Wednesday, 22 February 2017

Hold Back the Stars

Carys and Max only have 90 minutes of air left. Left floating in space after an accident, the couple only have each other to hold onto. The world below them rejected their love for each other and now they are alone in space, with their regrets and their very real fears.

Max and Carys really are star-crossed lovers. With everything on earth conspiring against them, they finally get to be together in space, and then disaster strikes. I did like that it wasn't a perfect relationship, they get irritated with each other, they have doubts. But ultimately, they love each other.

Hold Back the Stars starts with “This is the end”, the couple adrift in space. The chapters then alternate between their futile efforts to get them back to the damaged ship and back to their time on Earth, how they met and how they got to be where there are. Nearer the end there is some replaying of scenarios and I’m not sure if I liked that bit or not. Overall I’m a bit ambivalent about this book.

There's no better way to spend the last minutes of your life than talking to the best person you've ever met.

I wanted to love it, there's a fantastic concept against a background of utopian society, but much of it felt a little unfinished. It's quite a short book, so establishing the world-building is sandwiched into conversations. There is a wisp of an idea that without national ties and familial bonds, we wouldn't start wars or generally cause trouble. Everyone is on rotation, never staying in one place too long.

Europia has decided young people can't be in relationships. And then when you do reach 35, you can only settle down if you're going to have children. Then you're meant to kick your children out pretty young so they can go on rotation too. Otherwise you are committed to a lonely life, with no ties and fleeting friendships. Why would any government decide this was the way to fix things? Also, it makes no sense that Max would have so much loyalty to his family if he was truly a believer in the ideal.

People who can't live by the rules of a utopia tend to find it's not really a utopia.

I'm pretty sure regular science fiction readers aren't the intended audience. I found some of the attempts to make things seem like they were futuristic a little stilted and I am irritated by bad science. If America was destroyed by nuclear war, the rest of the world would be suffering from the fallout for sure, not enjoying Olympic style games and goose fat roast potatoes. Another point was when they are in space and they take their gloves off, but it's OK because their suits reseal around their wrists. I am 99.9% sure that body parts exposed to space would cause you to suffer the effects of the vacuum.

Katie Khan has a background in film and this might have a lot to do with the lack of substance but also, it’s a very dialogue dependent story. I can imagine it a lot clearer as a film script, where people aren’t usually that bothered by in-depth world-building. There’s plenty of interesting points to ponder, but I just wanted them woven together more. I just think it tried to do too much.

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Book Source: Purchased

Sunday, 19 February 2017

London Bookshop Crawl 2017

Hundreds of enthusiastic book lovers hit the streets of London yesterday in pursuit of books. Organised by the ever amazing Bex, I was put in charge of one of the guided groups. I managed not to get everyone lost, except for a tiny detour round Victoria because everything is roadworks there. The tone of the day was a little different from last year, where we all went round together and most people vaguely knew each other off the internet. I hope everyone had a good time and wasn't expecting a professional "tour"!

We all met up in Foyles again, in which I never buy anything because I never want to be weighed down too early. One day I will just go there and buy lots of books. They were really accommodating, allowing all four of the guided groups to meet there. We collected our lovely tote bags and set off in the direction of Daunt Books.



Last year we never made it to Daunt, even though it was on our schedule. It's a gorgeous shop and well worth a visit. The majority of the shop is organised by country or part of the world. There are a lot of travel books (so I took the opportunity to get a book for my holidays this year) but also books from and about those countries. I loved the layout and I could quite easily have filled up my ten book quota there.

Instead I limited myself to It Can't Happen Here, which was on my list of things to buy as well as being everywhere at the moment, and also The Dog Who Dared to Dream. I do want to read the one about the hen, but I saw this next to it and liked the sound of the dog more. As a bookshop crawl perk, I also got a free copy of The Trial of Lady Chatterley's Lover.



