Blog Tour: Bright Steel

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I’m thrilled that today is my stop on the blog tour for Bright Steel, the last book in the Masters & Mages trilogy by Miles Cameron. I reviewed the first book in the series here, and hopefully my review of Dark Forge, the second book in the series, will have been posted by the time you’re reading this. I have, with a few caveats, really enjoyed reading this series, and I’m actually feeling quite sad to say goodbye to Aranthur and co!

bright steel

Every war come down to the flash of bright steel.

Even when the air is full of magic . . .

Aranthur and his friends have come together across different continents and realms with one purpose: to strike back against the forces which have torn a hole in the heavens and threaten to tear the world beneath them apart as well.

With time running short, and treason at home, there are battles to be fought on the field, in the magical arena, and in the ever-deadly realm of politics, and they cannot fail anywhere or everything will fall. Victory will require enemies to trust one another, old foes to fight together, spies to reveal the truth and steadfast allies to betray long-corrupt rulers.

Is Aranthur, a twenty-year-old student, really the master strategist to bring it all together?And can he and his friends build enough trust to overcome aeons of lies when their plans inevitably fall to pieces?

Do they even know, for sure, who the enemy is . . . ?

It is, I think, going to be very difficult to review Bright Steel without spoiling the first two books in the series. As is the nature of series, the stories follow on, and I can’t really explain this one if you don’t know what came before. I will, however, say that this is the best of the series. It’s exciting and breath-taking, and you know the characters well enough to properly care about what happens. Aranthur’s utter despair at what war is making of him is as heartbreaking as if Cameron had decided to kill the character. I’ve watched Aranthur grow from a naive farm boy to a hardened soldier and battlemage, and it hurts to see him hurting (and boy does Cameron put him through the mill in this book!). It’s not just Aranthur of course, but Dahlia, Sasan, Drako and Inoques, and Aranthur’s loyal band of soldiers under his command. Some of them we know more than others, but we know enough to worry about them.

I did find some of the book confusing, as I did with the previous two. I think it must be something about Cameron’s writing style that doesn’t quite mesh with my brain, because I sometimes feel like I’m being asked to make leaps of logic that there’s no evidence for. It’s also, purposely I think, choppy. While this can be a bit frustrating, I think it also emphasises how Aranthur is feeling and how his brain works. Those leaps of logic that I struggle with? They’re how Aranthur keeps going, and how he makes his plans, some of which are more successful than others, and so I’m more at peace with the style than I was when I read and reviewed Cold Iron.

The world-building is less obvious in Bright Steel than the previous two books. They’ve already done all the heavy lifting, and so Bright Steel is able to concentrate more purely on the story. However, the descriptions are as lush as ever, and Aranthur’s continued development of his magic as he gains knowledge from his travels and merges different styles of magic makes perfect sense. I loved the period we spend in the Emperor’s palace, especially all the polictical machinations, and I also really liked his realisation of exactly why the Empire has its rules for magic, and the consequences his work could have in the future. It felt like something the story had been building to and not something thrown in as an afterthought. The other thing I really liked was Aranthur’s sword. I can’t tell you why without spoiling both Dark Forge and Bright Steel, but I loved it.

I would have liked a bit more information at the end about what happened next, but I suspect Cameron is saving that for his next series. This might be the last book in a trilogy, but that doesn’t mean there can’t be a new trilogy a bit further down the line with new characters and cameos from our favourites. If such a thing came to exist, I’d definitely be picking it up!

Bright Steel is a fantastic book, full of adventure (although with more than a smattering of gore). It ties up almost all of the loose ends of the trilogy, and has some great callbacks to events in the first book. It’s a fitting end to the Masters & Mages series and I’m very glad I got to know Aranthur and his friends.

4/5

Bright Steel is out on 22 August. Many thanks to Waseem and Stevie at Gollancz for the gifted copy of the book, in exchange for an honest review. 

