Blog Tour: The Christmas Wedding Guest by Susan Mallery

Blog Tour: The Christmas Wedding Guest by Susan Mallery

‘A year since she was dumped by her fiancé, the last thing Reggie Somerville wants is to come back home for Christmas. But when her parents announce their plans for a lavish Christmas wedding she has no choice. She expects to face town gossip, she does not expect to run into her first love Toby, or deal with the feelings he stirs in her…

Dena Somerville is single and pregnant-on purpose. Wanting a family her way she’s determined to do it alone. She didn’t expect the distraction of a handsome musician checking into her inn-and one snow-kissed moment-to make her question what she really wants this Christmas…

As the Christmas wedding draws closer, these two sisters may just find the most unexpected gift of all—love.’

The Christmas Wedding Guest is a cute and fun read that primarily follows the lives of sisters Reggie and Dena, who have both have both been rather unlucky in love – or have had the misfortune to become involved with people who have treated them rather poorly or simply haven’t turned out to be someone that they wish to spend the rest of their lives with. Dena has decided to take as much control over her future as she can, and so has chosen to have a baby through artificial insemination, while, after her fiancé called things off only a day after celebrating their engagement, Reggie has tried to put the past behind her and has a job that she enjoys and a motherly devotion to her dog, Belle. When their parents decide that they are going to hold a ceremony to renew their vows, decades after a rather low-key wedding, Reggie finds herself headed home to Wishing Tree, where she anticipates questions and gossip will follow her. What neither Dena nor Reggie expect is to find their attention drawn from wedding plans and to new loves, one old, one a stranger.

The story is one that ultimately focuses on family, starting with Dena and Reggie’s relationship, which binds the different threads of the narrative together, and takes a look the generations within families, what it is to be a single parent, loss, community and what time has to teach. Though the sisters embark on quite different journeys and have their own individual narratives, there is no disconnect and they don’t feel like separate stories, and neither does it become a case of favouring one character over another. I do tend to end up liking one story thread or character point of view quite often, but, in the case of The Christmas Wedding Guests, I really enjoyed reading the sections belonging to Reggie, Dena, and their respective prospective partners, and wasn’t racing to get back to a particular character. They are all characters that are easy to care for and want positive endings for, each sympathetic and likeable even through their occasional missteps.

I loved Belle and her role in the story, and she plays an instrumental role in bringing Reggie, Toby and his son, Harrison, together, after taking a shine to the latter and instating herself as his loyal guard and protector, despite often being frightened by the world around her (especially certain dachshunds…). Belle reads like a character in her own right, and Reggie’s affection for her is adorable and speaks volumes about her own. Toby and Reggie’s story explores what it is to return to a relationship with a good many more years’ experience behind you, learning about what you may have been too young (or too immature) to notice and truly understand before, and the hold the past may have on you – and how you respond to the prospect of a future you find frightening.

Dena is the sister who likes to plan, and, after deciding that she is unlikely to be able to find ‘the one’ in time to have a family, has chosen to build a family of her own without a partner, something that she is confident and comfortable in. From her family and friends, she receives nothing but support, but, as the story unfolds, not everyone is as kind, and she can’t quite escape society’s idea that a single woman with a child is ‘condemning’ herself to a life on her own. Thankfully, Micah sidesteps the cliché of a man taking an interest in a woman, only to find himself uninterested upon discovering she’s pregnant, and is as supportive of her as her nearest and dearest are from the start. He doesn’t judge her decision and does his best to help her with things such as morning sickness, having learnt from some very recent losses, and their working together at the school to bring music into the classroom is a lovely feature of the story.

The Christmas Wedding Guest is a an uplifting, romantic story with community at its heart, and is the perfect festive read. Thank you to Mills and Boon for sending me a copy and for the chance to be part of the blog tour!

Blog Tour: The Hidden Child by Louise Fein

Blog Tour: The Hidden Child by Louise Fein

‘London, 1929.

Eleanor Hamilton is a dutiful mother, a caring sister and an adoring wife to a celebrated war hero. Her husband, Edward, is a pioneer in the eugenics movement. The Hamiltons are on the social rise, and it looks as though their future is bright.

When Mabel, their young daughter, begins to develop debilitating seizures, they have to face an uncomfortable truth: Mabel has epilepsy – one of the ‘undesirable’ conditions that Edward campaigns against.

Forced to hide their daughter away so as to not jeopardise Edward’s life’s work, the couple must confront the truth of their past – and the secrets that have been buried.

Will Eleanor and Edward be able to fight for their family? Or will the truth destroy them?’

Today is my stop on the blog tour for The Hidden Child by Louise Finn, published by Head of Zeus!

