Are You Watching? – Vincent Ralph

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Ten years ago, Jess’s mother was murdered by the Magpie Man. She was his first victim, with many more to follow and he still hasn’t been caught. Determined to get justice for her mother and catch the killer, Jess enters a YouTube reality series in an attempt to draw him out. Is he watching?

I didn’t find the premise of this book very believable. Social media and vlogging is a huge part of everyday life nowadays, so it makes sense to incorporate this into the story, but I honestly don’t know anyone who watches YouTube TV like the kind featured in this book. So, I chose to just accept and embrace this element of the story, but still came up with significant flaws to the plot. Firstly, it’s incredibly convenient that the Magpie Man was indeed watching Jess’s show, despite the fact that it wasn’t in the news or anything to begin with. And maybe it’s not all that surprising that he was, but Jess’s confidence that he would was kind of weird. Secondly (sorry, small spoiler here), the killer could have been literally anyone. He murdered women in different locations and was never caught by the police. What are the chances that he turns out to be someone Jess knows? I mean, COME ON.

Anyway, if you can get past these frankly lazy plot features, Are You Watching? is a decent murder mystery for the modern era. It’s fast-paced and thrilling, while also managing to deal quite effectively with grief and internet fame.

I received a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

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The Penelopiad – Margaret Atwood

39837245In Homer’s The Odyssey, Odysseus’ wife Penelope is portrayed as unwaveringly faithful and loyal, pining for her husband throughout his 20-year absence and using her wiles to trick the suitors competing to take his place. On Odysseus’ return, after killing monsters, and sleeping with goddesses, he slays all the treacherous suitors, and Penelope’s twelve favourite maids who had been forced to serve the suitors in his absence. Curiously, no explanation was ever provided for the brutal murder of the maids, beyond their being bedded by the suitors without their master’s permission – which they would have had no choice about. In this contemporary addition to the ancient story, Margaret Atwood imagines events from Penelope’s point of view, as well as that of the twelve hanged maids.

Atwood has managed to pull off an outstanding retelling, keeping all the familiar details of The Odyssey but twisting them into a new, modern perspective. I really liked the way Penelope tells the story from the underworld is present day. She refers to the way the world has moved on since the time of Odysseus and his contemporaries, and is able to bring a really fresh, modern voice to the story despite being one of the original characters.

The other characters we meet in Penelope’s underworld (Helen, Amphinomus, the maids) bring a level of real comic value to what is otherwise actually quite a dark tale. These details, along with the Greek, tragicomedy-style songs and ‘performances’ by the chorus line of maids, really push The Penelopiad over the line of ‘very good’ to ‘genius’.

I would 100% recommend this book to anyone with even a remote interest in mythology, but I would say that it would help to be at least vaguely familiar with The Odyssey.

I received a complementary copy of this book from the publisher.

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The Ninth Sorceress – Bonnie Wynne

48481720._SY475_Gwyn knows nothing about her family or where she came from. So, she cannot fathom why she’s now being hunted by the goddess Beheret and tracked by wizards. Even more shocking is the discovery that she herself is a wizard. Now, in order to protect herself, she must learn how to use the magic that terrifies her and embrace a destiny she could never have imagined.

The writing style is very suited to the fantasy genre, with detailed descriptions and solid world-building.

I enjoyed the characters. Gwyn is a very strong heroine; not an automatic figurehead of a revolution or anything like that, but a scared teenager forced into a situation where she’s out of her depth but chooses to fight anyway. This is a much more believable scenario than what we’re usually given in YA fantasy novels with a female lead. The other characters were also very good. My favourites were Faolan and Lucian, who are very different but contribute a lot to Gwyn’s adventure.

I was totally immersed in this story. The plot is imaginative and intriguing, and I was particularly interested in the interlude chapters set in the ‘present’. I can’t wait for the next book.

I received a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

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The Beauty and the Beast – Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve & MinaLima

30166719._SY475_The MinaLima version of Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve’s The Beauty and the Beast is a stunningly illustrated edition featuring interactive elements and beautiful designs to complement the classic fairy tale.

This is the original fairy tale, in which a beautiful woman goes to live in the palace of a beast in order to save her father – very familiar, right? Where it differs most from the Disney-fied version is how the story continues after the beast has turned back into a prince, and the rather lengthy explanations for how and why he was cursed in the first place.

The Beauty and the Beast is the kind of story often referred to as a ‘timeless classic’ but, actually, it hasn’t aged well. The love-story is one of the least romantic things I’ve ever read, while the entire book is filled with duty-bound actions and appalling sexism. Without the many retellings and modern versions of this story, it would not have survived the test of time.

It’s a lovely, traditional story – despite the overt sexism – but what really makes this book special are the illustrations. They bought the book to life.

