Mini Reviews #8

I didn’t mean to abandon this blog for as long as I did, but academic reading has had to take priority over my favoured fiction! But it seems to come and go in waves, so I’m looking forward to getting caught up this week on some novels I’ve been meaning to get to. I hope all is going well with you, dear readers. The end of the year seems to be fast-approaching, much to my terror.

A Change Is Gonna Come

a change is gonna comeFeaturing top Young Adult authors alongside a host of exciting new talent, this anthology of stories and poetry from BAME writers on the theme of change is a long-overdue addition to the YA scene. Contributors include Tanya Byrne, Inua Ellams, Catherine Johnson, Patrice Lawrence, Ayisha Malik, Irfan Master, Musa Okwonga and Nikesh Shukla.

Plus introducing four fresh new voices in YA fiction: Mary Bello, Aisha Bushby, Yasmin Rahman and Phoebe Roy.

Rating: 3.5/5

This is truly a much-needed addition to the growing trend of of YA anthologies. A Change is Gonna Come is collection of poetry and short-stories by UK-based black and other minority ethnic authors. The stories contained within this volume are varied and interesting, featuring protagonists from a wide range of backgrounds: from a girl with anxiety and OCD, to a blind boy who discovers wormholes and time travel. The running theme is, as the title suggests, on the idea of change – whether in the course of an individual’s life, or in the wide scheme of global politics, which is, to use 2016’s word of the year, a dumpster fire. My only issue is that I find it quite difficult, on occasion, to connect with short story collections, but this is very much a fault of mine, not the book’s.

Daisy in Chains – Sharon Bolton

daisy in chains

Famous killers have fan clubs.

Hamish Wolfe is no different. Locked up for the rest of his life for the abduction and murder of three young women, he gets countless adoring letters every day. He’s handsome, charismatic and very persuasive. His admirers are convinced he’s innocent, and that he’s the man of their dreams.

Who would join such a club?

Maggie Rose is different. Reclusive and enigmatic; a successful lawyer and bestselling true-crime writer, she only takes on cases that she can win.

Hamish wants her as his lawyer, he wants her to change his fate. She thinks she’s immune to the charms of a man like this. But maybe not this time . . .

Would you? 

Rating: 4/5

I could absolutely kick myself for spoiling the ending for myself. KICK MYSELF, I SAY. Because if I hadn’t done that, I wouldn’t have guessed the ‘twist’ until the author chose to reveal it. The book was an easy read – the author has a style that flows well and manages to build up the suspense while giving sufficient attention to both her characters and world-building. Chilling and intriguing.

Love – Toni Morrison

love toni morrisonNobel Prize laureate Toni Morrison’s spellbinding new novel is a Faulknerian symphony of passion and hatred, power and perversity, color and class that spans three generations of black women in a fading beach town.

In life, Bill Cosey enjoyed the affections of many women, who would do almost anything to gain his favor. In death his hold on them may be even stronger. Wife, daughter, granddaughter, employee, mistress: As Morrison’s protagonists stake their furious claim on Cosey’s memory and estate, using everything from intrigue to outright violence, she creates a work that is shrewd, funny, erotic, and heartwrenching.

Rating: 4/5

Toni Morrison has such an incredible, compelling writing style. This is my third book of hers, and I’m determined to make my way through her repertoire. She weaves mystery throughout her novels, revealing the crux only near the end, and sometimes, never at all. It would do a disservice to the women in this particular novel to say their lives revolved around the dead patriarch, Bill Cosey. While he did have a major influence on their lives, the book is more a tale of sisterhood and occasionally the lack thereof; the strength of women; their burdens and sacrifices and rivalries.

The planners believed that dark people would do fewer dark things if there were twice as many streetlamps as anywhere else. Only in fine neighbourhoods and the country were people entrusted to shadow. 

Jigs & Reels – Joanne Harris

jigs & reelsEach of the twenty-two tales in this enchanting collection is a surprise and a delight, melding the poignant and the possible with the outrageous, the magical, and, sometimes, the eerily haunting. Wolf men, dolphin women, defiant old ladies, and middle-aged manufacturers of erotic leatherwear — in Jigs & Reels the miraculous goes hand in hand with the mundane, the sour with the sweet, and the beautiful, the grotesque, the seductive, and the disturbing are never more than one step away. Whether she’s exploring the myth of beauty, the pain of infidelity, or the wonder of late-life romance, Joanne Harris once again proves herself a master of the storyteller’s trade.

Rating: 4/5

Now this was one short story collection that I adored. Joanne Harris proves that she’s not only adept at this particular medium, but also that she can take on any genre and excel at it. Jigs & Reels contains a veritable treasure trove of tales, including geriatric escapees; fairytale villains; sinister food; dystopian tales of our potential future modern society; a writer who ends up as a character in his own unfinished works; a live action roleplay game with a murderous component….and much, much more.