I ended up not buying anything else in the morning. The second stop was Blackwell's in Holborn. I was quite tempted by the Out of Print socks they sell there. They had a lot of books I had read and loved already, so I would generally recommend it, but it just didn't have much of what I was looking for this weekend. It was also super quiet but we did get a chance to sit down.

Next up was the shop most people were most excited about, Persephone Books. Now I bought three books there last year and still haven't read them, so I didn't feel I could justify getting more. The publisher is based in the shop and they specialise in forgotten classics by women. I did like that they were selling items made with the fabrics they use for the end-papers. Although the cushions were a bit too pricey for an impulse buy.



Those of us who knew Bex, met up for lunch. It was nice to briefly see everyone again. I kind of missed that bit being split up for most the day. After lunch we regrouped (partially) at Word on the Water, a wonderful barge on the canal behind Kings Cross station. The weather was soooooo nice by this point, as we did spend a while just sitting there, chilling out to the live jazz. They are a second hand shop (and I imagine by the afternoon some of their stock had been depleted by all the crawlers) and they have a lovely dog who wanders round, checking out who has the smelliest bag...





So quite a few people wanted to stay by the canal (I repeat, it was so nice), so a much reduced group headed onto Belgravia Books, one of the places I had put forward for the crawl. This is attached to the publishers Gallic Books and Aadvark Bureau, and has a lot of translated fiction but also plenty of other interesting stock. I could have bought loads in here but decided to go with one of their own titles, The Children's Home as well as The Power, which was on so many people's best of lists last year. Belgravia kindly gave us a 20% discount too (and they have a loyalty scheme, I really should have thought to offer my card to a Londoner).



We were meant to visit both Gosh! Comics and Orbital Comics but some people wanted to go straight to Waterstones. As we were starting to flag, we just went to Orbital which is very close to Leicester Square tube. They were handing out free comics, recommended based on what you like, which was so kind of them. They gave me Doctor Strange, which is written by the writer of Saga. I was looking forward to browsing their graphic novel room and, whilst I didn't find anything from my wishlist, I did find one about Laika the space dog. I also picked up the first trade of Ms Marvel which I have been meaning to try for a while.



The final stop was the massive Waterstones at Picadilly. They were putting on a quiz for the group which I didn't stay for, but I did go and buy some books before I left. I had a plan to buy lots of things from my wishlist that I'd been putting off buying, but then I couldn't really find anything. I was quite mentally drained by this point, so it was probably partially my ineptitude. Though afterwards I found out that someone else bought their last copy of one book I'd been trying to find. So I'm either reading super popular or super obscure stuff!

I did think their graphic novel section was excellent though, and I bought The Motherless Oven which was on my list. Tina had bought Names for the Sea in an earlier shop and I had added it to my wishlist a few weeks ago. I took seeing it on a table as a sign. I had wanted a few of the Wellcome Prize longlist titles and I'm a bit disappointed I didn't see a display for this anywhere (again, I might just have missed it).



I said my goodbyes and headed home to Hampshire, at least with less sore feet than last year! I think we did a lot of tube travel over walking, and it would be nice to have more of a wnader round, but it is really hard to organise so many people. I appreciated getting the tubes gave me less opportunity to get everyone lost, but it was also too nice weather to be underground so much.

Thursday, 16 February 2017

Forever Geek

Forever Geek is the final book in Holly Smale's Geek Girl series and therefore this review may contain spoilers for the previous books.

Harriet’s off to Australia and it’s got absolutely nothing to do with Lion Boy. He is out there, but so are millions of other people, what’s the chance of them being in the same place at the same time? Plus, she’s promised Wilbur she’ll do some work whilst she’s out there, that’s the point really. With Nat and Bunty at her side, what can go wrong?

Apparently in Japan you can rent new friends: maybe I should look at how much pocket money I have.

No more Harriet? Waaah! There was a point in the series that I felt it was getting all too samey, and I wondered where it would go, but Holly turned it around. It’s probably the right time to end her journey but I’ll miss her.

