Things I read in 2020

(YA) indicates a Young Adult book (approx. 13-20 age range)

(YABC) indicates one of our official YA Book Club choices

(Mid Grade) indicates a book for the 8-12 age range

(Re-read) something I’ve read before – probably 20+ years ago

(Re-re-read) self explanatory, in context

(ARC) indicates an Advance Reading Copy provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review

(Bury St Edmunds Indie Author) written by one of the local authors I meet up with, sell books with, and generally make trouble with in Bury St Edmunds!

  1. The Museum of Second Chances – A E Warren (Bury St Edmunds Indie Author)

What if humans created a superior species using genetic engineering? What if Homo Sapiens were then held responsible for the damage to the planet, and forced to make reparations? And what if we used genetic engineering to bring back extinct species – including Neanderthals?

Book One of the Tomorrow’s Ancestors series introduces a world where unaltered humans are treated as manual workers, and denied luxuries as punishment for their destruction of the natural world. Teenager Elise is determined to move out of her manufacturing job, and her life changes when she is hired to work as a companion to one of the Neanderthals in the museum in the base where she lives. Her task is to spend time with him and make sure his life as a glorified zoo animal is interesting, while ensuring that he only has access to technology and food from 30,000 years in the past. Elise learns quickly that her job is not as straightforward as she hoped, and that there is more going on in her base – and in the museum – than she realised.

Elise is a sympathetic and engaging character, and right from the start I cared about her story. She is surrounded, at home and at the museum, by a cast of well-drawn and interesting colleagues, neighbours, and family members. I particularly liked her relationship with the museum nurse as it developed through the book, and her relationship with her brother. My favourite character has to be Kit, the Neanderthal she works with. His grudging acceptance of her companionship grows into something more as she finds ways to bend the rules, and make both their lives more interesting.

The ending is a cliffhanger, so I’m glad I bought Book 2!

  1. The Base of Reflections – A E Warren (Bury St Edmunds Indie Author)

What if humans created a superior species using genetic engineering? What if Homo Sapiens were then held responsible for the damage to the planet, and forced to make reparations? And what if we used genetic engineering to bring back extinct species – including Neanderthals?

‘The Base of Reflections’ picks up the story from Book One’s cliffhanger ending, taking the characters into new territory as they discover more about the world they have grown up in. Where ‘The Museum of Second Chances’ explored one of the four settlement bases, this book gives the reader a wider view of the world, physically and politically. There’s a new Point of View narration, following a group of Neanderthals and humans from a different base, and the narrative is split between various characters in different locations. Each thread of the plot shows the reader new aspects of the wider society, raising the tension and the risk for all the characters.

The question of right and wrong, and how to tell the difference, is a theme that runs through both books. Close to the end of Book Two, there is a wonderful conversation about power, leadership, and corruption, as two characters try to decide on the right course of action. There is a tension between following the rules, and doing the right thing, and it is interesting to see how each character reconciles the choices they make with their personal loyalties, and the expectations they have grown up with.

The wider cast of characters in this book means that the story is not focused entirely on Elise and her experiences. The characters from Book One continue to develop and grow, alongside the new Neanderthals, Sapiens, and genetically enhanced humans. I was fascinated by the Neanderthal characters – by the effect on them of their experiences as museum exhibits, by their relationships with each other and with their Sapien and enhanced friends, and by the development of their beliefs and motivations throughout the book. This is a really intersting series, and I’m looking forward to reading Book 3!

NOTE: This series has been bought by DelRey/Penguin Random House. Books 1 and 2 will be published in July 2021 with new titles. I’m going to have to wait a bit longer for books 3 and 4!

  1. Six of Crows – Leigh Bardugo (YA)

Six outcasts, a lot of money, and a dangerous plan come together in Leigh Bardugo’s thrilling fantasy heist story. Set in Ketterdam, a city based loosely on 18th century Holland, the beginning of the book introduces the characters, the mission, and the Grisha – practitioners of specific types of magic kept as indentured servants by rich merchants. As the plot moves forward, the backstories of the characters are introduced in flashbacks and storytelling, and the world beyond Ketterdam is revealed.

There’s a lot going on in this book! We learn about the politics of Ketterdam, from the gangs on the streets to the the Merchant Council that runs the city. There’s the recruitment of the team for the jailbreak and the heist, the backstories of the characters, the journey to their target, and the histories of the relationships between the members of the team. There’s the single-minded determination of the group’s leader, and the constant questioning of loyalties and motivations. For YA, it’s a complex and relatively long book, and it demands – and repays – close and attentive reading.

The characters are well-drawn and distinctive, with their own secrets and grudges, and reasons for joining the team. The plot is detailed and interesting, with enough twists to keep the reader guessing all the way to the end. The world is beautifully imagined, with constrasting countries and cultures adding danger and tension to the story.

I enjoyed the book, and I enjoyed the adventure, but I didn’t connect with the characters as much as I wanted to. The book is written in third person past tense, and I found myself wanting some first-person narration, to really feel as if I was under the skin of the person I was reading about. The author head-hops, with each chapter told from the point of view of one of the characters, and while this is essential to the story, I found the lack of a first-person connection distracted me and distanced me from the more exciting parts of the book. That’s a personal preference, though, and this story is told with skill, depth, and sympathy for the central characters.

It’s a neat, complex, and satisfying story, and the ending sets the scene for the second book. Luckily it’s already on my shelf …

  1. Sentinel – Joshua Winning (YABC)

Young Adult urban horror/fantasy set in and around Cambridge? Yes please!

The blurb on the back of Book One of the Sentinel Trilogy promises ‘unconventional heroes, monsters, murder and magic’, and the story doesn’t disappoint. Fifteen-year-old Nicholas Hallow’s world is turned upside-down when his parents are killed in a train crash. A letter from his father to an old friend sets out what should be done if anything were to happen to his parents, and Nicholas finds himself uprooted from his home and placed in the care of a godmother he knows nothing about. Chased by evil entities he doesn’t understand, and with his future decided by adults who refuse to explain the danger he faces, Nicholas attempts to find his own answers. Will he find the truth, or will the demons find him first?

‘Sentinel’ is a fun read. There are dramatic scenes that explode vividly from the page like sequences from a film, and quieter, more reflective sections that give the reader a chance to get to know Nicholas, and the people around him. The constant refusal of the adults to explain anything to Nicholas becomes more frustrating for him as the story progresses, and while this frustration is shared by the reader, it serves a chilling purpose at the end of the book. Nicholas is relatable as a grieving, powerless teenager, attempting to understand the secrets that define his life, but it is the supporting characters who bring colour and depth to the story. Sam, the elderly friend of the family, and Liberty, in particular, provide the book’s unconventional heroes, and the principle antagonist is absolutely delicious in her evil scheming.

The settings for the story are well drawn, and the scenes set in Cambridge are fun to read if you are familiar with the locations. The sequence at the Fitzwilliam Museum felt very close to home, and the descriptions of Midsummer Common provided a solid real-world anchor for Nicholas’s experiences. There are hat-tips to Narnia (I counted three), an interesting system of magic, symbols, and folklore, and a house that felt like a character in its own right.

Judging by the ending, things can only get more exciting in Book Two!

  1. Married to the Alien Admiral – Alma Nilsson

Alien erotica. Sex and starships. Every bit as trashy, explicit, problematic, and titilating as it sounds. Defintely 18-rated!

  1. Wight Christmas – Philip Purser-Hallard (Short Story)

Phil’s 2019 Christmas story. Another appearance for Panto Dwarf Bari and Santa’s Elf Elaphar, stars of 2016’s story, ‘The Fourth Age of Christmas’. Good fun, with a clever twist.

  1. Crooked Kingdom – Leigh Bardugo (YA)

With the second book in the ‘Six of Crows’ Duology, we’re back in Ketterdam for the fallout from the events of Book One. It’s hard to review this instalment without giving away spoilers for both books, so I’ll keep my comments as general as possible!

Like ‘Six of Crows’, this is an intense read. Complex, long, and full of twists, the plot is exciting and never predictable. There are some extremely perilous moments, and some reveals that had me catching my breath. As the action heats up, each chapter ends on a cliffhanger as the point of view jumps to another character and another thread in the story. This is a serious page-turner!

As the story intensifies, so do the relationships between the characters. Everyone has a history, and everyone has secrets, complicating their abilities to form friendships and romantic attachments. The friendships that are formed are that much stronger for overcoming these obstacles, and the romances are that much more fragile and dangerous.
Family is a strong theme in ‘Crooked Kingdom’, with parents, siblings, and children acting as incentives, protectors, and obstacles for the central characters. This is a more introspective book, examining relationships between and beyond the main characters, and digging deeper into their home territory.

The central characters feel more developed in this follow-up story. This is partly because the reader has met and followed them through a dangerous adventure in ‘Six of Crows’, but also because they are asked to step up their commitment to each other, and to their cause. Everything feels more dangerous, and more personal, than in the first book. This is partly the result of working more closely together, but also the result of working in their home city. The city almost feels like another character in the story, and another member of the gang.

Ketterdam, the setting for the first part of ‘Six of Crows’, feels more real and more developed in ‘Crooked Kingdom’. The city, with its gangs, merchants, and districts of rich and poor, is one of the stars of this book. The world-building is fantastic – I could smell the canals and the sea, and feel the wind on the rooftops. I could sense the difference between the gangland areas and the respectable districts, and feel the fear and awareness of the characters as they navigated the streets and canals.

I found the third-person past-tense narration distancing in the first book, but I found it less of a problem in the sequel. This is partly because of the intensity of the story and the setting, and partly because reading both so quickly in succession gave me time to adjust to the author’s writing style.

I gave ‘Six of Crows’ four stars, but I’m very happy to give ‘Crooked Kingdom’ a five-star rating. The unpredictable plot, the constant danger and tension in the story, the more rounded characters, the cliffhangers, and the incredibly vivid setting, all came together to produce an emotional, immediate reading experience. This is a highly satisfying conclusion to the duology, and one that stayed with me after the last page turned. If you like your fantasy dark, and your world-building strong, head to Ketterdam and allow yourself to be drawn into the story. You’re in for a treat.

  1. Night Swimming – MT McGuire (Bury St Edmunds Indie Author, YA, Short Story)

A short, mailing-list-exclusive introduction to the K’Barth stories by MT McGuire. Short enough to read in one sitting, but detailed enough to introduce the central character, the setting, and the humour of the series. ‘Night Swimming’ is a neat short story. It touches on some serious themes, but the author introduces the characters and the setting with humour and humanity. I’m a sucker for a well-imaged city, and Ning Dang Po has definitely joined my list of fictional places I’d like to visit, if only to witness the night-time view from the Bridge of Eternal Glory (you’ll have to read the story!). An engaging introduction to an intriguing series.

  1. The Forest – Julia Blake (Bury St Edmunds Indie Author)

Trigger warning: infant mortality.

Part multi-family saga, part deep British folklore, and part spine-chilling fantasy/horror, ‘The Forest’ is an ambitious exploration of folktales, secrets and community. The cover promises ‘A tale of old magic’, and the book certainly delivers. The inhabitants of the village at the centre of the story follow their predictable lives, dealing in gossip, meeting at the pub, and holding their twice-yearly seasonal festivals, as they have for centuries. They stay away from the forest at the edge of the village, and no one ever seems to leave. Over time, members of the same village families live, intermarry, and die, with the mysterious forest as the backdrop to their lives.

But there are stories, passed down between the generations. Warnings about the forest, and how it might be linked with the village, and the villagers.

The settings for the story are beautifully drawn, from the cottages in the village, the farms, and the Lord’s hall, to the forest itself. You can feel the sunshine and the frost, the wind on the hilltops and the shade of the trees.

The characters spring to life on the page – the older villagers, haunted by their past decisions, and the younger generations, eager to find their own roles in the community. It’s a large cast, but the major players all stand out from the crowd. The author takes the time to introduce the protagonists, with backstories and family histories that feel as engaging as real-life gossip, and which are all essential to the unfolding story.

‘The Forest’ takes its inspiration from all the strange, regional folktales embedded in communities across the British Isles, and considers the seeds of truth at the core of these stories. What historical events are reflected and concealed in fireside tales of tragedy, love, and magic? Where did the stories begin? What messages might they carry for listeners and readers today?

I really enjoyed ‘The Forest’. It’s a well-crafted, vivid story with characters who seem ready to step out of the page, and settings that will feel familiar to anyone who has travelled away from the main roads in the UK. It’s a dark story, lit by the community at its heart, and skilfully told by an author who clearly loves the characters she has created.
Highly recommended.

  1. This Vicious Cure – Emily Suvada (YA)

The final book in the ‘Mortal Coil’ trilogy. The action is back, the stakes are higher, and there’s a cliffhanger at the end of every chapter. Emily Suvada brings us another breathless page-turner to conclude her innovative dystopian trilogy.

Given the intense cliffhanger at the end of ‘This Cruel Design’, there’s not a lot I can say about this book without dropping spoilers! The fight against the deadly virus continues, with genehackers and scientists working to perfect a vaccine or a cure. But the ability to manipulate DNA comes with unintended consequences, and raises moral questions that threaten to ignite a devastating war.

There’s a strong cast of characters, some familiar locations, and we finally learn the truth behind Catarina’s father’s experiments. This is a satisfying conclusion to an action-packed, fast-paced rollercoaster of a series.