Stories do not die, but are simply reincarnated every generation or so into a different time or idiom. 

Review: Saga (Vols 1-4) – Brian K. Vaughan & Fiona Staples

saga review

When two soldiers from opposite sides of a never-ending galactic war fall in love, they risk everything to bring a fragile new life into a dangerous old universe. 

From bestselling writer Brian K. Vaughan, Saga is the sweeping tale of one young family fighting to find their place in the worlds. Fantasy and science fiction are wed like never before in this sexy, subversive drama for adults. 

Rating: 4.5/5

Yes, I know I’m late to the party, okay? But I could never afford to buy the graphic novels – although I was curious from the extracts I’d seen – and then I discovered them at my new local library. And promptly devoured four volumes in two days. I have the next few on reserve.

The verdict? THESE ARE AWESOME. I love the plot, I love the art, I love the story arcs and I love character developments. I mean, I could end the review right here and now.

Star-crossed lovers is a hella fun trope, but it sets in place a wild adventure for our protagonists Marko and Alana, along with their newborn daughter, Hazel. In the first volume, they’re pursued by the armies of both their countries, as well as a series of private contractors, relatives and monsters of all kind. Amidst all the chaos of survival are small moments of peace, as the new parents revel in their grown family. There are also unlikely allies to help them out along the way.

In subsequent volumes, we learn more about the supporting cast – indeed, I’ve become really invested in their future arcs just as much as those of our main protagonists. There’s action, romance, comedy, politics and epic sci-fi shenanigans. What I’ve read so far has a perfect balance of all the necessary elements, and I’m so impatient to get my greedy hands on the next volumes.

Review: The Fact of a Body: A Murder and a Memoir – Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich

the fact of a bodyBefore Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich begins a summer job at a law firm in Louisiana, working to help defend men accused of murder, she thinks her position is clear. The child of two lawyers, she is staunchly anti-death penalty. But the moment convicted murderer Ricky Langley’s face flashes on the screen as she reviews old tapes―the moment she hears him speak of his crimes―she is overcome with the feeling of wanting him to die. Shocked by her reaction, she digs deeper and deeper into the case. Despite their vastly different circumstances, something in his story is unsettlingly, uncannily familiar.

Crime, even the darkest and most unsayable acts, can happen to any one of us. As Alexandria pores over the facts of the murder, she finds herself thrust into the complicated narrative of Ricky’s childhood. And by examining the details of Ricky’s case, she is forced to face her own story, to unearth long-buried family secrets, and reckon with a past that colors her view of Ricky’s crime.

But another surprise awaits: She wasn’t the only one who saw her life in Ricky’s.

An intellectual and emotional thriller that is also a different kind of murder mystery, The Fact Of a Body is a book not only about how the story of one crime was constructed―but about how we grapple with our own personal histories. Along the way it tackles questions about the nature of forgiveness, and if a single narrative can ever really contain something as definitive as the truth. This groundbreaking, heart-stopping work, ten years in the making, shows how the law is more personal than we would like to believe―and the truth more complicated, and powerful, than we could ever imagine.

Rating: 4/5

The Fact of a Body, as many reviewers have noted, is a difficult read. This is largely due to the nature of the subject matter, and the narrative style which gives the heavy material its due. But it’s also a stellar, searching read, making you question at each step – what would I do in this situation?

But I didn’t understand then that the law doesn’t find the beginning any more than it finds the truth. It creates story. That story has a beginning. That story simplifies, and we call it truth.

There are two parallel story arcs in this book. The first is the case of a murdered child, with an in-depth look at the life of the perpetrator, as well as the investigation surrounding the crime. The author really delves into each situation, narrating as if she was there, reconstructing the scenes as best as possible from her extensive research.

The second narrative arc deals with the author’s family history and her own experience of child abuse, which she is forced to confront. She conducts her research with the knowledge that Ricky Langley is also a confessed paedophile who molested children prior to his arrest for murder. Going through his past crimes is a harrowing experience, both for the reader and the author in her quest to understand this particular man; this particular crime.

The people face being asked to make an unimaginable decision. There is no other situation in which we ask a civilian to decide if someone will live or die.

While you may have very set views on the death penalty, I think the book will still make you think long and hard about so many of the topics that are relevant here – how we fail people who seek help, the lack of rehabilitation and resources for those who need it, the nature of forgiveness and redemption.

Criminal law doesn’t care where the story began. But how you tell the story has everything to do with how you judge. Begin Ricky’s story with the murder – and it means one thing. Begin it with the crash – and it means another.

The book is a slow read, but not one to give up on. It’s a compelling, real-life mystery that gives great insight into the workings of the American legal system; into a forgotten small-town crime; into the mind of one lawyer/writer who grapples with a multitude of narratives, both personal and professional, in pursuit of the truth.

