in terms of events, but leaves the characters visited along the way with conclusions reached in their hearts, promising hope to revisit them and meet others in whatever the future holds for Rumaysa. Thank you, Macmillan Children’s Books, for sending me a proof for review!

Review: The Ravens by Kass Morgan and Danielle Paige

Review: The Ravens by Kass Morgan and Danielle Paige

‘At first glance, the sisters of ultra-exclusive Kappa Rho Nu – the Ravens – seem like typical sorority girls. Ambitious, beautiful, and smart, they’re the most powerful girls on Westerly College’s Savannah, Georgia, campus.

But the Ravens aren’t just regular sorority girls. They’re witches.

Scarlett Winter has always known she’s a witch – and she’s determined to be the sorority’s president. But if a painful secret from her past ever comes to light, she could lose absolutely everything…

Vivi Devereaux has no idea she’s a witch. So when she gets a coveted bid to pledge the Ravens, she vows to do whatever it takes to be part of the magical sisterhood. The only thing standing in her way is Scarlett, who doesn’t think Vivi is Ravens material.

But when a dark power rises on campus, the girls will have to put their rivalry aside to save their fellow sisters. Someone has discovered the Ravens’ secret. And that someone will do anything to see these witches burn…’

What I enjoyed most about the The Ravens is its magic system, which isn’t terribly complex and does call on some common tropes for spellcasting, but I liked the use of the tarot deck and the fact that it felt that this magic could exist in the contemporary setting without hauling the whole story into more high-fantasy territory. If magic fits in comfortably with the more ‘modern’ features of the narrative and feels ‘believable’, if that makes sense. The story and its magic both read as very ready for television as concepts, and I could imagine this easily making the jump to a TV show for the younger end of the young adult audience. I admittedly was expecting something darker, given the blurb and the cover (maybe I fell into the ‘never judge a book by its cover’ trap!), and while there is some violence and the magic wielding does get a little bloody at times, the narrative stays largely on the lighter side of things, focused on relationships and hints about events that happened off-camera.

The story focuses on Scarlett, a member of a sorority with witchcraft at its heart (unbeknownst to the wider university population, though they have their suspicions) and Vivi, who has dismissed any potential for magic despite her mother trying to draw her into its world. It’s in joining the Ravens that Vivi begins to learn that magic is real and not a series of tricks, and starts to unlock her potential as a witch. The only problem is that Scarlett has already taken against her for associating with her boyfriend and has been assigned as her big sister. Scarlett’s focus is on becoming everything her family expects, including leader of the Ravens, while concealing what the more petty side of her nature has led her to do in the past. It’s unfortunate that the Raven sisterhood is precisely not a sisterhood – the girls very easily become jealous and judgemental, even though they keep insisting that they have each other’s backs. However, this is something that they more consciously realise over the course of the story’s events and learn that they have to put it to rights before they can become a real sisterhood and genuinely look after each other.

I’ve said this about romances in YA fiction before and I’m afraid I’m going to say it again: I think this book could have done without the insta-love plots. I got to the end of the novel and I was left wondering what either of the romances had brought to the story. Other than to set up the rivalry between the girls, I wasn’t really sure what purpose they served, and, if I’m honest, I’m really not a fan of girls being made to be rivals for a boy’s interest. Thankfully, both girls seem to realise that this isn’t something that should influence their own relationship, albeit rather late into events. The boy they’re both interested in doesn’t demonstrate any particular qualities that paint him as being worth getting jealous over – especially as he isn’t exactly painted as faithful in the first place. I guess I’m just a little tired of women being written to fight over men.

The Ravens is an interesting read and likely best suited for the younger to middle range of young adult readers. I think, in this instance, the romance and the bickering place it as a book more suitable for readers who enjoy slice of life/light fantasy television series aimed at teens. Thank you to Hodderscape for sending me a copy for review!

Review: The Girls I’ve Been by Tess Sharpe

Review: The Girls I’ve Been by Tess Sharpe

‘Meet Nora. Also known as Rebecca, Samantha, Haley, Katie and Ashley – the girls she’s been.

