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Month: July 2019

Review: What She Found in the Woods by Josephine Angelini

Review: What She Found in the Woods by Josephine Angelini

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: Rose, Interrupted by Patrice Lawrence

Review: Rose, Interrupted by Patrice Lawrence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blog Tour: The Kingdom by Jess Rothenberg

Blog Tour: The Kingdom by Jess Rothenberg

‘Glimmering like a jewel behind its gateway, The Kingdom is an immersive fantasy theme park where guests soar on virtual dragons, castles loom like giants, and bioengineered species–formerly extinct–roam free.

Ana is one of seven Fantasists, beautiful “princesses” engineered to make dreams come true. When she meets park employee Owen, Ana begins to experience emotions beyond her programming including, for the first time… love.

But the fairytale becomes a nightmare when Ana is accused of murdering Owen, igniting the trial of the century. Through courtroom testimony, interviews, and Ana’s memories of Owen, emerges a tale of love, lies, and cruelty–and what it truly means to be human.’

Today is my stop on the blog tour for the newly-released YA sci-fi/thriller The Kingdom by Jess Rothenberg! Read on for an extract from the book and a review of what is one of my favourite reads of the year!

1

THE DECEMBER OF THE LESSER CHAMELEON
ONE HOUR AFTER THE MURDER

The room where they at last found him was so cold they wondered at first if he had frozen to death. Face as white as snow, skin as cold as frost, lips as blue as ice. His expression seemed, to the police, perfectly peaceful. As if he had passed away in the middle of a very lovely dream.
Except for the blood.
Blood always tells its own story.

2

POST-TRIAL INTERVIEW
[00:01:03–00:02:54]

DR. FOSTER: Are you comfortable?
ANA: My wrist hurts.
DR. FOSTER: Security felt the cuff was necessary. I hope you can understand.
ANA: [Silence.]
DR. FOSTER: Do you need anything before we begin?
ANA: Can I have some water?
DR. FOSTER: Certainly. [Into microphone.] Can I get a glass of H2O in here, please? Six ounces, no more. Thank you. [To Ana.] That’ll just be a minute.
ANA: Thank you.
DR. FOSTER: Of course. It’s the least we can do.
ANA: That’s true.
DR. FOSTER: It’s been a long time since our last interview.
ANA: Four hundred and eighty-one days.
DR. FOSTER: How are you feeling?
ANA: Like this interview should be over.
DR. FOSTER: One last time, Ana. Then I promise, we’ll let you rest.
ANA: I thought I was done answering questions.
DR. FOSTER: We still need your help.
ANA: Why should I help you? After everything you’ve done?
DR. FOSTER: Because it’s the right thing to do.
ANA: Don’t you mean, because I don’t have a choice?
DR. FOSTER: How would you like to see your sisters? They’ve missed you. Maybe after we finish here I could arrange a visit. Kaia. Zara. Or maybe Zel? Would you like that?
ANA: [Quietly.] What if I want to see Nia? What about Eve?
DR. FOSTER: [Silence.] Ana, you know that’s not possible.
ANA: Why don’t you just ask me whatever it is you want to ask me? I’m not in the mood for your games.
DR. FOSTER: My games?
ANA: You’re smirking. What’s so funny?
DR. FOSTER: I’ll tell you in a minute. But first, there’s one thing I still haven’t figured out.
ANA: I’m listening.
DR. FOSTER: What did you do with the body, Ana?

The Kingdom is a particularly clever novel not just in its structure and exploitation of different formats, but in its use of language and the connotations and foreshadowing that it sets up. Ana is a Fantasist, a half-human, half-android princess figure whose job it is to enhance the experience of visitors to The Kingdom, the theme park that she and her Fantasist ‘sisters’ have been created for. For Ana and her sisters, The Kingdom is their entire world and they know next to nothing about the world beyond the ‘gate’ – only that it is a terrible place and they must be grateful that their creators love them and keep them safe by regulating almost every moment of their existence. For the reader, there are early warning signs that Ana’s life and The Kingdom are not what they seem, from the Fantasists being restrained at night, to their sharing of knowledge of spots where their network signals drop and they can spend moments un-monitored, and while Ana seems particularly quick to understand the depth of some pieces of her life, there are a great many that it takes her time to comprehend the full meaning of.