As with Fein’s first novel, People Like Us, The Hidden Child is a book that I found impossible to put down. It follows the lives of Eleanor, Edward and their daughter, Mabel, who begins to have seizures in her early years and experiences them with increasing frequency while her mother – who loves her fiercely – in particular struggles to accept what is happening. To them, it seems their only course of action is to keep Mabel’s condition a secret and avoid directly referencing fit or what it is as much as possible, ensuring that she’s not seen by those outside the household and that anyone who learns of her epilepsy is sworn to secrecy. As Mabel’s health deteriorates and Edward continues to prioritise his work and the beliefs of the ‘academic’ crowd he is a part of, Eleanor is faced with the choice of accepting her husband’s decisions or fighting for what is best for their daughter – and hopefully making him see a better future for her and their family than the one he seems determined to cling to.

What predominantly shines through in The Hidden Child is Eleanor’s love for Mabel and her desire to do the best she can for her when faced with ‘advice’ and paths for her that seem more designed to make her less of an issue for society than thought out to give her a chance at a good future. When Mabel’s seizures begin, she doesn’t attempt to sidestep their existence because she is negligent, but because she is frightened about what they mean for her child and what they are doing to her. She may have worked in the same field as her husband and harboured the same prejudiced views, but her concerns consistently revolve around Mabel and her wellbeing, with the effect on Edward’s work seemingly a secondary concern. Her pain at seeing the treatments that Mabel is made to endure through various attempts to treat a condition that the medical profession simply doesn’t know about in the era in which the novel is set is increasingly heartbreaking and it is a huge relief that she does not let her former views about those with epilepsy control her response to her daughter. She is the one who insists that there must be better treatments available for her and that different opinions matter, fighting against a husband who would much prefer that Mabel be settled in an institution, so that he need not explain her condition to his colleagues. As the narrative unfolds, Eleanor increasingly becomes a woman of clearer moral integrity and finds the strength to fight for her child, a devoted mother in the face of society’s condemnation and her own mental health struggles.

For much of the story, Edward is a character who is difficult to sympathise with, especially considering his views about those he sees as less mentally capable and his ideas about forced sterilisation and genetics controlling potential. It’s his insistence that he cannot possibly be the ‘reason’ for why Mabel has epilepsy – repeatedly backtracking to his genetics being absolutely unable to be a contributing factor, being supposedly ‘superior’ – that makes him particularly repulsive at times. He sees Mabel less as his daughter and a child who needs him to protect her and look out for her best interests, and more of a burden and an embarrassment that he must conceal if he is going to be successful in pushing his troubling agenda. Edward is a man contending with shame that has nothing to do with his daughter, and he lets his previous patterns of behaviour lead him into making similar mistakes that threaten to be just as irreversible as those that he wishes he could undo. His journey feels not as focused on Mabel and his family as Eleanor’s is, as he seems driven by different factors, such as the aforementioned shame, trauma experienced in combat, and his determination that his views be accepted as fact, but he slowly learns that the reality he so wants to reject needs to be considered from different viewpoints – and with different priorities. There are moments when Edward appears to be a lost cause and it is easy to intensely dislike him for what he says and the choices he makes, yet it is satisfying to see him begin to take responsibility for the mistakes he has made and re-evaluate his beliefs.

Fein’s writing is brilliant and emotive, her characters crafted in a manner that, in the case of Eleanor and Edward, makes them not defined by the views they have at the novel’s beginning, but by the ways that they respond to what they experience and learn, and their capacity for growth. They are, in many respects, the products of their era, but they are also human and their beliefs and attitudes do not remain static. They are affected by the events around them, if in different ways and at different rates, and the character development over the course of the story is absolutely one of its many strengths. One of the structural features I found most effective is the use of short chapters from the point of view of epilepsy itself, created as a being that sees all of what Mabel experiences and highlights the pain caused by some of the attempts to manage it.

The Hidden Child is a book that I cannot recommend enough (along with People Like Us) and is one that I know will stay with me for a long time. It is simply an incredible read. Thank you very much to Head of Zeus for the chance to be part of the blog tour!

Blog Tour: The Silence of Scheherazade by Defne Suman

Blog Tour: The Silence of Scheherazade by Defne Suman

‘On an orange-tinted evening in September 1905, Scheherazade is born to an opium-dazed mother in the ancient city of Smyrna. At the very same moment, a dashing Indian spy arrives in the harbour with a secret mission from the British Empire. He sails in to golden-hued spires and minarets, scents of fig and sycamore, and the cries of street hawkers selling their wares. When he leaves, seventeen years later, it will be to the heavy smell of kerosene and smoke as the city, and its people, are engulfed in flames.

But let us not rush, for much will happen between then and now. Birth, death, romance and grief are all to come as these peaceful, cosmopolitan streets are used as bargaining chips in the wake of the First World War.