Nora didn’t choose a life of deception – she was born into it. As the daughter of a con artist who targeted criminal men, Nora always had to play a part. But when her mother fell for one of the men instead of conning him, Nora pulled the ultimate con herself: escape.

For five years Nora’s been playing at normal – but things are far from it when she finds herself held at gunpoint in the middle of a bank heist, along with Wes (her ex-boyfriend) and Iris (her secret new girlfriend and mutual friend of Wes… awkward). Now it will take all of Nora’s con artistry skills to get them out alive.

Because the gunmen have no idea who she really is – that girl has been in hiding for far too long…’

The Girls I’ve Been introduces the reader to Nora, currently a hostage in a bank heist, and not only Nora, but the other girls that she has lived as – girls who may well have existed for longer than Nora’s true self. If there is a ‘real’ Nora at all. Raised by a con-artist mother, Nora has been acting her way through life, becoming who and what her mother wishes her to be, to con criminals and dangerous men – arguably her mother’s own kind. Even her name has been taken from her, made to live and breathe each new girl her mother has created, and meant to absolutely embody each new persona, supposedly to keep her safe, but truly just to make her mother’s cons run smoothly and seem all the more real. Nora has been manipulated since her early years by a woman who plays at creating a new daughter for each new role she herself takes on, and fails to see her child as her ‘real’ daughter or what she is doing to her. As long as the con succeeds, that’s all that matters. And Nora has learned – not just from the girls she has been, but from a mother who pushes the limits of human understanding – just what is sometimes necessary for survival. And if she’s going to get out of the bank heist alive, she’s going to need all of the girls she was. Or is it the girls she is?

I liked that, despite what could be suggested by various blurbs of the book, the relationship between Nora, Iris and Wes doesn’t devolve into petty jealousy or squabbling over elements of past and current relationships. This is something they really don’t have time for in the circumstances in which they find themselves and I was glad to see that romantic jealousy didn’t get in the way of looking at the more important features of Nora’s relationships with Iris and Wes – namely what her past has done to her ability to function in relationships and what both Wes and Iris have happening in their own lives that affects their bond with her. Nora’s past is certainly dark and she has suffered hugely, but what the reader learns of Iris and Wes brings to light their own struggles, the subjects handled sensitively and not exploited for overly dramatic purposes, but to examine the facets of trust and what people will keep hidden and why. Each of them has secrets and is forced to show features of themselves that surprise the others, but to accuse Nora of being false is to shine a light on what they too have kept hidden and why. They all have pieces of themselves that they do their best to keep hidden, not because they fear being judged, but as a matter of survival and protecting themselves from themselves, and Nora’s way of surviving is far from the only way. Their relationships are a warm contrast to the one that she has with her mother, if coloured by similar pain and guardedness.

There is a huge amount to unpack about the behaviour of Nora’s mother, for while I found myself unable to gather much sympathy for her, given all that she makes Nora do and just how unwilling she is to see her own child as a little girl and not a tool that she can use, it can’t be denied that she becomes a victim too. I think there is more than one sign that suggests that she is mentally unwell, even before the last job that becomes her life, and between her games and those that Raymond plays, she becomes trapped in a world of her own delusional creating and his manipulation. It’s as if her mother never really exists in the real world and has forgotten who she was to begin with – it even feels as though she has children to use as tools and nothing more, simply to exist as accessories she can use to make her games seem more real. She is out of sync with reality and her treatment of Nora is abhorrent – even when her daughter is suffering and is in danger she has put her in, she never seems to summon any maternal feeling and is only concerned with how the rest of the game will play out. Though she takes the various cons seriously, they remain all she takes seriously, as if she cannot exist in the same reality as others or face being ‘normal’. Nora comments more than once that she can’t understand how her seemingly clever and perceptive mother falls for Raymond’s manipulation, but that she has demonstrated absolutely no understanding of emotions and feelings (beyond a notion of provocation, cause and effect) makes it easy to see how it happened: she was just conned on another level that she was unable to plan for. That the reader may intensely dislike Nora’s mother and yet sympathise with her for becoming the victim of all that she has orchestrated is a testament to the author’s skill.