  1. The Gentleman’s Guide to Getting Lucky – Mackenzi Lee (YA Novella)

Short, sweet, and really rather lovely, this is the continuation of the story of Monty and Percy, which begins in ‘The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue’.

After the adventures of their European Grand Tour, Monty and Percy are finally on the same page – and staying in a beautiful house on a romantic beach, with the ever-practical Felicity taking an interest in their love lives.

But Percy has never slept with anyone before, and Monty has never slept with anyone he cares about. Getting lucky might prove more difficult than it sounds.

Mackenzi Lee’s wonderful characters from ‘The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue’ are back, their personalities and frustrations leaping from the page. This progression of their story is real, awkward, and relatable, picking up on the importance of consent, communication, and openness in intimate relationships. This isn’t an empty Happy Ever After, but it takes an unfiltered look at how you might get there.

I loved meeting Monty, Percy, and Felicity again, and it was wonderful to follow the development of their relationships. The hardback edition of the novella is expensive, but absolutely gorgeous, and I’m glad I splashed out. A lovely, short, and rewarding read.

  1. Foul is Fair – Hannah Capin (YABC)

A revenge thriller for the #MeToo generation, this book is uncompromising. From the calculating actions of the abusers to the absolute destruction dealt out by the central character and her loyal friends, the plot is unwavering in its drive for payback and revenge.

The story is inspired by Shakespeare’s ‘Macbeth’, and the paranoia, ambition, manipulation, and murder of the play are all here. Jade, the central character, takes the Lady Macbeth role, with her best friends taking on the roles of the witches. Working together, they manipulate the Lacrosse-playing rich boys who drug and assault Jade at a party, fracturing their friendships and ensuring that they turn against each other. The fear that someone in the group will expose their actions (Jade isn’t the first girl they have attacked together) pits the boys against each other, allowing Jade to orchestrate her revenge while keeping her hands mostly clean – at least as far as anyone outside the group would suspect.

The story – including the ending – is not a direct retelling of ‘Macbeth’, but there are nods to the play throughout the book. The best friends confront the boys with threats and prophecies, while keeping their identities hidden. Jade has her ‘out, damn spot’ moment, and the Macbeth character finds himself entirely under her influence. There are uncanny elements to the story – unanticipated storms, spooky black birds – but it is a thoroughly modern burner phone that allows Jade and the witches to manipulate and threaten the boys and their friends via text message.

After the attack, Jade transfers to the boys’ expensive school, St Andrews, thus symbolically moving herself to Scotland and the world of the play. In an echo of Lady Macbeth’s ‘unsex me here / and fill me from the crown to the toe topfull / of direst cruelty’ speech, Jade reinvents herself. She cuts her hair and dyes it black (the colour is called ‘Revenge’), changes school, and changes her name from ‘Elle’ to Jade. Her friends support her transformation, and there is no doubt that she uses it to steel herself and prepare for remorseless revenge on her attackers. The boys are named after characters from the play (Duncan, Malcolm, Banks, Duffy, Porter, and Mack), and Mack’s hilltop home is called ‘Inverness’.

As a protagonist, Jade is uncompromising and uncomfortable. Her actions are extreme, but as she relives the events of the party and the assault in chilling and fragmented flashbacks, they are also entirely understandable. The reader can relate to her determination to destroy the boys who tried to destroy her, and this makes for an uncomfortable read. I found myself cheering on murder and manipulation, always waiting for the boys to realise the danger they were in.

The attack itself is described with a very light touch. The reader has no doubt as to what happened to Jade, but her memories are reduced to flashbulb moments by the drugs the boys put in her drink.

This is a challenging book. I found my sympathies shifting between Jade and her friends, and the boys they were so easily and coldly destroying. It certainly delivers revenge, and the ambition and paranoia of Shakespeare’s story. It also asks the reader to sympathise with someone who deliberately makes herself ruthless and cold. As much as I wanted her to succeed, I ended up wondering whether her actions had finally destroyed her, even as she fought to assert her identity as a survivor, and an avenger, instead of a victim. It’s a powerful story, cleverly told, but definitely not a feel-good book.

  1. Macbeth – William Shakespeare

I read this to remind myself of the plot, after reading ‘Foul is Fair’ – and I loved it. Macbeth’s rising paranoia, Lady Macbeth’s ambition and cold manipulation, and the alarming and excessive body count bring the excitement, while the virtuous characters plot to put right the events set in motion by the witches and their prophecies.

It’s a typical Shakespearean dive into human nature – the good, the bad, and the corrupt – with ample drama, and speeches that demand sympathy and empathy, whichever character is on stage. The female characters are powerful and uncompromising, important moral issues are addressed, and the drama and and conflict as the central characters begin to unravel keeps the reader (or the audience) hooked until the end. It’s a relentless examination of the worst of human nature – how someone might fall into cruelty and violence, and how the uncorrupted characters must step up and make sacrifices to ensure that justice is delivered.

  1. The Lady’s guide to Petticoats and Piracy – Mackenzi Lee (YA)

At last – the sequel to ‘The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue’! Monty and Percy are back, but this time the narrator is Monty’s sister, Felicity. Readers first met Felicity in ‘The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue’, where she provided the no-nonsense, clear-headed balance to Monty’s reckless drinking, gambling, and womanising. Through her brother’s eyes, she was portrayed as a brave and intelligent travelling companion, always ready to ask the obvious questions, make sensible plans, and stitch up wounds without drama – including her own. She was a strong, inspiring character, hiding her interest in medical science so that she could continue to read and study without interruption, keen to avoid the finishing school her parents had lined up for her.

First-person Felicity is still strong, brave, and sensible, but in this book the reader sees inside her head. The bravery and determination are still there, but we also experience her insecurities, doubts, and disappointments. Telling the story from her point of view makes her at once more relatable and less together than she seemed in the first book. We don’t see someone getting on with something dangerous because it is the right thing to do – we see someone weighing up the options, acknowledging the danger and her fear, and then doing it anyway.

Felicity’s story is no less dramatic than Monty’s in Book One. She is desperate to earn a place at medical school, but as a woman in the eighteenth century she is automatically excluded. Undeterred, she reads medical texts disguised as romance novels, and petitions medical schools in Edinburgh and London without success. When she discovers that her childhood friend is about to marry one of her medical heroes, she travels to Stuttgart to attend the wedding and ask for a job. Of course things don’t go according to plan, and she soon finds herself breaking the law to protect her friend. On the run with two very different female companions, Felicity starts to challenge everything she has come to believe about femininity, strength, and survival.

Mackenzi Lee presents us with three models of female strength. Felicity, with her ambition, and her lack of interest in traditionally feminine social roles; the friend, whose survival depends on being the perfect society lady, throwing the best parties and wearing complicated fashionable clothes; and the headstrong Muslim travelling companion with a mysterious past and a disastrous disregard for the law. As all three women come to understand each other, and work together, they use their strengths to support each other – and to come up with a solution to the central plot point that would never have occurred to the men.

As with ‘The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue’, there are strong fantastical elements to the story, but not enough to fully transform the rules and expectations of eighteenth century Europe. As in Book One, the characters challenge each other’s expectations of love, marriage, and relationships, and of what constitutes a successful and fulfilling life. This is an empowering book. Seeing inside Felicity’s thoughts and feelings brings extra dimensions to her character. She becomes more relatable, particularly for readers who might have been told that they are not a proper girl if they don’t enjoy stereotypically feminine activities, wear makeup, or dress in certain ways. But that’s not the only message of the book – Felicity also learns not to discount the girl in the party dress, or the girl in the headscarf, and to find her own way to reach her goals.

I’m looking forward to Book Three in the Montague Siblings trilogy!

  1. Rose, Interrupted – Patrice Lawrence (YA)

Seventeen-year-old Rose is not at home in London. She’s used to the unbending, patriarchal rules of her tight-knit religious community, but when her family is excluded from the sect, she has to figure out the new rules by herself.

Rose embraces life outside the sect. She can finally read the books she wants to read, wear what she wants to wear, experiment with makeup, and hook up with boys. She has a plan for decommissioning herself from the expectations she has grown up with, and she launches into college and dating with enthusiasm. Her younger brother doesn’t share her desire to leave the rules behind, and in spite of surviving a horrific incident in the religious community, he desperately wants to return. It’s up to Rose to encourage him, and help him to adjust.

Throw in family complications, problems with meeting the rent, and Rose’s total inexperience of relationships; and the unwritten rules of a life of freedom, boyfriends, and smartphones threaten to trap Rose and her brother – and draw attention to the secretive community they left behind.

This is an emotional book. Rose and her brother are sympathetic and believable, and even when you’re shouting at the page, you know their decisions are based on innocence and naivety, and not malice. I found myself extremely frustrated with the adults around them, who either assumed that they understood the unwritten rules, or failed to offer them help when they asked. There’s an interesting message about power and manipulation, and how to recover your power if someone has abused your trust.
All the characters feel real – rounded, individual, and flawed – and most of them are simply doing their best in challenging situations. It would be easy to set up the other members of the sect as evil and dangerous, but even they are shown to be acting honourably according to their own rules. It’s a story about intentions, and unintended consequences; about finding yourself and your place in the world; and about navigating an unfamiliar culture without a rule book.

It’s a story about being human, and growing up, and learning how to fix your mistakes. It’s an emotional read, and it grabbed me and didn’t let me go. Definitely recommended.

  1. Viper – Bex Hogan (YABC)

Right from the start, I loved this book. The first chapter wastes no time, throwing the reader into the blood-soaked life of the protagonist from page one, and building a strong character in a very few pages. There are no wasted words, no unnecessary descriptions, and no unimportant events. Chapter one introduces violence, conflict, fear, and betrayal, setting up the themes of the book. By the end of chapter two, all the pieces are in place for a thrilling pirate-based adventure.

I know I have a soft spot for pirate stories, seafaring tales, and strong female protagonists, and ‘Viper’ brings all these things together with some vividly described settings and plenty of action. The main character, seventeen-year-old Marianne, is intelligent and brave, facing her fears and learning how to survive as the daughter of the Viper – the most feared ship’s captain on the ocean, and defender of the Twelve Isles. While the Viper is committed to training Marianne to follow in his bloodthirsty footsteps, she has other ideas, refusing to kill for him and turning her attention to stories of magic from the lost Western Isles.

There’s triumph and tragedy, friendship and betrayal, fear and strength, and some gorgeous settings. I wanted to visit the Twelve Isles, and by the end of the book I felt as if I had set foot on several of them. The descriptions are intriguing, and every time Marianne steps onto land the reader can feel the sun, smell the flowers, or wince at the sharp rocks underfoot. The descriptions of the ocean are just as vivid, evoking a sailor’s respect for the power of the sea.

Strong friendships and stronger betrayals are a theme of the book, as the loyalties of the Viper’s crew are tested, and Marianne uncovers her father’s plans for her future. A romantic subplot brings plenty of surprises, with the relationships developing in unexpected ways. The main characters are sympathetic and interesting, and the story is relentless, pushing through danger and nail-biting action to a satisfying conclusion.

This is an effective piece of escapism, which draws the reader into the world of the Twelve Isles, and sets everything up for the rest of the trilogy. I loved seeing the world through Marianne’s eyes, and I can’t wait for Book Two!

  1. Erinsmore – Julia Blake (Bury St Edmunds Indie Author, YA)

A Narnia-inspired Portal Fantasy, ‘Erinsmore’ follows two sisters as they unwittingly cross into the land of Erinsmore on their way home from a family holiday in Cornwall. Arthurian legends and modern-day teenagers clash as the sisters uncover the history of the world they stumbled into – and the one they left behind. Drawn into the battle to save Erinsmore, the sisters discover a prophecy that places them front and centre of the fight, while hinting at a tragic outcome.

The teenagers rise to the challenge, learning to fight, and discovering abilities connected with the magic at the heart of Erinsmore. There’s a bumpy romance, a whole lot of bravery, and enough nail-biting action to keep the pages turning. The descriptions of medieval-style wild forests and rambling castles are sumptuous and inviting. The enemies are genuinely terrifying, and the battle scenes throw the characters – and the reader – into the heart of the action.

The characters feel real and relatable, and the dangers they face feel truly threatening. Ruby, the younger sister, is fascinated by Arthurian legends, and her enthusiasm to learn more about Erinsmore is infectious. She is delighted by the links between the legends she knows so well, and the world in which she finds herself. Cassie is older, and much less impressed about leaving the world she knows, but her determination to protect her sister overcomes her reluctance to fit in. Her relationships, with Ruby and with the people they meet, inspire her to learn to fight, to prove herself, and to defend her sister and her friends.

While Ruby brings people together, constantly finding connections and figuring out the politics of the royal court, Cassie becomes her protector and armed guard. When the prophecy puts them in danger, they must work together and combine their skills to save each other – and save Erinsmore.

This is an exciting story with vivid settings, interesting, rounded characters, and edge-of-the-seat action. Oh – and did I mention dragons?

  1. Agency – Willian Gibson

It’s been six years since I read ‘The Peripheral’, but ‘Agency’, the second book in Gibson’s latest series, felt significantly more relatable, more relevant, and less opaque than the the first. It’s a clever, intense, and gripping read, combining Gibsonian ideas from the Sprawl series, the Bridge series, and the Blue Ant books: artificial intelligence, hackers, hustlers, criminals, powerful corporations, and high-tech back-room manufacturing, as well as the multiverse scenario first pitched in ‘The Peripheral’.