As well as having a fantastic and much-deserved holiday with her best friend Nat, Harriet must also work out what she wants in life. Is it modelling and a jet-set career? Has she learned that fashion is more than just clothes? Is Jasper her boyfriend?

I'm slowly beginning to realise how ironic it is that I'm so good at learning lessons inside school, and so terrible at learning any outside it.

Harriet has learned some lessons along the way, even if she doesn’t get it all right all the time. Her heart is in the right place and at least she’s trying to think of others. There’s a typical misunderstanding that I think most readers will see coming but overall a really enjoyable, and immensely sad in one place, ending to a much-loved series.

"I..." Didn't listen to experts, assumed I knew better, refused to wait, made my own plans, forced myself into a situation I didn't belong in and created total havoc. "I did a Harriet."

Forever Geek is published by HarperCollins and will be available in hardback and ebook editions from 9th March. Thanks go to the publisher for providing a copy for review.

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Disclosure: I received a copy of this book free of charge for review purposes only. Receipt of a book does not guarantee a review or endorsement. My reviews are my honest opinion and are not biased for the purpose of personal gain.

Tuesday, 14 February 2017

Fragile Lives

Fragile Lives is the memoir of an eminent heart surgeon. Professor Stephen Westaby charts cases from his 50 years of work, in the NHS and abroad, pioneering techniques, including artificial hearts and taking chances where others feared to tread.

Another day at the office for me; the end of the world for them. This is cardiac surgery.

As a child Westaby watched two of his grandparents die slow painful deaths; his grandfather from heart failure and his grandmother from a cancer which left her to suffocate. This experience has clearly directed his career and his desires to help those who would otherwise be written off. He says you need to be objective as a surgeon, but he never comes across as uncaring.

It's amazing how far medicine has come in just a few generations. Who would have thought artificial hearts can and do work. The ability for a truly rested heart to regenerate is eye-opening and makes you wonder why we can't be doing this for more people.

The hearts seem to take quite a beating, both through life and surgery. There's young people struck down in their prime by viruses and undetected genetic weaknesses. There is trauma and those who have just reached the end of their heart's functioning. One pregnant woman is determined to keep her baby despite medical advice to the contrary, Westaby being the only one who will risk surgery on her.

With age, my objectivity was fading and empathy was taking over. I was suffering for my profession.

The introduction does explain the basic function and structure of the heart, however if you have very little knowledge of anatomy, biology or medicine you might struggle to follow some of the cases. He does go into quite a bit of detail on each surgery, which some also might find gory.

Like Henry Marsh, Westaby has become disgruntled with an NHS bogged down in bureaucracy. It's only briefly mentioned at the end, but you can sense his frustration with the system in some of the cases. Who thinks it makes sense to send senior surgeons on courses to learn CPR? And the death list! Some government idiot decided to name and shame surgeons who have deaths on their operating tables. Seriously ill people will die sometimes. This just deters surgeons from taking risks, risks that could save lives. Most people given a chance of a slow and painful death or a risky surgery, would rather have the surgery. Instead they are filled with drugs and sent home to die.

Peter made it clear that extra life is not ordinary life.

This book shines a light on how harsh the "postcode lottery" can be. Westaby raised charitable funds to help patients in his Oxford hospital and he also had the expertise there, something a lot of hospitals just don't have, not through any fault of their own. Despite Oxford being a centre of excellence for heart surgery, they were not a transplant centre and therefore they got no NHS funding for the very pumps Westaby had trailblazed. He might be able to fix you, but the device he needed just wasn't always available.

Marsh and Westaby are likely the last of the pioneering NHS surgeons. Politicians would rather create lists and targets and 7 day GPs that no one has asked for. Why would any skilled doctor want to work in an environment where they are prevented from doing what's best for their patients?