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Adults – Emma Jane Unsworth

50108244._SX318_SY475_TW: Miscarriage.

Jenny is falling apart. Her boyfriend has left her, her friends are sick of her, and her job is hanging by a thread, but you wouldn’t know it from her social media. On the surface, Jenny’s life looks successful and happy, but on the inside she is anxious, insecure and has an obsessive need for validation.

I found this to be a really stressful read. Jenny was a truly infuriating character, but also incredibly relatable. Despite being pretty annoying, she has a marvellous narrative voice.: smart, witty and full of hilarious insights.

There isn’t really that much of a plot. The story centres around Jenny’s relationship with social media, and how that affects her relationships with others. The only way the plot really develops is in Jenny’s acceptance of her problem, and the way that allows her to let go of her ex and repair her relationships with her friends and her mother.

I liked the way the book is written. The writing style is excellent – very readable – and the chapters jump backwards and forwards through time, which was a little bit confusing but quite effective. My biggest criticism is that Adults is almost too smart. It’s very ‘woke’, and Jenny seems to be completely aware that she has a problem throughout the book, but doesn’t bother to do anything about it, rather than being in denial which would have felt more genuine. This took away some of the realism.

Adults is such a relevant book right now, with such an emphasis on our obsession with social media and our need for validation and ‘likes’ from strangers on the internet (says the girl with Twitter, two Instagram accounts and a blog).

I received a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

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The Unadjusteds – Marisa Noelle

48874066._SY475_.jpgSilver Melody is an Unadjusted, in a world where 80% of the population has altered their DNA to gain special abilities and enhancements like wings, horns, strength or intelligence. Despite her parents being the creators of the pills used to deliver these genetic alterations, Silver doesn’t agree with what they’ve done and is proud of her unadjusted state. But then, when President Bear announces that all unadjusteds must take a pill, Silver flees to a hidden resistance camp, where she will play a key role in taking a stand against President Bear and his altered army.

The Unadjusteds is an action-packed story with a fast-paced plot. There is very little background information or world-building; instead, we are thrown straight into the action, with Silver fleeing the city within the first few chapters.

The pacing of this book left very little time for much character development, which was kind of a shame. There’s a significant romantic aspect (this is YA, after all) but it plays out in a slightly random love-triangle with next-to-no build up which felt a bit flat and unconvincing. I didn’t find this book particularly immersive, but at least it wasn’t boring.

Marisa Noelle has come up with a fantastic concept, exploring the problematic nature of a genetically modified humanity, and her writing style is good – very readable. I enjoyed The Unadjusteds, but I do think it could have been better.

I received a copy of this book from the author in exchange for an honest review.

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Then She Vanishes – Claire Douglas

44428372Jess and Heather used to be best friends, until Heather’s sister disappeared and Jess started to pull away from her. Years later, Heather is the prime suspect in a brutal double murder, but no one can understand why she did it. With Heather in a coma having attempted to kill herself, Jess – now a reporter – returns to her childhood town to get the inside scoop on Heather and the inexplicable shootings.

I didn’t love this story as much as I loved some of Claire Douglas’ other books. Then She Vanishes is well-written throughout, but it’s a bit predictable and I didn’t like the characters, particularly Jess. I think it’s important that the main character in this genre of book be likeable, and I simply couldn’t get on board with Jess. I found her quite self-involved, and her personality didn’t seem to match up with the outwardly playful character that the author was trying to make her, based on her fashion choices.

Then She Vanishes was a thrilling and easy read, but it isn’t anything special. The predictability was a shame, and there was just something about this book that makes it very easy to forget.

That being said, the opening chapter is truly excellent. It’s a shame the rest of the book couldn’t match up.

I received a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

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Lion’s Honey – David Grossman

41187479In Lion’s Honey, David Grossman takes an in-depth look at the myth of Samson, from his birth to a barren woman, to his death after being betrayed by the woman he loved.

As this book is one of Canongate’s “The Myths” collection, I expected a (probably fictionalised) retelling of the Biblical story of Samson. Instead, Lion’s Honey is more like an analysis of the story. That’s not to say it isn’t good, but it certainly isn’t what I was expecting.

Grossman’s analysis is interesting and thought-provoking, taking a particular focus on the women in Samson’s life, his relationship with his parents, and his compulsive attraction to the Philistines.

This interpretation of the myth of Samson is compelling and entirely readable, but don’t go into it expecting the “retelling” it’s marketed as.

I received a complementary copy of this book from the publisher.

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Top Ten Books of 2019

2019 turned out to be a surprisingly busy year, so I didn’t read as many books as I had planned (and didn’t even come close to shortening my TBR list), but I did read some good ones. So here are my Top Ten Books of 2019:


Much Ado About Mean Girls by Ian Doescher

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Mean Girls, in the style of Shakespeare, and incredibly well done.