Verity Jane, a sofa-surfing tech consultant in 2017 San Francisco, is hired to assess a new product, and soon finds herself attracting the attention of some dangerous people. But Verity’s timeline, where Clinton won the 2016 election and the UK voted to remain in the EU, is a ‘stub’ – an alternate history created by interference from the future. In a future London, powerful people with the ability to manipulate these alternate timelines are drawn into Verity’s story.

The writing is beautiful – dense, cool, pared-back, and full of brands, local texture, and hints at a wider society quietly running itself beyond the reach of the pages. The chapters are short, alternating between Verity’s California and the future London, with its invisible flying cars, body modification, and everyday robots. The characters – some of whom featured in ‘The Peripheral’ – are variously accepting of the situation, terrified of the consequences, or happy to wield heavy weaponry to protect the protagonist and her product.

It’s a novel that rewards concentrated reading. I read it over a weekend, sitting in the garden in the sunshine, where it provided a welcome, intense break from isolation and lockdown. The constant changes in location and perspective feel exhausting at first, but prove to be a clever trick, allowing the reader to follow all the threads of the story without losing touch with the action.

The density of information, particularly in the first few pages, is typical of Gibson. Don’t expect infodumps or a clear introduction to the scenarios of the story – instead, have faith that the world beyond the pages exists, and that the author will guide you through it, illumitaing a wall mural here and a TV screen there to drop in the information you need, as you need it. This, it turns out, is also a good descrition of the protagonist’s journey through the book. Verity acts as a proxy for the reader, learning her role and her importance as the plot progresses, and making decisions over who to trust, and when, along with her audience.

Finishing the book, I felt, like Verity, that I had been taken by the hand and led through the twists, only knowing what I needed to know, but confident in the existence of a world just out of view.

And I realised that I need to re-read ‘The Peripheral’.

  1. A Heart So Fierce and Broken – Brigid Kemmerer (YA)

I enjoyed ‘A Curse So Dark and Lonely’, the first book in the Cursebreakers trilogy, but I loved ‘A Heart So Fierce and Broken’. This is the middle book of a trilogy – a notoriously difficult book to write – and it is more compelling, more interesting, and less predictable than the first.

The first book explored the story of Beauty and the Beast, following Prince Rhen of Emberfall; Grey, the Commander of the Royal Guard; and Harper, the girl Grey kidnaps from Washington DC in an attempt to break the curse. It was an intense story, centred on Harper, Rhen, and the royal palace, and constrained by its fairytale inspiration. The second book leaves the expectations and conventions of the fairytale behind, and explodes onto the page with new point-of-view characters, new settings, and hook that takes the story in an exciting new direction.

Maybe it’s because fantasy isn’t my favourite genre, or perhaps it’s the in-depth insight into the wider world of Emberfall and Syhl Shallow, but I found myself drawn into this book from the beginning. There’s less of a reliance on magic and curses, and more on the mistakes the characters make, and their tangled motivations and allegiances. It’s a political story instead of a fairytale, and I loved every twist and turn of the plot.

Most of the story is told through the eyes of Grey, who stood with Rhen through the years of his curse, and Lia Mara, daughter of the queen of Syhl Shallow. Syhl Shallow needs to conquer or ally with Emberfall, and the threat of invasion hangs over all the characters – royal families, soldiers, and citizens. The stakes are high, the fear feels real, and small actions have devastating consequences.

I loved seeing Emberfall and Syhl Shallow from Grey’s point of view. His familiarity with his own country is contrasted strongly with his impressions of its neighbour – its buildings, its people, and its queen. Lia Mara’s chapters give the reader a refreshing outsider’s view of Grey and some of the other characters from the first book, helping to build them into rounded, relatable people. The world is carefully described, highlighting the differences and similarities between Syhl Shallow and Emberfall, and between the palaces and streets in both countries.

It is a joy to follow the characters as they try to to negotiate and manipulate for the outcomes they need. There are strong themes of duty, family, and friendship running through the book, and the story works best when these threads collide. The twists of the plot ensure that this happens often, pitching characters, siblings, and rulers against each other, each one working for their own version of a greater good.

This is a clever book, with a shocking and engaging finale, followed by a tantalizing setup for the third instalment in the series. I can’t believe I have to wait until January to find out how this ends!

  1. Internment – Samira Ahmed (YABC)

Layla is a typical American teenager, sneaking out of the house to meet her boyfriend, and finding time to complete her homework. But Layla is a Muslim, and in her America, the President didn’t stop at banning people from certain Muslim-majority countries from entering the USA. Her father has lost his job as a university professor, her mother’s chiropractic clinic is running out of patients, and since ticking the ‘Muslim’ box on the national census, the family is on a government registry. Layla’s life is turned upside down when she and her parents are given ten minutes to pack and leave their home, and taken to an internment camp with other Muslim Americans.

While her parents decide to follow the rules and keep the family safe, Layla is outraged at her imprisonment in the camp. She and her friends are determined to fight back, and use social media and reporters to highlight their internment. Her frustration at her parents’ acceptance of the camp, and their fears that her activism will have consequences, pit them against one another when they need each other most.

But Layla’s actions and protests are dangerous, and the consequences are severe. She needs support from her friends inside the camp, and her boyfriend outside the camp, to make sure her internment makes it onto the national news. But Layla is nearly eighteen, and with adult protesters disappearing from the camp, she needs to attract the attention of the media before someone makes her disappear.

‘Internment’ tells an incredibly relevant and powerful story. The author describes the events as happening ‘fifteen minutes’ in the future, and points out that camps like these are already operating in the US for immigrants and immigrant children detained at the Mexican border. With Trump’s Muslim travel ban still in place, this level of discrimination does not feel too far-fetched, and that makes this book a terrifying glimpse into a very possible future.

Layla starts out as a risk-taking teenager, meeting her Jewish boyfriend after the curfew imposed to control protests against the government. When she finds herself being taken from her home, her journey into activism and resistance begins. Layla is a relatable protagonist, and her anger and frustration is entirely appropriate to the extreme events of the first few chapters. Her relationship with her parents is wonderful – her mother’s anger at her rash decisions is always tempered by her father’s calm words, and it is evident that their anger is driven by fear that something will happen to their daughter. Their decision to follow rules and not make trouble is entirely based on keeping Layla safe.

Layla makes friends in the camp, and between them they find ways to peacefully protest their internment. Their actions are inspiring – they use resistance instead of violence, and they find clever ways to avoid the constant surveillance. Their use of social media is inspired (and very, very brave), and their determination to stand together while the Camp Director tries to divide them along ethnic lines is wonderful.

This is an uncomfortable and uplifting story. Layla and her friends are inspiring protagonists, but life in the camp isn’t fair, and they are not protected from the consequences of their actions. The author references the internment of Japanese Americans during the Second World War, and models the camp on the Japanese-American experience, as well as on the model concentration camp established by the Nazis at Theresienstadt. Nothing in the book feels impossible, and while Muslim Americans are not subject to internment today, the author makes us feel as if it could happen, and soon.

‘Internment’ is a political story with a strong message and an inspiring protagonist. It is not a comfortable read, but it is relevant and frightening. It is a warning, and a call to arms to resist discrimination, to notice what is happening around you, and to stand together with neighbours of all colours and faiths. Highly recommended.

  1. Venom – Bex Hogan (YA)

Marianne, the Viper, is married to Prince Torin, but after the wedding, nothing goes according to plan. Marianne finds herself on the run, finding enemies she didn’t know she had, and discovering which of her friends she can trust.

The sequel to ‘Viper’ begins with a beautiful wedding, but just when you think the story is about to take a break, and give the characters a chance to reflect, the action kicks off and doesn’t let up. Marianne is in trouble, relying on friends and strangers to keep her safe while she finds out more about the Western Isles, and the magic she spent time researching in book one. The temptation to learn more takes her back to the West, where her competing loyalties lead her into danger – and to some surprising discoveries.

There is plenty of action in ‘Venom’, and plenty of excitement. Marianne encounters politics, power, and temptation, along with friendship, and fear for the people she loves. Every decision she makes brings heavy consequences – and without a clear plan she makes mistakes, and hurts the people she hoped to help. She’s still a strong protagonist, but this is an emotional journey through deception, myth, and the loyalty of friends.

To say that the book ends on a cliffhanger would be an understatement. When you turn the final page, you’ll need comfort food, and a plan to survive until the release of book three in April 2021!

I can’t wait …

  1. Lies Sleeping – Ben Aaronovitch

Another installment in the ‘Rivers of London’ series. An old adversary makes a destructive appearance, and an old friend might hold the key to defeating him. I’m becoming positively boring on the subject of this series, how much I’m enjoying it, and how much I love modern-day London as a setting for urban fantasy. Peter Grant, our magic-wielding police-officer protagonist continues to be honourable, snarky, geeky, and clever, while making enough mistakes to keep the plot from being predictable. The supporting characters – deities, spirits, fellow practitioners of magic, police officers, and various categories of the fae – continue to be interesting, unpredictable, believable, and relatable, whether or not their motives and goals coincide with those of the wizards of the Metropolitan Police.

There’s just enough real London, just enough magic, and just enough police procedural action to keep the books both grounded in reality and magically exciting. The geeky jokes, architectural snark, and clever plotting I’ve come to expect from the series are all here, along with beautiful worldbuilding, inspiring glimpses of the history of London, and an entirely believable system of magic. Plus this is my signed copy from YALC last year, so it’s about time I read it. 🙂

  1. On Writing – Stephen King

Huge thanks to Joe for lending me the definitive writer’s memoir! I wasn’t sure what to expect from this book. I haven’t read much Stephen King, and other than various quotes and memes online I didn’t know what King’s writing philosophy might look like.

I was pleasantly surprised. The first part of the book delves into some of the author’s formative memories – childhood events and people, early experiences of writing, and the process of learning the craft. This was interesting as a scene-setting device, but also as an introduction to the way the author sees the world. Science Fiction, and various Golden Age authors, are listed as specific influences. Ray Bradbury gets a name check, which always makes me happy. The process of writing, submitting stories, failing, trying again, and improving is clearly and sympathetically described. By the time King makes his first novel sale (‘Carrie’), the reader is thoroughly on his side.

The second part of the book deals with the craft of writing, and King’s approach to his work. This was fascinating. He describes the writer’s tool box (vocabulary, grammar, style), and how to use the tools to create sentences, paragraphs, essays, and books. He talks about reading, and how reading other people’s work (good and bad) is essential for writers. And he talks about story in a way that made me smile. I have often tried to describe the process of writing as being more like carving a sculpture from rock than building a model out of clay. The story is already there – what I am doing in writing it down is finding it. King describes stories as buried fossils – already fully formed, and waiting to be discovered. The process of writing is the process of digging the fossil out of the ground. He recommends digging gently, and allowing the story to lead the way. Imposing a strong authorial plot onto the story is like digging up a fragile fossil using a jackhammer. The main elements will be there at the end, but what made the story detailed and interesting will be lost. He and I are in complete agreement.

The final section of the book is an account of King’s serious injuries and recovery following an accident in 1999. On his daily walk, the author was hit by an out-of-control van. He suffered extensive injuries, and considers himself lucky to have survived. His account is the kind of first-person vivid narrative that I aspire to write – complete with memory lapses, and detailed sensory descriptions that put the reader inside his skin as he lies in a ditch waiting for an ambulance, or on a helicopter flight between hospitals. The immediacy of the account, his frustration with what was happening, and the lack of a continuous memory of the events moved me to tears.

There’s a reason this book is regarded as the one book on writing you should absolutely read if you have any interest in the craft. It’s an amazing insight into the life, discipline, and approach of someone who knows how to tell a story, how to keep working and improving, and how writing can genuinely give the writer a reason to live. I need to buy my own copy!

  1. A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder – Holly Jackson (YABC)

This was a fun read! A Cambridge-bound A-grade student chooses a local news story as the subject of her final school project. For five years, the residents of her small town have believed that a missing local girl was murdered by one of her classmates. The murderer was found dead a few days after her disappearance, so no one was ever put on trial, but it is common knowledge that Sal killed Andie, and no one questions the official account.

When Pip decides to investigate the deaths, she sets out to prove her theory that Sal is innocent, and that the murderer is still in town, hiding behind the accepted story. Despite warnings from her teachers, she approaches friends of the victim and the suspect, and discovers a complex web of deceit connecting an unlikely list of local residents. Before long, Pip is receiving threatening notes. Someone on her list wants to stop her investigation, confirming her theory and pushing her further into danger.

This is an exciting murder mystery story. The clues are in the text, but as each piece of evidence is revealed, the list of suspects keeps growing. Alibis unravel, chance encounters lead to important discoveries, and Pip takes greater and greater risks in her quest to uncover the truth.

Pip is an engaging protagonist. She’s clever enough to ask the right questions, spot the connections in the evidence, and cover her tracks. She’s also brave enough to keep investigating, even when the threats begin, and her bravery leads her into dangerous situations. Her friends are supportive, and even when they don’t know the details of her investigations, they’re on her side. There’s a fascinating cast of characters, from Pip’s supportive parents to the nastiest suspects, and the plot kept me guessing until the end.

If you enjoy the book, there is a sequel, and it’s definitely on my reading list!

  1. The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes – Suzanne Collins (YA)

A new Hunger Games book was always going to be high on my list, and I pre-ordered this from Waterstones to make sure I had it on publication day! I didn’t know much about it in advance, and I jumped into the story of the tenth Hunger Games without knowing what to expect.