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YALC 2019

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The UKYA Discord Bloggers group

So, YALC (the Young Adult Literature Convention) is over for another year. If you follow me on twitter, you’ll know that I was finding it difficult to summon up any enthusiasm in the weeks leading up to the event. I’d found last year’s very frustrating and as the forecast temperature kept rising and rising, I was getting more and more anxious that the entire weekend was going to be a disaster. Fortunately, once I finished work for a two week break, I felt much more positive and in the end I really enjoyed myself.

Partly this was because I actually took my own advice this year. I stayed hydrated and fed, I only took eight books for signing, which were spread over the weekend, and I had a much better idea of what I wanted to do and see. It helped that I didn’t want to see most of the really high profile authors and that I purposely did most of my book buying/acquiring on Friday. I’m pretty certain that by the time I left Olympia on Saturday, I’d seen more panels this year than I did in the last two years combined, and I still had another day to go!

The other things that helped were the VQ (virtual queue) system and the publishers’ move to raffles for proofs. Neither of these things were across the board, and the VQ system in particular was flawed because it was announced so close to opening, but it was better. There are a couple of publishers who need to rethink their strategies however. I was lucky enough to be there early enough on the Friday to get the proofs I wanted of Girls of Storm and Shadow, The Beautiful *and* Infinity Son, but neither of the systems used for those proofs was fair and I’ve got to admit that I do feel a bit guilty for benefiting from them.

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My bookmark!

So what did I actually do at YALC? Well, I bought a lot of books, obviously, but on Friday I went to Literary Galaxy‘s bookmark making workshop, which I loved, followed by the UKYA Blogger Award workshop on b/vlogging tips and the It’s a #life panel. I then got my books signed by Tom Pollock, Yasmin Rahman and Karen Gregory. I’ve met Tom and Karen a few times now and they are two of the loveliest people you could ever meet, and Yasmin was also delightful. I loved chatting to all of them about their books! I wish I’d gone to Akemi Dawn Bowman’s workshop, Self-care is a superpower, but alas I did not. I did make it to the UKYA Blogger Awards on Friday evening though, and was delighted to see friends win. Congratulations to everyone nominated, because you’re all brilliant!

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Friday’s book haul

Saturday was not the best day for me, as I ended up having to leave early, and I missed one of my most anticipated signings, and a panel I really wanted to attend as a result. But these things happen, and I still got to see two amazing panels – Mystical YA and Celebrate every body (if you ever get the chance to see Dhonielle Clayton speaking, do grab the opportunity with both hands, because she’s brilliant). I also got my copy of The Paper & Hearts Society signed by Lucy Powrie, but I was about to pass out at the time, so it wasn’t the best of circumstances, and definitely not the way I wanted to meet someone I’ve been chatting to online for a while now!

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The Celebrate every body panel (L-R, Juno Dawson, Laura Bates, Dhonielle Clayton, Moira Fowley-Doyle and Bethany Rutter)

I also ventured down into LFCC on Saturday, which was something I utterly failed to do last year, and it was a nice break, even though the heat was much worse down there. I did find my favourite geeky jewellery makers, but I was good and I only bought one necklace. LFCC is too busy for me though, and I admire the people who spend their entire convention there, because I quickly got very frustrated and wanted to return to YALC!

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The view into the LFCC merch hall

My original plan for Sunday was to have a nice, leisurely start to the day – until I remembered I needed a VQ ticket for Natasha Ngan and realised I needed to be as early as possible. Fortunately I was successful, and managed to get a really early number, which made my afternoon a lot easier. I also got to three panels – New voices in YA fantasyMaster your own journey and Monsters and their makers, which was one of my favourite panels. I also did something I’ve never done before at YALC, and went out for my lunch and it was great! Fresh air and a bit of a break did me the world of good, and I need to remember to try it next year too.

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The Monsters and their makers panel

Sunday, of course, is the day that the publishers realise they don’t want to take all their stock away again, so sell it off. I took advantage of this and spent much more than I planned to. But it doesn’t count if it’s books, right?

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The complete haul. There’s no such thing as too many books, right?

