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Author: Pythia

Review: Little Eyes by Samanta Schweblin

Review: Little Eyes by Samanta Schweblin

‘They’ve infiltrated homes in Hong Kong, shops in Vancouver, the streets of Sierra Leone, town squares of Oaxaca, schools in Tel Aviv, bedrooms in Indiana.

They’re not pets, nor ghosts, nor robots. They’re real people, but how can a person living in Berlin walk freely through the living room of someone in Sydney? How can someone in Bangkok have breakfast with your children in Buenos Aires, without you knowing? Especially when these people are completely anonymous, unknown, untraceable.’

Little Eyes follows the lives of a handful (out of thousands, if not millions) of people across the world who have, for various reasons, either purchased a kentuki or bought a code that will let them inhabit a kentuki in a stranger’s home (some of those involved in the main narrative also receive these things from friends and family members, rather than directly involving themselves out of their own curiosity). Kentukis are made to look like toys and contain a camera and audio equipment encased in the seemingly harmless form of one of a selection of fluffy creatures, from bunnies and birds, to dragons. By inhabiting a kentuki, a user gets to control the device within the home the person who has purchased it, letting them move around the house, follow its inhabitants and both listen in on and watch events unfolding in other people’s lives. The limitations to the kentuki primarily involve power usage, meaning if the device runs out of power and is not charged, the connection between kentuki and user is permanently severed and neither component of the relationship can be reactivated, but the kentuki can also be easily stymied by trapping it in places and ensuring it cannot escape to charge or spy on events people don’t want it witnessing.

There are many threads of the narrative that would be ruined were I to refer to specific characters and events and, as much of Little Eyes hinges on expertly crafted tension and suspense, I don’t want to ruin it for other readers, so it’s my intention to avoid referring to anything too closely and instead comment on the issues that the novel explores and addresses. I simply couldn’t put the book down and I don’t want to ruin the reading experience for anyone else.

The kentukis themselves are not cheap to purchase, and as a one use item rendered useless if the connection with its user fails or is cut one way or another, that it’s suggested that people are willing to simply buy more or spend the money simply to satisfy their curiosity speaks volumes about the power of advertising and consumer culture in the world in which we live. Much of social media exists to satisfy our curiosity about other people’s lives and share an idealised version of our own, and the kentukis are something that it feels we are not even whole steps away from. One of the features that the world of Little Eyes seems to find exciting is the random nature of inhabiting a kentuki, in that the code you activate could link to anyone in the world for any length of time, from minutes to weeks, making it feel rather like the same variety of gambling that online loot box and mystery box systems aim to draw people into.

Many of the characters demonstrate either a lack of understanding of what threats they are opening themselves up to in the purchase of a kentuki, or seem to decide that being able to say that they are involved in the craze sweeping across the world is worth the risk of letting a stranger into their home. One of the most worrying features of the story is how many people buy them for their children, believing them to be nothing more than an advanced toy, and don’t appear to grasp that they are letting someone see almost every facet of their children’s lives, including incredibly personal information that sets them up to be located and potentially abducted, let alone the horrifying potential for viewing inappropriate material regarding minors. It’s all too easy to identify the dangers of the kentuki devices as you read and grow more and more disturbed by everything that their existence inflicts on those who own and inhabit them, but the fact is that the kentukis are truly not that different to what many of us have in our homes, from webcams to home hubs and children’s toys filled with technology that allows tracking and monitoring. It’s a little bit late to be perturbed by the idea of the kentuki when they’re essentially already in our homes – the difference being we are supposed to implicitly trust the companies collecting our data, listening to our conversations and controlling our devices. The irony that I always cover my webcam, but have a home hub in my living room has long not been lost on me.

Something else the story highlights in a rather frightening fashion is the lack of understanding of the importance of privacy and a disturbing willingness to engage with technology as if what they are sharing has no potential to go any further than their homes. Many regard the kentukis as a novelty and don’t appear to swiftly grasp that there is an actual human being controlling it, who is, in many instances, inadvertently given all of the information they need to exploit the person to which the kentuki belongs. Intimate details are shared with an ease that makes the reader flinch, from contact information to nudity, often completely bypassing any comprehension that what you share online has the potential to be shared beyond its intended audience; that when you share something, you lose control over its distribution and audience.

