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Review: The Actuality by Paul Braddon

Review: The Actuality by Paul Braddon

‘Evie is a near-perfect bioengineered human. In a broken-down future England where her kind has been outlawed, her ‘husband’ Matthew keeps her safe but hidden. When her existence is revealed, she must take her chances on the dark and hostile streets where more than one predator is on the hunt.’

The Actuality follows Evie, who is a technological creation who has been created in the image of her owner’s (‘husband’s’) wife, and, not being of biological matter, is eternally in her early twenties, while those around her continue to age. For the duration of her life, she has been kept in her husband’s home and not permitted to experience the outside world, primarily because, as it turns out, her existence is no longer legal. The creation of beings with artificial intelligence has been outlawed, following violent uprisings, and Evie is one of the few remaining that haven’t been destroyed or kept in captivity as a supposed ‘warning’ about the past. Evie herself is oblivious to much beyond the fact that she is fully aware she is not human in the biological sense, and initially seems content and determined to fulfil her role as a wife, until the outside world enters their home and leaves her no with no choice but to flee to survive.

Throughout the novel, there is a lot of debate over whether Evie can be considered human or not, with there being no real middle ground as regards the opinions of biological human beings, most of whom insist that Evie and her kind cannot possibly be human insofar as having rights, thoughts and feelings of their own. Even Evie’s husband is heard to justify his having purchased Evie and kept her essentially as a prisoner for decades by claiming that she’s only a machine. That his interaction with Evie includes having sex with her only makes the situation she is in all the more uncomfortable, and is one among many things that Daniels, one of the few in the narrative who seems to believe Evie should be treated as any other human, objects to. In her home life, she is treated like an object and a servant, while being expected to be so flawlessly human as to perfectly imitate the person whose image she was created in. That her husband is so willing to use something he believes is his possession and without feeling says far too much about the manner in which he would have treated his wife and how women are all too often viewed in today’s society. Is Evie a replacement for another woman he would have commanded and possessed and used? In this, would his ‘real’ wife have been considered any more human than Evie?

On more than one occasion, Evie is forced to defend herself if she is to survive, these incidents often brushed over in a clinical manner, or painted in so vague a way as to only make it apparent that she has behaved as she has because she must. The narrative itself is written from her point of view, and, initially, any violence on her part is not accompanied by any real sense of anger or rage, creating a distance between Evie and the act, and subsequently Evie and the reader, allowing us to believe that she has acted as she should. Without going into too much specific detail and sharing spoilers, it is this that makes it easy to be lulled into a false sense of security. Being inside Evie’s head and hearing all of the arguments against her kind means that siding with her and wanting to believe that she is  ‘different’ and as human as it feels she ‘deserves’ to be is a natural reaction. However, as the story unfolds, it becomes far less simple than a matter of Evie’s humanity, especially when her actions cannot be attributed entirely to her being at risk. Is it wrong to expect anything that we create in our own image, yet expect to be controlled and subservient, to not display the darker features of human nature? Why should we be surprised that anything or anyone we treat poorly would want to fight back over the injustice of it all? Does her understanding that who she is is under threat not prove that she is human?

There’s a lot I’d like to talk about from the last third of the novel, but I don’t want to ruin it for anyone! The Actuality is brilliantly written and well-paced read that quickly grabs hold of you and won’t let go. Not only is it a fantastic look at what makes us human, but it’s a dark glimpse at what we stand to become and the dangers that exist in our society, particularly if you are a woman. It’s out in February, 2021! Thank you, Sandstone Press, for sending me an ARC!

Blog Tour: The Switch Up – LA Exchange by Katy Cannon

Blog Tour: The Switch Up – LA Exchange by Katy Cannon

Today is my stop on the blog tour for The Switch Up: LA Exchange, which is the sequel to The Switch Up by Katy Cannon! You can read my review of this fun and brilliant read for young adult and middle grade alike here! This morning, I have a post from Katy titled Summer 2020: A Guide for Introverts!

As an introvert, I have to admit that, on paper, that sounds pretty great.

But over the last few months of lockdown, even us introverts have learned there’s a limit to how much we actually want to stay home alone.

Last summer, I wrote a guide to surviving summer as an introvert. It was based around the idea that summertime is fun time – it’s parties and outings and holidays with the family and days with friends. Except this year it kind of isn’t.

So I figure we need a new summer guide for introverts, to help us navigate this new, weird summer we have ahead of us.

Here are my top 5 tips for summer 2020:

Accept that things are weird.

As the lockdown eases and the world starts opening up again over the next few months, it’s easy to get lulled into a false sense of security that things are getting back to normal. But they’re not, and it’s important to remember that – not just for our own physical health and safety (let’s not forget about social distancing now when we still desperately need it) but for our mental wellbeing too.

