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Month: April 2019

Review: Sing Like No One’s Listening by Vanessa Jones

Review: Sing Like No One’s Listening by Vanessa Jones

‘Nettie Delaney hasn’t been able to sing a note since her mum died. This wouldn’t be a problem if she wasn’t now attending Dukes, the most prestigious performing arts college in the country, with her superstar mother’s shadow hanging over her. Nettie has her work cut out for her and everyone is watching.

But one night, in an empty studio after college, Nettie finds herself suddenly singing, as someone behind the curtain accompanies her on the piano. Maybe all is not lost for Nettie. Maybe she can find her voice again and survive her first year at Dukes. But can she do it before she gets thrown out?’

Sing Like No One’s Listening is such a fun read and I loved every minute of it. I guess I haven’t confessed my undying love for the West End yet, have I? I read the book cover to cover during a journey on a recent holiday and don’t actually remember much of where we travelled through – I was too involved in the story! Sing Like No One’s Listening introduces the reader to Nettie, who has been accepted by a prestigious performing arts academy despite believing she failed her audition, and who wants to follow in her late mother’s footsteps. The only problem is that she hasn’t been able to sing since her mother passed away.

The key thing about Sing Like No One’s Listening is that the characters read in an engaging way that does not feel laboured. The dialogue is not forced and the characters’ interaction feels natural, its fast pace one of the things that helps to keep the reader interested. There’s no unnecessary exposition, and with the world of Duke’s being experienced through Nettie’s gaze, we learn about both the setting and its people as she does, meaning there may be a lot to get to grips with reasonably quickly, but there are frequent, interesting additions and elements to the narrative that keep the story travelling apace. Many of the main cast are met early in the novel and it’s these that the story stays with, letting us get to know them as Nettie forges these first friendships at her new home. The story’s structure is one that, I feel, would lend itself well to television. I loved its myriad of musical references and features that feel as if they belong in a stage show.

I really felt for Nettie, particularly during her ballet lessons, in which the expectations and the pressure applied are detailed in a manner that is no exaggeration. The behaviour of her teacher may be completely unacceptable, but the atmosphere created is something that is an accurate representation of what many experience in ballet and dance classes. I took ballet classes until my mid teens and my teacher was absolutely lovely – she could not have done more for us – but the fact remains that, even when you do well and receive praise, you are left feeling that you are not enough, for every aspect of your performance, including your posture, weight and general appearance, is commented on. I’ve heard ballet instructors use more or less some of the same insults (meant to be ‘jokes’) that Moore does when remarking on her students’ appearance and performance, and to be subjected to this and continue on says much for the resilience of both Nettie and those who have to experience this behaviour towards them.

There’s a good range of representation within the novel, with some elements a little more subtle than others. It also explores a number of issues, such as grief, mental health, body confidence, bullying and prejudice. Though Nettie goes through a great deal in her attempt to find her voice and process her grief, it’s facets of Kiki’s behaviour that are, perhaps, ultimately more worrying, as she starts to take more drastic steps to try and make herself become what the industry demands of her in response to comments made by staff and students. The book addresses the aforementioned issues in a manner that offers hope and is uplifting in its handling of them without taking away from their serious nature, often employing good natured humour in its character interactions. On the whole, it’s a lighter read, with due care and attention paid to the impact of living a life in the performing world, which is sensitively addressed and contrasted with the often irreverent humour employed primarily by its male cast.

Sing Like No One’s Listening is out now, with a sequel, Dance Like No One is Watching, arriving soon! Thank you to Macmillan and My Kinda Book for sending me a copy!

Review: The Beekeeper of Aleppo by Christy Lefteri

Review: The Beekeeper of Aleppo by Christy Lefteri

‘In the midst of war, he found love
In the midst of darkness, he found courage
In the midst of tragedy, he found hope

What will you find from his story?

Nuri is a beekeeper; his wife, Afra, an artist. They live a simple life, rich in family and friends, in the beautiful Syrian city of Aleppo – until the unthinkable happens. When all they care for is destroyed by war, they are forced to escape.

As Nuri and Afra travel through a broken world, they must confront not only the pain of their own unspeakable loss, but dangers that would overwhelm the bravest of souls. Above all – and perhaps this is the hardest thing they face – they must journey to find each other again.’

The Beekeeper of Aleppo is the harrowing tale of Nuri, the beekeeper of the title, and his wife, Afra, as they attempt to travel from Syria to the UK as the conflict in their homeland makes life increasingly unbearable. In a series of flashbacks and days since their arrival in the UK, who and what they were before conflict reached them is revealed, along with the hardships of their efforts to leave Syria behind and ultimately reach a place of safety – with none being truly safe; not even the UK, where their being granted asylum is in no way guaranteed.

