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Month: March 2021

Review: The Unbroken by C. L. Clark

Review: The Unbroken by C. L. Clark

‘Touraine is a soldier. Stolen as a child and raised to kill and die for the empire, her only loyalty is to her fellow conscripts. But now, her company has been sent back to her homeland to stop a rebellion, and the ties of blood may be stronger than she thought.

Luca needs a turncoat. Someone desperate enough to tiptoe the bayonet’s edge between treason and orders. Someone who can sway the rebels toward peace, while Luca focuses on what really matters: getting her uncle off her throne.

Through assassinations and massacres, in bedrooms and war rooms, Touraine and Luca will haggle over the price of a nation. But some things aren’t for sale.’

The Unbroken is a fantastic read and one that I really enjoyed and look forward to reading future instalments of. I’m a huge fan of books that explore politics and history (or what is not yet truly history), and combined with its characters and setting, it’s easily one of my favourite reads of the year. It does take quite a while for the plot to get going, but without that which comes before some of the more serious events and twists in the narrative, it would rob these moments of their impact, and so while the pacing is a little inconsistent at times, I did like that events don’t simply charge ahead, but that time is spent more directly on character exploration and development.

The relationship between Luca and Touraine is one that it’s not easy to feel immediately or consistently comfortable with, owing largely to their power imbalance and an understanding that Luca is less frequently led by her feelings than Touraine is. There are times where it seems that Touraine could be dangerously expendable to the woman she is developing feelings for – and not only because Luca’s politics, but because Touraine herself doesn’t often appear to hold her own life in too high a regard. This is something impacted by her upbringing and what she is learning about her past; her questioning what she has done, in whose name, and what she feels about those who have and have had almost complete control over her life and what she has been taught to think. Their romance is perhaps not fully developed in this first book, but I liked that their power imbalance is specifically addressed in instances where Luca makes it clear that sex is not an expectation she has, and that if Touraine wants her, she wants it to be purely what she wants and for no other reason. The situations they find themselves in don’t allow for a great deal of openness or honesty, and I hope that we get to see more discussions between them in the next books.

Touraine is a conflicted – and conflicting – character, who spends much of the narrative with her loyalties pulled in so many different directions that it feels as if it simply isn’t safe to make assumptions about her or what she will do next, and this is one of the features of the story that I loved. She doesn’t always make what some might consider the smart or right decision, but she is living a life in which there are increasingly few ‘good’ decisions that she can make that won’t have consequences that she can’t anticipate due to the murky nature of the loyalties and politics of those around her. Paired with the fact that she finds herself in situations she hasn’t been in before, with personal feelings and identity involved, and she is having to make choices based on information she doesn’t necessarily have the whole (or the truth) of, and with emotions she isn’t sure she can trust further complicating matters. It feels like who Touraine wants to, could, and should be (in the eyes of more than one group of others) are all different people, and it’s no wonder that she has trouble treading the line between them, especially when she is all too frequently reminded that her best may never be good enough in the eyes of any one group or person – that to some, she is nothing more than a tool, and for others someone they need, but not exactly as they want.

I admittedly found it difficult to want to support Luca for much of the time, for though there were moments where I sympathised with her, I couldn’t really consider her motives to be ones that are easy to get behind. There are occasions where there seem to be flashes of her gaining a greater understanding of the world around her and the situation she’s in, yet it ultimately feels as if she is too much out for her own gains and willing to use those around her as and when needed. I don’t need to like a character for them to be a good character, so this isn’t to say that I don’t think she is well written – and I do wonder if the reader is meant to ‘like’ her at all, given her politics and lapses in consideration for others. Luca’s lack of understanding of her own actions and what they look like to the people she is trying(?) to support are an accurate portrayal of what has gone on through the ages and continues to this day; she just doesn’t understand why things aren’t as simple as she wants them to be and that she is more likely to be part of the problem than the solution. She feels that she is suffering and therefore can understand the suffering of others, which is a big assumption to make, and doesn’t ever really quite grasp that her world of privilege and power is one that causes damage, frustration seeming to edge her behaviour when she isn’t immediately trusted or gets her way because she claims to have ‘good’ or ‘different’ intentions compared to the rest of her people.

The Unbroken is out today! Thank you to Orbit Books for sending me a copy for review!

Review: What Love Looks Like by Jarlath Gregory

Review: What Love Looks Like by Jarlath Gregory

Ben is 17, gay, and happy most of the time. He’s finished school and is on track to a great career – all that’s missing is falling in love. Romantic but a little naive, Ben meets Peter online. But the guy of his dreams is still in the closet, his pal Soda is suddenly more interested in nights in than nights out, and his old school bully seems determined to ruin his life. Then, on top of everything else, his best friend, Chelsea, goes AWOL – just when he needs her most.

Everything is changing and Ben’s not sure what to do. But change brings all kinds of possibilities. You just have to be ready to see them.

