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Month: January 2020

Review: The Stars We Steal by Alexa Donne

Review: The Stars We Steal by Alexa Donne

Engagement season is in the air. Eighteen-year-old Princess Leonie “Leo” Kolburg, heir to a faded European spaceship, has only one thing on her mind: which lucky bachelor can save her family from financial ruin?

But when Leo’s childhood friend and first love, Elliot, returns as the captain of a successful whiskey ship, everything changes. Elliot was the one who got away, the boy Leo’s family deemed to be unsuitable for marriage. Now he’s the biggest catch of the season and he seems determined to make Leo’s life miserable. But old habits die hard, and as Leo navigates the glittering balls of the Valg Season, she finds herself falling for her first love in a game of love, lies and past regrets.’

The Stars We Steal is an entertaining and easy read based around some of the story threads from Jane Austen’s Persuasion. Set in a future where the citizens of Earth have taken up space flight, following implied damage to the planet, the descendants of the royal families across the globe still claim their titles, if, for some, only in name, and live on a series of spaceships, some more grand than others. Leonie is eighteen and princess of a kingdom that no longer really exists, her father doing her no favours in his ineptitude in handling money and relying on the future marriages of his daughters to maintain and improve their lifestyle. For a while now, she and her family have been relying on her aunt to support them, leading Leo to decide that the best thing to do is to rent out their own ship in an effort to make some money. What she isn’t expecting is for the boy she was once engaged to (for all of twelve hours), Elliot, to be one of those renting her – their – former home.

The Valg season involves the children and heirs of the various European families taking part in a series of social events and tests in an attempt to match them with their best potential partner. As they are unwilling to entertain the idea of marrying from any other class, there is a limited range of partners available when looking to avoid intermarrying too closely, and with resources dwindling for some, the season is less about love and more about looking for someone of appropriate rank and means. Despite this, and despite knowing her family urgently needs her to find a wealthy husband, Leo refuses to engage (pardon the pun) with the aims of the season for much of the narrative, going out of her way to avoid spending time with those who could aid her and those who see her as a target for a title, for they know full well that her family needs assistance. It’s clear that Leo, contrary to what she tries to tell herself, has never got over Elliot, and this is just one of the things that keeps her from fully participating in the meaning of the Valg. She is unwilling to see herself as a bargaining chip and plainly finds the behaviour of some characters disquieting, and for more than the fact that their attention is so often fixed on Elliot.

Leo’s father is a somewhat unlikeable man, especially in his attitude towards what his daughters can do for him and how he simultaneously seems unwilling (or unable) to figure out what he may be able to do to save his family from ruin. His incompetence is almost painful, as is his focus on his title and how people perceive him, and it is no wonder that Leo has trouble being willing to do anything that might rescue him in particular, when all he stands to do is waste more money and become dependent on her for the rest of his days. If I’m honest, I wasn’t often too fond of the rest of her family either, though they do have some redeeming moments reasonably late into the story. This is, perhaps, because Leo’s female relatives are seen and written as rivals who cannot be supportive of each other, which, in the context of the novel upon which The Stars We Steal is based, would be very common, given that women were absolutely dependent on marriage to ensure that they had a home and did not become destitute and reliant on others. In contrast, her friendship with Evgenia is much more positive, and Evgenia herself is one of several LGBTQ+ characters in the story, the future in which the narrative unfolds a more comfortable one in many respects, for it does not seem judgemental (though there remains the fixation on furthering bloodlines).

The Stars We Steal may appear to be primarily concerned with romance, yet there is a huge range of social commentary underneath the narrative concerning the Valg and its families, much like the different levels and layers that the ‘average’ people and the servant class that exists inhabit. That, in this imagined future, a class system still exists and the people of the ‘lower orders’ are left to suffer and serve says much about what we like to ignore about the present. We can claim that equality for all exists and that the class system is history, but to do so is to be as Leo’s father is: wilfully ignorant of the truth. This future has many freedoms, but girls of rank are still reliant on men and still seen as a means of producing children and securing money and property; politics is still as murky and corrupt as ever, and the rich few exist to exploit the many. In this, Leo and Elliot stand to better the lives of those less fortunate in their universe, if they can better navigate the strands of society that wish to keep everything as it is.