If we think that things are normal, we start telling ourselves that we should feel normal, too. But we’re actually still living through a hugely stressful time – one where our plans and expectations about the year have been tossed out of the window. Exams have been cancelled, schools closed, proms abandoned, birthdays celebrated without parties, holidays skipped and friends and family missed. Many of us have lost loved ones suddenly, and without a chance to say goodbye. And we’re all still living with a huge sense of uncertainty about what happens next. Will schools be open in September? Who knows. Can we go on holiday later in the year? Maybe. Will there be a vaccine? We hope so.

I don’t mention all this to stress you out, but because we’re all already stressed out. This stuff is stressful! Our bodies and minds are in a permanent state of uncertainty, and that takes its toll. So accept that things are weird, and be gentle on yourself. Do what you need to do to keep yourself balanced and well, and don’t feel bad about any of the stuff you need to say no to in order to get there.

Avoid Zoom Fatigue

One of the things you might need to say no to is your twentieth Zoom request of the week. While it’s important to stay in touch with friends and family on video calls, social media and so on, it’s just as important to take a break from it sometimes.

The rule is this: if you feel better and more energised after spending time talking to people, then that’s great! (Yes, I know that introverts usually recharge our energy by not talking to people, but even we like a bit of social interaction with the right people.) But if you feel drained and down after an online chat, then it’s not adding anything to your day.

Of course the problem is that you might not know how you’re going to feel about that virtual meet up or online pub quiz until after its happened. But you know yourself better than anyone, and now we’re all more used to this kind of interaction, we can better predict how we’re going to feel. So take a look at your virtual social calendar – and don’t forget to include any actual garden meet ups or socially distanced walks with friends – and triage it.

What are the things you really don’t want to miss? Your best friend’s virtual birthday party, for instance, or a walk with a friend you haven’t seen in months? What are the ‘nice to do’ items – a weekly quiz on Facebook or a cup of tea in the garden with your aunt who lives round the corner? And what are the ‘can miss’ items? Maybe the weekly zoom call for your drama group where everyone talks over each other anyway, or yet another video call with that friend who is so bored she insists on calling everyone daily?

Make sure you have energy for the most important items by keeping space around them in your calendar for recharging. Fit in all the nice to do items you can manage around that space. And if that looks like a full week, save the can miss items for a quieter week.

It’s okay to flake out on the virtual socialising that you don’t have energy for. It’s maybe harder now we can’t claim other plans, but honestly? You can just say ‘I can’t tonight, but maybe next week?’ That’s okay. (It’s also okay to just say no, if you never want to do it!)

Protect your energy. You need it more than people on the other end of a video call.

Keep a fun list

It’s easy to find ourselves scrolling through our Instagram feed for hours, or at the whim of someone else’s schedule, especially since our actual schedules are kind of empty right now. The best way I’ve found to combat this is to make a fun list.

It’s exactly what it sounds like – a list of fun things to do. It’s a present from your past self to your future self.

So sit down one afternoon and write a list of things future you might enjoy doing. The only catch is that it has to be specific to be useful. When you’re slumped on the sofa feeling like you should do something but not sure what, you need explicit instructions from your past self.

So instead of ‘read a book,’ put ‘read the next book in the series I’m enjoying’ or the title of a book from your TBR. Instead of ‘bake’ put ‘bake chocolate chip cookies.’ You get the idea. And make sure that you have that next book available, and the ingredients on hand. That way, when you’re looking for something else to do, it’s easy to pick something and get started.

Journal

Taking time to reflect on your thoughts and feelings, as well as events going on around you, is always time well spent. It helps you process your emotions, and deal with them in a healthier way than bottling them all up. At times like this, when the world is a worrying place, just writing down how that makes you feel can really help your mood.

Including a gratitude list is also a great idea. Each day, jot down three things that you’re grateful for. It can be anything – from the rain stopping, to eating your favourite dinner, to your loved ones being in your life. Focussing on the good things in our lives helps us remember that the world isn’t all bad.

Recharge

Even now things are starting up again, Britain is still a quieter place than it has been in decades. Our calendars are empty of actual social events, and the number of places we can go is severely limited. As introverts, this gives us a little breathing room. Use it. Recharge your batteries, enjoy your space, make the most of the quiet.

One day, hopefully soon, the world will be back to normal again, maybe even better than before. And if we recharge now, we can celebrate with our loved ones without feeling overwhelmed when the time comes.

Thank you very much, Katy! I know there’s some advice here that I definitely need to take, particularly when it comes to over-saturating zoom/media/messages and realising it’s okay to take a step back and not be available all the time because it’s assumed we’re all available in lockdown.

The Switch Up: LA Exchange is out on June 25th and is the perfect summer read! Check out the other stops on the blog tour by visiting the blogs of the lovely people on the schedule below! Thank you Little Tiger and Stripes Books for the chance to take part in the tour!

Review: The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix. E. Harrow

Review: The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix. E. Harrow

‘In the early 1900s, a young woman embarks on a fantastical journey of self-discovery after finding a mysterious book in this captivating and lyrical debut.

In a sprawling mansion filled with peculiar treasures, January Scaller is a curiosity herself. As the ward of the wealthy Mr. Locke, she feels little different from the artefacts that decorate the halls: carefully maintained, largely ignored, and utterly out of place.