Can Ben navigate the pitfalls of modern gay dating, with all its highly sexualised expectations, and be true to himself?’

What Love Looks Like follows Ben, who has just finished school and wants to train as a teacher, and seems certain what he wants from life, but not entirely secure in his upcoming adulthood or how to go about his romantic life. He’s a little idealistic and often makes the assumption that others will want the same things as he does from a relationship, which is less just the sexual side of things (which he often claims not to be completely ready for) and more a romantic connection, but, unfortunately for him, the connection he makes with Peter is one that only serves to make him feel bad about himself.

While Ben is out, Peter remains in the closet – and not only that, but all too willing to freely air his opinion on what he sees as the ‘wrong’ ways to be gay and how men should and shouldn’t behave in public, down to judging Ben himself and making repeated comments about what he wears and how he interacts with him in-front of others. Despite this, Peter believes that he can and should still get what he wants, which is contained purely to the physical, and seems utterly oblivious to the hateful things he says about other gay men, insisting that he’s different and not like them; that he’s a regular bloke who just happens to like men. Naively, Ben seems to think that Peter can’t possibly mean what he says, unsure what he should do when faced with his internalised homophobia, and lets him cross lines because he wants to make things work and appears to what to think the best of people. While Ben appears to understand that how he approaches his sexuality is not how everyone does, Peter is aggressive in his judgements and in his demands, and is frankly quite predatory in his approach, especially given that he doesn’t understand what no means or that he makes Ben uncomfortable.

For much of the book, Ben suffers discrimination from his peers, who find it necessary to continuously comment about his sexuality and make it clear that they don’t approve, when it’s absolutely none of their business. He’s bullied not only by them, but by other members of the public, and discriminatory behaviour even starts to become an issue in his work environment, where young children pick up on the language and less than tolerant behaviour of adults. What’s highlighted here is how easily children take on the views of their parents and those around them, creating prejudice that doesn’t naturally exist in young people. Combined with the religious views of where he lives and the ongoing struggles for gay rights and acceptance, Ben finds himself in the centre of a storm created by the views of those around him and not owing to anything that he has done wrong. For the most part, the characters in the novel who display (or who are indicated to have displayed) intolerance of the LGBTQ community and other prejudices, such as towards different races, make progress and do change by the book’s conclusion, ending the story on a hopeful note. How and why some of them change their attitudes is a little glossed over and rushed, especially in the case of Ben’s particular bully, but that there is more acceptance by the novel’s end is, in my opinion, more significant to focus on.

I don’t want to give any more specific spoilers, but I will say that I loved the resolution of Chelsea’s story and all that accompanies it. In a similar vein, I loved Ben’s family and how supportive they are of him; his home really feels like a safe space, with kind, supportive parents and it was lovely to see that he had this shelter from a less understanding outside world. Much of what Ben experiences outside his house has roots in the religious and political history of Ireland, and though good progress has been made, it’s important to be aware that there is still much of a journey to be had in terms of greater tolerance and acceptance.

What Love Looks Like is out on 15th March, from The O’Brien Press, who kindly sent me a copy for review! Thank you!

Review: Circus Maximus: Race to the Death by Annelise Gray

Review: Circus Maximus: Race to the Death by Annelise Gray

‘Twelve-year-old Dido dreams of becoming the first female charioteer at the great Circus Maximus. She’s lost her heart to Porcellus, a wild, tempestuous horse she longs to train and race. But such ambitions are forbidden to girls and she must be content with helping her father Antonius – the trainer of Rome’s most popular racing team, The Greens – and teaching the rules of racing to Justus, the handsome young nephew of the Greens’ wealthy owner. When her father is brutally murdered, she is forced to seek refuge with an unlikely ally. But what of her dream of Circus triumphs and being reunited with the beloved horse she left behind in Rome? And the threat to her life isn’t over as she faces a powerful and terrifying new enemy… the emperor Caligula.’

I loved Circus Maximus: Race to the Death and I truly hope that Gray continues to write in this genre, as the story is a wonderfully enthralling tale while being beautifully informative about the time in which it is set. The incorporation of details from history and creating characters from historical figures engages with them in a way that makes them intriguing and an excellent starting point for young readers who may already have an interest in ancient Rome or find their interest sparked by the book itself. I especially liked that the evidence from ancient writers is extrapolated upon to create whole scenarios and interactions that feel believable and are that enjoyably convincing within the fiction created that any concern as to whether there is any possibility of events ever having happened doesn’t arise. It is simply a delightful story and I would very happily read more set in Gray’s vision of the ancient world.