A large part of their journey is spent in various camps once they have made it across the ocean, and it’s these passages that have stuck with me the most; these elements that I believe people need to read and learn about to gain a better understanding of what is happening to people in the refugee camps across Europe. Largely, the media (at least, the British media) appears to rarely report on this anymore, with the day to day lives of the people still living and arriving in these places hardly brought to the public’s attention. The suffering that is still happening every day is highlighted in Nuri’s experience of the camps and what he has to do to make sure that he and Afra survive, much of the truth of it concealed from her, owing to her blindness. The mental impact of being kept in these camps and treated so inhumanely is not only explored through Nuri, but in the characters that he meets, all of whom have their own stories to tell and are likewise struggling to survive, with some taking advantage of their fellow refugees in dark and disturbing ways. The story itself may be fiction, but the setting and the circumstances are a reality for too many, the lives of the characters all too haunting in that there is very little ‘fictional’ about their experiences.

I loved the use of the one word pages to thread together the end of one section and the beginning of the next; I felt they were very effective, particularly as they are often signalling flashbacks and create that disjointed moment between reality and what the mind creates of the past. Admittedly, I was sometimes a little confused as to the order of events, though the past and present are usually signalled with changes of tense: this is something that, for me, occurred more often in the last third of the book, as the impact of the war on Nuri’s mental state is becoming more and more apparent and severe, and it could be that this slightly jumbled element of the narrative reflects his PTSD and inability to completely separate reality, the past, and what his trauma has created in an attempt to let him better cope with what he has gone (and is still going) through. Nuri’s concerns seem primarily for his wife, and this misdirection, with her needs seeming greater, prolong the revelation of the extent of his trauma, particularly as the reader experiences the world only from his point of view. His treatment of Afra seems devoted and callous by turn, a need to know the reasons for the latter something that encourages reading on.

The writing itself is beautiful and seemingly practical by turn, the use of shorter sentence structures, in particular in the chapters/passages that describe Nuri and Afra’s life in the UK, lending a practical edge that emphasises the fact that Nuri is more functioning rather than experiencing life (this is only my perception of the structures used and why). There is nothing gratuitous about what violence and suffering is experienced throughout the novel, its quiet and crafted elegance another reminder that they are a reality for those seeking sanctuary from war.

The Beekeeper of Aleppo is out on May 2nd! Thank you, Zaffe Books, for sending me a copy.

Review: Stepsister by Jennifer Donnelly

Review: Stepsister by Jennifer Donnelly

‘In an ancient city by the sea, three sisters – a maiden, a mother, and a crone – are drawing maps by candlelight. Sombre, with piercing grey eyes, they are the three Fates, and every map is a human life…

Stepsister takes up where Cinderella’s tale ends. We meet Isabelle, the younger of Cinderella’s two stepsisters. Ella is considered beautiful; stepsister Isabelle is not. Isabelle is fearless, brave, and strong-willed. She fences better than any boy, and takes her stallion over jumps that grown men fear to attempt. It doesn’t matter, though; these qualities are not valued in a girl. Others have determined what is beautiful, and Isabelle does not fit their definition. Isabelle must face down the demons that drove her cruel treatment of Ella, challenge her own fate and maybe even redefine the very notion of beauty…’

Stepsister is, without a doubt, my favourite read of the year so far. Not only is it a fairytale retelling, which is, I’m sure I don’t need to say again, one of my favourite things to read, but it takes the more fixed elements of the original story and injects new life into them without completely breaking away from the conclusion of the Cinderella story. The writing is simply beautiful, with the natural cadence and rhythm of the language something that struck me time after time as one of its strengths, its short chapters – particularly their conclusions – an element that aid it in being a brilliantly poetic novel. To be completely honest, there is something almost on every other page of this book that I would love to talk about in detail (maybe I’ll come back to this once it’s been released!), and there are so many beautiful lines that I could write at length about Stepsister, but I’ll try to keep myself to a few things that I enjoyed the most.

