January’s reviews

I’m going to review books a bit differently this year… I want to keep up with more reading so if I commit to a monthly round up, and put it in writing, I’ll do it. Right? That’s how resolutions work? Right? Right?!


Shatter Me (1) / Destroy Me (1.5) / Unravel Me (2) / Ignite Me (3) by Tahereh Mafi


I bought these in 2017 (ish) with a birthday cheque from my wonderful in-laws. I’m pretty sure I read half of the book straight away and then got distracted by MA assignments. So I returned to them as my first fiction fest in 2021.

They’re dystopian, sci-fi, YA books. If you like the “Gone” series by Michael Grant or “The Darkest Minds” series by Alexandra Bracken, then Tahereh Mafi’s work will be right up your street.

I enjoyed the complexity of the characters; Mafi creates plausible conflict and politics. I am less enamoured of the fact the plot is often driven by romance. Suzanne Collins did this more effectively in “The Hunger Games” and even Veronica Roth came good at the end of the “Divergent” series. I feel that if this series was adapted for the big screen, it wouldn’t pass the Bechdel test.

It wasn’t a difficult read and I enjoyed it. But my concluding comment is that I’ve just discovered that there are three more books and three related novellas and I haven’t rushed to buy them…

Rating: ❤️❤️❤️🤍🤍


The Boy I Am by K.L. Kettle

ARC from Netgalley.

I have three indicators of a really good book: I stay up far too late reading, I tell other people to read it so I can discuss it with someone and I have to take a break before I pick up a new book (AKA the book hangover). This hit all three.

I notice other reviewers commenting that “The Boy I Am” has much in common with Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale.” Sure, I can see the obvious parallels often found in dystopian fiction but I feel it shares more with Alderman’s “The Power” or Blackman’s “Noughts and Crosses” series. Subverting the stereotypical roles of race or gender provides a new lens to view systemic problems.

In “The Boy I am,” flipping the power dichotomy of men and women shines a powerful light on the absurdity of the treatment and oppression of women. There are big teachable moments, like consent, body autonomy and democracy. But I really respect the way Kettle handled the more nuanced examples, that would filed under the everyday sexism category. The smiles. At home, teaching Connor about overt sexism was straightforward; we found it far more challenging to explain why give-us-a-smile-love behaviours and attitudes are toxic. Hearing Jude’s inner monologue as he navigates life with a catalogue of smiles is absolutely genius! It provides a recognisable lived experience for many readers and a new way in for those who have never experienced it.

They’re not really criticisms but I have two thoughts. The pace of the action rattles along full tilt even as you’re acclimatising to the world Kettle is building. I sometimes find that disorientating but I know other readers won’t. Also, the book predominately deals with a dichotomous presentation of gender; when you’re building an entire world in a single novel, I can see why. I would have enjoyed some more playing around at the margins but that’s just me. Not every book has to deliver everything to every reader.

Like Atwood, Alderman and Blackman, Kettle’s characters are not two dimensional. The protagonists are flawed, you can’t always trust the narrative voice and things aren’t neatly tied in a bow at the end. This is refreshing. And just as I’ve done with the powerhouse trio, I will be finding more of Kettle’s work to gobble and I’ll be returning to “The Boy I Am” for a second reading.

Rating: ❤️❤️❤️❤️❤️


The Thursday Murder Club by Richard Osman


I have a great Aunty who I can utterly picture as a member of the Thursday Murder Club. Any family members reading this blog will figure out who, if they give the book a try…

This novel is a kitsch gift of British idiosyncrasy, wrapped up in Christie-esque gift paper with a sufficiently intricate bow of twists and turns to keep you surprised.

It’s witty, clever, refreshing and, at the same time, familiar. Helen and I listened to it together via Audible and I was frequently frustrated when I had to wait for her to be available so we could continue.

As a whodunnit, I can’t really comment on the plot for fear of spoilers. The premise seems quaint but it works: a small group of mature folks living in a swanky retirement village form a club that solve cold cases. For fun.

The second book is expected in September and we both can’t wait.

Rating: ❤️❤️❤️❤️❤️


The Girls I’ve Been by Tess Sharpe

ARC from Netgalley

This was another ARC from Netgalley. I’ve been really fortunate with my book options this month, so far… lots of top quality stories.