The narrative follows Dido, whose greatest wish is to become a female charioteer, but who finds this obviously out of her reach in a world where doing such a thing is out of the question for a woman. Hers is not some idle dream that she hasn’t dedicated herself to, for Dido has worked with horses under the watch of her father and often picks up details that others fail to notice, and she’s also developed the skills to train the horses and drive a chariot better than the boys who take their right to do so for granted. It would seem all that is stopping her is her gender. Any chance she has of eventually getting her way seems lost when her father is murdered and she overhears what she shouldn’t, forcing her to abandon her current life and seek out another, away from Rome, and piece together fragments of information that she has about her family and history. I don’t want to delve too far into spoiler territory, but I enjoyed seeing Dido forge new relationships and seeing how far (or not) those she meets are willing to assist her and why.

One feature of the narrative that I particularly liked was that there isn’t a huge focus on how being a girl is what would make Dido any less than her male counterparts. The emphasis feels more on the fact that her difficulties in this respect are purely owing to Roman customs of the time, in which many women have little freedom to make their own choices and are expected to operate only in the domestic sphere. Though there are those who put her down and remark that how she behaves and what she wants is unnatural for a woman, it is plainly painted as jealousy and a desire to dismiss a level of skill that they find threatening. She has worked to be as skilled as she is and quite obviously loves all that she does; her achievements feel more owing to her dedication and determination than any twist of fate that might help her.

Circus Maximus: Race to the Death is out today and is recommended for children aged 9 – 12, though I can see some slightly older children enjoying it a good deal as well. Thank you, Zephyr Books, for sending me a copy for review!

Review: Rumaysa by Radiya Hafiza

Review: Rumaysa by Radiya Hafiza

‘Rumaysa, Rumaysa, let down your hijab!’

For as long as she can remember Rumaysa has been locked away in her tall, tall tower, forced to use her magic to spin straw into gold for the evil Witch and unable to leave. Until one day, after dropping a hijab out of her small tower-window, Rumaysa realizes how she might be able to escape…

Join Rumaysa as she adventures through enchanted forests and into dragon’s lairs, discovers her own incredible magical powers and teams up with Cinderayla and Sleeping Sara!’

I love retellings of fairytales and Rumaysa is a fantastically re-imagined collection of three tales, linked together by appearances by the protagonist of the first story, which is a retelling of Rapunzel, with hints of the Rumpelstiltskin fairytale woven (pun not intended) in. Rumaysa is a young Muslim girl who has been stolen away from her family and discovers she has more power than she knows – both magical and otherwise – and wields her open heart and bravery to help other girls who, like her, find themselves at the mercy of others. The next stories are retellings of Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty, each rewritten to be far more inclusive than the originals – and to remind young girls that are more than capable of saving themselves and don’t need to wait for a prince to rescue them.

Something that really stood out to me in the first of the stories, which is Rumaysa’s adventure about her efforts to escape the witch who is keeping her locked in a tower, is how the witch’s supposed inability to pronounce or care about Rumaysa’s name is used to highlight how often this happens to girls and boys who have beautiful names that many simply don’t take the time or care to learn how to pronounce. In having the witch repeatedly refuse to pronounce her name correctly, it demonstrates a lack of respect that is all too often perpetuated by others, especially if children see an adult unwilling to learn or even ask how a child or adult peer would like their name pronounced. It is all too obvious that the witch does know Rumaysa’s name and how to say it – she just doesn’t bother and uses her dismissive mispronunciation to hurt her until she actually needs something from her (which is when she magically manages to give her her proper name). The battle between Rumaysa and her captor, with Rumaysa finding power in her name, is hugely symbolic and one of the features of the collection as a whole that I most enjoyed.

After finding freedom in the first tale, Rumaysa travels to meet – albeit inadvertently – Cinderayla, who, as one might expect, is suffering at the hands of her step-mother and step-sisters. In this, Rumaysa takes on the role of the fairy godmother, and it’s with this narrative choice and the decision to have the step-sisters choose to make apologies and show a willingness to learn and make up for what they have done that the tale demonstrates how young women should work together and not become the rivals society and the media all too often wants them to be. It also dismantles the idea that true love can happen in a matter of hours/overnight, and that all women need to be married to be happy, for Ayla has her own ideas about the arrogant prince who has preconceived notions about her and what his status in the world means others should do.

The final tale is a twist on the story of Sleeping Beauty, full of dragons and politics and more girls saving themselves (and the day). This one wraps up the trio on hopeful notes for Rumaysa and the journey she’s on, while also leaving the proverbial door open for further adventures before she (hopefully) finds what she’s been looking for and gets back to the parents she was stolen from. I would love to see another volume of stories retold in this way, and I hope this isn’t the last we see of Rumaysa.

Rumaysa is a beautiful book, full of magic and positive messages for children, and is such a fun read that I just didn’t want it to end. I love that the ending is open ended in terms of events, but leaves the characters visited along the way with conclusions reached in their hearts, promising hope to revisit them and meet others in whatever the future holds for Rumaysa. Thank you, Macmillan Children’s Books, for sending me a proof for review!