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Month: August 2019

Review: How to Be Luminous by Harriet Reuter Hapgood

Review: How to Be Luminous by Harriet Reuter Hapgood

‘When seventeen-year-old Minnie Sloe’s mother disappears, so does her ability to see color. How can young artist Minnie create when all she sees is black-and-white?

Middle child Minnie and her two sisters have always been able to get through anything together: growing up without fathers, living the eccentric artist lifestyle, and riding out their mother’s mental highs and lows. But when they lose their mother, Minnie wonders if she could lose everything: her family, her future, her first love… and maybe even her mind.’

How to be Luminous is a difficult read, and I don’t mean that in a negative way, for it’s a sensitively and well-written book, and I think if it were an easy read it wouldn’t have the impact that it does. That it is a novel that is not always comfortable reading means it is effective in what it means to convey, the narrative one that primarily deals with mental illness via its main protagonist and those in her life, and that it can hit a little too close on more than one occasion means that there are characters with which readers can identify and who are portrayed in a manner that encourages empathy.

One of three sisters, Minnie finds that her ability to see colour vanishes when her mother disappears, and this is only one of many things that makes her doubt whether she isn’t losing her mind as she tries to work through the grief and uncertainty that losing the only parental figure in her life brings her. Without an explanation and without closure, Minnie is left to wonder whether her mother has simply had enough and left her and her siblings to their own devices, or whether her mental illness has driven her to it – or something worse. With the loss of colour come doubts about her own mental state, and while she very clearly suffers from depression in the face of her loss, she also starts to worry that her mother’s highs and lows of what is described akin to being bi-polar is something necessary to create the works of art that she wishes to, and whether her mother’s mental state inevitably means she will suffer the same. In dealing with her grief, she becomes convinced that she must be losing her mind, for she is convinced that she sees her more than once, while also attempting to bring her back to her and seek guidance by imagining and immersing herself in memories of what they used to do. Anyone who has lost someone they care about will surely recognise and empathise with how Minnie feels, and that the stages she goes through and the coping mechanisms she tries to employ are so identifiable is one of the things that can make How to be Luminous an upsetting read for all the right reasons.

The one feature of the novel that I wasn’t sure was entirely necessary was the love triangle. At its heart, the story is about Minnie dealing with the loss of her mother and struggling to live with the building evidence that she is not going to reappear, whether because she has abandoned her or because her bi-polar has led to her taking her own life, and I found the romantic elements more of a distraction than anything. There are some lovely moments between Minnie and Felix, don’t get me wrong, and giving her someone who has experienced the same loss that she is attempting to cope with is an effective facet of the story – I just don’t feel that it being a romantic connection was entirely in keeping with the rest of the story.

One of the pieces of the story’s structure that I enjoyed the most was the naming of colours that have been lost and what Minnie associates them with. These little sections are included between chapters and are beautiful in their insight and effective in bringing home some of the narrative features of the previous chapter(s).

How to be Luminous is out now from Pan Macmillan! I would like to thank the publisher for sending me a copy of this hard-hitting novel for review.

Review: Turning Darkness into Light by Marie Brennan

Review: Turning Darkness into Light by Marie Brennan

‘As the renowned granddaughter of Isabella Camherst (Lady Trent, of the riveting and daring Draconic adventure memoirs) Audrey Camherst has always known she, too, would want to make her scholarly mark upon a chosen field of study.

When Lord Gleinleigh recruits Audrey to decipher a series of ancient tablets holding the secrets of the ancient Draconean civilisation, she has no idea that her research will plunge her into an intricate conspiracy, one meant to incite rebellion and invoke war. Alongside dearest childhood friend and fellow archaeologist Kudshayn, she must find proof of the conspiracy before it’s too late.’

There is so much that I enjoyed about Turning Darkness into Light, particularly the format and the use of the translations as part of the story, and, despite having not read any of the previous books set in this world, I felt right at home. This is likely in no small part due to my background in Egyptology and Classical Civilisation and I just loved the time spent considering the different aspects and possible interpretations of the text being translated, along with the footnotes, all the while having some quite haunting flashbacks to studying the third declension while learning Ancient Greek. What I appreciated most about the story were the ethical considerations surrounding the appropriation of antiquities and the implications of removing them from their culture of origin, something that the UK in particular has done to an enormous extent and still, for the most part, refuses to admit fault for damage done and the harming of context through their removal. The world may not have worked in quite the same way when this was done, but this wears thin as an excuse when artefacts are still not returned to their proper homes and to those for which they bear the most significance.