Power struggles. Bitter rivalries. Jealousy. Betrayals. Star-crossed lovers. When you consider all these plot points, it’s pretty surprising William Shakespeare didn’t write Mean Girls. But now fans can treat themselves to the epic drama–and heroic hilarity–of the classic teen comedy rendered with the wit, flair, and iambic pentameter of the Bard. Our heroine Cady disguises herself to infiltrate the conniving Plastics, falls for off-limits Aaron, struggles with her allegiance to newfound friends Damian and Janis, and stirs up age-old vendettas among the factions of her high school. Best-selling author Ian Doescher brings his signature Shakespearean wordsmithing to this cult classic beloved by generations of teen girls and other fans. Now, on the 15th anniversary of its release, Mean Girls is a recognized cultural phenomenon, and it’s more than ready for an Elizabethan makeover.


The Oremere Chronicles by Helen Scheuerer

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One of my all-time favourite fantasy series. It has everything you could ask for, and more.

In a realm where toxic mist sweeps the lands and magic is forbidden, all Bleak wants is a cure for her power.

Still grieving the death of her guardian and dangerously self-medicating with alcohol, Bleak is snatched from her home by the Commander of the King’s Army, and summoned to the capital.

But the king isn’t the only one interested in Bleak’s powers. The leader of an infamous society of warriors, the Valia Kindred, lays claim to her as well, and Bleak finds herself in the middle of a much bigger battle than she anticipated.

 

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The realm’s darkest secret is out.

The cruelty of the capital and the power-hungry King Arden have scattered Bleak and her companions across the continents.

On the run in a foreign land, Bleak finds herself tied to some unexpected strangers. When the answers she yearns for are finally within reach, she must face the hard truths of her past, and take her fate into her own hands before it’s too late.

Meanwhile, secrets and magic unravel as a dark power corrupts the realm. Bleak’s friends are forced to decide where their loyalties lie, and who, if anyone, they can trust. But one thing is certain: war is coming, and they must all be ready when it does.

 

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War is here.

Toxic mist drives all life to the brink of destruction and the conqueror queen, Ines, has her talons in the kings of the realm.

Bleak, having discovered her true heritage, must now scour the lands for the one thing that might save them all. But the search is a treacherous one – and it will push her to the very limits of endurance.

Amidst secrets, lies and the intricacies of battle, Bleak and her companions learn just how far they’ll go for the ones they love. But will it be enough?

As deadly forces grapple for power across the continents, families, friends and allies unite to take one final stand.


Survivors by G X Todd

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The third book in a must-read series for fans of post-apocalyptic fiction.

There are two kinds of people in this world. Those who hear voices, and those who want to silence them.

Pilgrim is a man with a past he can’t remember. When he wakes alone in a shallow grave, there is a voice in his head that doesn’t belong to him. It explains who he is and what he’s done. It tells him he has one purpose: to find a girl named Lacey.

As Pilgrim is drawn north to Missouri in search of Lacey, he must also travel back to where it all began – to those he left behind. War is coming, and Pilgrim is going to need all the allies he can get.


The Familiars by Stacey Halls

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Wonderfully well-written, mysterious and slightly haunting.

Young Fleetwood Shuttleworth, noblewoman of Gawthorpe Hall, one of the finest houses in Lancashire, is pregnant for the fourth time. None of her previous pregnancies have been successful, and her husband Richard is anxious for an heir. When Fleetwood finds a hidden letter from the doctor who delivered her last stillbirth, she learns of the prediction that she will not survive another pregnancy. By chance she meets a midwife named Alice Grey, who promises to help Fleetwood deliver a healthy baby and prove the physician wrong. But Alice herself is soon drawn into the witchcraft accusations that are sweeping the area. Fleetwood must risk everything to help clear her name.

But is there more to Alice than meets the eye? As the two women’s lives become inextricably bound together, the now infamous Witch Trials of 1612 approach, and Fleetwood’s impending delivery looms. Time is running out, and both their lives are at stake. Only they know the truth. Only they can save each other.


Snow, Glass, Apples by Neil Gaiman

45303582._SY475_Gaiman’s dark and twisted retelling, with stunning illustrations from Colleen Doran.

A chilling fantasy retelling of the Snow White fairy tale by bestselling creators Neil Gaiman and Colleen Doran.

A not-so-evil queen is terrified of her monstrous stepdaughter and determined to repel this creature and save her kingdom from a world where happy endings aren’t so happily ever after.

 

 


The Lost Man by Jane Harper

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A story is filled to the brim with secrets and mysteries, that made me want to keep reading more.

Two brothers meet at the remote fence line separating their cattle farms under the relenting sun of the remote outback. In an isolated part of Western Australia, they are each other’s nearest neighbour, their homes three hours’ drive apart.