Little Eyes is a brilliant novel that grabs hold of you and won’t let go, haunting in its similarities to our own world and a deeply unsettling exploration of our relationship with technology and the media. It isn’t that the kentukis are a frightening concept; it’s that they’re already in our homes under different guises. Little Eyes is out on April 16th! Thank you, One World Publications, for sending me a copy!

Review: Cursed (Twenty Timeless Folk Tales)

Review: Cursed (Twenty Timeless Folk Tales)

‘ALL THE BETTER TO READ YOU WITH

It’s a prick of blood, the bite of an apple, the evil eye, a wedding ring or a pair of red shoes. Curses come in all shapes and sizes, and they can happen to anyone, not just those of us with unpopular stepparents…

Here you’ll find unique twists on curses, from fairy tale classics to brand-new hexes of the modern world – expect new monsters and mythologies as well as twists on well-loved fables. Stories to shock and stories of warning, stories of monsters and stories of magic.’

This collection of twists on folk and fairytales is an absolute joy to read. I’d intended to read one or two of the stories and save the rest… All I can say is that that didn’t happen. Fairytales and folktales are some of my favourite things, particularly because of the cultural features and inbuilt messages from the times and societies in which they were written, and I absolutely love reading new interpretations and twists on stories that may be timeless in terms of their entertainment factor, but perhaps not so morally relevant now (for example, a princess waiting around for a prince to save her is no longer a particularly positive message for young girls) and what nuances within the tale can be tweaked to make it an entirely different story with a new message. I was thrilled to see another collection of this sort from Titan, having previous read Hex Life (twists on tales of magic and witchery) and adored it.

I’m going to stick to commentary about two of my favourite stories from Cursed, the first being As Red as Blood, as White as Snow by Christina Henry. This tale is based on Snow White and subverts the expectation that the Prince is indeed charming and the stepmother is evil. In this instance, Snow’s stepmother does everything that she can to try and protect her and give her a chance to survive her impending marriage to a prince who intends to claim her by whatever means necessary, having manipulated her father by enchantment and played the court into believing his dangerous obsession is devotion. There is a whole realm of terror in the simple sentence, “I see the way he looks at me.” The Prince starts out by using her engagement ring, a ruby, something designed to be beautiful, as a means of spying on her, having the ring quite literally bite into her skin so that she cannot shake free of his monitoring, and his determination to keep her entirely under his control and to do as he wishes only grows from there. In marrying her, the Prince sees her as nothing more than his possession and is set on her being obedient to his needs, which at first seem threatening enough in its sexual nature, but soon turns to something even darker. However, if one is to interpret the tale as a metaphor, this too signals abuse of power and manipulation of women, stealing their ‘hearts’ and casting them aside, dehumanising them and taking their agency. One of the things I enjoyed most about this story was Snow and the Queen working together and clearly caring for one another in a tale that, in most retellings, is still determined to cast her stepmother as evil and not take the opportunity of having women side together and not perceive each other to be a threat.

One of the other stories that I found especially effective is a retelling of Peter Pan, entitled Wendy, Darling, by Christopher Golden. In this tale, the features of the Peter Pan story are translated into a ‘real world’ scenario, in which Wendy has what her father and medical professionals have told her are mad delusions; visions of the Lost Boys who accuse her of forgetting them and abandoning them when she should have been their mother. On the eve of her wedding, Wendy sees the Lost Boys again, who prompt her to remember what she has tried to forget and move on from, which is heavily implied to be a childhood rape by a boy named James, nicknamed ‘Hook’ for his work at the butcher’s. Reality and her visions blur together on her wedding day, when boys others can see turn up and accuse her of being a bad mother, and from there the trauma that may well have triggered her delusions is unveiled. My assumption here is that either there are tales of Wendy passed among orphaned boys, based on what was originally witnessed years ago – that Wendy, in her shame and desperation, drowned her newborn child in the Thames – or her delusions take complete command of her own reality and no-one truly sees the children. Her parents have been utterly unwilling to support her or to believe what has happened, each of them leaving her to keep her ‘secret’ with the help of her brothers, until her guilt finally overwhelms her and her visions reach a peak that has her drowning herself in the same river that she felt was her only option nearly a decade ago. Her child, Peter, is the boy who never grew up; the boy who never got a chance to. Despicable though the behaviour of Wendy’s parents may be (I honestly don’t know whether I find her mother’s denial of the whole situation or her father’s determination to ‘fix’ her and marry her off worse), it is horribly in keeping for the time period in which it is set, in which a girl’s purity and marriage prospects are held above all else. This Wendy’s story is a tragedy, her trauma willingly mistaken for ‘fanciful stories’.