Told through the intertwining fates of a Levantine, a Greek, a Turkish and an Armenian family, this unforgettable novel reveals a city, and a culture, now lost to time.’

Today is my stop on the blog tour for The Silence of Scheherazade by Defne Suman, published by Head of Zeus!

The Silence of Scheherazade is set in the city of Smyrna and follows the not entirely linear paths of four families as history unfolds and gradually reveals the ties between them, as well as the fate of the city that they call home and has seen much conflict and dispute. It’s a story grounded in the very real history of Smyrna (later Izmir), but has an air of the magical and mythical about it, especially in its references to stories, voices, and the way the non-linear structure is excellently exploited to expose some of the tale’s most precious secrets.

The story ostensibly begins with Edith, or perhaps it is that she, in a manner of speaking, repeats the history of her own mother, a young Levantine French woman who cares little for social rules and what is expected of her, despite the ‘best’ efforts of her aforementioned mother. She seeks independence and attempts to shrug off the rules her family would have her follow, and, once the opportunity presents itself, shortly becomes infamous in the wider community for her unwillingness to conform and her scandalous behaviour, such as her living alone as an unmarried woman and her choice of lover (not to mention her reported addiction to opium). It is she who is the mother of Scheherazade, and one of a cast of strong and prominent women from different walks of life, who demonstrate their strength in a variety of manners and scenarios, yet, ultimately, perhaps the key thread that binds them together is their capacity for love, whether that is for family, friends or homeland. Through the lives of these women and their families, The Silence of Scheherazade explores issues of identity, motherhood, sisterhood and what it is to be a woman in a land of conflict, but to name a few of the subjects that are considered over the course of the story.

Scheherazade’s story is not hers alone, but that of those who have shaped who she is, whether deliberately or otherwise, and the manner in which almost the entire cast is written about makes it feel as if there are no minor characters or those which have simply been added for the purpose of moving the plot forward. There are multiple points of view in the novel, through which the reader learns about a broad range of characters, and enough time is spent with each that even those that have only a few details revealed about them feel part of the fabric of the story and significant to a character who may have a larger role, or one that we have spent more time with. In a fashion, there are a thousand and one stories that are a part of Scheherzade’s and those of others, representing the impact that we have on each other’s lives and that parts of us will always be because of the influence that others have had on us.

As the lives of the families stretch on, the tale doesn’t shy away from showing the darkness of conflict, from the physical brutality and treatment of civilians, to the fate of young people drawn into fighting. There are moments that are very difficult to read and that may well make the reader flinch, but that this is the response to these moments is a reflection upon the quality of the writing and emotive impact of the scenes that unfold. There is nothing gratuitous of this nature – only a realistic representation of the situations that civilians would have found themselves in and a sensitively handled understanding of the fear and uncertainty surrounding such events, especially for women at the mercy of enemy forces.

The Silence of Scheherazade is a wonderfully crafted and hard-hitting read that’s most definitely one to look out for for fans of historical fiction and the nature of storytelling. Highly recommended! Thank you to Head of Zeus for sending me a proof for review and for the opportunity to be part of the blog tour.

Review: A Master of Djinn by P. Djeli Clark

Review: A Master of Djinn by P. Djeli Clark

‘Cairo, 1912: Though Fatma el-Sha’arawi is the youngest woman working for the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments and Supernatural Entities, she’s certainly not a rookie, especially after preventing the destruction of the universe last summer.

So when someone murders a secret brotherhood dedicated to one of the most famous men in history, Al-Jahiz, Agent Fatma is called onto the case. Al-Jahiz transformed the world fifty years ago when he opened up the veil between the magical and mundane realms, before vanishing into the unknown. This murderer claims to be Al-Jahiz, returned to condemn the modern age for its social oppressions. His dangerous magical abilities instigate unrest in the streets of Cairo that threaten to spill over onto the global stage.

Alongside her Ministry colleagues and a familiar person from her past, Agent Fatma must unravel the mystery behind this imposter to restore peace to the city – or face the possibility he could be exactly who he seems…’

A Master of Djinn is a fantastic read, with witty dialogue, vivid worldbuilding and delightful characters. It follows the adventures of Fatma, who works for a ministry that deals with magic and the supernatural, and what happens when she finds herself having to investigate the murder of a brotherhood who have seemingly been getting involved in that which they don’t really understand, nor have the ability to handle. She’s soon joined by Hadia, a new member of the ministry, and, assisted by her other colleagues and those she claims more personal (if uncertain) relationships with, it’s her duty to uncover who is responsible for the murder and put a stop to their increasing displays of power.

