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Month: March 2019

Review: Other Words for Smoke by Sarah Maria Griffin

Review: Other Words for Smoke by Sarah Maria Griffin

‘The house at the end of the lane burned down, and Rita Frost and her teenage ward, Bevan, were never seen again. The townspeople never learned what happened. Only Mae and her brother Rossa know the truth; they spent two summers with Rita and Bevan, two of the strangest summers of their lives…

Because nothing in that house was as it seemed: a cat who was more than a cat, and a dark power called Sweet James that lurked behind the wallpaper, enthralling Bevan with whispers of neon magic and escape.

And in the summer heat, Mae became equally as enthralled with Bevan. Desperately in the grips of first love, she’d give the other girl anything. A dangerous offer when all that Sweet James desired was a taste of new flesh…’

I loved Other Words for Smoke. It’s wonderfully weird and honestly brutal in parts, the magic threaded through the story both hauntingly beautiful and harrowing at the same time. One of the things I loved most about it was its structure, for it visits the first summer of Mae and Rossa’s visit, briefly describes others both forward and back in time, and considers the second summer in greater detail, gradually revealing different fragments of what happened in the past that continues to influence the present and future. Some pages contain footnotes, which add a further poetic element to the narrative, often lending doubt or an alternative view to what has been asserted by a character.

I don’t want to spoil the story too much for anyone, but I have to say that Sweet James and Bobby are some of the best antagonists that I’ve seen in a good while. I don’t even think that antagonist is the right word for either of them, for they are much more nuanced and serve multiple purposes within the narrative and for each of the characters. Bobby is eerily endearing and I found his concept and that of Sweet James fascinating, even if I also found Sweet James downright terrifying at times! The effect Sweet James has on Bevan is one of the most haunting features of the story and possibly its most frightening facet, especially if he is to be thought of as a metaphor for a range of other unsettling elements that can impact young people (and adults).

I adore the magic in Other Words for Smoke, in the forms of Bobby and Sweet James and the more tangible side, such as the tarot cards, crystals and stove and how they all link together. How the twins respond to the idea of witchcraft and what’s happening in the house and how this changes at they get older is beautifully written, particularly Mae’s journey to understanding herself and taking possession of that in her life that she wishes to. It’s her pain that is particularly poignant, as is Bevan’s, and Rossa’s confusion is just as palpable a thing. The story doesn’t pull any punches or gloss over emotional or physical suffering, making it both a raw and enthralling read.

Thank you to Titan Books for sending me a copy for review! Other Words for Smoke is out on April 2nd and I would most certainly recommend picking up a copy ASAP!

Review: Opposite of Always by Justin A. Reynolds

Review: Opposite of Always by Justin A. Reynolds

‘When Jack and Kate meet at a party, he knows he’s falling – hard. Soon she’s meeting his best friends and Kate wins them over as easily as she did Jack.

But then Kate dies. And their story should end there.

Yet Kate’s death sends Jack back to the beginning, the moment they first meet, and Kate’s there again. Healthy, happy, and charming as ever. Jack isn’t sure if he’s losing his mind.

Still, if he has a chance to prevent Kate’s death, he’ll take it. Even if that means believing in time travel. However, Jack will learn that his actions are not without consequences. And when one choice turns deadly for someone else close to him, he has to figure out what he’s willing to do to save the people he loves.’

I love stories about time travel (Window of Opportunity is my favourite Stargate episode) and Opposite of Always addressed most of the reasons why I’m so fond of stories that manipulate time. Watching Jack make different decisions as he goes through the various time loops that lead him to Kate, the reader gets to see him and other characters at their best and at their worst, depending on the choices that he makes and how they impact those in his life.