Audrey’s efforts and intentions are admirable, yet, as she gradually comes to realise, she doesn’t always do what she does with a clear understanding of exactly why. She feels the pressure of having a scholarly heritage to live up to in a time when it’s particularly difficult for women to be accepted as true scholars, and, while a gifted and hardworking woman, she is sometimes a little blind beyond a desperate need to make an impact in the circles in which her grandmother is famous and respected. This is not to say that she doesn’t have good intentions, nor does she come across as selfish, but that she is struggling to find herself and her own will within what she genuinely cares about, all too often wondering what her grandmother would do (or, rather, her impression of her grandmother would do) before considering her own course of action – something that sometimes leads her astray. I truly liked Audrey and wanted her to be successful, for though she is often a little quick to make judgements, she cares both about her work and the people around her (provided that they have shown that they too care for others).

Kudshayn is adorable and his determination to do well for his people and his family (both blood relations and those he considers to be his family) is one of the most heartfelt things in the novel. He faces discrimination from Audrey’s people, who are determined to paint him and his ancestors in a negative light and find ways of making themselves feel superior, treating him and the idea of his civilisation poorly while passing around precious artefacts from their ancient history as trophies and symbols of status. I would love to be able to say that this isn’t happening in reality, but unfortunately this kind of behaviour has yet to be extinguished from our own society. His worry for what the translation might reveal about the past and what it means to be one of his kind – let alone what the humans could use it as an excuse to do – hurts him deeply, yet he refuses to take the easier path and deny that which is unfolding before him, determined to see it through to find the truth and the value in what can be learned. He endures some utterly despicable behaviour from more than one character and still he continues on the journey he has begun, determined to do the best he can.

There’s a lot I’d like to say about the details of the work on the translation itself, but I don’t want to spoil the book and so will settle for saying that I very much enjoyed the politics and the unravelling of it. Turning Darkness into Light is out on August 20th! Thank you Titan Books for sending me a copy!

Review: A Dress for the Wicked by Autumn Krause

Review: A Dress for the Wicked by Autumn Krause

‘True to its name, the sleepy town of Shy in Avon-upon-Kynt is a place where nothing much happens. And for eighteen years, Emmaline Watkins has feared that her future held just that: nothing.

But when the head of the most admired fashion house in the country opens her prestigious design competition to girls from outside the stylish capital city, Emmy’s dreams seem closer than they ever have before.

As the first “country girl” to compete, Emmy knows she’ll encounter extra hurdles on her way to the top. But as she navigates the twisted world of high fashion, she starts to wonder: Will she be able to tailor herself to fit into this dark, corrupted race? And at what cost?’

A Dress for the Wicked is out this month and I absolutely loved the world in which it’s set and the characters that the reader meets along the way. It’s never made entirely clear exactly what level of technology Brittania Secunda has, only that the country in which Emmy lives is very similar to a Britain of the Victorian era, and I was glad to find that there are no vast passages of exposition to try and explain absolutely every feature of what living there is like, for it allows for a greater focus on the narrative itself, its characters, and the fashion and politics at its core. It’s an atmospheric novel in that the Fashion House and the beauty of the fabrics and clothes that are designed are beautifully described and almost tangible, keeping the concept of fashion, design and what they mean to the central characters and those who inhabit Brittania Secunda at its heart. I really enjoyed reading the designs for the different dresses created by the cast over the course of the narrative, particularly because it feels as if there is nothing in said designs that does not have a deeper meaning, either to the character designing it, the intentions of the brief given, or the character for which the outfit is being designed. The colours and fabric are described in vivid detail that makes it wonderfully easy to picture the gowns and feel the love the characters – and, by extension, the author – have for their work. The dedication to this detail is one of the things that makes A Dress for the Wicked a beautiful read and the real world rather dull by comparison!

The young women who have been entered for the Fashion House Interview are encouraged to see each other and almost everyone around them as competition, and what I found interesting about them is that yes, sometimes this is precisely what they do, but, more often, those who are presented from the outset as supposed threats are actually some of the more understanding and frustrated by their situation and circumstances. Many of them are fully aware of what the Fashion House and society expects from them, and this limits their creativity and what they truly wish to do, leaving them annoyed with how the world wants them to be portrayed and behave. Their frustration is just as evident as Emmy’s irritation with the prospect of their having an advantage and being set apart from them as a contestant to appease politics.

