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Author: Pythia

Blog Tour: The Switch Up by Katy Cannon

Blog Tour: The Switch Up by Katy Cannon

Today is the final stop on the blog tour for the brilliant summer read The Switch Up by Katy Cannon! Read on for a synopsis and a fun game to help you see which of the main protagonists you are more like: Alice or Willa!

WILLA

Drama queen

Fashion guru

Spontaneous

Looks like Alice

ALICE

Bookworm

Allergic to fashion

Planner

Looks like Willa

LAX Departure Lounge. Two girls board the same flight to London as complete strangers. When the plane touches down, it’s the beginning of the craziest plan ever. Can Willa and Alice really swap lives for the summer?

Things are going to get complicated…

Alice and Willa may look very similar, but they are completely different in their attitudes to life and what they enjoy most. You can use the flowchart below to plan your dream holiday and follow a path to see which of them you are more like! Though they may be not so similar in many respects, they share the same good heart!

The Switch Up is a delightful read full of characters that are easy to love and journeys to found family and self-realisations. Alice and Willa’s paths may take them to very different locations, but each of their stories is just as significant as the other, as the two endeavour to make new discoveries about themselves through inhabiting each other’s lives, take steps towards dreams and the future, and expand their worlds. Family is what remains at the story’s core, and not only for Alice and Willa, but for others, such as Luca, one of the friends Alice makes during her stay in Italy. The impact of his fractured family life upon his attitude towards attachment to others is something that has stayed with me long after finishing the novel. The Switch Up is a fun and incredibly enjoyable read, seemingly lighthearted, yet it doesn’t shy away from addressing the important subjects, such as loss and separation. I loved it from start to finish and highly recommend picking up a copy!

Thank you to Stripes Books and Katy Cannon for inviting me to be part of the blog tour and for gifting me a copy of The Switch Up! If you’d like to let me know whether you’re more like Alice or Willa, you can tweet me or leave a comment on my Instagram, both @pythiareads!

Review: Field Notes on Love by Jennifer E. Smith

Review: Field Notes on Love by Jennifer E. Smith

‘It’s the perfect idea for a romantic week together: travelling across America by train.

But then Hugo’s girlfriend dumps him. Her parting gift: the tickets for their long-planned last-hurrah-before-uni trip. Only, it’s been booked under her name. Non-transferable, no exceptions.

Mae is still reeling from being rejected from USC’s film school. When she stumbles across Hugo’s ad for a replacement Margaret Campbell (her full name!), she’s certain it’s exactly the adventure she needs to shake off her disappointment and jump-start her next film.

A cross-country train trip with a complete stranger might not seem like the best idea. But to Mae and Hugo, both eager to escape their regular lives, it makes perfect sense. What starts as a convenient arrangement soon turns into something more. But when life outside the train catches up with them, can they find a way to keep their feelings for each other from getting derailed?’

One of the things that I love most about Field Notes on Love is that it isn’t so much a ‘will they? won’t they?’ romance that is extended and exploited throughout the narrative, but a story that is about what it means to love, and not solely in the romantic sense. The relationship that grows between Mae and Hugo is not just based on attraction or desire and it isn’t manipulated to create tension in a more predictable fashion, particularly as the question of whether they have any feelings for each other is addressed quite early on in the story. This in particular is something that isn’t seen very often in novels or television anymore and is what I think we need more of, ultimately allowing for characters’ feelings to be explored over the course of a story, rather than having them get together at the end and leave no room for seeing how they truly interact as a pair.

Field Notes on Love is as much about discovering and learning about what you love and why as anything else. Mae in particular believes that she has found her path in life and has devoted herself to following it, focusing primarily on developing her skills and viewing much of it from an analytical point of view. This has left her with a somewhat clinical approach that Hugo promptly and inadvertently disrupts with his interest in her process and the choices that she makes in putting her films together. He interacts with her interviewees in a way takes her outside of her usual manner of doing things and begins to draw her interest more towards the people in her movies than the ideas and messages she wishes to convey, her need for control over every element giving way to a willingness to examine her own feelings and what she wants from the world.