Ah. It’s one of those reviews where I can’t actually comment on the details for fear of ruining it for someone else.

What can I tell you? It’s a very clever YA thriller with an unusual protagonist. Very clever. Very, very clever.

Cleverness example 1. There are two timelines: the present moves nearly minute by minute and it’s tense; the past doesn’t always progress chronologically – sometimes it’s in reverse. It sounds complicated but it works effectively and Sharpe signposts the timeline so you don’t get lost.

Cleverness example 2. It feels pacy and action based but, when you reach the end, you realise it’s not actually plot-driven. Really, it’s a deftly handled character exploration that tricks you into thinking a lot is happening. Sneaky.

Cleverness example 3. It doesn’t end when or where you’d expect it to.

Cleverness example 4. Sharpe uses a lot of devices without it seeming forced: audio transcripts, therapy sessions, memories, lists, patterns.

Retailers are advertising it at readers 12yrs+ Whilst it’s chalked up as YA, I think any adult who likes this genre would appreciate the novel. Despite the age of the protagonist, I frequently forgot it was targeted at a YA audience. Moreover, I’d argue that a level of maturity is needed as the novel deals with physical, emotional and sexual abuse. So I’d apply caution when recommending it to younger readers.

Overall, it’s a brilliantly clever story. I know I said that already but I finished it four hours ago and I’m still sitting here thinking about its cleverness. Or, I should say, Sharpe’s cleverness: she’s aptly named.

Rating: ❤️❤️❤️❤️❤️

And more books, glorious books…

My book reading has definitely slowed down with all the academic reading and writing. I have four books simultaneously on the go: two audiobooks, one book and one ebook. Plus two more on my immediate TBR (to-be-read) pile. As I don’t settle down that well to work until the right side of noon, maybe I should start using my mornings for fiction?

Book: “Skulduggery Pleasant”
Author: Derek Landy
Source: Audible
Rating: 💖💖💖💖🖤
Plot: it’s essentially a fantastical whodunnit with a teenage protagonist. They save the world, naturally.
Positives: it’s really funny, dry and sarcastic, plus the main protagonist is sassy and clever. Rupert Degas, the narrator / performer, is also excellent. It’s set in Dublin and it’s refreshing to have a YA novel based somewhere closer to home with familiar culture, clothes and language – lots of the books I recommend to younger readers are American. Moreover, Landy has written brilliantly believable, strong, female characters.
Negatives: obviously some of it is far fetched but not irritatingly so. I’m reading the second one the Kindle; I’m keen to see if they end up disappointingly formulaic.

Book: “Midnight Sun”
Author: Stephenie Meyer
Source: Kindle
Rating: 💖💖💖🖤🖤
Plot: it’s “Twilight”… surely you’ve read it or watched the film? Clumsy human falls in love with controlling and self-controlled vampire. He sparkles in the sun. Don’t come at me for reading it – we’re all allowed to read something trashy light and easy sometimes!
Positives: the “Twilight” series are my go-to books if I’m under the weather. Sofa, duvet, listen to them, on repeat, as audiobooks. Yes, I know they’re flawed. Yes, I’m aware that “Twilight” fan-fiction led to “50 Shades of Grey”. But I don’t care. Back to “Midnight Sun”… it’s a retelling of “Twilight” from Edward’s point of view. It was enjoyable because you get to essentially re-read a guilty pleasure familiar book but with new angles and details.
Negatives: it’s a little over-seasoned in the angst and self-loathing department.

Book: “Finding my voice”
Author: Nadiya Hussain
Source: Audible
Rating: 💖💖💖💖💖
Plot: well, it’s an autobiography so it tells us all about Hussain’s life to date.
Positives: Hussain has organised her autobiography by her many roles: daughter, sister, granddaughter, wife, daughter-in-law, Ma, earner, cook, username and woman. It’s a brilliant and refreshing structure. It’s honest, philosophical, sometimes profound and utterly illuminating.
Negatives: I find Hussain’s voice really relaxing, which is to say, I had to give up trying to listen to this at bed time because I nodded off really quickly and had to re-listen to whole chapters!