People think the robe protects you. It doesn’t protect you. Not from the stories.

Two mini romance reviews: Bring the Heat – GA Aiken & The Demon Prince – Ann Aguirre

Hi all! I’m slowly adjusting to life in Sweden – and got my membership card to the really lovely local library, which has, to its credit – an English language section, and an indoor fountain. You can follow my personal instagram if you want to see scenery pics and the like, and I also have a bookstagram for those who enjoy book quotes, library-type pictures and whatever else it is we book lovers share on there!

Now, time for some romance reads, because we haven’t had any of those for a while.

Bring the Heat (Dragon Kin #9)  – G.A. Aiken

bring the heatHE SAYS . . .
I, Aidan the Divine, am . . . well, divine. My name was given to me by the Dragon Queen herself! I’m a delight! Cheerful. Charming. And a mighty warrior who is extremely handsome, with a very large and well-hidden hoard of gold. I am also royal-born, despite the fact that most in my family are horrendous beings who don’t deserve to live. And yet, Branwen the Awful—a low-born, no less—either tells me to shut up or, worse, ignores me completely.

SHE SAYS . . .
I’ll admit, I ignore Aidan the Divine because it annoys him. A lot. But we have so much to do right now, I can’t worry about why he keeps staring at me, or why he always sits so close, or why he keeps looking at me like he’s thinking about kissing me. We have our nations to save and no time for such bloody foolishness . . . no matter how good Aidan looks or how long his spiked tail is. Because if we’re going to win this war before it destroys everything we love, we’ll have to face our enemies together, side by side and without distractions. But if we make it out alive, who knows what the future will hold . . . 

Rating: 4/5

This series is like crack to me. Both in its addictiveness, and in the sheer over-the-top antics. Listen, don’t use it as a model for your own real-life relationships – there’s a lot of hitting people over the head or tossing them off mountains and the like. But it’s the exaggerated nature of the banter and interactions, both between the main pairing and the giant clan of relatives and friends they belong to, which make it so much fun. Furthermore, even though there is a romance pairing in each book, the plot arc has been developed really well all the way through the series. Things have gotten more and more dire in each installment, despite the comedy, and I’m interested to see how many more books there will be, and how everything will end up resolved. It’s highly entertaining, with some great insults, and the cast of characters have become like familiar friends – it’s great getting to see how they have matured (or not!) in the time jumps between the books.

Free copy received from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. 

The Demon Prince (Ars Numina #2) – Ann Aguirre

the demon princeCharming. Irreverent. Haunted.
Alastor Vega is the sole challenger in a brutal battle for succession. Against all odds, he must stop his power-mad brother, Tycho, before he destroys the Numina. Though he never wanted to rule, he must claim the throne and liberate his people, or the consequences will be calamitous. Yet only the surprising support of a beautiful Animari doctor gives him the fortitude to fight.

Focused. Analytical. Solitary.
Dr. Sheyla Halek has always been more interested in research than personal contact, but family ties—and the needs of her pride—keep her in Ash Valley, deferring her dreams. Brusque and abrasive at the best of times, she never expected to bond with anyone, let alone Golgoth royalty. Strangely, Alastor seems to need her as no one has before, and not only for her medical skills.

Their attraction is forbidden, likely doomed beyond the wildness of wartime, but these fires burn too hot and sweet to be contained…

Rating: 4/5

I’m quite surprised that this series has flown under the radar for the most part, because Aguirre is such a prolific author. I can only assume it’s because she’s self-publishing these. Anyway, if you enjoy paranormal romance, then I’d definitely recommend getting stuck into this one. I’m a sucker for forced cooperation between groups in the face of a greater threat, and that’s the backdrop for the worldbuilding in the series. The author also switches up some of the traditional m/f dynamics rather nicely, and the main pairing are both delightful in their own ways. Swoony and entertaining, with rational characters who generally communicate and act like adults instead of creating unnecessary drama – this was a good pick from me!

Sheyla had always been mildly baffled by the urge to shackle yourself to the same person for a lifetime, and while she wouldn’t go as far as to say she got the concept now, it was looking less like voluntary incarceration all the time. 

Blog Tour: The Brightest Fell

Brightest Fell Blog Tour banner

I’m so excited to be taking part in the blog tour for The Brightest Fell, the eleventh installment in the October Daye urban fantasy series by Seanan McGuire.

You can see my glowing review for the book here. 

Today I bring you a Q&A with the author, as well as an excerpt from the upcoming book, which releases on September 5th, 2017.

Q&A with Seanan McGuire

There are so many details and twists revealed throughout the series – did you plot them all out back when you were working on Rosemary & Rue, or make it up as you went along?

Both.  What I call the “big picture” has been plotted since the beginning, but I try to let everything else flux and breathe as necessary.  I’ve grown as a writer since the series started, and I have to leave myself room to keep improving.