Isabelle is one of Ella’s (Cinderella) ‘ugly’ stepsisters, who we are introduced to just as her mother demands that she cuts off her toes to make her foot fit the glass slipper (one of the elements that is often left out of retellings these days). What life has been like for Isabelle since her mother married Ella’s father is visited through a series of flashbacks throughout the novel that focus on how she has changed since she was a girl, revealing events that influenced her and ultimately led to her becoming the young woman who treated her stepsister so awfully. This is done without making excuses for the choices she makes, but shows what led to her growing so angry and frustrated with the world, contrasting who she was with who she is in the wake of Ella’s departure with the prince and the nature of who she is having been revealed to all. One of her biggest misconceptions about herself is that life would be better for her if she were more like Ella, both in temperament and appearance, and so she sets out to try and do good deeds and be a ‘better’ person – with the cryptic help of the fairy queen, whom she hopes will make her ‘pretty’. Isabelle’s journey is not an easy or obvious one, for even she doesn’t entirely comprehend what she is attempting to do, and her gradually growing to understand and reclaim herself, embracing who she really is, is one in which you cannot help but root for her.

I absolutely adored Tavi, Isabelle’s sister. Tavi, who is fiercely clever and wants to immerse herself in maths and science in a world that refuses to believe that women are intelligent enough to do so and won’t entertain the idea of it, considering study of such things to be not appropriate for women. Tavi behaves in an ‘ugly’ way because she has given up on a society that has tried to make her everything she hates and does not want to be – there is no way that she can find any fulfilment in the ‘traditional’ role of a woman that her mother and the men around her wish her to take on. For Tavi, the world is a cruel and unkind place that she has given up on, tired of seeing men with less than half her intellect succeed and be valued in ways that she will never be. She doesn’t fit and has surrendered to it, her sadness driving her to an anger that has her determined to drive people away with her attitude and sharp tongue. Tavi is ugly to the world and everyone in it because it has been so to her.

The use of the Fates, and Chance and his entourage, is another aspect of the novel that I thoroughly enjoyed. The crafting of the maps and inks, particularly the names of the inks and who is willing to use them (there is a line about ‘defiance’ towards the end of the novel that I adored, but I won’t go any further into for fear of spoilers) is a delightful nod to many mythologies, while being unique in its execution. The Fates and Chance are actual characters within the story and get to interact with the more human ones (who don’t comprehend who they are truly speaking with), meddling in the lives of those whose lives they believe they have the power to manipulate. There’s a lot to unpack here about free will and destiny, which is skilfully explored over the course of Fate and Chance’s battle for the paths of Isabelle’s life. Tanaquill (the fairy queen) is not the benevolent figure that one might have been expecting and the story is all the better for it, her presence an uncompromising demand that Isabelle examine who she is and what she truly wishes to be. If I’m correct, Tanaquill is not the only nod to epic poetry and the work of playwrights within the text, and her depiction here as a dark and sharply beautiful figure of female power is in excellent keeping with the original text and the time in which in would appear the novel is set.

As mentioned before, there is a lot more I would love to discuss, particularly concerning the relationship(s) between Isabelle, Tavi and Ella, but, as I don’t wish to spoil the story, I’ll settle for saying that the twists on the assumptions that can be made about the original text are some of my favourite things about the story.

Stepsister is out on May 2nd! Thank you, Hot Key Books, for sending me a copy!

Review: The Devouring Gray by Christine Lynn Herman

Review: The Devouring Gray by Christine Lynn Herman

‘On the edge of town a beast haunts the woods, trapped in the Gray, its bonds loosening…

Uprooted from the city, Violet Saunders doesn’t have much hope of fitting in at her new school in Four Paths, a town almost buried in the woodlands of rural New York. The fact that she’s descended from one of the town’s founders doesn’t help much, either—her new neighbours treat her with distant respect, and something very like fear. When she meets Justin, May, Isaac, and Harper, all children of founder families, and sees the otherworldly destruction they can wreak, she starts to wonder if the townsfolk are right to be afraid. When bodies start to appear in the woods, the locals become downright hostile. Can the teenagers solve the mystery of Four Paths, and their own part in it, before another calamity strikes?’

The Devouring Gray is not the kind of book that I would automatically pick up, as horror isn’t my usual read, but Titan books very kindly sent me a sampler for it and I was hooked – I had to read the rest. I loved the concept of the Gray itself and who or what it was, which is something that unfolds throughout the story as the cast piece together fragments of what they know, their own histories, what they’ve been ‘told’ and what they’ve experienced. An interesting element of the novel is that it would seem that none of the characters are entirely truthful about much, even when trying to be honest with themselves, which leaves the reader wondering if the conclusions that they’ve reached are correct, as perceived through connotations of behaviour and foreshadowing, or if they’re being led astray. The history of Four Paths is a messy, tangled thing, to go with the messy, tangled lives of the descendants of its founders.