It’s not as fast-paced as the Hunger Games trilogy, but the pace fits the theme of the book. ‘The Ballard of Songbirds and Snakes’ is told from the point of view of the teenaged Coriolanus Snow, later president of Panem. This book finds him in his final year of school, keeping up with assignments and trying to stay on the right side of the teachers who will decide his future. When he is offered the chance to act as a mentor to one of the tributes in the Hunger Games, he sees an opportunity to make his name.

This prequel to the trilogy fleshes out Snow’s backstory, and gives the reader an insight into the uncompromising character we know from the original books. Some aspects of his life are surprising, but everything that happens in the book adds context to his future career, and his political views. My copy includes an interview with the author, in which she explains the various political philosophies that shape the story. It is Snow’s philosophical education that forms the core of the book, with various teachers and friends representing different ways of thinking about human nature, power, and society. His exposure to these views, the conflict he feels, and his eventual alignment, are the point of the story.

But it’s not all conversation and philosophy. There’s plenty of personal danger, friendship, tragedy, scheming, and betrayal, and some heart-pounding moments that put the reader in the centre of the action. Snow is by no means a perfect student, a perfect friend, or a perfect mentor, and some of his decisions have dramatic, unexpected outcomes. The stakes are high throughout the book, and Snow’s determination to survive is the force that drives the story and the plot twists.

‘The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes’ is not what I was expecting, but I enjoyed it. It offers an insight into the antagonist of the Hunger Games trilogy without making him entirely likeable, or letting him off the hook for the decisions he makes. It’s an interesting addition to the series, and it made me want to pick up the other books again. Definitely worth a read – but make sure you’ve read the Hunger Games trilogy first.

  1. The Short Knife – Elen Caldicott (YA)

This is a fascinating book. The story is set in AD454-455. Britain has been deserted by the Roman Empire, and invaded by Saxons. Mai’s father tells stories about the Roman soldiers who kept the British people safe, and about the towns they left behind, but Mai’s world is different. There is danger in the towns, and danger from the Saxon invaders. Mai learns the power of the invaders when an encounter with three Saxon men changes her life, and the lives of her family, forever.

This is a story about family and community – love, betrayal, and the importance of the family you build for yourself. It’s a story about living with fear – fear of an occupying force, and of the chaos left behind when they leave. It’s a story about finding the strength to fight when it feels as if things can’t get any worse. It’s a story about choices and consequences, and learning to take control of a life where other people hold the power.

It’s also a story about language and identity, and the significance of speaking your mother tongue when your language is forbidden. The author weaves Welsh words and turns of phrase into the narrative, giving the reader a sense of the beauty of Mai’s mother tongue, and the sense of loss when she is expected to use Saxon words instead. It also creates a sense of difference, of history, and of place. This isn’t a modern-day novel. Mai’s world is Roman, Saxon, and British. Her concerns are those of a farmer’s daughter – how to trade their produce, how to store food for the winter, and how to stay alive when the world turns wild.

Mai is a strong, willful, engaging protagonist. She’s young, she makes mistakes, and she understands the limits of her power. The story follows her as she finds the strength to survive again and again as the world changes around her. Her narration is beautiful, with moments of poetry and pin-sharp descriptions of people, settings, and feelings.

There are some uncomfortable elements to the story, but they are entirely in keeping with the lawless, chaotic setting. The shocking events add to the feeling of difference and alienation – this is a historical novel, and historical rules apply to the characters and their experiences. At times the action reminded me of postapocalyptic dystopian stories, but in Mai’s world there is no hope of rebuilding society, or restoring the comforts readers will take for granted. Mai and her fellow Britons have lost their place in the Roman Empire. There is no expectation that they will be able to recreate the luxuries of Rome, and there is no modern technology to aspire to. The author is successful in transporting the reader into Mai’s home, and giving context to her experiences and decisions.

I grew up in a town built on Roman ruins, and I have always been interested life in Roman Britain. This book shows the aftermath and the ruins. It gives an unusual glimpse into the lives of the people left behind, while addressing modern concerns of identity, oppression, and cultural expression. It’s a historical novel with highly contemporary themes, and it’s not afraid to examine the darker side of our common humanity.

  1. Utterly Roasted – Pauline Manders (Bury St Edmunds Indie Author)

This is my first venture into my fellow Bury St Edmunds Indie Author’s Suffolk-set crime novels, and I really enjoyed the ride! ‘Utterly Roasted’ is the eighth book in the Utterly crime series. It features characters from previous books, but there’s no need to read the rest of the series before diving in.

This is a murder mystery, and the action begins on page one, but the book isn’t just a cold logic puzzle to be unravelled by the reader. This is so much more – warm, character-led, and thoroughly embedded in the Suffolk countryside. I enjoyed getting to know the characters – Chrissie, the amateur sleuth; her husband, the police detective; and Nick and Matt, her friends from the Utterly Academy – as they are drawn into the murder investigation.

The author makes the most of her local knowledge, and locations across Suffolk become the settings for grizzly murders, stakeouts, and accidental discoveries. The Suffolk landscape acts as another character, bringing the story to life. It would be possible to visit most of the locations in the book, and it is clear that Pauline has done so. Beauty spots and small towns are vividly described, with one of the pivotal scenes taking place a short walk from my front door! The effect is to make the characters and the story feel real and three-dimensional.

This is a warm and engaging book, and the plot kept me guessing until the end. I’m looking forward to reading more of the Utterly series!

  1. We Are Not Yet Equal – Carol Anderson and Tonya Bolden (YABC, non-fiction)

For our first non-fiction book-club read, we chose the YA adaptation of ‘White Rage’ by Carol Anderson. ‘We Are Not Yet Equal’ takes Anderson’s interpretation of the causes of systemic racism in the USA and makes it accessible to a teenage audience – and to anyone who has not taken an American high-school history class. Historical events are described in the context of racial inequalities, illuminating her theory that racism is the result of white rage at black progress in the US.

It’s a heartbreaking book. Resistance to the end of slavery in 1865, particularly in the southern states, led to a backlash against black communities that continues in various forms today. Some of the examples of systemic racism are focused on the former confederate states, but many take place at a national level. The authors describe an embarrassing number of opportunitites for equality that were wasted by the federal government as it tried to rebuild the union after the civil war. Throughout the twentieth century opportunities to counteract the legacy of slavery were missed, and Anderson and Bolden share a shocking number of examples of the rolling back of hard-won rights and support.

When a population is used to privilege, equality will feel like oppression. Any move towards equality will feel like an attack to the privileged class. With wealth, power, and opportunity staked in favour of white americans, moves towards equality have been successfully blocked for more than 150 years. The resulting anger and unrest in black communities has been framed as ‘black rage’, but this book demonstrates that the problem of racism is perpetuated by ‘white rage’ – anger at any progress towards equality.

It’s a difficult subject to write about, but in ‘We Are Not Yet Equal’ the authors have created a clear, age-appropriate record of the fight for equality, and the complex history of racism in the USA. They don’t shy away from documenting horrific events, but everything is explained in the context of privilege, white rage, and the effects on American society of a deep resistance to change. If you’re looking for a primer on the background to Black Lives Matter movement, this is a good place to start.

  1. Unite Me – Tahereh Mafi (YA)

This is an tiny, expensive paperback featuring two short stories that link to the first three books of the ‘Shatter Me’ series, along with the contents of Juliette’s journal. While it was interesting to read sections of the story with Warner and Adam as narrators, I didn’t think the book contributed much to the series. Juliette’s journal was interesting, but we’ve read some of it before, and most (if not all) of it features in the fourth novel in the series. I’m glad I read the short stories (‘Destroy Me’ and ‘Fracture Me’), but I was disappointed that there were no dramatic revelations from these two important characters. Juliette’s journal provided a deeper insight into her state of mind at the start of the series, but again there were no new elements for the reader. An expensive book for collectors looking to line their bookshelves with the complete series.

  1. Restore Me – Tahereh Mafi (YA)

The first book of the second trilogy in the Shatter Me series only covers a few days of action, but – wow – it’s an intense few days! Juliette is the new ruler of The Reestablishment, and she’s learning how hard it is to be a leader. Her friends have overestimated her ability to carry out diplomatic meetings with the leaders of other sectors and regions, and they are running out of time to prepare. They’ve called an international conference for all the Supreme Commanders, and the Commanders have responded by sending their children to meet Juliette before the conference begins. When secrets about Juliette, Warner, and her supporters are revealed, she finds herself fighting for her identity, her history, and her freedom – and risks losing everything she’s worked for.

This is another gripping instalment in the addictive Shatter Me series. After following Juliette’s hard-fought battles in the first three books, it is harrowing to see her progress undermined by the people around her. The other commanders and their children bring secrets and revelations that threaten to destroy everything she has achieved, and the people around her fail to give her the support she needs. The cliffhanger ending is extreme, and I’m glad I have the next book waiting on the shelf!

Juliette continues to be a fascinating protagonist, but the first-person narration is now split between Juliette and Warner. Warner’s chapters provide an interesting glimpse inside the head of another major character, but they also allow the story to divide. Juliette and Warner do not have the same information, knowledge, and experience of the other commanders, and Warner’s point of view allows the reader to understand the complex relationships that Juliette is attempting to navigate.

The Shatter Me series is an addictive literary drug, and this book doesn’t disappoint.

  1. Defy Me – Tahereh Mafi (YA)

I was pleased to discover that the sequel to ‘Restore Me’ picks up the story from the final scene of the previous book, and introduces Juliette’s best friend Kenji as a third narrator. The three viewpoints allow the complexities of the plot to be explored while the characters are in different locations, piecing together different parts of a conspiracy that threatens to tear Juliette and Warner apart.

There are revelations and discoveries about the Reesablishment, about the other Supreme Commanders, and about Juliette and her family. Both Juliette and Warner must face the truth about themselves, and about the events of the past, while fighting against the manipulations of the Reestablishment that could destroy them in the present.

The author uses her contrasting narrators to continue her story of endurance, friendship, and bravery, while constantly challenging them to trust each other, even when their allegiances are not clear. No character has an easy ride in this book – they experience torture, betrayal, and cruelty at the hands of people who should be their allies – and each narrator must make their own decisions about who to work with, and who to fight.

I’m still addicted, and I can’t wait to start the final book in the series!

  1. Find Me – Tahereh Mafi (YA)

Another tiny, expensive paperback with two short stories linked to the Shatter Me series – this time from Kenji’s point of view. ‘Shadow Me’ gives Kenji’s view of the lead-up to the dramatic events at the end of ‘Restore Me’, and unlike the previous tie-in stories, it adds depth to the series. There is character development for the narrator, and an exploration of his relationships with other characters – Castle and Warner in particular. ‘Reveal Me’ is an exciting, fast-paced piece that picks up from the final scene of ‘Defy Me’, leading into the events of the final book in the series and adding another viewpoint to the main narrative.

Kenji is an important character in the Shatter Me series, but he isn’t given a narrative voice until ‘Defy Me’. These stories provide an insight into his thoughts and feelings, and provide an external view of Juliette, Warner, and their relationship. This is a much better tie-in than ‘Unite Me’, and I enjoyed learning about the setting and the events of the series through Kenji’s eyes.

  1. Imagine Me – Tahereh Mafi (YA)

The final book in the Shatter Me series is fast paced and action packed, as expected. The narration is split between Juliette and Kenji, which allows different characters to follow different paths through the story, and again gives the reader an outsider’s view of Juliette and Warner.

It’s a longer book, and an exciting story. Things do not go well for the central characters as they fight against the Supreme Commanders and their weapons. There are defeats and losses, bargains with the enemy, and plans that fall apart with disastrous consequences. Juliette and Warner face a serious challenge to their relationship, and Juliette’s first-person narration makes the events even more heartbreaking for the reader.

In spite of its length, there are sections of the story that move too fast, and important events that feel glossed over. I would have liked to see more detail in the plot – possibly split into two books – and more narrative viewpoints to highlight the effects of the difficult events on all the characters involved.

I really enjoyed the chapters narrated by Kenji. It was interesting to see Juliette, Warner, and Castle through the eyes of their friend, and experiencing Kenji’s thoughts and feelings first hand gave a much deeper insight into an important and likeable character. His impressions of Warner provided a powerful insight into Warner’s state of mind without needing to see inside his head.

I did have issues with the climax of the plot. There was some highly dubious consent at a critical moment, explained by the plot but uncomfortable to read. The denouement relied too heavily on physical connection instead of emotion, and I felt that a central character was stripped of agency and the ability to make their own decisions too many times in the story. The epilogue opened up as many questions as it answered, and I’m hoping we’ll see another novella filling in Kenji’s side of the final scenes.

I’m uncomfortable with giving this book four stars. It should have been two books, with more detail and more emotion for the central characters, and the resolution of the story needed more heart. I didn’t hate it, but I wanted more, especially from Juliette and Warner. I’ll give it a good three stars instead, and think about how much I like Kenji as a narrator.

  1. Record of a Spaceborn Few – Becky Chambers

I loved ‘The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet’ and ‘A Closed and Common Orbit’, and the third book in the Wayfarers series did not disappoint. ‘Record of a Spaceborn Few’ begins where the first book ends, following characters on the fleet of human-crewed ships that acts as an ark for survivors of ecological collapse on Earth, and as a human ghetto in alien space.