In a similar vein, Hugo is forced to re-examine what he really wants out of life and how much he is willing to sacrifice in his efforts to avoid hurting the people he loves most in the world. In taking the train journey with Mae, he perhaps does one of the first things that he has ever done solely for himself, and he spends much of the journey worrying about how what he wishes could hurt his five siblings and his parents, seeing their needs as outweighing his own. Hugo is a genuinely lovely character and his views in this respect are admirable, but, as Mae begins to help him understand – her direction and focus on her own goals helping to inject some into his – trapping himself in a life he doesn’t truly want is no way to live. Admittedly, it takes a lot for me to actually like a male character in a lot of YA literature, mostly because they are so often destined to unnecessarily ‘rescue’ or take away the agency of female characters, but Hugo is a sweetheart and a character I would happily read further stories about.

I love both Mae and Hugo’s families, from the interaction of Hugo’s siblings, to Mae’s adorable dads. It’s lovely to see parent and child interactions that are healthy and involve obvious affection and an interest in the well-being of each other, and it’s the familial relationships in the story that are perhaps the thing that I would praise above all. Field Notes on Love leaves the reader with a real sense that they know both families, even though much of the interaction is via Mae and Hugo with their families off-screen, and I would honestly love to see more of them.

Thank you to My Kinda Book & Pan Macmillan for sending me a copy of Field Notes on Love!

Review: The Queen of Rhodia by Effie Calvin

Review: The Queen of Rhodia by Effie Calvin

‘It has been sixteen months since Princess Esofi arrived in Ieflaria, and eight since her marriage to Crown Princess Adale. The princesses have a peaceful life together, preparing to become co-regents and raising their baby dragon, Carinth.

Their peace is shattered when Esofi’s mother, Queen Gaelle of Rhodia, arrives in Birsgen. She has heard about Carinth and believes that she deserves custody of him due to her greater devotion to Talcia, Goddess of Magic.

Adale and Esofi have no intention of giving up their son, but Gaelle is impossible to reason with—and there’s no telling what lengths she’ll go to in order to get what she wants.’

I read the first in this series after seeing a post about it on Instagram and I’d been hoping that there would be more in this universe about Esofi and Adale. I haven’t read the second book, as I wasn’t aware of it until seeing this one, but I will be going back to read it! Esofi and Adale have become some of the characters that I’m most fond of and it was lovely to catch up with them and see what had happened since their engagement.

There is a good range of important issues, such as those of gender and sexuality, and the impact of bullying by trusted, familial figures, addressed in this book, but the one that really struck me was how it handled the expectation that women should have children and embrace motherhood on society’s timetable. Esofi and Adale are young in their marriage and already nearly everyone around them expects them to produce an heir, whereas they are content to focus on raising Carinth and are equally apprehensive about motherhood, if sometimes for different reasons. That they did not bow to this pressure and instead continued to decide for themselves what defines a family, while actively talking about their concerns, was wonderful to see. It’s also great to see a world in which everyone’s sexuality and choice of gender is just accepted and that not even the antagonists ever use anything of this nature against other characters or comment negatively on anyone’s choices.

I adore Esofi and found her mother to be a truly hateful character in her treatment of her. How Gaelle has emotionally manipulated her – and her other children – over the years becomes more evident and revolting as the novel progresses, explaining a good deal of Esofi’s behaviour and her worries that Adale might not actually want her, but is only doing her duty. Esofi is not weak, and it is not a case of Adale taking charge and her decisions away from her, though she does take action to protect her from Gaelle and herself when she deems it necessary. It’s more that their strengths complement each other and they step in when they see that the other might need support. I loved that Adale frequently reminds Esofi how much she loves her, especially because it is not done in a fawning manner, but simply to remind her that she is loved and wanted and she sees her strength, when Esofi has spent her life being torn down to conform to precise expectations.

In short: this series is one of my favourites and I really hope that there are more books to follow! The Queen of Rhodia will be published on 27th May! Thank you, NineStar Press for gifting me a copy!

I received an e-ARC of The Queen of Rhodia from Netgalley and the publisher.

