Review: Pumpkin by Julie Murphy

Review: Pumpkin by Julie Murphy

‘Waylon Russell Brewer is a fat, openly gay boy stuck in the small West Texas town of Clover City. His plan is to bide his time until he can graduate, move to Austin with his twin sister, Clementine, and finally go Full Waylon so that he can live his Julie-the-hills-are-alive-with-the-sound-of-music-Andrews truth.

So when Clementine deviates from their master plan right after Waylon gets dumped, he throws caution to the wind and creates an audition tape for his favorite TV drag show, Fiercest of Them All. What he doesn’t count on is the tape getting accidentally shared with the entire school… As a result, Waylon is nominated for prom queen as a joke. Clem’s girlfriend, Hannah Perez, also receives a joke nomination for prom king.

Waylon and Hannah decide there’s only one thing to do: run-and leave high school with a bang. A very glittery bang. Along the way, Waylon discovers that there is a lot more to running for prom court than campaign posters and plastic crowns, especially when he has to spend so much time with the very cute and infuriating prom king nominee Tucker Watson.

Waylon will need to learn that the best plan for tomorrow is living for today… especially with the help of some fellow queens.’

Pumpkin is set is the same universe as Dumplin’ and Puddin’ and follows Waylon, who is a big fan of drag and drag reality TV shows, and is looking forward to the near future in which he feels he can fully embrace who he is, once he and Clementine, his twin sister, leave town for university. But when Clem decides that going to the university that they’ve agreed on isn’t necessarily she wants, his plans and his feelings about the future are thrown into disarray.

The book has a lovely cast of supportive characters, particularly Waylon and Clementine’s parents and their grandmother, and though his uncertainties sometimes lead him to think that that he is being left behind and it sometimes takes others pointing out the positives of the relationships in his life to realise what he has, Waylon quite clearly loves his family and values them, just as they love him. It’s his grandmother who has given him the nickname that he chooses to transform into his drag name, and is a delightfully funny and warm-hearted character. It’s wonderful to see families like Waylon’s in YA literature and the scenes that involved his family were among my favourites of the story. However, while his family may support Waylon in his choices and encourage him to make decisions that are best for him, this is not to say that the novel shies away from exploring the impact of discrimination and the fact that there are those who do not have a supportive family and friends like his. This is handled sensitively, with the discrimination that some of the characters suffer painted plainly for what it is: unacceptable and not to be tolerated.

Waylon’s relationship with his twin sister is a close and supportive one, though it has some of the signs of him being a little too dependent on it at times, and he is heartbroken when he discovers that she has been considering options other than going to the same university as him. He acknowledges that their relationship is co-dependent and doesn’t seem entirely sure what to do about it, and while he says he considers Clem in the decisions that he makes, he is incredibly hurt that she hasn’t shared her feelings about university with him or told him that she has been planning to potentially set aside their plans and follow a path that doesn’t involve him in her life as much as he is now. It takes him some time to come to terms with her decision and why it unsettles him so much, but it’s good to see them eventually start to talk about it properly and see Waylon start to try and figure out what he wants for himself – and whether going to university is actually what he wants, rather than what is ‘expected’ of a student of his age. He acknowledges early on in the story that being in drag feels as if it’s just another part of himself and not a performance, and this is one of several realisations he has about aspects of his life and who he wants to be over the course of the book, and by the novel’s conclusion it really feels as if he is more in touch with his own emotions than he is at its beginning.

Pumpkin is a fun, inclusive and body-positive read that is not only a sweet story, but looks at some of the issues facing young people about to take their steps towards a more independent future. Though it’s part of the Clover City universe and there are the previous two books in the series, it can be read as a standalone, as the characters from the other novels make cameo appearances that don’t require the reader to have a comprehensive understanding of their stories. Thank you, Harper360 YA, for sending me a copy for review!

Review: Tokyo Ever After by Emiko Jean

Review: Tokyo Ever After by Emiko Jean

‘Izumi Tanaka has lived an uneventful seventeen years in her small town, keenly aware of all the ways in which her family is different from most of her classmates’. But then Izumi discovers a clue to her previously unknown father’s identity… and he’s none other than the Crown Prince of Japan.

Soon she’s traveling overseas to meet the father she never knew and discover the country she’s only dreamed of. But being a princess isn’t all ball gowns and tiaras. There are conniving cousins, a hungry press, a scowling but handsome bodyguard who just might be her soulmate, and thousands of years of tradition and customs to learn practically overnight. Izzy soon finds herself caught between worlds, and between versions of herself-back home, she was never “American” enough, and in Japan, she must prove she’s “Japanese” enough. Will Izumi crumble under the weight of the crown, or will she live out her fairytale, happily ever after?’

Tokyo Ever After is a lovely book with a lot of heart, its dialogue fresh and delightfully real, and while it is a bright and often humorous book, it doesn’t shy away from looking at more serious issues, such as identity, belonging and family. It reads as a fairytale with a hope for a happily ever after from the beginning, which is one of the things that makes it such an enjoyable book and one I would recommend as a perfect summer read.