Out on 4th February in the UK, The Stars We Steal is a unpredictable look to the future with echoes of the past, both entertaining and thought-provoking in its constructs. Thank you, Titan Books, for sending me a copy to review!

Blog Tour: Follow me, Like Me by Charlotte Seager

Blog Tour: Follow me, Like Me by Charlotte Seager

‘When sixteen-year-old Chloe replies to a DM from a gorgeous stranger, she has no idea what she’s inviting into her life. As her online fan becomes increasingly obsessive, her real life starts to come apart at the seams and Chloe realizes she needs to find a way to stop him before things spiral out of control.

Misfit Amber’s online obsession with her personal trainer begins to creep into the real world. But when she hears a terrible rumor about him, she drops everything to try and prove his innocence – even if it means compromising her own.

In Follow Me, Like Me by Charlotte Seager, Amber and Chloe might find that the truth is much harder to swallow than the lies.’

Today is my stop on the blog tour for the new YA thriller, Follow Me, Like Me by Charlotte Seager and I’m here with a review and a post from Charlotte about writing thrillers for young adults!

Writing Thrillers for Young Adults

When writing a thriller, you’re always trying to keep the reader guessing. Teasing just enough information through the story to keep the reader intrigued and the characters on edge.

There can also be difficult – and frightening – scenes to write. In Follow Me, Like Me one of the main characters, Chloe, is sexually assaulted, which was the pivotal point for her losing confidence and beginning to doubt herself. I was particularly keen to show how the use of derogatory words and phrases by men can change and shape the behaviour of young women.

There’s also a thread of coercive control throughout the novel. It can be easy for romantic relationships which at first appear fun and escapist to slip into something more insidious. 

One idea that I wanted to deconstruct throughout the novel was the concept of the ‘nice guy’ who calls you twenty times a day and is always ‘there for you’ so deserves your attention. No one deserves your attention if you don’t want to give it, regardless of how nice they’re acting. If you’ve asked someone to leave you alone and they persist, this behaviour can then slip into disrespecting boundaries and – at the extreme end – stalking. All under the guise of being a ‘nice guy’ who is protective.

One of the challenges to writing thrillers is capturing the right balance of drama and sensitivity to the topic you’re covering. You want the story to feel as realistic as possible. In Follow Me, Like Me I was also keen to weave in the social implications of new technologies, looking at the ways people can use platforms like social media to feed their obsessions and addictions. 

Ultimately, writing a thriller is about putting a quirk of life under the microscope – and using this magnified lens to teach us all something new.

Thank you, Charlotte!

Follow Me, Like Me is a novel that highlights how much social media has become a core component of interacting and socialising for young people, to the extent that there is little escape from the expectations and judgements of others. Both Amber and Chloe use various social media platforms, such as Instagram, Snapchat and Whatsapp, not only to communicate with their friends, but to keep tabs on what they are doing and to compare their lives to their own, the latter of which has been shown to have a hugely negative impact on the self-esteem of school students in particular (and adults). Chloe falls into the trap of using social media to seek attention for other reasons that have impacted her life, making connections that become increasingly dangerous and frightening for her, while Amber exploits the same technology in her blind quest to prove to herself that the boy she likes is a good man, demonstrating some of the same features of behaviour (and worse) that Chloe finds threatening. Each of the girls has to, unfortunately, learn through experience that how obsessively they use social media has a negative impact on their lives, including putting them in physical danger, let alone the emotional strain, and while it is common knowledge that these kinds of interactions occur every day, the more the novel continued, the more I found myself wishing that more children were better educated about what the effect the online world can have.

Another theme running through the story that I found particularly relevant to women (not only young adults) today is, as mentioned by Charlotte, how they are perceived by the male gaze and what negative behaviours are demonstrated towards women when men don’t get what they want. Derogatory terms are thrown at Chloe when she does not behave as Sven wishes, the words used ones that tend not to have a male equivalent, drawing to attention the double standards of society (I would say modern society, but this goes back many hundreds of years) and how women are expected to modify their behaviour for fear of the male reaction. Chloe does nothing to warrant such language being used, and Sven’s interpretation of a traumatising incident that occurs early in the novel is an especially worrying example of male expectations and arrogance, and while she does make mistakes in the handling of her online interactions and security, much of it is innocently done and shows a lack of understanding of what she is doing.

