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Review: These Violent Delights by Chloe Gong

Review: These Violent Delights by Chloe Gong

‘The year is 1926, and Shanghai hums to the tune of debauchery.

A blood feud between two gangs runs the streets red, leaving the city helpless in the grip of chaos. At the heart of it all is eighteen-year-old Juliette Cai, a former flapper who has returned to assume her role as the proud heir of the Scarlet Gang-a network of criminals far above the law. Their only rivals in power are the White Flowers, who have fought the Scarlets for generations. And behind every move is their heir, Roma Montagov, Juliette’s first love… and first betrayal.

But when gangsters on both sides show signs of instability culminating in clawing their own throats out, the people start to whisper. Of a contagion, a madness. Of a monster in the shadows. As the deaths stack up, Juliette and Roma must set their guns-and grudges-aside and work together, for if they can’t stop this mayhem, then there will be no city left for either to rule.’

These Violent Delights is a hugely enjoyable read based on the story of Romeo and Juliet, taking the components at the heart of Shakespeare’s play and transforming them into something fresh and new, while still maintaining connections with the story that inspired it. I teach Romeo and Juliet to classes every year and I never failed to smile when there was a very subtle (or even a more precise) reference to the dialogue of the play, for the writing is so elegant that it never once feels as if it is simply a new interpretation. The characters, though they may share names with or be styled after their Shakespearean counterparts, are entirely the novel’s own and are beautifully nuanced.

My favourite character has to be Juliette, who is not what one might expect from the character who shares her name in the play. This Juliette is not downtrodden or completely commanded by the men in her family, and there’s more than a slight sense that she could, if she chose, take control of the Scarlet Gang and no longer have to worry about her father’s influence. However, her life has been heavily controlled by concerns for her safety, which has left her feeling trapped between worlds and not entirely sure of her identity, at one turn resentful and at another defiant, angry for what she has lost and how she has had to adapt for the sake of others. Her world is controlled by perceived expectations and a determination not to risk looking weak, in-case her position as her father’s heir should continue to be threatened by her cousin Tyler. Though she has a good deal of freedom, her choices are ultimately not her own, governed by loyalty to her family and the set of rules by which they operate, and while there are moments where she appears viciously proud of who and what she is, there are far more where she resents what she has been made to become and despises how easily she adopts violence, guilt weighing heavy on her for a variety of reasons as she mourns her former self and all else that she has lost.

Her relationship with Roma is a difficult one, and in this instance is not the courtship akin to the play, but the long awaited aftermath of what might have happened had Romeo and Juliet been caught by their families before the events leading to their untimely deaths. This Roma and Juliette have previously been involved, before their loyalties and love were tested by the interference of families more interested in harming each other and gaining the upper hand than considering what’s best for their children (of course, they believe they truly are doing what is best). Now, she is determined not to love him, but understands that needs must and he can be useful to her investigation of the madness that driving people to take their own lives. It’s quite clear that their continued association is going to lead to more than their simply locating information, yet it isn’t a sweet and kind renewing of their affections, but a pairing full of distrust, regret and frustration, the two too embroiled in their rival gangs’ business and their own bitterness over losing how and who they used to be to make anything easy.

The madness stalking the city revolves around the appearance of a monster in the river and the appearance of insects that somehow influence people to attempt to tear out their own throats. Gong doesn’t shy away from using language that provokes a a flinch-worthy response when it comes to description of just how characters succumb to being robbed of all sense and forced to rip into their throats with no weapon but their own hands, which, combined with the idea of the insects and fleeting views of the monster, makes for a rather chilling sense of external evil that meshes well with the simmering tension between the gangs and other residents.

These Violent Delights is a fantastic read and by far the best and most convincing re-imagining of the Romeo and Juliet story that I’ve ever encountered. It’s out in the UK on November 17th! Thank you to Hodderscape for sending me an ARC!

Review: Brambles by Intisar Khanani

Review: Brambles by Intisar Khanani

‘In the kingdom of Adania, everyone knows what Princess Alyrra did to earn the court’s contempt, her mother’s disdain, and her brother’s hatred.

She betrayed her own.

Yet, the truth hides another story, one of honor and honesty, of a princess gambling her own life for another’s. It’s a tale of courage and consequences, and a choice that can never be undone.’

Brambles is a short story prequel to the events of ‘Thorn’, a review of which can be found here.