Izumi’s journey to Japan brings not only her father into her life, but all that being his daughter means, including titles and the need to behave in a particular way in the spotlight, her life suddenly one that is very interesting to a media that is always on the lookout for the most minute of mistakes from the royal family. While her father does have expectations of her, it’s clear from the start that he genuinely cares for Izumi and wants to get to know her – and what’s best for her – and isn’t set on completely transforming her into someone she isn’t. He tries to help her and he is forgiving when she makes mistakes, knowing that she’s trying her best, and ultimately doesn’t want her to leave for any other reason than he would be losing his daughter again. He aims to be a good father even while he’s still learning, and it’s nice to see him and Izumi exploring in what ways their family might not be so typical as expected, and so how their own relationship may not need to be so heavily influenced by protocol and expectations.

This is not to say that the family Izumi meets in Japan is entirely welcoming, for she finds some of them hostile and unyielding when it comes to her identity, determined to prove to her that she isn’t one of them and never will be. However, they are not without troubles of their own and are likewise targets of a media that wants to delight in their failure or suffering. Unfortunately for Izumi, while trying to navigate the politics and relationships of the royalty that is her family, who could be a friend and who might be a foe is never quite clear to her, worried as she is about making bigger mistakes and trying to fit in.

One of the narrative threads that I loved was the idea that Izumi’s father is still in love with her mother and hasn’t ever quite let go of the memory of her. Though he has put his duty to his family and country first, he continues to keep reminders of her close to him, such as the flowers that she loves, and his affection for her is quite clear in what interactions they have. It isn’t that Izumi’s life isn’t full without her parents being together, or that she hasn’t had a proper family, but that her parents might become a couple after so many years apart – time that they have obviously spent still thinking of each other – is another part of the fairytale happy ending that it feels they all deserve. Izumi’s own romance is a sweet story that feels like a natural growing together after moving beyond each other’s defences and finding common ground, and while they may have not known each other for very long, their relationship reads as the beginnings of a solid partnership.

If you’re looking for a modern fairytale with family at its heart and a cast of characters to care for (I hope this isn’t the last we see of them!), Tokyo Ever After should be top of your list for a warm and heartfelt read. Thank you to My Kinda Book for sending me a copy!

Review: The Jasmine Throne by Tasha Suri

Review: The Jasmine Throne by Tasha Suri

‘One is a vengeful princess seeking to depose her brother from his throne.

The other is a priestess searching for her family.

Together, they will change the fate of an empire.

Imprisoned by her dictator brother, Malini spends her days in isolation in the Hirana: an ancient temple that was once the source of powerful magic – but is now little more than a decaying ruin.

Priya is a maidservant, one of several who make the treacherous journey to the top of the Hirana every night to attend Malini’s chambers. She is happy to be an anonymous drudge, as long as it keeps anyone from guessing the dangerous secret she hides. But when Malini accidentally bears witness to Priya’s true nature, their destinies become irrevocably tangled…’

The Jasmine Throne is an excellent read, especially if you enjoy complex politics and the exploration of human nature. None of the characters seem ever to be truly one thing or the other and there is nothing so simple as good and evil in the story (except for Malini’s brother, in my opinion), with actions and intent in shades of grey perceived depending on alliances and beliefs that may or may not survive. Everyone has their secrets and deliberately presents themselves in specific ways to different faces and depending on the situation, to the extent that it feels difficult to trust many of the characters or feel secure in understanding them, which makes for a wonderfully unpredictable journey. To single out one character, it was Bhumika who I found to be a surprise, for though there is clear evidence of her loyalty and strength, I was never certain how far she was willing to go for the cause.

The relationship between the former temple children is a particularly interesting one, especially the shifts in supposed power and what each of them is willing to do to help their people and restore them to how they believe it should be. Bhumika has perhaps played the most strategic game, intent on assisting those that she can by concealing the depth of her strength behind a cultivated kindness and a marriage for which she has surrendered much. It feels as if Priya has almost the least success in concealing her true herself, for though she has managed to hide her gifts, she reads as the most open-hearted of the cast and the most generous with whatever she has to hand, whether that is sacred wood for the children suffering from the rot, or her time and energy. Ashok is presented as the more reckless of them, driven by desperation and fury, and while it seems that he is a threat to his sisters and others, he ultimately doesn’t seem able to navigate the world as well as Bhumika and Priya, his rage something that makes him dangerous and simultaneously only the greatest risk to himself.