The best thing about YALC though, is getting to see all my friends and people I’ve only chatted to online. I met new people in the entrance queue, and others in the signing queues. It’s always so lovely to see everyone, even if it’s only for a couple of minutes here and there and it’s definitely the best part of the weekend! I had such a good time this year, even though I absolutely wasn’t expecting to. I only planned to meet eight authors and I was worried I wouldn’t be interested in the panels because I didn’t know the people on them. But it was actually nice to not feel pressured to see something because of the authors involved, and actually, even though I didn’t plan to meet them, there were still a lot of my faves there and it’s always lovely to see people like Melinda Salisbury and David Owen on panels.

I haven’t decided yet if I’m going to go next year. I’m leaning towards yes, but we’ll see how I feel nearer the time. YALC still needs to make improvements, and some of the attendees need to learn how to behave decently, but I’m always hopeful these things will change. We’ll see how it goes.

If you want to read about other experiences at this year’s YALC, check out the links below. All the posts are great, but I absolutely recommend Jenn’s post about the accessibility problems.

YALC 2019 – Let’s talk about accessibility (jenniely.com)

The ups and downs of YALC 2019 (Finding The Plot of My Life)

My YALC 2019 experience (The Little Contemporary Corner)

My YALC experience – part 1 (The Tsundoku Chronicles) and part 2

YALC and LFCC 2019 Part One (Writing With Wolves)

YALC 2019, the event from the perspective of a book blogger (booksnest.co.uk)

Let me know if you’ve written your own post on YALC, and I’ll add it to the list!

And, because it has to be done, the obligatory (blurry) Jason Momoa photo:

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Book Review: Dark Forge

So I was sent Dark Forge rather a long time ago (I think at least six months), but it’s a tall book and as so often happens with tall books, it ended up at the bottom of a book pile. The only reason I got around to reading it was because I joined the blog tour for the third book in the series, Bright Steel (keep an eye out for my post on the 20th August!), and thought I should probably get myself up to date! I’m actually quite glad I left it, because being able to go from Dark Forge straight into Bright Steel was definitely better than having to wait six months, but I apologise to Gollancz, who gifted me the copy, for the long delay!

dark forge

Only fools think war is simple.
Or glorious.

Some are warriors, some captains; others tend to the fallen or feed the living.

But on the magic-drenched battlefield, information is the lifeblood of victory, and Aranthur is about to discover that carrying messages, scouting the enemy, keeping his nerve, and passing on orders is more dangerous, and more essential, then an inexperienced soldier could imagine . . . especially when everything starts to go wrong.

Battle has been joined – on the field, in the magical sphere, and in the ever-shifting political arena . . .

Dark Forge is the sequel to Cold Iron (which I reviewed here), but for me it represents a  leap in quality from its predecessor. It’s not that I didn’t enjoy Cold Iron, but I did have some problems with it, and although some of those issues are still present, I found that I was much more involved with the story, and it just pulled me along. If you’re not a fan of written battles (and I’m not), Dark Forge is a little slow to start – there’s a lot of military speak that meant very little to me – but I got used to it, and it wasn’t long before Aranthur, our main character, and his friends were getting themselves into trouble trying to fix magical booby-traps. Once we moved past the battle scenes, I found it a much quicker read, and I raced through it in the equivalent of a few hours.

We meet some new characters in Dark Forge, and I loved them all, but especially Inoques, the captain of the ship Aranthur is granted as part of a mission. She’s hiding some big secrets, but I found myself very definitely of the same opinion as Aranthur – the secrets didn’t really matter. And although this isn’t a review of Bright Steel, I did love seeing her develop over the two books, as her relationship with Aranthur changes her.

I’m still not a huge fan of the jumpy writing style, but the more I read, the more I decided it was representative of Aranthur himself and I was therefore more inclined to let it go. It’s still a little bit confusing, but again, it was something I got used to, and in the end it didn’t affect my enjoyment of the book.

