Things I read in 2021

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

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

(NA) New Adult – indicates a book for the 18-25 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

(Short story) self explanatory

(Novella) self explanatory

(Audiobook) self explanatory

(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. When The World Was Ours – Liz Kessler (YA)

(I’m not sure how to review this book, which follows three friends during the Second World War.)

A faintly disappointing novel, following three friends during the Second World War. Leo, Max, and Elsa live in Vienna, and when the book opens in 1936 they have no idea how the next few years will change their lives and their relationships. Leo and Elsa come from Jewish families, while Max’s father is a high-ranking Nazi officer. The book guides the reader through the slow process of dehumanisation of the Jewish characters, alongside an ordinary boy’s journey into fascism. There’s nothing new here if you’ve seen ‘Schindler’s List’ and read around the subject, and I was disappointed that I didn’t feel more connected to these characters as they grew up, and grew apart.

The protagonists are nine years old at the beginning of the novel, and Leo and Elsa’s first-person narration understandably feels more like a mid-grade story than a YA novel. I hoped that their voices would change and develop as the story moved through the next nine years, but the language remained at the mid-grade level even while describing the horrors of the Holocaust. It is an odd juxtaposition, reading graphic scenes about concentration camps and the Hitler Youth, spelled out with such simple words. It might help some readers to identify with the characters, and keep them connected to the three happy children from the first chapter, but I found it alienating and lacking in emotional impact. Leo’s story is based on a real-life event, which I found genuinely moving when the author explained this at the start of the book. However, when this was translated into a fictional setting, I couldn’t connect with the characters at all.

It is possible that this approach will work well for a YA audience coming to the subject for the first time. The characters feel young throughout the story, even when terrible things are happening, which gives them an innocence and a connection to younger readers that I may have missed. The book doesn’t shy away from showing the inhumanity of the Nazi regime – there is a content warning at the start – and maybe this is the right way to tell these stories. Knowing the subject of the book, I wanted to be moved. I wanted to feel something for the characters, and understand how it felt to have their lives transformed over such a short time. I was disappointed, but I can see that for a younger audience this could be a very powerful read.

  1. Shadow and Bone – Leigh Bardugo (YABC)

We chose this novel to read for Book Club because the Netflix adaptation is coming to our screens in April, and we wanted to read the book before watching the series. This is the first of Leigh Bardugo’s Grishaverse novels, and having read ‘Six of Crows’ and ‘Crooked Kingdom’ last year, I was eager to go back and see how the story began.

The Six of Crows duology felt more grown-up than ‘Shadow and Bone’. Where ‘Six of Crows’ features members of a criminal gang, the main characters in ‘Shadow and Bone’ are younger and much more innocent. Alina, the narrator, and Mal, her best friend, are orphans. They grew up together under the care of a duke and his family, and both joined the army as young adults – Alina as a map maker, and Mal as a tracker. In the first chapter, we discover that there are two levels of military service. The First Army employs ordinary people like Alina and Mal, and the Second Army is made up of the Grisha – people with magical powers who can manipulate matter, summon the elements, and heal or harm the people around them. While Alina and Mal live as ordinary soldiers, the Grisha live like royalty, even while marching with the First Army.

A deadly encounter with dark magic brings Alina and Mal to the attention of the Darkling, a powerful Grisha and commander of the Second Army. As Alina learns more about herself, and about Grisha powers, she must decide where her loyalties lie. With Mal, the Darkling, and the Grisha she meets all competing for her attention and affection, she has to learn quickly how to navigate her new life without losing herself.

There’s plenty of excitement, danger, and political intrigue in the story, which provides a colourful introduction to the Grishaverse. The system of magic is consistent and interesting, with practitioners perfecting their skills in a single discipline, and working together to accomplish larger tasks. There’s a price for pushing the limits of Grisha powers, and for using power for personal gain. The settings for the story are well drawn and believeable – the cities feel busy and real, and as the characters travel the roads and mountains of Ravka the reader can feel the ground under their feet and appreciate the scenery around them.

Alina is an interesting narrator. She thinks of herself as plain and ordinary – she’s not even a particularly good map-maker. She was tested for Grisha power as a child and rejected, so she knows she is not worthy to be part of the Second Army. Her insecurity follows her through the story, and she constantly rejects any suggestion that she might be valuable or special – a belief that brings her into conflict with the people around her. It’s frustrating at times, but her ever-present imposter syndrome also makes her easy to relate to. Her relationship with Mal develops through the book as they discover more about their feelings for each other, but their history and the events of the story throw up constant obstacles to their happiness. Both characters feel real and complex, and it is easy to care about what happens to them.

This is an exciting introduction to the Grishaverse, and an interesting setup for the rest of the series. I’m glad I have the second book on my shelf!

  1. Siege and Storm – Leigh Bardugo (YA)

The second book in the Shadow and Bone Trilogy picks up the story from the end of Book One, and quickly drops the characters back into trouble, and back into action.

Mal and Alina have escaped from the Darkling, the Grisha, and the Second Army, but they soon learn that they can’t stay hidden. The Darkling has plans for Alina, and allies to help him achieve his goal. To survive, Alina must find allies of her own.

This is a big story, with dangerous sea voyages, mystical creatures, lavish parties, glittering palaces, and a threat to the throne of Ravka. The world building is gorgeous – Ravka’s forests and mountains feel entirely real, alongside perilous ocean journeys and a visit to the far side of the True Sea. Alina’s character develops throughout the story as she begins to embrace her new life, but as she starts to accept her importance the barriers to her happiness become more overwhelming, and the danger she faces becomes harder to ignore.

This is an exciting story with a fast-paced and shocking conclusion. Alina’s choices become more difficult as she discovers the importance of her role in shaping the future of Ravka, and her relationship with Mal is tested by the changes in her status. She remains a relatable character, and a reluctant protagonist in her own story, but she doesn’t shy away from hard choices and painful decisions. There’s a great second-book-of-a-trilogy cliffhanger, and I’m glad I have Book Three on my shelf!

  1. Ruin and Rising – Leigh Bardugo (YA)

After the cliffhanger at the end of ‘Siege and Storm’, ‘Ruin and Rising’ begins with Alina and her allies taking the chance to stop, breathe, and regroup. The future of Ravka is far from settled, and several factions are fighting for power – and looking for Alina.

This is another big story, and another gripping adventure in the beautifully drawn landscape of Ravka. Alina and the Darkling have unfinished business, but ending the fight for the future of their country will take sacrifice, and Alina’s choices will determine what happens to everyone within its borders. There are dangerous quests, surprise plot twists, punishment, pain, and deception – alongside the teamwork, loyalty, and friendship of Alina and her supporters. The trilogy ends with several unexpected twists, but the conclusion is dramatic and hard-won.

This is a satisfying final instalment in an exciting series, and I’m thrilled that the author has written more books in the Grishaverse. ‘The King of Scars’, ‘Rule of Wolves’, ‘The Language of Thorns’ and ‘The Lives of Saints’ are all on my TBR!

  1. Fangirl – Rainbow Rowell (YA)

This is another YA novel I should have read ages ago! The setup for ‘Fangirl’ is very clever. Cath is starting her first year of university. She’s shy, socially awkward, and she’d rather stay in her room and write fan fiction than go to parties. Her twin sister Wren embraces the social side of college, and the two find themselves drifting apart.

Here’s the clever part – when she’s not completing assignments, Cath is one of the most popular authors of fan fiction for the Simon Snow books – a fictional series about a boy attending a school for magicians. She ships the main characters, changes their relationships with each other and with their fellow students – and she has thousands of fans. She’s writing her own version of the eighth and final book in the series, and she needs to post all her chapters on the fan fiction website before the official final book is published. Personal disasters, family emergencies, and college deadlines have to take second place to her creative project – but not everyone appreciates her devotion to Simon and Baz. ‘Fangirl’, and the extracts from Cath’s fan fiction included on the book, proved so popular that Rainbow Rowell went on to write full versions of Cath’s fan novels – ‘Carry On’ and ‘Wayward Son’. It was fun to read the novel that started the series, and produced addictive fan fiction for books that don’t exist.

Just as the fictional fan fiction plays games with the reader’s expectations, ‘Fangirl’ takes its characters in some unexpected directions. A story that could have followed a straightforward ‘shy girl writes books, makes mistakes with boys’ plot instead explores friendships, exploitative relationships, unconventional families, addiction, mental illness, and a wonderful moment of revenge. Definitely not what I was expecting, ‘Fangirl’ plays with YA tropes, fandom, and storytelling to produce an emotional story, and – accidentally – an entirely new fandom. Carry on, Simon and Baz!

  1. Tales From The Hinterland – Melissa Albert (YA)

Melissa Albert’s ‘The Hazel Wood’ and the sequel ‘The Night Country’ feature a world where fairytale characters are trapped in their stories, living out their plotlines over and over. The stories are collected by Althea Proserpine, the grandmother of the protagonist, into a book called ‘Tales From the Hinterland’, filled with twisted, dark plots and fascinating characters. Readers of ‘The Hazel Wood’ and ‘The Night Country’ hear about the characters in the stories, but never see the contents of the book – until now.

This is Althea Proserpine’s book. Twelve new fairy tales with all the raw edges, cruelty, and darkness intact – no Disney princesses here. Love, death, revenge, terrible mistakes and fairytale justice combine to give shape to the Hinterland and its residents. Most of the stories have female protagonists, and many dwell on the expectations and realities of marriage and parenthood, and the determination of the characters to overturn these expectations. The stories are at times dreamlike, beautiful, and unflinchingly horrific – dark, twisted, and deeply satisfying. Stand-out stories were ‘Hansa the Traveler’, ‘Ilsa Waits’, and ‘Twice-Killed Katherine’. If you’ve read ‘The Hazel Wood’ and ‘The Night Country’, reading this book is like meeting old friends, and discovering who they really are.

  1. Exmasdays in the Povertime – Philip Purser-Hallard (Short story)

Philip Purser-Hallard’s Christmas short story is the bite-sized post-scarcity utopia we all needed at the end of 2020. A fierce critique of capitalism wrapped in an friendly Christmas Eve conversation with a child. Nicely done.

  1. The White Darkness – Geraldine McCaughrean (YA)

What can I say about this book? Right from the start, the author casts a spell and draws the reader in. As the story develops, and an ordinary British schoolgirl finds herself on an increasingly strange trip to Antarctica, everything that happens feels entirely real, and absolutely possible. It’s an amazing achievement, given the extreme events of the story. The first-person narrative is immersive and convincing, and Sym’s level-headed storytelling keeps the reader hooked and entirely accepting of all the plot’s twists and surprises.

We also fear for Sym’s safety, as the uncle who brings her to the Antarctic becomes more and more obsessed with proving an unlikely scientific theory. As they travel together Sym begins to question his motives, and his role in her family’s story. As the conditions around her grow more extreme, Sym remains grounded and reliable, taking everything that happens in her stride however dangerous her surroundings become.

Sym has a secret, and it is the key to the book. She’s deaf, but she hears the voice of Captain Oates in her head – Titus Oates of ‘I am just going outside and I may be some time’ fame. Her narration is full of conversations with the long-dead explorer, and their relationship is wonderful – warm, truthful, and frequently heartbreaking as he reminds her of his death in an Antarctic blizzard.

I can’t do this book justice in a short review. It is a wonderful, magical story told by a down-to-earth narrator who speaks to a dead man in her head. It is an absurd but entirely convincing journey into the unique landscape of Antarctica. It is like nothing I have read before, and I adored it. Five stars.

  1. A Vow So Bold And Deadly – Brigid Kemmerer (YA)

I’ve been waiting for the third book in Brigid Kemmerer’s Cursebreaker trilogy, and ‘A Vow So Bold and Deadly’ did not disappoint. Following the story of Harper and Prince Rhen in the first book, and the story of Grey and Lia Mara in the second book, the third instalment pieced together chapters from all four characters to narrate the climax of the series.

War is coming to Emberfall and Syhl Shallow, with Rhen and Grey on opposite sides. The prize is the crown of Emberfall, and while both sides are willing to fight, everyone is looking for a peaceful solution. The story follows the leaders of both countries as they try and fail to make peace – between Rhen and Grey, and within their borders. Shifting loyalties, civil unrest, and futile attempts at diplomacy keep the characters and the reader guessing right to the end. It’s an exciting, engaging story, revisiting the people and relationships of the previous books, and pushing them towards a war no one wants to fight.