Fatma is a fun and clever character, her ready wit creating more than a few laugh out loud moments, her dialogue only one example of a whole cast of readable and varied characters. For all her pride in her achievements and progress, that she clashes with Hadia is an interesting facet of their working relationship, and it’s good that she gets called out for often treating her in the overprotective manner that they have both experienced from male colleagues who underestimate them. Fatma is not infallible and not perfect, particularly in these first encounters with Hadia, who expects better from her, being a woman who has been in the position that she is in, and seeing Fatma’s unconscious perceptions challenged directly are among some of the best scenes in the book. On the whole, she is confident in herself and has to learn to accept help on terms that may not be exactly that which she wants, and this is something that also impacts her personal life and her behaviour within relationships. She is less confident with the personal than she is with the professional, seemingly not willing to spend too long dwelling on her feelings, yet not at all unfeeling, and appears to be more nervous in situations that might lead to uncovering anything beyond the armour that she maintains to appear always capable and in control.

The magic and worldbuilding is clever and captivating, from the clockwork and more mechanical features of this alternate Cairo, to the way in which the ancient Egyptian gods are made very much part of a world that seems set on trying to forget them. The Cairo of A Master of Djinn feels very metropolitan, bright and bustling, but not without the problems of the time in which it is set – and of modern society – such as discrimination against particular faiths and peoples, which some attempt to address head-on, while others feel that they have no choice but to accept it. Siti’s comments in response to being openly and repeatedly discriminated against are especially heartbreaking in her flat refusal to let it get to her, demonstrating just how frequently it must be a part of her life. On a brighter note, there are some lovely conversations about faith, primarily focusing around Hadia, and other interesting explorations of what it is to believe and its impact both personal and otherwise. The world created within the novel feels very real, solid and believable, its fantastical elements incorporated in a way that finds matter of fact acceptance from the characters, and so encourages the same from the reader.

A Master of Djinn is out on August 19th and would be the perfect read for fans of crime fiction, fantasy books and historical novels alike. Thank you to Orbit Books for sending me a proof!

Review: XOXO by Axie Oh

Review: XOXO by Axie Oh

‘Jenny didn’t get to be an award-winning, classically trained cellist without choosing practice over fun. That is, until the night she meets Jaewoo. Mysterious, handsome, and just a little bit tormented, Jaewoo is exactly the kind of distraction Jenny would normally avoid. And yet, she finds herself pulled into spending an unforgettable evening wandering Los Angeles with him on the night before his flight home to South Korea.

With Jaewoo an ocean away, there’s no use in dreaming of what could have been. But when Jenny and her mother move to Seoul to take care of her ailing grandmother, who does she meet at the elite arts academy she’s just been accepted to? Jaewoo.

Finding the dreamy stranger who swept you off your feet in your homeroom is one thing, but Jaewoo isn’t just any student. Turns out, Jaewoo is a member of one of the biggest K-pop bands in the world. And like most K-pop idols, Jaewoo is strictly forbidden from dating anyone.

When a relationship means not only jeopardizing her place at her dream music school but also endangering everything Jaewoo’s worked for, Jenny has to decide once and for all just how much she’s willing to risk for love.’

XOXO is a fun read that would be perfect for adaptation into a K-Drama, and is one of the YA books that I’ve most enjoyed this year. The story follows Jenny, who is determined to follow the path she has set out for herself, which involves reaching one of the top universities to continue her studies of music and… what doesn’t sound like an awful lot of living or fun, her focus settled squarely on her academics. When she meets Jaewoo, she finds herself starting to question her choices, and when circumstances temporarily bring her and her mother to Seoul to take care of her grandmother, a new school and new friends begin to broaden her horizons and make her wonder whether she is essentially building a lonely life for herself. But is the alternative too big a risk to take, especially when it could cost her a place at her dream university – and Jaewoo and his friends everything that they have achieved in the spotlight?

The lives of Jaewoo and the XOXO band – and, by extension, very nearly everyone that they associate with – shine a light on the expectations of those who spend their lives in the media in Korea, and highlight the pressures that young stars are under and the rules that they are expected to follow. The one that impacts Jenny and Jaewoo’s relationship the most is the fact that he isn’t supposed to be involved with anyone, ostensibly so that he is seen to be prioritising his fans and seen as ‘available’, leaving him and others in his position with the choice of focusing on having the opportunity to use their talents or have any semblance of a personal life. It’s a world in which stars are judged harshly for any ‘mistakes’ that can cost them their careers, and in which anyone they are seen to be too fond of can become a target for negative comments from fans. As Jenny tries to learn to navigate this world and the impact her relationship with Jaewoo could have on not only their lives, but the lives of those around them, it’s clear that he is struggling with everything that fame has brought him, and though he cares very much for his band mates and enjoys performing, what else being part of XOXO means (such as the fact that he has to succeed to support his family) is not always easy for him to handle. References to his mental health are handled sensitively, as is that he is attending therapy, and the story also takes the opportunity to bring attention to the differences between how men and women are seen and treated in the media spotlight.

