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Month: February 2021

Review: The Ravens by Kass Morgan and Danielle Paige

Review: The Ravens by Kass Morgan and Danielle Paige

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: The Girls I’ve Been by Tess Sharpe

Review: The Girls I’ve Been by Tess Sharpe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: This is Not the Jess Show by Anna Carey

Review: This is Not the Jess Show by Anna Carey

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

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

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

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

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