I don’t want to give away spoilers, but I enjoyed this exciting and fitting end to the trilogy. If you haven’t read the series, what are you waiting for? Start with ‘A Curse So Dark and Lonely’, and introduce yourself to Rhen, Grey, and Harper, and the curse they must break to survive.

  1. The Cost Of Knowing – Brittney Morris (YA – ARC)

This is difficult book to review. There are plenty of things to like about it – the characters, the ideas, the moments of joy – but there are aspects of the story that didn’t work for me.

Let’s start with the good stuff. Alex Rufus is sixteen. He lives with his Aunt Mackie and his younger brother Isaac in an upmarket neighbourhood in Chicago – the only black family on their street. After the accident that killed his parents, Alex woke up in hospital and discovered that everything he touched gave him a vision of something that would happen to that object in the future. He can’t tell anyone – they’d assume he was lying or traumatised – so he lives with the visions every day.

It’s a great idea for a story. Alex narrates his life, constantly explaining the visions he sees. While some visions are important – an unidentified man buying the ice cream shop where he works – others are a constant source of annoyance. Visions of typing in the lock code when he picks up his phone, or paying for something when he takes his card from his wallet. When he sees a vision of his younger brother’s death, he starts looking for ways to protect Isaac, and ways to spend time with him in case he can’t stop the vision from coming true.

I loved this idea, and the way the book explored the impact on Alex’s life. While seeing visions of the future sounds like a superpower, Alex comes to regard it as a curse. He has never found a way to escape the visions – whatever he does, they always come true. He is sure that Isaac is going to die, and he has a good idea when it will happen, but he feels powerless to prevent it.

Alongside this engaging story, the author gives us a wonderful cast of characters. Alex feels real and relatable, in spite of his visions. It takes a while to get to know Isaac, but the relationship between the brothers deepens as they start to spend time together. Aunt Mackie is fantastic – a real-estate agent with a million-dollar house and a seat on the neighbourhood housing association. She’s a no-nonsense guardian to the brothers, but she has a sense of humour, and it is clear that she loves the boys in her care. Talia is Alex’s girlfriend, and their relationship is strong and supportive, even though he can’t tell her about his visions. I loved getting to know the characters, and following Alex as he gets to know his brother.

I won’t spoil the story, but there are some scenes towards the end of the book as Alex spends time with Isaac that are filled with joy and excitement. I could feel the delight – Isaac in his experiences, and Alex as he watched his brother. It was an uplifting and heartwarming moment in their relationship, and as a reader I felt as if I was standing with them. I really enjoyed these scenes.

So what didn’t work for me? The story of Alex, his visions, and his brother felt big enough to fill a novel, but that’s not what the book is about. Life for two black boys in a wealthy neighbourhood has a dark side, and the book also deals with racism, violence, and the constant suspicion the boys experience, just for walking along their own street. Of course this is a story worth telling, and an issue worth writing about, but I didn’t feel that it belonged in this book. The emphasis at the beginning of the story is on the visions, and Alex’s fears for his brother. The theme of racism emerges later, and I felt as if the two stories had been forced together.

I enjoyed the book, and I liked the characters, but I felt that Alex’s experience of his visions would have been more powerful as the focus of the book – especially when the source of the visions is explained. This could have been a powerful story about seeing the future and being empowered by the past, or a powerful story about racism in America. By trying to address both themes, the books pulls its punches. It’s good where it could have been great, and I’m giving it three stars to reflect this.

  1. False Value – Ben Aaronovitch

More Ben Aaronovitch, more Rivers of London, and more Peter Grant – but this one has a twist. Peter – police officer, magical practitioner, soon-to-be father – is applying for jobs in private security. He’s hired by Silicon Valley entrepreneur Terrence Skinner at his trendy office in London – think team-building board games (yes, they play the ‘Firefly’ board game!), chill-out spaces, and free high-end food vending machines. Cue geeky references (the company is the Serious Cybernetics Corporation), genius employees, corporate espionage, and a top-secret project in a locked building that might fall into Peter’s area of expertise.

What’s not to love? More London, more magic, high-stakes bad guys, and an excuse for even more geeky references. A clever plot, an entirely believeable setting, and a heart-stopping finale. More, please!

  1. Infinity Son – Adam Silvera (YABC)

Superheroes in New York, twin brothers about to turn eighteen in a world where god-like powers often manifest on your eightenth birthday, and a war between magical factions. This book had all the ingredients for a gripping, exciting read, but sadly I just didn’t care. I don’t know what made finishing the story such a chore (it was a Book Club book, and I had to lead the discussion), but I honestly found it boring. There was plenty of action, and first-person narration from a range of characters, but I couldn’t connect with any of them. The magic system was confusing, the factions could have done with just giving each other a hug and getting on with being superheroes together, and none of the narrators seemed to have any relatable feelings. There was the jealous one and the angry one and the caring one, but beyond that they didn’t feel rounded or real. It was recommended to me by an experienced bookseller, and a couple of the book club members enjoyed it, but it wasn’t for me. I won’t be reading the rest of the series, and I won’t be posting a public review.

  1. The Binding – Bridget Collins (Audiobook)

Wow. I use audiobooks to distract me while I walk on my treadmill, and this book kept me captivated for several months. I couldn’t stop thinking about the plot and the characters, and I couldn’t wait for my next exercise session!

The book takes place in a fantasy version of 19th Century England, where books exist as a form of magic. Anyone wishing to forget a distressing memory can visit a Binder, who uses magic to bind the memory into a book, and remove it from their mind. Books are sacred and dangerous objects, containing memories that real people wanted to forget – or memories they have sold to pay debts.

Emmett is a farmer’s son, recruited at the start of the book to become a Binder’s apprentice. His master is Seredith, an old woman who treats the people who come to her with love and respect. She keeps the bound books in a vault, and protects them from the powerful men who buy and sell painful memories and read them for titilation and enjoyment. But when Emmett is sent to a new Bindery, he discovers that this trade is commonplace, and that lost memories are not as hidden as he believed.

Romance, courtship, betrayal and forbidden love shape the story, and the characters bring it to life. From Seredith’s steely protection of her books to Emmett’s attempts to do the right thing, all the characters are shaped by the restrictions of their society, and the corruption of magic. It’s a gripping story, full of twists, surprises, and emotional turmoil.

I should mention the audiobook narration by Carl Prekopp, which is outstanding. He gives every character a unique voice, and his narration is warm, sincere, and perfectly paced. Highly recommended.

  1. Embers of War – Gareth L Powell

I’m not currently writing YA, so I get to read some proper grown-up SciFi! I’ve been following Gareth Powell on Instagram for a while now, and I read his standalone novel ‘Silversands’ last year. One of my Waterstones Double Points purchases was ‘Embers of War’, the first in a BSFA award-winning space opera trilogy. I’m fussy about Space Opera – I like Iain M Banks, but I don’t get on with Alastair Reynolds – so I’m always nervous about starting a new series.

Was I right to worry? Absolutely not. ‘Embers of War’ begins with a war-ending act of genocide, and builds a strong and engaging story in the aftermath. The settings are as exotic as they are real, and the engaging plot takes shape as the action unfolds. The secret is the characters – three strong female narrators (including the sentient warship), two more badass women, and a supporting cast of interesting men, aliens, and technology. The plot is neat, tight, and unpredictable – the crash site of a civilian ship in a disputed system attracts attention from various factions and races. As the ships converge on the wreckage, people, ships, and armies threaten to double-cross and betray each other in their search for the truth behind the crash. The ending neatly moves the pieces into position for ‘Fleet of Knives’, book two in the series, and I’m definitely adding it to my TBR!

  1. The October Man – Ben Aaronovitch (Novella)

The Rivers of London series takes a mini-break in Germany, with this novella set in the Roman city of Trier. New characters, new settings, and new perspectives keep the magical investigation theme fresh, while delivering an intriguing mystery. The narrator is Tobias Winter, investigator and official magical practioner with the Complex and Diffuse Matters branch of the Federal Criminal Police. Like Peter Grant in London, he’s trained to investigate crimes of magic – in this case a gruesome death by Noble Rot – and to negotiate with the relevant spirits, ghosts, and rivers. It’s refreshing to meet a new investigating team, and new rivers, and to delve into some of the history of magic from the point of view of the German police. It’s a satisfying story, hinting at new developments in the field of magical investigation, and I hope we return to Tobias Winter’s beat in future books.

  1. A Snowfall of Silver – Laura Wood (YA)

Laura Wood’s ‘A Sky Painted Gold’ was one of my favourite books of 2018, and I’ve been looking forward to the sequel. ‘A Sky Painted Gold’ followed sixteen-year-old Lou as she made friends with the wealthy Londoners who spent the summer of 1929 in her small Cornish village. The book dealt with the culture clash between the Great-Gatsby-inspired parties and decadence of the visitors, the sleepy village, and Lou’s large and eccentric family. Lou’s experiences give her the opportunity to move to London and pursue her dream of becoming a writer, leaving her family behind. ‘A Snowfall Of Silver’ follows Lou’s younger sister Freya as, inspired by Lou, she makes her own journey to London to follow her dream of becoming an actress.

While the books share some themes and characters, ‘A Snowfall Of Silver’ is a much more energetic and fast-paced story. Eighteen-year-old Freya is an engaging narrator – she is determined where Lou was cautious, and jumps in to new situations with enthusiasm where Lou took time to consider her decisions. In her pursuit of a career on the stage, she is theatrical. She is not afraid to make demands, she holds people to their promises, and she throws herself entirely into her new life. She is determined to take advantage of every opportunity she finds for herself, and she wants to grow up, find success, and enjoy her experiences.

Her attitude makes for a gripping read. When she is offered a job as the wardrobe assistant to a touring theatre company, she wastes no time in getting to know the actors and the support staff, and heading away with them on a national tour. She dreams of joining the cast, but contents herself with becoming an essential member of the company. When both the leading lady and the understudy are unable to perform, Freya is the only logical replacement – but what will happen when she makes her first appearance in front of a paying audience?

As Freya, with all her energy and confidence, stepped onto the stage, my heart was in my mouth. As a reader, I felt as if I knew her, and I understood how important this moment was. I won’t spoil the story, but I will say that the outcome is not straightforward, and not what I was expecting. Alongside her experiences in the theatre, we follow Freya’s attempts to build relationships and fall in love. Between the possible romance and the dreamed-of stardom, Freya’s journey is full of emotional highs and disappointments (although she never lets the disappointments crush her enthusiasm).

Like ‘A Sky Painted Gold’, this story is full of moments of wonder and beauty. While Lou enjoyed incredible parties and sophisticated conversation in Cornwall, Freya immerses herself in a world of famous actors and directors, eccentric theatrical personalities, and stunning costumes. She never loses her sense of magic as the curtain rises for another performance, and she enjoys her backstage adventures as she spends time with the rest of the company. As in the first book, there are some gorgeous, unforgettable moments, including the snowstorm that traps the company in a tiny theatre where they have to stay overnight, and the candlelit dinner party they hold on the stage, dressed in exotic costumes from the storeroom. Everything is beautifully described, and Freya’s sense of wonder allows the reader to join her in experiencing the excitement, and understanding the emotional connection she feels to the stage, and to the people around her.

In creating Freya, Lou, and their family, the author deliberately set out to present siblings with contrasting temperaments and aspirations. Alice, the oldest sister, couldn’t wait to get married and start a family. Lou’s dreams of writing, encouraged by her parents, bought her to London. Freya’s dreams of performing on stage have shaped her life in Cornwall and given her the confidence to throw herself into every opportunity she can find. ‘A Sky Painted Gold’ and ‘A Snowfall Of Silver’ are shaped by their very different narrators, but they share a family resemblance. Freya’s story includes an inspiring message about following your dreams and demanding a place in the world – but it isn’t the message I was expecting. This isn’t a success story by numbers – it feels much more real and possible than a fairytale about acting. It is a book shaped by its wonderful, irrepressible narrator and her supportive family, and once again I loved it.