I also have to say that Dark Forge jumps right into the plot from the start, and if it’s been a while since you read Cold Iron, you’re probably not going to remember who everyone is. Miles Cameron doesn’t really make any allowance for this in his writing, and although it slowly came back to me, it did take a while! There’s still good character development of all the secondary principles, so it wasn’t a huge problem and I just enjoyed getting to know everyone again.

I liked Dark Forge a lot, and I would definitely recommend picking it up, even if you weren’t a huge fan of Cold Iron. It takes the threads laid in the first book and runs with them, weaving them into a great story with very high stakes. You do need to read Cold Iron first though, because Dark Forge won’t make sense without it.

4/5

Dark Forge is out now in paperback. Thanks to Stevie at Gollancz for the gifted copy in exchange for an honest review!

 

Blog Tour: Sanctuary

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Today is my stop on the Sanctuary blog tour. Sanctuary is the first adult novel by V V James (who has written YA as Vic James), and I jumped at the chance to be sent a gifted copy so I could read it early. Described as Big Little Lies meets The CraftSanctuary is a story of prejudice and secrets in an America where witchcraft is known and (mostly) openly practised.

Content warning for the book: rape, sexual assault of minors

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The small Connecticut town of Sanctuary is rocked by the death of its star quarterback.

Daniel’s death looked like an accident, but everyone knows his ex-girlfriend Harper is the daughter of a witch – and she was there when he died.

Then the rumours start. When Harper insists Dan was guilty of a terrible act, the town turns on her. So was his death an accident, revenge – or something even darker?

As accusations fly and secrets are revealed, paranoia grips the town, culminating in a trial that the whole world is watching.

I really, really enjoyed Sanctuary. I wasn’t sure if I would or not, given that its focus isn’t really on the fantasy elements, but I raced through all 450 pages in a few hours and found myself unable to put it down. It’s a very timely book, inspired to some extent by the Me Too movement, but also using the town’s prejudice against witchcraft to examine other forms of prejudice, the consequences of blind faith and scapegoating.

Sanctuary starts with four women toasting their children’s graduation from high school. Sarah is the town’s witch and she’s tolerated more than loved, but that doesn’t stop everyone from coming to her when they need help with, say, a pesky gambling addiction, or when they’ve drunk too much the night before and need a hangover cure. Everyone has their secrets in Sanctuary, and Sarah knows most of them. The other three women are her coven and her closest friends, bound together by something that happened six years earlier. They’re not witches themselves, but they can lend their energies to Sarah to make her magic more effective. Their children are all around the same age, and have grown up together, but they no longer get on, although three of them are at the graduation party in a house across town. James manages to get a lot of information across in a very short time at the beginning of Sanctuary, without it ever feeling like an info dump. The gaps are filled in throughout the book, but the first two chapters set the scene very effectively, and made me want to know more about this small American town.

It must be said that none of the town characters are particularly likeable, even Sarah, who’s probably the best of them, and who we’re clearly meant to empathise with, but I like that in a book. Nobody’s perfect, and it’s good to see the flaws alongside the good because it makes the characters more relatable. Having three main point of view characters worked well for this too – Sarah, Abigail (the mother of the dead boy) and Maggie, the detective sent to Sanctuary to investigate the case. Hearing and seeing Abigail’s grief directly from her makes her actions understandable, at least at first. She’s utterly broken by what’s happened, and it’s natural that she’s looking for someone to blame. Would I go as far as she does in her quest for answers and revenge? I’d like to think not, but who knows how I might react when placed in that situation and handed the perfect scapegoat. I’d also like to mention how despicable her husband is, in oh so many ways. I won’t go into details so as not to spoil you all, but my god, he might be the second most loathsome character in the book.

My favourite character, though, was Maggie. The outsider brought in because Daniel’s death has to be investigated at a state level, Maggie is our way into the town. Seeing it from an outsider’s point of view is so different to the way its residents see it, and she quickly realises there’s more going on here than an accidental death, whatever everyone else might think. She’s also very much treated like an outsider, despite having previously been posted in Sanctuary. The police chief doesn’t like her much right from the get-go, but he likes her even less when she refuses to tie up the case quickly, and his officers actively hinder her investigation. No-one else in the town wants to talk to her either. It’s clear that Sanctuary is a town that looks after their own – if they fit in of course.