Even when he tries his hardest, Jack doesn’t always manage to make what some might consider to be the ‘right’ decisions, what he at first believes will be the best choice he could make for himself or for Kate often turning out to have consequences for others that he hasn’t quite thought through. During the loop in which he makes the most selfish decision, wearied by what is happening to him, he gets to witness what would happen if he weren’t the better man he tries to be, which is, I think, one of the most interesting elements about the novel. Jack may not like himself during that time, and the reader may not like him either, but there is undeniably something incredibly engaging about reading about someone doing as they want instead of as they believe they should – a situation with a decision to make that I’m sure we’ve all been in at some point in our lives. Stories of this nature – about repeating the past – are intriguing because what characters learn about themselves and their choices, and how the reader is made to think about their own decisions and reasons behind them.

I don’t read a huge amount of contemporary (which I believe is what the novel would be, save for the time travel), but I was drawn into Opposite of Always very quickly, primarily because of its opening sequence, which is structured much as a film or television show would be before the opening credits roll, supplying just enough information in those few pages to set out the premise without giving away anything clearly enough for the situation to be entirely understood. To my mind, it is actually one of – if not the – most effective openings of a novel that I’ve read in many years. The entire book is structured much like a film would be, with the loops making up its different acts and setting up conflict and its eventual resolution, so I wouldn’t be surprised to find it being picked up for cinema or television in the not too distant future. On the whole, its pacing is very effective, and though I do get through books quite quickly, I found I was getting through hundreds of pages in a very short space of time. There is only one timeline towards the end of the book that seems to drag a little, but this might be down to the fact that it could be one too many instances of revisiting the same (but different) events.

Jack is a character who is easy to root for and easy to sympathise with, especially as he spends most of the novel attempting to be as good a person as he can be and seems to truly regret what actions lead to him doing otherwise. Likewise, his friends and Kate are all well developed and have their own threads within the narrative that make them interesting and multi-dimensional. I loved Jack’s parents, particularly how they’ve brought Franny into their family. That the characters in Opposite of Always really do care about each other, even when they aren’t always the best they could be towards them, is one of the elements that makes it such a lovely read.

If I were to mention one slight negative, it’s the ambiguity in the novel’s conclusion. Perhaps it’s just me, but I re-read it several times to see if I had missed anything, and I’m still left with several possible conclusions that the reader is supposed to understand from it. This isn’t to say that the message isn’t clear or a good and valid one, but I think I would have liked something a little more solid. However, given the messages within the novel, it might be very appropriate that there is perhaps nothing final about its ending.

Opposite of Always is out on April 4th from Pan Macmillan. Thank you to Pan Macmillan for sending me a copy for review!

Review: The Daughters of Ironbridge by Mollie Walton

Review: The Daughters of Ironbridge by Mollie Walton

‘1830s Shropshire.

Anny Woodvine’s family has worked at the ironworks for as long as she can remember. The brightest child in her road and the first in her family to learn to read, Anny has big dreams. So, when she is asked to run messages for the King family, she grabs the opportunity with both hands.

Margaret King is surrounded by privilege and wealth. But behind closed doors, nothing is what it seems. When Anny arrives, Margaret finds her first ally and friend.

Together they plan to change their lives. But as disaster looms over the ironworks, Margaret and Anny find themselves surrounded by secrets and betrayal.

Can they hold true to each other and overcome their fate? Or are they destined to repeat the mistakes of the past?’

I sat down to read the first few chapters of The Daughters of Ironbridge and didn’t actually put the book down until I had read over half of it, then finished it as soon as I had the time to read the following day. I was quickly drawn into the story and loved the range of voices within it, particularly that it was largely structured to bring in an opposing or darker character’s point of view at moments when Anny and Margaret believed that they had matters all planned out, whether short or long-term, to expose the wider picture that neither of them can see completely. It’s a swiftly engaging read, for both Anny and Margaret are endearing in their own ways, making it easy to care for them, and even those characters who are not sympathetic or painted as good people are intriguing in a manner that makes it difficult not to invest in where their narratives are going too.