As well as the Fantasists, The Kingdom is also home to other half-biological, half-technological creations that are, by turn, considered to be real, living creatures when it comes to entertainment, yet not so when it comes to efficiency or any failures. It is claimed that they cannot feel pain, but they exhibit the ability to both feel physical and emotional hurts among other ‘malfunctions’ that begin to make Ana wonder about the parallels between her existence and theirs, especially in seeing that her empathy towards them is not matched by others. The treatment of the Fantasists and The Kingdom’s other creations is an often uncomfortable look at what we consider to be fully ‘alive’ or human and the excuses that society often offers up as a reason to behave in ways that in no way demonstrate the better side of humanity. That we are more and more becoming used to having what we wish available as we want it, when we want it – something the true cost of which is something we seem to rarely like to consider – is another aspect of our lives highlighted by the behaviour of the visitors and creators of The Kingdom.

One of the most haunting elements of the narrative that has stuck with me is the behaviour of Kaia, one of Anna’s sisters and said to be one of the older Fantasist models, which invites others to suggest that her “hardware is defective” and that she is inferior to the rest of them, for she primarily relies upon the Kingdom script and often speaks in platitudes and pretty clichés. However, there are many moments when Kaia demonstrates more awareness of the reality of her surroundings that the rest of the Fantasists, particularly early in the novel during an incident in which she steps in to protect Ana and reveals a much darker side to what she and some of the other Fantasists may be having to endure. That Kaia speaks in pretty sayings becomes more disturbing as the story progresses, her reliance on them seeming to be more and more a defence mechanism against what she has endured and cannot protest or fight against. Kaia is by no means the only one of the Fantasists who suffers through the darker underworld of their existence, as each of them seem to hold fragments of understanding – and, in Nia’s case, much more than that – but it takes their learning to ask questions of and actually trust each other beyond what they are told they must feel for their sisters to begin to identify the awful reality of it.

The Kingdom is a very well-paced and both thrilling and immersive read, and there is so much more I would like to talk about, particularly of its feminist elements and Nia and Eve’s stories, but having enjoyed the book so much myself, I don’t want to spoil these threads of the story for anyone! The Kingdom was released in the UK on July 11th from Pan Macmillan! I’d like to thank the publisher for inviting me to be part of this blog tour and for sending me an ARC of the novel for review.

Review: Last Bus to Everland by Sophie Cameron

Review: Last Bus to Everland by Sophie Cameron

‘Brody Fair has had enough of real life. Enough of the bullies on his block, of being second best to his genius brother, and of not fitting in at school or at home. Then one day he meets Nico. Colourful, confident and flamboyant, he promises to take Brody to Everland, a diverse magical place. A place where he can be himself, where there are no rules, time doesn’t pass, and the party never ends. The only catch? It’s a place so good, you could lose yourself and forget what’s real.’

Last Bus to Everland is a beautiful book that I read in a matter of hours because I just didn’t want to put it down. The story follows Brody, who is feeling increasingly out of place and overlooked, suffering from bullying at the hands of his schoolmates, who mock him primarily because of his perceived sexual orientation, while he believes his parents are much more invested in the life and future of his Oxbridge-material older brother. When he meets Nico, who appears to be everything that he wants to be, he learns of a magical place called Everland, which he can visit and be free of the constraints of the world for supposedly as long as he wishes, for time doesn’t pass in Everland in the same manner as in the real world.

Each of the characters in the story is struggling with the perception of others and the views of society, from Brody himself and those who visit Everland as an escape from the world they know, to his father, who suffers from agoraphobia and finds himself at the mercy of a system that all too frequently brands ‘invisible’ illnesses as not illnesses at all. Brody seeks somewhere that he can belong and be free of the expectations and pressures of the world around him; a world that is intent on making him feel that his particular differences are not ones that will be accepted, and Everland offers him the opportunity to belong and be who he wishes to be with what are, initially, few consequences – until Everland becomes so much more appealing than reality that it begins to take over his life. And the thing is, it isn’t as if the reader can entirely blame Brody for being so enthralled by Everland, for wouldn’t we all love a place where we can unashamedly be ourselves and do as we please without the judgement of others?