Malini is a delightfully complex character and unapologetic about who she is and what she wishes to achieve. She takes no issue with using those around her as and when she can, yet she is not entirely without conscience, as blind to it as she seems very determinedly to be. Those around her are assessed for their usefulness, especially Priya in the first instance, who, being less adept at hiding her feelings, is someone she appears to find easy to read. Even imprisoned and drugged as she is, she refuses to become a victim (though there are times when it seems she is play-acting the part), and is quite plainly biding her time until an opportunity presents itself. Though Priya’s strength of character and her more magical abilities are well established by the time Malini begins to set her newest plan in motion, it’s easy to feel anxious about just what Priya is stepping into by creating her alliance with her. This said, neither of them are entirely honest with each other, unable to afford the risk of unveiling the true extent of their natures, and, as the narrative unfolds, there’s more than one instance that leaves the reader wondering which of them is manipulating the other – and which of them is doing this more successfully.

The Jasmine Throne is a brilliantly immersive read, its world-building rich and tangible, and its politics and societies thoroughly engaging and grounded in an exploration of complex morals and ethics. I very much look forward to the next books in the Burning Kingdoms trilogy and highly recommend it for fans of fantasy and those with an interest in reading about the complexities and impact of conflict. Thank you, Orbit Books, for sending me a proof for review!

Blog Tour: The Stepsisters by Susan Mallery

Blog Tour: The Stepsisters by Susan Mallery

‘Once upon a time, when her dad married Sage’s mom, Daisy was thrilled to get a bright and shiny new sister. But Sage was beautiful and popular, everything Daisy was not, and she made sure Daisy knew it.

Sage didn’t have Daisy’s smarts–she had to go back a grade to enroll in the fancy rich-kid school. So she used her popularity as a weapon, putting Daisy down to elevate herself. After the divorce, the stepsisters’ rivalry continued until the final, improbable straw: Daisy married Sage’s first love, and Sage fled California.

Eighteen years, two kids and one troubled marriage later, Daisy never expects–or wants–to see Sage again. But when the little sister they have in common needs them both, they put aside their differences to care for Cassidy. As long-buried truths are revealed, no one is more surprised than they when friendship blossoms.

Their fragile truce is threatened by one careless act that could have devastating consequences. They could turn their backs on each other again… or they could learn to forgive once and for all and finally become true sisters of the heart.’

Today is my stop on the blog tour for The Stepsisters by Susan Mallery! I really enjoyed this book and its look at family dynamics and the relationship between sisters, and how it isn’t up to marriage, blood or otherwise to define what sisters mean to each other.

The Stepsisters first introduces the reader to Daisy, who is married (before husband, Jordan, decides to suggest otherwise), has two young children, and an inheritance from her late mother that means she is able to live a comfortable life in a large home and employ a housekeeper to look after things when she’s at work or otherwise can’t be at home. This is quite the contrast to the life of her stepsister, Sage, who she meets again after many years apart, and who has a string of divorces and her savings all tied up in expensive designer handbags (for a good reason). Then there’s Cassidy, the youngest of the three, who actively hates Daisy and finds herself forced to live with her to recuperate from serious injuries gained when trying to retreat from human feelings. Having been thrown together as children when Daisy’s father married Sage’s mother, the two have never got along, and while Cassidy – the result of said marriage – is sister to them both, the machinations of some of the adults in their lives has led to her being a real friend to neither.

As the book progresses, it becomes very clear that the damage done to the relationship between Daisy, Sage and Cassidy hasn’t been done by them, but by the adults in their lives who should have known better. In various ways, they have been blaming themselves and each other for the breakdown of their parents’ marriage, and unable to have any sort of relationship with each other because those who should have been more responsible and ultimately better parents were more focused on their own needs and feelings. Daisy’s father seems the more passively responsible for various issues, though this is not to say that he is not manipulative, for even now he continues to try and turn Daisy into the daughter he wants her to be. I could write a lot more about Joanne than I already have a little further on, but, frankly, her treatment of Daisy, Sage and Cassidy is despicable and if there were to be a real villain of the piece, I would say it was her. That the adults in their lives were unable and unwilling to communicate when they were children has had a huge impact on each of the women, particularly in Sage and Cassidy’s inability to deal with emotions and their lack of confidence in themselves in any professional capacity, and it is perhaps their closer proximity to Joanne that has resulted in what read like deeper wounds. This is not to say that Daisy has escaped the situation without harm, as she too likes to sidestep her feelings and constantly compares her physical appears to Sage’s, believing she is less than she is. Combined with a need to serve others, it seems that Daisy is trying to avoid the mistakes of the past with her own children and make up for the breakdown in her relationship with Cassidy when she tried to play mother to her.

I found Jordan’s behaviour towards Daisy incredibly manipulative in what seems like a very deliberate manner from the beginning. He refuses to communicate with his wife and makes decisions based solely on his needs, while blaming her for the choices that he is making. It appears apparent very early on that he is determined to make their inevitable divorce her fault in the eyes of others and is intent on provoking her through a series of accusations, ‘changes of heart’ and trying to tear her down. Rather than address his own feelings and failings, he pushes them onto her, claiming that she should fully understand why he feels as he does without giving her any actual information or explaining himself. Though he claims to care for his children, he has absolutely no problem with hurting their mother and playing games with her state of emotional and mental health, seemingly unable to understand (or too selfish to care) that, by doing so, he also stands to hurt them. His selfishness is echoed in Joanne’s treatment of both her daughters, as she too is unable to put them – or anyone else – first. From the way the story unfolds, it’s easy to forget that Cassidy is her daughter, as there is next to no evidence that she cares for her at all, seeing her perhaps only as a reminder of a marriage that she is still bitterly angry about the breakdown of. She is willing to use Sage as a way to hurt Daisy and her own ex-husband, and is uninterested in the lives of her children, only really paying attention when there might be something that she can gain from their respective situations.