The Girls I’ve Been was released on February 4th and is a sharp, brilliant thriller that I’m so glad to see has already been picked up for television. I would definitely recommend reading the book before any further media release, as the writing is simply fantastic and the book impossible to put down. Thank you, Team BKMRK, for sending me a proof!

Review: This is Not the Jess Show by Anna Carey

Review: This is Not the Jess Show by Anna Carey

‘The year is 1998: Titanic just won 6 Oscars, boy bands are dominating MTV’s airwaves, and like any other teenager Jess Flynn is just trying to survive high school. Between a crush on her childhood best friend, overprotective parents, and her sister’s worsening health, the only constant is her hometown of Swickley, which feels smaller by the day. Jess is resigned to her small-town life, until the day she discovers a mysterious device with an apple logo, causing her to question everything and everyone she’s ever known. As more cracks appear in Jess’s world, she faces a choice: can she live the rest of her life knowing it’s a lie or should she risk everything for the truth?’

This is Not the Jess Show is a brilliant book that looks at our relationship with the media and what it stands to become – or is becoming and already is, for some people – if we allow our world to revolve around accumulating likes, followers and attention on social media. I couldn’t put it down and read through it cover to cover in one go! In the world of 2037, things have got so out of hand that the lines between reality and fiction have blurred to the extent of morally questionable choices being made in the pursuit of media attention, money and public interest (I’m not suggesting this isn’t happening already, only that the novel’s world takes it another step further). For all she knows, Jess is living in the 1990s and has no idea about the world beyond that which has been crafted around her. She has never experienced true freedom, nor spent a day with absolute privacy. And yet she is unaware of this – and unaware that she is the only one who doesn’t know.

The book is reminiscent of The Truman show, for Jess is unaware that her life is being broadcast to the rest of the world and that nearly everyone she knows is an actor. Not only this, but her day to day existence is run largely like a script, with storylines scheduled and those around her told what to say and how to behave. What I found particularly disturbing about her situation is that her parents have chosen this for her and are complicit in the deception for their own gains, less interested in her than they are in maintaining their followings, brands and earnings. To them, she is a means to an end; an object they happily manipulate to maximise drama and keep their lives in the spotlight, to the extent of lying to her about her true family and orchestrating emotional responses based on what the public want to see and which of the cast is or isn’t particularly popular. They demonstrate no true interest in her as their daughter or even as a human being, their morals completely non-existent and behaviour deplorable. Everything is okay in their world as long as the attention is on them and they are making gains from the show, and even as she begins to show signs of emotional distress and quite plainly needs their support, they refuse to help her or address her worries, instead lying and trying to divert her attention from anything that might disrupt their money-making venture.

Among those who behave most deplorably is the boy that Jess is interested in, who remains so utterly focused on his role in the show that he tries to convince her that she ought to remain where she is based on his intentions to get better storylines and become a bigger star. Not only he is intent on emotionally manipulating her for his own means, but he too outright lies about her to others, even taking items that she’s used to sell on and make more money. He is but one of the show’s cast that demonstrates a remarkable lack of empathy and emotional awareness, too obsessed with ratings and maintaining the audience’s interest to really care about what Jess feels or what happens to her. This lack of awareness is one feature that many of the characters demonstrate, their moral compass and ability to consider the feelings of others destroyed by their obsessive self-interest and focus on making themselves look as good as possible in-front of the wider media. The world of 2037 is worryingly recognisable as our own and discomfortingly similar, especially given just how much control social media and tech giants increasingly have over our lives, ‘news’ and the disseminating of information, let alone the information that they collect and share about us.

This is Not the Jess Show is a hugely enjoyable and addictive read, released yesterday, February 2nd! Thank you to Quirk Books for sending me a copy for review!

Review: The Once and Future Queen by Clara O’Connor

Review: The Once and Future Queen by Clara O’Connor

‘Londinium, the last stronghold of the Romans left in Britannia, remains in a delicate state of peace with the ancient kingdoms that surround it. As the only daughter of a powerful merchant, Cassandra is betrothed to Marcus, the most eligible bachelor in the city.