There is a story, but it is told from six viewpoints, and each point-of-view character has their own story within the narrative. Tessa works on the Asteria, one of the ships of the Exodan fleet, juggling family and community concerns with her job on the docks. Kip is a teenager on the Asteria, frustrated with the restrictions on his life, and struggling to find his place in the fleet. Isabel is an archivist, protecting the knowledge brought on the Asteria from Earth, and documenting the lives of the humans on board, and her routine is disrupted by a visit from an alien academic, Ghuh’loloan, who wants to study the humans and their society. Eyas works as a caretaker – a funeral director for the Asteria, engaged in taking care of the dead and their families, but also in returning the bodies of the Exodans to the ecosystem of their ship. Sawyer is a new arrival, looking for work in the fleet after losing his job on a planetary settlement, and it is his story that brings the other characters together.

This is a deceptively gentle book, with sympathetic portrayals of all the characters in the story and an almost utopian vision of a society without money or individual poverty. The characters are distinctive and complex, and the reader cannot help but care about them and their stories. There is a focus throughout the book on death and dying, and on the rituals and processes that allow loved ones to grieve, and the dead to be remembered, and this forms the centre of the narrative.

As in the previous books, the author presents her characters as fully human – loved, loving, and falible. I was gripped by each of their stories, and moved to tears at least twice by the events and their reactions. The focus on death and dying did not feel heavy – Eyas is inspiring in her role as a caretaker, and takes great pride in shepherding families through the process of saying goodbye. Life, death, and rebirth feel connected in all the stories, particularly aboard the Asteria and its closed ecological system. This idea adds to the sense of community and connection between the characters, whether or not they have met.

The Wayfarers books do something I’ve never seen anywhere else. The author creates interesting, complex characters, and treats them with love. Whatever happens to them, and wherever their story goes, they feel real and three-dimensional – and they feel like friends. The stories are never twee, and never sentimental, but the reader can’t help falling in love with everyone they meet. For books set in the harsh environment of space, with the restrictions and dangers of living a breath away from hard vacuum, this humanity is surprising and captivating.

This is a stunningly human story – heartbreaking, uplifting, and wonderful. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

  1. The Black Flamingo – Dean Atta (YABC)

This is a beautiful book. Yes, it has a gorgeous cover and lovely illustrations – but the beauty is in the language, the characters, and the story.

When I picked it up I didn’t realise it was written in verse, and I wasn’t sure what to expect. The main character’s voice drew me in from the start, and the use of verse and stand-alone poems provided a powerful short cut into his emotional experiences. The descriptions, the storytelling, and the supporting characters are all handled with an extremely light touch, but the words are carefully chosen and the images and experiences are vivid and clear.

This is a book about identity – discovering and claiming the right to express who you are, while navigating the complex demands of family, friends, and the colour of your skin. With a Greek mother and a Jamaican father, Michael struggles to find his place in a world that finds him too black, not black enough, or not Greek enough. His disappointment when his mother refuses to buy him the Barbie he so desperately wants for his sixth birthday sets the scene for the story, and begins his journey of self-discovery.

It’s a quick read, but it follows Michael through school and on to university, spotlighting important events to tell his story. His experiences as a gay, mixed-race teenager are sometimes heartbreaking, and sometimes heartwarming, but all of them contribute to his need to find and define himself. When he joins the Drag Society at university, he finally has the chance to bring all his experiences and influences together, and the freedom to be fully himself.

When Michael takes to the stage as the Black Flamingo, his costume, poetry, and interaction with the audience bring together everything he has experienced, and everything he has learned. After a lifetime of finding himself defined by other people, the freedom – and the permission – to present himself in his own way feels absolutely inspiring.

The Epilogue, a poem called ‘How to Come Out as Gay’, repackages the message of the book in a few lines, reinforcing the idea that there is no right way to be yourself, and that only you can figure out who you are, and what you want to show to the world. It’s an empowering, emotional end to an empowering and emotional book. Highly recommended.

  1. To be Taught if Fortunate – Becky Chambers (Novella)

A stand-alone novella from Becky Chambers, ‘To be Taught if Fortunate’ follows the four members of the Lawki 6 expedition, exploring potentially habitable planets in the Zhenyi star system, fourteen light years from Earth. It’s a science-fiction story shot through with Chambers’ trademark humanity, heart, and a healthy sense of wonder. The characters are interesting and relatable, and their encounters with local life forms and alien landscapes are full of both professionalism and wonder. They never lose sight of the science that brought them to Zhenyi, but they are always conscious of being the first to witness the planets they survey, and their joyful interactions feel absolutely real and exciting. I’m not going to spoil the story, and I’m sure the ending will divide readers, but I will recommend the book. It has hard science, gorgeous descriptions of alien planets, challenging scenarios, and engaging characters – and uses all this as a mirror to examine the people at the heart of the story, and their humanity. I love Becky Chambers’ work, and I love the way she uses SF to explore what it means to be human. This is another great example of her deeply human, positive SF.

  1. (YA – proofreading – top secret!)

    I’ll shout from the rooftops about this one when it’s available for you all to read!
  1. Silversands – Gareth L Powell

At 158 pages this is a short novel, but it is packed with action and excitement. Travelling between the stars is an unpredictable way to make a living, especially as no one has found a way to control the system of gates that tunnel through space and link different star systems together. No one knows where they will end up, and whether they will meet friends and family again.

The Silversands colony sits three days away from one of the gates, and the arrival of a new ship in the system is always an important event. This ship has a cargo of refugees, and a crew with connections to the colonists. Their appearance sets in motion a chain of events – assassination attempts, daring escapes, AI manipulation, and the uncovering of some dangerous secrets. There are nail-biting chase scenes, an underwater city, dramatic scenery, a space ship carved from an asteroid, and a message from someone who really shouldn’t exist.

There’s a wonderful sense of place in this novel. The spacecraft have their own identities, and the water planet’s islands and oceans feel absolutely real and thrillingly exotic. I loved the underwater city, and the landscape layered with history – monuments to the past alongside connections to the space stations and ships in orbit. The story kept me guessing as the characters began to discover their connections to each other, and to a sequence of mysterious messages.

This is a short, fun read with plenty of action, intriguing characters, and settings you’ll wish you could visit.

  1. Vicious Rumer – Joshua Winning (YA)

This book should probably come with a violence warning – it begins with a torture scene, narrated by the person doing the torturing, and it’s an amazing setup for an uncompromising story and a fascinating character. I was hooked from the first line.

Rumer grew up in a series of foster homes, haunted by stories of her dead mother. She never found a place where she felt at home, and trouble seemed to follow her and everyone she cared about. When she finds herself abducted by a violent crime lord who thinks she has something of his, her instinct is to run, and ask an old friend for help. But trouble is on its way, and Rumer is about to find out a whole lot more about her mother, the crime lord, and the mysterious object that connects the three of them.

This is a tense, exciting story with real violence and real peril for the characters. There’s a hint of the supernatural, and a healthy dose of mystery surrounding Rumer’s family, and her mother’s connections to the criminal underworld. She’s an unconventional protagonist – independent, ruthless, and determined to survive, whatever and whoever comes after her. The first-person present-tense narration ensures that the reader identifies with Rumer. Even when she’s doing horrific things, we know why she’s doing them, and what has driven her to violence and desperation. It’s a hard trick to pull off, but by the author succeeds by creating a believable, intelligent, three-dimensional protagonist and making sure our sympathies are firmly with her, wherever she finds herself.

‘You’ve never met anyone like Rumer Cross’ says the blurb on the front cover – and it’s right. Essential reading.

  1. Camp – L.C. Rosen (YA)

The second YA novel from the author of ‘Jack of Hearts (and Other Parts)’ is another sex-positive story of LBGTQ teens as they negotiate life, love, and sex for the first time. Randy has been attending Camp Outland every summer for years. It’s the only place where he can be entirely himself alongside his best friends, and he loves performing in each year’s musical production.

But Randy has a problem. He’s fallen for the gorgeous Hudson, but Hudson only has eyes for straight-acting boys. Randy reinvents himself as Del, choses the sports option instead of musical theatre, and sets out to make Hudson fall for him. It’s a daring plan, and Randy’s friends are worried when they see him pretending to be someone he’s not.

In spite of all Randy’s efforts, secrets, and heartbreak, this is a feel-good novel. His relationship with his friends is just as important as his relationship with Hudson, and they are a supportive and inclusive group. Gay, lesbian, bisexual, nonbinary, and asexual teens work alongside each other to create theatrical productions, sporting events, and memories. They look out for each other, and look after each other, no matter who they are and how they present themselves to the world. Randy is a sympathetic protagonist, and the supporting characters are well drawn, believable, and distinctive.

The book tackles issues of identity, authenticity, and self-discovery in unexpected ways. It champions self-expression and finding out who you are, while sounding a note of caution about looking after yourself in the real world. Not everyone has a supportive family away from Camp Outland, and not everything that happens at camp can happen safely at home. Like ‘Jack of Hearts (and Other Parts)’, this is an inspiring story with an important message about tolerance and expression – for LBGTQ teens, and for everyone else.

  1. Everless – Sara Holland (YA)

In Sempera, time is magically bound to the blood of every person, and payment is made in the form of blood iron – days, hours, and years. The rich amass centuries of life while the poor struggle to survive, bleeding themselves to pay for rent and food. Jules and her father used to live at Everless, the grand home of one of the richest families in Sempera. Her father was the blacksmith, and she grew up playing with the sons of the Gerling family. A childhood accident led to the expulsion of the blacksmith and his daughter, and now Jules is worried that her father is bleeding himself to death to pay their debts.

When Jules disobeys her father and takes a servant job at Everless, she attempts to keep her presence a secret. But waiting on the boys she used to play with, and on the nobles who surround their family, she discovers secrets about her past that threaten her safety – and the safety of everyone she cares about.

‘Everless’ is an engaging story with a unique and gripping premise. The magical binding of time to blood forces the poor to risk running out of time with every debt they pay, while the rich can drink the time paid to them, and take risks with their lives knowing they have centuries left. Jules is an interesting character – practical, curious, and determined to find out what happened at Everless before she was forced to leave. Her relationships with her father, her childhood friends, and the other servants at Everless are sympathetic and warm. Jules cares about the people around her, and about protecting her family. She doesn’t give up, even when the secrets threaten to unravel the life she has built. She’s headstrong, too – I found myself shouting at the page when she made dangerous choices – but everything she does is rooted in her determination to discover the truth, and protect the people she cares about.

The book ends on a cliffhanger, but the sequel is waiting on my shelf.

  1. Evermore – Sara Holland (YA)

Stand back – this one’s a rant.

Where the first book of the duology was a cleverly constructed tale with a strong and determined protagonist, the concluding book is a mess. The determined young woman of the first book has become a damsel in distress, in constant need of rescue and guidance from one of her childhood friends. The antagonist, a complex character in ‘Everless’, becomes a cartoon baddie, intent on inflicting pain in the most dramatic and gratuitous ways. The plot becomes an exhausting treasure hunt, with the central characters following clues and running from place to place and new character to new character in search of a way to defeat the baddie. The new characters are never part of the story for long enough to make the reader care about them, and when they have served their purpose the protagonists move on to the next clue. It’s a breathless journey, but there is no shape or pattern to the clues or the places they visit, and no attempt to weave the discoveries into a coherent story.

By the time Jules returns to Everless for the showdown, we know who she is and how that knowledge relates to the antagonist. We know very little of their backstory, but we understand that Jules must destroy her enemy. Threats are established against characters close to Jules, and her decisions put them in greater danger – and the reader on the edge of their seat.

And then the entire backstory is revealed in the last twenty pages, including another, bigger baddie, and all the secrets that the treasure hunt could – and should – have revealed. The danger to secondary characters, so carefully set up in the preceeding pages, is never invoked, except as empty threats. The entire setup for the showdown feels hollow. Jules knows where she is going, and what to do when she gets there, but the reader has no idea what her motivations are. When she finds the magical item that will defeat her enemy, the reader has no idea why she looks in an unlikely place and finds it there. It seems that Jules has no idea – she’s acting on instinct or buried memories – and in first-person present-tense narration, the reader only has access to what the protagonist knows at any given time.

The history of the item, and reason for its location, are revealed at break-neck speed during the final scenes. The reader is asked to invest in and care about a relationship they have barely seen, and to change their perception of all the characters involved, in the space of twenty pages. Following a confusing conclusion, the epilogue feels cold and pointless, and any chemistry between the surviving characters is gone. I really, really didn’t care who lived, who died, or why.

And that’s before the simple mistakes in the manuscript. The location of the final showdown is described as being a room high up in the building, accessed by a hidden ladder and a shaft. Jules climbs the ladder, noting that the room is cold in spite of its ‘closeness to the sun’. The other character follows her up the ladder, but when the access shaft seals itself shut, it is described as leading down into the room, with light spilling through from the room above. A gift from a minor character during the story suddenly becomes something much more significant without any explanation. The big baddie is introduced briefly as a background character, and it is only in the final twenty pages that we learn who he is and what he has done.

This honestly reads like a draft of the final novel, and I was left wondering whether anyone had proof-read or edited the final section at all. The book would be much more effective if these revelations were woven into the story, perhaps with flash-forward chapters interleaved with the linear action, giving the reader time to get to know the characters in their new relationship, and to care about what really happened. As it stands, this feels lazy and insulting to the audience.