Of the magical elements of the story, I think May and her use of the Deck of Omens is my favourite, but I honestly love the care that has gone into creating the unique mythology and rituals of each family – both the actual rituals that characters have to undergo to embrace their powers and the quirks of how each family functions. That there are variations in abilities within families and that blood doesn’t always ring true brings an interesting twist (or twists) to the narrative, and a much more interesting cast of characters than if whole families were to have one power as standard. Part of what makes the novel well-paced is that it isn’t immediately obvious what abilities particular characters have, or they aren’t demonstrated early in the story, leaving things to discover about people, places and history throughout. One thing that I found largely absent from the writing was the use of heavy exposition, which I found to be a huge plus.

I don’t want to give too much away, but the idea of the Gray and the Beast and history versus what has been taught and believed makes for raising questions about human nature and how the past can be doctored to make of it what someone wills. It’s the attitude of the adults in the story that is perhaps one of its most disturbing features, and it makes the reader wonder if their children are ultimately set on the same path, whether they like it or not.

Ultimately, The Devouring Gray is an absorbing read with a well-developed universe within a modern setting, its magic system grounded enough that it doesn’t read as a fantasy novel, but a contemporary with horror and elements of dark magic. The narrative is particularly well-woven, no one plot-line seeming to be out of place or not integral to the main story, and each of the main characters is featured enough that, though Violet may be the initial eyes through which the reader discovers Four Paths, it’s hard to say that the story belongs to one above the others, which is a difficult thing to achieve with the number of character voices involved.

The Devouring Gray is out on April 16th in the UK! Thank you to Titan Books for gifting me a copy!

Review: Through the White Wood by Jessica Leake

Review: Through the White Wood by Jessica Leake

‘Katya’s power to freeze anything she touches has made her an outcast in her isolated village. And when she loses control of her ability, accidentally killing several villagers, she is banished to the palace of the terrifying Prince Sasha in Kiev. 

At the castle, though, she is surprised to find that Sasha is just like her—with his own strange talent, the ability to summon fire. Instead of punishment, Sasha offers Katya friendship, and the chance to embrace her power rather than fear it. 

But outside the walls of Kiev, Sasha’s enemies have organised their own army of people who can control the very earth. Bent on taking over the entire world, they won’t stop until they’ve destroyed everything. 

Katya and Sasha are desperate to stop the encroaching army, and together their powers are a fearsome weapon. But as their enemies draw nearer, leaving destruction in their wake, will fire and frost be enough to save the world? Or will they lose everything they hold dear?’

Through the White Wood is an enjoyable read with a varied cast, Katya’s journey one that is of self-discovery and across a country (and more) that she has seen little of. I particularly liked her relationship with Elation and how protective they are of each other, with the mechanics of just how Elation understands her so clearly left for both Katya and the reader to learn without information overload or too many different suggestions along the way to take the mystery and magic from it.

The story is reasonably well-paced, with twists that are not so easy to predict, despite some foreshadowing, making the narrative one that doesn’t follow the more predictable patterns that seem typical of many YA fantasy novels. New characters are introduced in a manner that allows the reader to get to know a few at a time in decent depth before moving on to more, leaving none of them to seem to be throwaway additions to the story. In my opinion, it’s the female characters who are developed a little more and whose voices ring clearer, but we hear more of some of their histories than the male characters, and Katya herself spends more time with them one to one.

My favourite feature of the novel surrounds the magic system and the myth/legends of the original elementals, who both seem to exist and have achieved mythological status. The story of Winter was actually what I found most enjoyable, but, having spent much of my academic life studying mythology, I am most drawn to these elements (no pun intended) of novels. There is some information provided about the origins of those whose bloodlines carry various magical abilities, and I would have been pleased to see more – in-fact I do hope that we see more of this in what later instalments there might be.

To be honest, I wasn’t completely sold on Katya and Sasha’s relationship. There is some build-up, but, given that Katya spends much of the novel determined not to let him use her as a weapon and an object, that she so swiftly moves past sympathy to falling in love with him felt particularly quick and I wasn’t entirely sure of the reasoning behind it. This isn’t to say that they ultimately don’t make a good couple, yet, since I imagine there is going to be a follow-up, I would have preferred that more time be spent developing their relationship and exploring how their powers might work together as companions on the battlefield before moving towards romance. I think part of this is because I truly believe that they would make good friends and I would have loved to have seen a lot more of this first.

Through the White Wood is out on May 16th in the UK! Thank you to Harper 360 UK for gifting me a copy!