Review: Perfectly Preventable Deaths by Deirdre Sullivan

Review: Perfectly Preventable Deaths by Deirdre Sullivan

‘Sixteen-year-old twins Madeline and Catlin move to a new life in Ballyfrann, a strange isolated Irish town, a place where the earth is littered with small corpses and unspoken truths. A place where, for generations, teenage girls have gone missing in the surrounding mountains. As distance grows between the twins – as Catlin falls in love, and Madeline begins to understand her own nascent witchcraft – Madeline discovers that Ballyfrann is a place full of predators. And when Catlin falls into the gravest danger of all, Madeline must ask herself who she really is, and who she wants to be – or rather, who she might have to become to save her sister.’

Perfectly Preventable Deaths is a hauntingly lyrical novel full of dark, visceral magic and the pains of growing up. On the surface, it has many elements of a contemporary novel, yet the threads of the narrative bring this together with otherworldly features and powers of a fantasy world without ever entirely leaving ‘our’ world behind, bringing what feels like an ancient and mythological history into the present day. When Madeline and Caitlin arrive in Ballyfrann, they are, at first, removed from the area’s history and its people, yet both are soon drawn into events and associations that they cannot resist, each under the thrall of their own particular magic.

One of the things I found most interesting about Madeline and Catlin is their own, separate, dedications to their individual choice of religion. Catlin is said to have an altar full of statues of the Virgin Mary, which is deemed acceptable by their mother and stepfather, whereas Madeline’s instinctive and anxious ‘habit’ of carrying salt and other, often natural, bits and pieces with her for protection is frowned upon to the extent that their mother takes deliberate steps to stop her and goes around removing salt from where Madeline has placed it, such as under her sister’s bed. Is it because Catlin’s choice of religion is more familiar, particularly for the location, that she is allowed her collection of votives and icons that ostensibly serve the same purpose as Madeline’s salt? I think that this particular element of the narrative raises a lot of good questions about what religion is and what it means to each person, and why people, often driven by fear, feel the need to object to what they don’t immediately understand.

The magic that Madeline slowly begins to embrace and further understand is both beautiful and horrifying on an instinctive level, particularly because it is so grounded in the physical and natural world and not formed of fantastical and intangible power. The power that she is encouraged to embrace is not a simple and malleable ‘gift’, but a responsibility and understanding that comes with a price that must be paid. All too often in YA literature, magical powers come with no cost and are at such a level that they turn the character who wields them into an unstoppable force. This is not the case with Madeline, whose entering into a world that she must risk sacrificing her dreams (or the dreams she believes she has) for is understood to be one that will grant her strength and the ability to assist others, but will not turn her into a being of unrivalled power. Her power lies more in knowledge and an understanding of that which others might not see or comprehend, a subtlety there that doesn’t completely remove her from the realm of what it is to be human.

I loved the idea of the families in Ballyfrann having their own ties to different forms of magic and affinities going back generations, with none of them so obvious on the surface as to indentify them as anything other than human to outsiders who aren’t familiar to the population. I particularly loved Oona and her affinity for water (to be honest, I just loved Oona in general and could probably write a whole separate review just about her) and the rumours that hinted at what powers and abilities other characters might have.

Perfectly Preventable Deaths is a stunning read and one that I just couldn’t put down. Thank you, Hot Key Books, for gifting me a copy! Perfectly Preventable Deaths is out on May 30th!

Review: The Candle and the Flame by Nafiza Azad

Review: The Candle and the Flame by Nafiza Azad

‘Fatima lives in the city of Noor, a thriving stop along the Silk Road. There the music of myriad languages fills the air, and people of all faiths weave their lives together. However, the city bears scars of its recent past, when the chaotic tribe of Shayateen djinn slaughtered its entire population — except for Fatima and two other humans. Now ruled by a new maharajah, Noor is protected from the Shayateen by the Ifrit, djinn of order and reason, and by their commander, Zulfikar.

But when one of the most potent of the Ifrit dies, Fatima is changed in ways she cannot fathom, ways that scare even those who love her. Oud in hand, Fatima is drawn into the intrigues of the maharajah and his sister, the affairs of Zulfikar and the djinn, and the dangers of a magical battlefield.’

The Candle and the Flame gave me the worst book hangover I’ve had in ages! I really didn’t want the book to end and I desperately hope that there are going to be more books set in this world. The description of the city and the lives of those who live in it are painted so vividly that it’s impossible not to envision the setting and surroundings in rich colour, textures, sights and sounds simply leaping from the page. It makes it all the more difficult to leave the world behind and I was reluctant to read the last few pages, knowing that the story was at an end and I would have to leave Noor.