The Daughters of Ironbridge is an atmospheric novel that transports the reader to 1830s Shropshire with ease and eloquence, and I believe that this is one of the elements of the book that draws the reader in so quickly. The little details are excellent, as are the individual voices of the characters, all largely respective of their backgrounds without becoming simple stereotypes. I love that Anny is appreciated by many for her intelligence and doesn’t look down on those who haven’t had the opportunities that she does, her journey more about expanding her world than ‘escaping’ the one she’s been born into. Margaret is perhaps slightly less sympathetic as the novel progresses, yet, ultimately, she too tries to do right by the people she cares about in a world that would have her be quiet and obedient, and it is not her fault that there are some things she simply cannot fix. Not one of the Kings is an outright villain, their choices driven by a history and legacy that they can’t seem to escape – or are too willing to embrace.

A highly recommended read!

I received an ARC of The Daughters of Ironbridge from Netgalley and the publisher.

Review: We Are Blood and Thunder by Kesia Lupo

Review: We Are Blood and Thunder by Kesia Lupo

‘In a sealed-off city, a young woman, Lena, is running for her life. She has been sentenced to death and her only way to survive is to trust those she has been brought up to fear – those with magic.

On the other side of the locked gates is a masked lady, Constance, determined to find a way back in. Years ago she escaped before her own powers were discovered. But now she won’t hide who she is any longer.

A powerful and terrifying storm cloud engulfs the city. But this is more than a thunderstorm. This is a spell, and the truth behind why it has been cast is more sinister than anyone can imagine… But what neither Lena and Constance realise is that the stormcloud binds them – without it, without each other, neither can get what they desire…’

The element of We Are Blood and Thunder that I most enjoyed was the worldbuilding and the variety of magical and mechanical systems (that often go hand in hand) that exist in the world (or should that be worlds?) that Lena and Constance inhabit. Suffering from the storm cloud as it is, Duke’s Forest really does seem a world away from that which Lena escapes to, to the extent that I pictured them in entirely different colours, primarily muted greys/reds/purples for Duke’s Forest, and brighter yellows/whites/oranges for the city. I loved the culture and mythology that surround the ancestors, which is primarily based on Ancient Egyptian beliefs and practices as regards death and the dead, and I liked that it was not set aside after Lena’s journey begins, especially as much time is taken to establish the life of the cryptlings, how they are treated and how they live. It was this that first had me hooked and I would have loved to have seen more about the daily lives of the cryptlings.

Though I initially found myself more attached to Lena than Constance, I have to admit that this changed not so far into the story and, even knowing that there is much about her that is withheld and suspect, I was a little more interested in Constance’s side of the story than in Lena’s. This is not to say that I was not invested in Lena’s story, but that, perhaps with the immediate threat to her diminished, for much of the narrative there was more immediate danger to Constance and a bit more to unravel. That the two essentially switch places and experience what the other has been living through while each having their own clearly defined stories is one of the novel’s strengths, especially as the pacing of each of these story threads seems to pick up at the same speed before they weave back together again, leaving neither character’s narrative waiting for the other to ‘catch up’ and need filling with material not tied directly to either. While I was hopeful that Lena would grow in confidence and learn how to live with the powers she’s so recently discovered, I was trying to figure out whether Constance was a threat or had decent intentions at heart, and so neither of their points of view is ever uneventful or dull, which I find is increasingly rare in novels that have multiple point of view characters.

I feel that the writing shines most when describing elements such as the storm cloud, magic, surroundings and action sequences, as these are the passages that tend to contain more poetic and lyrical elements. Though the dialogue is certainly sound and no voices feel forced and not from well-rounded characters, there are occasions when the descriptors surrounding it make it a little jarring, particularly during conversations in Constance’s narrative. However, given that Constance is not one who seems at all comfortable or willing to converse with many, nor get in touch with her feelings, I imagine that this could be deliberate and designed to emphasise the more awkward facets of her nature.