  1. I Know When You’re Going To Die – Michael J Bowler (YA)

Michael J Bowler’s tightly paced thriller begins with a gift. Leo is volunteering at homeless shelter, when one of the men gives him the power to see someone’s death when he looks into their eyes. The old man tells him to make wise choices, assures Leo that he’s the right person to take on this gift, and then dies, leaving Leo without guidance or advice. I would call this book ‘wholesome teen horror’ – and I realise I’m going to have to explain myself!

Leo is a shy rich kid in a school of rich students. He never looks anyone in the eye, so it takes effort to test his gift for the first time. His best friend Juan Carlos (J.C.) encourages him to look into the eyes of strangers on the street and in shops, testing his visions and trying to decide whether Leo can really see what he claims to see. The proof arrives uncomfortably quickly, and the boys must decide what to do with the information Leo has discovered. Can they stop a murder, or could getting involved be the trigger for a deadly shooting? When Leo accidentally looks into his friend’s eyes, they need to work together to uncover the circumstances of J.C.’s death, and find out whether they can prevent it.

There are plenty of twists and scares as the story progresses, and the two boys come up with a plan. With their friend Laura, fellow victim of the school bully, they piece together a way to keep J.C. safe, while setting a trap for the would-be killer. The climax of the story is exciting and scary, and with the identity of the killer in doubt, the friends must work together to protect each other and figure out who they need protection from.

So that’s the horror part – there’s a supernatural gift, genuine peril, and a haunted house – but what about the wholesome aspect of the story? Throughout the book, Leo, J.C. and Laura all demonstrate ideal behaviours, and their actions are contrasted with bullies, emotionally absent parents, a school principle who blames them for being bullied, kids who are more interested in partying than helping their community, and with the various killers and would-be killers Leo uncovers with his gift. They support each other, they defend each other from bullying, and they build strong relationships without any sexual overtones (Laura has a girlfriend, and Leo and J.C. have a strong, trusting friendship). The ending is emotional, putting their actions, and Leo’s ability, into a larger context, and there are consequences for the bad guys.

This is an exciting story. Michael J Bowler is a screenwriter as well as a novelist, and as I read the action sequences I could easily imagine them playing out on a movie screen. I loved the premise of Leo’s power, and the mysterious man who chooses him to receive it. The tension between Leo’s vision of J.C.’s death and their attempts to understand and prevent it keeps the pages turning. I enjoyed getting to know the characters, and the positive representation of young people helping their communities and giving up their time to help others. There’s a strong moral steer in this book, but it doesn’t feel preachy. The engaging story presents the relatable characters as role models without making them perfect, providing a balance with the genuinely scary elements of the book. If thrilling cinematic wholesome teen horror appeals to you, this is a great place to start!

  1. Concrete Rose – Angie Thomas (YABC)

This is Angie Thomas’s third book set in Garden Heights, and a prequel to the outstanding ‘The Hate U Give’. The story jumps back eighteen years to follow the father of the narrator of ‘The Hate U Give’ as a seventeen-year-old high-school student. He’s also a drug dealer and member of the King Lords gang, trying to help his mother pay the bills while his father is in prison. With a setup like this, Marverick’s story might sound predictable, but Angie Thomas takes the book in an unexpected direction.

Within the first couple of chapters, a DNA test reveals that Maverick’s friend’s three-month-old baby is actually his. Maverick has to grow up fast, support his child, and make responsible decisions about his life. He has to learn how to take care of a baby, and decide whether to turn his back on the gang, or reply on them for the drug money and protection his family needs.

If you’re expecting a gangland tragedy, or a morality tale, that’s not where the author takes us. Instead, she gives us the messy, real world of a seventeen year old trying to do the right thing, in a community that expects him to take on his father’s role as a leader of the King Lords. Staying in the gang is a dangerous choice, but leaving the King Lords alive is almost impossible. Maverick must navigate the responsibilities of being a father alongside his obligations to the gang.

Through the story and the actions of the characters, Angie Thomas challenges stereotypical perceptions of manhood, and what ‘being a man’ means for people like Maverick in communities like Garden Heights. Through Maverick’s decisions, she explores assumptions about strength, weakness, loyalty, and love in the context of individual lives, families, and the wider community. It’s an engaging story, with characters who feel completely real – flawed, human, and doing their best in the situations they find themselves in.

The book is written in Maverick’s distinctive voice, and the dialect of Garden Heights draws the reader into his first-person, present tense narration. It’s another clever challenge to stereotypical portrayals of black gang members – Maverick proves himself to be intelligent and caring, while telling his story in words many readers will associate with violent films and toxic masculinity.

In ‘Concrete Rose’ Angie Thomas has created a complex and engaging story, exploring the loyalties and expectations of a young black man as his life is transformed by fatherhood. She challenges readers to re-examine their expectations and prejudices, and to see her characters as people, not statistics. If you’ve read ‘The Hate U Give’, this is a wonderful insight into the character of Starr’s father, and how he earned his place in the community of Garden Heights. It’s a challenging and rewarding read.

  1. Vulture (Isles of Storm and Sorrow #3) – Bex Hogan (YA)

I’ve been waiting for the final book in the Isles of Storm and Sorrow series for a year, and after the extreme cliffhanger at the end of Book Two I couldn’t wait to get started!

‘Viper’ (Book One) sets up Marianne’s story and introduces us to the politics and magic of the Eastern Isles. ‘Venom’ (Book Two) explores the consequences of Marianne’s actions, and sends her into danger as she travels across the Western Isles. In ‘Vulture’, familiar characters from East and West are brought together as Marianne seeks to protect the Twelve Isles from a dark magical threat.

It’s a breathtaking story. The action is non-stop as Marianne discovers the limits of her abilities, and the temptations of the magic she has learned on her journeys. This isn’t a black-and-white finale to the series, but an exploration of power, and how too much power brings temptation, corruption, and destruction. The first-person narration gives the reader a clear insight into the battle Marianne must fight within herself to control her hard-won abilities. It is refreshing and exhilerating to follow her story as she is repeatedly tempted towards revenge instead of justice. It is wonderful to see how much she has grown throughout the series, and how the strength she discovered in ‘Viper’ has developed into the ability to change the world. How she uses that ability, and the changes she chooses to make, are always in question, keeping the reader and the supporting characters constantly on edge, right until the final pages.

It is wonderful to see characters from the previous books coming together to save the Twelve Isles and support Marianne – although some characters are more welcome than others. The author doesn’t give anyone an easy ride – there are twists, shocks, and surprises that test the strongest of Marianne’s companions, and tempt her to lose control of herself and her abilities. As in the previous books, no characters are safe from pain and tragedy, and everyone faces mortal danger. Be prepared for heartbreak – Bex Hogan doesn’t take prisoners!

This is an exciting, exhilarating, and thoughtful conclusion to the series, which highlights the strong relationships between the wide cast of characters, and gives Marianne the chance to grow and find her place in the world of the Twelve Isles. If you haven’t read the series yet, what are you waiting for?

  1. The Calculating Stars (Lady Astronauts #1) – Mary Robinette Kowal

I suppse it is inevitable that I would fall completely in love with a book about an accelerated US space programme that trains female astronauts for a moonshot in the 1950s, and here I am giving the first of the Lady Astronauts books five stars – and wishing I had more stars to give. This book has everything – a plausibly disrupted timeline, female candidates on hand to be trained, space hardware, fighter pilots, and an utterly joyful sense of wonder.

The story begins in 1952, when a meteor strike destroys the east coast of the USA and kick-starts a planet-killing runaway greenhouse effect. The only chance for survival is to accelerate the space programme, and start colonies on the moon and Mars. With 1950s technology, the space agency will need to send their human Computers (of ‘Hidden Figures’ fame) into space to conduct course calculations in real time as the astronauts attempt to reach out into the solar system. A group of female pilots fights to be included in the astronaut training programme, while the US – and the world – struggles to recover from the effects of the meteor.

The narrator is Dr Elma York, former WASP pilot with a doctorate in maths, and wife of Dr Nathaniel York, one of the space programme’s lead engineers. From the start of the book her first-person narration draws the reader in, and demonstrates her genuine intelligence and her calm approach to dealing with distaster. As she fights to convince the men in charge of setting up off-world colonies to include women in their training programme, she shows her determination, and her ability to charm the public and fight for the capable women around her. She shows her frustration in private, but she knows how to play the game in public. She’s an inspiring character, and completely believable.

The central relationship between Elma and her husband Nathaniel is wonderful. They are friends, lovers, and each other’s greatest advocates. They understand each other’s flaws and strengths, and their support for each other is warm and genuine. With the new timeline, and the requirements of the training programme, it is Nathaniel who must come to terms with being married to a would-be astronaut, and with the risks and dangers of the role she is determined to earn.

Throughout the book, Elma’s intelligence is demonstrated without smugness or superiority. She is one of a team of female Computers, expected to calculate complex tragectories with speed and accuracy, and she is good at her job. She advocates for herself, and for the other female astronaut candidates, and over the course of the book she learns to notice and advocate for other excluded groups.

The writing style is deceptively clean and straightforward, while drawing the reader into Elma’s story, and emphasising her sense of wonder at the possibilities of the space programme. For anyone who has ever dreamed of going into space, this is a touchstone book – human, realistic, engaging, and wonderful. I adored it – definitely a new favourite.

  1. The Fated Sky (Lady Astronauts #2) – Mary Robinette Kowal

I wasn’t going to stop after Book One, so as soon as I closed the book I picked up Book Two in the series. More Elma, more Nathaniel, more fantastic strong and intelligent women, and more discrimination as the story reaches the 1960s, and the moon colony becomes a stepping stone to Mars.

Most of the story is taken up with the first flight to Mars, and it balances the sense of wonder at being in space on such a historic journey with the dangerous realities and genuine horrors of space travel. Elma continues to be an engaging narrator, negotiating the prejudices and setbacks of the mission while looking forward to messages from her husband, and occasionally taking a moment to look out at the stars.

The book brings triumph and tragedy to Elma’s story, and there’s an extremely tense section in the middle of the voyage that highlights the professionalism and training of the astronauts involved. Once again, the author serves up harsh realities and political injustice alongside a balancing dose of joy and wonder as the first mission to Mars seeks to open the solar system to human settlement. Once again I loved the story, and I’m picking up Book Three now.

  1. The Relentless Moon (Lady Astronauts #3) – Mary Robinette Kowal

At first I was surprised by the change of narrator in the third Lady Astronauts book, but I quickly warmed to Nicole’s voice and her take on playing a role in the space programme. A friend of Elma and Nathaniel, Nicole has been an important character in the development of the series so far. While Elma tells the story of the first flight to Mars in book two of the series, Nicole is juggling her job as an astronaut with her political role as the wife of a state governor, and the expectations on her to behave perfectly in both parts of her life.

The story in book three runs parallel to the events of book two. Thanks to a disastrous rocket landing, Nicole finds herself stranded on the moon with the crew of the Artemis base, and from there everything starts going wrong. There’s a disease outbreak, communications problems, and the suspicion of sabotage at the base. The title is accurate – the problems Nicole and the Artemis team have to deal with are relentless. As with Elma’s stories, the troubles serve to highlight the professionalism, resilience, and competence of the astronauts. Nicole is repeatedly put into situations where she must feel the fear and get everything right, in order to save lives and understand what is happening around her.

She’s a fantastic character – strong, intelligent, and emotionally connected to the people she needs to work with. Everything she has learnt from her political life comes into play as she fights to keep everyone safe on the moon, and the determination and skills from her training inform her approach to politics. The story is harrowing – the dangers are real, and not everyone survives the threats and disasters – but Nicole knows how to keep going, how to put on a confident face, and how to stay in control when she needs to.

This is a stunning end to a wonderful series – definitely a new favourite, and I will be reading these books again.

  1. The Lady Astronaut of Mars (Lady Astronauts Novella) – Mary Robinette Kowal

This short piece is set after the events of the Lady Astronauts series, but it was written first. The author has very cleverly worked the plot points from this poignant story into the first two books of the series, and the impact is heightened if you’re familiar with Elma, Nathaniel, and their hopes and aspirations as participants in the space programme. It’s lovely to read another story narrated by Elma.