It was lovely to see Daisy, Sage and Cassidy gradually unravel all that happened to them as children and begin to see past their misconceptions of each other (and themselves). Daisy is the most responsible and the one who I would suggest holds the three together, but is also the one who feels that her child self failed and that she is the cause of the divorce of their parents, feelings that have been capitalised on by Sage and Cassidy’s mother. Each of them is envious of the others in more ways than one, whether it be for perceived intellect, lifestyle or appearance, and while I do wish that Daisy had stopped comparing herself to Sage in this last respect, they eventually begin to realise that much of what they think of each other has more to do with what they have been told to think and childhood misunderstandings and immaturities than the truth. Sage’s journey to realising what she wants for herself and who she wants to be feels particularly satisfying, especially as she seems ignorant of her talents for much of the book. To see the sisters becoming sisters by choice and despite the meddling of others is the best feature of the story.

The Stepsisters was published on May 25th and is available now in a variety of formats! Thank you to Mills & Boon for my copies of the book and for the opportunity to be part of the blog tour!

Bookstagram Tour: The Wolf Den by Elodie Harper

Bookstagram Tour: The Wolf Den by Elodie Harper

‘Sold by her mother. Enslaved in Pompeii’s brothel. Determined to survive. Her name is Amara. Welcome to the Wolf Den…

Amara was once a beloved daughter, until her father’s death plunged her family into penury. Now she is a slave in Pompeii’s infamous brothel, owned by a man she despises. Sharp, clever and resourceful, Amara is forced to hide her talents. For as a she-wolf, her only value lies in the desire she can stir in others.

But Amara’s spirit is far from broken.

By day, she walks the streets with her fellow she-wolves, finding comfort in the laughter and dreams they share. For the streets of Pompeii are alive with opportunity. Out here, even the lowest slave can secure a reversal in fortune. Amara has learnt that everything in this city has its price. But how much is her freedom going to cost her?’

Today is my stop on the bookstagram tour for The Wolf Den by Elodie Harper! The Wolf Den is a book that I began reading one evening, read until the early hours, eventually – reluctantly – had to sleep, and then picked up again right away when I woke up. As a Classicist, it was one of my most anticipated reads of the year and in no way did it disappoint – I simply adored it and wanted it never to end as much as I wanted to read on. The historical detail and the way in which Pompeii is brought to life in such a vivid manner is absolutely brilliant, and I cannot recommend this book enough.

The story follows Amara, who has been taken from her home and sold into slavery, and now finds herself with a new name and forced to work as a prostitute in one of Pompeii’s brothels. The man who has bought her has a cruel and somewhat mercurial nature, intent on using her to make as much money as possible, which includes encouraging her to use her intellect when it suits him, and reprimanding and both verbally and physically harming her when it doesn’t. Having taken the measure of what sort of man he is makes Amara all the more determined to achieve her freedom and make a better life for herself by any means possible.

The Wolf Den does not shy away from the brutality of Amara’s life and what it is to work in a brothel, though never crosses the line into any unnecessarily graphic depictions of what her days and nights involve. The absence of detail in this respect only highlights that it is something that she doesn’t wish to think about and cannot handle focusing on, and there is an awful bleakness in knowing what she is being made to endure in her silences and the spaces between where the narrative breaks and picks up again. The sexual violence is only one aspect of her cruel world; a world that sees her primarily as an object to be possessed and only as a woman in the rare instances in which it suits someone. Even when she exhibits artistic talent that men find pleasing, they still ultimately view her as something they want, and praise inevitably leads to being claimed and reminded of what she has become. She is never truly respected for her mind or talents and has to learn to play the game that others use to exploit her, becoming sharper and more manipulative in her efforts to free herself and find her way back to being a semblance of the woman she was before she was sold into slavery. Amara does not escape the brutality of her environment in this respect, having to make it part of herself in order to make her own way.

There are some friendships among the women that endure better than others, but it seems that many cannot afford to trust another, being that they are all rivals and need to survive; need not to be seen as weak and expendable. Their ways of caring are based around survival and may even seem unkind on the surface, especially regarding the arrival of the Briton they name Britannica. They cannot help her in any way but to let her endure it, unable to protect her without risking both her and themselves, forced to surrender to the inevitable and try to give what support they can in the aftermath. For them, it is a cycle they have seen before and are unable to escape, death or worse being the only alternatives, and while their trauma brings them together, it also creates distance and distrust, the chance for better or escape a rare and precious opportunity. As individuals and collectively, they have to take power in the small moments that they can, knowing that it is unlikely to last. Amara’s determination to get herself out of her present situation doesn’t entirely distance her from others, and while it begins to set her apart and create jealousy when its effects start to become more obvious, she never forgets Dido and seems set on making plans to assist her too, their love perhaps the most important relationship in the novel.