They are at the stockman’s grave, a landmark so old that no one can remember who is buried there. But today, the scant shadow it casts was the last hope for their middle brother, Cameron, who lies dead at their feet.

Something had been on Cam’s mind. Did he choose to walk to his death? Because if he didn’t, the isolation of the outback leaves few suspects…


Spit and Song by Travis M. Riddle

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Another original adventure from Travis Riddle with brilliant characters and fantastic world-building.

Kali is a merchant who yearns to leave the harsh deserts of Herrilock and travel across the sea, trading goods and soaking in the sights and cultures. With a new potion on the market undercutting her profits, though, her seabound dreams are put on hold indefinitely.

Failed musician Puk hits rock bottom after yet another catastrophic performance. Wandering the city streets in search of any sip of booze or whiff of fire-spit he can get his hands on, he resigns to the fact that he’s stuck in the desert with no way back home to Atlua.

Until one day, their paths cross with an illicit job opportunity. With its hefty payday, Kali and Puk could afford to finally escape the desert heat and set sail across the gulf.

The black market job would see them travel endless dunes on a road made from a massive dead beast’s ribs and out to a mythical city in the sea, scuffling with monsters and thugs in search of a long-lost book that might be the most dangerous object in the world.

How hard could it really be?


In at the Deep End by Kate Davies

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A brilliantly written, straight-talking, up-front and funny read.

Until recently, Julia hadn’t had sex in three years.

But now, a one-night stand is accusing her of breaking his penis; a sexually confident lesbian is making eyes at her over confrontational modern art; and she’s wondering whether trimming her pubes makes her a bad feminist.

Julia’s about to learn that she’s been looking for love – and satisfaction – in all the wrong places…

 


The Last by Hannah Jameson

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I really loved the idea of this book, and it turned out to be even better than I expected.

BREAKING: Nuclear weapon detonates over Washington
BREAKING: London hit, thousands feared dead.
BREAKING: Munich and Scotland hit. World leaders call for calm.

Jon Keller was on a trip to Switzerland when the world ended. More than anything he wishes he hadn’t ignored his wife Nadia’s last message.

Twenty people remain in Jon’s hotel. Far from the nearest city, they wait, they survive. Then one day, the body of a girl is found. It’s clear she has been murdered. Which means that someone in the hotel is a killer…

As paranoia descends, Jon decides to investigate. But how far is he willing to go in pursuit of justice? And what happens if the killer doesn’t want to be found?


Wakenhyrst by Michelle Paver

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Dark and spooky, with an air of menace from the very first page.

In Edwardian Suffolk, a manor house stands alone in a lost corner of the Fens: a glinting wilderness of water whose whispering reeds guard ancient secrets. Maud is a lonely child growing up without a mother, ruled by her repressive father. When he finds a painted medieval devil in a graveyard, unhallowed forces are awakened.

Maud’s battle has begun. She must survive a world haunted by witchcraft, the age-old legends of her beloved fen – and the even more nightmarish demons of her father’s past.


And finally, some other five star reads from 2019 that deserve a special mention:

I Go Quiet by David Ouimet; Naturally Tan by Tan France; The Complete Maus by Art Spiegelman; Slenderman by Anonymous; The Quanderhorn Xperimentations by Rob Grant & Andrew Marshall

The True Queen – Zen Cho

43502690._SY475_Sisters Sakti and Muna wake up on the shore of Janda Baik under a curse and with missing memories. Determined to discover who cursed them and how to break it, the girls had to England to the Sorceress Royal’s academy for female magicians. But, on the way, Sakti vanishes, leaving Muna alone and terrified of what may have become of her sister. Finally arriving in England and enlisting the help of the magiciennes of the academy, Muna embarks on a mission to enter the Unseen Realm and rescue her sister from the Fairy Court and the powerful Fairy Queen.

First things first, I haven’t read the first book in this series, Sorcerer to the Crown, and you absolutely don’t need to. I understand that some of the characters appear in the first book, so it might be helpful for background information, but the main characters are different and The True Queen reads perfectly well as a standalone novel.

The narrative voice is quite ‘posh’ and old fashioned, which made it feel quite stilted and not particularly smooth to read. I didn’t really like this at first, but it really grew on me because it fit with the time of the story and the fact that the main characters were not native to England.

The story is fun, with some very sweet relationships and charming characters. Henrietta was an absolute delight, while the rest of the cast were also very likeable. The only real flaw was that the none of the characters seemed to feel any particular urgency to get on with important things, like rescue Sakti and prevent a war between England and Fairy – which really seemed like it should have been a priority. Instead they were quite content to be having balls and generally faffing about, before getting on with anything actually productive.

The True Queen took a few chapters to get into, but I enjoyed it overall.

I received a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

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