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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!

Review: Sword in the Stars by Cori McCarthy & Amy Rose Capetta

Review: Sword in the Stars by Cori McCarthy & Amy Rose Capetta

Ari Helix may have won her battle against the tyrannical Mercer corporation, but the larger war has just begun. Ari and her cursed wizard Merlin must travel back in time to the unenlightened Middle Ages and steal the King Arthur’s Grail — the very definition of impossible. It’s imperative that the time travellers not skew the timeline and alter the course of history. Coming face to face with the original Arthurian legend could produce a ripple effect that changes everything. Somehow Merlin forgot that the past can be even more dangerous than the future.’

I adored Once & Future and have been looking forward to Sword in the Stars for a good many months, so I was very grateful to be given an E-ARC by the publisher. I’m glad to say that Sword in the Stars does not disappoint and, in my opinion, doesn’t suffer from the lack of momentum that second books in duologies and trilogies tend to. One of the things that saves it from doing so is that it picks up almost immediately after the events of the first book and doesn’t spend the first few chapters recapping what happened in Once & Future, instead dedicating this time to moving the story forward. The pacing is good, balancing enough time with the characters in ways that develop them and their motives with action and learning about the outside influences that are affecting them. There is very little time when there is nothing significant happening, which prevents the narrative from stagnating.

Gwen and Ari remain one of my favourite couples and I love that there are so many plot pieces in Sword in the Stars that are often used in fiction as reasons for couples for have misunderstandings and for relationships to break down that are actually used as things that bring them closer together and keep them together. Both of them are unpredictable and delightfully headstrong, and while this sometimes leads them being surprised by each other and not anticipating exactly what they’re going to do, they don’t chastise each other for it or seek to have the other change to make things any easier on them. They see and applaud each other’s strengths, and while Ari’s role is that of the ‘hero’, Gwen is by no means any less significant, clever or strong, and it’s fantastic to see a couple who are unapologetically themselves and not expected to be ‘less’ for the convenience of their partner or the story. I would love to write a lot more about the both of them, but I don’t want to ruin the book for anyone!

Another of the things that I liked about the narrative is what the characters discover about themselves and their roles in history by trying to adhere to the narrative they know, while trying to figure out how to manipulate it just enough that what they do remains what everyone knows of the tale – if there was ever even any other chain of events. I love stories that play with time travel and time loops (and what if/cause and effect, etc), and I got a huge kick out of all the contemplation of paradoxes and the looks at how myths (and history) are manipulated as they’re transformed through literature and the social consciousness of different eras.

Sword in the Stars is a brilliant blend of fairytale retelling, science fiction and social commentary and I enjoyed every minute of it (I would be very, very happy to read more about Ari and co at some point in the future!). The cast as whole is hugely likeable, though characters are not without their flaws, and it’s very easy to want good things for all of them and hope that they will succeed both in their relationships and in what the overarching narrative needs them to accomplish to protect the wider universe from the corrupt Mercer. Highly recommended!

I received a digital ARC from Netgalley and the publisher.

Review: Queen of Coin and Whispers by Helen Corcoran

Review: Queen of Coin and Whispers by Helen Corcoran

‘When Lia, an idealistic queen, falls for Xania, her new spymaster–who took the job to avenge her murdered father–they realise all isn’t fair in love and treason.

Lia won’t mourn her uncle: he’s left her a bankrupt kingdom considered easy pickings by its neighbours. She’s sworn to be a better ruler, but if she wants to push through her reforms, she needs to beat the Court at its own games. For years, Xania’s been determined to uncover her father’s murderer. She finally gets a chance when Lia gives her a choice: become her new spymaster, or take a one way trip to the executioner’s axe. It’s an easy decision.

When they fall for each other, their love complicates Lia’s responsibilities and Xania’s plans for vengeance. As they’re drawn together amid royal suitors and new diplomats, they uncover treason that could not only end Lia’s reign, but ruin their weakened country. They must decide not only what to sacrifice for duty, but also for each other.’