  1. Articulated Restraint (Lady Astronauts Short Story) – Mary Robinette Kowal 4*

I realised as I read this that I had read it before, as part of a short story collection. Without the background of the Lady Astronauts series, it was a mildly interesting account of an astronaut helping to solve a problem by testing a spacewalk fix on the ground while the clock ticks down, and people in space are depending on her to save them. Having read the rest of the series, the identities of all the characters jumped out at me on the re-read, and the story held infinitely more meaning as it concerned people I knew, and relationships I understood. It’s a short, sharp taste of the dangers of space travel, the demands on the astronauts and their support teams, and the stubborness of pilots when it comes to admitting that they might be in pain. Definitely worth saving until after you’ve read the series.

  1. How the King of Elfhame Came to Hate Stories – Holly Black and Rovina Cai (YA)

There is something extraordinarily exciting about turning the first page of a story book with pictures. It doesn’t matter whether it’s an illustrated children’s story, or this gorgeous collection of tales from Elfhame – beautiful artwork with beautiful words will always cast a spell. If the artist and the writer share a clear vision, the result can be magical.

I loved this book. Are the stories about Cardan’s past a necessary addition to the Folk of the Air series? No. Do they add to the reader’s understanding of his character and motivations? Definitely. Are they a pleasure to read, and to look at? Absolutely.

The stories in the collection include glimpses into the events of the Folk of the Air books from Cardan’s point of view. We see his relationship with Nicasia, the abuse at the hands of his older brother, and the moment when he realises he is haunted by thoughts of Jude. We follow him as he visits the mortal world (with and without his queen), and there’s a thread of stories exchanged between Cardan and a mysterious old woman, which change a little every time they are told. Each section adds a small insight into Cardan’s life and upbringing, without revisiting everything in the original novels. At the start the stories feel unrelated, but by the end it is clear that they have been very cleverly woven into the book. Cardan’s journey is mapped out in these pages, and revealed with a deceptively light touch.

The illustrations by Rovina Cai add a touch of magic to the words on the page. The images are dreamlike when they relate to Cardan’s childhood, but more realistic where they involve Jude. Where Cardan and the old woman exchange their tales, the illustrations resemble woodcuts or shadow puppets, perfect for a story within a story. The artwork is beautiful, occasionally straying across pages of text and interacting with the words.

This collection might not be an essential addition to the series, but it is a magical glimpse into the world of the Folk of the Air. It’s a quick read, and I’ll definitely pick it up and read it again, if only to experience the thrill of reading such a beautiful book.

  1. An Abundance of Katherines – John Green (YA)

Every so often I need to find a new John Green book to read, to remind me how much I enjoy his writing. Several people have recommended ‘An Abundance of Katherines’ to me, and I can see why.

Colin is heartbroken over the end of his relationship. He’s been dumped, again, by a girl named Katherine, again. In fact, it’s his nineteenth dumping by a girl named Katherine, and he’s wondering why this keeps happening. In an attempt to escape from his post-high-school misery, he heads off on a road trip with his best friend Hassan. Their plan to keep moving and discover themselves on the road quickly comes to a halt in Gutshot, Tennessee, where they both find work – and girls who are not named Katherine.

Colin is a former child prodigy, and throughout the book he attempts to build a single mathematical model that accurately describes all nineteen of his Katherine relationships. If the model works for his previous experiences of being dumped, he’s hoping it will predict the course of his future relationships. It’s a girl called Lindsey who helps him to perfect his model, as he explains the circumstances of every relationship and breakup.

This is a quirky, fun read that doesn’t sidestep the very real pain of being dumped – and being dumped repeatedly. Colin’s attempts to understand his experiences feel constructive and pointless at the same time. He’s used to being able to think his way through problems, and while building a mathematical model for his relationships feels like an effective coping mechanism, Colin struggles to see past this cerebral response to an emotional solution.

Colin is a relatable character. He’s a fundamentally good person, but he is plagued by the fear that he has wasted his childhood potential. He knows that being a childhood prodigy does not automatically guarantee a successful career. Adult geniuses were not necessarily outstanding as children, and intellectually brilliant children are no more likely to become adult geniuses than anyone else. It’s a tough situation, and his obsession with the mathematical model feels like a genuine and understandable reaction to his fears for the future as he graduates from high school.

There’s an engaging cast of supporting characters. Hassan embodies everything that Colin struggles to accept. He is happy to sit and watch daytime TV, and let life happen around him, while Colin spends considerable energy on being brilliant and earning the good grades he knows he deserves. He’s the easy-going best friend who highlights Colin’s highly strung approach to life. Lindsey and her friends provide the companionship Colin and Hassan need as they navigate the summer between school and college. Their relationships are complicated, and not entirely obvious to the outsiders. Lindsey’s mother is a high-powered businesswoman with a heart, and her employees and former employees shape the small-town community of Gutshot. Every character feels real, and it is a pleasure to spend time in their company.

John Green’s positive portrayal of characters experiencing mental health challenges (in this case a crisis of confidence and a fear of the future) are always engaging and sympathetic, and Colin is another wonderfully realistic example. Like his other books, this is a quick but haunting read. There may be an appendix explaining the mathematical theory behind Colin’s relationship model (and I love John Green for providing that!), but it is the emotional impact of the story that stays with you, long after you’ve turned the final page.

  1. Eve Of Man – Giovanna and Tom Fletcher (YA)

This is a YA dystopia with an interesting premise. For sixteen years, Eve has been protected. Raised by a team of older women, she is the last girl on earth – and the only woman of childbearing age. No one knows why girls stopped being born, but everyone knows that Eve is going to save humanity. Three young men have been carefully selected as potential partners for Eve, and she has always known what is expected of her. But a chance meeting with one of the young men who helps to run her perfect sanctuary changes everything, and Eve begins to question what she wants.

It’s an engaging story, to begin with. We meet Eve in her beautiful, isolated tower. We meet her carers – the ‘mothers’ – and her hologram best friend, Holly. Eve knows that she is about to meet the potential partners who have been painstakingly chosen for her. As the meetings draw closer we see her begin to doubt her conviction that chosing one of the men and having children – hopefully girls – is what she really wants.

We also meet Bram, one of the human ‘pilots’ behind Holly’s hologram. He’s grown up with Eve, wearing Holly’s hologram and acting as Eve’s best friend. Eve has no idea who is behind Holly’s face and voice, and they are never supposed to meet. When they do, briefly, everything changes, and they will both be forced to choose between their own happiness and the future of the human race.

I don’t know why I didn’t connect with this book. I liked Eve, and I loved all her ‘mothers’. I liked Bram, and his team of pilots. The setup was intriguing and the theme of environmental destruction was extremely relevant. I found myself wanting more science, and more insight into the environmental crisis – but that wouldn’t be possible with Eve and Bram as the only narrators. Neither of them knows the full truth about their world, and about the efforts to save humanity, so their limited views make perfect sense in the context of the story.

Eve is a strong narrator, who moves from a girl who accepts everything she has been brought up to believe at the start of the book, to a young woman daring to challenge her place in the world. The story reflects teenage anxieties about sex and relationships, and about breaking away from the expectations of parents, teachers, and communities. Eve’s role as the only person in the world who can have children dials these anxieties up to eleven, and ensures that her decisions matter.

There is plenty of action and danger, and there are lies to uncover and secrets to reveal, but somehow I wasn’t drawn in. I wanted to like this book. I wanted to enjoy the story, and feel wrapped up in Eve’s dilemmas, but maybe this is a story that works best for readers who identify more closely with Eve. Don’t let me put YA readers off – this is a book perfectly pitched at its intended teenage audience.

  1. The Wrong Stuff – MT McGuire (Bury St Edmunds Indie Author) (Audiobook)

This is the second 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 might be a lot to live up to, but once again the author delivers.

This book follows series protagonist the Pan of Hamgee out of K’Barth, and into London – same planet, alternate reality – with dangerous, destructive, heartwarming and laugh-out-loud results. The Pan is on the run, again, and trying to save the life of a girl he’s only seen from a distance. He screws up, he wreaks havoc on famous landmarks, and he forces everyone – the girl he’s saving, her flatmate, and the gang boss he works for back home – into hiding. Once again, the comedic setting allows the author to explore the dangers of living in a dictatorship, and the courage it takes to fight back, without ever sounding preachy or earnest.

Setting the book in London moves the action closer to the reader, and brings the threat and the action out of the fantasy world of K’Barth and into locations we recognise. I really enjoyed the manic scenes of destruction in the capital, and the efforts of two Metropolitan Police detectives to understand what is happening to their city. The series is populated with deeply human, sympathetic characters, and the police officers, resistance members, and old friends from the first book are no exception. That said, my favourite character is probably the one who breaks all these rules – Nigel, the awful ex-boyfriend, is spectacularly pompous and very, very funny.

I listened to the audiobook edition of ‘The Wrong Stuff’, and once again 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 increasingly large cast of characters are superb. I’m using this series as a bribe to get myself to exercise, and once again the author and narrator have managed to make me laugh out loud many times while speed-walking on a treadmill. Another highly recommended K’Barthan story!

  1. Perfidious Albion – Sam Byers

Well hello, literary fiction! It’s been a while. I bought this book from the author at the Bury St Edmunds Literary Festival in 2019, eager to read a post-Brexit satire set in a fictionalised version of Bury St Edmunds. What with YA Book Club reading and various other committments, it’s only just made it to the top of my TBR, and I’m glad it did.

This is a book concerned as much with its use of language as with the story. It’s a Gibsonesque plot, examining technology, surveillance, intellectualism, and working in the gig economy. It’s about the impact of big tech on a small town, and on individual residents – the last working-class hold-out on an estate that’s about to be gentrified, employees of the new tech company in town, a right-wing populist politician, a sinister group threatening to make everyone’s internet history public, and the bloggers and columnists who comment on the news, and help to shape the events of the book. I couldn’t help thinking that Gibson would tell the same story, but in a very different way.

The author enjoys poking fun at his very British setup. There are right-wing newspapers encouraging local residents and far-right party activists to take a stand against the way society is changing. There’s a pompous politician who, with his special advisor, is willing to use any and all local news stories to his advantage, while taking risks with his own online activities. There’s a big tech company that uses freelance workers, and keeps its aims and objectives hidden from almost all its employees, while everyone is too scared to ask for more information. And there are bloggers and columnists vying for attention, each trying to outdo the others for clicks, attention, and employment. There are questions of identity, public and private faces, and the ethics of hiding behind a pseudonym.

The scenario feels like an exaggerated vision of the very near future, navigated by a cast of characters who are simply trying to survive – to stay employed, to stay in their homes, to muddle through their relationships, and in a few cases to figure out what is going on around them. The female characters are stronger, cleverer, more principled, more co-operative, and more likeable than the men, who are mostly looking for ways to jump their careers to the next level. It’s a story about making connections – with an audience online, with other public intellectuals, and between the initially disconnected events. It’s a story about a small English town standing in the way of development, and how that development might change everything.

It’s an interesting, challenging, enjoyable read, beautifully written with a sharply satirical sense of humour, and an uncomfortable glipmse behind the facade of modern Britain.

  1. Emoto’s Promise – Shel Calopa (Novella)

An engaging ecopunk novella in the ‘Drowned Earth’ shared world series.

This speculative fiction novella is based on a series of intriguing ‘what-if’ questions. What if sea-level rise left the remnants of humanity in walled cities, isolated and divided by oceans? What if everyone who could be cybernetically upgraded had been, and any unaugmented humans were terminated or discriminated against? And what if Dr Masaru Emoto’s theories about the intelligence of water were true?

Macie is a Wall Manager, the latest in a family of Wall Managers, trusted to monitor and repair the sea wall that protects the technologically advanced city of Darwin Two. She’s also one of the last humans, genetically incompatible with the implants and upgrades of the ‘numans’ who run the city. The only reason she’s allowed to live is the job she inherited from her father – keeping the wall strong, and the city safe from the flood. When Macie steps into the water, she discovers an intelligence waiting under the waves. When she meets Aaron, son of the Mayor, she discovers a new threat to her existence, and an unlikely ally.