I loved Thorn and I’m looking forward to reading the next book set in this universe. Brambles is an excellent addition to the story and expansion of the events that are mentioned in the first novel and end up commanding a good deal of Alyrra’s fate. Her mother and brother are as awful here as they are in Thorn, subjecting her to emotional and physical abuse for being unwilling to play the game of politics as they do and set aside her moral compass, unable to comprehend how she might side with innocents in their employ rather than settle for being as vindictive as they and their more wealthy citizens are. What they see as weakness ultimately highlights how Alyrra is the best of them and a far fairer hand than the rest of her family, who are so fixated on the threat of their power being stolen from them that they exert it to a cruel extent to ensure that none will think to step out of line. I may have to re-read Thorn very soon!

I received an ARC of Brambles from Netgalley and the publisher.

Review: Tales From the Forest by Emily Hibbs & Erin Brown

Review: Tales From the Forest by Emily Hibbs & Erin Brown

Tales From the Forest is a delightful collection of stories based around animals and nature, covering a wide variety of creatures that is bound to include those that children know of or have seen, while introducing some that they may not be as familiar with. It is divided into four sections to cover the seasons, with animals often chosen for each season to allow for opportunities to teach something about that particular animal’s behaviour or life cycle that is unique to them.

Each story is roughly five pages long and in a clear type of a good size that makes it easy for children to trace their progress along a line with a finger or a reading aid, or to follow along with an adult reading to them. The length of the stories makes them ideal for those who are moving from picture books with only a few lines of text to something more challenging, while still maintaining those familiar features, for each story has pages in a different colour, bearing illustrations around the edges and at least one full-page picture to go with each tale. The stories themselves contain words that young readers would be familiar with and introduces more complex and nature-specific vocabulary, particularly when unique animal behaviours and features are reached. At the end of each one, there’s a rhyme that teaches and reminds children about what is unique and special about each animal, the rhyming scheme something that makes it fun to recite and doubles as an aid to remembering what they’ve learned.

The illustrations are beautiful and accompany each tale with a full-page image of the animal(s) in the story, referencing moments from the narrative. They’re a gorgeous mix of watercolour and pencil images, the details picked out in the latter and creating great depth and texture, especially when it comes to the animals themselves – it’s almost as if you can feel the different in texture between the boar’s fur and that of the mouse. The pages of the stories are edged with bits and pieces from the creatures’ habitats, and sometimes even contain full backgrounds and additional pictures of the animal that is the focus of the story. I’ve tried time and again to decide on an absolute favourite picture from the book, but I can never choose just one!

Tales From the Forest would make a lovely book to read with children at bedtime and to inspire greater confidence in reading. With Christmas approaching, it’s something that would make an ideal gift for nature-loving younger family members, and is an appealing and pleasingly put together book with a lovely cover and end-pages. Thank you, Little Tiger Books, for sending me a copy!

Review: The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V.E. Schwab

Review: The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V.E. Schwab

‘When Addie La Rue makes a pact with the devil, she trades her soul for immortality. But there’s always a price – the devil takes away her place in the world, cursing her to be forgotten by everyone.

Addie flees her tiny home town in 18th-Century France, beginning a journey that takes her across the world, learning to live a life where no one remembers her and everything she owns is lost and broken. Existing only as a muse for artists throughout history, she learns to fall in love anew every single day.

Her only companion on this journey is her dark devil with hypnotic green eyes, who visits her each year on the anniversary of their deal. Alone in the world, Addie has no choice but to confront him, to understand him, maybe to beat him.

Until one day, in a second hand bookshop in Manhattan, Addie meets someone who remembers her. Suddenly thrust back into a real, normal life, Addie realises she can’t escape her fate forever.’

The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue is a beautifully written book that I simply couldn’t put down. I particularly enjoy stories that exploit the idea of parts of the narrative happening in different time periods and, in this case, it was especially well done and never without clear purpose, focusing on the significant events that shape Addie and how her deal with the devil unfolds. How time is visited and runs over the course of the story is one of its strongest features, in my opinion, and it was often that I found myself preferring the glimpses into the past to the present day passages.