What gives the book its heart are the relationships between the characters, which aren’t always easy and don’t involve everybody getting along all the time, but it feel as if there is no-one truly nasty or malicious in the main cast, leaving the threats and pressures to be presented from the outside or media-brainwashed classmates, creating an interesting reflection of what it’s like to be in their shoes. Even when there are disagreements and misunderstandings, it still feels like they are on the same side, facing the same pressures, and ultimately understand what everyone is going through. They have each other’s backs and are supportive, trying to do what’s best in the best way that they can, even if it might not always be obvious or the easiest thing to do.

XOXO is out today! If you enjoy K-Dramas or have an interest in K-Pop, it’s definitely a book to look out for and would help brighten the summer. It’s a wonderful read with some lovely dialogue and a cast of characters that I hope we get to see again one day. Thank you to Harper360YA for sending me a copy!

Review: These Hollow Vows by Lexi Ryan

Review: These Hollow Vows by Lexi Ryan

‘Brie hates the Fae and refuses to have anything to do with them, even if that means starving on the street. But when her sister is sold to the sadistic king of the Unseelie court to pay a debt, she’ll do whatever it takes to get her back—including making a deal with the king himself to steal three magical relics from the Seelie court.

Gaining unfettered access to the Seelie court is easier said than done. Brie’s only choice is to pose as a potential bride for Prince Ronan, and she soon finds herself falling for him. Unwilling to let her heart distract her, she accepts help from a band of Unseelie misfits with their own secret agenda. As Brie spends time with their mysterious leader, Finn, she struggles to resist his seductive charm.

Caught between two dangerous courts, Brie must decide who to trust with her loyalty. And with her heart.’

These Hollows Vows follows Abriella (known as Brie for the most part) on her journey to attempt to rescue her sister, who has been sold into slavery in the world of the fae. Both Brie and Jas have been fending for themselves since they were young, with Brie doing her best to take on the role of protector and provider, with varying degrees of success. She finds herself an able thief, if not entirely certain of just how she manages to get away with what she does, and makes some questionable choices in the targets she chooses to steal from, but what she has of a moral code means she seems content with taking risks to ensure that those she cares for have enough to survive. In the battle between the faerie courts that she finds herself involved in, she has to learn to navigate a world of politics that she has little true information about and lots of different versions of stories instead, leaving her to attempt to work out who is telling her the truth – or the closest to the truth that she needs – that will let her get her sister back.

I enjoyed the political elements of These Hollow Vows, and learning about the relationship between the fae and humans, the latter considered important only insofar as concerns the fae’s survival. The fae have little regard for humans as individuals or beings with their own lives, hopes and dreams, and only entertain the idea of valuing humans until the point that they have got what they need from them. It’s indicated that to be bound to a faerie is to lose independence and worse, and though there are questionable attempts to dress it up romantically, this is only something that paints both of Brie’s romantic interests in unpleasant lights. Neither of them are ever really honest with her, and though Finn is perhaps more open in his indication of why he is not a good idea, Sebastian’s supposed ‘honest and caring’ attitude continues to fling up red flags throughout the book. No-one in the story can really be trusted to be truthful, not even Brie (whether with herself or with others), and it’s easy to see how, eventually, she has to try and make the best of a lot of bad options and try to live with the decisions she makes.

It seems that Brie’s biggest flaw is that she doesn’t ask enough questions, be they about herself or what is happening around her. She often fixates on the appearance (and there are many comments from others about her own) of those she is interested in and tends to avoid making sharp enquiries that might help her. This is not to say that she would necessarily get the answers she needs, and she might well not ask particular questions so as to avoid exposing what she doesn’t know and putting herself at further risk, but it sometimes feels as if there is a lot that she is more wilfully ignorant about, which is a bit at odds with her supposed skill as a thief. She is given quite a few leading, expository, statements from other characters that she doesn’t really follow up, though many of these are quite early in the narrative and seem more for the reader’s benefit than hers.

The use of prophecy or far-sight as a plot device is well executed, which makes the choices that more than one character makes in the second half of the novel all the more impactful and, I hope, promises that the effects of the decisions will be felt in the next book. If I’m honest, Brie’s task to obtain the magical objects reads as though it is responsible for the lulls in action in the story’s middle, and though it is clearly the device designed to keep her involved with both courts and keep her at the Seelie court, it feels less important than her plot threads with other characters, particularly the Unseelie. On the whole, the plot is sound, but there are moments when it is best to not study the behaviour of some characters too deeply, or the practicalities of how certain events unfold. It’s an enjoyable read, particularly in its conflict and secrets, and its more minor characters are well developed, each lending something to the story.