But then she meets Devyn, the boy with the strange midnight eyes searching for a girl with magic in her blood.

When a mysterious sickness starts to leech the life from citizens with Celtic power lying dormant in their veins, the imperial council sets their schemes in motion. And so Cassandra must make a choice: the Code or Chaos, science or sorcery, Marcus or Devyn?’

Please be advised that the following review contains spoilers.

Cassandra is the daughter of a wealthy merchant, soon to complete her schooling, make a politically advantageous marriage, and have everything that she has been led to believe she ought to dream of. Unfortunately for her, she has lived her life in a very safe and rather spoiled bubble, which has never truly invited her to question the world around her, and when she begins to notice that which doesn’t fit with her view of society, she takes steps down paths that she cannot turn back from. Her world is not that which everyone experiences, the history she knows is not necessarily true, and even she may not be the person she has been led to believe she is.

The Once and Future Queen takes place in a future where the Roman system of governing is still firmly in place. As a Classicist, I found this an intriguing concept and, though not everything in this respect is accurate, that we live in a society that has so many features that can still be traced back to ancient civilisations, I enjoyed reading about a technologically advanced future with prominent Roman aspects. In terms of accuracy, you cannot expect a society that has developed over hundreds of years to absolutely still contain its original elements in their complete and unchanged entirety. I liked the contrast between technology and the aspects of society that it hasn’t managed to subsume, which may say more about human nature than our willingness to embrace science and tech. Both Roman history and that of the Britons in the story has been intertwined with myth and warped for creative purposes to create a universe-specific history (what Cassandra and others know of which may or may not be the whole truth as we go through the series, I’m sensing). I love reading about politics, and the matching system is something quite horrendous to entertain as a future, used essentially as a system of arranged marriages for genetics/economic prosperity/power and other elements I’m sure we don’t hear of, akin to the ancient system and one that we truly aren’t even a hundred years past at this point. Ultimately, I feel was most engaged in reading about the history of how society had developed and what links had been forged between those beyond the wall and not permitted outside the city in the name of a supposed peace, when it’s very evident that it is anything but.

I’m not sure whether the ages of the characters in the book have been adapted over drafts and edits, as I admit I wasn’t ever too sure exactly what age Cassandra is meant to be. When Devyn reveals his actual age and what he’s been doing for several years, it’s something that makes their relationship unsettling, if I’m honest. It’s made a little clearer late in the book that she’s in her twenties, but she is written as a young woman who behaves in a much more immature way. This said, given that The Once and Future Queen is set in a society where women appear to be shielded from society in some similar ways to the Roman source material, that she isn’t wise in the ways of the world or used to making her own choices of a more serious nature is not surprising. In more ways than one, she’s been brainwashed by her family and those around her – as is everyone else, it seems – and I hope we see develop a little more as the series unfolds. Her story and what different worlds want from her, in that she has been manipulated, suppressed and has the pressure of Devyn’s desperate belief in who she could be, makes for a read composed of twists and turns as different ‘truths’ come to light and more than one character has to decide which side they’re on and what they want out of life.

I will say that I found the last quarter of the book somewhat discomforting, in that one of the key plot points revolves around the fact that Cassandra is put under the influence of a device that alters her thoughts, feelings and essentially removes her body autonomy. It’s said that this is done routinely to couples in this universe, as love matches no longer exist with everyone matched by the Code, and to ensure that there is ‘affection’ and that couples sleep together, they’re first put under the influence of something that alters their personalities and interest in their partner, then drugged into wanting to. That Cassandra and Devyn’s first sexual encounter happens while she admits to being rather under the influence – and that her reaction afterwards is painted as immediate regret – simply doesn’t sit right and I’m afraid it coloured my reading of the book. Cassandra spends much of the last hundred pages unable to conclusively make her own choices, fooled into believing she is content with her life, which I think would have worked in a more comfortable manner were there not to be the question of physical intimacy with either of her potential partners.

All in all, I enjoyed the history, the politics and the technological features of society, but the romance didn’t really work for me. This said, I’ve mentioned before that I tend to find a lot of romances in YA fiction somewhat problematic, and I’m much more focused on political threads and societal commentary.