This is an engaging ecopunk novella with a fantastical element. The setting of Darwin Two feels real and textured, the streets and buildings carefully described and the numans’ fear of the surrounding water believably portrayed. Macie is a sympathetic character, constantly aware of both her perceived genetic disability and her role as the protector of the city. As the latest in a long line of Wall Managers, she enjoys freedom from the monitoring and work assignments of the numans and their implants, but as a human outcast she is also excluded from the life of the city she represents. As the demands of her job and her exclusion from society split her loyalties, she finds herself searching for meaning and protection in an unfair world. As she searches for her place in Darwin Two, she has the support of her grandmother – a wonderful character who knows exactly how to side-step the system and the constant surveillance – and the growing respect of Aaron as he begins to understand her role, and her abilities.

This is a story about discrimination and exclusion, and about finding your place in a society that would rather you didn’t exist. It’s a story about finding allies where you can, and reaching out into the unknown. There’s plenty of excitement, and a strong sense of wonder in the gorgeous descriptions of Macie’s encounters with intelligent water. As part of the ‘Drowned Earth’ shared world series, ‘Emoto’s Promise’ adds a colourful speculative element, a detailed and realistic high-tech city, and characters you’ll cheer for all the way through.

  1. The Girls I’ve Been – Tess Sharpe (YABC / Re-read)

Reviewed in December 2020. Still loved it!

  1. Awaken – G R Thomas (NA)

I do enjoy a good ‘Chosen One’ story, especially one told in the first person with a modern-day setting, so ‘Awaken’ ticked my boxes! I loved the immediacy of the story, set (initially) in small-town Australia with down-to-earth young nurse Sophia as the protagonist and narrator. The realism of the setting made even the most extreme elements of the story feel entirely believable, as Sophia discovers alongside the reader who she really is.

It’s a gripping story. Our narrator is not just a caring nurse with an ability to heal – she’s also an angel, sent to save the fallen angels who live in secret alongside humans. She’s been looked after by a group of angelic beings, but they haven’t told her who she is, or who they are, until they are forced to reveal themselves. Sophia is caught between her protectors, her ordinary life, and the forces of evil, and she has to get up to speed fast.

There’s a well-drawn cast of characters who help the narrator on her journey – friends, neighbours, adopted family, and the angels who have been waiting for her twenty-first birthday to reveal her powers. The author weaves historical events and biblical myths into the modern setting to create something new and exciting, with fast-paced action sequences alongside descriptions of Sophia’s training, and the terror she feels as her friends and family are drawn into her story.

This is Book One of a series, and the ending is a breath-taking cliffhanger. Make sure you have Book Two, ‘Surrender’ ready to go when you’ve turned the final page!

  1. Wonderland – Juno Dawson (YA)

A retelling of ‘Alice in Wonderland’ with a transgender narrator and a cast of rich kids enjoying sex, drugs, and murder at London’s most exclusive party.

Alice is trying to fit in at her very expensive girls’ school. She’s the first transgender girl at St Agnes, and outside the staff room no one is supposed to know. She’s also the daughter of a successful novelist, so her New Money background sets her apart from the Old Money heiresses in her classes. When her friend Bunny goes missing, Alice discovers an invitation to Wonderland among her belongings. With no idea what she is heading into, and armed only with a credit card and a designer disguise, Alice uses the invitation. She throws herself down the rabbit hole and into an exclusive Old Money world where anything can happen, and the usual rules don’t apply.

Wonderland is an extravagant party. Alice feels like an outsider from the start, hiding behind her disguise and trying to look as if she was invited. People keep judging her on her outfit, trying to work out who she is and whether she is on the guest list, and she constantly invents lies to justify her presence. As she explores the party, always looking for Bunny, Alice meets some familiar characters – a top-hatted boy at a drug-laced tea party, twins who spike her drink and try to assault her in a hot tub, another gatecrasher dressed as a cat who keeps turning up when she needs help, and the Red Queen, who controls everything at her own private party.

Alice’s anxiety about being discovered as an imposter in Wonderland parallels her anxiety about being outed at school. The tricks she plays at the party – with clothes, her avoidance of questions, and avoiding detection – mirror the measures she takes in real life to keep anyone from questioning her gender. Alice is right to be concerned – Wonderland is a dangerous place, and her secrets are not as safe as she believes. But Wonderland is also a place of freedom from everyday rules, and Alice finds acceptance as well as threats at the party. The two consensual sexual encounters in the book affirm her gender, and demonstrate other people’s acceptance of the body she is trying to change. Her partners are kind, attractive, and attracted to her, even when she feels self conscious and out of step with her physical appearance.

This retelling of a familiar story as a fable about identity, navigating written and unwritten rules, and finding your value when other people want to exclude you. It is an effective use of the ‘Alice in Wonderland’ concept, with the dream-logic of the original mirrored in the drug-fueled, alternative reality of the party. Alice is an engaging narrator – smart, funny, and determined to claim her place in the world without apologising for who she is. It’s a refreshing, affirming read, with a relatable transgender narrator and positive portrayals of characters of a range of genders, sexualities, races, and class backgrounds. Like Alice after the party, I’m still trying to process everything that happened, and how I feel about it. There’s a lot going on here, and the themes will resonate with anyone who’s ever felt as if they didn’t fit in. A feel-good book about assault, discrimination and murder? Anything’s possible when you fall down the rabbit hole …

  1. Good Girl, Bad Blood – Holly Jackson (YA)

I’ve been looking forward to reading the sequel to ‘A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder’. More Pip Fitz-Amobi – the brave, intelligent schoolgirl and accidental detective. More of her wonderful family and friends. More of Ravi, her ally in the first book, and more of the residents of Little Kilton. And most importantly, a new mystery for Pip to solve.

When the brother of one of Pip’s friends goes missing, the police refuse to investigate. He’s twenty four, old enough to disappear on purpose, and he’s not regarded as being vulnerable. He’s at the bottom of the police priority list, but Pip is certain that his disappearance and his recent behaviour are out of character, and she’s determined to find him.

Things have changed for Pip since her experiences in the first book. After her investigation into Andie’s death, she had to promise her family she would not put herself in danger again, so she’s going to have to run this investigation in secret. But this time she has an audience for her discoveries – the podcast she is using to tell Andie’s story, and to cover the trials associated with the case. Pip the detective is back, and this time she can crowdsource evidence from all the residents of Little Kilton, and beyond.

The story unfolds gradually, with new evidence coming to light throughout the book. We meet new neighbours and familiar residents of the town, and they all contribute pieces of the puzzle. Some of the evidence is presented in the form of transcripts of her podcast, and of the interviews she conducts with the people involved with the case, and some comes from Pip’s investigations. Her conversations with Ravi help her to clarify her thoughts, and together they pick up on details Pip might have missed if she worked alone.

There are suspect lists and twists and unexpected encounters. There is danger and bravery and evidence that doesn’t make sense until the end. There are links back to events in the first book, and to the people Pip suspected in her previous investigation. And there’s a nail-biting ending with a resolution that kept me guessing, even though the evidence, and the puzzle pieces, were all in front of me.

It’s a great story, and Pip continues to be a brilliant protagonist. Intelligent, brave, and a more than a little reckless in her pursuit of the truth. Her persistence and determination make this an exciting, page-turning read, and a worthy second outing for the schoolgirl detective.

  1. Loki: Where Mischief Lies – Mackenzi Lee (YA)

Who was Loki before he became the character we know (and love!) from the Marvel Avengers films? What were his formative experiences? Mackenzi Lee gets to play with the family dynamics of a younger Loki, Thor, Frigga, and Odin in ‘Where Mischief Lies’, and it is evident that she is having a lot of fun in the process!

This is an engaging romp through Asgard and the Nine Realms, and Midgard in the shape of nineteenth century London. Dropping the god of mischief into a world that knows the myths and legends of his family but doesn’t believe in magic provides a perfect excuse for misunderstandings, unreliable bargains, new friendships and inevitable betrayals.

Loki’s task in London is to investigate a series of magical murders, with the help of a mysterious secret society. He’s already upset that Thor is proving himself to be the statesman and future king in the family, while he is sent to Midgard in disgrace. When he discovers the truth behind the secret society, and behind the murders, he has to decide whether his loyalties lie with Odin and Asgard, or with himself and the relationships he chooses.

This is an interesting glimpse behind the scenes of a character most readers will know from the Avengers films – untrustworthy, unpredictable, and out to cause mischief. The author is careful to show us who Loki was before he embraced this role – the jealousy of his relationship with Thor, his desperation to prove that he should be king instead of his brother, and his alienation in Asgard as he is required to subdue and hide his magical abilities. It’s a story about rejection, and being made to feel bad about who you are – and it’s story about redemption, and taking pride in your own strengths, even if your family wants you to follow a more conventional path. It’s a story about finding yourself and shrugging off the expectations of others.

And it’s a story about Loki, my favourite character from the Avengers story, who Mackenzi Lee brings to life beautifully on the page.

  1. Seafire – Natalie C Parker (YA)

How has it taken me so long to find this book? Pirates, rebels, sea battles and survival with an awesome all-female crew – I loved it.

Caledonia Styx is the leader of a crew of girls who fight back against Aric Athair’s ruthless pirates. It feels as if everyone else on the seas and islands he controls has given up. They hand over their children to fight for him in exchange for their own lives. They keep his fleet supplied with everything he needs in order to keep themselves safe. Challenging his power would risk their lives, their homes, and their families, so they keep their heads down and survive instead.

But Caledonia has already lost everything – her family, her home, and her safety – to Aric’s pirates. She has built a crew of young women like herself, with nothing left to lose but each other, and she is determined to bring Aric down. Attacking his food barges, and the supply of the drug he uses to control his recruits, has hurt his operation enough to gain his attention. Her crew is a target for every ship under his command, and when she sails into a trap set by the pirates she is forced to reassess her attitude to Aric – and to his recruits. Will she break her own rules to save an enemy? Will she risk her crew for the sake of one of the pirates she fights, and for the information he offers?

This is a perfectly balanced story. Aric and his pirates are unquestionably bad – cruel, ruthless, and power-hungry. Caledonia is fighting for people like herself, and for a world where the pirates don’t abuse their power, and don’t control the sea. She is engaging Aric’s forces on their terms, fighting and killing if she has to, while remaining loyal to the crew she commands. She is certain of her mission and she feels responsible for the lives of everyone on her ship. Her aim is not to defend other people – her aim is to disrupt Aric’s operation and see an end to his power. She might be fighting for the good guys, but she’s a morally grey character – and that makes her a fascinating protagonist.

Add in her wonderful female crew, her ship with its intriguing technology, adventures on sea and on land, and her troublesome prisoner, and you have the ingredients for a gripping, fast-paced, addictive story. I couldn’t put the book down, and when I turned the final page I headed to Amazon immediately to download Book Two.

  1. Steel Tide (Seafire #2) – Natalie C Parker (YA)

I’m so pleased I headed straight to the second book in the ‘Seafire’ trilogy as soon as I finished Book One. After a brief pause for Caledonia to recover from the events of the final pages, the story is off and running again, and I avoided my book hangover by diving straight back in.

Caledonia thought she was protecting her ship and her all-female crew when she sent them away. She refused to involve them in her personal mission of revenge against an old enemy, but when the smoke clears she needs to find them again. Reuniting the family she has built for herself will be dangerous, and she needs the help of new friends to bring them back together. She needs to ensure their safety, and she needs to continue the fight against Aric Athair and his ruthless pirates. And then there’s the problem of the boy she allowed onto her ship. Who is he, and can he still help her to find someone she thought she had lost? Caledonia must convince new friends and old enemies to work with her against Aric, gambling the safety of everyone around her on promises she’s not sure she can trust.

This is a fantastic follow-up to ‘Seafire’, throwing Caledonia and her crew into danger again, and raising the stakes in the battle against Aric. Secrets are revealed, alliances are made in unexpected places, and Caledonia is forced to chose between her conscience and her crew. She’s still a fascinating morally grey character, and this book pushes her into darker actions and darker decisions. She continues to be supported by her loyal crew – characters she loves and cares about, and risks everything to protect.

This is another addictive book, and I read it in a single day. I can’t believe I have to wait until November to read Book Three in the series! I’ll be thinking about Caledonia and her crew until the next book is in my hands. This is a story that will stay with me long after the final page, and I’m already wondering how dark the author is willing to make the ending of her trilogy. I can’t wait to find out!