These Hollows Vows is a fun read for fans of the fae, though it struggles a little with exposition and pacing. There are plenty of unanswered questions and surprises by its conclusion, which make it easy to look forward to the second instalment, which is said to be arriving in 2022. Thank you to Hodder and Stoughton for sending me a copy for review.

Review: Kings of a Dead World by Jamie Mollart

Review: Kings of a Dead World by Jamie Mollart

‘The Earth’s resources are dwindling. The solution is the Sleep.

Inside a hibernating city, Ben struggles with his limited waking time and the disease stealing his wife from him. Watching over the sleepers, lonely Peruzzi craves the family he never knew.

Everywhere, dissatisfaction is growing.

The city is about to wake.’

Kings of a Dead World explores a Britain in which its inhabitants are only permitted to be awake for one month at a time, before they’re forcibly sedated again and sent into a deep sleep until the next month that they are permitted to be awake. This is ostensibly to preserve what remains of the world’s resources, though there are indications that the ‘sleepers’ aren’t told the whole truth – not that they have the power to do anything about their situation anything. The story primarily follows main characters: Ben, a former anarchist who is struggling with his wife’s worsening dementia, and Peruzzi, whose job it is to look after the city and its sleepers, and who is finding himself more and more dissatisfied with his life (or lack of one).

The system by which life operates for the average person in the city is extremely unsettling, largely because there now seems to be no true purpose to their lives and no free will. What can anyone really do with their lives when they are awake for only one month at a time? The average person doesn’t seem to work or have leisure activities, and looks only to be waiting until they are put to sleep again. Anyone believed to be causing a disturbance, or, in some cases, simply has elevated vital signs, can be and usually is immediately sedated by the system. This happens on more than one occasion to Rose, Ben’s wife, who has little memory of who she is and what is happening around her, and so often grows distressed enough that the system sedates her, which only perpetuates the cycle for her. Seeing what happens to Rose because of her illness is one of the elements of the book that is the most difficult to read, particularly as more of her past unfolds and it becomes quite evident that she has suffered for much of her life. It’s initially easy to sympathise with Ben, who seems to be trying to do the best he can for her, yet there are moments when his actions feel selfish and it can seem that he is acting out of a desire to make things more bearable for him (‘easier’ is not the word here) rather than what would be right for her.

Peruzzi’s life seems just as empty and no less under the control of forces that he doesn’t understand. From the outset, he doesn’t appear to relish his relative ‘freedom’ and finds it difficult to find joy or happiness in anything. He spends his life alone, with only technology for company, and while he relies on said technology for many things, he gradually begins to understand that it cannot be trusted in all respects. Sometimes, it’s as if he gets a kick out of his ‘absolute’ power, yet this is often short-lived or feels forced, and his interactions with actual people tend to leave him shocked or unable to comprehend the immediacy of life – something not surprising for an observer normally removed from supposed reality. His flippancy and attitude towards others makes him difficult to sympathise with, though he may well have simply survived with such limited contact for so long that he doesn’t really understand how to interact or empathise anymore.

Ben’s past is revealed through a series of ‘confessions’ he makes to one of the few residents of the city that he actually trusts, and with his past comes the path that led humanity to the ‘solution’ of the sleep and how the city has been manipulated into accepting its fate. It’s difficult to tell whether Ben ever actually believes that he is doing the right thing, especially as his group’s war against the establishment grows more and more bloody, for in moments he seems matter of fact about its accomplishments, and uncertain about his choices in others, his memories undoubtedly coloured by what he has learned since the days of his youth. The structure here is incredibly effective, especially as it often makes the reader reconsider what they may feel about more than one of the characters.

Kings of a Dead World is an effective, impactful and often unsettling read that feels not too distant from our own world in its politics and most pressing challenges. Many thanks to Sandstone Press for sending me a copy for review.

Review: Notes from The Burning Age by Claire North

Review: Notes from The Burning Age by Claire North

‘Ven was once a holy man, a keeper of ancient archives. It was his duty to interpret archaic texts, sorting useful knowledge from the heretical ideas of the Burning Age–a time of excess and climate disaster. For in Ven’s world, such material must be closely guarded so that the ills that led to that cataclysmic era can never be repeated.

But when the revolutionary Brotherhood approaches Ven, pressuring him to translate stolen writings that threaten everything he once held dear, his life will be turned upside down. Torn between friendship and faith, Ven must decide how far he’s willing to go to save this new world–and how much he is willing to lose.’