I wanted more from the Jules of the first book – strong, curious, determined, and protective of the people around her. I wanted a better conclusion to the story – more danger, more manipulation, and more investment in the central relationship. I wanted the author to explain when the unimportant gift became a magical talisman passed down through generations – and how it ended up revealing itself when Jules never narrates placing it in its significant location. I wanted the author to get the details right. It’s exhausting to be constantly thrown out of the story because a ladder suddenly leads down instead of up, or because I have to wait for an explanation for actions taken by a first-person present-tense narrator.

After ‘Everless’, this was such a disappointment, and such a waste of the story and the characters. Come on, Hodder / Hachette – you can do better than this. I can do better than this, and I don’t have an entire publishing house behind me!

  1. How It All Blew Up – Arvin Ahmadi (YA ARC)

A clever take on a coming-out story, ‘How It All Blew Up’ follows eighteen-year-old Amir as he comes to terms with his sexuality, and wonders how to tell his Iranian-American Muslim family that he’s gay. He’s very careful to hide his high-school hook ups with his maybe-boyfriend, but when another student threatens to tell his parents, Amir feels defeated by the blackmail and bullying. Running away to Rome feels like the perfect escape. He’s sure his family will reject him when they discover his secret, and in Rome he’s free to explore his identity without threats and judgement.

The clever twist is the setting for the story. Amir is explaining himself to an immigration official, following an argument with his family on their flight back to the US. His family is also being questioned in neighbouring interrogation rooms, and the events leading up to their detention are narrated by Amir, his parents, and his sister.

Amir is a sympathetic and relatable character. His fears about his family are based on comments they have made, and Amir’s decision not to tell them about his sexuality feels entirely justified. His experiences in Rome are life-affirming and beautifully described, with a cast of characters who take Amir into their social circle and teach him about life, love, and relationships. Rome becomes a character in the book, with descriptions of beautiful buildings, riverside cafes, rooftop parties, and a memorable visit to the Sistine Chapel. His new friends are older and more experienced, but with very different approaches to life and love. There are heartbreaking moments and heartwarming conversations, and in spite of the interrogation-room setting this is a feel-good book.

The story poses questions about family, tolerance, and identity without offering easy answers. Amir’s experiences in Rome give him confidence, but after the final page he still has to negotiate his life at home. There are no magic solutions and no sudden changes of heart, so the story feels real and messy – but hopeful.

This is a gripping, interesting book with a cast of wonderful characters, an engaging story, and some utterly fabulous parties.

  1. Station Eleven – Emily St. John Mandel

Oh, this book. I loved this book. Yes, it’s the story of a virus that kills most of the population of the world. Yes, post-apocalyptic fiction is one of my favourite genres, and yes, this book ticks all the boxes – the fall of civilisation, the mourning for the things lost in the plague, Shakespeare in the ruins – but it is so much more than that.

Mandel’s writing is perfect. Within a few paragraphs of meeting each of the characters, I cared about them. Whether they were living through the plague, or surviving in the aftermath, I was completely invested in what happened to them. I don’t want to spoil the book, so I won’t go into details, but it manages to be utterly heart-breaking and life-affirming and mundane and inspiring all at once. The narrative moves from character to character, and moves back and forward in time, contrasting scenes of life before the virus with the lives of the people living in the aftermath. Each revelation from before the collapse is layered into the story at exactly the right moment to evoke fear, grief, nostalgia, or joy – in the characters and the reader.

But this isn’t science fiction. The author doesn’t use cognitive estrangement or present a radical alternative to the reader’s empirical environment. Many of the chapters are set in the present day, in Toronto or Hollywood, in New York or on a beach in Malaysia. The chapters set in the future are concerned with survival, and the social impact of the end of civilisation. They are entirely accessible and relatable, whether or not you’ve read any other post-apocalyptic novels. The book doesn’t fetishise the process of survival, or the cruelty of a lawless world. The nostalgia is not sentimental, and the present-day characters have plenty of problems to distract them from the relative ease of their lives.

This is an astonishing piece of literary fiction. It is a book about people, and adaptation, and the human need for art and music. It is about communities and families, and sustaining the connections between people. It is moving and tragic and uplifting and nightmarish and wonderful. It might be my favourite book of 2020.

  1. The Secret Commonwealth (The Book of Dust Volume Two) – Philip Pullman (YA, Audiobook)

It’s a while since I listened to the audiobook of ‘La Belle Sauvage’, and I wasn’t sure what to expect from ‘The Secret Commonwealth’. The ending of ‘La Belle Sauvage’ tied in neatly with the beginning of ‘Northern Lights’, and ‘The Secret Commonwealth’ picks up Lyra’s story after the His Dark Materials trilogy.

Lyra is twenty, and studying at Oxford. Separated from Pantalaimon after the events of His Dark Materials, she finds herself increasingly at odds with her daemon. When Pan disappears, Lyra sets out to find him. The book tells the story of her journey across Europe in the shadow of a developing conflict in the Middle East, and a power struggle at the heart of the Magisterium. Malcolm Polstead, now a professor at Oxford, sets out on a journey of his own to discover more about the conflict, and about the attacks on rose gardens and rose growers in the desert. Lyra’s journey brings her into contact with refugees from the rose-growing regions, while Malcolm searches for information on the causes of the fighting.

Where ‘La Belle Sauvage’ was Malcolm’s story, ‘The Secret Commonwealth’ is Lyra’s adventure. Travelling without a daemon alienates her from the people she meets, and she relies on word-of-mouth connections to find people to help her at every stage of her journey. It’s a long, dangerous journey, and Lyra’s determination, courage, and quick thinking keep her one step ahead of disaster. She’s still an engaging character – intelligent, thoughtful, and resourceful, and while a continuous progression of trains, boats, and places of refuge could be dull in the wrong hands, Pullman manages to keep the reader’s attention. As Lyra crosses Europe, she learns more about the relationships between people and their daemons, and about people who exploit that relationship in various ways. Each stage of her journey feels more dangerous than the last, and there are some edge-of-the-seat moments towards the end of the book as she grows closer to her goal.

As in the previous books, the author creates a believable alternative world where agents of the Magisterium are to be feared, unconventional relationships between humans and daemons are viewed with revulsion, and asking questions about Dust attracts attention from dangerous people. This is an intriguing instalment in Lyra’s story, and I’m looking forward to Volume Three.

I listened to the story as an audiobook, and I’m pleased to say that Michael Sheen continues to be a fantastic narrator. He provides distinct voices for a large cast of characters, conveys the tension between Lyra’s fear and her determination, and brings a sense of drama and danger to the story. I’ll be sticking to the audiobook for Volume Three.

  1. Holes – Louis Sachar (Mid Grade)

This is one of those books I’ve been meaning to read forever, and I’m glad I did. It’s a fun book, cleverly written, with an offbeat and playful feel. The story begins with Stanley Yelnats’ arrival at Camp Green Lake, a juvenile detention centre in the middle of the Texas wilderness. He’s innocent, but the absurd events that led to his arrest ensure that no one believes him.

Camp Green Lake is supposed to build character by requiring the boys to dig holes in the dry lake bed – one large hole every day – and to report anything interesting they find. But the Warden seems very interested in everything they dig up, and Stanley begins to suspect that his hard labour has less to do with reforming his character, and more to do with finding something the Warden is searching for.

Stanley’s story is told alongside the story of his great-great-grandfather, and the stories of the people who used to live in the vanished town of Green Lake. It’s the details that make the book so much fun to read, and so clever. Some of the historical stories feel like unnecessary, whimsical asides at the start of the book, but as Stanley’s adventure develops, everything starts to drop into place. By the final pages, the reader is left with the wonderful feeling of fitting the last pieces into a jigsaw puzzle, and suddenly seeing the full picture.

It’s a beautiful puzzle of a book, with plenty of tiny moving parts that come together beautifully at the end. It mixes absurdity with engaging, well-drawn characters, a playful style, and a gorgeously detailed plot to create a wonderful reading experience. Very, very well done.

  1. Lost and Found (The Blackwood Family Saga #1) – Julia Blake (Bury St Edmunds Indie Author

Romantic thrillers are not my usual choice of reading, but this grabbed me and wouldn’t let me go. The first in a series of novels, ‘Lost and Found’ is Luke’s story, and an introduction to the siblings, half-siblings, ex-wives and widows who make up the unconventional Blackwood family. Luke’s romance is heart-warming, and perfectly balanced with the action and intrigue of the story. There’s plenty of danger, plenty of bravery, and plenty of heartache. The central characters are rounded and engaging – I loved seven-year-old Lucia, and her mischievous Aunt Isabella. Luke and Arianna have a chemistry that sparks from the page, and their heartbreaks and feelings for each other pull the reader into their story. Romantic, thrilling, and full of characters you’d like to have dinner with. I’m looking forward to Book Two!

  1. Europe in Autumn – Dave Hutchinson

The first in a series of spy novels, ‘Europe in Autumn’ combines science-fictional elements with the best of Le Carre and Deighton to tell an intriguing story of spycraft in a near-future Europe. The EU has broken up, and there are more countries, national parks, and city states declaring independence every year. It is a continent of borders, where your language, accent, and passport tie you to a particular piece of territory and history. Crossing borders becomes dangerous. Crossing without detection is a valuable skill – and a quick way to make enemies. Rudi, an Estonian chef working in Krakow, is recruited to bring information across a border. As one job leads to another, again and again across the continent, Rudi gradually uncovers a conspiracy that could change the face of Europe – and spycraft – forever.

The novel starts slowly, giving the reader time to understand the new Europe, the new countries, and the ethnic fault lines that determine who can cross particular borders. The story builds as Rudi smuggles information, packages, and people between nations, experiencing disaster and betrayal, and developing a sense for who might be paying for his services on each mission. His growing feeling that there is a pattern to his experiences leads him to the final conspiracy, and to the setup for the rest of the series.

This is a story rooted in places and cultures – in the people who belong, and the people who don’t quite fit in. Much of the action takes place in Eastern Europe, and the author’s descriptions of cities, food, and language bring a sense of reality to his fractured continent. This version of Europe feels real and possible, and the spycraft – a mixture of communist-era techniques and high-tech sci-fi toys – feels entirely feasible as a way to connect people and organisations across multiple borders. If I have a complaint, it is that the story is a little too slow, and a little too fragmented, and while the steps to uncovering the conspiracy are clear, the final discovery seems to come out of nowhere. It’s an interesting idea, and an engaging read, and I have the sequel, ‘Europe at Midnight’, waiting on the shelf.

  1. Full Disclosure – Camryn Garrett (YA)

This quiet story of a boy, a girl, and her HIV caught my eye because it offered a positive view of living with the virus. Simone is seventeen. HIV postive from birth, she has learned to take responsibility for her own health, and for the safety of the people around her. She attends her hospital checkups and her HIV support group, and takes her medication every day – all without drama. In every other way, she’s a typical high-school student with a passion for musical theatre.

The story follows Simone as she settles into her new high school, making friends and landing the job of directing the school play. She hasn’t told anyone she’s HIV positive, so when she falls for Miles, a boy in the theatre club, she has a decision to make. She was forced to leave her previous high school when someone made her status public, so this time she’s being careful. No one knows about her HIV, but she’s going to have to tell Miles if she’s serious about their relationship.

Simone is a great protagonist. She’s sensible in all the ways that matter, but she’s also brave, assertive, and happy to use fake IDs with her friends when it’s not going to put anyone in danger. She passionate about musicals, and about making the school production of ‘Rent’ as good as she possibly can. She’s well-informed about sex, and the risks associated with her HIV, and she knows she wants to have a physical relationship with Miles.

There are some wonderful supporting characters, but my favourites are Simone’s adoptive fathers. They decided to adopt an HIV-positive baby after witnessing the effects of HIV and AIDS on the gay community before the development of long-term treatments. They are always alongside her, through her medication, hospital visits, and high-school experiences, and they have an amazingly supportive relationship with their teenage daughter.

This is a small story, about Simone, Miles, and the choices they make. There’s no full-on drama, and no incident that can’t be overcome by Simone, Miles, and her parents and friends. I was expecting more drama, and more heartache – but I guess that’s the point. Being HIV positive isn’t dramatic, and it shouldn’t be the cause of drama and heartache. The author has included a comprehensive list of organisations and resources at the back of the book for readers wanting to find out more about living with HIV. Simone and Miles are great role models for readers with questions about HIV, sex, relationships, and informed consent. This is a story that uses its everyday setting to reinforce Simone’s matter-of-fact reality, and it doesn’t need drama to make its point.

  1. Harrow Lake – Kat Ellis (YABC)

I don’t normally read horror, by when I read the first couple of chapters of ‘Harrow Lake’ in the 2019 Penguin Box Set YA sampler, I was hooked. After a brief scene-setting chapter, the story begins with a shocking discovery – the narrator discovers her film-director father stabbed and bleeding in his New York office, hours before they are supposed to be moving to France. Lola is sent to stay with her grandmother in the town of Harrow Lake while her father is in hospital, and finds herself trying to make sense of the setting for his most famous film.

‘Nightjar’ is a film with a cult following. Filmed in Harrow Lake, the production was famous for the mysterious disappearance of a cameraman, and for the local actress – Lola’s mother – who went on to marry the director. Lola’s mother played the lead role in the film, but she’s been missing for years. Lola looks just like her mother, especially when she tries on the costumes from the film that she finds in her grandmother’s house. Soon after her arrival, Lola discovers that the annual ‘Nightjar’ festival is about to begin, and fans of the film will be heading to Harrow Lake for parades and events based on their favourite horror movie.

The narrator’s experiences in Harrow Lake become more creepy and unsettling, the longer she stays in town. The residents introduce her to their superstitions about the town, the woods, the caves, and her father’s film. A series of unnerving events forces Lola to question her own memory, and the sanity of the people around her.

Lola is an interesting narrator. She’s not particularly likeable – she’s the spoiled teenage daughter of a rich and famous film director. Her father keeps her out of the spotlight and expects her to follow him around the world as he makes his movies. She’s understandably curious about Harrow Lake, and about anything she can find out about her mother, but she doesn’t listen to the warnings from the residents about going into the woods, or into the caves.

There are plenty of horror elements in the story – spooky puppets and dolls, toys that belonged to Lola’s missing mother, unexplained events, and the chills that go along with exploring the setting of a horror film in the dark. It’s YA appropriate, but if you’ve watched any horror films you’ll be familiar with the ideas in the book. The creepy atmosphere is very well crafted, and there’s a constant sense of something being not quite right with the town and the people Lola meets.

There’s a great twist at the end of the book, and a punch-the-air moment as the story comes together – but it’s not quite enough to give a satisfying conclusion to Lola’s experiences. I’m giving the book three stars, because there are plenty of events that remain unexplained, and I would have liked to learn more about the strange events in Harrow Lake. I can’t help thinking that everything that happens to Lola is connected, and it was frustrating to find that these connections are not entirely explained. Horror fans will probably disagree!

  1. The Night Country – Melissa Albert (YA)

I read ‘The Hazel Wood’ in 2018, so I’ve been waiting a while to read the sequel. ‘The Hazel Wood’ is a fascinating urban fantasy, where several of the characters are stories in the fairytale world of the Hinterland, created by the controller of the world, and living out their tales over and over. Alice and Ellery cross into the Hinterland, with the help of a book of fairytales collected by Alice’s grandmother, and their presence disrupts the world, and the stories living there.

‘The Night Country’ drops the stories from the Hinterland, with their magical powers and repeated trauma, into present-day New York. Alice finds herself drawn to the other stories as they try to survive in a place without the narrative structure they were created to serve. They find ways to stay hidden, and protect each other – until someone starts murdering stories, and Alice is the most likely suspect. There’s a pattern to the murders, and if Alice can piece together the evidence she might be able to save herself – and everyone else.

I enjoyed ‘The Hazel Wood’, but I found it hard to connect with Alice as a character. I found ‘The Night Country’ much more engaging. The story is much darker, the stakes are higher, and as the plot develops there is real peril and edge-of-the-seat action. In contrast with her dream-like path through ‘The Hazel Wood’, Alice has a clear plot to follow in this book, and plenty of opportunities to make the wrong decisions – with disasterous consequences.

This is a very effective sequel to a highly unusual book, and I’m very glad I picked it up.

  1. Blanca & Roja – Anna-Marie McLemore (YA, Audiobook)

A modern-day retelling of ‘Snow White and Rose Red’, this book focuses on the relationship between sisters Blanca and Roja Del Cisne, and their attempts to break their family’s curse. Every generation of the family is destined to have two daughters, and one of them will always be taken as a teenager and turned into a swan. Other sisters have tried and failed to break the curse, but Blanca and Roja have devoted their lives to protecting each other.

The relationship between the sisters is the centre of the story. Blanca has blonde hair and paler skin, while Roja’s black/red hair and darker skin more closely represent their latina heritage. They are equally different in temperament – Blanca is the older sister, obedient and helpful, while Roja is rebellious, with a fiery temper. Blanca follows her mother, learning to cook and keep the house, while Roja follows her father, reading books from his library and staying out of the kitchen. Blanca makes friends at school, and is accepted by the popular students, while Roja is an outcast.

The sisters have a plan. They decide to become so similar that the swans, when they come, will not be able to tell them apart. They reason that, if the swans cannot choose between them, maybe they can break the curse. Roja eats sweet berries, and ties a blonde ribbon in her hair, while Blana eats bitter herbs and wears a red ribbon. Neither sister knows whether their plan will work, but they are determined to protect each other.

When a prophecy suggests that Blanca could protect herself if she wins the heart of a blue-eyed boy, the relationship between the sisters begins to fall apart. Blanca decides to use the information to protect Roja, but when she starts making decisions without consulting her sister, Roja assumes that Blanca has given up on her, and chosen to save herself. The sisters begin to work alone, trying to protect each other but without understanding each other’s motives.

I loved the relationship between Blanca and Roja, and the way they spent their lives trying to confuse the swans. I loved the way they cared for each other, and knew each other completely. When they stopped communicating, and stopped sharing their lives, I was shouting at the book.

The story is complicated by the arrival of a blue-eyed boy, and a non-binary character who is comfortable using both male and female pronouns. Both characters are trying to escape from the their families, and both find themselves drawn to the sisters as they wait for the swans. The romantic aspect of the story adds depth to the characters, but the focus is always on Blanca and Roja.

It’s an engaging story, told from four points of view in alternating chapters. Blanca, Roja, Barclay the blue-eyed boy, and non-binary Page provide different pespectives on the unfolding story as they each try to escape from the influence of their families. The sisters want to free themselves from the curse, while Barclay needs to hide from his violent cousin, and Page seeks to define his/herself away from the expectations of his/her parents. Their distinct personalities develop throughout the book, but the threat of the swans hangs over everything, and the focus is always on Blanca, Roja, and their fear of losing each other.

I enjoyed reading a book that put the relationship between sisters at the centre of the narrative. My frustration when their relationship started to fracture is a measure of my investment in their story, and while I enjoyed the interactions between the girls and their love interests, it was the sisters who kept me listening. It’s an interesting retelling, successfully combining the magical realism of the curse with the realities of modern life (a conversation about ice-cream flavours provided wonderful insights into two of the characters) while retaining the threat and the fear of the swans. Barclay’s abuse at the hands of his cousin, and Page’s search for an authentic identity, act as interesting parallels with the magical plot, anchoring the story with their real-life concerns.

I listened to the audiobook edition of ‘Blanca and Roja’. Initially, the use of four different narrators felt unecessary, but as the plot progressed, and the characters became more developed, their individual voices added depth to the experience of listening to the story. There’s a haunting quality to the narration that keeps the magical side of the book in focus, even during real-world events. It’s a very effective technique, which succeeds in bringing a complex story to life.

  1. Neutron Star – Larry Niven

I realised, during a conversation on Facebook, that I haven’t read any Niven. Yes, I have a Masters Degree in Science Fiction Studies, and yes, I have several Niven books on my shelf, but somehow he’s never made it to the top of my reading pile – until now. On Joe’s recommedation, I picked up ‘Neutron Star’ (Sphere edition, 1971), which must have been sitting in on my shelves for at least a decade, and jumped in.

And it was great! The book is a collection of short stories set the in the same universe. Humans have explored and colonised a section of the galaxy, and met a number of intriguing alien species. One of the stories, ‘The Soft Weapon’, was adapted for an episode of ‘Star Trek: The Animated Series’, ‘The Slaver Weapon’. Most of the stories feature the same protagonist, using his skills as a pilot to pay off his debts and earn a living – but his adventures never go according to plan.

Niven’s worldbuilding is impressive. All the planets have believable backstories, and all the alien races have interesting and credible characteristics that set them apart, and help to drive the plots of the stories. He has thought carefully about the art produced by a race that ‘sees’ in radar, about species so long-lived that they hardly notice their neighbours, and about functional alternative body types. He has thought about space travel, and the demands and requirements for faster-than-light propulsion. He has thought about the backstories for each character – where they grew up, the effects of different gravities on their bodies, and their preferences for urban, rural, or space-colony culture.

Remarkably, none of these aspects of the stories takes centre stage. They contribute effectively to a very strong sense of place, and they make the stories feel entirely believable, even when the action involves cat-shaped aliens or a potentially fatal close approach to a neutron star. It is evident that Niven never takes himself, or his creations, entirely seriously. There is humour in the stories, and optimism, even when the odds seem impossible to beat. It’s a great combination – a jovial storyteller weaving tales in an intricately constructed universe – and I really enjoyed the book.

Thanks, Joe! I need to read more Niven …

  1. The Poet X – Elizabeth Acevedo (YA ARC)

This is a powerful book about finding your voice in a world that wants you to be quiet, and finding your path in a family that expects you obey and conform. The story of a poet discovering the power of her words is written in verse, each section delivering a glimpse of the narrator’s life – her relationship with her mother, her rebellion against her religious upbringing, her forbidden friendship with a boy from school. The verses are raw, punching home the desperation of the unread poet, and the speaker without a voice.

Like ‘The Black Flamingo’ by Dean Atta, or ‘On the Come Up’ by Angie Thomas, this is a book about finding yourself, and finding a way to express who you are, whatever the people around you expect. Xiomara, the narrator, writes in secret about her life and her dreams. She can’t let her family know about her poems, and she has no way to share them, until her English teacher invites her to join the Poetry Club at school. She has to lie to her mother about where she is – she’s supposed to be at her confirmation class at church – but through Poetry Club she discovers spoken word, open mic nights, and performance poets. She finds her voice.

This is a book about heartbreak and recovery, about holding on and letting go, about fighting expectations and demanding to be heard. It’s about family, friendships, and fighting for the things – and the people – you love. It’s gritty and cruel and real. It’s a tough journey with an uplifting message about the power of words, and it’s an inspiring read.

  1. Black Ice – Julia Blake (Bury St Edmunds Indie Author) (YA appropriate)

Buckle up – this one’s a wild ride! Think you know the story of Snow White? Think again. This adventurous fairytale retelling begins with the attempted murder of Princess Snow, heir to the throne of House White, and builds the drama from there. Instead of seven dwarves, the protagonist’s companions are the last seven survivors of the Dwarvian people, living in secret in the Great Forest. There’s a steampunk theme to the story, but technology, and the magic that powers it, is forbidden in the Kingdom of House White – a rule enforced by the powerful Contratulum. Princess Snow is the only person standing between the Contratulum and absolute power, and she’s going to need all the help she can get to claim the throne.

The Dwarvians are engineers with magic in their blood. They are masters of forbidden technology – and they know how to build airships. Snow might stand a chance after all …

This is a fairytale with a difference: kick-ass female leads, dark family secrets, evil plots, a dose of magic, a sprinkling of romance, fabulous parties – and epic airship battles. Hold on to your corsets and goggles, and prepare to fight for House White!

  1. Deeplight – Francis Hardinge (YABC)

Fourteen-year-old orphans Hark and Jelt scrape a living on the streets of Lady’s Crave, one of the islands of The Myriad. Life on the islands used to be dominated by the gods – giant sea monsters who swallowed ships and fought each other in the surrounding waters. But the gods are dead, and their bodies yield powers beyond the imaginations of the islanders. Hunting for godware is a dangerous profession, and when Jelt convinces Hark to help him dive to search for fragments they can sell, their lives are changed forever by their discoveries.

‘Deeplight’ is a gripping adventure story, set in a world that feels real and dangerous. Hark is a believable protagonist, and it is easy to sympathise with his dilemmas. He wants to build a better life for himself, but he can’t resist being drawn again and again into his best friend’s risky schemes. Hark and Jelt have been each other’s families for so long that Hark finds it impossible to walk away, and both boys pay the price for his decisions. Add in an engaging cast of supporting characters – ageing priests, ruthless gangs, strong women, and a genius scientist with questionable morals – and you have the ingredients for a nail-biting story. Part fantasy, part dark folklore, and part atmospheric horror, the book delivers chilling revelations, surprising plot twists, and touching moments of friendship, along with a spine-tingling sense of wonder.

A highlight of the book is the treatment of its deaf characters. Loss of hearing is a common injury among the Myriad’s under-sea scavengers, and deaf islanders are honoured for their bravery. Many of the characters in the book speak using sign language, and their status means that hearing characters learn the signs in order to communicate with them. Sign language is presented as a standard method of communication, and while characters from different islands are described as having regional accents, the signs also have regional variations. The author consulted members of the National Deaf Children’s Society, and the result is a diverse, inclusive narrative where no one feels like a token character, the use of sign language is seen as a strength and an honour, and everyone is important to the story.

  1. A Court of Thorns and Roses – Sarah J Maas (YA)

Sarah J Maas is one of today’s most popular YA fantasy authors, and a favourite of my book club members, so I thought I’d better find out what the fuss is about. I picked the first book of one of her series, and quickly discovered that her YA is not for me.

Abusive relationships (because faeries don’t do things the way we do!), terrible male love interests (but they’re just misunderstood!), lies (but it’s OK, because he’s under a curse), and extremely gratuitous torture (see above, re. faeries) add too much unpleasantness to what is supposed to be a love story. The female protagonist is fairly badass to begin with (a successful hunter – who is also a misunderstood artist), turns a bit wet and stupid (embracing the misunderstood artist), and then learns how strong she can be, through the medium of gratuitous physical, mental, and emotional torture – for the amusement of the big baddie.

I found the human narrator unbelievable, unengaging, and frustratingly slow to understand what was going on around her. Various plot points meant that the faerie characters felt distant and mysterious, but without any of the attraction and fascination that the narrator reported feeling for them. For a fantasy romance with a magical setting, the story was unforgivably devoid of magic.