This isn’t to say that that which happens in the present day isn’t full of stunning writing, particularly its look at how Addie has left her mark through the years, despite being unable to impact the world around her as she wishes. My biggest issue here is with the pacing, for it feels as if the collection of characters the Addie meets are, in-fact, the forgettable ones (I still wonder if this is deliberate and further commentary on the nature of memory and belonging) and I found myself wanting to skip ahead to spend less time with them. Her love interest is an intriguing and engaging character in himself, but the people around him less so, which, again, I wonder if there is the possibility of it being playing with the idea of what he desires and the irony of it being his friends who are as he feels. It’s well into the story that readers finally meet him, which means that a lot of the reveals towards the end of the novel are rather rushed and are details I would have happily read much, much more about it.

Addie’s relationship with the devil is one of the details that has a good deal of late reveals, though remains one of, if not the most engaging facet of the story. Addie herself doesn’t appear to change much in terms of personality or temperament, and ultimately with only herself and the devil for company, this is quite understandable, since it is arguably the people around us who influence us the most (this is perhaps most evident in the book’s conclusion, when it becomes very clear who she has been learning from). Instead, Addie focuses on learning and accumulating knowledge, which is maybe the best decision she could have made in terms of her sanity, literature being a way for her to experience vicariously what she never will.

A fantastic read, The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue is one of those books that feels as if it is a dream, the prose lyrical and haunting. Highly recommended.

I received a digital e-ARC from Netgalley and the publisher.

 

Review: Shine by Jessica Jung

Review: Shine by Jessica Jung

‘What would you give for a chance to live your dreams? For seventeen-year-old Korean American Rachel Kim, the answer is almost everything. Six years ago, she was recruited by DB Entertainment – one of Seoul’s largest K-pop labels, known for churning out some of the world’s most popular stars. The rules are simple: Train 24/7. Be perfect. Don’t date. Easy right?

Not so much. As the dark scandals of an industry bent on controlling and commodifying beautiful girls begin to bubble up, Rachel wonders if she’s strong enough to be a winner, or if she’ll end up crushed … Especially when she begins to develop feelings for K-pop star and DB golden boy Jason Lee. It’s not just that he’s charming, sexy and ridiculously talented. He’s also the first person who really understands how badly she wants her star to rise.’

What I love reading even more than fantasy novels are books that look at our relationship with the media and the impact it can have on people’s lives. That, and the fact that I loved K-Pop when I was a teenager, and Shine swiftly became one of the books of 2020 that I desperately wanted to read, so thank you very much to Electric Monkey for sending me an ARC for review!

Shine follows Rachel, a Korean American girl in her late teens whose family have relocated to Seoul, ostensibly so that she can try to make it in the world of K-Pop, after being signed by DB Entertainment. However, Rachel’s experience of that world is notably different to those that she is working with and who are ultimately her rivals, for her mother requires her to attend school during the week and only train with DB at the weekends, something that Rachel quite bitterly resents and sees as something that is only putting her at a disadvantage – and, at seventeen, she doesn’t have much time left to be selected as a member of the next girl group to debut.

One of the novel’s focuses is on just how much of their trainee’s lives DB Entertainment (and, we are led to assume, not so fictional companies) has complete control over. This obsession with their trainees’ weight, appearance and behaviour spills over into every aspect of their lives, to the point where it seems that the trainees are unable to think or act without fear of how the company will react and how it might punish them – and their potential careers – for any slight mistake, no matter how unintentional. DB Entertainment’s fixation on controlling every aspect of everyone’s lives opens up the potential for sabotage in a world of fierce competition, something that Rachel experiences more than once over the course of the narrative, but a particular incident early on, in which she is drugged by a rival, is the most serious and isn’t quite resolved, so I hope that we get to see it addressed in more detail at some point in Bright, the follow-up scheduled for October 2021. What’s most troubling about the company’s attitude to those in their employ is that they don’t seem to understand that they should be those in their care too. The girls are worked to exhaustion and constantly encouraged to see each other as competition, thus stripping them of any support system that they might be able to build in the stressful environment in which they work. There seem to be no boundaries as to what rivals might do in terms of sabotage, from invasions of privacy to exploiting family members, which leaves the trainees essentially isolated in their efforts to pursue their chosen career.

Rachel’s romantic interest, Jason Lee, is a somewhat conflicting character. There are times when he truly seems as if he could be a nice person, such as during his interaction with Rachel’s sister, but he remains so oblivious about who and what he is – being one of the company’s biggest successes – that his behaviour is often contemptable and makes it quite obvious that he shouldn’t be trusted, even if Rachel herself doesn’t quite see it. And yet, just as the reader may have made up their mind about him, there are instances where he seems to redeem himself, only to then ultimately undermine his acts of decency. It’s easy to see, especially in a world where no-one can be trusted, how Rachel can never quite decide whether he is ever not acting a part or under the company’s spell.

