Then She Vanishes – Claire Douglas

I received a copy of this book for free on NetGalley.

I have to admit (and this is not the first time I’ve done this), I have a kind of mental block about Claire Douglas. I keep mixing her up with Claire Mackintosh. I think this is the second time I’ve requested a Claire Douglas on NetGalley, thinking the book was by the author of I Let You Go. But thankfully, Claire Douglas is a similarly enjoyable author, so I’m not too cut up about it.

Then She Vanishes – Claire Douglas

THE ONLY THING MORE SHOCKING THAN THE FIRST CHAPTER . . . IS THE LAST.

Everything changed the night Flora disappeared.

Heather and Jess were best friends – until the night Heather’s sister vanished.

Jess has never forgiven herself for the lie she told that night. Nor has Heather.

But now Heather is accused of an awful crime.

And Jess is forced to return to the sleepy seaside town where they grew up, to ask the question she’s avoided for so long:

What really happened the night Flora disappeared?

‘Amazing. A twisty whydunnit that I finished in just two days. Smart, gripping and atmospheric, readers will love Then She Vanishes’

Gillian McAllister, bestselling author of Everything But The Truth
___________

Praise for Claire Douglas:

‘Thrillingly tense and twisty’ B A Paris

‘Kept me up last night – scary, twisty, all too believable’ Jane Corry

‘Tense, claustrophobic and gripping’ Paula Daly

‘A page-turning slow burn’ Cara Hunter

I’ve read several of Claire Douglas’s crime thrillers, and I have to say, I think she’s getting better as she matures. This multi-perspective, tautly written crime drama weaves past mysteries with present and drags the reader along by the hand as reporter Jess Fox tries to untangle the web of lies and misdirections that are needed to solve the brutal murder of an elderly woman and her son, together with the twenty-year old mystery of the disappearance of teenaged Flora Powell. There’s lots of moving parts in this book, with old friendships and relationships, as well as new and current ones, the digging up of old conflicts, and plenty of creepy, sinister lurking around. Full of atmosphere and very engaging, there’s plenty of mystery here, and I have to admit I really did not guess what was going on – although in retrospect, it was cleverly laid out with a breadcrumb trail.
I particularly liked the main character, Jess, finding her feet in her new job and dealing with the conflict that comes of being personally and professionally involved in a crime investigation. Her relationship with her boyfriend Rory was also very enjoyable, and something I would have liked to see more of.
For a book which opens with a shocking double murder, very little is heard in the story about the two victims, which is something I would have liked to see more of also, although I can understand why the author made the choices she did, having finished the book as a whole. Jess’s friend Jack, though, I felt deserved a bigger part of the narrative. I really liked him, and as Jess’s only friend outside of her relationship, I felt that his part in her life was downplayed in a way he didn’t deserve.
Finally, and this is entirely a personal preference, I didn’t particularly like the shifting narrative – not that I dislike multiple points of view (I don’t!), but I do dislike when one is first person and others are third person. It really jars with me and I find it harder to get into the flow of the writing.
Claire Douglas is definitely capable of writing a slick and engaging thriller, with many moving pieces and enough surprises to keep you guessing. Background characters are fleshed out with their own lives, and you get the feeling there is a lot going on in the author’s head that never made it onto the page. This adds depth and realism to the story, leading to a satisfying conclusion and overall a thoroughly enjoyable experience.

Four Stars
****

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The Black Mage – Daniel Barnes, DJ Kirkland (Illustrator)

I received a copy of this graphic novel free on NetGalley

The Black Mage – Daniel Barnes, DJ Kirkland (Illustrator)

42593023.jpgThe School for Good and Evil meets Dread Nation in this subversive original graphic novel where race, history and magic collide.

When St. Ivory Academy, a historically white wizarding school, opens its doors to its first-ever black student, everyone believes that the wizarding community is finally taking its first crucial steps toward inclusivity. Or is it? When Tom Token, the beneficiary of the school’s “Magical Minority Initiative,” begins uncovering weird clues and receiving creepy texts on his phone, he and his friend, Lindsay, stumble into a conspiracy that dates all the way back to the American Civil War, and could cost Tom his very soul.

 

Gorgeous art style combines with quirky reimagining of a magical school built on white supremacy in this inventive and quirky graphic novel. Tom Token, the first black mage to be admitted to historically white magical academy St Ivory’s, is blazing a trail as the herald of change in magical racism. But once he gets to the school, concepts of race and privilege are entrenched, and there is far more to his admission than there seems. Historical figures make appearances as Tom tries to figure out what’s happening in the school. Mystery texts, weird clues, and a new friend who becomes substantially more woke over the course of the book combine to make a story that’s fun, fresh, and enjoyable, despite being steeped in horrendously racist narrative.
Daniel Barnes has written an original and quirky #ownvoices story (the racism elements, not the magic… I think). St Ivory’s academy is steeped in overt racism, from the name of the school to the uniforms of the staff (Klan uniforms) and there are subtle and outright references to racist history peppered throughout the book (Tom’s pet crow is called Jim, so…). The narrative of Tom uncovering a conspiracy in the school which is much deeper than it appears gives a great chance to examine entrenched attitudes of racism, while Lindsay’s journey as she befriends Tom and joins in his quest allows us to see the nasty associations that follow her by virtue of her choice of friends. The magical system in the book feels underdeveloped, however, and narrative development feels like it’s sacrificed for the sake of compelling visuals in fight scenes. There’s loads of really great stuff in here, and the art style complements the fresh and modern narrative style. The whimsical nature of the content belies the depth of examination of race and racism that’s visible here, which gives a great contrast to the book. The opening pages at least feel a lot like Malorie Blackman’s Noughts and Crosses, with the elements of ground-breaking race relations moves, and the difficulty of being a trailblazer. There’s lots to enjoy here, but at times the story felt shallow and underdeveloped, particularly in the closing pages. A very enjoyable story with beautiful visuals and some deep themes to examine, but a scope that I felt was a little too ambitious to fit comfortably within the pages.