Notes From the Burning Age takes place in the world that has grown out of the disasters caused by humankind’s focus on advances in technology, especially destructive features of science that can be used to harm the earth, animals and people. The arrogance of society in believing that it is possible to gain control over nature through technology and adamantly refusing to believe that science can have negative consequences for the natural world leads humankind to build and build, until, according to Temple scripture, creatures called kakuy rose from the land and sought to destroy humans for their hubris. Since then, there remains some debate as to whether the kakuy were a punishment for humankind or a blessing that attempted to restore the earth to how it should be. Fragments of what is now known as the Burning Age remain, in old technology and data that is carefully controlled or no longer understood, and while some humans acknowledge that it is this technology that almost led to their destruction, others appear set on making the same mistakes again and are determined to gain control through whatever means necessary. Notes from the Burning Age is a sharp look at modern society and the patterns of behaviour that humankind inevitably appears to repeat, including elements of our own nature that we seem unable to overcome.

The idea of the kakuy and whether or not they exist is something else that divides the characters – often less whether they truly exist and more whether they are willing to admit that they do. It’s interesting that the reader sees events from Ven’s point of view, and Ven has more than one encounter with a kakuy, yet, given Ven’s beliefs, it is only natural that he would have absolute faith in what he sees and interpret it in a particular way (at least, more towards the beginning of the novel), and so bring the reader into this manner of seeing and thinking too. Others ‘see’ them and insist that they never have, largely for reasons personal to them or particular to their politics, while some believe that their awakening is humankind’s punishment and are respectful not only in religious ways, and the conflict between the different beliefs and interpretations of world events makes the reader begin to wonder whether the kakuy are mankind’s way of explaining away what they have done to the world, or whether they really exist.

Ven’s world is one which seems on the precipice of making the mistakes that have led to the necessity of the creation of new societies and ways of living. Those who are in search of the information from before the disasters are fixated on advances in technology that will allow them to arm themselves and gain power through the threatened destruction of others, having seemingly learned nothing from the mistakes of the past. Their reasoning sometimes leans into accusations that the information that is being protected is being hoarded for the wrong reasons, yet they show no interest in anything except that which could be useful for destructive purposes – and that the information should be shared simply because they don’t like the fact that those with different beliefs have it. Ven’s experience with the various factions and their interactions only serves to highlight that, though one may appear to or suggest that they have better intentions than the others, ultimately there is no singular group that can have the best intentions for the whole of humankind. Even Ven himself finds himself swayed towards particular people and ideas more than once, only further highlighting humankind’s fragility.

Notes from the Burning Age is a brilliant and thought-provoking read that is difficult to put down. A fascinating look at human nature and our relationships with each other and the world around us. Thank you, Orbit Books, for sending me a copy for review.

Review: The Forevers by Chris Whitaker

Review: The Forevers by Chris Whitaker

‘They knew the end was coming. They saw it ten years back, when it was far enough away in space and time and meaning.

The changes were gradual, and then sudden.

For Mae and her friends, it means navigating a life where action and consequence are no longer related. Where the popular are both trophies and targets. And where petty grudges turn deadlier with each passing day. So, did Abi Manton jump off the cliff or was she pushed? Her death is just the beginning of the end.

With teachers losing control of their students and themselves, and the end rushing toward all of them, it leaves everyone facing the answer to one, simple question…

What would you do if you could get away with anything?’

The Forevers is a story that looks at the experience of a group of young people in the final month of their lives, for they and the rest of the world knows that humans are soon to be wiped out by the arrival of an asteroid – that has been named Selena – that will crash into the Earth. Society has had ten years to try and come to terms with the impending extinction of the human race and has made numerous attempts to try and divert or destroy the asteroid, but time has now run out and there is nothing to be done. Not all hope has been lost, but it is in short supply, and there are those who are capitalising on the building of bunkers and other supposed survival strategies, while others use the impending end as an excuse to behave as they wish without the threat of consequences. For Mae and her friends, life has become about what boundaries they can push, shifting social hierarchies, and trying to find meaning in their lives before Selena arrives. The Forevers addresses a number of difficult and sensitive topics, and isn’t an easy read in parts, but it is one that very swiftly draws the reader in and becomes difficult to put down. It’s particularly interesting in its structure and use of flashbacks, including how information about the past and the situation surrounding Abi Manton is slowly revealed.

Mae’s devotion to her sister, Stella, is one of the most prominent threads of the narrative and seems to be the stability that she returns to time after time, as everything and everyone else around her starts to slip out of control (including her own habits and risk taking). Her interactions with her little sister are different to those she has with others, the more despairing side of herself hidden so that she can lend a sense of safety and reassurance to her, which is something that she doesn’t appear to have experienced since the deaths of their parents. She does her best to be a mother to Stella, and their scenes were among my favourite of the book. It’s through Mae and Stella that the reader learns something of the past too, including the various Saviour missions that have been sent to try and destroy Selena before it reaches Earth. Even knowing that Selena is still on-course and the end is inevitable from the very beginning of the story – and therefore none of the Saviours can have worked – there is a sense of hope with what is learned about each one, much like that which the characters would have experienced, only to have this swiftly dashed when errors are made and plans don’t work.