Book: “A Court of Frost and Starlight”
Author: Sarah J Maas
Source: Audible
Rating: 💖💖💖🖤🖤
Plot: it’s advertised as book 3.1 so sort of a novella inserted into the series as book 4 is due soon. It details the lives of the series’ protagonists in the year-ish following the victory of book 3. I’m trying to be a little sketchy in case others don’t want the plot ruined!
Positives: it’s really unusual in that it details with the actual rebuild, challenges and leadership issues after a crisis and perceived victory. It’s not often I’ve seen PTSD and grief like this in fantasy books and films, which generally finish at the point of good overcoming evil. It’s a little like Tony Stark’s existential crisis in the Marvel series when he realises the collateral damage caused by the Avengers trying to do good. Maas doesn’t tie it all up in a neat bow either.
Negatives: I’ve recently read some criticism of Maas’ work and how it subscribes to typical gender and classist (for want of a better term) stereotypes, within a fantasy setting. To be fair, I think they’re reasonably accurate concerns.

Book: “Wranglestone”
Author: Darren Charlton
Source: Kindle
Rating: 💖💖💖🖤🖤
Plot: a coming of age tale in a post-apocalyptic, zombified world. Yup, that old chestnut.
Positives: I like that it throws you straight in and it takes a little while to get your bearings and adjust to this version of the world. There are a couple of pleasing twists, good LGBT content and the setting is brilliant and alarming.
Negatives: it was too short or maybe it should have been two books. At some points, the character and plot development feels very and then, and then, and then rushed. I always feel that scramble affects plausibility, which in turn can be problematic for futuristic-dystopian stories.

Still more books, glorious books…

Fair warning – these are all really highly rated. Not because I’ve become soft(!), I’ve just been really lucky with book choices, of late.

Book: “Where the Crawdads sing”
Author: Delia Owens
Source: Audible
Rating: 💖💖💖💖
Plot: Kya (the Marsh Girl) is abandoned by her family as a child and lives a solitary and wild life. She stands accused of murder.
Positives: the place and the people were so vivid – certainly helped along by an excellent audio performance. It felt fantastical and credible in equal measures.
Negatives: it took me three attempts to get into it but I can put my finger on why. I’m very glad I persevered.

Book: “The ballad of songbirds and snakes”
Author: Suzanne Collins
Source: Harback and Audible
Rating: 💖💖💖💖💖
Plot: it’s the 10th Hunger Games, the introduction of mentors, gambling and gifts. We are presented with Snow’s origin story.
Positives: it’s clever. Just like Atwood’s “The Testaments,” it doesn’t cause any seismic plot holes or negatively affect the original trilogy. Somehow, I preferred it as a prequel (compared to “The Testaments”). The characterisation is great… as a fan, I know where Snow ends up so I was surprised to find him a sympathetic protagonist. Also, unlike HBO’s awful handling of Daenerys Targaryen, his decline is authentic and believable.
Negatives: none. I was very satisfied.

Book: “Once upon a river”
Author: Diane Setterfield
Source: Amazon Kindle
Rating: 💖💖💖💖🖤
Plot: Hmm. It’s a bit tricky to summarise but, essentially, it’s set in the past on the Thames. In the middle of the night, a stranger staggers into a riverside pub, holding the corpse of a young girl. A few hours later, the girl breathes and wakes up. From here, the story focusses on figuring out who she is.
Positives: I really like the interwoven, snaking plot… like a main river and it’s subsidiaries. I worried there’d be no satisfactory conclusion but, pleasingly, this wasn’t the case.
Negatives: it certainly taps into some clichéd tropes about race but they’re most likely accurate for the era it’s conveying. I was left a little unsure by its approach, particularly as it’s a pretty foregrounded feature.

Book: “The seven deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle”
Author: Stuart Turton
Source: Audible (last year)
Rating: 💖💖💖💖💖
Plot: yup… can’t tell you! But imagine a Poirot / Inception hybrid and you’ll be close.
Positives: once you start figuring out what’s going on, you feel really smart! It’s very cinematic in its scope, depiction of place and character. I loved the plot twists (there are many); I would stay in the car to listen to the end of the chapter because I was hooked.
Negatives: some readers might not enjoy the repetition, which is a plot device, but I was a fan.