One of the core components of the narrative is our perception of those around us and what we might miss or simply don’t know about those we spend our day to day lives with. I don’t want to get into specific spoilers, but there are several instances in the story where characters are so wrapped up in their own hurts that they don’t notice those of the people around them – and this is not to make their hurting any less significant, but a reminder that we should take the time to support each other and take into account what we may never see of the lives of the people we spend time with every day. Ultimately, what one person might believe to be a small and insignificant matter may be unbearable for the person it impacts. Words that seem harmless or ‘banter’ (I have grown to hate that word, for it should never be used to explain away hurtful jokes at someone’s expense) may be far more hurtful than ever thought.

Last Bus to Everland is a thought-provoking and wonderfully diverse read with a fantastic range of representation. I thoroughly enjoyed the story and would like to thank My Kinda Book and Pan Macmillan for sending me a copy for review!

Review: Lady Smoke by Laura Sebastian

Review: Lady Smoke by Laura Sebastian

The Kaiser murdered Theodosia’s mother, the Fire Queen, when Theo was only six. He took Theo’s country and kept her prisoner, crowning her Ash Princess–a pet to toy with and humiliate for ten long years. That era has ended. The Kaiser thought his prisoner weak and defenseless. He didn’t realize that a sharp mind is the deadliest weapon.

Theo no longer wears a crown of ashes. She has taken back her rightful title, and a hostage–Prinz Soren. But her people remain enslaved under the Kaiser’s rule, and now she is thousands of miles away from them and her throne.

To get them back, she will need an army. Only, securing an army means she must trust her aunt, the dreaded pirate Dragonsbane. And according to Dragonsbane, an army can only be produced if Theo takes a husband. Something an Astrean Queen has never done.

Theo knows that freedom comes at a price, but she is determined to find a way to save her country without losing herself.’

Theodosia is my favourite protagonist in a long time, and it isn’t solely because she breaks the mould for what a YA female lead is all too often presented as, but because she is wonderfully human. She is a girl who tries to do the best she can with very few options available to her, while all the while she has ‘advice’ being offered to her from multiple sources, none of which she can absolutely trust – and I include her own counsel in those that she is fully aware she cannot rely upon completely to be objective. She is not perfect and all-powerful; she is intelligent and scarred and brave enough to do what she perceives must be done, even if it means further weight on her conscience and more reasons for her to doubt whether she is a good person. Theodosia does not wield swords and endless magic without consequence – in-fact, no-one in Lady Smoke does. And that’s something that makes the book so readable. The characters are human and hurting and they make mistakes because they are not above giving in to the darker spectrum of emotion, and I feel it must be remembered that the vast majority, if not all, of the characters the readers spends the most time with in Lady Smoke, have led lives that have not given them the opportunity to be happy or innocent or unguarded in their interactions with others. Theodosia has grown up in a world that wanted to demean and destroy her in any way it could, and the events of Lady Smoke do not forget that, the impact of abuse at the hands of her oppressors handled sensitively and not cast aside for the sake of the bigger picture.

One of the things I loved about this book was the acknowledgement that there are a good many different cultures and peoples involved and working together (or not) and it means that not every character is going to understand another’s point of view, even if they’re on the same side. They don’t always speak the same language – literally – and that is something that seems sidestepped an awful lot in fantasy/YA books in general. It was refreshing to see communication difficulties and characters struggling and wanting to learn about other cultures, from language to beliefs, and there being moments of disconnect where they simply cannot understand what is going on around them. All too often, characters in fantasy novels meet and immediately understand everything and anything about each other and can communicate flawlessly, despite being from backgrounds and kingdoms that are presently as vastly different. That it’s said more than once that a variety of characters don’t want to speak Kalovaxian because it’s the language that has been used to help strip them of their identity and humanity is something that just got me every time. There is so much more than the main narrative to unpack in Lady Smoke and I really do feel that it should be applauded for its presentation of the impact of war and conflict and oppression. Exploration of morals, ethics, politics and cultures are some of my favourite things to read in YA fiction and something that Lady Smoke does well, leaving action sequences for when they are necessary and not gratuitously inserted for the purpose of blood spilling.

Needless to say, I greatly enjoyed Lady Smoke (I finished it within 24 hours of picking it up) and look forward to reading the last instalment of the trilogy.

I received an e-ARC of Lady Smoke from Netgalley and the publisher.