Possibly the thing I loved most about Sanctuary was the way James tied in witchcraft and its acceptance (or not) in a plausible way. The persecutions of the 17th century still happened, the Salem witch trials still took place, but in this reality, witches used their magic to help America gain independence and began a (very heavily legislated) journey to rehabilitation and acceptance. The fear’s still there though, underlying most people’s surface tolerance of witches, and this becomes really obvious, really quickly in Sanctuary. Daniel Whitman was not a good person. He was a rapist and sexual abuser. But nobody in the town of Sanctuary wants to believe that of their star football player, even if there’s video evidence. So they blame the witch’s daughter, because everyone knows witches are slutty. And because his death doesn’t make sense, well, that’s probably her fault too. And if it’s not her fault, it must be her mother, because everyone knows what witches can do. And if she can do that, well, maybe she’s responsible for those kids getting ill and on it goes, fueled by the media and people in power who should know better. It was all so familiar too, highlighting the fact that while it might not be witches who suffer in our reality, this happens all day every day. The speed with which the town turns on Sarah and Harper, two women who have lived all their lives in Sanctuary, who are friends with the other townsfolk, whose parents and grandparents also lived all their lives there, is, frankly, terrifying.

Sanctuary is a really interesting read. The town and its residents are vividly evoked, and nothing that happened felt out of place or unrealistic within the story. It really felt like I was there, watching events unfold and not sat in my living room merely reading about them!. The use of transcripts and newspaper reports really added to this and I felt a real sense of trepidation about what was to come. As I said at the top, I found myself unable to put the book down, and if that’s not a recommendation, I don’t know what is!

Don’t forget to check out the other stops on the blog tour!

4/5

Sanctuary is out now. Many thanks to Gollancz for gifting me a copy in exchange for an honest review!

 

Ode To A Book Blogger

Apologies in advance for this – just something silly I came up with earlier and couldn’t resist posting!

Dear self

Please.

Don’t request any more books

Or buy them

Because

You know you don’t have any room for them

Or time to read them

And you’re months behind on your reviews.

I know you love them

And you just got approved for that new book

By your favourite author

But how about

You just

Don’t.

And then maybe

You can catch up

On all the books you own

But haven’t read yet.

 

Let me know what you think!

Blog Tour: Shadows of the Short Days

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Today is my stop on the blog tour for Shadows of the Short Days by Alexander Dan Vilhjalmsson. Set in an alternate Reykjavik, I was intrigued by the premise of this from the start so I was excited to have the opportunity to read it. Many thanks to Waseem and Stevie at Gollancz for my gifted copy!

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Sæmundur the Mad, addict and sorcerer, has been expelled from the magical university, Svartiskóli, and can no longer study galdur, an esoteric source of magic. Obsessed with proving his peers wrong, he will stop at nothing to gain absolute power and knowledge, especially of that which is long forbidden.

Garún is an outcast: half-human, half-huldufólk, fighting against an unjust government that refuses to grant people like her basic rights. A militant revolutionary and graffiti artist, recklessly dismissive of the status quo, she will do anything to achieve a just society, including spark a revolution. Even if she has to do it alone.

This is a tale of revolution set in a twisted version of Reykjavik fuelled by industrialised magic and populated by humans, interdimensional exiles, otherworldly creatures, psychoactive graffiti and demonic familiars.

The first thing I’m going to say, because I’m always honest in my reviews, is that the first 150 pages or so were something of a struggle. There’s a lot of world-building to do, and although it’s well written, it is also the teensiest bit dull. Or at least, it is in my opinion. Not everyone will agree, and that’s good! But if you do find yourself thinking that maybe Shadows of the Short Days isn’t for you, do stick with it, because it improves massively once we get into the action. I actually found myself breathless at one point, as I wondered if a character was going to escape the situation they’d found themselves in.