The Wolf Den was released on May 13th and is now available to add to your shelves! It’s among my favourite reads of this year and I’m so glad that it’s the first of a series and that we’ll get to see Amara and everyone again. Thank you to Head of Zeus for sending me a copy of the book and a parcel of goodies, and for the opportunity to be part of the tour!

Review: For the Wolf by Hannah Whitten

Review: For the Wolf by Hannah Whitten

‘The first daughter is for the Throne.

The second daughter is for the Wolf.

As the only Second Daughter born in centuries, Red has one purpose-to be sacrificed to the Wolf in the Wood in the hope he’ll return the world’s captured gods.

Red is almost relieved to go. Plagued by a dangerous power she can’t control, at least she knows that in the Wilderwood, she can’t hurt those she loves. Again.

But the legends lie. The Wolf is a man, not a monster. Her magic is a calling, not a curse. And if she doesn’t learn how to use it, the monsters the gods have become will swallow the Wilderwood-and her world-whole.’

In the world of For the Wolf, the second daughter of the ruling family is always destined to be sacrificed to the Wolf and sent into the Wilderwood to meet what is assumed to be a horrible end. The daughters never reappear and the indication that the next should be sent is in the fact of their birth; from the moment they take their first breath, second daughters are designated as the sacrifice from which there is no escape. Red has lived with knowing that she will be sent into the wood her whole life, and while her sister cannot bear the idea of losing her, she is unflinching in the face of her fate and seemingly almost looking forward to the day that she will leave her family and step into the wood. Though her mother is cold and distant from her, perhaps owing to some sense of self-preservation and need not to become attached to her, it is not because she wishes to escape her family that she cannot be deterred from going through with it, but because she feels she is growing increasingly dangerous and poses a threat to those around her, as a magic she cannot control has long taken up residence beneath her skin.

It’s suggested that the story is Red Riding Hood retelling, and though there are aspects of the story that clearly extrapolate on the general narrative of that tale, the setting and the growing relationship between the Wolf and Red make it feel closer to a Beauty and the Beast retelling. I’ve said many times before that I adore a good retelling and For the Wolf is no exception to this, for me. In-fact, it’s one of my favourites from the past few years and I truly loved the worldbuilding and the relationships between Red and the Wolf, and Red and her sister. I’m very glad that it’s not a standalone and that there will be more story from this world.

For me, one of the best features of the narrative is the magic surrounding the Wilderwood and the Shadowlands, and how each element grows to be reflected in the sisters. Both Red and Neve are determined to protect each other, despite the distance between them and the assumptions about Red’s fate, and in refusing to give up on each other each get themselves drawn into magics and along paths that they can’t entirely control or completely understand, and while Red is supposed to have been the sacrifice, it truly feels as if Neve is the one who becomes it. There is a hopefulness to Red’s side of the narrative, despite the constant threats to her life and her worries about who or what she is, and a feeling that she is building a family and a future, however short that future may be, whereas watching Neve make the decisions she does and be manipulated by others builds a sense of increasing despair to reflect her own feelings about her sister and her own position. It isn’t that Neve does ‘bad’ things; it’s that her world view has narrowed for what she perceives to be good reasons and she can’t find her way from the path she’s started down.

I loved the developing relationship between Red and Eammon (otherwise known as The Wolf) and I did enjoy the tropes involved, such as the ‘only one bed’ scenario and the marriage of necessity. By the time Red meets him, both she and the reader are perhaps expecting a monster both inside and out, and while Eammon is undeniably a monster in terms of power and physicality, this is where the comparison ends. He is simply a man with a burden, trying to do the best he can and endeavouring not to get girls like Red caught up in the fate forced upon him and them. He isn’t awful or unkind, and I think seeing this helps Red to realisations about her own power and what she has been afraid of for so long. There’s a lot to unpack in the stories, history and legends of Red’s world regarding perceptions of good and evil, and I don’t want to go into any further detail for fear of big spoilers, but this examination was another of the things about the book that I most enjoyed.

For the Wolf is out on June 1st and I highly recommend picking up a copy! It will be followed by For the Throne, expected (at present) in July 2022. Thank you to Orbit Books for sending me a proof copy for review!

Blog Tour: The Witch’s Heart by Genevieve Gornichec

Blog Tour: The Witch’s Heart by Genevieve Gornichec

‘Angrboda’s story begins where most witch tales end: with being burnt. A punishment from Odin for sharing her visions of the future with the wrong people, the fire leaves Angrboda injured and powerless, and she flees into the furthest reaches of a remote forest. There she is found by a man who reveals himself to be the trickster god Loki, and her initial distrust of him-and any of his kind-grows reluctantly into a deep and abiding love.