Queen of Coin and Whispers is one of my favourite reads of this year and I absolutely loved it. The story alternates (for the most part) between the point of view of Lia, a young queen new to her role and learning to navigate her court while trying to undo the harm her uncle has caused, and Xania, who works for the treasury and is set on avenging the murder of her father by whatever means possible. Xania is appointed as Lia’s new spymater, the Master of Whispers, after her intention to kill the man she suspects is responsible for her father’s death is uncovered and she’s given the chance to uncover enough information to condemn him – though the arrangement is not entirely without the threat of her intentions being revealed in a manner that would cost her her life.

Court politics are one of my favourite things to read about, and Queen of Coin and Whispers is primarily based around Lia’s attempts to introduce reforms to help her people, while attempting to work out who in her court – or, more accurately, her late uncle’s court – can be trusted to support her. Her uncle has left Edar bankrupt and with hardly the funds to support itself, standing her in a political landscape that makes her neighbours both her adversaries and people that she must rely on to try and get Edar back on its feet. One way in which she must do this is by marriage, specifically a marriage that will produce a blood heir, which leaves Lia trapped in a situation that means she knows she must marry and is set on doing so for her kingdom, yet she has no interest in men and the relationship that would produce a child of her bloodline. In the world of Queen of Coin and whispers, same sex marriages and relationships are commonplace, and a number of the main characters are involved with those of their own gender, none of which is commented on in a negative manner or set to be out of the ordinary, which was lovely to see and I wish we had more books that treat same sex marriage in the same way. It’s Lia’s case, with her responsibility to her kingdom and laws that demand she produce an heir that is a son or daughter of her own body, that sets her apart and has led to her concealing her preference for women from almost everyone.

As they begin to work together, Lia and Xania grow closer, but neither of them is secure enough in their affection being returned to make any clear overtures for a good while. Their situation is further impacted by their respective ranks – with Xania’s ‘fifth step by mother’s marriage’ something that impacts her belief that she might ever be suitable for a queen – their working relationship of royal and spymaster, and the looming threat of Lia’s marriage all things that keep them dancing around each other, trying to protect themselves and each other. It’s Lia who eventually manages clearer attempts to make her feelings known, in a move that I loved, and gives Xania her favourite romance novel to read – a novel that turns out to be about a relationship between two women. That their relationship, assumed by most to be a friendship that much of the court cannot understand, with Xania being ‘only’ fifth step, is one that the politicians and key players within the court judge and look down on makes it difficult for Xania in particular to believe that she might be safe in a relationship with Lia and get to keep her, her confidence in her work and ability contrasted with her worries and hesitation about what loving Lia means. Despite their feelings and attraction, Lia still goes through with her formal search for a husband, accepting suitors from neighbouring kingdoms, simultaneously daring her court to notice as she highlights her relationship with Xania, while also trying to work out which of her suitors is less likely to ruin her and her kingdom.

As the story progresses, politics and duty further interfere with Lia and Xania’s relationship, and further highlight all that they risk in their honesty with each other and in opening their hearts. While they very clearly adore each as Lia and Xania, the Queen and the Master of Whispers do not always agree on the same course of action, nor have the ability to put their own wishes and morals first when looking at the bigger picture. Lia is increasingly forced into corners that leave her with few options, the more idealistic facets of her nature stepped on by levels of society that want her kingdom to remain how it is, with them in control and profiting, as Xania uncovers the increasingly ugly goings on at court and beyond, witnessing the impact that her intent on revenge has, along with what transformation she sees in Lia.

One of the things I loved most about this book was Xania’s family. Her sister, Zola, is a strong presence in the story, as is her mother, both of whom support her in her work. Her step-father, a role all too often one that is a negative force in YA fiction, very clearly cares for her and wishes for her to be happy, his treatment of her protective, kind, and respectful of the memory of her late father. Though her family do voice concerns about her relationship with Lia, it isn’t because she’s a woman, but because they are worried about their differences in power and status – their main concern being that Lia could cast her aside and therefore prevent her from making any meaningful connection or marriage. In all other respects, they are supportive of her choice and relationship, and actively encourage her love of Lia, and Lia’s intent to prove her own love.

Queen of Coin and Whispers is an excellent and nuanced read that that I couldn’t put down. It’s out on April 23rd! Thank you The O’Brien Press for sending me an ARC for review!

Blog Tour: Rules for Being a Girl by Candace Bushnell & Katie Cotugno

Blog Tour: Rules for Being a Girl by Candace Bushnell & Katie Cotugno

‘Marin has always been good at navigating these unspoken guidelines. A star student and editor of the school paper, she dreams of getting into Brown University. Marin’s future seems bright―and her young, charismatic English teacher, Mr. Beckett, is always quick to admire her writing and talk books with her.

But when “Bex” takes things too far and comes on to Marin, she’s shocked and horrified. Had she somehow led him on? Was it her fault?

When Marin works up the courage to tell the administration what happened, no one believes her. She’s forced to face Bex in class every day. Except now, he has an axe to grind.

But Marin isn’t about to back down. She uses the school newspaper to fight back and she starts a feminist book club at school. She finds allies in the most unexpected people, like “slutty” Gray Kendall, who she’d always dismissed as just another lacrosse bro. As things heat up at school and in her personal life, Marin must figure out how to take back the power and write her own rules.’

The Rules for Being a Girl blog tour starts today and I have a review of this brilliant book to share! I’m also running a giveaway for a copy on my Instagram (@pythiareads), which you can access using the Instagram feed on the right!

I read Rules for Being a Girl cover to cover in one go and was both glad to see in print something that so accurately depicts and addresses the different rules that women have to live by, compared to the male experience of the world, and saddened by just how much of how Marin feels is identifiable as how women are made to feel every day, and how we are made to adapt our behaviour and change to make ourselves more acceptable. When looking at literature and media in general, there is simply so much produced that only perpetuates the idea that women are only important insofar as how they respond and are useful to men (see the ‘female, dispensable sidekick’). Much of the problem here lies with how, historically, men have had command of society and thus able to decide what, in terms of art and literature, is acceptable; an issue that continues to run rampant in the production of a popular media that is largely under male control. In short: young women need more books such as Rules for Being a Girl: books written by women, that tell them that they are not alone and that the ‘rules’ need rewriting.

As a teacher, I found Beckett’s behaviour particularly disturbing and spent much of the novel feeling rather nauseated by his behaviour and wishing for Marin (and every other student, really) to get as much distance from him as possible. His behaviour is utterly despicable, especially given his position of power and what should be a responsibility for Marin’s wellbeing, and while I wanted to believe his school would permanently remove him from his role (as they should), it also felt that his being believed innocent – as an adult male in a position of responsibility, compared to Marin being young, female and therefore assumed to be creative with the truth – was inevitable. If I were to ask, I’m not sure that I could find a single woman that I know who hasn’t, at one time or another, had a man’s word or understanding believed to be better than hers simply because he’s a man. Marin’s initial reluctance to report his behaviour only serves to highlight the fear that women live with every day, that to speak out is to be branded a liar and to have their own reliability and reputation tarnished for calling someone out for something unacceptable; to ultimately be made a target. And this is exactly what happens to her, horrifyingly (but not surprisingly) with the full encouragement of a man who bears responsibility for her safety in the school environment.

In starting her feminist book club, Marin begins to see that to make assumptions about others, based on thing such as rumour and appearance, is as wrong as the assumptions that are being made about her. It also begins to challenge her about her own views and encourages her to examine the nuances of her beliefs and those of those around her to find a way to not only engage in measured debate with others (without jumping to conclusions), but create common ground and take a genuine interest in the lives of those she has previously not taken into much consideration. Together, the group starts to examine what feminism is and challenge the preconceptions that go hand in hand with the term, while learning not to assume who can and cannot be a feminist. As she gets to know Gray better, Marin is met with the struggle of deciding when she feels it’s appropriate to let him stand up for her without it feeling as if she is being undermined, or whether she can show affection and support him while still remaining a feminist.

Rules for Being a Girl is an excellent and thought-provoking read about the imbalances that continue to exist in a society that likes to tell itself that equality of the sexes exists. In a world that says women’s rights have improved a great deal, is it not time to consider that that subjective elements of equality in particular spheres are not, in-fact, the progress that we need most? Claiming that equality is here does not make it so. Nor does getting defensive when challenged about it.

Thank you, My Kinda Book, for the proof copy of Rules for Being a Girl and for the opportunity to be part of the blog tour!

Check out the tour schedule below for when to visit the lovely bloggers involved!

Review: Heaven and Hell (A History of the Afterlife) by Bart D. Ehrman

Review: Heaven and Hell (A History of the Afterlife) by Bart D. Ehrman

‘Whether we believe in them or not, we are all familiar with the concepts of heaven and hell. There was a time, however, when no one thought they would go to either of these places after they died. In fact, Jesus didn’t believe a dead person’s soul was bound for heaven or hell, and these ideas are nowhere to be found in the Old Testament. So, where did they come from?

From the Epic of Gilgamesh to the writings of Augustine, Bart Ehrman provides a fascinating and thought-provoking history of the afterlife. He traces how beliefs changed over time and reveals the social, cultural and historical roots of competing views held by Greeks, Jews and Christians. Ultimately, he shows that many of our ideas about heaven and hell emerged long after Jesus’s time, through the struggle to explain the injustices of our world.’

One of the things I’ve always loved most about studying classical civilisation is looking at the systems of belief that governed societies, and how these beliefs developed, took on elements of other stories and legends, and the impact that they had on the growth of different cultures and what was and was not acceptable in societies. Working as a teacher of English, I do get to discuss a wide range of historical contexts in the study of literature through time, but I honestly miss getting to explore the ancient world in the depth that I used to, and I have to say that reading Heaven and Hell was a thoroughly enjoyable experience. I may not be religious, but I do try to expand my understanding of different beliefs whenever possible, and I was thrilled to be able to learn about subjects that I previously had very little knowledge of, such as the Hebrew Bible.

One of my favourite chapters in Heaven and Hell was ‘Life After Death Before There Was Life After Death’, which looks at the representation of the underworld in Classical literature, and how much the perception of what stands to follow after has changed by the time Virgil writes The Aeneid, even what he has heavily ‘borrowed’ from The Odyssey impacted by the altered views of the time. I was very lucky to study Classics with excellent teachers and a group of good friends, and it did give me a bit of a giggle to see the same plot holes that we identified back then highlighted here too, such as why Odysseus needs a sword to ‘hold back’ the intangible dead, and how Circe simply tells him everything he learned in his trip to the underworld when he returns to her palace, making his journey all but needless, excepting what he learns of Elpenor and his need to be buried, meaning the trip perhaps only serves to draw attention to the importance of ritual and the afterlife in the Ancient Greek world. This chapter also brought to light something that I’d never really considered, not particularly having any definite belief in what might happen after death: is it worse to experience an eternal, bland, afterlife lacking in any purpose or meaning, or the torment of our more ‘traditional’ understanding of what the soul stands to suffer in hell? Each stand to be their own forms of torture, it cannot be denied.

In studying literature, one of the things I particularly love is looking at the different connotations of language and how words stand to be interpreted depending on context, beliefs and other elements of society that impact how we perceive the world. Another of the things that Heaven and Hell looks at is how our understanding of the words originally used in ancient and religious texts have changed over time, primarily down to the differing opinions involved in translations and what we have had to attempt to fill in when pieces of a text have been destroyed, or key pieces of context that lend specific meaning are missing. In considering this, it seems that, in some instances, we struggle to step away from what we associate with language as suggested by our learning and experiences. In the case of the Hebrew Bible, in reading the word ‘pit’, one of the immediate associations tends to be with that of what we are told of hell – that it is a ‘fiery pit’ of eternal torment, and not simply a physical place of burial. In making this assumption, this is one of the first steps to ‘altering’ the original meaning of a text and passing it down through generations, until the true meaning is lost.

As I read Heaven and Hell, I was often left wondering exactly what my own beliefs about life after death are. It seems that – at least in the UK – it is schools that first suggest that heaven and hell exist, even if they are not religious schools. Hymns are sung and a suggestion of there being a god and afterlife are made and generally accepted, the belief that to be good is to go to heaven and to be bad means going to hell something that we are brought up with even when our families are not religious. The suggestion is that to be a good person will have its rewards, which is realms away from the ancient belief in Hades and an equal experience of the afterlife for all – a frustrating and unfulfilling eternity though it may be. There is a part of me that cannot help but believe that these ideas are used as a form of control, an idea Ehrman highlights in discussing the supposed origins of religious texts and how they have, in all inevitability, been manipulated for purpose by men.

Heaven and Hell is a fascinating, thought-provoking and engaging book that I enjoyed immensely. It’s on shelves on April 3rd! Thank you, OneWorld Publications, for sending it to me!

Review: Conjure Women by Afia Atakora

Review: Conjure Women by Afia Atakora

‘The pale-skinned, black-eyed baby is a bad omen. That’s one thing the people on the old plantation are sure of. The other is that Miss Rue – midwife, healer, crafter of curses – will know what to do.

But for once Rue doesn’t know. Times have changed since her mother Miss May Belle held the power to influence the life and death of her fellow slaves. Freedom has come. The master’s Big House lies in ruins. But this new world brings new dangers, and Rue’s old magic may be no match for them.

When sickness sweeps across her tight-knit community, Rue finds herself the focus of suspicion. What secrets does she keep amidst the charred remains of the Big House? Which spells has she conjured to threaten their children? And why is she so wary of the charismatic preacher man who promises to save them all?

Rue understands fear. It has shaped her life and her mother’s before her. And now she knows she must face her fears – and her ghosts – to find a new way forward for herself and her people.’

I’d planned to read the first few chapters of Conjure Women, but the story grabbed me and just wouldn’t let go, and it was 3am before I was willing to put the book down, and that was only because I’d finished it. Conjure Women is a brilliant and haunting read, beautifully written and heart wrenching in all that the story encompasses. The novel alternates between two time periods, that of Rue’s youth in slaverytime and her life as a young woman in freedomtime, after the passing of her mother and the destruction of the home of the white family that had owned hers and all those in her community.

Rue grows up as a daughter of a woman who is respected within her community and known to be able to weave spells and magic that can both aid and hinder others. Families, primarily other women, put their faith in Miss Bay Belle to help them both in terms of medical health and in producing curses that impact their rivals or those that have done them wrong, in a world where nothing is certain and ‘magic’ is one of the only things that feels that might help in taking back a measure of the control that has been stripped from their lives. While her mother is all too painfully aware of what governs their lives and who they cannot trust (for how can you trust someone who considers you an object and possession to be used and hurt at their whims?), the lines have been blurred for Rue, who is sometimes certain that the master’s white daughter, Varina, is her friend, and at others fails to quite grasp the extent of the differences that society has built between them. In her youth and ignorance, Varina fails to grasp her often insensitive behaviour and cannot understand that, in sometimes wanting what Rue has, she is only highlighting that she already has whatever she wishes and is trying to claim what of Rue’s world that she can in an intrusive and selfish fashion. Neither girl seems quite aware of where the lines between them are, each of them exerting power where they can when distressed, yet it’s Varina who appears more blindly ignorant, underestimating Rue’s intelligence and emotional understanding to get her way, knowing, if nothing else, that she cannot be denied. As Rue grows and she begins to comprehend that her friendship is really a relationship of a mistress and her slave, she begins to take opportunities to get her own back, knowing that Varina will not suspect her. The relationships between the women in the novel are complicated, all being at the mercy of men and masters in different manners, none seemingly able to have complete faith in each other, knowing it will only take one misstep, one rumour or remark, to ruin them and worse.

May Belle’s position within the community affords her the trust and respect of her fellow slaves, and leaves her as the keeper of the master’s secrets, not out of respect, but because he knows full well that she must obey him and that, as his property, he holds her life in his hands and can use that power to make her do as he requires. The master’s behaviour is beyond abhorrent, his actions something that are repulsive and among the most unsettling things in the novel, but the worst of it is knowing that how he treats his slaves is what actually occurred in this time period. He not only forces his female slaves to fulfil his sexual needs against their will, he also forces the men and women he owns to sleep together so that he can increase the number of slaves that he has to work his land. Unsurprisingly, any children he fathers are not acknowledged and are considered his slaves, left to the mercies of his cruel and arrogant white children.

Following May Belle’s death, Rue’s place in the world shifts quite dramatically. While she has taken on her mother’s duties – if somewhat against her will – events conspire to have the slaves still living on the plantation unable to find this same trust in her, primarily owing to the delivery of a baby that suggests bad omens and that he is an unnatural child. Her troubles are worsened by the arrival of a preacher who is determined to convert them to Christianity, and while May Belle’s magic was considered to be traditional and something learned of women going back generations, the changing world brands Rue a dangerous woman involved in witchcraft. In the secrets she has to keep to protect herself and others, she is left with very little with which to defend herself, often inadvertently playing into the rumours, and her hand is forced to go against her conscience out of desperation on more than occasion.