Three Stars
***

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Miracle Creek – Angie Kim

I received a copy of this book free on NetGalley

Miracle Creek – Angie Kim

40121959.jpgA literary courtroom drama about a Korean immigrant family and a young, single mother accused of murdering her eight-year-old autistic son

My husband asked me to lie. Not a big lie. He probably didn’t even consider it a lie, and neither did I, at first . . .

In the small town of Miracle Creek, Virginia, Young and Pak Yoo run an experimental medical treatment device known as the Miracle Submarine—a pressurized oxygen chamber that patients enter for therapeutic “dives” with the hopes of curing issues like autism or infertility. But when the Miracle Submarine mysteriously explodes, killing two people, a dramatic murder trial upends the Yoos’ small community.

Who or what caused the explosion? Was it the mother of one of the patients, who claimed to be sick that day but was smoking down by the creek? Or was it Young and Pak themselves, hoping to cash in on a big insurance payment and send their daughter to college? The ensuing trial uncovers unimaginable secrets from that night—trysts in the woods, mysterious notes, child-abuse charges—as well as tense rivalries and alliances among a group of people driven to extraordinary degrees of desperation and sacrifice.

Angie Kim’s Miracle Creek is a thoroughly contemporary take on the courtroom drama, drawing on the author’s own life as a Korean immigrant, former trial lawyer, and mother of a real-life “submarine” patient. An addictive debut novel for fans of Liane Moriarty and Celeste Ng, Miracle Creek is both a twisty page-turner and a deeply moving story about the way inconsequential lies and secrets can add up—with tragic consequences.

I really enjoyed this multi faceted, multi layered book. Told over the four days of a trial, with flashbacks to a year previously, the story unfolds of a terrible fire in a submarine which left two people dead and several with life changing injuries. The primary viewpoint we see in the book is that of Young, wife of the owner of the submarine, who was left paralysed by the accident. But was it an accident? As the book unfolds, it turns out there was far more going on that evening at miracle creek than anyone could have guessed. Clandestine meetings, life changing decisions, fraud, bonbon eating, protesting… layers and layers of intrigue unfold as Young discovers more and more about the night that changed the lives of many,
While at the heart of this book is a mystery and a murder trial, trying to discover who set the fire, what surrounds it is a collection of very human stories. The Korean immigrant family trying to make a life for themselves in America take centre stage, but around them are a cast of others. Matt and Janine, a mixed marriage, and the difficulties they face together. The patients in the miracle submarine, and their children, the lives they lead, the special needs of those children, and the varying challenges that parenting a disabled child present, as well as how these can impact on your own life. The friendship between Elizabeth and Kitt, and how it changed over the time they were forced to spend together, and the impact of competitive parenting, visible in all spectrums of life. And Mary. Brought to the states as a child, now a teenager,, straddling the lines of the American dream and her Korean heritage, childhood and adulthood. Dealing with strained relationships with her parents and the aching need to be more grown up than the way they see you. All of these complex, nuanced relationships are so well drawn and so absolutely compelling. There is quite a large cast of characters in this book, but none of them feel under drawn. Although there are certainly some I would have liked to hear from, like Kitt, I can understand and respect the decisions of the author. Angie Kim is a Korean immigrant herself, and her understanding of the impact this can have on families shines clearly through the book. Mary’s choice of language, disparaging reaction to her mother, and even changing of her name, all feel like there is real weight of experience and knowledge behind them. The narrative twists and turns, and I was constantly changing my mind about who had set the fire. Thoroughly enjoyable, and entirely compelling, Miracle Creek is a legal process, a forensic examination of family, friends, the bonds that tie us together, and the threads that weave the rich, complex tapestry of life.

Four Stars
****

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Books to Read Before I’m Thirty – Update and Reviews

It’s been quite a while since I posted my list of books to read before I’m 30, and I haven’t been particularly diligent about posting reviews for them, but I am still working my way through my list, in time for my thirtieth birthday. This post is a roundup of the books I’ve ticked off my list, along with a few thoughts about them. I was going to call it a classics reviews post, like one of the last times I did this, but not all of the books in this post are actually classics, so I went with an alternative title.