Book: “Parachutes”
Author: Kelly Yang
Source: Hardback
Rating: 💖💖💖💖💖
Plot: it’s the exploration of young people in the American school system but primarily from the point of view of parachutes (minors sent to live in the USA to study).
Positives: it’s honest and enlightening. It taught me a great deal about what life and education can be like for parachutes (whose experiences I’d never considered), 2nd generation immigrants and those from low income families. I knew the system was rigged but I didn’t know to what extent – this book teaches without forcibly teaching. It’s also brilliantly written and I really like the dual narrative.
Negatives: I guess some people will argue it has too positive and uplifting an ending but I’d counter-argue that, as a YA book, I’m pleased it has the kind of ending that might encourage others who have been abused to speak up. There’s value in that.

Even more books, glorious books (might as well make the most of the lockdown)…

Book: “The overdue life of Amy Byler”
Author: Kelly Harms
Source: Amazon Kindle and Audible
Rating: 💖💖💖🖤🖤
Plot: Byler is readjusting her life following a cheating husband, her return to the workforce and an overdue existential crisis.
Positives: it’s charming. There’s enough in it that I can empathise with and the characters are not flat. An easy read.
Negatives: chick-lit just isn’t my genre. Some of it is a little trite, predictable and saccharine.

Book: “Diary of a confused feminist”
Author: Kate Weston
Source: Netgalley ARC (advance review copy)
Rating: 💖💖💖💖🖤
Plot: Kat is writing a diary to help her to do “good feminism.” It’s a cathartic coming of age story.
Positives: honest insight into the lives of young women. It’s effortlessly inclusive, which is refreshing. It raises some big issues but handles them well to avoid lecturing the reader.
Negatives: it’s slow to start and it took me a while to like Kat (Weston might have done this on purpose). Some of the humour was a miss for me but I’m unlikely to be its target audience.

Book: “Grief angels”
Author: David Owen
Source: Netgalley ARC (advance review copy)
Rating: 💖💖💖💖💖
Plot: Owen has recently lost his father, Duncan has diagnosed depression, Lorenzo, Matt and Saeed are also dealing with issues, including relationships, confidence, grief, exams and body image. The book explores a group of boys as they navigate the route from adolescence to adulthood.
Positives: the fable-like narrative structure is clever, whipping the protagonist from this reality into a fantastical realm that evokes images of Greek mythology. It’s thoughtful and unyieldingly honest about grief; moreover, the characters are complex and realistic. Whilst there is growth and development, there’s none of that Hollywood-happy-ending that can damage authenticity.
Negatives: not everyone will get along with the to-and-fro of the narrative.

Book: “Last lesson”
Author: James Goodhand
Source: Netgalley ARC (advance review copy)
Rating: 💖💖💖💖💖
Plot: I can’t really tell you without ruining it!
Positives: the writer is a genius. This book joins the ranks of “The Handmaid’s Tale” (Atwood), “The Power” (Alderman) and “The Lord of the Flies” (Goldman) because they are all stories which echo and itch – refusing to leave my skull.
Negatives: …

Book: “Undertow”
Author: K.R. Conway
Source: Netgalley ARC (advance review copy)
Rating: 💖🖤🖤🖤🖤
Plot: Eila Walker inherits a mansion with a dark past around the same time that she finds out her own history and genetic makeup is unusual. Essentially, she is Lunaterra who don’t get along with Mortis and she’s discovered she’s in the middle of a centuries-old feud.
Positives: until the scene described below, I did like the protagonist and how she viewed and described the world around her. Whilst it was a plot-device, I did also like seeing an alternative family set-up (Eila lives with her mother’s best friend following the deaths of her parents).
Negatives: it’s pretty predictable for this genre. Likeable protagonist ✔ Range of sidekicks ✔ Forbidden love story ✔ Drip-drip-drip reveal of details ✔ Lots of money ✔ Parents / guardians conveniently out of the picture ✔ But it’s not the predictability that got my goat. I more annoyed about the handling of important real-life issues. For instance, “spazzed” is not an acceptable verb choice for how Eila’s heart reacts to her love interest and nor should I have to go into details about why. Moreover, when Eila is sexually assaulted, everyone (including Eila) brushes it under the carpet and blames the alcohol the young man consumed. Er, what?! “He has a low tolerance for beer” (so do I but I haven’t assaulted anyone whilst drunk); “he tripped and fell on me, and then got other ideas” (ideas that show he’s a sexual predator); “he’s not that type of guy” (he’s groping Eila without consent so he is that type of guy); and, from Eila, “I knew he was drunk and hopefully wouldn’t act like such a moron when he was sober, but the alcohol was clouding any decent judgement he had.” This last one is particularly grim. Eila’s character admits that she doesn’t know Teddy at all so how would she suppose that the alcohol was steering his behaviour? And I doubt, whilst fighting him off, mid-attack, that she would really concern herself with how he might behave when sober. The whole passage was irrelevant in terms of moving the plot on or developing characters so it seemed to only serve the purpose of justifying drunk jock behaviour, minimising the experience of victims of sexual assault. Not good in a YA book. After this passage, the whole novel was soured for me and I had no affinity with the author.