Their union produces the most important things in her long life: a trio of peculiar children, each with a secret destiny, whom she is keen to raise at the edge of the world, safely hidden from Odin’s all-seeing eye. But as Angrboda slowly recovers her prophetic powers, she learns that her blissful life-and possibly all of existence-is in danger. Angrboda must choose whether she’ll accept the fate that she’s foreseen for her beloved family-or rise to remake it.’

Today is my stop on the blog tour for The Witch’s Heart by Genevieve Gornichec!

The Witch’s Heart is a tale that takes its inspiration from Norse mythology, which I confess did make me expect a rather formal or heavy tone, but I was very pleasantly surprised to find it a much lighter and brighter affair, the dialogue natural and engaging, while the prose is beautiful and quite direct in nature, making it very easily to envision the physicality of characters and the world around them. I have to say that the dialogue between Angrboda and Loki is of my favourite things about the book, often humorous and blunt, with a rather modern feel and perspective that brings the both of them to life. Ultimately, I made the mistake of picking up The Witch’s Heart at 11:30pm, intending to read perhaps thirty pages, and it was well over two hundred before I could put it down (and that was only out of the necessity of sleep!). I loved it and I’m going to have to read it again very soon!

Angrboda’s relationship with Loki is a difficult one that at times seems simple in its acceptance of all that is not quite normal about it, yet it is all too easy for the reader to feel conflicted about it and Loki’s treatment of her. The worst of it is that he never does seem to lie to her, too blunt and open in his observations and his lack of understanding of the consequences of his actions, but she knows too well that much of what he does is deception and for his own gains. That he loves her and his children is something that, in most instances, seems unquestionable, but this goes hand in hand with the knowledge that everything he does is with himself at the forefront of his mind. He manipulates those around him with ease and an often unsettling openness about it, and while it’s obvious that Angrboda is an intelligent woman, that she doesn’t always make the best choices for herself becomes more evident as Loki waltzes in and out of her life – and those of their children – playing at husband and father as he pleases. They accept that their relationship doesn’t look like a ‘normal’ one, and it’s Angrboda who could rage and let jealousy consume her, only she doesn’t, choosing to focus on her children, knowing full well that there will be no changing Loki. Does she really even want to change him? It’s only when the worst thing he has ever said is about their children that she finally seems to see the extent of what he is and start to decide who she is going to be.

I think it’s quite obvious from the outset who the voice is that Angrboda hears and is afraid to listen to, whether literally or metaphorically, as there is a good measure of well-crafted foreshadowing early in the novel, and, in my opinion, it adds another layer to her character as the story unfolds, in that there are untold reasons for her behaviour that even she isn’t completely certain about, yet there is a sense that she truly does know and is unwilling to acknowledge them. It’s interesting to consider just how much of her ‘slow’ recovery is a result of Odin’s punishment and the repeated burnings, or because she simply cannot bear to understand who she was and regain the power that has caused her so much distress – and only causes her more and more as she recovers the depth of it. That the reader catches on to who she is and what is likely to happen before she does essentially grants them her prophetic powers, and one of the most interesting features of the narrative is seeing her put together the pieces and what she does with the information.

Another aspect of the novel that I loved was Angrboda’s relationship with her children and her absolute acceptance of who they are and what forms they take. They are the most important people in the world to her and her simple love and acceptance of their natures impacts how the others in the story see them, meaning they are not deemed to be odd and abnormal by the few who know of them – not until it is their own father who missteps and brands them monsters. Their supposed fates are what drive her to reclaim herself and finally make her see the truth of the world and her choices more clearly, both in terms of what has been taken from her and what she has to give.

The Witch’s Heart is a beautiful, immersive read, written in an addictive style that leaves the reader wanting more. I enjoyed it immensely and highly recommend it, particularly for those with an interest in mythology. Thank you, Titan Books, for sending me an e-copy of the book for review (the book in the image is one I purchased myself) and for the opportunity to be part of the blog tour!

Review: The End of Men by Christina Sweeney-Baird

Review: The End of Men by Christina Sweeney-Baird

‘Glasgow, 2025

Dr Amanda Maclean is called to treat a young man with a mild fever. Within three hours he dies. The mysterious illness sweeps through the hospital with deadly speed. This is how it begins.

The victims are all men.

Dr Maclean raises the alarm, but the sickness spreads to every corner of the globe. Threatening families. Governments. Countries.

Can they find a cure before it’s too late? Will this be the story of the end of the world – or its salvation?’

I did, briefly, have second thoughts about whether I wanted to read a pandemic book while in the midst of one, especially working in an environment where we’re dominated by various Covid regulations and have to be quite constantly alert for student and staff safety. However, after I started reading The End of Men, I just couldn’t put it down. I initially tried to keep to the pages per day of the readalong, but that went out the window after I set the book aside for half an hour or so and couldn’t wait any longer to read on!