How was the experience of writing this book, now that you’re 11 (amazing!) books in? Is it easier to slip back in to a familiar world, or more difficult to keep the momentum going?

It’s honestly easier to slip back into a familiar world.  I’m better at writing that many words in a row, and returning to Toby is always like coming home.

Without spoilers, can you describe a little about the book in terms of what it means for our characters, Toby in particular – especially in terms of the ultimate endgame?

No, I really can’t.  The endgame is still coming into focus for most characters—and most readers—and if I say “here is the thing that is important,” suddenly everyone’s attention shifts.  It’s better to read for yourself!

Your supporting cast are all so vivid, and the many novellas you’ve written to supplement the series are testament to that. I get the impression that there’s so much more of the universe/character stories that for obvious reasons can’t make it into the final cut?

The books are inherently limited to what Toby sees.  We’ve started doing the novellas in part because people don’t stay frozen when she’s not looking—they move and grow and change, and I don’t want that to be confusing for readers.  So we’re starting to widen what we see a little bit, to make things easier to follow.

Which character is the most fun to write? (Or write about? Spike always makes me chuckle, for one!)

Most fun to write is, thankfully, Toby.  It would be awful if she didn’t make me happy, given that I’m sort of stuck with her for the foreseeable future.  Good thing I love her so much.

Excerpt

Angels are bright still, though the brightest fell .—William Shakespeare, Macbeth.

THE FETCH IS ONE of the most feared and least understood figures in Faerie. Their appearance heralds the approach of inescapable death: once the Fetch shows up, there’s nothing that can be done. The mechanism that summons them has never been found, and they’ve always been rare, with only five conclusively identified in the last century. They appear for the supposedly significant—kings and queens, heroes and villains—and they wear the faces of the people they have come to escort into whatever awaits the fae beyond the borders of death. They are temporary, transitory, and terrifying.

My Fetch, who voluntarily goes by “May Daye,” because nothing says “I am a serious and terrible death omen” like having a pun for a name, showed up more than three years ago. She was supposed to foretell my impending doom. Instead, all she managed to foretell was me getting a new roommate. Life can be funny that way.

At the moment, doom might have been a nice change. May was standing on the stage of The Mint, San Francisco’s finest karaoke bar, enthusiastically bellowing her way through an off- key rendition of Melissa Etheridge’s “Come to My Window.” Her live-in girlfriend, Jazz, was sitting at one of the tables closest to the stage, chin propped in her hands, gazing at May with love and adoration all out of proportion to the quality of my Fetch’s singing.

May has the face I wore when she appeared. We don’t look much alike anymore, but when she first showed up at my apartment door to tell me I was going to die, we were identical. She has my memories up to the point of her creation: years upon years of parental issues, crushing insecurity, abandonment, and criminal activities. And right now, none of that mattered half as much as the fact that she also had my absolute inability to carry a tune.

“Why are we having my bachelorette party at a karaoke bar again?” I asked, speaking around the mouth of the beer bottle I was trying to keep constantly against my lips. If I was drinking, I wasn’t singing. If I wasn’t singing, all these people might still be my friends in the morning.

Of course, with as much as most of them had already had to drink, they probably wouldn’t notice if I did sing. Or if I decided to sneak out of the bar, go home, change into my sweatpants, and watch old movies on the couch until I passed out. Which would have been my preference for how my bachelorette party was going to go, if I absolutely had to have one. I didn’t think they were required. May had disagreed with me. Vehemently. And okay, that had sort of been expected.

What I hadn’t expected was for most of my traitorous, backstabbing friends to take her side. Stacy—one of my closest friends since childhood—had actually laughed in my face when I demanded to know why she was doing this to me.

“Being your friend is like trying to get up close and personal with a natural disaster,” she’d said. “Sure, we have some good times, but we spend half of them covered in blood. We just want to spend an evening making you as uncomfortable as you keep making the rest of us.”

Not to be outdone, her eldest daughter, Cassandra, had blithely added, “Besides, we don’t think even you can turn a karaoke party into a bloodbath.”

All of my friends are evil.

As my Fetch and hence the closest thing I had to a sister, May had declared herself to be in charge of the whole affair. That was how we’d wound up reserving most of the tables at The Mint for an all-night celebration of the fact that I was getting married. Even though we didn’t have a date, a plan, or a seating chart, we were having a bachelorette party. Lucky, lucky me.

My name is October Daye. I am a changeling; I am a knight; I am a hero of the realm; and if I never have to hear Stacy sing Journey songs again, it will be too soon.

So there you have it, my lovelies. And if you are not up to date with this awesome UF series, might I suggest beginning your journey with the first book, Rosemary & Rue?