It’s interesting how society in The Forevers tries to maintain a sense of normalcy and there seems to be encouragement to continue as if nothing is different, which, on the surface, feels as if it would be unlikely, yet may well be exactly what the young people in the story need to cope with what is approaching and how they feel about their inevitable fate and that of those around them. This is not to say that everyone involved in aiming to maintain this structure is successful, for many of the adults in the story do anything but set a good example for those in their care and in-fact have been falling prey to the darker side of their natures for many, many years before the immediacy of Selena’s arrival begins to have a bigger impact on mental health. There are few good examples for Mae and her friends to look to for support, and, in many instances, it feels as if the younger generation is handling the idea of their rapidly approaching deaths better than the adults – or perhaps it’s that the adults are so used to exercising a sense of power and control that, when faced with defiance and their own crumbling stability, they are less able to adapt.

The Forevers is out today from Hot Key Books! Thank you to the publisher for sending me a proof copy for review.

Review: Wendy, Darling by A. C. Wise

Review: Wendy, Darling by A. C. Wise

‘For those that lived there, Neverland was a children s paradise. No rules, no adults, only endless adventure and enchanted forests all led by the charismatic boy who would never grow old. But Wendy Darling grew up. She has a husband and a young daughter called Jane, a life in London. But one night, after all these years, Peter Pan returns. Wendy finds him outside her daughter’s window, looking to claim a new mother for his Lost Boys. But instead of Wendy, he takes Jane. Now a grown woman, a mother, a patient and a survivor, Wendy must follow Peter back to Neverland to rescue her daughter and finally face the darkness at the heart of the island.’

Wendy, Darling is a brilliant and haunting retelling of the Peter Pan story, focusing on what happened to Wendy after her return from Neverland. While her brothers are soon able to put Neverland behind them and begin to dismiss it as a fantasy, this is something that Wendy finds herself unwilling and unable to do, which leads to her eventual admittance to an institution, where she has to learn to survive and what it will take for her to retain some sense of self in the face of those who only want her to conform. When she is eventually brought back into society, her troubles are far from over, for after spending years trying to build a life for herself and her new family, Peter Pan returns. Except, upon discovering her adult self, it isn’t Wendy that he wants. It’s her daughter, Jane, who he steals away to Neverland.

The novel’s re-imagining of Neverland is a dark, twisted and dangerous place, manipulated by a boy who seems to utterly lack empathy and any understanding of the needs of others – or anything that isn’t exactly what he wishes. Here, Peter Pan is transformed from the innocent, fun-loving character that the reader may remember from various childhood stories, and into a creature that feels as if it is made of the grim realities of adulthood and the shadows of the inability to believe in the magic and whimsical realities that children can. To a child’s eyes, Peter Pan is joyful and magical, and Neverland a dreamy escape, while to an adult, Peter Pan – this Peter Pan – is a stealer of children and an invitation to all sorts of dangers. He is manipulative and wilfully ignorant in his supposed innocence, willing to hurt and lash out at anyone who argues with him or is a threat to his fun and games, needing child subjects to be admired by and opportunities to demonstrate his power over them.  He is utterly frightening in this incarnation, simply because the reader can see exactly what he is doing and so many of the lost boys cannot, and though the novel is a retelling, it also feels absolutely as if it isn’t – as if this is the Neverland we simply didn’t notice when we were younger.

Much of the book centres around the idea of family, starting with Wendy’s relationship with her brothers and the trauma they experience owing to Neverland and the reality of war, going from play-fighting to suffering from PTSD in the wake of being very real soldiers. They hardly seem to know how to help themselves, let alone Wendy, and while poor choices are made on her behalf, they appear to be trying to do their best by her – and she is ultimately more forgiving than some may think they deserve. But they are her family, and while not by choice initially, it feels as if she does choose them by the story’s end, just as she chooses who is a part of the family formed by her marriage.

She and her husband, Ned, make the decision to build a friendship in a marriage that wouldn’t have been a first choice for either of them, and are as open as they can be – as much as Wendy can manage – about their relationship and who they are, both as individuals and together. Their family includes Mary, a friend, sister and perhaps more, and their daughter, Jane, who is loved by all of them. While they are happy together, Wendy’s father-in-law is the blight on their lives, his expectations and judgemental nature causing them all to take precautions about being too much of themselves around him. In returning to Neverland to rescue Jane, Wendy brings the facets of herself that society would have her suppress to the fore: her cleverness, her heart and her strength as a woman and a mother, and with them a greater understanding of herself, her relationships and all that she’s endured and wants for herself and those she loves.

Wendy, Darling is a beautiful, fantastically written book, and a powerful story that grabs you and won’t let go. Thank you, Titan Books, for sending me a copy!