Then she finds a strange book. A book that carries the scent of other worlds, and tells a tale of secret doors, of love, adventure and danger. Each page turn reveals impossible truths about the world and January discovers a story increasingly entwined with her own.’

This book was amazing. I had heard so many good things about it, so my expectations were high going in, and I’m pleased to say that I was in no way disappointed. I admit that I found the beginning a little bit slow, but as the clues as various pieces of the narrative that become much more significant later on begin to filter in, the pace soon picks up. This said, I was pretty much hooked from the start, as I’m a huge fan of anything that involves ancient artefacts, and had an awful feeling about why January was the lone child – and treated as she is – in such a place. The Ten Thousand Doors of January is such a magical and immersive book that it’s one you won’t want to end and will quite happily live in for the duration of your reading.

The story is of January Scaller, the ward of Mr Locke, who she knows to be involved in some variety of artefact procurement, for the father she rarely sees is an employee of his and often on trips to secure one object or another to be added to the already vast collection. January finds herself discontent with a life of loneliness and an odd brand of ‘parental’ affection from Mr Locke, who grows more dissatisfied with her as she ages and learns more and more to ask questions and speak out in ways society doesn’t appreciate from a girl – and especially not a girl quite so different as she is. She first discovers a Door (an opening between one world and another) in her early years, only for it to be deliberately destroyed and what she’s experienced dismissed as something fanciful that she must leave behind, the threat of what will happen to her made plain enough that she outwardly gives up on the idea of Doors, yet maintains her belief in and need for them until she is almost grown.

The Ten Thousand Doors of January is written as a story within a story (within a story?), and shifts between January’s threads of the narrative to a book that she has been gifted: the most important book that she will ever read. I don’t want to spoil it, as what’s discovered in and with the book is some of the most beautiful content. I love books that experiment with narrative structure and how to reveal significant information in not necessary a linear fashion, and this is exploited particularly well in The Ten Thousand Doors of January. There are other moments where direct address to the reader is used, particularly to ruminate on the nature of letters and words, and academic footnotes are added to book within a book in a charming manner, and it’s all these little features that work together to remind you that, yes, you are reading a book, but the book itself is another world that contains other worlds… The whole thing is essentially a love letter to words and language and the power they have. It’s just a stunning read, and though there’s so much I want to talk about, I’m trying really hard to avoid specific spoilers, as I don’t want to ruin anyone else’s experience of the book!

The paperback was released in the middle of May and also contains an interview with the author, Alix. E. Harrow, and ten questions for discussions at a reading group (if you have a group and you’re looking for a read with a vast wealth of features to discuss, this is certainly your book). I don’t often buy into the general experience of book ‘hangovers’, but it’s been days since I finished this and I still have lines from it running through my head. This is a text that I simultaneously wish were an option to study with students at A-Level and would never want to subject to such a variety of cold scrutiny; I both want to share The Ten Thousand Doors of January with as many as possible and to keep it to myself.

Thank you, Orbit Books, for sending me a copy for review!

Review: The Switch Up: LA Exchange by Katy Cannon

Review: The Switch Up: LA Exchange by Katy Cannon

‘WILLA

Film director

LA insider

Impulsive

Looks like Alice

ALICE

Eco warrior

LA tourist

Cautious

Looks like Willa

Alice can’t wait to visit Willa in LA – home of Hollywood, where dreams come true. Their plan is to explore the city and see the sights, but then Willa gets the opportunity to work on the film project of her dreams and she can’t say no! The only problem is she is absolutely 100% supposed to be taking part in a beach clean-up. Which, now she thinks of it, sounds pretty perfect for Alice… Can the girls really swap lives again? Cue plotting, outfit swapping and award-winning performances. But everyone knows that real life is nothing like the movies…’

Following on from the summer that had them switching lives, Alice and Willa have remained friends, as promised, and now Alice is headed to visit Willa. However, just before Alice arrives, Willa gets caught-up in her director dreams and inadvertently disrupts some exams at her new school with a flash mob, leading her to be assigned to work four hours a day at a beach clean-up so that she can learn to think about others. This in itself might have been okay, what with working at the Shore Thing seeming to be just what Alice would enjoy, but Willa has also managed to get herself a place working on a student film project that could finally get her noticed more than her fledgling Youtube channel is managing to achieve. Alice’s journey to LA has found her wishing she could be the person she feels she became when she was pretending to be Willa last summer, especially now that she is struggling to fit in at a new school and is growing increasingly lonely, and so it only takes a little bit of suggestion from Willa for her to suggest that they should switch places again: Alice will work at the beach, while Willa works on the film.

I felt quite conflicted about Willa for a lot of this book, I kept reminding myself that she is young and still very much at the age where the slightest of things not going your way can feel like a disaster and that everyone and the whole world is against you. There is an awful lot of pressure on young people to achieve while they are young, with the media in particular suggesting that success only happens in youth, and it being this field that Willa wants to work in – and having seen how it treats her parents – it is not surprising that she is so desperately focused on what she wants to achieve in film, often to the detriment of other things. Her treatment of Alice is what bothered me the most, as she is very, very late to realise that she is essentially using her and hasn’t demonstrated that she cares for her in the best way that she could. Yes, Alice is having fun and gets to have an adventure of her own, but Willa really does push her luck this time, and I was glad to see that Alice speaks up when she decides enough is enough.