This review makes the book sound moanier than it is. It just triggered my personal anger over the slow demoralisation of the NHS. In fact it's really quite uplifting in what we can achieve will the right will. The sacrifices made by medical staff are always appreciated.

Fragile Lives is published by HarperCollins and is available now in hardback and ebook editions. Thanks go to the publisher for providing a copy for review.

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Disclosure: I received a copy of this book free of charge for review purposes only. Receipt of a book does not guarantee a review or endorsement. My reviews are my honest opinion and are not biased for the purpose of personal gain.


Monday, 13 February 2017

S. Jae-Jones: My Favourite Character in Wintersong

Please welcome S. Jae-Jones, author of Wintersong, to the blog today and find out all about her favourite character.

I know parents aren't supposed to have a favorite child. I love all my literary children equally, but I can’t deny that some have given me an easier time than others. Although I have given a piece of myself to each and every one of my characters, there are a few who are perhaps closer to my heart than others.

If pressed, I would name Thistle, a prickly goblin girl, as my favorite. I tend to think of her as a slightly more spiteful Grumpy Cat, which to be honest, is a pretty apt description of my own personality. Irritable and irascible comes easily to me, so writing Thistle (and Liesl’s grandmother Constanze) is second nature. People do ask me what my protagonist and I have in common since the entire book is from her first person perspective. Liesl and I don’t necessarily have a lot in common in terms of personality traits; I’m much more like her shallow and frivolous sister Käthe. However, there is one thing Liesl and I share, and that is bipolar disorder.

It’s hard writing about mental illness, especially when my particular diagnosis didn’t exist in Liesl’s time and therefore cannot be mentioned by name. I wasn’t necessarily intentional about writing Liesl as a bipolar individual…until I was. So much of Wintersong is about the artistic process, about creative genesis, and for me, that is absolutely inextricable from who I am and how I see the world. Mania and melancholy are as intrinsic to Liesl as music is because I don’t know how else to write her.

In many ways, Liesl is the child I don’t want to talk about because she reminds me too much of myself, and not in good ways. Her recklessness, her terrible decision-making, her wildly varying moods, her self-loathing are all parts of myself I’m not proud of. But it would be dishonest not to write them. To sanitize Liesl is to turn her into a wish-fulfillment character, and while I can’t deny that there is some element of wish-fulfillment in her, she is also as raw and overwhelming as I can be. And am.