Shine is a ridiculously enjoyable read and a sharp look at the darker world that exists beneath the glossy surface that K-Pop presents. One of the things it does well is avoid falling into predictive narratives with the relationships that Rachel forms, swerving away from easy redemption arcs and quick forgiveness to highlight that there is no quick fix in an environment where you are constantly monitored and your life – and your decisions – aren’t your own. It develops an effective contrast between the bright and vivid performances for camera, and the pain and confusion beneath, while continuing to bring to the forefront why Rachel is putting herself through the grueling routine demanded of her: that she loves to sing and loves K-Pop, no matter what.

Out on October 15th, Shine is so fun that I didn’t want it to end! I was checking to see if there was a sequel long before I’d finished, as I was afraid I was reading too quickly and wasn’t ready for it to be over. A delightful book!

Review: The Once and Future Witches by Alix E. Harrow

Review: The Once and Future Witches by Alix E. Harrow

‘In 1893, there’s no such thing as witches. There used to be, in the wild, dark days before the burnings began, but now witching is nothing but tidy charms and nursery rhymes. If the modern woman wants any measure of power, she must find it at the ballot box.

But when the three Eastwood sisters join the suffragists of New Salem, they begin to pursue the forgotten ways that might turn the women’s movement into the witch’s movement. Stalked by shadows and sickness, hunted by forces who will not suffer a witch to vote – and perhaps not even to live – the sisters must delve into the oldest magics, draw new alliances, and heal the bond between them if they want to survive.

There’s no such thing as witches. But there will be.’

I adored The Ten Thousand Doors of January, particularly because Harrow has such a brilliant understanding of the cadence of language and the rhythm of words, and how to use them to devastating effect, and so I should have known that The Once and Future Witches was not going to be a book that I could ‘just read a couple of chapters’ of and put down. I read through at least two thirds of the novel in one go, and it’s one of those reads that surfacing from involves the return to reality being incredibly jarring.

When the reader meets the Eastwood sisters, they are not exactly on the best of terms and habour resentments towards each other and the connection between them that they cannot ignore. What becomes apparent very quickly is that much of this ill-feeling is born of guilt and, over the course of the novel, it becomes clearer and clearer that what they blame themselves for are not things that were truly within their power. That they have all fled their home for various reasons only emphasises the claustrophobic nature of an upbringing in a society that attempted to stifle them in almost every way, men intent on punishing any suggestion that a girl should be anything but an obedient and silent wife and mother. In finding themselves and each other, the sisters slowly return to their old understanding that it is only together that they are going to survive and bring back what has been all but lost.

The magic in The Once and Future Witches isn’t of your typical ‘fantasy’ variety, where there are no limits to a power that can do anything at all. It’s grounded in the reality of its setting and in literature; in the way words are crafted and handed down through generations. It doesn’t suggest that this power to heal and help and protect is exclusive to a specific bloodline or excludes anyone. It’s a magic that can belong to everyone and fights against the stereotypical images and ideas about witches that were born in ancient history, when sorceresses were no longer celebrated and started to be depicted as dangerous, unpredictable and ugly simply because men could not tolerate the idea of powerful (’emotional and reckless’) women. It laments what we lose to history by force, spells and ideas hidden in common rhymes and literature now assumed to be ‘just’ stories. As the story unfolds, the characters reclaim what has been lost to them; what they’ve been forced to hide and what has been taken and all but destroyed, and in taking back one kind of power also get to reclaim parts of themselves that they’ve felt they have to suppress and conceal.

I loved the suggestion that women’s clothing no longer has half the number of pockets as men’s because it would be dangerous to let women have pockets in which they could keep bits and pieces to cast spells, and thus keep any attempts at wielding power out in the open and easily preventable. It’s an idea that feels a little too real and not out of the realms of fantasy, because, at this point in history, what ideas and methods have not been used (or aren’t being used) to keep women from having power, even over their own bodies? It feels like so small a thing to have changed, yet so believable that it could have such a huge impact. What woman hasn’t lamented the absence of pockets? Is there a more believable reason not ostensibly related to fashion for why our clothes hardly ever have functional pockets? I honestly haven’t been able to not think about this every time I realise the dress I’ve worn to work inevitably doesn’t even have a pocket for my keys/lanyard/ID.