  1. Burn – Patrick Ness (YABC)

How could I turn down the chance to read a book that brings together dragons, prophecies, and assassins in 1950s America? I was very excited to read the new novel from Patrick Ness, and I’m delighted to say that he didn’t let me down.

Sarah Dewhurst lives with her father on the family farm. Since her mother’s death, her father has been struggling. If he doesn’t take drastic action before the summer, the bank will call in his debt and take the farm, so he hires a dragon to help him clear two fields for cultivation. It’s not illegal to hire dragons, but relations between dragons and humans are tense, and he knows the neighbours will be uneasy with his decision.

Sarah is no stranger to harassment from local people and law enforcement. She’s a mixed-race teenager in 1957, and her best friend is a Japanese-American boy who spent his early childhood in an internment camp. The dragon is just one more excuse for discrimination, and he understands how it feels to be discriminated against. As Sarah gets to know the dragon, he begins to share his reasons for being on the farm. Sarah finds herself at the centre of an ancient prophecy, and the target of a highly trained assassin.

The first part of the book follows this storyline. The Soviet Union is about to launch a satellite that could be used to spy on the US, and while the prophecy is vague, it centres on Sarah, the dragon, the satellite, and the assassin. The tension builds as the assassin, trailed by two FBI agents, makes his way to the farm. Just over half-way through, the plot twists, and the rest of the story plays out in an entirely unexpected way. Throughout the second part of the novel, idle sayings and superstition from the first part shift into reality, and the balance of power changes completely. It’s a very clever plot twist, and from that point on I couldn’t put the book down.

Sarah is a confident protagonist, used to dealing with people who don’t like her family, her poverty, or the colour of her skin. Her relationship with her father feels completely real. His trust in her abilities, his anger when she is hurt, and his frustration when he discovers she has been lying to him demonstrate his love for his only child, and the support they have provided to each other since the loss of his wife. The dragon is frustratingly alien and arrogant at the start of the book, but as Sarah discovers who he is and why he is on her farm, his attitude becomes more understandable and his relationships with the humans around him develop towards genuine friendship. Even the assassin has a human side, and his developing relationship with another boy helps to highlight his vulnerabilities.

It’s a clever, engaging book with some amazing world building – by the end of the first chapter the reader is completely immersed in this version of 1950s America, where dragons coexist with Chevron gas stations and pickup trucks and farmers in need of labour. It captures the paranoia of the Cold War, and the feeling of being on the outside of a society that would prefer you didn’t exist – dragon, mixed-race girl, Japanese-American, or gay man. There’s a cult of dragon-worshippers, a legend of a dragon goddess, a plot to kill Sarah’s dragon, and an exciting, dramatic conclusion to the story. Highly recommended!

  1. Matter – Iain M Banks (Re-read)

Finally – another step in my Culture re-read! I was surprised to find that all I remembered about ‘Matter’ was the epic world-building (literally …). It was a joy to re-read, and a joy to fall in love with the story and characters all over again.

  1. Neuromancer – William Gibson (Re-re-read)

What can I say? Still my favourite book. Still stands up as a gritty, neon-stained glimpse of the future from 1984. Still love the characters and their casual use of body-altering technology. Still love the settings – sleazy retrofitted cities, battered spacecraft, and a gorgeous recreational space station. Still get chills from my favourite scenes. It’s been a long time since my last re-read, and this time I definitely noticed new pieces of the picture, and new angles on the story. Until the next time … <3

  1. Tales From the Folly – Ben Aaronovitch

A collection of short stories in the ‘Rivers of London’ series. It’s always good to read a new Peter Grant story, and the new stories in this collection are short and punchy. Standouts are ‘The Domestic’, which read like a sub-plot for one of the novels, ‘The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Granny’, which was quietly lovely, and ‘A Rare Book of Cunning Device’ which was a lot of fun. There are also stories from other characters, including an intriguing glimpse into the life of German police officer Vanessa Sommer (from ‘The October Man’), and a colourful, chaotic account of London in the 1960s.

Not as good as another novel in the series, but it was fun to dip into bite-sized pieces of the characters and situations that make ‘Rivers of London’ such an engaging read.

  1. The Upper World – Femi Fadugba (YA)

‘The Upper World’ is an intriguing time travel story that doesn’t quite stick its landing. The book combines ancient philosophy with hardcore maths and physics to explore the relationship between matter, energy, and perception. It takes the Socratic idea of the ‘Upper World’ – a place beyond our everyday experience where, if we can reach it, we can perceive time and space from the outside and find a deeper understanding of the workings of the universe. The characters use this knowledge to attempt to change the past, with unexpected consequences.

It is the characters who hooked me into the story. Esso is a believable teenager, navigating the gangs and complex loyalties of his South London comprehensive school alongside the expectations of his teachers and his West African mother. Fifteen years into the future, Rhia is juggling her unreliable home life in foster care with her ambition to become a professional football player. When she meets the maths and physics tutor her foster mother hired to help with her GCSEs, she finds herself diving into complex concepts – relativity, energy, and time travel. But why does Dr Esso think these ideas are important, and what, exactly, does he want from her?

The structure of the story builds the tension between the characters and the events they are trying to change. Esso’s present-day chapters alternate with Rhia’s future experiences. We know from early in the book that teenage Esso is heading for a dramatic, gang-related punishment, and as the story progresses he does everything he can to avoid disaster. In the future, Dr Esso’s interest in time travel starts to make sense, as Rhia begins to understand who she is, and her connection to her tutor’s past.

Rhia’s foster sister provides an effective sounding board for her theories, and the genuine friendship between the girls provides a contrast with teenage Esso’s companions – a group of boys who would rather taunt each other than show weakness. Esso’s relationship with his classmate Nadia allows him to demonstrate a softer side to his character, and her pivotal role in the story develops across both timelines. Both Esso and Rhia are sympathetic characters, and I found myself heartbroken alongside them when the plot twists and injustices kicked in.

While the climax of both stories is extremely well written, I wasn’t convinced by the plot leading up to the final moments. While I enjoyed the idea of weaving Einstein’s theories and the philosophy of Socrates and Plato into a YA time-travel narrative, the plot stretched the science and the philosophical ideas beyond breaking point, and this threw me out of the story.

I’m aware that I am not the target audience, and that I have read (and wrestled with the concepts of) a lot of time-travel stories. For YA readers with less exposure to maths, physics, science fiction, and the various fictional theories of time travel, ‘The Upper World’ may well provide a gripping and satisfying read. If you don’t mind a bit of hand-waving and magical thinking with your real-world physics, this is an exciting story with clever twists, interesting ideas, sympathetic characters, and convincing real-world settings. If that sounds appealing, don’t let my review put you off!

‘The Upper World’ will be published on August 19th. Thank you to NetGalley for sending me an ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review.

  1. Jennifer Government – Max Barry

In a world where corporations hold power, and workers take the surname of their employer, a group of unconnected people find their lives entangled after an extreme product promotion event. ‘Futuristic Violence and Fancy Suits’ meets ‘Snow Crash’ in a fast-paced, high-stakes story that keeps upping the stakes, and upping the pace, right to the end. A fun rollercoster ride through a corporate dystopia, ‘Jennifer Government’ is a perfect holiday read – immersive, gripping, and with a wicked sense of humour. You won’t look at pair of Nike trainers the same way ever again …

  1. Bearmouth – Liz Hyder (YA)

Newt is one of the Bearmouth boys, living and working deep underground to mine coal for the Master. It’s hard to make a living in the mine – Newt has to pay for boots and candles, and send money home to his mother. He can’t afford the cost of the trip to the surface, so he’s stuck underground with his work team. The boys and men who share his dorm are his Bearmouth family, looking out for each other in a dangerous environment, and keeping each other’s secrets. Thomas takes care of the younger boys, and teaches them to write – and this allows Newt to tell his story.

‘Bearmouth’ is a book about friendship, loyalty, identity and rebellion. So far, so YA – but it is Newt’s distinctive voice that sets this story apart. The book is written in first person present tense, and narrated using Newt’s attempts at phonetic spelling. As with any phonetically transcribed book, the first few pages are hard to engage with, as the reader attempts to find the voice behind the unfamiliar words. Thanks to the skill of the author, and a careful balance between misspelled words, expressive dialect, and the cadences of Newt’s storytelling, it doesn’t take long to tune in and hear the narrator’s voice as you read.

It’s a captivating voice. Newt is good at his job, and he tries hard to learn his letters with Thomas, but there is so much he doesn’t understand. There is pressure on the Master to open up more of the mine and produce more coal, which makes Bearmouth a dangerous place to live and work. As the realities of his world come into focus through the events of the story, the injustice that is obvious to the reader becomes clearer to Newt and his friends.

The book doesn’t pull its punches. There are scenes of violence, and scenes that hint at the constant threat of violence that surrounds Newt and his work team. There are deaths and disappearances, mining accidents, fights, and abuses of power. Newt’s dorm feels like the only place of safety in a mine full of violent men, and this danger draws the reader into the story.

This is a captivating story, engagingly told. The reader can’t help but sympathise with Newt, and the actions he takes in order to survive. Stick with the first few pages, and you are rewarded with Newt’s unique voice and growing understanding of the world around him. Follow Newt into the dark, and you’ll be cheering him on as the danger closes in.

Definitely worth a read.

  1. Witches Steeped in Gold – Ciannon Smart (YA)

Earlier this year I was in the audience for a virtual Waterstones event with three YA writers, one of whom was Ciannon Smart. The conversation was really interesting, touching on the use of non-European, non-white myths and legends in YA fantasy. Ciannon’s book, ‘Witches Steeped in Gold’, is a fantasy based on the Jamaican stories she grew up hearing, and on a Caribbean-based system of magic. Add two female protagonists from opposing families, magical powers, and a struggle to win the throne, and the book sounds fantastic. I had to read it!

But … it didn’t grab me. The blurb sounded great, and I love the idea of diverse cultures in fantasy, but this story never took off for me. The narration is first person present tense, with alternating chapters from the points of view of both characters. So far, so good – this is my favourite way to tell a story. I was expecting to lose myself in the world and the plot, but it never happened.

I’m not sure why. I think the two narrators were too similar – their voices were not different enough to distinguish them, and while they came from opposing sides in a long-running conflict, they were both working towards the same goal. Neither of the love interests held my attention (although the pirate definitely turned my head to begin with!). There were twists in the story, and betrayals, but I didn’t care. The magical system was complicated, and despite repeated infodumps I still didn’t fully understand the differences between the two magical traditions. While the author’s use of Jamaican patois added to the texture of the story and the setting, her repeated hijacking of very specific words to mean something different kept throwing me out of the story.

It is entirely possible that I am not the target audience for this book, and that anyone with a grounding in Jamaican myths, legends, and language will find it gripping. I love the idea of writing fantasy based on something other than the well-trodden Tolkienesque European formula, and I’m disappointed that I did not enjoy this book.

This is the first book of a trilogy, and while I love the ideas behind the story, I won’t be reading the rest of the series.

  1. Dune – Frank Herbert (Re-read)

This is such a difficult book to review. I must have been 13 or 14 when I first read it, and it reshaped the inside of my head. This is my first re-read, and I was hoping to be able to deconstruct the story and analyse its appeal. Instead, as when I read it 30 years ago, it left me in a state of spiritual ecstasy, with all my creative batteries filled and ready to start making … something.

Herbert’s writing, along with his characters and setting, casts a spell on my mind. I’m there with his characters – during Paul’s Gom Jabbar test on Caladan, in the palace at Arrakeen, and during the years of survival in the desert. I can feel the sun and the sand, the value of water, the discomfort of a stillsuit and the thrill and danger of riding a sandworm. There’s the constant tension between the patriachal Houses and the strongly matriarchal Bene Gesserit as they manipulate each other for power and control. I’m caught up alongside the characters in alliances, betrayals, and tests of faith. There are brave heroes and cruel villains, injustice, love, hatred and fear. And of course, there’s Arrakis – a desert planet with a unique ecosystem, irresistable to a geographer.