Review: Shattered Minds (Pacifica) – Laura Lam

shattered mindsShe can uncover the truth, if she defeats her demons

Ex-neuroscientist Carina struggles with a drug problem, her conscience, and urges to kill. She satisfies her cravings in dreams, fuelled by the addictive drug ‘Zeal’. Now she’s heading for self-destruction – until she has a vision of a dead girl.

Sudice Inc. damaged Carina when she worked on their sinister brain-mapping project, causing her violent compulsions. And this girl was a similar experiment. When Carina realizes the vision was planted by her old colleague Mark, desperate for help to expose the company, she knows he’s probably dead. Her only hope is to unmask her nemesis – or she’s next.

To unlock the secrets Mark hid in her mind, she’ll need a group of specialist hackers. Dax is one of them, a doctor who can help Carina fight her addictions. If she holds on to her humanity, they might even have a future together. But first she must destroy her adversary – before it changes us and our society, forever.

Rating: 4.5/5

Fantastically entertaining, fast-paced science fiction that I didn’t want to put down. Lam has created a novel with the perfect balance of worldbuilding, action and character insights. And for most of us, reading about renegade hacker groups fighting against the system is like catnip.

Pacifica pretends it’s a haven – no crime, no murders. Peel back a thin layer, and look at what’s exposed.

We’re introduced to Carina Kearney, ex-neurosurgeon and current addict, who acts out her murderous fantasies in drug-induced dreams to avoid actually perpetrating them in real life. As a young girl, she underwent brain modification by a company working on all kinds of neuro-based experiments – which left her permanently altered, unable to feel appropriate human emotions. Later, she went on to work for the same company, Sudice Inc, but left her job in murky circumstances.

As her life falls apart, Carina is sent batches of information from her ex-colleague, which will enable her to expose the company that has ruined her, and the lives of so many others. Only problem is, she can’t access it without the help of a group called the Trust, working to try bring Sudice Inc down. Initially distrustful of each other – as they well should be – Carina and the other members, Charlie, Raf and Dax, soon establish something of a camaraderie.

“Either this will work or we will all die spectacularly,” Raf says, remarkably cheerful.

While the novel does move back and forth in time, between the current mission and events leading up to it, as well as switching perspectives, it doesn’t slow the pace down – which is often something which can happen with this technique.

I also have to just point out this little character description, which had me tickled pink:

Clavell was scouted on a visit with his family to Los Angeles. He starred in his first film, Actually, Love, where he played a misogynist internet troll who falls in love with a feminist online. 

During the course of their mission, as it were – setting up the downfall of Sudice Inc while Carina tries to retrieve the packages of information attached to five of her significant memories – things don’t always run smoothly. The team are constantly watching their backs and covering their footsteps, making agonising decisions about leaving the injured behind and killing their opponents in the name of the bigger picture – the moral grey is everywhere.

“We can’t do it all,” Charlie says. “It’s not up to us to fix everything that’s wrong with Pacifica and the rest of the world. We do what we can, and hope everyone else steps up.”

Shattered Minds gifts us with a strong cast of diverse characters, a pleasing plot about bringing down a corporate behemoth, and some important underlying messages about how far you’re prepared to turn a blind eye.

Carina feels alive. Her fingers tingle. It’s not the same as hunting  a person, but it’s still thrilling. She’s killing a company. An idea. She’s going to watch it all bleed out. 

***

ARC received from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. Quotes taken from uncorrected proof and may differ from final publication. 

Review: Who Thought This Was a Good Idea? – Alyssa Mastromonaco

who thought this was a good ideaIf your funny older sister were the former deputy chief of staff to President Barack Obama, her behind-the-scenes political memoir would look something like this… 

Alyssa Mastromonaco worked for Barack Obama for almost a decade, and long before his run for president. From the then-senator’s early days in Congress to his years in the Oval Office, she made Hope and Change happen through blood, sweat, tears, and lots of briefing binders.

But for every historic occasion-meeting the queen at Buckingham Palace, bursting in on secret climate talks, or nailing a campaign speech in a hailstorm-there were dozens of less-than-perfect moments when it was up to Alyssa to save the day. Like the time she learned the hard way that there aren’t nearly enough bathrooms at the Vatican.

Full of hilarious, never-before-told stories, WHO THOUGHT THIS WAS A GOOD IDEA? is an intimate portrait of a president, a book about how to get stuff done, and the story of how one woman challenged, again and again, what a “White House official” is supposed to look like. Here Alyssa shares the strategies that made her successful in politics and beyond, including the importance of confidence, the value of not being a jerk, and why ultimately everything comes down to hard work (and always carrying a spare tampon).

Told in a smart, original voice and topped off with a couple of really good cat stories, WHO THOUGHT THIS WAS A GOOD IDEA? is a promising debut from a savvy political star.

Rating: 4/5

This was a highly entertaining memoir. It did feel a little light at times, in terms of the behind the scenes political strategising and insights into Obama, but as a Guardian review I read noted, Mastromonaco hasn’t ruled out returning to politics – so you can’t go burning all your bridges and divulging things which should rather stay hidden.