The Once and Future Witches is out October 13th, from Orbit Books, who very kindly sent me a proof for review (thank you!). This is one of my favourite books of the year so far: a fantasy story that isn’t entirely a fantasy; a historical novel that screams so much of what is still wrong with modern society; a reminder of the importance of our histories and what we may have unwittingly forgotten.

Review: Hide-and-Seek History – The Egyptians

Review: Hide-and-Seek History – The Egyptians

Having studied Egyptology before going into teaching, when I saw this book I knew that I had to get a look at it!

Hide-and-Seek History: The Egyptians is an absolutely beautiful book for young children that looks at the Ancient Egyptian civilisation and what archaeology is and what it involves. Every page contains a series of flaps blended seamlessly into the rich and vivid illustrations, which can be pulled to reveal more information about different aspects of culture and history. Something I think is particularly engaging about how the book has been constructed is that sometimes there are further flaps to reveal beneath the initial one, making the discovery of more details like the process of archaeological excavation and uncovering different layers of history.

The illustrations in the book are wonderfully bright and full of warm colour palettes that make the world within cheery and welcoming. My favourite is the section about the Gods, which is a lovely amber and purple twilight spread with flaps that children can pull to reveal information about many of the Gods, the range that has been selected one that includes the more common ones that students might learn about in early schooling, and some of the less so, offering up broader information and adding further opportunities for learning and discovering.

I particularly appreciated that the language chosen to convey some thoughts and ideas about Egypt makes it clear that there is not always one interpretation of what we have discovered, and so encourages children to enquire further. The written details are clear and do not use overly simple vocabulary, affording chances for readers to expand their understanding of subject specific terms and how words can be used in different contexts. The writing also makes sure to include women, men, and both historical and modern scholars in its references, and strikes a balance in its illustrations and areas of culture covered to make sure it doesn’t solely look at spheres of life for one particular gender.

The Egyptians will be on shelves on October 1st 2020 and would make a wonderful birthday or Christmas present for a child with an interest in history and ancient civilisations! Thank you, Little Tiger Books, for sending me a copy for review!

Review: Court of Lions by Somaiya Daud

Review: Court of Lions by Somaiya Daud

‘Two identical girls, one a princess, the other a rebel. Who will rule the empire?

Amani must make a devastating choice between revolution and family in this sequel to the instant Sunday Times bestseller Mirage.

After being swept up into the brutal Vathek court, Amani, the ordinary girl forced to serve as the half-Vathek princess’s body double, has been forced into complete isolation. The cruel but complex princess, Maram, with whom Amani had cultivated a tenuous friendship, discovered Amani’s connection to the rebellion and has forced her into silence, and if Amani crosses Maram once more, her identity – and her betrayal – will be revealed to everyone in the court.

Amani is desperate to continue helping the rebellion, to fight for her people’s freedom. But she must make a devastating decision: will she step aside, and watch her people suffer, or continue to aid them, and put herself and her family in mortal danger? And whatever she chooses, can she bear to remain separated, forever, from Maram’s fiancé, Idris?’

I absolutely loved Mirage (it’s remained one of my favourite reads since its release) and was a little worried when the date for Court of Lions kept being pushed back, but I’m pleased to say that I enjoyed this sequel perhaps even more than the first instalment. I love reading about politics and court intrigue, which is what Court of Lions primarily focuses on, and I very much enjoyed reading about the different families and their histories – and how their pasts and loyalties could impact the future that seems so out of reach at the start of the novel.

I’m glad that the relationship between Amani and Maram remains central to the story and that there isn’t a huge span of the book where they don’t see each other or have any interaction. There are stretches of the novel where they don’t have a great many encounters, but what encounters they do have are significant, with consequences for them both or indications of character history or progress. Their journey doesn’t centre heavily around the imbalance of power between them, as the end of Mirage might have suggested, but how far they trust each other with their hopes and fears. Amani swiftly emerges as seemingly the stronger of the two, largely out of a desire to protect and be faithful to Maram, for she is the only one who has seen the struggles that she is experiencing and appears to understand that she is finally growing into herself and becoming more than the Vath would have her be. Though Maram is often inconsiderate in what she orders Amani to do (most ‘orders’ start this way and soon become requests) and can seem manipulative, she doesn’t have all of the information available that Amani does, nor does she understand what it is to have friends or family that she can trust with anything of her true self, and Amani has already been less than truthful to her before. They are often at their best when working together, and Maram ultimately wants Amani’s friendship and to forge relationships, in this instance and others, no matter how she struggles.