As much as this book is magical, transporting me to exotic places, hidden settlements, and far-reaching struggles for power, I’ve never been tempted to read the sequels. I thought after this re-read that I might continue with the series, but I’m content to leave the ‘Dune’ universe on the final page, knowing that I can return at any time to recharge my batteries, and meet Muad’Dib, Jessica, and Chani again.

This book is a part of me – a door I can step through at any time to experience the magic again. I’m happy to keep it that way.

  1. As Good As Dead – Holly Jackson (YA)

The final book in the Good Girl’s Guide to Murder trilogy was a must-read for me. I enjoyed the first two books, and I was looking forward to meeting schoolgirl detective Pip Fitz-Amobi, her boyfriend Ravi, her wonderfully supportive family, and the residents of Little Kilton again for another investigation.

Pip isn’t intending to investigate another local mystery. She’s heading to university in Cambridge at the end of the summer, and she is still haunted by memories of her two previous cases. But when she unearths a connection between events in Little Kilton and a convicted serial killer, she can’t resist digging deeper.

Throughout the book her relationship with Ravi continues to develop, and they make an adorable couple. It is wonderful to see the friends she’s made, and the people she’s helped during her investigations come together to support her – but she’s made enemies as well as friends, and her list of local suspects keeps growing.

The case quickly becomes personal, and the stakes are higher than ever as Pip works to connect the fragments of evidence and find out what really happened – and who is threatening her as she goes public with another true-crime podcast.

I’ve enjoyed all three books in the series, but this is definitely the best. We are drawn into Pip’s investigation, and to the danger she faces. There are some truly heart-pounding scenes, and plenty of tension, deception, and eureka moments. Pip’s reactions to her previous cases and the lasting trauma she carries with her feel real – she’s not a hard-boiled detective, and we never lose sight of the fact that she’s still a teenager, at the very beginning of her adult life. As she unearths evidence, she is also discovering which adults, and which authority figures, can be trusted – and who has something to hide.

You’ll need to read the first two books in order to understand the context for this story, but the series is perfect for binge reading. Highly recommended!

  1. One Man, No Plan – MT McGuire (Bury St Edmunds Indie Author) (Audiobook)

We’re back in K’Barth for the third book in MT McGuire’s comedic sci fi fantasy series as the story takes a darker turn. The future doesn’t look bright for the Pan of Hamgee and his friends – back in their reality, and threatened with torture, death, and worse. MT McGuire continues to deliver a nail-biting plot, divided loyalties, some heartbreaking moments, and a cast of characters who feel like old friends.

I listened to the audiobook edition of ‘One Man, No Plan’, and I’m still in awe of the fantastic narration. As with the previous books, Gareth Davies does an absolutely brilliant job of bringing the story to life. Once again his delivery is perfect, and his amazing range of voices and accents ensures that every character is unique and easy to identify while the plot barrels along towards an inevitable conclusion.

‘One Man, No Plan’ ends on a cliffhanger, and I immediately downloaded the next book in the series. I’m fully invested, and I need to know what happens next!

  1. Fleet of Knives – Gareth L Powell

The sequel to ‘Embers of War’ delivers more gripping space opera, more from the engaging characters as they navigate the aftermath of the events of Book One, and more from the retired sentient warship Trouble Dog, which can only be a good thing.

The first book set up an intriguing scenario, as the Trouble Dog awakened a hidden fleet of powerful spacecraft. ‘Fleet of Knives’ takes that setup and steers it in unexpected directions, with the Trouble Dog’s crew caught between their duty to rescue another crew in danger, and the actions of the fleet as they attempt to end humanity’s ability to fight another war. New characters, new aliens, and new enemies combine in an edge-of-your-seat story where everything can change in a heartbeat, and no one is safe.

Once again, I loved the strong female characters (especially the Trouble Dog herself), the supporting cast (alien, human, and other), and the vividly imagined sci-fi settings. The story flies from one exciting plot point to the next via quiet moments of reflection for the characters, balancing the action against their reactions, decisions, and motivations. It’s an addictive mix, and I’m hooked. I’m off to read Book Three!

  1. Light of Impossible Stars – Gareth L Powell

The final book in the Embers of War trilogy has a lot of ground to cover. The Fleet of Knives is fighting to end humanity’s ability to wage war, while cutting human colonies off from each other and destroying the civilisation that discovered its ships. The Trouble Dog and her crew are running from both the fleet and the creatures from the hypervoid. Survival – for both the ship and the rest of humanity – seems out of reach.

Enter a new ship, a new crew, and a girl with a very special set of abilities. The story turns full circle as a relative from the past returns to help shape the future, and the Trouble Dog’s brother tests the strength of his family allegiance. It’s a gripping story, told from several alternating points of view. There are nail-biting running-from-the-aliens sequences, moments of bravery and sacrifice, and revelations about the shape of the universe. The strong female characters are back, battling the odds – and each other – to ensure the survival of their crews and communities. The new characters add depth to the story, and highlight the stakes for everyone in Human space.

And yes, I’m still in love with the Trouble Dog.

The finale of the trilogy is a big story – fasten your seatbelts!

  1. Dumplin’ – Julie Murphy (YA)

I’ve been meaning to read this book for a while, and I’m so glad I picked it up. As a plus-size non-beauty-queen I could relate to every part of this story – the body positivity, the doubts, and the level of attitude needed to put yourself out there and take part in a competition that was always intended to exclude you.

Willowdean is the plus-size daughter of a former beauty queen. Her mother organises the local beauty pageant every year, but she can’t bring herself to accept her daughter’s looks and choices, constantly dropping hints about losing weight. When Willowdean and her friends realise there is nothing in the pageant rules to stop them from taking part, they club together and support each other in their bid for the title of Miss Teen Blue Bonnet.

I loved Willowdean – I loved her body positivity, and her drive to include everyone in the pageant. I even enjoyed the romance (YA contemporary romance is not my comfort zone!), and I completely understood Willow’s doubts when someone she finds attractive shows an interest in her. The two potential love interests were both interesting characters, and as Willow experienced dating both of them her reactions felt real and her confusion entirely justified.

Willow is also grieving the loss of her aunt – the only person in her family who accepted her as she is. As she discovers more about her aunt’s life, the different threads of the story begin to overlap. Best friends, romance, Dolly Parton, beauty queens, and support from unexpected places combine to form a strong, relatable plot with a few surprising twists and turns on the way to the night of the pageant.

By the end, I was cheering for Willow and her friends, but it was less about winning the pageant, and more about being loud, proud, and showing people who you really are. I think this is a must-read, whether or not you have beauty queen aspirations. It’s a neat, engaging story with a believable cast of characters, and an uncompromisingly positive outlook. I loved it.

  1. Project Hail Mary – Andy Weir

Andy Weir’s rather good, isn’t he?

I loved this book. I loved the narrator, struggling along with the reader to understand why he’s waking up on a spaceship light years from home, and what he’s supposed to do now that he’s here. I loved the setup and the problem he’s been sent to solve. I loved the structure, as pieces of his memory return, and he begins to remember the events that brought him so far out into space. And I loved the discoveries he makes, and the full-on science and engineering he uses to survive and work on his mission.

This isn’t a re-run of ‘The Martian’ – it’s much more interesting than a carbon copy of Mark Watney sciencing the shit out of Mars. This is a new, less aggressive narrator, facing life-and-death decisions on a larger scale while taking risks and keeping himself alive. The stakes are higher, the science is bigger, and the success of the mission is never guaranteed.

I can’t say any more without dropping major spoilers, so I’ll just say that if you liked ‘The Martian’, this should hit all the right notes. I couldn’t put it down – an easy five stars.

  1. Jade Fire Gold – June C. L. Tan – (YA – ARC)

Set in a fantasy world inspired by Chinese history, ‘Jade Fire Gold’ is an exciting adventure story. The author combines recognisable aspects of Chinese culture with the South-East Asian myths and legends she grew up with, and the result is a gorgeously imagined world, a strong plot, and an engaging cast of characters. The magical elements add excitement to the central storyline and the setting, which feels like ‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’, or ‘The Last Airbender’ on the page instead of the screen.

Ahn lives with her grandmother in a small desert town. The desert is spreading, and survival in town is a struggle. The Diyeh priests are ruthless in their control over the use of magic, and the people live in fear of their punishments. When Ahn discovers her own magical powers, she finds herself on a terrifying journey, leaving everything – and everyone – she knows behind.

Altan is a wanderer with a dangerous secret. He’s the heir to the Dragon Throne, and he’s safe as long as everyone thinks he was killed along with his family when his Uncle took the throne.

Altan wants revenge on the Emperor’s family for the death of his parents and his sister. Ahn’s powers might be the key to his success. After a chance meeting in the desert, Ahn and Altan find themselves on a mission to find the White Jade Sword – the magical artefact that could conquer the desert and restore Altan to the throne.

There’s a lot to unpack in this book. Ahn and Altan have their own stories, motivations, and plotlines, and it was refreshing to read a quest story where the two main characters embark on their journey for different reasons. This isn’t a story about a hero and a sidekick – both storylines are equally important, and there is a constant tension as their motivations clash, and they have to decide how much to trust each other.

The secondary characters are complex and interesting. From Ahn’s grandmother and Altan’s travelling companions to the Crown Prince and Altan’s childhood friends, everyone has a role in the story, and an individual voice.

The magical elements of the story are introduced and described with a healthy sense of wonder. The system of magic feels real, while inspiring a sense of awe in the reader. The author is channelling every martial arts film and every immortal hero TV series she has seen, and making it work on the page.

This is a gripping read with a gorgeous setting, a wonder-filled magical system, and relatable, interesting characters. If you’re a fan of the ‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’ or ‘The Last Airbender’ aesthetic, this book takes those visuals and works its own magic to put them into words.

  1. Uglies – Scott Westerfield – (YA)

Tally and Peris have been best friends forever. The three-month gap between them has never been a problem, until Peris turns sixteen and has the operation. He is transformed from an Ugly to a Pretty, and moves with the other sixteen-year-olds to New Pretty Town. He promises to keep in touch, but Tally only receives one brief message from her friend. With three months to go before her own operation, she’s desperate to see Peris again, even though Uglies are banned from New Pretty Town.

While she waits for her birthday, Tally meets another Ugly who is also counting down the days until she turns sixteen – but Shay isn’t like Tally. She doesn’t want to go through the operation and become someone else’s idea of pretty. There’s no way to escape the operation without running away, but Shay has a plan, and somewhere to run to. As she spends time with Shay, Tally is torn between the friend who abandoned her, and the friend who wants to leave the city for good.

‘Uglies’ is an engaging YA dystopia that takes a critical look at what it means to grow up. Do you live your best life by conforming, changing yourself to fit in, and living in luxury – or by staying true to yourself, and working hard to survive outside the society that won’t accept you as you are? The author is careful to present a balanced choice. New Pretty Town is a place of constant parties where everything – food, drink, shelter, clothing – is provided and the biggest concern is wearing the right outfit in order to fit in. It sounds like a fun place to live, and the Pretties certainly seem to enjoy their lives. Living outside the city is hard work. Food must be hunted or grown, clothes must be made by hand, and surviving every day involves hard physical work. Tally is genuinely torn between her two possible futures, and her two best friends, and it is easy to see what makes her uncertain.

Tally is a relatable main character, trying to make the right decisions at every point in the story. She doesn’t always succeed, but she understands that living with those decisions might mean taking brave actions to make up for her mistakes. The characters around her feel real, and her relationships with them are not always straightforward. As she faces the decisions she must make as she reaches her sixteenth birthday, Tally’s doubts and uncertainties are entirely understandable, driving the story to unexpected places. The bad guys are scary without ever slipping into cartoon-villain territory, and the world building is just detailed enough to create a believable dystopian setting.

I enjoyed ‘Uglies’, and picked up the second book in the series as soon as I’d turned the final page.

  1. Looking for Trouble – MT McGuire – (Bury St Edmunds Indie Author) (Audiobook)

Back to K’Barth for the final book in MT McGuire’s dystopian comedic sci fi fantasy series, and we’re heading for the long-awaited denouement between our cowardly hero, the Pan of Hamgee, and the deliciously evil Lord Vernon. There’s only a week of action in this book, but a lot can happen in a week – especially when you’re trying to overthrow your government and prevent an imposter from taking control of your state religion.