The End of Men follows the years of a pandemic that only affects men, and perhaps the worst feature of the virus is that it impacts all ages, including newborns. Women are discovered to be immune to its effects, yet there is no safety is this, for it only means that they are hosts that can pass the virus on to any male family and friends. Once the virus takes hold, the end is swift and inevitable, to the extent that treatment is deemed to be useless and most men don’t seek help or medical assistance, choosing to remain with their families. The knowing what will happen and that there is no way of preventing is one of the book’s most emotionally impactful features, as women find themselves helpless to do anything but watch and wait, forced to prioritise protecting those they love while distancing themselves from others they love no less, in what becomes an increasingly futile effort to try and keep them alive.

One of the features I liked most about the book is the inclusive of documents and emails and various other communications alongside the points of view of the ‘main’ characters. It allows for a wider look at the world and what others think of the actions being taken by some of the characters that you get to know better over the course of the story, bringing you outside their heads and a glimpse of what differences there may be in what ‘reality’ really is. The multiple points of view and media releases are particularly well used regarding the eventual vaccine that is discovered and the choices surrounding it, as it seems so shocking compared to our own experience, and also not when you take into account the distribution of vaccines and which countries have access to the most doses and why. The decisions made surrounding survival and treatment in The End of Men only highlight just what the pandemic has done to our sense of community – what we hoped we had learned during our worst moments and what many people in power seem to be forgetting as the vaccine becomes more and more political.

The pandemic in The End of Men is much worse than the current one, but the nature of the response, particularly from government and officials, and just who we are encouraged to listen to, is frighteningly similar. It is women who sound the alarm in the opening stage of the pandemic in The End of Men, but the doctor who treats the first patient is ignored for reasons that men have been using to cast aside women’s opinions for hundreds of years. She is assumed to be emotional and hysterical, unable to think clearly or know what she’s doing, and her warnings are ignored despite her professional knowledge and experience. Unfortunately, I think this is something that all women have experienced more than once in the work environment, and something that isn’t likely to go away any time soon, and I found myself hugely angry on her behalf. There is more than a little irony in men refusing to acknowledge the warnings about a pandemic that is going to destroy them, simply because those warnings aren’t delivered by one of ‘their own’.

There is a huge amount of unpack in The End of Men, from ideas about gender and sexuality, to politics and morality, but I’ll have to stop here or I’ll end up writing an essay! The End of Men is an excellent and thought provoking read, and one I see myself recommending to others for a long time.

Thank you to Tandem Collective UK and Borough Press for sending me a copy of the book for the readalong!

Review: This Can Never Not Be Real by Sera Milano

Review: This Can Never Not Be Real by Sera Milano

‘In the unremarkable town of Amberside, the unthinkable has happened: Terrorists have attacked a local festival. No one knows why, and no one knows who the attackers are, but that doesn’t matter. What matters first is survival. And what matters after that is survival, too.

In this brilliantly written account of hope, humour and humanity, five ordinary teenagers are caught up in a truly extraordinary situation. It’s a heart-pounding and gripping account of the fight for survival as the attackers prowl the festival grounds, told from multiple perspectives.

This is a book for teenagers facing the barrage of bleak reports that fill our newsfeeds and for anyone who needs to see that behind the hate that makes the headlines, there is always love.’

This Can Never Not Be Real is one of those books that you simply can’t put down, yet are afraid of what each page turn might bring for characters who are easy to care for and written so that the reader very quickly grows attached to them, and not only because of the urgency of the events that are happening around them. That the narrative is written in a manner that switches points of view very frequently, yet feels like smooth and continuous prose, makes it swiftly and incredibly immersive, not sparing a moment to rest and so evoking the panic and uncertainty of the situation that the characters find themselves in. I did try to put the book down, but was back to it in less than five minutes, as I just had to know what was going to happen and was genuinely agitated (in a way that reflects positively on the writing) that I didn’t know how characters were going to survive. That their points of view exist must suggest that they live is something that I had to keep reminding myself of, as nothing feels certain, but that fact alone says nothing of what they are going to go through to get there.

Of all the perspectives, I’m not sure that I would pick a ‘favourite’, but I loved Violet and Peaches in particular. I adored Violet’s love for her family and both she and Ellie growing into their realisations about each other and that things they may have assumed are not necessarily true; their growing closer and quietly understanding that there is the potential for more than friendship between them, but what is first and foremost is that they care for each other and choose to be supportive through everything that they learn about the other. Violet seems quiet and unassuming, and she makes some painful comments about how easily she is overlooked and how teachers mistake her for other girls simply because they share the same skin colour (something no child should have to tolerate at school). She is kind and clever and dedicated and sweet, and despite all that happens to her, she stays so. Okay, maybe I have picked a favourite!

That the terrorists in the story aren’t given the ‘air time’ to explain themselves or express why they have attacked people is something I was glad of. They aren’t identified as any one group or with a particular purpose, and no ideology is presented as reason or excuse, for, as the characters themselves and the author says, there is no excuse for terrorism.

I’m generally not one for tears when reading, unless it’s to do with characters I’ve been attached to for many years, but I admit I did cry at the end of This Can Never Not Be Real. It is a brilliant read that packs a real punch, keeping hope, affection and love at its centre, and is beautifully crafted with evident care in handling such a range of sensitive subjects. Out on April 29th, this is one of the year’s essential reads and I sincerely recommend getting a copy and setting aside the time to read it in its entirety.

Thank you, Electric Monkey Books, for sending me a copy for review!

Review: Sistersong by Lucy Holland

Review: Sistersong by Lucy Holland

‘King Cador’s children inherit a land abandoned by the Romans, torn by warring tribes. Riva can cure others, but can’t heal her own scars. Keyne battles to be seen as the king’s son, although born a daughter. And Sinne dreams of love, longing for adventure.

All three fear a life of confinement within the walls of the hold, their people’s last bastion of strength against the invading Saxons. However, change comes on the day ash falls from the sky – bringing Myrdhin, meddler and magician. The siblings discover the power that lies within them and the land. But fate also brings Tristan, a warrior whose secrets will tear them apart.

Riva, Keyne and Sinne become entangled in a web of treachery and heartbreak, and must fight to forge their own paths. It’s a story that will shape the destiny of Britain.’

I found Sistersong to be a hugely enjoyable read and I loved the aspects of history and myth (and what history has all but become myth) at the core of the narrative. One of the things that has always stuck with me from my studies of Classical Civilisation is conversation about how Britain changed after the departure of the Romans and how their advances in technology and architecture became something that the generations that followed started to attribute to magic and fantastical creatures, such as giants, because they simply couldn’t fathom how humans could have created the now ruined structures left behind. I got a big kick out of the comment in Sistersong about how the Romans used to heat their floors and it being something almost unbelievable and beyond the realms of possibility. A tiny detail, but I really appreciated it as one of the many things that make the world of Sistersong feel real and not so different to our own reality and version(s) of history. The rising conflict between religious beliefs and insistences about how society should function is another of the elements of the book that I found most enjoyable in an anthropological sense, given what we understand of the world at the time in which Sistersong is set – and who ultimately got to write that history and what we ‘know’.

Of the points of view, I found Keyne’s to be the most compelling. Cador and his wife obviously have a good deal of responsibilities that keep them occupied, but it feels as if they don’t truly know any of their children, and are wilfully and often hurtfully ignorant of Keyne in particular, his mother most obviously concerned about reputation and rumour instead of what is best for her child – who is truly no longer a child and being actively prevented from following his own path. Compared to his wife, Cador does begin to redeem himself and his attitude towards his son, but it does feel as if it is out of his own necessity, when he could have seen Keyne’s potential and where his strengths lie much sooner, especially for a man who ‘needs’ a son. The setting is of a time when gender roles were much more rigid and in that respect it is clear that his parents don’t have the understanding to realise the truth about Keyne, pressurised further by threats to their way of life and external, judgemental, forces, and I think it’s interesting that it’s one of his sisters that first refers to Keyne as her brother, in that perhaps this is a representation of the differences in our own generations and understanding.

In the opening stages of the narrative, there are hints that Riva could be the connection to the land and the old ways that her people need, with the presence of mind to use it, yet she soon becomes entangled in a relationship that I’m sure readers must realise is going to be her undoing, and so it becomes a case of watching Riva’s potential unravel and feeling sympathy for a girl taken in by what she longs to hear and what she believes she will never have, owing to her injuries. I felt that I wanted to like Riva more than I did (I’ve said before, liking characters is not synonymous with them being a well-written character, in my view), but found myself less and less able to forgive her blindness towards her romantic interest, which is just one of the features of the narrative that makes her story harder to read (in a good way!). There is much that she could have done differently and, like her younger sister, everything seems to spiral very swiftly out of her control and pushes her to points from which there is no return.

Of the three, Sinne feels the most self-absorbed and it’s her youth that predominantly shines through her narrative. She is willing to use her magic and those around her for frivolous means and tends not to think of the consequences of her actions, seemingly fixated on what she feels she deserves and what should rightly be hers. Her history paints her as a somewhat prideful creature with the potential to be spiteful, but with little intent to really hurt or cross the line into ‘evil’. In some ways, she is a little out of sync with reality and genuinely doesn’t appear to grasp her place in it or how it works. It feels as if a lot of what she experiences is owing to things that she cannot control, and her responses are her trying to make sense of them – she is at her most interesting when trying to learn about herself and her gifts; when realisation begins to dawn and what she’s capable of starts to become more apparent. Sinne isn’t ‘bad’, but she is very ‘young’ and ignorant of both herself and the world around her, which makes for a combination that is dangerous for her and those she’s close to.

Thank you to Black Crow PR and Pan Macmillan for sending me a proof copy of Sistersong for review!