In the world of The Candle and the Flame, humans live alongside different species of djinn, some of which have positive intentions and others that are set to creating chaos. The majority of these need to be Named to cross into the human world from their plane of existence, a process that gives them a physical, human, form. To take away their Name is to unbind them and send them back – or worse. The concept of Naming and how it’s done is one of the things that I loved most about the story. The drawing together of the different things that have come to define the person being Named, seeing their memories and what has led them to become what the pieces of their Name brand them as, is described as a beautifully tangible process, from the heat of the fire to the fitting together of the fragments and settling of the Name. I read a lot of fantasy novels that involve magical processes, and this one is up there with my all-time favourites.

Fatima is an intelligent and compassionate lead, unafraid to exert her independence and correct those who attempt to order her around or make unfounded assumptions about her. Her devotion to those around her and her selflessness both give her a strength that guides her, even though they sometimes lead to her making decisions that put her at risk. She seems slightly out of phase with the world, particularly as she is drawn into that of the Ifrit, and at certain points in the narrative it’s characters such as the Alif sisters who help to keep her grounded and human. I loved the family interactions in this novel, particularly because they are often between found family and demonstrate some of the best of human nature’s capacity to care for others. Fatima’s interaction with Zulfikar is another aspect that draws out more of her than she may be willing to share with others, and it is often in these scenes that she seems the most animated and most herself, rather than what she may believe she has to be.

Ultimately, it’s the women in the novel who drive the story, from Ghazala’s initial choice in its opening pages, to the ladies of the palace who are not quite what the men of the city believe them to be. Many of them are consistently undervalued by the men in their lives, who may love and respect them, yet tend not to actually see the full extent of who these women are, refusing to believe that they are as intelligent and independent as they genuinely are. I absolutely adore Bhavya and Aruna, both of whom are severely underestimated by their immediate family, and, in a some respects, by themselves and the reader in the opening stages of the story. Bhavya’s journey is perhaps one of the most significant in the story, not being directly involved with the more magical elements, but with her own inner struggle to identify who she is, what she is capable of, and what she truly wants for her life.

The Candle and the Flame is out from Scholastic Press on May 14th! It’s one of my favourite reads this year and I hope you love it as much as I did!

Review: Snakeskins by Tim Major

Review: Snakeskins by Tim Major

‘Caitlin Hext’s first shedding ceremony is imminent, but she’s far from prepared to produce a Snakeskin clone. When her Skin fails to turn to dust as expected, she must decide whether she wishes the newcomer alive or dead.

Worse still, it transpires that the Hext family may be of central importance to the survival of Charmers, a group of people with the inexplicable power to produce duplicates every seven years and, in the process, rejuvenate. In parallel with reporter Gerry Chafik and government aide Russell Handler, Caitlin must prevent the Great British Prosperity Party from establishing a corrupt new world order.’

Snakeskins is an excellently crafted and often horrifying look at identity and what it means to be human. In the Britain of Caitlin’s world, there are – ostensibly – two types of people: humans and Charmers, the latter of which have the ability to produce a copy of themselves every seven years from their seventeenth year onward, rejuvenating their body and gaining a longer than expected lifespan in the process. Understandably, she is apprehensive about her first shedding, but when her first Skin does not turn to dust and ‘ash’ as she expects her to, her beliefs and her attitude towards having a duplicate Caitlin around are severely challenged. In the opening pages of the novel, she seems to have a tolerant attitude towards the idea of creating a copy of herself, knowing that she will not have to live with them for more than a couple of minutes, but, when faced with the reality of another version of Caitlin around, with her memories and experiences intact, it turns out that she is not immediately as tolerant or as welcoming as she would have liked.