I would say that the only thing that I wasn’t too keen on was the romance between Emmy and Tristan. This isn’t to say that I was outright opposed to it, but given how Emmy so often thinks and feels and takes note of about Sophie, I was actually expecting the two of them to become a couple and was quite disappointed when this turned out not to be the case. However, this did not detract from my enjoyment of the story, especially as it was lovely to see Emmy and Sophie working together and supporting each other in a world that is set to encourage them not to – and after each of them giving in to that ingrained urge to consider each other threats and rivals. I really liked Sophie from the outset of the novel and spent quite a bit of the narrative worrying about what was happening – or going to happen – to her and was pleased to see that the choices she made were, ultimately, positive ones, when her circumstances mean that she was so full of potential to do quite the opposite.

Thank you to Harper 360 YA for sending me a copy of A Dress for the Wicked for review! I sincerely hope that we see more of this world, as it’s one that I was very reluctant to leave behind!

Review: We Hunt the Flame by Hafsah Faizal

Review: We Hunt the Flame by Hafsah Faizal

‘People lived because she killed.
People died because he lived.

Zafira is the Hunter, disguising herself as a man when she braves the cursed forest of the Arz to feed her people. Nasir is the Prince of Death, assassinating those foolish enough to defy his autocratic father, the king. If Zafira was exposed as a girl, all of her achievements would be rejected; if Nasir displayed his compassion, his father would punish him in the most brutal of ways. 

Both are legends in the kingdom of Arawiya—but neither wants to be.

War is brewing, and the Arz sweeps closer with each passing day, engulfing the land in shadow. When Zafira embarks on a quest to uncover a lost artifact that can restore magic to her suffering world and stop the Arz, Nasir is sent by the king on a similar mission: retrieve the artifact and kill the Hunter. But an ancient evil stirs as their journey unfolds—and the prize they seek may pose a threat greater than either can imagine.’

There’s a lot about We Hunt the Flame that I enjoyed, primarily in the last third of the novel, but I feel that that in itself is the main issue that I found with it: the narrative takes an awfully long time to get going anywhere. In-fact, the characters that the reader knows are going to have to meet don’t actually meet until nearly two hundred pages (out of almost five hundred) into the story. For me, this seemed far too long to wait, and while I was enjoying elements of Zafira and Nasir’s stories, that what felt as if it should be the core of the narrative didn’t take off for so long almost had me putting the book down several times. While this may have been done to ensure that the reader is equally invested in the stories of the characters while they are apart and to prevent the idea of defining who they are only as a pair (which is something I would not have liked, even if their path is a little obvious from the outset), I nevertheless found it rather frustrating and I wish I hadn’t, as it tainted my reading of the novel.

It isn’t often that I say this, but I think in this instance it was the male characters that I grew to feel for more than the women. This isn’t to say that I didn’t like Zafira, but there is something about her portrayal that I couldn’t quite get comfortable with. There’s a moment when she’s said to be afraid of being a woman, and despite knowing that, contextually, her fear of being discovered to be female is perfectly valid, the phrasing of that particular line made me flinch and I’m afraid it coloured my view of the character. I know that there are numerous ways in which the line could be interpreted, but I wish it did not also imply that she’s ashamed of her gender. She has taken on a more male role, as we often see girls doing in YA fiction at the moment, and, in the circumstances, it makes perfect sense, but I was hoping for more validation of her strength as a woman and not as a woman pretending to be a man.

That I found Nasir and Altair’s roles slightly more interesting is probably to do with their stronger ties to the magical elements of the story, which I won’t go into detail about, as I don’t wish to reveal a lot of spoilers for those who won’t have read the book since its release in the US. Nasir’s behaviour has much to do with what he has become, at once unashamed and intent on his goal, while guilt-ridden and dark with regret for what he has allowed himself to do (not that he is presented with any choice). Altair is a good foil for him, his irreverent humour sometimes charming and at others completely ridiculous, and I enjoyed some of their exchanges the most (and a moment when Zafira inadvertently takes on his tones). The cast as a whole seem at their best when they are together, while Zafira and Nasir are often at their most compelling during their quieter exchanges.

We Hunt the Flame is an immersive read and one for which I particularly loved the mythology and magic’s place in the story, but the pacing is something that I feel needs stressing as something to persevere with, as a lot of its most engaging story is in the second half of the novel. In the UK, We Hunt the Flame will be on Shelves from August 8th! Thank you to My Kinda Book and Pan Macmillan for the review copy!