Oliver Twist – Charles Dickens

There was not enough singing in this book. Listening to the audiobook, I fully expected the narrator to break out into OomPahPah at any point. Never happened. Disappointing. Seriously, though, this is an excellent book. Thoroughly engrossing, and lots of depth that didn’t make it into the West End musical, but suffers from the same difficulty as other Dickens. You can really tell he was paid by the word. There is so much padding in this!

Three Stars
***

Jane Eyre – Charlotte Bronte

I thought I would hate this, for reasons that I think have something to do with my older sister having to study it in school, but actually I really liked this. Jane is a bit of a wimp sometimes, and she kind of just goes along with whatever someone tells her to do most of the time, but her love story with Mr Rochester was actually pretty sweet. Plus, every book I read that I associated with this genre – Wuthering Heights, Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, Emma – every time I read one of those, I spent much of the book wondering if this was the one with the wife in the attic. And Jane Eyre actually *is* the one with the wife in the attic! How exciting!

Four Stars
****

The Sign of the Four/The Hound of the Baskervilles/The Valley of Fear – Arthur Conan Doyle

The task I set myself says The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, but what I actually took from this was that I needed to read all of the Sherlock Holmes canon. I had actually already read all of the short stories and one of the novels, so I had only three novels to read to complete this, but still, it was a task worth undertaking. My main takeaway from having read these novels is wow, was Conan Doyle racist. Like, really, really racist.

VoF: Three Stars, HotB: Four Stars, SotF: Four Stars

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer – Mark Twain

This was really fun, and I can see why it’s an enduring classic. Obviously it’s steeped in problematic narratives, racism, slavery acceptance, sexism, classism, but once you look past those, it’s quite a fun children’s adventure story. My god, though, there’s a lot of death in this. Pretty gruesome death, in fact. I’m not sure I’d want a child to read this. Probably a source of nightmares.

Four Stars
****

Memoirs of a Geisha – Arthur Golden

I have some doubts about how well an American man can write about the Japanese cultural experience of geisha, but putting that aside, this was quite an enjoyable dive into the life of Sayuri. I can definitely see why it spent two years on the NYT bestseller list after its release, and why it was made into a film (which I have yet to watch, but is on my to-do list). That said, though, it was very slow to start. I must have picked up and put down this book at least six times over the last two years, before finally committing to read it. It’s interesting, yes, but not exactly a compelling plot. I have mixed feelings about it.

Three Stars
***

Gulliver’s Travels – Jonathan Swift

You know, for all the fame that this book has, nobody ever talks about the last two voyages that Gulliver goes on. Everyone knows about Gulliver in Lilliput, and many people know about Gulliver in Brobdingnag, but I had never even heard of the names of Laputa, Balnibarbi, Luggnagg, Glubbdubdrib and Japan, much less the Land of the Houyhnhnms. No, okay, that’s a lie, I’ve heard of Japan.

In any case, there was much more to this than I expected, and it’s oozing with Swift’s satirical take on human nature, judgement, government, misogyny, prejudice, and factions. But it’s kind of lacking in, uh… character? So I didn’t love it.

Three Stars
***

Cover art montages for these posts are somewhat lacking in excitement, since most of them are public domain and just have librivox or iBooks covers. Nonetheless! I’m including it anyway. Because I want to.

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The Million Pieces of Neena Gill – Emma Smith-Barton

*I received a NetGalley copy of this book from the publisher.*

The Million Pieces of Neena Gill – Emma Smith-Barton

40723760How can I hold myself together, when everything around me is falling apart?

Neena’s always been a good girl – great grades, parent-approved friends and absolutely no boyfriends. But ever since her brother Akash left her, she’s been slowly falling apart – and uncovering a new version of herself who is freer, but altogether more dangerous.

As her wild behaviour spirals more and more out of control, Neena’s grip on her sanity begins to weaken too. And when her parents announce not one but two life-changing bombshells, she finally reaches breaking point.

But as Neena is about to discover, when your life falls apart, only love can piece you back together.

This story of Neena Gill’s descent into psychosis as she shatters in the aftermath of the disappearance of her brother is beautifully written, and simply oozes with atmosphere. Neena is a sympathetic, totally relatable main character, and her chafing against her parents’ strict rules is really wonderfully drawn. Neena’s world is changing faster than she can cope with, and as she tries to deal with the loss of her brother and the changes wrought by that loss, as well as normal teenage upheavals and the difficulty of dealing with adolescence, it all gets to be too much for her. Thrown in on top of this, Neena tries to solve the mystery of her brother’s disappearance, working with her brother’s girlfriend, and is trying to do it all while her parents insist that she stay in and study for her upcoming GCSEs. With everything going on, it’s no wonder that cracks start to appear, and Neena fractures into a million pieces.
I requested this book because I saw it compared to Emily Barr, Jennifer Niven, and Nicola Yoon, all of whom I have read and enjoyed. And yes, I can totally see why these comparisons have been made. The characterisation is finely drawn, the understanding of the author is visible in every word, and the depiction of mental illness, the causes, triggers, and impacts is beautifully portrayed.
That’s why I found it quite odd that I actually didn’t really like this book. Having given it the benefit of a few weeks’ thought, I think this is a lot more to do with me than it is to do with the book. I don’t think I was in the right mindset to read this, and if I read it at a different time, I would probably have liked it a lot more. Emma Smith-Barton clearly has skill, empathy, and a great grasp on characterisation, as well as a nuanced understanding of the unreliable narrator. Her debut is a finely wrought example which navigates lines of identity, heritage, mental health, family, siblings, adolescence and much more with depth, nuance, and deep, sympathetic understanding. If I had an actual complaint or criticism of the book, beyond ‘this didn’t work for me’, I think it would be that Neena’s relationship with her friend, who was so forgettable that I actually can’t pull her name at the moment, needed more. She was a hugely important part of Neena’s life, and played a pivotal role in the denouement, but very little page space was dedicated to her. I would have liked to see more of that.