Follow Me, Like Me is out now from Pan Macmillan and would make an excellent class reader to tie in with PSHE lessons about the dangers of social media and how to use it responsibly. Thank you, Pan Macmillan, for the opportunity to be part of the blog tour, and thank you very much, Charlotte, for your insights into writing YA thrillers!

Review: A Queen in Hiding by Sarah Kozloff

Review: A Queen in Hiding by Sarah Kozloff

‘Orphaned, exiled and hunted, Cerulia, Princess of Weirandale, must master the magic that is her birthright, become a ruthless guerilla fighter, and transform into the queen she is destined to be.

But to do it she must win the favor of the spirits who play in mortal affairs, assemble an unlikely group of rebels, and wrest the throne from a corrupt aristocracy whose rot has spread throughout her kingdom.’

What is immediately evident about A Queen in Hiding is that the world in which events unfurl has been planned out and developed in a convincing and detailed manner, enough information about the happenings beyond Cressa’s domain shared for the reader to get a solid grasp on world politics and the concepts that govern the lands without being overwhelmed with facts that aren’t relevant to the threads of narrative that twine together to bring to light the issues that both Cressa and the reader see on the horizon. This is not to say that there isn’t a lot to learn, but it’s done in such a way as to experience it through the lives of key players, without pages given over to exposition instead of story. It’s a world in which the reader can almost immediately feel comfortable, which is in no small part down to the behaviour of Cressa herself.

One of the common features of fantasy novels that involve royalty seems, at the moment, to be a rift between mother and daughter, the former inevitably finding the latter to be a disappointment of some kind, leading her to treat her daughter poorly and distance herself from her. The thing I think I loved most about A Queen in Hiding is that Cressa and Cerulia clearly care for each other and have a positive relationship; that their connection isn’t solely based on the fact that Cerulia is the continuation of the line of queens. That Cerulia has yet to be Defined (have her particular power identified) worries her mother, yes, but Cressa demonstrates empathy based on her own experience with her talent and does not treat her child as if she is a disappointment. Much of what we see of Cressa has her focused on ensuring her daughter’s safety, not only because she is someone the kingdom needs, but because she plainly loves and cares for her. It was lovely to see a parent-child relationship portrayed so positively within a genre where parents are often a cause of strife, and Cressa and Cerulia were easily the characters that I grew to care for the most quickly. In the same vein, that we get to meet other members of Cressa’s family and see her in roles other than queen of her kingdom were some of the sections that I loved most, particularly what we learn of her childhood visits with her father and the easy teasing between her and her half-brother.

I adore a good magic system and I enjoyed reading about both the talents of the line of queens and how their powers function, and the magical properties of the waters of Nargis and its connection to royalty. I particularly liked the fact that the water does not confine what magic it has to the use of royalty and can grant healing and other positive benefits to ordinary citizens in need without there being a huge price to pay in return (though whether there truly is no price, given certain events in the novel, is, perhaps, debatable). The catamounts too, were a feature that I especially found interesting, their role one of protecting the queen, but more on their own terms than as any form of tamed creature at anyone’s beck and call, and I hope we see more of them.

Cerulia is written in a manner that convincingly portrays her age and upbringing, which I find is often something that is not always done well in fantasy when it comes to children with magical gifts. She adapts to her varying circumstances in a fashion that one would expect of a child of her age, which is to say not immediately and not altogether successfully, her sadness, petulance and lack of understanding of the ‘real’ world contrasted with her desire to try and do well and not repay kindness with poor behaviour or her inability to contribute as well as anyone else. She tries and fails and struggles (and sulks), and there are elements that she never quite gets to grips with, but her attempts are endearing and ultimately leave you wishing for positive things for her in a world where she can never be entirely who and what she is. Given the direction of the narrative, I feel that it is so important that Cerulia is easy to connect with and care for, and Kozloff does a fantastic job of making her an interesting and compelling character.

A Queen in Hiding is out on the 21st, to be followed by The Queen of Raiders in February, then A Broken Queen and The Cerulean Queen through the spring, making the quartet available to read over the course of a four month period. If you’re looking for a new epic fantasy series to read (without the usual year long wait between books!), I highly recommend the Nine Realms books, published by Tor in the US and UK! Thank you to Tor for sending me a copy of A Queen in Hiding! I enjoyed it hugely and look forward to reading the rest of the series!