Conjure Women is a moving and thoroughly enthralling read, out on April 7th. Thank you to 4th Estate Books for sending me a copy for review!

Review: Bone Crier’s Moon by Kathryn Purdie

Review: Bone Crier’s Moon by Kathryn Purdie

‘Bone Criers are the last descendants of an ancient famille charged with using the magic they draw from animal bones to shepherd the dead into the afterlife—lest they drain the light from the living.

Ailesse has been prepared since birth to become their matriarch, but first she must complete her rite of passage: to kill the boy she’s destined to love.

Bastien’s father was slain by a Bone Crier and he’s been seeking revenge ever since. Now his vengeance must wait, as Ailesse’s ritual has begun and their fates are entwined—in life and in death.’

I loved this book. I initially sat down intending to read the first few chapters, then I was nearly all the way through it and it was dark outside. The narrative alternates between the points of view of Ailesse, Sabine and Bastien, the former a pair of Bone Crier friends, and the latter determined to destroy a Bone Crier in payment for the father he saw slaughtered when he was a child. Ailesse and Sabine are firm friends, despite their differences, such as Sabine’s reluctance to kill creatures to magically gain the best of their abilities herself, while Ailesse is determined to earn herself the strongest of graces to aid her in following in her mother’s footsteps in leading their people, and I loved that they are supportive of each other despite not always understanding the other’s decisions. Bastien has his own companions in Jules and Marcel, who have likewise suffered loses at the hands of a Bone Crier, though it is not solely their intent on getting revenge that binds them together. In my opinion, family is one of the strongest themes running through Bone Crier’s Moon, whether blood or found family, something that is exemplified not only by the main characters, but in dialogue from others and elements of the culture and magic we see.

One of the things that I think makes the story work so well is that none of the characters are ever one hundred percent set on one course or belief, or completely unwilling to listen to those around them and learn from their experiences. It keeps them from falling too firmly into any stereotypical role and leaves the reader never quite sure how they will react to different developments, making the outcomes of the different threads of the story difficult to predict. To my mind, it also keeps everything much more focused on character development than simply moving the plot from point to point, and I’m sure I’ve said before that I much prefer this structure, rather than sacrificing time spent with characters to move events along. Though the events unfolding threaten to impact the protagonists at every moment, what we see of the characters is not a constant flurry of action, affording time for conversations and moments between them that allow for relationships to grow and develop in a manner that doesn’t seem forced or make the choices they make seem contrived. I don’t believe there is a character in Bone Criers Moon whose motivation isn’t something that invites a measure of empathy and understanding, and though some of them do walk darker paths that have them doing things that threaten to slide towards the ‘evil’ side of the spectrum, their reasons are not ones that paint them into a corner and invite snap judgements. The villains are not simply ‘villains’ – they are well-rounded characters that we learn significant details about, allowing the reader to understand them, if not to agree with their actions.

I really enjoyed the time the time spent with Ailesse and Sabine’s clan and what we learn of how their family functions, both in terms of the cultural side and the magical features. The concept of using the ‘graces’ (the skills that allow different animals to adapt and survive in the wild/their native environment) of creatures as a power develops the magic system as more than ‘just’ magic when paired with the rules that govern it. That each woman (aside from the clan leader) is only allowed three graces leaves a lot of room for individualisation and reasoning behind their personal choices, as well as consideration of what truly makes a person strong. Sabine cannot stand killing creatures and has only managed to obtain one grace at the novel’s opening, and while some look down on her power, others see her healing ability as a boon that makes her less obviously stronger than something that would grant physical power. While on the subject of potentially looking down on others, I was glad to see that Sabine and Ailesse’s clan, formed solely of women, does not invite tearing each other down. There are rivalries and disagreements, yes, but in this and the novel on the whole, the female relationships aren’t destructive (with a couple of notable exceptions that are more tied to the plot than women perceiving each other as threats) and actually grow and develop beyond any simple, ingrained or first-sight ‘hatred’. I am so, so tired of women in fiction being made to see each other only as someone to else to tear down and I was very glad to see relationships here developed beyond that sort of instinct.

Bone Crier’s Moon is out on April 30th in the UK, from Harper Collins! Thank you, Harper360ya, for sending my a copy to review! I loved this book and hope you will too!