Overall, though, this was a book with a lot of depth and promise to it. The combination of examining mental health and a British Pakistani main character was a really interesting one that I hadn’t seen before – definitely something to advocate for. Loads of potential here, and although it didn’t quite hit the spot for me, I’m 100% sure that many people will absolutely adore this.

Three Stars
***

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May Roundup

May flew in with a rush and was over before I even had the chance to pay attention to the fact that it had arrived yet. I had a busy month this month, with lots of exam marking and a flying trip home to see a very good friend of mine get married. Honestly, I’m quite surprised he actually managed it, since he’s chronically disorganised, but he and his wife walked back down the aisle with rings on their fingers and paperwork completed and I bawled my eyes out at the romance of it all. Readingwise, I got some reading done – not a huge amount, but enough to keep me happy. I ploughed through a lot of audiobooks, which is good, although my Google Maps details tell me I spent a ridiculous number of hours in a car last month. Let’s try not to think about that too much. Nor my impact on the environment!

Books

  1. Memoirs of a Geisha – Arthur Golden
  2. I Hold Your Heart – Karen Gregory
  3. A Letter from Sarah – Dan Proops
  4. Gulliver’s Travels – Jonathan Swift
  5. The Woman at Number 24 – Juliet Ashton
  6. Empress of All Seasons – Emiko Jean
  7. Amy & Roger’s Epic Detour – Megan Matson
  8. We Are Legion (We Are Bob) (Bobiverse #1) – Dennis E Taylor
  9. What Happens Now? – Sophia Money-Coutts
  10. In My Sister’s Shoes – Sinéad Moriarty
  11. The Million Pieces of Neena Gill – Emma Smith-Barton
  12. The Kingdom – Jess Rothenberg
  13. The Cracks in the Kingdom (The Colours of Madeleine #2) – Jaclyn Moriarty
  14. Faking Friends – Jane Fallon

Short Stories/Novellas

None this month

Cover Art

 

Favourite Book This Month

 

44314544Easy. Karen Gregory’s third book is just wonderful. I reviewed it in full during the month, so I don’t know how much more I can say about it, but my goodness, she writes so beautifully, and everything she writes is so viscerally real! Definitely becoming one of my favourite authors, and a go-to for contemporary realism.

Least Favourite Book This Month

Once again, there were two books this month that I didn’t really like. A Letter From Sarah was disappointing throughout, but I didn’t really go into it with any expectations. In fact, I only read it because a poster on mumsnet was moaning that her daughter had robbed her book and run away with it, and it happened to be this one. Plus it was only 99p. But I doubt I’ll be reading any more by Dan Proops at any rate.11464016

So my ACTUAL least favourite book this month is In My Sister’s Shoes. Again, I’ve already reviewed this one, so the reasons for my disappointment are laid out in the blog post itself. But I think what made this extra disappointing is that I’ve read and really enjoyed other books by Sinéad Moriarty, so for this one to be so rage-inducing was surprising, and all the more disappointing.

Favourite cover art

As ever, some really great covers in here, but I think this month the accolade for my favourite has to go to Gollancz with Emiko Jean’s Empress of All Seasons. I love the colour scheme of this one, as well as the stark simplicity of it at first glance. It seems to be just the weapon on the front – which is the weapon of choice for our heroine. But then once you look closer the textures become clear, and the rich fabric at the top fades delicately into textures underneath. Plus I really like the typeface used for the book title. This one is definitely a winner for me.

37569318

 

 

Other…

If you look at the collection of cover arts higher up in the post, you may notice that the Juliet Ashton book features twice. This is because when I bought the book on kindle, originally (and, actually, on iBooks as well, a fact I noticed several months later), it had one cover art. But by the time I actually got around to reading it, having already listened to the audiobook of another Juliet Ashton and deciding that I liked this author, then being delighted to realise that I had already bought two more of her books, the cover had gotten a revamp, presumably to give a more cohesive feel to Ashton’s books as a whole. I like them both, but I think I definitely prefer the redesign. The simple yet striking elements of the cover work well together, and the design elements around the text reference plot points without being huge spoilers. I also prefer the new tagline, because, having read the book, it’s more appropriate to the plot overall. Definitely a thumbs up for the redesign team, both for consistency across books, and for aesthetics generally!