The book isn’t written chronologically, but rather organised into chapters focusing on a particular theme or lesson she learnt along the way. And this works for me, since following a format from cradle to grave can very often bore me.

Essentially, Who Thought This Was a Good Idea? is part insight into Alyssa and her career, anecdotes from her time in politics, particularly her time spent in the White House, as well as some humorous commentary and pieces of career advice for young women (Advice, which quite frankly, boils down to persevere, work hard, and stand up for yourself.) Although this did resonate with me:

Forward motion is always better than no motion – even if you don’t think it’s taking you in the direction you wanted to go.

Due to all the above elements included, I wouldn’t classify this as a hardcore political memoir, but it does seem that there is a dearth of contributions from women in this subgenre. (Probably due to a dearth of female politicians/strategists in what still seems to be an old boys club in many countries.) And like I mentioned, I really enjoyed reading this book. Mastromonaco has an approachable style, and it was incredibly interesting reading about her experiences, the people she met and the problems she had to solve.

I also like the fact that she is matter of fact about her achievements. She doesn’t boast, but she doesn’t overplay them. She worked hard to get where she did. And I think it’s something many of us struggle with – the balance between being proud without being conceited.

Finally, something that stood out for me was her openness about her struggles with IBS. As a fellow-sufferer, I was clenching my gut in sympathy reading about her digestive near-misses. Seriously, it feels like digestive issues are the final frontier of health issues we need to stop shying away from discussing in public.

By this point in my career at the White House, most of the senior staff knew about my IBS; I once had to have Ben Rhodes, the deputy national security advisor, watch the bathroom door for me at Hamid Karzai’s palace while two Afghan guards played cards and smoked on the other side of it. This kind of thing really breaks down barriers with people. When you tell someone, “Here’s the thing: I might have to shit on this helicopter,” and they don’t shun you afterward, you have a friend for life.

***

Free copy received from Edelweiss in exchange for an honest review. Quotes taken from uncorrected proof and may differ from final publication.

Hold Me Down (Carolina Girls #1) – Sara Taylor Woods

hold me downTalia Benson has always been independent, unafraid to go after what she wants, regardless of setback, injury, or failure. But between her father’s conditional tuition payments and her mother’s nagging concern over her emotional state, Talia’s suffocating.

So when Talia meets doctoral student Sean Poole, she can’t figure out why she wants him to control her. Why she wants him to boss her around. Why she wants him to hurt her.

Talia learns the hard way that not all control is created equal, and sometimes submitting is the most empowering thing in the world.

Rating: 4/5

I discovered this book after some glowing reviews on Twitter, and am really glad that I picked it up! A slight departure from my usual fare, but as you have have noticed by now, I really do enjoy reading far and wide. On Goodreads, Hold Me Down is categorised as romance, erotica, and new adult respectively, so if you have any interest in these genres, support an indie author.

The book features strong female friendship, a focus on the importance of communication (in all aspects of one’s life, not just in le bedroom), character growth, and great banter.

“Your social acumen never fails to astonish me.”
“I spend way more time socialising than you do,” she said. “Doing it through an internet connection doesn’t invalidate it as a social experience.”
“I feel like you’ve been waiting to use that line on me for a long time.”

There are two main elements to this book that make it stand out from its contemporaries.

Firstly, the much-needed discussion of BDSM, specifically those who enjoy it, and the lingering feeling, either by those who participate or those look in from outside and judge, that there is something psychologically ‘wrong’ with them.

“I think telling me my tastes are dysfunctional because they’re not yours is overly simplistic.”

There’s a lot of discussion with a not particularly-understanding therapist, family members, Talia’s best friend, and her love interest Sean, working through the intricacies and implications of those who gain pleasure from pain.

Secondly, Talia comes from a Jewish background, and her religious traditions are entrenched in the story. Not in a forced way, like Judaism 101, but rather in a way that feels organic. And this makes such a change, a fantastic part of the growing movement of readers and writers demanding more diverse stories.

This is what I believe: I believe in strength through faith. I believe in compassion and freedom. I believe in the lessons of history, and I believe in learning from mistakes, and I believe in not ignoring what’s right in front of you. I believe in deliverance and second chances. I believe some wonders are undeniable, no matter how hard you try to deny them.

By the end of the book though, Talia seems to be in a much more settled place, having made peace with her inner self, set boundaries between herself and the judgement of her family, and learnt how to express herself when needed with Sean, instead of keeping silent or running away.

“Always talk to me,” he said. “Always be honest with me. Tell me what you’re thinking, what you’re worried about. It’s never an imposition or a burden. I want to be here for you, and I want to support you, and help you where I can, but I can’t do any of that if you won’t talk to me. I’m good, but I’m not a mind-reader.”