Speaking of wish-fulfillment, I do often get asked about my thoughts on the Goblin King. I’m not sure what to say. He is the distillation of the idea of a Goblin King I’ve formed in my head ever since I first encountered David Bowie in tight trousers in Labyrinth. Would I date him? Oh no. My tastes run to the funny, the uncomplicated, the safe. But do I think he’s sexy? Well, probably a little.

~~~

Wintersong is out now from Titan Books and JJ can be found on Twitter as @sjaejones. Want to know what I thought of it? Check out my review here.

Sunday, 12 February 2017

An Ember in the Ashes

Elias has been at Blackcliff Academy since he was a small boy, taken from his tribal home and sent to train to become one of the Empire’s elite servants, a Mask. He is about to graduate but what he’d much rather do is desert, if only he can shake the watchful eye of his best friend Helene. Laia is a Scholar, living with her grandparents and keeping out the way of the Empire. That is until her brother, Darian, is caught with a sketchbook containing Empire secrets. The night a Mask takes Darian prisoner, Laia is left desperate to save the only family she has left, even that means taking on a dangerous mission for the resistance. A mission that takes her into the heart of Blackcliff.

When I first heard about An Ember in the Ashes, I wasn’t sure about it, thinking it sounded either like it would be too violent or just be another clichéd romance with an interesting setting. Well, how wrong I was because I loved it. I mean, the world is quite brutal and unforgiving but the story was so compelling and it really was not romantic at all. At least with putting it off so long, now I don’t have to wait for part two!

I feel like a hunted, craven animal, which is exactly how the Empire sees me – how it sees all Scholars.

The Martial Empire is roughly based on the Ancient Roman Empire, with the emperor at the top and slaves at the bottom. It has conquered many lands and stripped the people of their cultures and their freedoms. Scholars are not allowed to learn to read, denying them the knowledge they were once so proud of.

The military is wielded to keep people in line, with the Masks dispatched for the most serious criminals, well serious in the eyes of the Empire. The Masks all train at Blackcliff, being chosen from a young age by the Augers and sent to the school until they graduate or die. The path to graduation is not easy, and many don’t make it. For such a violent and unfeeling group of people, you end up with a lot of sympathy for the by the end. Even the Augers have hidden depths, and not just their mindreading skills.

I’ve hated the mask since the day an Augur – an Empire holy man – handed it to me in a velvet-lined box. I hate the way it gloms on to me like some kind of parasite. I hate the way it presses into my face, moulding itself to my skin.

There is so much world-building but it never feels like it is info-dumping it. The history, myths and social structure is all interwoven with the story. The narration alternates between Elias and Laia keeping the plot trotting along at a fast pace. There’s some supernatural elements, but it’s kind of the same level as Game of Thrones, where it takes backseat to the social and political struggles of the people and their world.

Such foolish hope, to have thought that despite being raised to violence I might one day be free of it.

The characters are complex too. They all have a selfish desire and nothing is ever solved that easily. They grow and become multi-faceted, and I really wasn’t sure where it was heading until the climax. The title refers to the fact the two characters are catalysts to something bigger, a small act can’t turn into something huge. We’ll have to wait to see what that is… I’m looking forward to getting my hands on A Torch Against the Night anyway.

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Book Source: Purchased

Tuesday, 7 February 2017

You Will Not Have My Hate

Antoine Leiris was at home looking after his 17-month-old son when his wife, Hélène, went to the theatre. The date was 13th November 2015. He would never see her alive again. She was one of the 89 people murdered by terrorists at the Bataclan Theatre that night. Three days later, Antoine writes an open letter to the gunmen; you will not have my hate.

Oh my, what an incredibly sad yet beautifully written little book. Antione’s Facebook post went viral when he first posted it, the message of love something people could hold onto in a time of grief and horror.

For as long as he lives, this little boy will insult you with his happiness and freedom.

The book covers the night when Antoine couldn’t get hold of Hélène, the dawning realisation something has happened and the frustrations of a little boy who doesn’t know what’s going on and wants his mother. It was so heart-breaking to read of Antoine explaining to him that she wasn’t coming back.

If anyone has a right to be angry it’s Antione. But his testimony shows how hate doesn’t bring anyone back, doesn’t make the world better. He can raise his son with good values and kindness, he can raise him how Helene would have wanted.

Originally written in French, Sam Taylor has done an amazing job of translating into English. It’s an emotional read but an important one in this day and age of using hate as a weapon. Use love and happiness instead.

You Will Not Have My Hate is published by Harvill Secker and is available now in hardback and ebook editions. Thanks go to the publisher for providing a copy for review via NetGalley.