There are echoes of Never Let Me Go in the Snakeskins narrative, particularly in the use of care homes for the Skins who don’t immediately turn to dust. The reality of how the Skins are treated, compared to what is presented to the outside world, is one of the more disturbing facets of the story, especially when what exactly the care homes are geared towards is revealed. With the exception of the main antagonists, not one of the other characters, Charmer or human, appears to be completely able to decide how they feel about the existence of Charmers and what is the appropriate course of action when ‘dealing with’ the matter of Skins. Some tend towards a more open and pro-rights view, yet cannot help but be repulsed and unsettled when actually faced with a Skin, unable to completely see them as human, despite wishing that their moral compass would read how they want it to. In a world where we appear to be becoming less and less concerned about the ethics of cloning, with more frequent stories of animals being cloned seeming to ‘normalise’ the process, just how we would react to human cloning, compared to how we like to think we could respond, is just one of the ideas explored in the story. It’s all well and good to think that we would want equal rights for copies of humans, but the fact remains that none of us has ever been faced with a copy of ourselves and forced to confront our individuality, mortality and instinct versus morality on such an immediate level – which is one of the reasons why we may never have to do so.

The scenes involving Caitlin and her Snakeskin clone are some of the most powerful in the narrative, especially as regards the behaviour of her copy and her response to her. By turn, Caitlin is reassured by their similarities and horrified by them, just as she is when her Skin displays knowledge and understanding guided by her experiences since their separation. She initially seems unable to decide whether she wishes them to maintain their similarities or become different people, primarily focused on what this means for her once she realises that her Skin has not yet ashed into non-existence. When safe in the knowledge that her Skin will not survive, she is a much more generous and thoughtful soul, yet she turns vindictive and much more narrow-minded when she knows that the matter will continue to affect her, rather disturbingly highlighting one of the more depressing features of human nature: it is much easier to be good and kind and open-minded when an issue does not directly affect us, but we are far less apt to be so if a situation is likely to impact us in any negative fashion.

A keen look at human nature and the workings of a corrupt government, Snakeskins is out today, May 7th! Thank you to the publisher, Titan Books, for gifting me a copy!

Review: Sing Like No One’s Listening by Vanessa Jones

Review: Sing Like No One’s Listening by Vanessa Jones

‘Nettie Delaney hasn’t been able to sing a note since her mum died. This wouldn’t be a problem if she wasn’t now attending Dukes, the most prestigious performing arts college in the country, with her superstar mother’s shadow hanging over her. Nettie has her work cut out for her and everyone is watching.

But one night, in an empty studio after college, Nettie finds herself suddenly singing, as someone behind the curtain accompanies her on the piano. Maybe all is not lost for Nettie. Maybe she can find her voice again and survive her first year at Dukes. But can she do it before she gets thrown out?’

Sing Like No One’s Listening is such a fun read and I loved every minute of it. I guess I haven’t confessed my undying love for the West End yet, have I? I read the book cover to cover during a journey on a recent holiday and don’t actually remember much of where we travelled through – I was too involved in the story! Sing Like No One’s Listening introduces the reader to Nettie, who has been accepted by a prestigious performing arts academy despite believing she failed her audition, and who wants to follow in her late mother’s footsteps. The only problem is that she hasn’t been able to sing since her mother passed away.

The key thing about Sing Like No One’s Listening is that the characters read in an engaging way that does not feel laboured. The dialogue is not forced and the characters’ interaction feels natural, its fast pace one of the things that helps to keep the reader interested. There’s no unnecessary exposition, and with the world of Duke’s being experienced through Nettie’s gaze, we learn about both the setting and its people as she does, meaning there may be a lot to get to grips with reasonably quickly, but there are frequent, interesting additions and elements to the narrative that keep the story travelling apace. Many of the main cast are met early in the novel and it’s these that the story stays with, letting us get to know them as Nettie forges these first friendships at her new home. The story’s structure is one that, I feel, would lend itself well to television. I loved its myriad of musical references and features that feel as if they belong in a stage show.

I really felt for Nettie, particularly during her ballet lessons, in which the expectations and the pressure applied are detailed in a manner that is no exaggeration. The behaviour of her teacher may be completely unacceptable, but the atmosphere created is something that is an accurate representation of what many experience in ballet and dance classes. I took ballet classes until my mid teens and my teacher was absolutely lovely – she could not have done more for us – but the fact remains that, even when you do well and receive praise, you are left feeling that you are not enough, for every aspect of your performance, including your posture, weight and general appearance, is commented on. I’ve heard ballet instructors use more or less some of the same insults (meant to be ‘jokes’) that Moore does when remarking on her students’ appearance and performance, and to be subjected to this and continue on says much for the resilience of both Nettie and those who have to experience this behaviour towards them.