We Are Blood and Thunder is an easily engaging read and is quick to reel the reader in to Lena and Constance’s world. I loved the combination of magic and mechanical creatures and many of its other dual elements, lots of which I won’t mention specifically for fear of spoilers! It’s a very well rounded novel in terms of both story and setting, and with the diverse elements of both I feel that there’s something within its pages for everyone. It’s out in April, from Bloomsbury! Thank you to Bloomsbury for sending me a copy of We Are Blood and Thunder for review!

Blog Tour: Enchantée by Gita Trelease

Blog Tour: Enchantée by Gita Trelease

‘Paris in 1789 is a labyrinth of twisted streets, filled with beggars, thieves, revolutionaries – and magicians…
When seventeen-year-old Camille is left orphaned, she has to provide for her frail sister and her volatile brother. In desperation, she survives by using the petty magic she learnt from her mother. But when her brother disappears Camille decides to pursue a richer, more dangerous mark: the glittering court of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette.

Using dark magic Camille transforms herself into the ‘Baroness de la Fontaine‘ and presents herself at the court of Versaille, where she soon finds herself swept up in a dizzying life of riches, finery and suitors. But Camille’s resentment of the rich is at odds with the allure of their glamour and excess, and she soon discovers that she’s not the only one leading a double life…’

As part of the Enchantée blog tour, today I have an extract from this magical YA novel and a review to share! Read on for the first chapter of Enchantée!

Paris, 1789

Yves Rencourt, the chandler’s apprentice, had lost his wig.

After the last customer left the shop, he searched through baskets of curling wicks and blocks of beeswax and teetering stacks of bills. Rien. It was nowhere to be found. And he needed the wig for tonight: he alone was to deliver candles for the Comte d’Astignac’s party, which would last until the sun came up. This was Yves’s chance to be noticed. To rise. And he didn’t want to show up wearing his own hair, looking ridiculous. He had to look promising. Like someone who could be Somebody.

At least his coat was good, he thought, as he lifted the dove-grey silk from its hook and shrugged it on. And voilà – there the damned wig was, its long white hair tied back with a black satin bow. He pulled the wig on and cocked an admiring eyebrow at his reflection in the window: he was no longer a tradesman’s apprentice. He was absolument parfait.

Into a canvas satchel he tucked his most precious candles, the ones he’d tinted the hazy apricots and violets of dawn. All he needed now was money for the carriage. From under the counter he heaved up the strongbox and lifted its lid to reveal a shining pile of coins: rivulets of gold louis and livres and tiny sous. Candles were good business. No matter how little bread there was, how few people bought snuffboxes or plumed hats, they all needed light. In the back, Maître Orland kept the cheap tallow candles that reeked of hooves. They sold more of those every day. But in the front of the shop, nestled in boxes and dangling from their wicks, were Yves’s own lovelies: wax candles, their colours like enchantments. A rose pink that made old women seem young; a watery grey that reminded him of the ocean. And one day soon – he hoped – he’d make candles for the queen.

For, like himself, Marie Antoinette loved extraordinary things. Yves would make candles to suit her every fancy, candles she’d never even dreamed of. He’d be asked to make thousands because, in the endless rooms and halls of Versailles, candles were never lit twice.

From his coat pocket he pulled a leather purse and began to flick livres into the bag. Clink, clink, clink. But one coin made him pause. It was a louis d’or, seemingly no different from the others. Yet to someone who handled candles, always checking the soft wax for imperfections, it felt off. Holding it to the fading afternoon light, he saw nothing wrong. He put the gold coin between his teeth and bit it. It was as hard as any other. And yet. He found another louis and held one in each hand, weighing them. He closed his eyes. Yes – the one in his right hand was lighter. Still, who but a true craftsman such as himself would notice? He was about toss it back in the box when it twitched.

The louis d’or was moving.