Both the girls learn a lot about themselves in this instalment, though it seems that what Alice learns about what she wants from her life and what she needs to do is more consciously done (being that she already knows what she feels she wants to change), whereas Willa is more blinkered and needs others to point out how her behaviour is being perceived for her to fully realise how she has been treating people and why she isn’t immediately adored, appreciated and making the progress she wants. Alice’s experience almost feels more deserved, as she is the one pushing herself outside of her usual comfort zone and isn’t exactly having the holiday that she believed she would (though the beach clean-up is pretty perfect for her). The girls’ journeys are opposites in many respects: Alice’s to push herself beyond her worries, and Willa’s to stop taking that leap and think about those around her before she forges ahead.

Through text messages, we also get to hear from some of the characters from the first book, Hal and Luca, who are still chatting to who they met (as the other) previously. I loved these little insights and I hope that we get to see more of them in a future book (I assume the next will focus on the wedding of Alice’s dad and Mabel?) somehow. I really enjoyed Alice’s interaction with Luca and co and hope they get to see each other in person again. It would be nice to see how Alice settles into school and the new house.

The Switch Up: LA Exchange is the perfect summer read, full of fun schemes and adventures, while not abandoning deeper messages about friendship, family and dreams. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed this series for far and look forward to more! Thank you, Little Tiger/Stripes Books for sending me a copy!

Review: The Devil’s Own by Liana LeFey

Review: The Devil’s Own by Liana LeFey

‘Lord Devlin Wayward, gambler and dedicated rake, returns home for the first time in years, and lands himself and his identical twin, Daniel, the good reverend, in deep trouble. Devlin ends up with a broken leg and unable to travel to London, yet he must return. He’s got an important deal that will make or break his fortune. He persuades the reluctant reverend to take his place in London while he temporarily minds his brother’s flock.

Miss Mary Tomblin is taken with the devastatingly handsome reverend. He represents everything she desires in a husband, after narrowly evading a ruthless rake last Season. Mary knows she’ll make him an excellent wife, but the vicar rebuffs every advance – until he suddenly accepts her help with pastoral duties while his broken leg heals. Mary seizes the chance to show the good reverend what an excellent helpmeet she will be.

The devil takes on the role of village vicar and discovers it’s nowhere near as easy as he imagined—especially when he falls in love with an angel who mistakes him for a saint.’

This is only the second romance novel I’ve read, and I was intrigued by how exactly Devlin and Daniel were going to take over each other’s lives, and with what degree of success they might achieve this. The reader only sees Devlin’s side of the matter, as suggested by the blurb, though I was pleased to see it suggested that there is/is going to be a novel that looks at what happened to Daniel while in London. I think there are some perhaps some edits to be completed, as there are some odd jumps/things out of sequence in the early stages of the story.

What I enjoyed most in the book was the time that Devlin and Mary spent together visiting the parishioners, learning more about the community, each other and challenging each other’s views – though some of this is done in a manner designed deliberately to provoke and is not a genuine effort to learn more about the other, which Devlin inevitably regrets each time. Though it seems that it is ultimately Devlin’s nature that is changed by what he experiences, to my mind it is Mary who undergoes the more drastic alteration and gets to exercise and embrace her intelligence and compassion when not having previously been given much opportunity to do so. Her actions, much like Devlin’s, begin with the intent to benefit herself, but she goes on to take a genuine interest in people beyond her usual social sphere and seems to genuinely want to assist and befriend them for more than her desire to become the vicar’s wife. Her scenes with the people they visit are among the most heart-warming and I would have happily read more of them. It’s predominantly after these scenes that Devlin and Mary demonstrate that they are actually a good match for each other outside their deceptions, and I would have liked to read more of this too.

As I mentioned previously, this is only the second romance novel I’ve read, and perhaps my assumptions about them have largely been wrong, but I think I was expecting more actual romance in the plot? Devlin is certainly attracted to Mary and he seems to form a genuine attachment to her, though I was never quite sure if what Mary feels for him is love. I did like her character development, though there are moments when she appears unable to see consequences to her actions (having previously had a bad experience last season, which doesn’t quite make her behaviour towards Devlin make complete sense). They don’t get to spend very much time together in different environments, though this would be expected of the time period, and though there is one scene of physical intimacy, it is rather late in the story and it feels as if this is where the romance starts and essentially ends. As I’m not too familiar with the genre, I’m not completely sure what the particular hallmarks of it are, but I’m sure that there needs to be a measure of suspending disbelief, which I was happy to for the duration of the story. It is a good, escapist, tale, and the characters are easy to want positive things for.