 

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In My Sister’s Shoes – Sinéad Moriarty

I read this on my Kindle last week in a single day, as I was at home alone all evening, bored, and in search of something light and entertaining. I’ve read some other books by Sinéad Moriarty, specifically about sisters, thought I had reviewed them on the blog, but can’t find them, and actually they’re not hyperlinked in my 2014 list. In any case, the upshot was that I very much enjoyed them, particularly because they were about three sisters, and I have a soft spot for stories like that. This is a little earlier than those, and I was surprisingly disappointed in how it played out, actually.

In My Sister’s Shoes – Sinéad Moriarty

11464016.jpgIn one of the many fantastic reviews for Sinéad Moriarty’s fourth novel, In My Sister’s Shoes, the reviewer praised Sinéad’s ability to apply ‘the light tender touch to dark, painful subjects’. It’s a perfect description of how Sinéad tells the story of a younger sister stepping in to help out when her older sister is diagnosed with cancer. In a similar way to Marian Keyes, Sinéad manages to balance light and dark with wonderful finesse, warmth and humour.

Kate O’Brien is thirty and has very little to think about except trying to keep her balance as she totters up London’s media-land ladder.

Fiona O’Brien is Kate’s responsible older sister – with a husband, twin boys, a dog and now … a life-changing problem.

It’s a problem that means Kate going back to Dublin. Pronto. There she finds herself stepping into Fiona’s shoes – and discovering that she’s definitely not cut out to be a domestic goddess. On top of that, the ex she thought she’d got over years ago turns up to haunt her.

Will either of the O’Brien sisters survive? And even if they do, can either of them slip back into their old shoes ever again?

Sinéad Moriarty’s novels have sold over half a million copies in Ireland and the UK and she is a four times nominee for the popular fiction Irish Book Award. She has won over readers and critics telling stories that are funny, humane, moving and relevant to modern women. In My Sister’s Shoes is Sinéad at her very best.

Sinéad Moriarty lives with her family in Dublin. Her other titles are: The Baby Trail; A Perfect Match; From Here to Maternity; Keeping It In the Family (also titled Whose Life Is It Anyway?); Pieces of My Heart; Me and My Sisters and This Child of Mine.

I didn’t have a problem with this book per se. In fact, I really quite enjoyed the middle section. I liked Kate’s finding herself, reconnecting with her brother, father, and sister, and her realisation that Dublin actually… isn’t that bad a place to live. Kate’s interactions with the strictures of her nephews’ lives, through their nursery teacher, their food likes and dislikes, and Fiona’s rigid structure for them. Kate taking on the role of nanny is quite sweet, really, as she learns to love these little kids in a way that she never did before as a disconnected weekend visitor.

Kate’s coming to understand herself, and her desires as well is really lovely to see. She’s not happy in her career in media in London, but has it in her head that this is the only place – and the only way – to succeed. So when she moves to Dublin and has to reconsider her career plans and her attitude to where she’s going in life, it’s really gratifying to see her critically examine this.

But actually, I have two major problems with this book, and that is the start, and the end. At the beginning of the book, the only reason Kate comes home is because her brother in law emotionally blackmails her, pointing out that her sister Fiona effectively became her mother after their own mother passed away when they were young. He uses this to pressure Kate into giving up her job, her flat, and her life, and moving home to care for their twins. And this is presented (in the narrative) as a little underhanded, but generally an ok thing for him to do. It is NOT an okay thing for him to do. It is nasty, thoughtless, and really, really incredibly selfish. It should have been Kate’s decision, it should have been asked, not demanded of her, and the brother in law should have been painted as actually a complete prick for demanding something like that. A complete sea change and giving up your job when you’ve just landed your big break – and for Kate this is a big break, she’s finally gotten her own television show – is a decision that you have to make for yourself, and never a decision that should be made for you.

Even worse, once Kate makes this incredibly selfless decision, and gives up her job to move home to look after her sister’s children, her dad gives her flak for it? My mind was really boggled at this point. The practicalities of this entire arrangement also passed me by – what was Kate living on for the months she was in Ireland? Fresh air? Was she eating her father’s food while he subbed her? Did her sister and brother-in-law pay her a stipend? What happened her flat? Did she give it up? Were all of her goods put in storage? Was she still paying rent on it? Did she have savings for this? Did her sister’s cancer mean a huge financial hit for Kate, as she was no longer earning, but still had all of her outgoings? None of this was discussed and, honestly, it’s not like London to Dublin is an easy commute. Kate just abandoned her life, wholesale, and nothing else was ever really mentioned about it. I’ve moved to London on a whim, effectively (from PhD application deadline to moving day was less than two months) and it still led to a lot of life admin, and there was plenty I needed to sort out in Ireland the next times I came back. But the narrative was more concerned with how Kate was *growing as a person* than with how her life had actually been blown apart.

Speaking of the brother in law (who really is an irredeemable prick), there is a subplot with him which is disappointingly resolved. He (and I’ve just remembered his name is Mark) is generally, well, a terrible person. He’s disconnected from his family, he’s self-centred, he’s focused entirely on the wrong things – his wife is potentially dying, for Christ’s sake, and he’s spending all his time at work. There is one point that he comes up good on, but the rest of him – that he blackmailed his sister in law into looking after his children, that he’s totally disconnected from his family, that he can’t take his wife to her chemotherapy appointments, that he tries to abandon his children in an airport – are left just… glossed over. I realise that if you think your wife is going to die, you’re probably scared and want to retreat into familiar routines, but this is just accepted by the narrative and Mark gets to continue to be the big academic professor, without any repercussions or personal growth. Also, it’s said that his wife is every bit as smart as he is, but it’s her career who took the back seat when they got married. And that’s not inspected at all. Ugh. Basically, I hated Mark as a character and as a person, and I hated how everyone interacted with him. It was a total headwreck even seeing him on the page, and every time I thought about how he was acting, I got angry. Not because he was being a dickhead – I’ve got no problems with dickhead characters, and love to hate them. No, my real problem here is that the narrative never acknowledged that he was being a selfish, self-absorbed man-baby. It just kind of brushed it off as that’s Mark, he’s career focused. For some inexplicable reason, it’s okay for Mark to be career focused to the detriment of caring for his wife when she has cancer, and his children when they’re going through probably the scariest experience of their entire lives. But when Kate was similarly career focused, and didn’t want to give up everything to care for her sister and nephews, this was a bad thing. There is a distinct flavour of double standards here, and it’s not hard to see the lines along which it’s drawn.

And honestly, if the narrative presented it as Mark being sexist, and this being really disappointing and a character flaw for him, but Kate being the bigger person and allowing it because she loves her sister, I would’ve been okay with that. But it’s not. It’s never critically analysed, and never pointed out how very sexist and disappointing that attitude is.

I had other complaints as well, largely about how Sam, the love interest, deals with Kate and her career aspirations in London. But I’ve wittered on long enough about Mark now, and to make the same points about Sam would be repetitive. Overall, I think my issue with this book was that it presented Kate as career-focused, which is great, but didn’t actually make that mean anything. When push came to shove, apparently it wasn’t a big deal for her to give up her career for her sister, or her boyfriend, and it was just expected that that was what she would do. Not because the industries in Ireland are just as good (which the book could have made more of), but because of… some reasons that were never really made clear.

I originally rated this book three stars, but as I’ve been writing this review, I’ve gotten angry all over again about the casual sexism which is rife throughout the book and never critically examined. I actually generally really like Sinéad Moriarty’s book, and enjoy reading them, but this one was really, really disappointing. And I think the reason why it was so disappointing was because there were so many opportunities for the book to actually examine the motivations of the characters and unpick them in a way which really made sense. Kate’s conviction that you can only really make it if you make it in London is, frankly, misguided, and if her career decisions at the end of the book were motivated by a desire to be closer to her family and an acknowledgement that the media industries in Ireland are actually really complex and dynamic, I would’ve been totally on board with that. But actually her decision was motivated by wanting a boy who was totally unwilling to make compromises, but just expected her to bend entirely. Which is the same as how the book started. Kate’s journey goes from giving up her career at the behest of her brother-in-law to making her career much more precarious at the behest of her boyfriend. There is no personal growth here, and no justification for why Kate came to this decision herself. Moriarty is capable of so much better than this.

It would have been so easy for Kate’s personal arc to go from ‘I must succeed in London, because London is the only place where it counts’ to ‘I will succeed in Dublin, where the industries are vibrant, my family are nearby, and I have a lovely boyfriend’. And that would have been a satisfying and emotional character growth arc. But Kate never realises for herself that she’s unhappy in London, but just does what she’s told by other people in her life – mostly men. And that, I think, is the most disappointing thing of all. This book was so close to being great, with just a little bit more critical analysis. But for me, it completely missed the point.

Two Stars
**

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The Kingdom – Jess Rothenberg

I received an eARC of this book from NetGalley.

The Kingdom – Jess Rothenberg

43262706.jpg

Welcome to the Kingdom… where ‘Happily Ever After’ isn’t just a promise, but a rule.

Glimmering like a jewel behind its gateway, The Kingdom™ is an immersive fantasy theme park where guests soar on virtual dragons, castles loom like giants, and bioengineered species―formerly extinct―roam free.

Ana is one of seven Fantasists, beautiful “princesses” engineered to make dreams come true. When she meets park employee Owen, Ana begins to experience emotions beyond her programming including, for the first time… love.

But the fairytale becomes a nightmare when Ana is accused of murdering Owen, igniting the trial of the century. Through courtroom testimony, interviews, and Ana’s memories of Owen, emerges a tale of love, lies, and cruelty―and what it truly means to be human.

I downloaded this on a whim after an email from NetGalley highlighted it. Android princesses! Twisted Disney-land-esque kingdom which clearly hides something much more sinister! Murder! Pink sparkly castle on the cover! I was so on board with this. It felt like it would be The Selection crossed with The Diabolic, and I was so here for that.
Once I got into the book, I was a little… underwhelmed. It did have android princesses. It had a twisted Disney-world-esque kingdom with sinister undertones and a main character who was being controlled so much more than she realised. And actually it had lots of great visuals and flashes of excellence in understanding diversity and what it means to be human. There is a point where the main character, Ana, muses on how your appearance relates to your identity. The seven Fantasists, android princesses who live in the Kingdom, are designed to appeal to a range of fans, covering all beauty ideals, but their appearances don’t carry the weight of a life lived as a POC. There’s some great background and incidental scenes of people’s reactions to Ana, and their disgust at the thought of her. There’s also a big thread running through the book of whether Ana is capable of murder, of shrugging off her programming to the extent that she starts to feel, and whether hybrids – natural-technological creations – are capable of evolution. All of this stuff was great.
Sadly, however, it was obscured by a lacklustre plotline with a main character who was introspective but lacked any insight, a love interest who was bewilderingly bland, and a central conflict that never really played out in any sort of satisfying payoff.
Ana is on trial for murder – the book’s narrative actually doesn’t tell us who’s been murdered for a good chunk of the action, but the blurb kind of throws away this careful plotting by telling us immediately that it’s Owen – and the tale of how this happened is told through court testimony, a post-trial interrogation with Ana’s creator, and largely through flashbacks from Ana’s point of view. It was an interesting structure, which I don’t think actually worked all that well because of how I was reading it. I think because I was reading an eARC, the formatting wasn’t as crisp as it will be in the finished product, and the delineation will be clearer in a fully typeset version. Although it wasn’t the greatest experience for me, I fully expect it to be great once the finished book is available.
The marketing material for this book pegs it as being Westworld-esque. Not having seen Westworld, I don’t know what that means, so it was totally lost on me. Perhaps I need to become more culturally aware…
In any case. This was a good book, with flashes of brilliance, but hidden under a rather dull and clunky at times storyline that detracted from the twisted brilliance at the heart of the story and the really interesting theoretical perspectives that could have been given more time to shine.

Three Stars
***

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What Happens Now – Sophia Money-Coutts

I received a copy of this book from the publisher on NetGalley

This was a spur of the moment request while I was browsing NetGalley. I haven’t read Money-Coutts’ previous book, and I wasn’t particularly looking for anything, but I saw this, thought it sounded funny, and went for it. I’m glad I did, though, because this was a very enjoyable experience!

What Happens Now – Sophia Money-Coutts

whathappensnow‘So funny. And the sex is amazing!’ Jilly Cooper on The Plus One
‘I was pregnant with the baby of a man I had met once.

What was one normally left with after a first date? A bad case of thrush?’

After eight years together, Lil Bailey thought she’d already found ‘the one’ – that is, until he dumped her for a blonde twenty-something colleague. So she does what any self-respecting singleton would do: swipes right, puts on her best bra and finds herself on a first date with a handsome mountaineer called Max. What’s the worst that can happen?

Well it’s pretty bad actually. First Max ghosts her and then, after weeing on a stick (but mostly her hands), a few weeks later Lil discovers she’s pregnant. She’s single, thirty-one and living in a thimble-sized flat in London, it’s hardly the happily-ever-after she was looking for.

Lil’s ready to do the baby-thing on her own – it can’t be that hard, right? But she should probably tell Max, if she can track him down. Surely he’s not that Max, the highly eligible, headline-grabbing son of Lord and Lady Rushbrooke, currently trekking up a mountain in South Asia? Oh, maybe he wasn’t ignoring Lil after all…

Praise for Sophia Money-Coutts:
‘So funny. And the sex is amazing – makes me feel like a nun!’ Jilly Cooper
‘Light, fizzy and as snort-inducing as a pint of Prosecco.’ Evening Standard Magazine
‘Hilarious and compelling.’ Daily Mail
‘Perfect summer reading for fans of Jilly Cooper and Bridget Jones.’ HELLO!
‘Bridget Jones trapped inside a Jilly Cooper novel. A beach cocktail in book form.’ METRO
‘Gloriously cheering.’ Red Magazine
‘Howlingly funny.’ India Knight, Sunday Times Magazine
‘This saucy read is great sun-lounger fodder.’ Heat
‘Sexy and very funny…perfect for fans of Jilly Cooper.’ Closer
‘Cheerful, saucy and fun!’ The Sunday Mirror
‘As fun and fizzy as a chilled glass of prosecco…this is the perfect read for your holiday.’ The Daily Express

 

Lil’s story, of an unexpected souvenir from a Tinder date that later ghosted her, was a really interesting and enjoyable tale of a thirty-something woman who’s left facing unplanned circumstances, and how she deals with that. Trying to juggle the unexpected news that she’s expecting, cope with her Tinder date ghosting her, and breaking the news to her parents that they’re going to become grandparents, Lil’s story is frank, funny, and very entertaining. Not shying away from topics like living in a flatshare when you’re thirty, or the terrible frustration of your vibrator running out of batteries, What Happens Now? is filled with moments that made me laugh, smirk, and groan, sprinkled with a romance that had me rooting for a happy ever after. If Max, the romantic lead, was a little underdeveloped, it didn’t matter too much, as it was Lil’s relationship with her best friend and inner monologue that really carried this book. A light and enjoyable book with enough weight behind it to keep it from veering into dross, this was a very enjoyable, quick read that kept me giggling on a plane as I travelled home last weekend.

 

Four Stars
****

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Empress of All Seasons – Emiko Jean

*I received a copy of this book from the publisher*

I actually picked this up at the Gollancz blogger preview evening a few months ago. I knew when I heard the synopsis that I was interested in it. A standalone fantasy where the main character is a secretly disallowed competitor in a competition to become Empress? Sign me up, I am sold! I also liked the fact that it was Japanese-inspired fantasy. It felt like it would be similar to Shadow of the Fox, which I really liked, so I was already going in with good feelings about this.

Empress of All Seasons – Emiko Jean

37569318.jpgIn a palace of illusions, nothing is what it seems.

Each generation, a competition is held to find the next empress of Honoku. The rules are simple. Survive the palace’s enchanted seasonal rooms. Conquer Winter, Spring, Summer, and Fall. Marry the prince. All are eligible to compete—all except yōkai, supernatural monsters and spirits whom the human emperor is determined to enslave and destroy.

Mari has spent a lifetime training to become empress. Winning should be easy. And it would be, if she weren’t hiding a dangerous secret. Mari is a yōkai with the ability to transform into a terrifying monster. If discovered, her life will be forfeit. As she struggles to keep her true identity hidden, Mari’s fate collides with that of Taro, the prince who has no desire to inherit the imperial throne, and Akira, a half-human, half-yōkai outcast.

Torn between duty and love, loyalty and betrayal, vengeance and forgiveness, the choices of Mari, Taro, and Akira will decide the fate of Honoku in this beautifully written, edge-of-your-seat YA fantasy.

There was loads that I really loved in this book. The idea of an outcast, a yōkai, competing in a situation where she’s not supposed to be was really interesting, and raised questions of marginalisation, judgement based on predetermined characteristics, and monarchy as a whole.

Thematically, this felt a lot like Shadow of the Fox. The main character, a non-human, steps outside of her secluded enclave for the first time and gets swept up in something much bigger than she is. She has to deal with discrimination against her because she’s not human, and meets a variety of different people, both human and non-human, throughout her adventures. The difference, I guess, in this, is that Mari knew what she was getting into here, which isn’t the case with Shadow, where she’s just kind of thrust into an environment which is far outside of what she’s grown up knowing and expecting.

But the parallels between the two aren’t a bad thing. I really did like Shadow of the Fox, and I’m looking forward to the sequel coming out. So really, this was a winner for me. I loved the variety of different Japanese-inspired characters which drew on the rich folklore which is available in that world. Funnily enough, this was the second Japanese-style book I read this month (although Memoirs of a Geisha is a very … different kind of Japanese-inspired book). One thing which grated on me throughout the book was the choice of which words to italicise. Most words in the book which were direct Japanese were put in italics – hakama, obi, yōkai, rōnin, daimyō, etc. But then some weren’t – samurai, ninja. I found the distinction between the two hard to grasp. And the fact that five or six words per page were set in italics was both distracting and annoying. But then, I guess that’s a stylistic choice that is only really irritating to me for strange and individual reasons, so really I should give that one a pass.

Overall, though, the book was lush, the setting was intricate and well-drawn, the dilemmas were clear. Mari was a main character who was sympathetic and relatable, and I totally understood and appreciated her viewpoint. The shifting narrative between Mari, Taro, the emperor’s son, and Akira, her friend from home, added depth to both the plot and the characters. It also widened the viewpoint of the story as a whole – having Akira on the outside meant that we could add more depth to the idea of a yōkai rebellion, and how that might work out. Given that this was a standalone, it was important to have that extra depth, because there aren’t sequels to come back and explain what’s happened. The occasional feel of the Hunger Games wasn’t a bad thing for me – there are only so many ways you can pit a bunch of people against each other, and there was sufficient variation between the seasonal rooms, the motivation for the competition, and the rules of play to justify it.

There were two other reasons that this book wasn’t quite a five-star read for me.  The first of those was the characters. There’s a broad cast of characters in the book, which means they don’t all get the time and space they deserve. One person who suffers through that is the Weapons Master. She clearly has a really interesting backstory, and gives the chance to add depth to the world – how does her same-sex attraction impact on her life here? But she was clearly a minor character in the grand scheme of things, so I guess she couldn’t have too much space or thought. My larger qualm was with the main characters and their development. Specifically Taro, the son of the emperor, and the object of the competition. His character undergoes a complete sea-change at a high point in the action, which is never properly examined or explained. It’s just accepted as part of the plot development, and from then on he becomes sort of a force in the narrative, rather than a fully developed and nuanced character. It was really disappointing, because I think his actions could have been completely believable, if they were properly examined.

My other qualm was Akira’s obtaining crucial information. Just by coincidence, he happens to stumble upon a great secret which changes the game. And, helpfully, while this exposition is just stumbled upon, it’s explained perfectly so that someone who happens to be eavesdropping will understand perfectly what’s going on. In a book which had a lot of well-plotted and developed story execution, this felt lazy.

But! Overall, this was still a rollicking read, with plenty of twists and turns, good characters, a mixture of representation, a main character who stands on her own two feet and grows as a person over the course of the book, and a thoroughly enjoyable ride. I definitely recommend it, as it was very engaging and will look out for more from this author in the future.

Four Stars
****

 

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