August releases on my radar + Life update

Hello dear readers. Can you believe it’s August already?

With a new month comes some terrifying new life changes. I’m moving from South Africa to Sweden in less than two weeks time to do my masters in the field of politics/international relations (Specifically, it’s called Ethnic and Migration Studies). So, I am xanax’d up to the gills (legal prescriptions, I promise!) because apparently my subconscious doesn’t handle change very well. Two words: stress vomiting. We’ll leave it at that.

Anyway, I can’t decide if this change means I’ll have more time to blog (i.e. not working a 9-5 anymore and being too tired to review when I get home) or if my poor eyes will get so sick of all the academic reading that I won’t feel like picking up another book again. We shall see.

But a new month means new books – not that I will be buying all of them, but I certainly have a hell of a lot of eARCs to catch up on. Here are my three highlights for the month, however.august book releases

The Stone Sky (The Broken Earth #3) – NK Jemisin

THIS IS THE WAY THE WORLD ENDS… FOR THE LAST TIME.

The Moon will soon return. Whether this heralds the destruction of humankind or something worse will depend on two women.

Essun has inherited the power of Alabaster Tenring. With it, she hopes to find her daughter Nassun and forge a world in which every orogene child can grow up safe.

For Nassun, her mother’s mastery of the Obelisk Gate comes too late. She has seen the evil of the world, and accepted what her mother will not admit: that sometimes what is corrupt cannot be cleansed, only destroyed.

A breathtakingly original and refreshing blend of science fiction and fantasy. You can check out my reviews for book 1, The Fifth Season, and book 2, The Obelisk Gate, to get a better idea of what the series is about.

When I Am Through With You – Stephanie Kuehn

“This isn’t meant to be a confession. Not in any spiritual sense of the word. Yes, I’m in jail at the moment. I imagine I’ll be here for a long time, considering. But I’m not writing this down for absolution and I’m not seeking forgiveness, not even from myself. Because I’m not sorry for what I did to Rose. I’m just not. Not for any of it.”

Ben Gibson is many things, but he’s not sorry and he’s not a liar. He will tell you exactly about what happened on what started as a simple school camping trip in the mountains. About who lived and who died. About who killed and who had the best of intentions. But he’s going to tell you in his own time. Because after what happened on that mountain, time is the one thing he has plenty of. 

Stephanie Kuehn manages to fuck with my mind every single time, pardon my french. I am waiting in breathless anticipation to see what twisty machinations she has up her sleeve this time. Truly one of the strongest YA mystery/thriller writers out there.

Spellbook of the Lost and Found – Moïra Fowley-Doyle

One stormy Irish summer night, Olive and her best friend, Rose, begin to lose things. It starts with simple items like hairclips and jewelry, but soon it’s clear that Rose has lost something much bigger, something she won’t talk about, and Olive thinks her best friend is slipping away.

Then seductive diary pages written by a girl named Laurel begin to appear all over town. And Olive meets three mysterious strangers: Ivy, Hazel, and her twin brother, Rowan, secretly squatting in an abandoned housing estate. The trio are wild and alluring, but they seem lost too—and like Rose, they’re holding tight to painful secrets.

When they discover the spellbook, it changes everything. Damp, tattered and ancient, it’s full of hand-inked charms to conjure back things that have been lost. And it just might be their chance to find what they each need to set everything back to rights.

Unless it’s leading them toward things that were never meant to be found… 

I adored the author’s beautifully-written debut. Her style seems to be a combination of magical realism and mystery, combined with genuine moments of friendship and family.

Others on my list:

  • Young Jane Young – Gabrielle Zevin
  • The Heart’s Invisible Furies – John Boyne
  • In Other Lands – Sarah Rees Brennan
  • Blight – Alexandra Duncan
  • Forest Dark – Nicole Krauss
  • Wicked Like a Wildfire – Lana Popović

What books are you most looking forward to this month? Let me know!

Mini reviews: To all the books I meant to review but didn’t

Ahem. Sometimes you get behind in reviews. Sometimes you don’t have enough to say about them to constitute an entire review. Sometimes you just weren’t in the mood to write one at the time. This post is pretty much a combination of these. And I see a few more heading your way in the future, ha.

The Good Daughter – Alexandra Burt

the good daughterWhat if you were the worst crime your mother ever committed? 

Dahlia Waller’s childhood memories consist of stuffy cars, seedy motels, and a rootless existence traveling the country with her eccentric mother. Now grown, she desperately wants to distance herself from that life. Yet one thing is stopping her from moving forward: she has questions. 