There’s a good range of representation within the novel, with some elements a little more subtle than others. It also explores a number of issues, such as grief, mental health, body confidence, bullying and prejudice. Though Nettie goes through a great deal in her attempt to find her voice and process her grief, it’s facets of Kiki’s behaviour that are, perhaps, ultimately more worrying, as she starts to take more drastic steps to try and make herself become what the industry demands of her in response to comments made by staff and students. The book addresses the aforementioned issues in a manner that offers hope and is uplifting in its handling of them without taking away from their serious nature, often employing good natured humour in its character interactions. On the whole, it’s a lighter read, with due care and attention paid to the impact of living a life in the performing world, which is sensitively addressed and contrasted with the often irreverent humour employed primarily by its male cast.

Sing Like No One’s Listening is out now, with a sequel, Dance Like No One is Watching, arriving soon! Thank you to Macmillan and My Kinda Book for sending me a copy!

Review: The Beekeeper of Aleppo by Christy Lefteri

Review: The Beekeeper of Aleppo by Christy Lefteri

‘In the midst of war, he found love
In the midst of darkness, he found courage
In the midst of tragedy, he found hope

What will you find from his story?

Nuri is a beekeeper; his wife, Afra, an artist. They live a simple life, rich in family and friends, in the beautiful Syrian city of Aleppo – until the unthinkable happens. When all they care for is destroyed by war, they are forced to escape.

As Nuri and Afra travel through a broken world, they must confront not only the pain of their own unspeakable loss, but dangers that would overwhelm the bravest of souls. Above all – and perhaps this is the hardest thing they face – they must journey to find each other again.’

The Beekeeper of Aleppo is the harrowing tale of Nuri, the beekeeper of the title, and his wife, Afra, as they attempt to travel from Syria to the UK as the conflict in their homeland makes life increasingly unbearable. In a series of flashbacks and days since their arrival in the UK, who and what they were before conflict reached them is revealed, along with the hardships of their efforts to leave Syria behind and ultimately reach a place of safety – with none being truly safe; not even the UK, where their being granted asylum is in no way guaranteed.

A large part of their journey is spent in various camps once they have made it across the ocean, and it’s these passages that have stuck with me the most; these elements that I believe people need to read and learn about to gain a better understanding of what is happening to people in the refugee camps across Europe. Largely, the media (at least, the British media) appears to rarely report on this anymore, with the day to day lives of the people still living and arriving in these places hardly brought to the public’s attention. The suffering that is still happening every day is highlighted in Nuri’s experience of the camps and what he has to do to make sure that he and Afra survive, much of the truth of it concealed from her, owing to her blindness. The mental impact of being kept in these camps and treated so inhumanely is not only explored through Nuri, but in the characters that he meets, all of whom have their own stories to tell and are likewise struggling to survive, with some taking advantage of their fellow refugees in dark and disturbing ways. The story itself may be fiction, but the setting and the circumstances are a reality for too many, the lives of the characters all too haunting in that there is very little ‘fictional’ about their experiences.

I loved the use of the one word pages to thread together the end of one section and the beginning of the next; I felt they were very effective, particularly as they are often signalling flashbacks and create that disjointed moment between reality and what the mind creates of the past. Admittedly, I was sometimes a little confused as to the order of events, though the past and present are usually signalled with changes of tense: this is something that, for me, occurred more often in the last third of the book, as the impact of the war on Nuri’s mental state is becoming more and more apparent and severe, and it could be that this slightly jumbled element of the narrative reflects his PTSD and inability to completely separate reality, the past, and what his trauma has created in an attempt to let him better cope with what he has gone (and is still going) through. Nuri’s concerns seem primarily for his wife, and this misdirection, with her needs seeming greater, prolong the revelation of the extent of his trauma, particularly as the reader experiences the world only from his point of view. His treatment of Afra seems devoted and callous by turn, a need to know the reasons for the latter something that encourages reading on.