Cursed is a brilliant collection, out March 6th, and one I can’t recommend enough! Thank you, Titan Books, for sending me a copy!

Review: Marram by Leonie Charlton

Review: Marram by Leonie Charlton

‘From the southern tip of Barra to the ancient stone circle of Callanish, Leonie and her friend Shuna ride off the beaten tracks on their beloved Highland ponies, Ross and Chief. In deeply poetic prose, she describes not only the beauties of the Hebridean landscape, its spare, penetrating light and its people, but also confronts the ghost of her mother and their deeply fractured relationship.’

Marram follows Charlton’s twenty-one day journey through the Outer Hebrides, a journey she undertakes with her friend Shuna and two ponies, Ross and Chief, the first of the ponies ridden by Charlton and the latter by her friend. It’s not only a reflection on the travel they undertake and the intentions behind the journey, but on her troubled relationship with her mother, her youth, and the kindness extended towards her by the people they encounter. One of the things that struck me most about the events that unfold is the welcoming nature and affection of those who aid Charlton and Shuna as they make their way through the beautiful, if sometimes unkind landscape of the Hebrides, and the generosity and willingness of these individuals to assist them whether with shelter, goods or recommendations for time well spent, and the openness of their companionship and what they share of their own lives.

The writing is beautifully and elegantly descriptive, bringing to life the wonderful sights as the journey unfolds, while never straying too far from the emotional impact that the experience has on Charlton, nor suggesting that there is only beauty to be found in what can and does become a harsh and threatening environment in its raw and lonely nature. The events of the journey are interspersed with memories of her relationship with her mother, from the last months of her mother’s life and too early passing, to moments from her youth and adolescence. These moments are not charted in chronological order because Charlton’s experience serves to highlight to all of us that grief is an unpredictable thing that is beyond our control and will not be held to logic or reason. Her attempts to apply some elements of reason and question her past self with the knowledge of what she has experienced in the time that has passed since her mother’s death is something familiar to anyone who has suffered through the loss of a loved one and struggled to come to terms with regrets and the longing for understandings that will never be uncovered. Her description of her mother’s deterioration and her wonderings about how she must have felt are some of the most poignant moments of the recounting of her journey, the experience of helplessly observing the inevitable captured in so accurate a way in words that I’ll admit I did have the put the book down a couple of times and try to put my own thoughts aside. This is not a detraction in any way, but quite the opposite: if a reader has to get some space from what they’re experiencing, then I believe an author has done nothing but the most effective of jobs of conveying the human experience.

On her journey, Charlton brings with her a purse of beads, planning to tie and leave a series of beads in different spots in memory of her mother, one of her enduring memories of her being her work with them and turning them into something beautiful. In locations where she recalls her mother particularly strongly, or believes she would have loved, she seeks to select some appropriate beads from the purse and leave them there, either to be eventually torn free by the wind and elements or simply to drift from where she has placed them, creating an ever-changing ‘necklace’ across the islands in her memory. The selecting of the beads, paying attention to their shape, colour and other features, becomes a ritual that brings the journey together and becomes another way of not only acknowledging her mother, but of letting go and taking another step towards acceptance of the past. There’s a comment early in the novel to the effect of the necklace changing shape as time and the elements impact the locations of the beads, which is something that has also struck me as particularly closely representative of how feelings, and even memories themselves, will never stay static as we go on to have further experiences.

Marram is out on March 19th and is a wonderful read that I enjoyed a great deal. Thank you very much to Sandstone Press for sending me a copy for review!