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Disclosure: I received a copy of this book free of charge for review purposes only. Receipt of a book does not guarantee a review or endorsement. My reviews are my honest opinion and are not biased for the purpose of personal gain.

Sunday, 5 February 2017

Wintersong

As a small girl, Liesl played with an imaginary friend, a version of Der Erlkönig from the stories. As she got older, her memories of this friend died. Now her sister is due to be married and her brother is poised to start an apprenticeship in the thing they love most; music. Just as she is started to feel left behind, her sister goes missing. Her grandmother has warned of such things but she always thought those were just stories. Now, she must rescue her sister before it’s too late.

The further away from mortality he grew, the more capricious and cruel he became, forgetting what it was like to live and love.

There is something quite folk tale like in the way Wintersong is written and it’s wonderfully evocative of the woods and nature. It’s a story of two parts, it almost feels as if it is coming to an end about half way through and then it goes in a different direction. It is part fantasy, part romance. There's a hint of Brothers Grimm (the unsanitised originals) and a dash of Labyrinth.

Der Erlkönig is originally a German poem, often set to music. It transpires that the Goblin King is a fan of music too, and was drawn to Liesl for her talent. The story also seems to be set in Germany, albeit in the past. I don’t think the country is mentioned but Austria is. This retelling feels like it has aspects of Greek myth intertwined too, although I can imagine many cultures have tales of the underworlds, stolen maidens and the transition from winter to spring. For without the girls he takes, the land above will be in an eternal winter, kind of the opposite of Persephone’s myth.

Liesl is drawn to the Goblin King by a desire to be wanted. She feels like she’s the plain one, always overlooked. He may have a history of luring maidens into the underworld but he is also a charming person in a position of power. There are many women who see the attraction of that, especially when they have poor self-esteem. So, the central relationship may be a bit problematic, especially considering he practically kidnaps her sister first. It’s not something that’s particularly unusual in adult fantasy though, and it will depend on whether you expect young adult fiction to set an example or just tell a story.

What I wouldn't have given to taste that fruit, that heady sweetness, of being wanted. I wanted. I wanted what Käthe took for granted. I wanted wantonness.

The sex scenes are a bit flowery but I guess it’s done in a way to not be explicit. There’s nothing that actually says they have sex, just lots of euphemisms and romanticised language. I did like her goblin attendants, they off-set the main characters a bit, with some attitude and mischief. Overall I really enjoyed it and it’s good to have a standalone.

Wintersong is published by Titan Books and will be available in paperback and ebook editions from 7th February 2017. Thanks go to the publishers for providing a copy for review. The blog tour is stopping by on the 13th, so come back then to find out about JJ's favourite character.

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Disclosure: I received a copy of this book free of charge for review purposes only. Receipt of a book does not guarantee a review or endorsement. My reviews are my honest opinion and are not biased for the purpose of personal gain.

Wednesday, 1 February 2017

The Month That Was... January 2017

+ International Giveaway


The start of 2017 has not been a good month for the world at large, to put it lightly. I can barely believe what I hear coming out of America each day. It buoyed my spirits to see so many happy faces and amazing signs at the Women's Marches though. Whilst governments unravel, it's important to look after yourself and try and take joy in little things. So I can at least say I've read some amazing books last month, and reviewed even more.


Whilst I didn't do the whole month, I thoroughly enjoyed getting more into #bookstagram with the #WinterBookishColor17 challenge. There is a super cute emoji one this month that I'd like to do, but it's already February and I haven't got organised at all.

Let's see what I ticked off my on my challenge lists:

#ReadHarder

15. Read a YA or middle grade novel by an author who identifies as LGBTQ+
Margot & Me by Juno Dawson
24. Read a book wherein all point-of-view characters are people of color
The Sun is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon

#DiversityBingo2017

Free Choice
Radio Silence by Alice Oseman
Book by an Author of Colour
The Sun is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon
Hijabi Main Character (Own Voices)
Sofia Khan is Not Obliged by Ayisha Malik

Not too shabby. I'd also quite like to read the Wellcome Prize longlist, so I might add those titles to my challenges page to remind me of their existence.

February brings with it the promise of a storm, but also the second London Bookshop Crawl. This has turned into a mega event, so if you'd like to take part the guided groups are full but you can still go solo. I'll be herding one of the groups on the day.

Monthly giveaways are back! You can win any book I reviewed on the blog in January and you'll get a nice shiny new copy (usually ordered from Wordery, so you'll get a cute bookmark too). It's open internationally and you don't even need to follow me! I do double check extra entries though, so don't try and cheat.

Here's what made it onto the blog...

Book of the Month:
Caraval by Stephanie Garber

Reviews: