I meant to put these up over the weekend but the Mayday bank holiday was dominated by a malevolent migraine.
Only three books across April but, flippydoodah, they were good.
I often get my greedy mitts on advance reading copies (ARCs). Last month, I had a complaint from an aunty who wanted to buy a book I’d reviewed and was grumpy to discover it wasn’t yet available. Oops. Moving forward, please find expected release dates in the image captions for each book.
Anna by Sammy H.K. Smith
Because of the nature of the story, this is a spoiler-free review so it will seem vague at times!
The book is set in the not too distant future, in our world following a global breakdown of society. Many people are nomadic, some live in small travelling groups and there are a few settled communities. As you’d expect, life has changed dramatically and for the worse. Women are owned by men, frequently branded and imprisoned.
Smith creates a three part structure, in which we see the protagonist in different settings and learn different things about her. We first meet The Woman (I won’t name her as it could be a spoiler), who was nomadic for two years, just as she is trapped by The Man in the wild (unnamed for similar spoiler concerns). This first of three parts covers The Woman’s imprisonment and abuse at the hands of The Man. It’s viscerally grim and hard to stomach. The first person narrative means the reader is able to watch the impact of such abuse from a front row seat. Smith doesn’t hold back: it’s harrowing and authentic.
The second section covers The Woman’s escape and resettlement in a static community. There is hope here but Smith also deals with the impact of acute trauma. Unable to relax or let her guard down, The Woman remains cautious and careful. The other community members are brilliantly depicted by Smith – they’re complicated, multi-faceted and never entirely innocent. Whilst reading, I couldn’t help but reflect on my own morality. In a dystopian world, what parts of myself would I be willing to sacrifice to survive?
The final section is taut. And that’s pretty much all I can say without revealing narrative points which would spoil the book for the next reader. I was worried I’d be disappointed with how Smith wrapped up the tale but I was absolutely sated by it.
Finishing the book, I was relieved and exhausted. My neck and jaw ached where I’d clearly been tensing as I read. I can’t say I enjoyed it – it’s not an enjoyable book – but I was utterly gripped by it. I read it across two days and the night in between was riddled with dreams of The Woman. If a book worms its way into your subconscious, the author is doing a lot of things right.
There are difficult topics covered in the book but they would be obvious spoilers. So my warning is that it’s not for the faint hearted and I’ll also give you some genre clues: dystopian, crime, drama, psychological thriller.
Blackout by Dhonielle Clayton, Tiffany D. Jackson, Nic Stone, Angie Thomas, Ashley Woodfolk and Nicola Yoon
First of all, what a powerhouse of writers! I’m already a fan of all of these wordsmiths so I was giddy to discover them all bound together in one book.
Second, you’d be forgiven for thinking I don’t like romantic storylines if you’ve read any of my other book reviews. Thing is, I have a problem with books which are advertised as adventure / SciFi / fantasy novels with grand political, fate-of-the-world story lines and transpire to be female-falls-in-love-with-bad-moody-male-and-fixes-him. Not only is the trope tired and riddled with toxic views of relationships, it’s rarely what I was led to believe I was buying into. Blackout is the inverse of this: it’s advertised as a collection of YA love stories which unravel during a New York City blackout… and yet, it is refreshingly much more than this.
“The blackout makes the city feel like it’s on hold, like someone hit a giant pause button.”
Each writer takes charge of a protagonist and a short story but they are connected to create one novel, with characters popping up in each other’s narrative arcs and well-rounded, distinct voices. It’s the ultimate multiple-narrators situation and it’s utterly convincing. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, by Tom Stoppard, is one of my all time favourite plays because of this kind of mischievous cleverness. There’s a joy and recognition when characters from Hamlet appear in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s story. Blackout achieves this in a way that’s both entertaining and thoughtful. It seems effortless.
The effortlessness continues with the deft handling of different identities – love stories are portrayed from male, female, straight and queer perspectives. Without judgement. Without clunkiness. Without excessive sugar. It’s rich, clever story telling. Despite my obvious love for all things LGBTQ+ in YA literature, I found the most powerful story was “No sleep ’til Brooklyn.” Not only did Thomas incisively present bigotry with the depiction of the slappable teacher, she developed a lead female character who realises she doesn’t need to be defined by her romantic relationship to either of the boys in her life. She can settle into her own skin and learn to just be herself. I love this.
In her acknowledgements, Taylor explains that Blackout is the result of questioning “why Black girls didn’t get big love stories.” It’s a fantastic own voices book, centring and celebrating teen Black experiences of self-discovery, love and growing up.
For the Wolf by Hannah Whitten
This is the first of the Wilderwood novels and Whitten has stated it will be a duology.
For the Wolf nods to Red Riding Hood, Beauty and the Beast and other fairy tales. Essentially, Redarys (Red) is destined to be sacrificed to the Wolf by virtue of being the second born daughter. It’s rotten luck given she is a twin. The practice is intended to keep the world safe from the Wilderwood and the Shadowlands, as well as potentially returning the Five Kings who have been missing for centuries.
Yes, there’s a misunderstood male and, yes, our protagonist falls in love with him. And, yes again, this would usually put me off. But although it’s a necessary facet of the plot – after all, this is rooted in traditional fairy tale conventions – Whitten hasn’t let it dominate the narrative. I enjoyed the depiction of other relationships, which aren’t as conventional. For instance, the Queen’s coldness towards her daughters, particularly Red, is quietly brutal. Why get close when Red is never destined to be hers because she’s ringfenced for the Wolf? It adds an interesting dimension to the characters’ decision making. Fife and Lyra, two inhabitants of the Wilderwood, have an unusual but refreshing bond:
“Well. Not like that, not really. It’s complicated… Lyra isn’t one for romance. Never has been. But she’s the most important person in my life, and has been for centuries now. That’s enough.”
I also really appreciated the way that Whitten depicted trauma and its aftermath. Sure, the Wolf is predictable in that he doesn’t deal with his trauma, broods and thinks he has to take on the burdens of everyone else as some sort of punishment. I’ve definitely read that before. But Whitten also shows the reluctance of people to leave a place of trauma even when the freedom is afforded to them. She shows characters righting traumas suffered by others, both through risky actions and introspective reflection. And, most powerfully of all, Whitten has a welcome take on self-forgiveness:
“You saved her.” Eammon’s voice was low, earnest. “None of it was your fault.”
“I don’t even think of it in terms of fault anymore.” Red hunched over her crossed arms. “It happened. I have to live with it.”
Probably the aspect I most enjoyed was the effort spent by Whitten on world building. It’s been a rushed flaw in some of the recent books I’ve read but Whitten takes her time. The spaces are many and complicated; we’re taken with Red as she learns the Wilderwood isn’t as she expected it to be. There are some passages that made me audibly oooh because the language and description is just exceptional. Whitten frequently turns a phrase that makes me envious. My favourite: “Red didn’t pick at the quiet.” So simple. Perfect.
The implication of the sequel’s title, For the Throne, is that we get to learn more from Neve’s point of view – the other twin. I am hoping that it doesn’t pick up where it left the story and that it actually goes back a little way so Whitten can show what was happening in the other places as the plot crescendoed.