Review: Wilder Girls by Rory Power

Review: Wilder Girls by Rory Power

‘Everyone loses something to the Tox; Hetty lost her eye, Reese’s hand has changed, and Byatt just disappeared completely.

It’s been eighteen months since the Raxter School for Girls was put in quarantine. The Tox turned the students strange and savage, the teachers died off one by one. Cut off from the mainland, the girls don’t dare wander past the school’s fence where the Tox has made the woods wild and dangerous. They wait for the cure as the Tox takes; their bodies becoming sick and foreign, things bursting out of them, bits missing.

But when Byatt goes missing, Hetty will do anything to find her best friend, even if it means breaking quarantine and braving the horrors that lie in the wilderness past the fence. As she digs deeper, she learns disturbing truths about her school and what else is living on Raxter Island. And that the cure might not be a cure at all…’

Firstly, I feel I should say that horror really isn’t my thing, but I’d heard good things about Wilder Girls and wanted to give it a read. This said, that horror really isn’t something that I particularly enjoy reading did colour my experience of the book and is probably one of the biggest reasons why I’m not terribly sure about it. On the one hand, I think it is written well in terms of the exploitation of language and structure, being that the sentence structures appear to follow a more abrupt train of instinct and thought, yet the overall pacing and arc is something that left me quite confused.

I may be completely misinterpreting the suggestions behind the Tox, especially as there is no clear evidence in the narrative that this was the definite intention (particularly as the Tox can be passed from women and to the general population/other creatures/etc), but my first inferences about it were that it was being used as a literary device – an extended metaphor, as it were – to scorn the long-held male belief that, in going through puberty and becoming women, girls become unpredictable and dangerous, akin to witches. This may well be my studies of Classical literature colouring my perception of the novel, but the emphasis on the Tox only impacting girls when they go through puberty and has fewer effects on women post-menopause seemed to go hand in hand with the Ancient Greek suggestion that young women are a threat, not to be trusted and possessed of something like magical powers. In the Tox being something that twists and turns the girls into unrecognisable creatures, in some cases, appeared to me to be mocking the idea that this is what men accuse women of being, often blaming our hormones when we behave in ways they don’t like, but, as said, I’m not sure that this interpretation holds too much merit, as there seems to be no definite conclusion about the links between puberty and the Tox, given that it’s also said to have been adapting the other flora and fauna (and also completely transforms more than one male character).

Wilder Girls is told from the point of view of Hetty, then her friend Byatt, who is subject to medical testing to explore the effects of the Tox (whether there are attempts to find a cure are truly debatable, given what happens to her). The girls’ school is surrounded by woods, the quarantine and fear of the forest things that are reminiscent of ‘Never Let Me Go’, especially in the dehumanisation of the girls by those who are supposed to be attempting to help them and the behaviour of the headmistress. Struggling to survive on what little they are sent, the girls have tried to continue to maintain some semblance of order, yet, as it to be expected, the social hierarchy determines much of their day to day lives, and they are not beyond physically fighting to get what they want when necessary, the lines between the desire to survive and wish to keep loved ones alive blurring unpredictably with no-one but themselves to enforce order (the remaining adults more or less leave them to govern themselves, beyond manipulating the hierarchy for their own means).

In my opinion, the reader doesn’t particularly get to know either Hetty or Byatt very well, which is one of the reasons I felt that I wasn’t entirely sure of motivations or what drives them. It becomes evident quite early on, by her own admission, that Byatt is an unreliable narrator and cannot be trusted to believe even her own feelings or intent, and while this serves to further distance the reader, her experiences are not something that fail to elicit sympathy. Hetty’s determination to find Byatt and understand the truth of what is going on in the world beyond the school and what, if anything, is being done to help them, is admirable, her determination and lack of forethought or specific planning exactly what one might expect of a young person pushed to the edge and set on surviving when everything that they can depend on has proven itself unreliable and turned its back.

Wilder Girls is a good read with a frightening premise, but, for me, the Tox itself wasn’t the most horrifying feature of the narrative. In its examination of what we’re willing to do to survive and steps we could take against other humans to protect ourselves, I feel it was all the more haunting. Thank you, Macmillan Children’s Books, for the copy to review!

