Naturally Tan – Tan France

41223314Naturally Tan is a funny, sassy and touching memoir from Tan France, star of Netflix’s Queer Eye, in which he tells his origin story alongside fashion guidance and general life advice.

As a gay, South Asian Brit – one of the few people of colour growing up South Yorkshire at the time – Tan has a perspective on life which isn’t often shared in the media or in popular culture. Although there is, as you’d expect, some unpleasant (to put it mildly) racial abuse, Tan’s natural charm and humour shines through the writing, which keeps some serious topics light without trivialising them at all.

I really loved the way this book is written. The style is super conversational, and it genuinely feels like Tan is speaking directly to the reader. His stories about growing up, trying out every job under the sun, and meeting the love of his life are interesting and well told, and I absolutely loved the inclusion of Public Service Announcements and ‘Do’s and Don’ts’ about style and dating. Naturally Tan also has some really cute chapter illustrations which add a little touch of detail to really help make it a special book.

I knew next-to-nothing about Tan before picking up this book. I found him funny on Queer Eye, but I never would have said I was a fan. I am now.

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

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Queenie – Candice Carty-Williams

36586697Queenie Jenkins is a 25-year-old Jamaican British woman living in London. After a painful breakup from her long-term white boyfriend, Queenie goes off the rails, seeking comfort in the arms of men who are all wrong, pushing her friends away, and putting her career at risk.

I really enjoyed the honesty of the narration. Queenie is well aware – throughout the entire book – that she’s making bad decisions. She knows that what she’s doing isn’t good for her and questions why she’s doing it, then does it anyway. It actually took me a long time to warm up to Queenie. I’ve also recently gone through a very painful breakup, but I couldn’t sympathise with her meek, desperate attitude towards her ex. It wasn’t until her deeper, childhood issues were covered that I was able to understand where she was coming from.

I adored Queenie’s family (especially Diana and her grandparents), and the Corgis group chat was brilliant. However, this book isn’t all fun and humour. Queenie is funny, with a witty narrative voice and some entertaining stories, but the book also goes to some pretty dark places. The sexual content was completely unexpected and quite explicit, while the mental-health issues explored are really serious. Queenie is marketed as something along the lines of Bridget Jones’ Diary, but it’s a lot more intense and real than that.

On the whole, this is a reasonably enjoyable, relatable and relevant book, with a strong (but not over-bearing) feminist feel to it. But I’m not sure it’s a book that we “need”. Unlike other culturally important books (I’m thinking The Hate U Give), I don’t think I’d describe Queenie as a must-read.

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

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Empress of all Seasons – Emiko Jean

41435393.jpgIn this Japanese inspired fantasy, a competition is held every generation to find the next empress of Honoku. The winner will be the woman who survives all four seasonal rooms: Winter, Spring, Summer and Fall. Al are eligible to compete, except Yokai – supernatural beings whom the emperor is determined to destroy. Mari is a Yokai with the ability to transform into a monster, and she has spent a lifetime training to become empress. As the competition progresses, Mari finds herself torn between duty and love.

Empress of All Seasons is a very strong YA fantasy. I absolutely loved that this is a standalone novel, not part of a series. Every YA fantasy I read seems to be part of a series these days and it was wonderful to be able to read a full, complete story in just one book for a change. It has potential to grow more stories in the same world with some of the same characters, but this particular story, at least, is finished.

I liked the concept of the seasonal rooms and the competition. It’s quite Hunger Games-esk, but the contestants only have to survive, rather than kill each other. I actually would have liked more of the book to have been focused on the competition instead of the wider rebellion.

My other favourite aspect of this book was that the Japanese features were so fully integrated into the story. I recently read another Asian-inspired fantasy – The Girl King – and was sorely disappointed by how western it actually was. In this book, the world is filled with words, creatures and scenery that are clearly inspired by Japanese culture. It was fantastic.

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

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My Sister, the Serial Killer – Oyinkan Braithwaite

38819868.jpgKorede’s sister, Ayoola, is beautiful, charming, and has murdered her last three boyfriends. Korede is the only person who knows and has helped to clean up the blood and get rid of the bodies, but she’s had enough. When Ayoola starts dating a handsome doctor from the hospital where Korede works, she is finally forced to look at what her sister has become and do whatever she can to stop the list of dead boyfriends from growing.

This book is genius. It is filled with dark humour and is surprisingly plausible. The characters are distinctly flawed but also believable and I found myself sympathising with both sisters. Although the story focusses on the present and Ayoola’s relationship with Tade, enough information is given about their childhood to really allow the reader to understand their personalities.