Book: “A court of thorns and roses” (Book 1)
Author: Sarah J. Maas
Source: Audible
Rating: 💖💖💖💖🖤
Plot: Feyre (pronounced Fey-ruh – cheers, Audible!) is a human who lives very near the boundary between the human and fae worlds. She is the sole provider for her starving family and when she shoots a wolf-that’s-not-a-wolf so that she can claim the rare doe they are both hunting, everything in her world unravels. She ends up in the fae world, prisoner in the Spring Court. Blah blah blah romance… blah blah blah mythical history… blah blah blah heroes and villains. Etc.!
Positives: Maas is able to create whole, intricate worlds – like Trudi Canavan and George R Martin – allowing me to get lost in them and slightly peeved when I have to leave them behind. I can predict small plot developments and twists but, on the whole, she’s adept at surprising me and imagining ideas beyond my scope. I am looking forward to reading more of the series and finding out more about the world beyond the wall.
Negatives: in a few ways, it’s quite similar to her other series, Throne of Glass. I suppose that’s not really a negative as one of those similarities is headstrong, independent, female protagonist. The problem with first-person narrative is that I can’t ever escape the romance. It would be nice to read a book where that isn’t a main thread or integral part of the plot.

More books, glorious books…

I’ve been reading when I should be studying. In my defence, norovirus + a cold + a series of migraines + a chesty cough have combined to kick my ass this last month. Reading is medicine.

Book: “Sadie”
Author: Courtney Summers
Source: Netgalley ARC (advance review copy)
Rating: 💖💖💖💖💖
Plot: the story of a missing girl pieces together through an epistolary style narrative
Positives: characterisation, structure, genuine twists, the ending. It’s gut wrenching
Negatives: …

Book: “Gold the moon eater”
Author: I.M. Bones
Source: Netgalley ARC
Rating: 💖💖💖🖤🖤
Plot: a magic wielding demon is an assassin for the family business
Positives: Gold/Silas, the murderer, is a pretty good narrator in a twisted Dexter kind of fashion
Negatives: I didn’t really care about the other characters and the breaking of the 4th wall was predominantly clumsy and patronising

Book: “Poison orchids”
Author: Sarah A Denzil & Anni Taylor
Source: Audible
Rating: 💖💖💖💖🖤
Plot: two backpackers are rescued from something that’s left them bloodied and traumatised… but their stories don’t match
Positives: twisty and unpredictable with some brilliantly written characters
Negatives: occasionally too far fetched, hence the 4/5

Book: “Godsgrave” and “Darkdawn” (books 2 and 3 of the “Nevernight” Chronicles
Author: Jay Kristoff
Source: Audible
Rating: 💖💖💖💖💖
Plot: tricky without giving anything away. Mia continues her journey to avenge her family and discovers more about herself along the way
Positives: blood, gore, sex, passion, magic, death, creatures, sarcasm, poison, sword play, swearing
Negatives: the fact it’s all over and I’m going to have to find something to cure the book hangover