Blog Tour: Followers by Megan Angelo

Blog Tour: Followers by Megan Angelo

‘When everyone is watching you can run, but you can’t hide…

2051. Marlow and her mother, Floss, have been handpicked to live their lives on camera, in the closed community of Constellation.

Unlike her mother, who adores the spotlight, Marlow hates having her every move judged by a national audience.

But she isn’t brave enough to escape until she discovers a shattering secret about her birth.

Now she must unravel the truth around her own history in a terrifying race against time…’

Today is my stop on the Followers blog tour! Followers is a fantastically haunting look at the rise of social media (and the media in general) and the power it has gained over our lives, a present day not so dissimilar to our own contrasted with a future where the internet and media companies have a stranglehold on people’s thoughts, feelings and motivations, to the extent where an entire community, Constellation, has been created for entertainment purposes and to satisfy the needs of particular individuals to be in the spotlight. Marlow has been raised in this closed community, less by her parents and more by the company in charge of Constellation, which, as she ages, claims more and more control over her life, from keeping her heavily medicated, to deciding who she will marry and have children with, including when she will have children as part of her ‘storyline’. It’s as this latest plot point in her scripted life starts to unfold that Marlow decides that enough is enough, the secrets that come to light ones that drive her to seek the truth of who she is and what the world has become.

The 2015 timeline that alternates with Marlow’s 2051 life in Constellation follows two young women, Orla and Florence (Floss), who set out to use social media to become ‘famous’. Each of the girls has a dream of their own that they have been pursuing, but gaining little traction with, and while Orla in particular deludes herself into believing that she is making steps towards her dream of being a published author as she travels further and further down the road of media stardom, they both throw themselves blindly and disturbingly enthusiastically into exploiting the tools at their disposal to create their ‘best lives’ for the public to see and consume, while concealing the reality of it and leaving behind their better intentions. Having been working for a women’s online magazine, Orla uses the skills she has been employing to create her rather vacuous ‘articles’ and manipulate public opinion to turn Floss into a popular influencer, taking control of her Instagram and Twitter while using the platform of the brand she works for to gather further attention. From here, they work on further catapulting her into the public consciousness, culminating in a reality TV show and near constant attention from adoring fans of all ages, which ultimately does not end well. The ambiguity of the medium of online communication is highlighted in a horrific incident that paints none of the characters in a positive light, for their focus becomes not grief or regret, but how to stop their fall from fame and grace.

The most unsettling elements of the narrative are ultimately those that shine a light on the ways that social media has created a desire for attention within society that brands and various facets of the media can then exploit. None of the characters in Followers are creative because they wish to be, for their own enjoyment, or able to leave behind the notion of public opinion: they create content with the audience’s reaction in mind and with the intention of eliciting a particular response, and spend their lives focused on presenting everything in their world as something that should be aspired to, in order to gain more attention. They are obsessed with maintaining their celebrity, likes, follows and clicks, unable to disconnect from social media – something that becomes an all the more threatening feature of people’s lives by the time that Marlow is acting out a scripted life in Constellation. The fact that this hyper-fixation and all its pitfalls is presented as fiction while at the same moment being very much not fictional makes for an often uncomfortable and highly relevant read, for there is very little in Marlow’s 2051 that the world is not necessarily on the cusp of attempting. Given that the media has managed to get its claws into our everyday lives, from home hubs, advertising and reality TV, to our use of social media and its influence on what we may choose to purchase and participate in, that someone reading Followers would not recognise some feature of their own lives in the narrative is, I believe, highly unlikely.

Followers is a disquieting study of our relationship with the media and what stands to happen to individuality, truth and creativity if we fail to continue to inform ourselves of the power of language, presentation and the material that we consume on a daily basis. If we do not question what we are shown and our own response to it, we stand to continue walking down some dangerous paths. I thoroughly enjoyed this read and highly recommend it as a look into a frighteningly believable future.

Followers was released on January 9th from HQ Stories (Harper Collins) and is available in bookshops now. Thank you to HQ Stories for sending me a copy for review and for the opportunity to be part of the blog tour!