The Once and Future Queen is out on January 21st! Thank you, One More Chapter, for sending me a copy for review!

Review: Here the Whole Time by Vitor Martins

Review: Here the Whole Time by Vitor Martins

Felipe is fat. And he doesn’t need anyone to remind him, which is, of course, what everyone does. That’s why he’s been waiting for summer: a break from school and the classmates who tease him incessantly. His plans include catching up on TV, finishing his TBR pile, and watching YouTube tutorials on skills he’ll never actually put into practice.

But things get a little out of hand when Felipe’s mom informs him that Caio, the neighbour kid from apartment 57, will be spending the next fifteen days with them while his parents are on vacation. Felipe is distraught because A) he’s had a crush on Caio since, well, for ever, and B) Felipe has a list of body image insecurities and absolutely NO idea how he’s going to entertain his neighbor for two full weeks.

Suddenly, the days ahead of him that once promised rest and relaxation (not to mention some epic Netflix bingeing) end up bringing a whirlwind of feelings, forcing Felipe to dive head-first into every unresolved issue he has had with himself – but maybe, just maybe, he’ll manage to win over Caio, too.’

Here the Whole Time opens with Filipe looking forward to a summer where he’ll no longer have to endure the torment of attending school, where his peers mock and bully him for being overweight, going out of their way to draw attention to what they think is wrong with his appearance and make assumptions about his lifestyle and who he is. Knowing that he’ll not have to interact with anyone he doesn’t choose to is a huge comfort that he’s been clinging to, but this is abruptly taken away from him when he’s informed by his mother that they’re going to have a house guest in the form of the boy from next door: Caio, who Filipe used to be friends and swim with when they were much younger – before his insecurities about his appearance and sexuality meant he no longer felt comfortable doing as he used to. Having Caio is such close quarters threatens to be a nightmare for Felipe, who is embarrassed about his hobbies and appearance… and a little bit in love with him from afar.

When Caio moves in, Felipe is panicked by numerous things, such as having to try and make conversation, which is something he struggles with, and being near to him in any way that might make what he perceives as his physical flaws more obvious. He expects Caio to be as judgemental as his classmates, but soon finds that they are not so dissimilar and that Caio too has worries of his own, for all he appears more outwardly confident about his sexuality. With encouragement and guidance from his therapist and his mother, he gradually opens up to Caio about his insecurities and learns that he isn’t the only one to suffer from such feelings – and that what he thinks of himself and has been reinforced by his peers isn’t true. As the two grow closer, he’s introduced to Caio’s friends and begins to build the confidence to stand up to those who have been tormenting him at school and well as to be more open about his interests and what he enjoys. Their relationship feels like a natural progression as they learn more about each other and try to be honest about their hopes and fears, while starting to share what they love and find more common ground. They’re respectful of each other’s boundaries and Caio is particularly patient with Felipe, knowing that his insecurities are no small thing to be cast aside so easily, and that what he sees in Felipe and what he feels about himself are two different things.

One of the things I really liked about Here the Whole Time is how supportive Felipe’s mother is of him, and how she very quickly realises that Caio may not have the same sort of relationship with his mother and would benefit from the same sort of affection that she shows her son. She doesn’t see Caio as just a boy she’s agreed to host and look after, but makes him part of her family and treats him as she does Felipe, encouraging him to join in with their traditions and things that she thinks he’ll enjoy. She has a good heart and it’s obvious that she wants what’s best for her son, while genuinely caring for Caio. There are times when she seeks to encourage Felipe to take steps that are outside his comfort zone in terms of socialising, yet she isn’t forceful or unkind in trying to expand his horizons, and is just as supportive of that which she knows he enjoys and what makes him happy. It’s obvious that she knows her son very well and it was lovely to see a parent in such a caring and loving role, when all too often books that have similar subject matter have a parent as a negative force (this is not to say that all the parents in Here the Whole Time are as supportive as she is), as can too frequently unfortunately be the case in reality.

Here The Whole Time is a cute and fun read, and a beautiful story, out on 21st January! Thank you to TeamBKMRK for sending me a copy for review!