There is some really excellent integration of African culture. I love it when accent and colloquialisms are used in a book, and they work very well in this one. To be honest, I didn’t actually understand a lot of them (my African language knowledge is limited at best) but this didn’t hinder my enjoyment at all.

I was a bit disappointed by the ending (which I won’t give away), but it did work with the story so I can’t complain too much. Overall, a brilliant debut and I would definitely read more from this author.

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

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The Silence of the Girls – Pat Barker

39866035When the Greeks sack her home, Briseis is taken as a captive to the Greek camp outside of Troy and chosen to become Achilles’ concubine – a prize of battle. She must quickly adjust from her life as a queen to that of a slave, serving the enemy. As the battle between the Greeks and the Trojans wages on, Briseis finds herself caught between two of the most powerful Greeks, and in an unprecedented position to observe the two men driving the Greek forces in what will become their final confrontation.

The Silence of the Girls is a re-telling of Homer’s The Iliad,  told from the point of view of a woman, held captive in the Greek camp. It essentially tells the stories of the women and girls who were unwilling participants and collateral damage in the Trojan War. It’s a really interesting point of view to read from and Briseis was a fantastic narrator, but the main character of the book was really Achilles rather than Briseis, which was a tiny bit disappointing.

The story itself was not actually the most exciting. Despite there being a war (with a good amount of gory, bloody detail), the plot was not particularly action-packed or eventful. However, it was excellently written and I was completely addicted. The characters were very strong, likeable and well-developed – even Agamemnon, who plays the ‘villain’ role. The author does an outstanding job of balancing the ‘good vs. bad’ aspect of the plot, with Briseis being surrounded by her enemies and still managing to forge friendships with them, whilst remaining loyal to her people. Although the Greeks are clearly presented as the enemy, they are not made out to be negative characters and they have likeable and individual personalities.

Some of the content is pretty horrific: the women are captured, raped and brutalised. It is not pleasant to read, but these aspects are not overly visual and are, unfortunately, an unavoidable feature of Ancient Greek fiction. To take this content out of the story would be a misrepresentation of the time.

I love Greek mythology in general, and The Silence of the Girls exceeded my expectations. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

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

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Blog Tour: Star-Touched Stories – Roshani Chokshi

36396341.jpgStar-Touched Stories is three magical stories set in the world of The Star-Touched Queen and A Crown of Wishes. You don’t need to have read either book to enjoy this one, but it would help in order to understand some of the characters. Roshani Chokshi’s writing is pure magic. I don’t think I’ve ever read any books quite as magical as hers (and I read a lot of fantasy).

All three stories are special in their own way, but my favourite was the first one: Death and Night. The Lord of Death and the Goddess of Night meet by chance and, contrary to their natures, fall in love. As their romance blossoms, both begin to question if they could be made for more than they’ve believed. Death and Night are both completely brilliant characters, and the setting of this story is just the best (especially the Night Bazaar). I loved the romance between these two, and all of the supporting characters were great as well.

Poison and Gold was my least favourite of the three (although, that doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy it). In this one, Aasha is sent to train to become the kingdom’s new Spy Mistress. However, she has lost control over her power to kill and can’t understand why. That particular aspect of the story really got on my nerves, because it was SO OBVIOUS why she’d lost her control. She’s not a stupid character, so why dumb her down so much in this story? I also didn’t really like the romance between Aasha and the Spy Mistress (whose name I can’t even remember). It just came across as too forced and unnecessary.

Rose and Sword was a nice addition to the book. Vikram falls ill and is on the brink of death, so Guari travels to the land of the dead to retrieve his last breath and save his life. I was so happy to read more about Guari and Vikram (mainly Guari) that almost anything could have happened in this story and I would have enjoyed it. Just to make things even better, Kamala – the lovable demon horse – is back and as brilliant as ever. It was a lovely ending to Guari and Vikram’s story.

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

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The Girl in the Tower – Katherine Arden

34731459This is Book #2 of one of my favourite books of last year (The Bear and the Nightingale), so I was beyond excited to be offered the opportunity to read an advance copy. I had verrrrrrry high expectations, and I was not disappointed. Vasya, facing the choice between marriage or life in a convent, decides instead to run away and travel. Her adventures soon take her to Moscow, where she finds herself having to defend the city and the Grand Prince from something awful.

Katherine Arden’s writing is fantastic. She weaves clear and enchanting images, and no part of the story is boring. Every single word was a joy to read. There really aren’t many books I’ve come across that are quite as magically well-written. That being said, there was, sadly, a bit less magic in the book than in the first, but there was still just enough to keep it special.

Vasya and Morozko are two of my favourite characters to ever exist. Vasya is strong and determined – and nothing like the usual fantasy heroines – while Morozko is a powerful and compassionate… What a babe. I just love him. And I can’t not mention Solovey: I’m not usually a fan of horses in general, but his connection to Vasya throughout the story is so lovely.

My one and only criticism of this book is the ending. It was abrupt and kind of unsatisfying, I was completely unprepared for it to end when it did (and not just because I enjoyed the book so much I didn’t want it to end). There seemed to be a lot of only partially resolved threads, and the ending just felt very sudden. It was quite a jarring and unsatisfying end to my reading experience.

However, the abrupt ending does not take anything away from the magnificence of the rest of the story. I cannot wait for the next book. 10/10. 5 stars. Full marks.

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

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Mussolini’s Island – Sarah Day

29758001.jpgSet in 1940’s Italy, Mussolini’s Island explores an area of history rarely looked at. Along with many other men like him, Francesco finds himself being imprisoned and sent to the island of San Domino for confino (confinement), for the crime of being gay. With suspicions about who gave their names to the police, fear over what will happen to them, and the pressure of an impending war, life on the island is far from easy.

Elena, a young local girl, is drawn to Francesco but can’t understand why he and the other men have been made prisoners on her island. When she finds out the truth about the prisoners, she is left with a decision that could have terrible consequences.

There are a lot of layers to this book. I found the historical aspects very interesting, and I really enjoyed the inclusion of some Italian terms (confino, arrusi, etc). Homosexuality in Italy during the 1940s isn’t an area I’ve read about before and I was eager to learn more. Although the story is fictional, a large amount of research obviously went into writing this book and I have a lot of respect for the author for that.

Unfortunately, I also had some big problems reading Mussolini’s Island and didn’t particularly enjoy the story. Mainly, the plot was very, very slow. There is a large mystery element (what happened to Francesco’s father; who turned the arrusi’s names over; and who killed Rapetti) but these questions aren’t answered until near the end. The rest of the book mainly consists of Francesco either reminiscing about the past or fawning over Emilio. Overall, it was kind of boring. If it weren’t for the general intrigue and interesting historical elements, I wouldn’t have made it all the way through.

As it was, I did reach the end and I did enjoy the book to some extent. What it really lacked was a stronger level of romance and excitement. Sadly, a well-written but decidedly average book.

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

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A Horse Walks into a Bar – David Grossman

34211922In a club in a small Israeli town, a comedian gives a shocked audience the most unconventional stand-up performance they’ve ever seen. While some choose to get up and leave, others remain enthralled and entranced, watching the comedian, Dovaleh G, fall apart on stage.

I’ll be honest, I didn’t get this book. It recently won the Man Booker International Prize, so I was intrigued and wanted to give it a go. Unfortunately, as far as I can tell, it seems to have won the award purely because of its unusual style and relatively hard-hitting subject matter rather than for the quality of the actual story.

The book is written in real-time, from the perspective of an audience member: a childhood friend of Dovaleh who has been summoned to the show at his request (though he doesn’t really understand why, or particularly want to be there). Despite the suggestive title and the setting of a comedy club, A Horse Walks into a Bar is not funny. It isn’t even remotely amusing and is barely entertaining. Reading the book, I felt exactly the same way as the audience members who chose to get up and leave. As it happens, this may well have been the desired effect and, if so, the book is remarkably well written (if not, then oh dear). Although I give the author kudos for his impressive and unconventional writing abilities, getting through this book was a painful and unpleasant experience.

Dovaleh himself was probably the most difficult thing about this novel. He was not likeable and was too annoying to be particularly interesting, yet we follow his entire rambling narrative from start to finish. I skim-read large portions of the book, until right near the very end where things did admittedly pick up and become marginally more engaging. He covers multiple themes during his on-stage breakdown, including friendship, betrayal, revenge and the Holocaust. Sadly, most of this went over my head (probably largely down to the skim-reading, but I’m holding the book responsible for not drawing me in enough).

There is no question that this is a clever book, and probably worth a read, but it is not even remotely enjoyable.

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

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The Miracle at Speedy Motors – Alexander McCall Smith

106021-457x720In the ninth instalment of the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series, Mma Ramotswe is asked to find the biological family of an adopted woman. Distracted by a threatening anonymous letter-writer and Mr J. L. B. Matekoni’s pursuit of an expensive miracle treatment for their foster daughter, Mma Ramostwe is left considering the nature and importance of truth, and if it can sometimes be better not to know it.

I adore the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, but the books are very samey so it’s taken me a very long time to get as far as book #9. They are all very well written, with a delightful style and loveable characters, and The Miracle at Speedy Motors is no exception. Being set in Botswana, the values and messages within each book are interesting and – usually – aspirational. I couldn’t recommend this series more (but start with book #1 because the character building throughout is very important, even if the plot progression isn’t).

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