Review: Thorn by Intisar Khanani

Review: Thorn by Intisar Khanani

‘A princess with two futures. A destiny all her own

Between her cruel family and the contempt she faces at court, Princess Alyrra has always longed to escape the confines of her royal life. But when she’s betrothed to the powerful prince Kestrin, Alyrra embarks on a journey to his land with little hope for a better future.

When a mysterious and terrifying sorceress robs Alyrra of both her identity and her role as princess, Alyrra seizes the opportunity to start a new life for herself as a goose girl.

But Alyrra soon finds that Kestrin is not what she expected. The more Alyrra learns of this new kingdom, the pain and suffering its people endure, as well as the danger facing Kestrin from the sorceress herself, the more she knows she can’t remain the goose girl forever.

With the fate of the kingdom at stake, Alyrra is caught between two worlds and ultimately must decide who she is, and what she stands for.’

Thorn is a loose retelling of the Goose Girl Fairytale and one that I enjoyed immensely. The story introduces the reader to Alyrra, who finds herself at the mercy of her cruel brother’s physical and verbal attacks, while her mother scorns her and quite contentedly ignores any harm that comes to her. To her mother, Alyrra’s only use is as a political pawn, and even then she cannot understand that anyone would truly want her, and between the mental games of her sibling and parent, she may be somewhat glad to be free of them, but has no expectation of finding anything more promising in being married off to a prince who hasn’t even visited to set eyes on her. On the journey to this new land, she is accompanied by a girl she has previously called out for theft, with instructions that she is to find her a husband. However, the girl, Valka, is not content with this, and has made a deal with a powerful sorceress to take Alyrra’s place, quite literally transforming herself into the princess and Alyrra into her.

Valka further conspires to have Alyrra fall further from grace and encourages the prince’s father to find her some work away from her, leaving her with the job of tending for the geese and cleaning out their lodgings. It’s a job that Alyrra doesn’t outright object to and slowly grows accustomed to, finding a sense of achievement in her daily life and finally making real connections with the people around her. Of this particular stretch of the narrative, I especially liked that it’s acknowledged that there’s a language barrier and that not everyone in the world speaks the same language. Alyrra has to make efforts to learn enough to communicate, and it’s through some miscommunications that she ends up being renamed Thorn. I love it when novels feature found family, and was pleased to read that this an experience that Alyrra/Thorn (Thorn from now on!) has, considering her horrific experiences with her own blood. She finds herself with people (with a couple of notable exceptions) who care for each other and do what they can to be supportive and ensure that everyone has what they need, which is everything that she’s been missing from her previous home life. She has to work much harder, but she appears to find satisfaction in it, and in finally getting to experience a world outside of life as royalty, she finally gets to see the disparity between the lives of the poor and that of the higher classes. Her suffering may have been of a different sort to theirs, yet this is one of the things that helps her to empathise with the plight of the poor and leads her to try and see to it that the children she meets get to have better lives and opportunities, which bodes well for what she would do if she truly had the power to change things.

I don’t want to discuss the more magical elements of the plot in too much detail, as they’re key to a lot of the reveals and I don’t want to spoil the story! What I will stick with saying is that I really loved how the different features of the Goose Girl story were woven into this retelling (and I adore a good, convincing retelling that still manages to be all its own tale). What I’ll say a little bit about instead is Thorn’s character development over the course of the novel because, in my opinion, this was one of the standout features of the book. At the opening of the story, it’s as if she’s crammed everything that she has the potential to be into a small corner of herself where it won’t be noticed and she can’t give anyone more reason to look her way and inflict harm. Taken away from those who would hurt her and introduced to the real world – and one where she doesn’t know the language or customs – she gradually gains the courage to stand up for what she believes in and become not who she could have been, but who she wants to be. In Thorn’s case, I think the unfamiliarity of the world around her and the language barrier work in her favour, for they force her to adapt and stop her from potentially falling back on old habits. I would very happily read more tales about Thorn and I hope this isn’t the last we see of her.

Thorn is out 24th March! Thank you to Hot Key Books for sending me a copy for review!

Blog Tour: Sofa Surfer by Malcolm Duffy

Blog Tour: Sofa Surfer by Malcolm Duffy

‘15-year-old Tyler’s teenage angst turns to outright rebellion when his family leave London for a new life in Yorkshire. He’s angry with his parents about the upheaval and furious at losing his home. With only the dog to confide in, Tyler has no idea that a chance meeting with a skinny girl called Spider will lead him into a world he never even knew existed. Spider is sofa surfing and Tyler finds himself spinning a tangled web of lies in his efforts to help her escape her world of fear and insecurity.

Sofa Surfer shows how empathy and action can help those without a home to go to. As with his widely praised debut Me Mam. Me Dad. Me., Malcolm Duffy finds humour and heart even in dire situations. Relevant, warm and rewarding Sofa Surfer is about what happens when going home isn’t an option.’

Today is my stop on the Sofa Surfer blog tour and I have a review of this brilliant new release that looks at what it means to be young and homeless in today’s world and challenges dangerous assumptions of blame and the perception that to be homeless is to have done something wrong – or, worse, to deserve it. It’s recommended for children aged 12+ and, in my opinion, would make an excellent class reader for Year 8 and/or 9, and could be tied into wider PSHE studies and any work that schools do with homeless charities in terms of raising awareness and fundraising.

Sofa Surfer is written from the point of fifteen year old Tyler, who finds himself uprooted from London and unwillingly made to start over in Yorkshire, where he grows increasingly despondent and reliant on his memories of London to comfort him in his changed world. For Tyler, the move is the worst possible thing that could have happened to him, as it has removed him from his friends and all that he finds familiar, and at the beginning of the novel he is almost entirely fixated on how bad a place the world is for him, his behaviour towards Spider and his lack of understanding of why she cannot pay him the full amount for her swimming lessons (he does not think to enquire as to what her life is like, only loses his temper on one particular occasion) something that makes him appear selfish and preoccupied with his own comfort and needs, which is something that I think we can all find ourselves guilty of when it comes to not always getting what we want. However, Tyler is young and has had very little reason to consider much beyond his own bubble, belonging to a family of decent means, with an income that ensures he has never gone hungry or truly lacked for anything he needs. He might be short on things he wants, but his relationship with Spider soon begins to educate him as to the difference between necessity and that which he would like to have, and while has limited options with which to help her, his efforts seem far more mature than those of any of the adults in the story.

For me, one of the key features of the narrative is the perception of homelessness that is all too often bandied about. In this case, Tyler’s parents are initially unwilling to understand Spider’s situation, and upon learning that their son has seen someone who is homeless, his father declares it to be ‘self-inflicted’. Their attitudes do change over the course of the narrative, and his mum makes some attempts to be helpful in a way that makes her feel that she has tried, but their reaction when they discover that Spider has been in their house is as if there’s been an infestation that needs cleaning out. Both of them fail to see Spider as human and, ultimately, as a child who needs help. They are very protective of their own son, yet they cannot see that Spider is a young person – someone else’s daughter – who needs help and support, which is unfortunately the case with many instances of homelessness. In a similar vein, the girl who targets Tyler to be her new boyfriend, Michele, immediately decides that Spider is only seeking attention when evidence of her mental health issues surfaces, dismissive and judgemental in her efforts to keep him to herself and focused on her. The relationship between Tyler and Michele also serves to highlight other issues, such as manipulation in relationships, pressure to engage in sexual activity, and minors posting and sharing unsuitable material online.

When he leans the extent of the problems that have led to Spider becoming homeless (I don’t want to elaborate further and spoil the story!), Tyler’s immediate response is empathy and a desire to help her in what ways he can. In this, he learns that his own ‘suffering’ is not truly something that is the end of the world for him: it’s upsetting, yes, but he still has everything that he needs to lead what is, for him, a ‘normal’ life. His understanding of her situation is furthered by a firsthand experience of it, in which he learns that to live on the streets is, amongst other awful things, to fear for your life. At this stage, he is already completely committed to supporting Spider, but I feel that the moral for the reader is that it shouldn’t take an experience of life on the streets for anyone to empathise with another human being. Tyler’s experience is used to highlight the realities of homelessness to young readers and is a very effective feature of the story that will hopefully open the eyes of those who are unfamiliar with the struggles of young and old alike on the streets. One of the most positive things about the story is that Tyler’s parents do learn that their attitudes are not as they should be; that their perception of their being ‘understanding’ is more limited than they would like to think, and that sometimes what we see as helping is not all that we could truly do.

I highly recommend Sofa Surfer as an engaging read for teens and one that teachers should look to for potential to include in their English curriculum as a unit for KS3. Thank you, Zephyr Books, for the copy of Sofa Surfer and the chance to take part in the blog tour!

Check out the banner below for the previous and next stops on the tour!

Review: Monstrous Devices by Damien Love

Review: Monstrous Devices by Damien Love

‘When twelve-year-old Alex receives an old tin robot in the post, the note from his grandfather simply reads: ‘This one is special’. But as strange events start occurring around him, it doesn’t take Alex long to suspect that the small toy is more than special; it might also be deadly.

Just as things are getting out of hand, Alex’s grandfather arrives, whisking him away from his otherwise humdrum life and into a world of strange, macabre magic. From Paris to Prague, they flee across snowy Europe in a quest to unravel the riddle of the little robot, and outwit relentless assassins of the human and mechanical kind. How does Alex’s grandfather know them? And can Alex safely harness the robot’s power, or will it fall into the wrong, wicked hands?’

Monstrous Devices is a fast-paced and unique invention from Damien Love, the novel one that’s recommended for ages 9+ and one I was interested in reading with a class reader for Year 7 in mind. Some of said Year 7 have seen me reading the book around school and have asked what it’s about and if they can read it, so I’ve promised them I’ll look into getting some for the school library. Rock the Boat very kindly sent me a finished copy, which I’ll be giving to our library once the release date has passed!

Monstrous Devices follows the journey of Alex, a twelve year old boy whose grandfather posts him a tin robot with a cryptic message that could just as well be commentary as it could be a warning. It’s not long after the robot has arrived that things begin to change around Alex, and all of what he experiences is nothing that he can explain without them thinking he’s utterly mad. Lucky for him, his grandfather is not exactly an individual with his feet on the ground or one likely to dismiss anything out of hand, and Alex is soon drawn into an adventure that perhaps leaves him with more questions than answers he receives for his trouble.

What I enjoyed most about Monstrous Devices was the dialogue. There’s something strangely charming about the manner in which Alex’s grandfather speaks, his diversions from the topics at hand quietly humorous and written in a natural fashion that makes the character seem animated and alive and easy to envisage. Of course, these diversions are ones that Alex finds frustrating, but I felt that it was a little like watching a children’s film at times, where the material is for the target audience, but occasionally there’s something aimed at the grown-ups for them to chuckle over. The dialogue in the novel in general has an easy and believable rhythm to it, none of it seeming forced or particularly ‘fictional’ in nature, which is something that sometimes strikes when tackling writing children.

The story is one that doesn’t leave the reader with all of the answers to the questions that they must have by the novel’s conclusion, much like Alex does not receive all of the information that he seeks (some of which is by dint of deciding not to ask). What I hope is that this leaves room for more books set in this universe! However, should Monstrous Devices be a standalone, what it encourages the reader to do is to engage in theory crafting and decide what they believe the answers are, or what happened when the full details aren’t provided, which I think are important for younger readers in particular. There is very little exposition in Monstrous Devices, and what there is of it is often through dialogue and reported information, which keeps the plot from ever getting too bogged down in every possible answer and detail.

I would recommend Monstrous Devices to younger readers who are looking to step a little outside of their comfort zone and start reading books with more challenging subject matter and plotting. The story is just eerie enough to be creepy without stretching to horror or outright gore: frightening enough for young readers who like to be scared without being unsettled. I loved this book and I hope my students do too!

Monstrous Devices is out on March 5th! Thank you to Rock the Boat and One World Publications for sending me a proof and finished copy!

Review: Havenfall by Sara Holland

Review: Havenfall by Sara Holland

‘Maddie loves spending summers at her uncle’s Inn at Havenfall. But the Inn is much more than a Maddie’s safe haven, and life in Havenfall isn’t without its secrets. Beneath the beautiful, sprawling manor in Colorado lie hidden gateways to other worlds, some long-sealed by ancient magic.

When a body is found on the grounds, the volatile peace brokered between these worlds is irrevocably compromised. What’s worse is that Maddie’s friend Brekken stands accused of the murder. With everything she loves at stake, Maddie must confront shocking truths about the dangers lurking beneath Havenfall – and discover who she really is.’

Havenfall starts with the protagonist, Maddie, telling a few half-truths to ensure that she gets to spend the summer with her uncle at the Inn at Havenfall, which is where she’s spent many summers before, becoming acquainted with how the Inn runs and its importance to Haven (our world) and those worlds that stand beyond the gates. The Inn serves as neutral ground and as the place where people of Fiordenkill, Byrn and Haven hold the annual peace summit on the longest day of the year. The gateway to Solaria has been sealed, its land one of volatile magic and its people said to be violent and dangerous. The other realms view Solarians as a threat and have signed a treaty that forbids any contact or trade with Solaria, branding any communication with it as treasonous. It is Maddie’s dearest wish to be named as her uncle’s heir and one day become the Innkeeper, something that has become all the more important to her as the reality of her mother’s situation has become almost unbearable.

Life at the Inn introduces us to the denizens of Byrn and Fiordenkill, the latter of which is where Brekken, the boy Maddie believes herself in love with, hails from. I’d be lying if the description of the jewels the Fiordens wear in their ears didn’t make me want to get a couple more piercings and have gems running along the edge of my own (but I think five piercings per ear is quite enough for now). Brekken’s actions over the course of the novel have Maddie doubting everything she has ever known about him, which particularly stings after their having grown up together during what time they’ve spent at the Inn, and the whole thing also has her doubting her judgements and ability to make good decisions, both of which she needs to be secure in if she’s to inherit the position of Innkeeper. Though Maddie does her best, her decisions aren’t always made with consideration of all the evidence available or the more calculating natures of those around her, which demonstrates that she still has a lot to learn if she truly wants to maintain Havenfall’s status as neutral and manage to navigate the different political situations likely to unfold and need diplomatic handling.

Havenfall contains some good representation, and while it’s primarily set in our world, people’s preferences aren’t commented on in a judgemental way and it would seem that the same goes for Fiordenkill and Byrn. It’s nice to see more and more YA books where people’s sexuality is simply accepted and prejudice isn’t something that creeps into the narrative. From my reading, I believe it’s implied that Maddie is bisexual, though whether this is something that she’s acknowledged isn’t entirely clear and I’m curious to see whether what could be inferred as a romantic connection actually is one. A moment that made me smile was when the matter of Marcus’ husband is brought up, yet it’s not to comment on their marriage, but on the fact that his being Fiorden could imply he’s not politically neutral.

For me, the book’s pacing wasn’t quite right. I felt that it kept building towards something, but whatever that something was, it didn’t happen in this instalment. I’m assuming that there is the intention to move beyond the human world and Havenfall in future books, as this appears to be what the story is setting up, and while I can’t say that I was disappointed that we didn’t see much, if anything, of the other worlds, keeping it so fixed to the one location felt a little limiting. However, the novel’s title is Havenfall, and if we had spent too long in one world or another and not at the Inn itself, I feel it would have not been as effective in setting up the importance of its traditions and its history, nor in establishing who Maddie is and how she ticks. I’m the kind of reader who loves going over cultural and political details and I genuinely did enjoy every minute of the story, but it was a little too easy to put down, which is not what I found with Holland’s previous novels. This said, I’m really looking forward to seeing whether we go beyond any of the gates in the books to come, though would be just as happy if it’s reported information. As you can tell, I’m quite conflicted about the whole thing!

Havenfall is out on March 3rd! Thank you, Bloomsbury, for sending me a copy to review! I look forward to seeing where Maddie’s story leads and what further truths come to light!

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!