Everything comes together neatly as the story develops. Rival rebel factions, double agents, and friends and supporters from different sides of the Pan’s life combine forces with varying degrees of success to create an unpredictable, fast-paced, nail-biting narrative. The supporting characters are wonderful, as ever, and the more I read of Gladys and Ada, the more I want to follow their example and grow old disgracefully – possibly with a pub and a very rude parrot for company.

Once again I listened to the audiobook edition of ‘Looking for Trouble’, and once again I have to mention the brilliant narration. The expanding cast posed no problems for Gareth Davies, who took the chance to show off even more unique accents and voices, keeping the story moving while bringing all the characters to life.

This series has been fantastic – great story, great characters, and plenty of belly-laugh moments alongside the darker elements of the dystopian setting. MT McGuire works the same magic as Sir Terry Pratchett, perfectly balancing comedy and tragedy with the demands of the story. I will definitely be seeking out more of her books.

  1. Pretties – Scott Westerfield – (YA)

Tally and Shay are living in New Pretty Town, but when a friend from their past arrives with surprising news, Tally is once again forced to decide how – and where – she wants to build a life, and where her loyalties lie.

‘Pretties’ is a great follow-up to ‘Uglies’, showing the reader life in New Pretty Town from the inside, and giving us an understanding of the characters’ choices – who chooses to become Pretty, who chooses to stay, and what might persuade them to leave. Once again, Tally provides a relatable point of view for the reader. We understand her motivations as we follow her life as a Pretty, and her surprise when she is offered an alternative to the easy, luxurious lifestyle of New Pretty Town.

The alternative proves to be more complicated than Tally expected, and as she discovers more about the world beyond New Pretty Town she begins to understand her place in the rigid structure of her society. Where the first book introduced Tally and her friends to the idea of living outside the society they grew up in, ‘Pretties’ brings another dimension to the ‘in’ and ‘out’ groups, and what might make people reject the expected progression from Ugly to Pretty, and on to employment, family, and children.

There’s plenty of adventure and danger, and the ever-present threat of the Specials keeps Tally from fully enjoying her life, even in New Pretty Town. The bad guys are still scary and believable, and we learn more about their motivations as Tally uncovers the complexities of the wider world. Old friends return, and old grudges shape new relationships as the worlds of the Pretties and those who escaped collide.

‘Pretties’ is a fast-paced, gripping read with a breathtaking cliffhanger ending. I can’t wait to read the next book in the series.

  1. Archivist Wasp – Nicole Kornher-Stace – (YA)

I picked up this book because the author described it as ‘zero-romance YA’, and as someone who writes friendship-based YA I wanted to experience someone else’s take on non-romantic relationships. I’m absolutely thrilled to say that I loved it – I loved the story, I loved the characters, and I loved the die-for-each-other friendships.

Archivist Wasp hunts ghosts in a world haunted by a terrible past. A war created the Waste, and destroyed a civilisation. For hundreds of years, an Archivist has protected her town from ghosts – hunting them, catching them, studying them, and destroying them. But every year, the Archivist must fight other girls to retain her title – and it is always a fight to the death.

Wasp has retained her title for the last three years. The book’s Prologue throws the reader directly into high-stakes action, as she fights for her life and a fourth year as Archivist. The danger feels absolutely real, and from the first page we understand what Wasp is fighting for.

Life as an Archivist is hard. The people she is protecting leave offerings to make sure she is fed and clothed, but no one will socialise with her. The only people she can spend time with are the priest, who steals her offerings and hunts her down when she tries to escape, and the upstarts, who spend their lives preparing to defeat her and take her job. When she meets a ghost who needs her help, she sees a way out of her isolated existence. Together they set out on a journey that will change them both.

Wasp is an interesting character. She earned her name in the fight she won to become Archivist, and throughout the story she shows a determination to survive, and to make life better for herself. She’s not always entirely likeable, but she is completely understandable. She has come from a harsh background and a community that relies on her while pushing her to the edges of survival.

Her relationship with the ghost develops during their journey. There is never any hint of romance or attraction – they both have a job to do, and a goal to reach, and they do everything they can to protect each other on the way. This is a relationship of friendship and respect, and of a gradual building of trust for two characters who usually work alone. The friendship feels authentic, and it is wonderful to read the story and live through the development of trust and understanding between Wasp and the ghost.

The world building is subtle and effective. There’s no infodumping, and we know enough about the post-apocalyptic society to understand Wasp’s motivations and decisions without heavy-handed descriptions or back story. Throughout their journey, the reader discovers more about the setting through the experiences of the two travellers, ensuring that we feel fully immersed in the action and the plot.

There’s a place for romance in YA books, but there is also a place for life-changing friendship. I loved this book, and the lives-on-the-line relationship between the characters. More like this, please!

  1. Leviathon Wakes (The Expanse #1) – James S A Corey

Wow. Someone told me the Expanse books are even better than the TV series, and I didn’t believe them. I was wrong, they were right, and this book was a joy to read, start to finish. The structure of the story is immaculate, the characters are well-defined and relateable, and the prose is perfect. The casting for the series is perfect, too (once you forget that the Belters are supposed to be two metres tall!) – every line of dialogue worked with the characters I know from the telly, and I enjoyed meeting them all over again.

The story is big – the three factions in the solar system turn against each other when an act of destruction is assumed to be an act of war. Earth, Mars and the Belt all risk annihilation in a shooting war – and that’s before we find out where the real threat comes from. I’m not usually a fan of big stories, but this one’s told in tight focus – on a rich-girl runaway, the crew of an ice freighter, a detective on Ceres Station, and the danger they uncover together. Everything is personal, and every move could precipitate a catastrophic war.

It’s a spellbinding combination and a gripping story. I’m glad I have Book Two ready and waiting!

  1. Double Cross – Bruce A Hanson (ARC Novella) (YA)

Not published yet – I’ll be reviewing this in 2022.

  1. The Irresistable Revolution – Shane Claibourne

An inspiring roadmap for changing the world – and, it turns out, great research for the next book I’m planning to write!

  1. Caliban’s War (The Expanse #2) – James S A Corey

Book Two of The Expanse continues the big story, started in ‘Leviathon Wakes’. The authors weave a new tale of high-stakes politics and danger while keeping the focus tightly on the main characters. I’m thrilled that we have now met Chrisjen and Bobbie, both of whom are as wonderful on the page as they are on screen, and once again I am marvelling at the casting for the TV series. I can’t imagine either of them being played by anyone else.

With the after effects of ‘Leviathon Wakes’ playing out under the cloud cover of Venus, the political powers in the solar system are struggling to understand the danger they face. A serious incident on Ganeymede and a missing child bring the crew of the Rocinante together with a high-ranking UN politician and a discredited Martian Marine as they race to prevent another potential shooting war. Again, the focus is on the crew and passengers on the Roci, and on principle characters on Ganymede. It’s an extremely effective way to tell a solar-system-wide story, and keep the pages turning. I can’t wait for Book three!

  1. Believe Me – Tahereh Mafi (YA)

When I finished ‘Imagine Me’, I predicted that Tahereh Mafi would write another novella to tie up the loose ends that explode in the final chapter, and happily I was right. I also predicted that it would be narrated by Kenji, best friend to the series protagonist Juliette – but on this prediction I was wrong.

Deliciously, the entire novella is narrated by Warner, offering the reader a vivid insight into his relationship with Juliette. It also highlights his resistance to building friendships with the people they worked with to survive the rest of the series, and his own dark assessment of his value to the other characters.

‘Believe Me’ has everything we need to feel a sense of closure for the ‘Shatter Me’ series. Warner’s devotion to Juliette, and his ambivalence to everyone else in their compound. The struggle to bring about a sense of normality in a dramatically changing world. Juliette’s ability to bring people together, and the support she inspires in the people around her. And of course the romantic and very sexy scenes we have come to expect from this series.

It might be a short book, but it is full of big feelings – disappointment, jealousy, surprise and devotion. Warner’s journey is tough, but the author teases us with the possibility that his infuriating inability to connect with the people around him could be redeemed by his adoration for Juliette. The Bad Boy of the series tells us that he would do anything to make sure Juliette is safe and happy, and as he frequently wobbled in his resolve, I found myself willing him to demonstrate that she was genuinely the centre of his world. Warner and Juliette’s relationship might not be a healthy romance, but it is absolutely a convincing one. This is a frustrating, rewarding, emotional, and fitting end to the series.

  1. The Supreme Lie – Geraldine McCaughrean (YA) (Audiobook)

What can I say about this book? The second book by Geraldine McCaughrean I have read proved to be every bit as quirky, wonderful, and unpredictable as the first (‘The White Darkness’), and I was completely hooked.

Fifteen-year-old Gloria is a maid to the absolute ruler of Afalia, Madame Suprema. She is used to keeping her head down, serving meals with minimum fuss, and trying to stay invisible. When catastrophic floods devastate the country, Madame Suprema realises that she will be held responsible, and flees her home to avoid the consequences. Rather than allow the government to fall at such a critical moment, Gloria is chosen to impersonate the Suprema and bring the people of Afalia through the disaster.

Initially, Gloria is expected to follow a script and deceive the government and the people into believing the Suprema is still in control. As she finds herself drawn into the political turmoil and begins to witness the effects of the flooding, Gloria can’t help getting involved. While the Suprema’s husband is desperate to convince his young maid to stick to the script, Gloria’s interventions begin to draw attention from senators, factory owners, and the people she hopes to protect. Small decisions turn out to have catastrophic consequences, and Gloria finds herself risking the lives of her people as she desperately tries to do the right thing.

This is an absolutely gripping story with characters who grow more engaging as the complexities of the plot reveal themselves. There are no predictable moments, and no predictable outcomes as each decision brings further problems and complications. Gloria is a wonderful character, driven by compassion for the people and a conviction that she must use her new position to dispense help and justice instead of continuing the despotic self-serving actions of the real Suprema. The supporting cast includes the downtrodden husband of the Suprema, various devious politicians, Gloria’s childhood friend, and three dogs – two of whom expand the story in their own point-of-view chapters. Did I mention it was quirky?

The author uses humour and the absurdity of the situation to sneak some horrific events under the reader’s radar. Much of the narration feels lighthearted, while dealing with life-and-death decisions and disasters, and this technique allows the author to tell a sometimes harrowing story without plunging the reader into despair. Gloria’s optimism and determination to save people keeps the narrative feeling upbeat, and even when the reader can see danger in her actions, the maid-turned-Suprema keeps pushing for a positive outcome. The contrast between Gloria’s good intentions and the devious self-serving actions of the politicians adds menace to an already precarious setup, and the Suprema’s husband finds himself treading a careful line between the maid’s ambitions and the credibility of the lie.

The audiobook, read by Ailsa Joy, brings a perky 1920s newsreel atmosphere to the narration. It’s perfect for a quirky story that touches on so many serious issues, and I very much enjoyed listening.

  1. Abaddon’s Gate (The Expanse #3) – James S A Corey

Slower to get started than the earlier books in the series, Abaddon’s Gate picks up the pace as the story progresses, culminating in a heart-pounding climax where every main character finds themselves in extreme danger. This is another big story that feels intimate, focusing on specific people and their individual roles in the larger events.

The protomolecule has created a mysterious object at the edge of the solar system, and a flotilla of miltary ships from Earth, Mars, and the Belt sets out to guard the structure, and attempt to discover its purpose. Politics, battered egos, and different versions of the truth combine to ramp up the peril and the excitement of the plot, as the crew of the Rocinante find themselves once again at the centre of the action.

  1. The Adventure of the Spirit of Christmas – Philip Purser-Hallard (Short Story)

Phil’s annual Christmas short story is a lovely (and very clever) mash-up of Sherlock Holmes and Dickens – a perfect Boxing Day read!

  1. Some of the Best From 2020 – Short Story Collection

Last year’s short story collection from authors. The usual range of fantasy, SF, and the proudly weird. Standout stories for me include ‘An Explorer’s Cartography of Already Settled Lands’ by Fran Wilde, ‘We’re Here, We’re Here’ by K.M. Szpara, the wonderfully twisty ‘City of Red Midnight: A Hikayat’ by Scott Bakal (some proper Kev storytelling, right there!), and ‘The Little Witch’ by M. Rickert.