To my mind, the lead up to the ending takes away from the enjoyment of the rest of the novel. There is an awful lot of – justified – ill-feeling in the last quarter of its pages and while I didn’t want everything sorted out nice and neatly, with no acknowledgement of what had happened before, the story concludes in a rather abrupt way, with the epilogue only making the briefest of suggestions as to how things might have unfolded since. I’m hoping that we might see more of these story threads in the aforementioned future instalment. This said, I did like the book (I read it cover to cover without putting it down) and would love to see more of these characters!

Thank you, Entangled Publishing, for the digital ARC!

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

Review: Gears for Queers by Abigail Melton and Lilith Cooper

Review: Gears for Queers by Abigail Melton and Lilith Cooper

‘Keen to see some of Europe, queer couple Lilith and Abigail get on their old bikes and start pedalling. Along flat fens and up Swiss Alps, they will meet new friends and exorcise old demons as they push their bodies – and their relationship – to the limit.’

Gears for Queers follows Lili and Abi as they travel across Europe on their bikes and charts the challenges that they encounter and overcome on their journey, whether they be mental health, differences of opinion, illness, the various language barriers, or the physical side of attempting to travel so far while carrying everything essential for day to day survival with them. They largely rely on campsites as places to stay, which don’t always turn out to places that seem as safe or comfortable as one might hope, and brave staying with strangers where necessary, which often opens up the question of how much of themselves and their relationship it is safe to be open about, knowing that there are those who may choose to judge them.

I read much of the book in one go, as I was enjoying following their journey through different countries, and particularly liked their travels through Germany, as I’m admittedly much more familiar with it than I am with the UK! At this time in particular, knowing that it is highly unlikely I will be returning to Germany in the near future, it was nice to read about someone else’s experiences with the country and culture. The incident with the fizzy water, which is most often the default, was one I could sympathise with, if not for quite as serious reasons as it impacts Abi. I’ve never been a fan of anything fizzy and detested fizzy water and drinks as a child (I’ve grown to tolerate them), and used to spend summers in Germany drinking apple juice as it was one of the only things available that wasn’t usually carbonated as standard.

What I found most refreshing about Gears for Queers is that it doesn’t shy away from the reality of the situations that Lili and Abi find themselves in. A good deal of books and the media like to suggest that to be in a relationship is to never disagree, argue or become frustrated with your partner, and while we get these insights into their relationship, we also get to see them move past disagreements and look after each other, even when they are struggling to look after themselves. Yes, they do snap and shout at each other when pushed to their limits, but they also understand themselves enough to show they care through gestures and other things when words are difficult, and, ultimately, they don’t give up on each other even they feel that they can’t go on. They find ways through and work out how to make adjustments to make things manageable, even when the urge may be just to keep going until the point of destruction. Their journey is presented in a manner true to their feelings as they experienced it, right down to their worries about being inferior travellers and cyclists compared to those who are sharing their own journeys on Instagram (which I think we all know we need to understand is a heavily edited environment). Their experience isn’t perfect, but it is real, and the reader gets a brutally honest look at mental health and the impact of the physical challenge of cycling so far, for so long, in an environment that isn’t home and very rarely feels ‘safe’. The issues that they face are not presented in a manner that focuses solely on the achievement of having met and overcome them, but in a way that does not sugar coat and focus on success: it is as much about what they endure and learn as anything else.

Gears for Queers is out on June 4th from Sandstone Press! If you’re looking for a read to take you on a journey during this time of lockdown, I really do recommend picking up a copy, primarily for its honest look at travel, identity, and mental and physical health. The book also includes some vegan recipes you could try out! Thank you, Sandstone Press, for sending me an ARC!

Blog Tour: People Like Us by Louise Fein

Blog Tour: People Like Us by Louise Fein

Leipzig, 1930s Germany.

Hetty Heinrich is a perfect German child. Her father is an SS officer, her brother in the Luftwaffe, herself a member of the BDM. She believes resolutely in her country, and the man who runs it.

Until Walter changes everything. Blond-haired, blue-eyed, perfect in every way Walter. The boy who saved her life. A Jew.

Anti-semitism is growing by the day, and neighbours, friends and family members are turning on one another. As Hetty falls deeper in love with a man who is against all she has been taught, she begins to fight against her country, her family and herself. Hetty will have to risk everything to save Walter, even if it means sacrificing herself…’

Today is my stop on the blog tour for People Like Us by Louise Fein, and I have a review to share! I read this cover to cover in an evening and simply couldn’t put it down. People Like Us is a haunting look at the rise of nationalism and the use of propaganda to manipulate society, something that should not be easily dismissed as a thing of the past, especially given the recent surge in nationalism across Europe, and the media’s ever more intrusive presence in our daily lives.