Yves yelped and Aung it on to the counter. The coin spun in a tight circle and dropped flat. As it lay there, its edges began to ripple, like beeswax in a flame.

‘Mon Dieu,’ he muttered. What in God’s name was happening?

The louis twisted upon itself and flipped over. The king’s face with its curved nose had vanished, the familiar crown and shield too. And as Yves stared, the coin lost its roundness, thinning and separating until it looked like a bent harness buckle. He reached out a tentative finger to touch it.

It was a bent harness buckle.

With a cry, he reached for the strongbox. Mixed in with the coins was an ugly tin button, dented on one side, and a crooked piece of type, a letter Q. Worthless scraps of metal.

He remembered her exactly. He’d even flirted with her. Red hair, freckles across her sharp cheekbones. Hungry. Not that that excused it. How she’d done it he had no idea – but what a fool he was to take a gold louis from a girl in a threadbare cloak. If he hadn’t been dreaming of the figure he’d cut at the comte’s house, he would have thought twice. Idiot! Maître Orland was going to kill him.

He wrenched open the door and yelled into the crowded street.

‘Help! Police! We’ve been robbed!’

Enchantée is a wonderful novel that explores the distance between the world of the poor and that of the rich at the eve of the French Revolution, the world that Camille lives in one of an alternative history, for she and others are able to employ different forms of magic to make changes to the world around them to give themselves an advantage where they must. Camille is primarily not one of those who uses this ability frivolously, especially as it comes at a cost, the magic she has learnt from her late mother one that she is reluctant to use and initially not terribly secure in wielding, her main use of it to temporarily transform pieces of scrap metal into enough coins to feed her family. It’s when she discovers  other magics left behind by her mother that she realises the extent of what she could do and begins to use it – a glamoire – to enter the world of the aristocracy.

The thing I loved most about Enchantée was its magic system – or, more accurately, what was required of a person t make the magic work. Lots of novels that have characters exploiting magic have them doing so without showing any significant or long-lasting consequences of using their power, and it was interesting to see the possible side-effects of magic use explored in Camille’s story. This was one of many elements that was effective in conveying all that Camille is willing to do and sacrifice for her family, and the toll it takes on her both physically and on her perception of the world (and of herself and those around her) was one of the most poignant facets of the narrative. When she begins to use magic, she does so as a means to an end, but as she becomes accustomed to it? I doubt it is unintentional that magic and gambling are presented side by side.

Camille’s struggle with her brother to protect herself and Sophie, as well as to protect him from himself, is another of the threads of the story that works well to highlight just what addiction can and will do to people, and I found it interesting that this was also juxtaposed with her having to embrace a dangerous and addictive magic, since the impact that the alcohol has on Alain and the effect of prolonged magic use turn out to be rather similar. Just as Alain may have started out using alcohol to forget and to escape the world,  Camille at first resists and then embraces the magic regardless of its consequences, each of them witnessing their destructive effects and increasingly unable to draw away. Her struggle may be presented as one of necessity, yet there are undeniably moments when she is reluctant to stop. Alain is a detestable character in his actions, but both he and his sister end up embracing their escapist methods of choice.

Lazare’s story and place in society is another of the effective elements of the story. Of mixed-race heritage, the majority of the aristocracy of France refuse to accept him as one of them and see past their racism, leaving him adrift and unable to feel secure in the world, walking among people who might have to acknowledge him because of his family, but then only make derogatory comments about having to acknowledge him at all. If one of the book’s themes is that of being trapped between worlds, Lazare’s narrative is surely one of those most sympathetic.

Trelease’s writing is truly beautiful and I most enjoyed the passages involving the glamoire and the dress. For those – like me – who need a little help understanding the French included in the novel, there is a helpful list of translations at the back of the book!

Enchantée was released in the UK on the 21st of February from Pan Macmillan and is available in paperback in bookstores now! Thank you to Pan Macmillan for the gifted ARC and inviting me to be part of this blog tour!