The lies and manipulations are particularly uncomfortable in a book written for teenage readers. The abusive relationship is idolised, and held up as an example of a wonderful love story. For plot reasons, the faerie man is unable to reciprocate the eventual adoration of the protagonist, and her sacrifice and dedication to someone who lies and manipulates her is held up as noble, and eventually rewarded.

I didn’t enjoy the story, I didn’t enjoy the love story, and I think the protagonist should have walked away in chapter one. I won’t be reading the rest of the series.

  1. Darkness, Be My Friend – John Marsden (YA)

Book Four in the Tomorrow series continues the story of seventeen-year-old Ellie and her friends as they strike back against a foreign invasion of Australia. This time they have help from the New Zealand army, but they quickly learn that their new friends can’t guarantee their success, or their safety.

I adore the Tomorrow series. I love Ellie’s narration. I love the characters, and the setting. I love the relationships between the school-friends-turned-fighters, and the way they develop through each book. I love the bravery of the teenagers, and their creativity in standing up to the people who have invaded their country, their town, and their homes.

Hiding out in the bush and launching guerrilla attacks is the only way for Ellie and her team to resist the invasion, but sneaking into their heavily guarded town, even under the cover of darkness, is far from safe. ‘Darkness, Be My Friend’ brings the group into increasingly dangerous situations, with revelations about the state of the town, the strategic importance of the airfield, and the fates of their families. Expect heart-stopping scenes, real danger, and adrenaline-pumping excitement as the teenager’s daring plans meet the reality of strangers in their homes, and enemy soldiers on the streets.

There are obvious parallels between these books and my own Battle Ground series, but I only started reading the Tomorrow series after my books had been written. I love reading John Marsden’s take on teenagers as reluctant fighters, and the characters’ practical approach to making a difference against the invading forces. There are three more books in the series, and I’m trying to decide whether I want to binge-read them all now, or save them so that I don’t have to say goodbye to Ellie too soon!

  1. Some of the Best From Tor.Com 2019 – Various authors (Short Stories)

Tor.Com’s annual collection of short stories from their SF authors. There were some interesting reads, but nothing outstanding. I particularly enjoyed ‘One/Zero’ by Kathleen Ann Goonan, ‘Skinner Box’ by Carole Johnstone, ‘The Song’ by Erinn L. Kemper, and ‘Any Way the Wind Blows’ by Seanan McGuire.

  1. The Gilded King – Josie Jaffrey (YABC – re-read)

Reviewed in 2019.

  1. Velvet Dreams – Jeff Dosser (Short Stories)

More SF short stories. This is a varied and interesting collection, and I enjoyed reading the author’s takes on transdimensional travel, nanotechnology, alien contact, political corruption, and hard SF. My favourites were ‘Zero Sum Game’ and ‘I Dream of Tomorrow’, while the short but effective ‘Secret Recipe’ made me smile.

  1. Battle Ground (Re-read)

Research for Book 7.

  1. False Flag (Re-read)

Research for Book 7.

  1. Darkest Hour (Re-read)

Research for Book 7.

  1. Fighting Back (Re-read)

Research for Book 7.

  1. Victory Day (Re-read)

Research for Book 7.

  1. Glass and Gardens: Solarpunk Summers – Various authors (Short Stories)

And I’m still reading short stories. ‘Glass and Gardens’ is my first taste of Solarpunk – positive SF stories depicting futures where technology and cultural shifts help as adapt to climate change. I had no idea what I would find, but I’m in love.

I love the positivity of stories like ‘Caught Root’ by Julia K. Patt. The narrator travels from his high-tech city to spend time in a low-tech, communist settlement, learning more about their plant-breeding project. It’s a short piece, but the place, the people, and the culture are vividly and lovingly described.

‘The Spider and the Stars’ by D.K. Mok brought another community to life, showcasing high technology alongside deep-green lifestyles, and the scientific ambitions of the protagonist. ‘Riot of the Wind and Sun’ by Jennifer Lee Rossman made me smile, with its depiction of a community coming together to make something wonderful happen, against the odds. ‘Camping with City Boy’ by Jerri Jerreat was a more bittersweet story, but I keep finding myself thinking about it, and sympathising with the narrator. I didn’t know what to expect from ‘Midsummer Night’s Heist’ by Commando Jugendstil at the start of the story, but by the end I was punching the air.

The other stories showed off some wonderful communities, and some fantastic green technologies. There’s plenty to enjoy here, and I’ll be seeking out more Solarpunk – it’s the perfect antidote to 2020 (and whatever happens next).

  1. Few Are Chosen – MT McGuire (Bury St Edmunds Indie Author, Audiobook)

This is the first book in MT McGuire’s K’Barthan series, described as ‘comedic sci fi fantasy’, and compared by many reviewers to the writing of Douglas Adams and Sir Terry Pratchett. That’s a lot to live up to, but from the very funny description of a slow-motion disaster at the start, through various adventures and intrigues, to some highly skilful scenes of personal peril that made me laugh and wince at the same time, this book delivered.

Our protagonist is the Pan of Hamgee – coward, survivor, and soon-to-be getaway driver for a gang of bank robbers. He’s the perfect choice: a skilled driver, a coward whose caution has allowed him to evade capture by the authorities for years, and someone who owes a debt to Big Merv, the gang’s notorious leader. But there’s more going on in the city of Ning Dang Po than the Pan realises, and he’s soon drawn into a much larger game of political intrigue, resistance, and survival. The humour threaded through every scene allows the author to explore the threat of living in a dictatorship, and the courage of the resistance movements, without appearing heavy-handed or preachy, and this makes for a highly engaging story.

I loved the settings in this book. From the Parrot and Screwdriver pub with its formidable Landladies, to the genuinely terrifying headquarters of Lord Vernon’s secret police, the city of Ning Dang Po feels like a character in the story. Every brick and pavement and riverbank feels real – grimy, solid, and full of potential hiding places for enemies of the protagonist. I loved every description and every close encounter with its architecture and thoroughfares.

I listened to the audiobook edition of ‘Few Are Chosen’, and I have to mention the fantastic narration. Gareth Davies does an absolutely brilliant job of bringing the story to life. His delivery is perfect for the comedic but perilous plot, and his voices for the characters are superb. I used the audiobook as a bribe to get myself to exercise, and I can safely say that this is the first book ever to make me laugh out loud (many times) while speed-walking on a treadmill. Highly recommended.

  1. Lore – Alexandra Bracken (YA ARC)

The gods of ancient Greece walking the streets of Manhattan, a seven-day Hunger-Games style fight to the death, and the descendants of Greek heroes warring against each other to harness the powers of the gods – this book has all the ingredients of a gripping urban fantasy, and I couldn’t put it down.

Lore is the last survivor of the House of Perseus. She’s opted out of the fighting between rival families, and she’s trying to live a normal life in present-day New York City. But Zeus is punishing the gods, sending them into the mortal world once every seven years to kill or be killed, and Lore is about to find herself dragged back into the fighting.

For one week every seven years, the gods can be killed, and their killer takes on their powers. All the families want a god on their side, so everyone is hunting, and everyone is hunted. The author doesn’t pull her punches – this is a violent book with plenty of blood and gore. The stakes are high, for the gods and the hunters, and Lore’s involvement puts her in serious danger.

She’s a great protagonist. Strong, intelligent, and fiercely protective of the family she’s built for herself. When we first meet her, she’s fighting in an illegal underground boxing match, finding the weakness in her male opponent, pushing her advantage, and playing to the crowd who are betting on the result. Her strength is physical as well as emotional, which gives her the advantage she needs. As a teenage girl surviving alone, the other houses have discounted her from the fight, and she’s going to need all her strength to prove them wrong.

She has the support of her best friend Miles, who knows nothing about her background. Add in her childhood training with the House of Achilles, a mysterious benefactor, an injured god, and the return of someone she thought was dead, and Lore’s plans to survive the week take a dangerous turn. The story unfolds alongside flashback chapters, filling in important details as necessary.

If I have a criticism, it’s that the plot isn’t always clear. Lore and her group of supporters make plans to trap gods and trick their rivals, but the story feels repetitive as plan after plan is thrown off-course by the warring factions. It’s not always clear what they are trying to achieve, and why they make their decisions. The complexity of the setup can be off-putting at times. Trying to remember which characters are allied with which families and which gods is not always easy, and while there is a list of people and their affiliations, it’s at the end of the book, so I didn’t notice until I had finished reading!

It’s an exciting, constantly moving story. I’m a fan of urban fantasy, and this ticks all the boxes: supernatural fights in recognisable New York locations, high stakes, a reluctant hero, and real danger for the characters and the residents of the city. It’s an inventive idea and an engaging story. Definitely worth a read.

  1. This Winter – Alice Oseman (YABC – Novella)

This is a sweet, emotional novella in the ‘Heartstopper’ series, following Charlie through a difficult Christmas Day. Big sister Tori, little brother Oliver, and Charlie himself narrate sections of the story, as Charlie faces his first family gathering after spending several weeks on a psychiatric ward being treated for an eating disorder. It’s a short slice-of-life narrative that gives meaningful insights into the lives of the narrators, their relationships with each other and the rest of their family, and Charlie’s relationship with boyfriend Nick. There are illustrations at key points in the story, bringing the author’s instantly recognisable artwork into the novella and reinforcing the emotional beats of the narrative. Heartbreaking and heartwarming at once, this is a short, punchy read that showcases love – between the siblings, within families, and between Charlie and Nick. A lovely addition to the series.

  1. The Girls I’ve Been – Tess Sharpe (YA ARC – publication January 21st)

Probably my favourite read of the last twelve months, this book has everything. A fast-paced, thrilling plot; interesting, engaging characters; a clever and intriguing back story for the protagonist; and some genuine, how-are-they-going-to-get-out-of-this peril.

The setup is simple. Nora is seventeen. She’s spent most of her life helping her con-artist mother to target rich criminal men in a succession of scams, but now she’s trying to live a normal life with her sister. By page two of the book she finds herself held hostage in a bank heist, along with her best friend (and ex-boyfriend) Wes, and her new girlfriend Iris. She’s used to running cons with her mother in charge, and there’s always a plan and an escape route – but there’s no plan for escaping from the bank, and nothing in place to protect the people she cares about.

The bank heist turns into a battle of wits between the men with guns, and Nora and her friends. There’s a running tally at the start of each chapter of the plans that have worked or failed, and a list of the items they’ve collected that might help them, building the tension as the story progresses. Running alongside the chapters set in the bank are flashback chapters detailing the scams Nora has taken part in, and the girls she’s had to become to con the targets.

Nora’s experiences as the smiling Rebecca, demure Samantha, religious Hayley, smart Katie, and athletic Ashley have taught her how to read other people, how to understand what they want, and how to manipulate them. They have also taught her to be brave, daring, and protective of her friends. If she can figure out what the bank raiders are looking for, maybe she can save herself and the other hostages.

There isn’t a wrong step or a weak chapter in this book. The danger keeps coming – both in the bank chapters and the flashbacks – and Nora needs all her experiences and determination to stay calm, and look for a way out. Without the flashback chapters, the bank heist would be an exciting story. Without the bank heist, Nora’s backstory would be harrowing and traumatic. Bringing the two plotlines together is a genius move, keeping the reader’s attention on Nora while the hostage situation plays out around her. Both plots are utterly gripping, and together they build Nora’s complex character, explaining who she is and how she got there.

I loved every minute of this book, and I couldn’t put it down. I’m going to be recommending it everywhere!


Wow – that’s a lot of books! Another personal best (thank you 2020, lockdown, and a sunny summer!).

Breakdown: 57 novels, 3 novellas, 2 short stories, 5 short story/novella collections, 2 non-fiction, 1 play. Of those, 9 were by members of my local author group, 3 were audiobooks, and 4 were ARCs provided by publishers in exchange for honest reviews. I’ve also read my own current works-in-progress many, many times, and I’ve included my Battle Ground Books 1-5 re-read in the totals.

Favourites? Definitely Station Eleven (#43 – Emily St. John Mandel), which manages to be a believable post-apocalyptic story, and a wonderful piece of literary fiction, and The Girls I’ve Been (#70 – Tess Sharpe), a tense, dramatic story, perfectly told. I also loved Six of Crows and Crooked Kingdom (#3/#7), and I’m currently discovering more of Leigh Bardugo’s Grishaverse novels.

Honourable mentions go to the two non-fiction books, both of which were jaw-dropping in very different ways. On Writing (#23 – Stephen King) is an inspiring book on what it takes to write, keep writing, and never give up. His account of his injury and recovery moved me to tears, and demonstrated exactly how to write an effective first-person narrative. We Are Not Yet Equal (#28 – Carol Anderson and Tonya Bolden) provided an eye-opening account of racism in the US, and a graphic demonstration of the systemic faults that perpetuate the inequalities and injustices we see today. It highlighted a clear and unequivocal process, from slavery, through decades of deliberate policies, to the Black Lives Matter movement. Genuinely, shocking, and genuinely moving. I can’t recommend it enough.

So – what’s next? I’ve kicked off 2021 by reading another YA ARC and starting Leigh Bardugo’s Shadow and Bone trilogy. I’ve got ‘Infinity Son’ (Adam Silvera), ‘Wonderland’ (Juno Dawson), ‘Bearmouth’ (Liz Hyder), ‘A Snowfall of Silver’ (Laura C Wood), ‘The White Darkness’ (Geraldine McCaughrean), and ‘The Irresistible Revolution’ (Shane Claibourne) on my TBR pile. Head back to Facebook and tell me what else I should be looking out for in 2021!