As a young girl, Hetty is saved from drowning by one of her brother’s friends, an act for which she is forever grateful and leads to her trusting him and harbouring a secret affection for him as she grows. In these early years, the propaganda spread against the Jewish community has yet to truly take hold, and Walter is a friend of the family, often at her home and someone who she attends school with, making her infatuation something that does not seem to too great an issue – until Hitler’s ideology and campaign against the Jews begins to pervade society. At first, Hetty does not understand why Walter is suddenly at her house so often and why her brother seems to no longer consider him a friend, her comprehension of the changes occurring in society somewhat limited and blinded by an encouraged love for Hitler. However, a day in school, where Walter is declared to be Jewish, brings everything she thought she knew about and felt for him into question – and by extension everything that she has been taught and made to believe about her place in the world and what is happening to her country.

One of the worst things to see in the story is how Hetty is brainwashed by propaganda and indoctrinated into an increasingly disturbing belief system, not least of which is her belief that Hitler is a god-figure, the picture in her bedroom treated as an idol that she prays to and imagines as a father figure that she feels she must obey and would be disappointed in her if she fails him in any way. As the Nazi ideology progressively invades almost every facet of her life, Hetty is encouraged more and more to believe as they do, unable to escape the onslaught that claims more and more of those around her, in turn influencing her own behaviour. At first, there is much she doesn’t understand about why she is being encouraged to treat others differently, and the moment that she bows to the pressure of her peers and the weight of the beliefs she is being forced to comply with is utterly awful and finds her openly mocking and behaving in a thoroughly offensive manner to some of her Jewish neighbours. In her youth, Hetty’s belief in the propaganda spread by the Nazis is only encouraged by her father’s status within the order – how can the awful suggestions spread by the Nazis be bad when the father she loves believes them? And when her mother and brother support them too? And when her friends all want to participate in the clubs and societies created for children?

The scene I have to say that I found most horrifying and uncomfortable to read is the moment where the teacher of Hetty’s class brings a Jewish girl and boy to the front of the class and spends time detailing everything about them that he believes makes them inferior to his own ‘pure’ German race. The worst of it is knowing that this sort of thing did happen, and both children are thoroughly dehumanised and treated like animals in-front of peers who are encouraged by someone who is supposed to be a ‘responsible’ adult to demean them and consider them sub-human. They are singled out solely based on their faith and painted as an entirely different species, not considered worthy of basic human decency and kindness, and assessed like livestock. Hetty is disturbed by what the teacher chooses to do, yet she is also shocked at the fact that Walter – who is blonde and blue eyed – is one of the people that she is being taught to despise and look down on, both because he doesn’t physically meet the ‘specifications’ she is being told to look out for, and because she believes that he cannot possibly be capable of all that she is being told the Jews are and are doing.

I don’t want to give away spoilers, so I mean to avoid discussing specific points in the latter half of the narrative, but I do want to speak for a moment about the structure of the novel and the use of time. People Like Us doesn’t focus on any one particular year in the rise of the Third Reich, but lingers on formative instances of Hetty’s childhood and her life as a young woman, spending months in different years across a decade. The pacing and structure created by this use of time is incredibly effective in demonstrating the gradual stranglehold of Hitler’s ideology and its effects on the attitude, beliefs and behaviour of German society, the time spent with the characters long enough in each moment to get to know them, while simultaneously being broad enough over all to demonstrate the alterations in their behaviour and the impact that the world they are living in has on who they are.

Thank you, Head of Zeus, for the ARC of People Like Us, and for the opportunity to be part of the tour!

Review: Here Lie the Secrets by Emma Young

Review: Here Lie the Secrets by Emma Young

‘Mia’s best friend Holly died when they were thirteen. But years later, Holly still hasn’t left her.

Spending the summer in New York, Mia is hoping to escape the visions of Holly that haunt her life at home. There she meets Rav, a parapsychology student, who convinces her to take part in a study into why some people see ghosts. Soon she is caught up in the investigation of Halcyon House, which is reputed to be haunted by a poltergeist. As Mia confronts her fears, what she learns about the house and herself will change her life forever.’

Here Lie the Secrets opens with Mia, still trying to heal following the death of her best friend, Holly, experiencing what she believes to be a haunting by her, something that she has endured before, with ever more increasing emphasis on Holly’s disapproval and disappointment in her, to the extent that what she thinks Holly would believe and want has gained no small measure of control over her every day life. When she has the opportunity to spend the summer in New York, she takes it as her chance to escape familiar surroundings, and, hopefully, Holly’s presence and judgement of her.

The novel is an enjoyable one, particularly in how it explores the differing beliefs surrounding ghosts and the afterlife, looking at them from a scientific angle and the matter of the heart and mind – taking into consideration that the mind is a powerful thing, capable of that which we still don’t have extensive scientific answers for. When she arrives in New York, she meets Rav, who focuses on the study of paranormal phenomena, and when she is asked whether she believes in ghosts, she declares a very definite ‘no’ on more than one occasion, determined not to let her visions of Holly become something widely known or claim even more control over her life. However, she is soon brought into the world of Rav’s studies, and though she is an adult, it feels a little as if the group of academics and researchers are taking advantage of her for their own gains in a way that becomes quite unsettling as the narrative unfolds. This may be because we, the reader, know much more about Mia’s history, experiences, and the guilt that is tormenting her than the people who encourage her to take a central role in their exploration of Halcyon House, a property considered to be haunted by spirits responsible for the death of a child.

I particularly like stories that look at features of memory and the mind, which Here Lie the Secrets ties into examination of Mia’s grief and her need to resolve what she has experienced in an effort to move on with her life. She has kept the visions of Holly a secret from nearly everyone, afraid of what seeing a ‘ghost’ means for her and frightened that Holly’s hauntings are all too real and condemnation of what happened before her death. Mia denies that she believes in ghosts partly because facing the idea of Holly’s presence being real is almost as frightening as considering what it means for her mental state. Not only owing to that, but because of her fear of others condemning her for believing in something that many dismiss as impossible. Her work with Rav’s group allows her to examine what she considers to be plausible and not in terms of her own experience and that of others, and in uncovering the truths of what happened at Halcyon House learns more of human nature and the mind’s desire to protect itself from what it cannot face. Though the investigation is ostensibly concerned with whether the house is truly haunted, what happens during the study ultimately reveals more about the darker sides of those fuelled by guilt and ambition, and what they are willing to let others believe to make matters easier for them to bear.

The area of paranormal studies is one that I don’t know too much about, and I enjoyed learning more about the academic side of the subject over the course of the story. Here Lie the Secrets is a well-paced and engaging read that handles its subject material sensitively while providing a suspenseful narrative and a protagonist who is easy to empathise with and want a positive resolution for. Thank you, Little Tiger Books, for sending me an early copy for review! Here Lie the Secrets is out on June 25th!

Review: Valentine by Elizabeth Wetmore

Review: Valentine by Elizabeth Wetmore

‘Mercy is hard in a place like this…

It’s February 1976, and Odessa, Texas, stands on the cusp of the next great oil boom. While the town’s men embrace the coming prosperity, its women intimately know and fear the violence that always seems to follow.

In the early hours of the morning after Valentine’s Day, fourteen-year-old Gloria Ramírez appears on the front porch of Mary Rose Whitehead’s ranch house, broken and barely alive. The teenager had been viciously attacked in a nearby oil field—an act of brutality that is tried in the churches and barrooms of Odessa before it can reach a court of law. When justice is evasive, the stage is set for a showdown with potentially devastating consequences.’

Valentine opens from the perspective of Gloria Ramírez, in the wake of a brutal attack and rape that she has finally managed to escape from, following a night of torture that has left her severely injured and with both physical and mental scars. She immediately makes the decision to take what control she can back from that which her attacker has stolen from her, deciding to cast off the name he has forever ruined for her and rename herself Glory, trying to distance herself from the experience and reclaim her own power. The first place she sees that could be one of refuge turns out to be the home of Mary Rose, whose actions in the wake of discovering the girl on her doorstep are destined to haunt her.

The novel follows the stories of Glory, Mary Rose, and other women within the Odessa community, and how almost everything about their lives is controlled by their husbands and other men within society, to the extent that they have next to no control over their own bodies, and nor are they ‘allowed’ to support other women in difficult situations or speak out with their own thoughts and ideas. The men consider a woman’s place to be in the home and serving their every need – and one of the worst things (if not the worst) of all of it is their perception that a fourteen year old child can be considered a grown woman, thereby making any crime committed against her perfectly acceptable. Not only this, but Glory’s race is used to further dehumanise her and paint her as responsible for what occurred, no matter the fact that she was so seriously injured as to need extensive surgery. The women of Odessa are desperate to escape the cycle of adolescent pregnancy, marriage and violence, but find that mental, physical and societal manipulation and abuse keeps them from breaking free and speaking out.

In deciding to testify in court against Glory’s rapist, Mary Rose finds herself the target of intimidation and slander from the community. She receives a daily barrage of threatening phone calls, where men state their intent to beat and rape her if she testifies, and her own husband adamantly refuses to support her, claiming that she should never have tried to protect Glory in the first place. Where she might have found support from other women, she largely finds only contempt, despite their shared experiences of being a woman of this era, many too frightened of and indoctrinated into a blame culture by their husbands that they cannot offer Mary Rose anything but derogatory commentary for the sake of their own safety. In Odessa, women are not people. They are wives and objects and property; to be seen and not heard. Corrine, who has perhaps begun to escape that world, being an older woman who is (not all too successfully) navigating the grief of losing her husband, becomes an eventual source of support, both for Mary Rose and for a young Debra Ann, whose mother has left her with a father unable to do much by way of caring for her, and is set on making a new life for herself and retrieving her daughter from Odessa as soon as she can.

The eventual court scene is one that I found made me so angry that I had to put the book down and come back to it, because how Mary Rose is treated by the judge and those in the courtroom is so infuriating and so unflinchingly true to the female experience when it’s a woman’s word against a man’s that it was awful to look at where we are today and see that this still goes on; that we like to think we have made progress, but women are still belittled and taunted and not believed in cases such as this. Mary Rose is repeatedly told, in a mocking manner played for laughs by the judge, to moderate her behaviour, to not use ‘bad’ language or that which bluntly addresses what has happened, and to ultimately behave in a way that is less outspoken, more demure and more acceptable by men. He does not want to hear her tell the truth simply because she is speaking out against a man – a man that he has decided has done nothing wrong just by dint of his being male. The whole scene brilliantly conveys Mary Rose’s frustration and highlights the foul nature of the men’s belief in a woman’s place, role, and lack of rights of speech, the judge perfectly content to turn events into a story that fit his narrative.

Valentine is a raw and powerful book, out on June 11th in hardback in the UK. It is an absolutely brilliant and haunting novel, and though it is not always an easy read, I believe it is one that should be read for the issues it highlights and the narrative it explores. Highly recommended. Thank you, 4th Estate Books, for sending me a proof copy!

Bookstagram Tour: Incendiary by Zoraida Córdova

Bookstagram Tour: Incendiary by Zoraida Córdova

‘An epic tale of love and revenge set in a world inspired by Inquisition-era Spain pits the magical Moria against a terrifying royal authority bent on their destruction.

When the royal family of Selvina sets out to destroy magic through a grand and terrible inquisition, magic warrior-thief Renata – trained in the art of stealing memories-seeks to kill the prince, leader of the King’s Justice, only to learn through powerful memories that he may be the greatest illusion of them all … and that the fate of all magic now lies in her hands.’

Today is day three of the Bookstagram Tour for the brilliant new YA book, Incendiary, by Zoraida Córdova, and I have a review to share that focuses on my favourite features of the novel: memory, manipulation and the mind.

Incendiary follows Renata, who works as a rebel spy against the crown that used to use her for its own means, and has the ability to steal memories from others, both in a way that can be used to aide those suffering from painful recollections, and in a manner that can be absolutely devastating to the person whose mind she touches. Her people, the Moria, have been all but wiped out, something that she has had a hand in and means that many in the rebel network are unwilling to trust or forgive her, but Renata is determined to prove herself as a member of the Whispers, to protect those she has grown to care for and to whom she believes she owes a debt. Unfortunately for her, this leads her on a path back to the life she thought she had been freed from, and a need to play a game that, in her youth, she was unaware she was a part of.

What I found most interesting about Incendiary was the way in which it deals with the concepts of conditioning and guilt. Mendez plays at being a father to Renata when she is young, attempting to ease his own hurts by treating her in a way that he sees as kind and carries the additional merit of conditioning her to trust him and believe that what she is doing serves a good and true purpose. He uses the innocence of her youth against her own people, claiming that the use of her powers for his own intent is only ‘lessons’ and giving her rewards when she is unwittingly successful in finding new information and eliminating threats to the crown, making her believe that she is being good and useful by way of bribes of sweets and affection. Renata has locked much of the worst of this, and her own childhood, away, and of all that she has ever done is something that she cannot make peace with, even knowing how she was manipulated and that a child in her situation could not possibly hope to understand the broader picture of what was happening or resist as she wishes she had done. Mendez’s treatment and exploitation of the child she was is disturbing, only his own potential gains considered and not Renata as an actual human being. He may supposedly treat her ‘kindly’, praise her and make sure that she has a comfortable life, but he is ultimately using her as a weapon – an object – without any consideration of how she may grow to feel about what she is doing. Had he managed to keep her, I imagine his intention would have been to keep her in a state of perpetual ignorance by ensuring she has nothing to concern her or anything to want for.

Renata’s issues with her own memories and those of her dealing with the recollections of others may be rooted in the fantasy elements of the story and in the use of her powers, but I enjoyed the broader look at the concept of memory itself and what it means to us. It was when studying Classical literature and philosophies that I remember first being asked to consider memory in a less trustworthy way than I had before, in that it cannot be denied that what we think we remember is ultimately not, in-fact, exactly what happened, for what we recall is coloured by the experiences we have had since that moment. Not only that, but what we believe to have happened or think we know is influenced by the world around us and what we are encouraged to think. I liked that there is something of this in Renata’s struggles, her understanding of what she sees never quite trustworthy because of a more magical manipulation, but also because she has been treated a particular way and told certain things. Not only this, but there is the all too human element of inadvertently trying to shield herself from her own painful memories.

I loved the idea of the Moria and their gifts, and that we get to see how they use the different powers of their minds to protect each other and to go on the offensive when necessary, including how they might work together and complement each other to achieve a goal. For me, this feature of the story was particularly interesting because it is imperative that the Whispers work together, yet the gifts that they have open up a whole realm of potential for mistrust, as when you have people who can steal your memories, fool your eyes and manipulate your feelings among you, how can you ever trust that what you’re experiencing is real? Each of their gifts has the potential to be used for healing and for hindering, and it’s entirely down to the whims of the gifted person as to what it becomes. Having magical powers of some variety is not uncommon in YA literature, but I felt that how they should or should not be used was particularly well explored in Incendiary, perhaps because our minds are something that we most fear someone manipulating.

Incendiary was released yesterday! Thank you, Hodderscape, for the ARC, finished copy, and the opportunity to be part of today’s event!