The writing itself is beautiful and seemingly practical by turn, the use of shorter sentence structures, in particular in the chapters/passages that describe Nuri and Afra’s life in the UK, lending a practical edge that emphasises the fact that Nuri is more functioning rather than experiencing life (this is only my perception of the structures used and why). There is nothing gratuitous about what violence and suffering is experienced throughout the novel, its quiet and crafted elegance another reminder that they are a reality for those seeking sanctuary from war.

The Beekeeper of Aleppo is out on May 2nd! Thank you, Zaffe Books, for sending me a copy.

Review: Stepsister by Jennifer Donnelly

Review: Stepsister by Jennifer Donnelly

‘In an ancient city by the sea, three sisters – a maiden, a mother, and a crone – are drawing maps by candlelight. Sombre, with piercing grey eyes, they are the three Fates, and every map is a human life…

Stepsister takes up where Cinderella’s tale ends. We meet Isabelle, the younger of Cinderella’s two stepsisters. Ella is considered beautiful; stepsister Isabelle is not. Isabelle is fearless, brave, and strong-willed. She fences better than any boy, and takes her stallion over jumps that grown men fear to attempt. It doesn’t matter, though; these qualities are not valued in a girl. Others have determined what is beautiful, and Isabelle does not fit their definition. Isabelle must face down the demons that drove her cruel treatment of Ella, challenge her own fate and maybe even redefine the very notion of beauty…’

Stepsister is, without a doubt, my favourite read of the year so far. Not only is it a fairytale retelling, which is, I’m sure I don’t need to say again, one of my favourite things to read, but it takes the more fixed elements of the original story and injects new life into them without completely breaking away from the conclusion of the Cinderella story. The writing is simply beautiful, with the natural cadence and rhythm of the language something that struck me time after time as one of its strengths, its short chapters – particularly their conclusions – an element that aid it in being a brilliantly poetic novel. To be completely honest, there is something almost on every other page of this book that I would love to talk about in detail (maybe I’ll come back to this once it’s been released!), and there are so many beautiful lines that I could write at length about Stepsister, but I’ll try to keep myself to a few things that I enjoyed the most.

Isabelle is one of Ella’s (Cinderella) ‘ugly’ stepsisters, who we are introduced to just as her mother demands that she cuts off her toes to make her foot fit the glass slipper (one of the elements that is often left out of retellings these days). What life has been like for Isabelle since her mother married Ella’s father is visited through a series of flashbacks throughout the novel that focus on how she has changed since she was a girl, revealing events that influenced her and ultimately led to her becoming the young woman who treated her stepsister so awfully. This is done without making excuses for the choices she makes, but shows what led to her growing so angry and frustrated with the world, contrasting who she was with who she is in the wake of Ella’s departure with the prince and the nature of who she is having been revealed to all. One of her biggest misconceptions about herself is that life would be better for her if she were more like Ella, both in temperament and appearance, and so she sets out to try and do good deeds and be a ‘better’ person – with the cryptic help of the fairy queen, whom she hopes will make her ‘pretty’. Isabelle’s journey is not an easy or obvious one, for even she doesn’t entirely comprehend what she is attempting to do, and her gradually growing to understand and reclaim herself, embracing who she really is, is one in which you cannot help but root for her.

I absolutely adored Tavi, Isabelle’s sister. Tavi, who is fiercely clever and wants to immerse herself in maths and science in a world that refuses to believe that women are intelligent enough to do so and won’t entertain the idea of it, considering study of such things to be not appropriate for women. Tavi behaves in an ‘ugly’ way because she has given up on a society that has tried to make her everything she hates and does not want to be – there is no way that she can find any fulfilment in the ‘traditional’ role of a woman that her mother and the men around her wish her to take on. For Tavi, the world is a cruel and unkind place that she has given up on, tired of seeing men with less than half her intellect succeed and be valued in ways that she will never be. She doesn’t fit and has surrendered to it, her sadness driving her to an anger that has her determined to drive people away with her attitude and sharp tongue. Tavi is ugly to the world and everyone in it because it has been so to her.

The use of the Fates, and Chance and his entourage, is another aspect of the novel that I thoroughly enjoyed. The crafting of the maps and inks, particularly the names of the inks and who is willing to use them (there is a line about ‘defiance’ towards the end of the novel that I adored, but I won’t go any further into for fear of spoilers) is a delightful nod to many mythologies, while being unique in its execution. The Fates and Chance are actual characters within the story and get to interact with the more human ones (who don’t comprehend who they are truly speaking with), meddling in the lives of those whose lives they believe they have the power to manipulate. There’s a lot to unpack here about free will and destiny, which is skilfully explored over the course of Fate and Chance’s battle for the paths of Isabelle’s life. Tanaquill (the fairy queen) is not the benevolent figure that one might have been expecting and the story is all the better for it, her presence an uncompromising demand that Isabelle examine who she is and what she truly wishes to be. If I’m correct, Tanaquill is not the only nod to epic poetry and the work of playwrights within the text, and her depiction here as a dark and sharply beautiful figure of female power is in excellent keeping with the original text and the time in which in would appear the novel is set.

As mentioned before, there is a lot more I would love to discuss, particularly concerning the relationship(s) between Isabelle, Tavi and Ella, but, as I don’t wish to spoil the story, I’ll settle for saying that the twists on the assumptions that can be made about the original text are some of my favourite things about the story.

Stepsister is out on May 2nd! Thank you, Hot Key Books, for sending me a copy!

Review: The Devouring Gray by Christine Lynn Herman

Review: The Devouring Gray by Christine Lynn Herman

‘On the edge of town a beast haunts the woods, trapped in the Gray, its bonds loosening…

Uprooted from the city, Violet Saunders doesn’t have much hope of fitting in at her new school in Four Paths, a town almost buried in the woodlands of rural New York. The fact that she’s descended from one of the town’s founders doesn’t help much, either—her new neighbours treat her with distant respect, and something very like fear. When she meets Justin, May, Isaac, and Harper, all children of founder families, and sees the otherworldly destruction they can wreak, she starts to wonder if the townsfolk are right to be afraid. When bodies start to appear in the woods, the locals become downright hostile. Can the teenagers solve the mystery of Four Paths, and their own part in it, before another calamity strikes?’

The Devouring Gray is not the kind of book that I would automatically pick up, as horror isn’t my usual read, but Titan books very kindly sent me a sampler for it and I was hooked – I had to read the rest. I loved the concept of the Gray itself and who or what it was, which is something that unfolds throughout the story as the cast piece together fragments of what they know, their own histories, what they’ve been ‘told’ and what they’ve experienced. An interesting element of the novel is that it would seem that none of the characters are entirely truthful about much, even when trying to be honest with themselves, which leaves the reader wondering if the conclusions that they’ve reached are correct, as perceived through connotations of behaviour and foreshadowing, or if they’re being led astray. The history of Four Paths is a messy, tangled thing, to go with the messy, tangled lives of the descendants of its founders.

Of the magical elements of the story, I think May and her use of the Deck of Omens is my favourite, but I honestly love the care that has gone into creating the unique mythology and rituals of each family – both the actual rituals that characters have to undergo to embrace their powers and the quirks of how each family functions. That there are variations in abilities within families and that blood doesn’t always ring true brings an interesting twist (or twists) to the narrative, and a much more interesting cast of characters than if whole families were to have one power as standard. Part of what makes the novel well-paced is that it isn’t immediately obvious what abilities particular characters have, or they aren’t demonstrated early in the story, leaving things to discover about people, places and history throughout. One thing that I found largely absent from the writing was the use of heavy exposition, which I found to be a huge plus.

I don’t want to give too much away, but the idea of the Gray and the Beast and history versus what has been taught and believed makes for raising questions about human nature and how the past can be doctored to make of it what someone wills. It’s the attitude of the adults in the story that is perhaps one of its most disturbing features, and it makes the reader wonder if their children are ultimately set on the same path, whether they like it or not.

Ultimately, The Devouring Gray is an absorbing read with a well-developed universe within a modern setting, its magic system grounded enough that it doesn’t read as a fantasy novel, but a contemporary with horror and elements of dark magic. The narrative is particularly well-woven, no one plot-line seeming to be out of place or not integral to the main story, and each of the main characters is featured enough that, though Violet may be the initial eyes through which the reader discovers Four Paths, it’s hard to say that the story belongs to one above the others, which is a difficult thing to achieve with the number of character voices involved.

The Devouring Gray is out on April 16th in the UK! Thank you to Titan Books for gifting me a copy!