Book: “Jane Anonymous”
Author: Laurie Faria Stolarz
Source: Netgalley ARC
Rating: 💖💖💖💖💖
Plot: a young woman, Jane, is kidnapped and held by a manipulative, game playing captor. When she escapes, she doesn’t truly escape
Positives: brilliant character study, exploring the impact of trauma. It took a long time to disentangle myself from the story
Negatives: some of the plot twists weren’t all that twisty but I think that was deliberate, anyway, so the reader is ahead of Jane

Book: “Belle Révolte”
Author: Linsey Miller
Source: Netgalley ARC
Rating: 💖💖🖤🖤🖤
Plot: set in a classist, misogynistic world with magic, two young women switch places to access education and end up embroiled in war
Positives: in many ways, it was a new, unique depiction of magic and Miller definitely paints the settings effectively
Negatives: really shallow character development so, despite flipflopping the narrative between the women, they felt and sounded like the same person. The plot was pretty flat until well over half way through. Overall, I’m grumpy because I loved the author’s last book (“Mask of Shadows”)

Books, glorious books…

In the brief interlude between the MA dissertation deadline and the PhD start date, I’ve been gorging myself on fiction. PhD induction was today so reading-for-fun may take a backseat again. I’m aware many of the ratings are high so this makes me seem easily pleased but I’d counter that I’m pretty adept at choosing books I predict I’ll like!

Book: “The accident season”
Author: Moïra Fowley-Doyle
Source: Waterville Libeary, Hampshire Library Service
Rating: 💖💖💖🖤🖤
Plot: Cara’s family suffer from an annual, month-long accident season which cannot be avoided. Why?
Positives: supernatural tone, unusual premise
Negatives: resolution predictability, unnecessary romance

Book: “The One”
Author: John Marrs
Source: Kindle, Amazon
Rating: 💖💖💖💖🖤
Plot: a DNA test can reveal your soul-mate. What are the consequences when your match isn’t straight forward?
Positives: blending of SciFi and crime, multiple narratives
Negatives: rushed ending for several protagonists, police officer choices seemed implausible or unlikely

Book: “The Testaments”
Author: Margaret Atwood
Source: hardback, Amazon pre-order
Rating: 💖💖💖💖💖
Plot: the collapse of Gilead, 16 years after Offred’s story comes to an end
Positives: multiple narratives, complex ethics, some back-story
Negatives: potentially confusing (in parts) to those unfamiliar with HBO series, too short!

Book: “Elantris”
Author: Brandon Sanderson
Source: audiobook, Audible
Rating: 💖💖💖💖💖
Plot: a cursed city, religious colonisation and the demise of magic explosively meet in a tale of politics, strategy and the human condition
Positives: scope (worlds and politics), well explored rational vs. spiritual ethics, multiple plotlines, original
Negatives: one protagonist’s preoccupation with romance

Book: “Nevernight”
Author: Jay Kristoff
Source: Kindle, Amazon
Rating: 💖💖💖💖🖤
Plot: Mia attends assassin school to avenge her family and must face her many demons (but not a YA book)
Positives: character development, syntactical style (not to everyone’s taste), brilliant librarian, description
Negatives: sex that didn’t seem to add anything

Book: “A good girl’s guide to murder”
Author: Holly Jackson
Source: paperback, Tesco (impulse purchase)
Rating: 💖💖💖💖💖
Plot: Pippa uses the EPQ (extended project qualification) during her A Levels to investigate a murder from 5 years ago
Positives: epistolary (including transcripts, notes, scanned images), twisty enough that the outcome isn’t predictable, characters are believable
Negatives: protagonist makes some leaps and assumptions which could have been better explored

Book: “Black Narcissus”
Author: Rumer Godden
Source: audiobook, Audible (Bookclub choice)
Rating: 🖤🖤🖤🖤🖤
Plot: as far as I can tell, a group of nuns travel to the Himalayas to convert and educate the locals
Positives: …
Negatives: so racist it made me too uncomfortable to finish

Book: “Successor’s Promise” (Millennium’s Rule, Book 3)
Author: Trudi Cannavan
Source: audiobook, Audible
Rating: 💖💖💖💖💖
Plot: The worlds reel following the demise of the Raen whilst Rielle and Tyen struggle with their own responsibilities to Qall and Vellab
Positives: detailed character development, new worlds, complex ideology
Negatives: Qall is annoying (whining teen!)