The majority of Maram’s story in Court of Lions centres around her trying to make peace with the two halves of her heritage: primarily, what her father wants her to be (and whether she has any desire to even attempt to please him any more) and her mother’s legacy. I loved what we get to see of Maram taking steps to learn about her mother’s people and the culture that her father has deliberately kept her disconnected and distanced from in her role as his heir, determined that she is his child, and therefore only one of the Vath, and not Kushaila at all. In the raising of her, he and Nadine have attempted to rewrite her own history and excluded her from learning all that her mother would have taught her and what Kushaila women know how to do, including leaving her struggling with the language barrier that bars her from experiencing literature and poetry in its original form, distancing her from her cultural birthright and what plays an integral role for other Kushaila. While her marriage and pressure of being her father’s heir threatens to force her into roles she doesn’t want, it’s the realisation that there are actually things in life that she wants for herself that begins to encourage her to explore her roots and feel that it’s her mother’s line she ought to honour and not her vicious father’s. This slow acknowledgement of herself as a person and not simply a heir to be used means that she does step back from the true political machinations going on in her name, making it look somewhat like Amani is the one doing all the work, but without Maram’s making this progress in terms of having her own thoughts, feelings and desires, there would be no potential leader with an investment in her people to rally behind.

I find that I’m not usually a huge fan of romances in YA fiction, but I found that both of the love stories in Court of Lions were compelling (Idris and Amani’s relationship in Mirage perhaps having been a little bit too along the lines on insta-love), and I especially liked Maram’s and how the time shifts in the first half of the novel are used to shed light on her behaviour in the present day.

Court of Lions is out on August 6th, from Hodder & Stoughton. Thank you to the publisher for the digital ARC!

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

Review: Girl, Serpent, Thorn by Melissa Bashardoust

Review: Girl, Serpent, Thorn by Melissa Bashardoust

‘There was and there was not, as all stories begin, a princess cursed to be poisonous to the touch. But for Soraya, who has lived her life hidden away from everyone, apart from her family, safe only in her gardens, it’s not just a story.

As the day of her twin brother’s wedding approaches, Soraya must decide if she’s willing to step outside of the shadows for the first time. Below in the dungeon is a demon who holds knowledge that she craves, the answer to her freedom. And above is a young man who isn’t afraid of her, whose eyes linger not with fear, but with an understanding of who she is beneath the poison.

Soraya thought she knew her place in the world, but when her choices lead to consequences she never imagined, she begins to question who she is and who she is becoming . . . human or demon. Princess or monster.’

I did enjoy Girl, Serpent, Thorn, but I felt that, much as with the author’s previous work, Girls Made of Snow and Glass, around the 50% mark is where the story starts to get a little muddled. In terms of pacing and structure, it almost feels as if acts one, two and the majority of three are in the first half of the novel, leaving the second half of the third act to take up the rest of the story. However, this is only my opinion and may well not be an observation that has impacted other people’s reading. The writing itself is beautiful and I very much like the author’s style, particularly during moments of stillness and when characters’ emotions are running high.

Soraya is an engaging character for much of the first half of the book, her story and her need to uncover the truth about why she is how she is and what led to her being so interesting in its own right, but when one of her romantic interests (Azad) is introduced is when she begins to read as much younger and less capable than she is initially presented as. Though she has been without company for much of her life and feels isolated and alone, that she would so easily be drawn in by someone who flatters her so obviously doesn’t quite feel in keeping with what the reader has learnt about her. However, that she has been starved of human contact may well mean that she is not particularly well-versed in encountering deception, as is suggested by her behaviour throughout the story when faced with those who have failed to tell her the complete truth, or have chosen an edited version of it, believed to be for her benefit. Though both of her entanglements with her romantic interests involve manipulation, I was pleased to see that the other feels more based around a connection, affection, growing loyalty and a desire to see Soraya become who she could be so as to embrace all that she is, not simply to become cruel and powerful because she has the potential to be so.

Whether Soraya will embrace being ‘evil’ or try to atone for what she has done (I hesitate to call her actions a mistake, given what information she has available at the time and how she has experienced the world so far) is perhaps what takes up a good deal of the plot, yet is not quite as compelling as what I hope is the main message of the narrative (I won’t go into detail here, as I don’t want to spoil the ending). Soraya is a strong character – in that sense that her journey is compelling, not the ‘strong female character’ trope – who I would have gladly read much more about. Maybe the story would have worked better in terms of pacing and time for additional detail as a series?

Girl, Serpent, Thorn is certainly a well-written book, with a world and characters that I hope we get to see again in some form, despite it being a stand-alone.

I received a digital ARC from Netgalley and the publisher.

Review: Bookish and the Beast by Ashley Poston

Review: Bookish and the Beast by Ashley Poston

‘On the other hand, Vance Reigns has been Hollywood royalty for as long as he can remember—with all the privilege and scrutiny that entails. When a tabloid scandal catches up to him, he’s forced to hide out somewhere the paparazzi would never expect to find him: Small Town USA. At least there’s a library in the house. Too bad he doesn’t read.

When Rosie and Vance’s paths collide and a rare book is accidentally destroyed, Rosie finds herself working to repay the debt. And while most Starfield superfans would jump at the chance to work in close proximity to the Vance Reigns, Rosie has discovered something about Vance: he’s a jerk, and she can’t stand him. The feeling is mutual.  

But as Vance and Rosie begrudgingly get to know each other, their careful masks come off—and they may just find that there’s more risk in shutting each other out than in opening their hearts.’

Bookish and the Beast is the third in the Once Upon a Con series, that takes fairytales and introduces them to a modern setting, focusing on the world of fandom, conventions and the media. It’s one of my all-time favourite series, primarily because Poston writes about fandom in a way that I’ve seen no other author authentically achieve when portraying characters who have a love of a particular TV show, game, movie, book, etc, showing a real affection and depth of understanding about what fandom brings to the lives of those involved in it. There is no subtle mockery or suggestion that the reader ought to think that what Rosie (or any of the other characters in the books) feels about Starfield is odd or not as fulfilling as anything else people choose to take part in for fun. Poston writes about friendship and fandom bringing people together and giving them creative outlets, which, in my experience, is what it’s all about. I know that one of the first things I said to one of my very best friends (Hi, Laura!) was a comment about the sci-fi show Farscape way back more years than I think either of would care to admit.

Bookish and the Beast is a retelling of Beauty and the Beast, told from the point of view of Rosie, a fan of Starfield, and Vance, who turns out to be playing ‘the bad guy’ in the movie adaptations of the Starfield Universe. After having damaged a book from a collection that doesn’t belong to her, Rosie agrees to make amends by cataloguing and arranging the library from which it came, leaving her often in the company of a taciturn and irritable Vance, who is trying to avoid the public eye and adding another scandal to his unfortunate list of incidents and poor decisions. Over the course of sorting out the library, which Vance reluctantly begins to assist with (though far less reluctantly before long), the two begin to consider each other and their own behaviour and decisions in a different light, and begin to bond over the Starfield books that Rosie adores and are part of the universe that Vance is inhabiting in his role as Ambrose Sond.

As seen previously, particularly in The Princess and the Fangirl, the story contains commentary on clichés within literature and media, and the relationship between creators, their works and their fans. Bookish and the Beast looks at redemption arcs in particular, bad and ‘evil’, and how the portrayal of true love and destiny could use some more complexity and the subverting of expectations. It also contains an excellent range of representation, handles dealing with grief in a sensitive manner, and has relationships written with real warmth and an ease of affection that makes the characters a joy to read about. As with the other Once Upon a Con books, this was another that I didn’t want to end, and I hope this isn’t the last we see set in this universe.

Though each of the books in the series follows a different set of characters in the spotlight, what I love about each new instalment is that we get to hear about the characters from previous novels and encounter those the reader has heard about or has had perhaps a more minor role in a different way. For example, in Bookish and the Beast, the reader learns what is happening between Darien and Elle and what is impacting their relationship, and Imogen and others from The Princess and the Fangirl also get some screen time and have a hand in how events play out. Each of the universes (for is the series not a story about a story, about a story?) is connected nicely and there is an excellent sense of continuity, both in the ‘real’ world and the imagined series, the making and the fandom of which brings the characters together.

Bookish and the Beast is out on August 4th and is the perfect variety of warm-hearted escapism that we could all do with right now. I would recommend picking up the whole series, but each book can be read as a standalone story and doesn’t rely heavily on prior knowledge about particular characters. Thank you, Quirk Books, for sending me an ARC!