In order to understand her past, Dahlia must go back. Back to her mother in the stifling town of Aurora, Texas. Back into the past of a woman on the brink of madness. But after she discovers three grave-like mounds on a neighboring farm, she ll learn that in her mother s world of secrets, not all questions are meant to be answered… 

Rating: 2/5

An interesting concept, but the execution, pardon the pun, was fairly lacklustre. With some better editing, this book could have been cut down by a hundred pages or so and been all the more suspenseful for it. There was just so much unnecessary filler. I love me some slow atmospheric mystery novels, don’t get me wrong (Jane Harper’s The Dry is an excellent example of how this can be done) – but The Good Daughter just took far too long to get us there. The reader could join the dots long before some of the reveals. Finally, I was expecting some kind of connection between the two cases going on, but there was nothing, which felt a bit strange to me.

Free copy received from Jonathan Ball Publishers in exchange for an honest review. 

Reasons to Stay Alive – Matt Haig

reasons to stay aliveReasons to Stay Alive is about making the most of your time on earth. In the western world the suicide rate is highest amongst men under the age of 35. Matt Haig could have added to that statistic when, aged 24, he found himself staring at a cliff-edge about to jump off. This is the story of why he didn’t, how he recovered and learned to live with anxiety and depression. It’s also an upbeat, joyous and very funny exploration of how live better, love better, read better and feel more. 

Rating: 4/5

This was the book I needed 7 years ago, in the midst of a nervous breakdown where I eventually ended up dropping out of university for a year to recover. It wasn’t the book I needed right now, but it’s comforting to know it exists. I know that mental illness can come in waves, and I know I may very well need it in the future. Haig tells of his own experience with anxiety and depression, interspersed with suggestions on what worked for him, and ruminations on mental illness and how much of it is connected to modern life. It’s definitely worth a space on your bookshelf.

The evolutionary psychologists might be right. We humans might have evolved too far. The price for being intelligent enough to be the first species to be fully aware of the cosmos might just be a capacity to feel a whole universe’s worth of darkness. 

Notes from a Big Country – Bill Bryson

notes from a big countryBill Bryson has the rare knack of being out of his depth wherever he goes – even (perhaps especially) in the land of his birth. This became all too apparent when, after nearly two decades in England, the world’s best-loved travel writer upped sticks with Mrs Bryson, little Jimmy et al. and returned to live in the country he had left as a youth.

Of course there were things Bryson missed about Blighty but any sense of loss was countered by the joy of rediscovering some of the forgotten treasures of his childhood: the glories of a New England autumn; the pleasingly comical sight of oneself in shorts; and motel rooms where you can generally count on being awakened in the night by a piercing shriek and the sound of a female voice pleading, ‘Put the gun down, Vinnie, I’ll do anything you say.’

Whether discussing the strange appeal of breakfast pizza or the jaw-slackening direness of American TV, Bill Bryson brings his inimitable brand of bemused wit to bear on that strangest of phenomena – the American way of life.

Rating: 3/5

I just had to chuckle in despair when I read this book, a collection of short essays. As it was written in the mid nineties, all I could think of was ‘Oh Bill, you ain’t seen nothing yet.’ And not just the humorous nostalgia of internet dial-up, junk mail adverts and catalogues, diners and motels, endless bureaucracy, labour-saving appliances, and all those other weird and wonderful elements that characterise the decade of my childhood. Rather, I refer to the political commentary he slyly interjects into most of his pieces – with the hope that twenty years later, the land of his birth may have made some progress in these matters.

I don’t want to get heavy here, but given the choice between free iced water at restaurants and, let us say, a national health service, I have to say my instinct is to go with the latter. 

Done Dirt Cheap – Sarah Lemon

done dirt cheapTourmaline Harris’s life hit pause at fifteen, when her mom went to prison because of Tourmaline’s unintentionally damning testimony. But at eighteen, her home life is stable, and she has a strong relationship with her father, the president of a local biker club known as the Wardens.

Virginia Campbell’s life hit fast-forward at fifteen, when her mom “sold” her into the services of a local lawyer: a man for whom the law is merely a suggestion. When Hazard sets his sights on dismantling the Wardens, he sends in Virginia, who has every intention of selling out the club—and Tourmaline. But the two girls are stronger than the circumstances that brought them together, and their resilience defines the friendship at the heart of this powerful debut novel.

Unrated

I am conflicted with this one – on one hand, it’s a fun, entertaining YA novel entered on female friendships, young women navigating their way in what is very much a macho world. There’s some madcap adventure, romantic suspense and superb teamwork. The author also has a really enjoyable writing style.

On the other hand, there are two elements in the book that can be considered problematic. First, while both girls are of legal age, the one romantic relationship features a ten year age gap. So keep that in mind. Secondly, the other love interest is black, and the new recruit to the motorcycle club, who takes on the grunt work and isn’t referred to by his name during his probation period. While the author does try delve into this in a conversation between the pair, Tourmaline and Cash, the whole scenario has me feeling uncomfortable considering the history of the American South. Again, something to keep in mind, and I would suggest deferring to the reviews of those more qualified than myself to make a judgement call on this.