Neither of our main characters is particularly likeable, although I did have a preference for Garun, who was at least working for a cause and not just for herself. Yes, she’s pretty reckless and doesn’t really think about the other lives she’s putting at risk, and she doesn’t really value her own life much, but she believes in what she’s fighting for. Saemundar, on the other hand, thinks he’s a misunderstood genius, and sets in motion a chain of events that has unforseen consequences, in an attempt to prove his professors at the university wrong. I found myself thinking “don’t be an idiot Saemundar” quite a lot throughout his point of view chapters!

The industrial/steampunk Reykjavik setting was very interesting. Dark, but interesting. I particularly liked the interdimensional pocket version, which was even darker than the main city, and filled with exiles, huldufolk and forbidden magic. It was also interesting to see how being in that setting affected the characters in a different way to how they normally behaved. I did feel that a level of knowledge of actual Reykjavik was assumed – I might be wrong on that, but I did find it difficult to picture certain parts of the city and I’m normally a very visual reader and I wondered if the descriptions of certain places weren’t as detailed because of that assumption. But like I said, I might be wrong and actually, the Reykjavik in the book is completely different to real life Reykjavik.

There were some loose ends at the point the book finished, and it definitely ends on something of a cliffhanger, so I assume there’s a sequel on the way. I must admit, I’m intrigued to where Vilhjalmsson might take a next installment!

If you like grimdark fantasy with an industrial twist, I definitely recommend you check out Shadows of the Short Days!

Shadows of the Short Days is out now.

Don’t forget to visit the other blogs on the tour, and thanks again to Gollancz for my gifted copy.

Blog Tour: I Hold Your Heart

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Please be aware that this review discusses the themes of I Hold Your Heart and as such contains references to abusive relationships.

I am a HUGE fan of Karen Gregory – Skylarks was my favourite book of last year – so I knew as soon as I heard about I Hold Your Heart I had to be part of the blog tour. I am therefore absolutely delighted to be reviewing this book as one of the first stops!

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‘You make me feel like there’s something good in the world I can hold on to,’ Aaron says. He kisses me again, draws me so close it’s almost hard to breathe. ‘I love you, Gem. And I promise I’ll hold your heart forever.’

When Gemma meets Aaron, she feels truly seen for the first time. Their love story is the intense kind. The written-in-the-stars, excluding-all-others kind. The kind you write songs about.

But little by little their relationship takes over Gemma’s life. What happens when being seen becomes being watched, and care becomes control?

Told in both Gemma’s and Aaron’s words, this is a raw, moving exploration of gaslighting in teenage relationships that skewers our ideas of what love looks like.

I absolutely loved I Hold Your Heart. It’s a brilliant, and important book, looking at something that isn’t really covered that often in YA. A lot of contemporary YA is all about the romance, the cute relationship, the happy ending, but I Hold Your Heart looks at what happens when that cute relationship is actually an unhealthy and controlling one. Where it really comes into its own though, is in giving us both points of view. In doing so, it doesn’t invite us to empathise with Aaron, or make excuses for him, but to see how easy it is to become entangled with someone who has poor intentions.

Given that, it’s definitely important to go into this book aware of its contents. There is an emotionally abusive relationship throughout, it’s sometimes physically abusive and violent and there’s a scene where the main character is unable to give full consent to sex. These scenes were difficult enough to read without any personal experience; I can’t imagine what it would be like if you’ve lived through similar situations.

Obviously, as someone who doesn’t have any personal experience of the situation in the book, I can’t speak to how realistic the portrayal is, but it seems very realistic to me. Gemma, our main character, has some brilliant friends who see Aaron for what he is immediately, but he still manages to isolate her completely, and persuade her that her friends are jealous of their relationship and she’s better off without them. The first chapter from Aaron’s point of view is quite chilling, because he knows exactly what he’s doing. Does he set out to purposely abuse Gemma? Probably not, because I don’t think he thinks of what he’s doing as abuse. But I do think he wants to be the only person Gemma cares about and he will do whatever it takes to get that.

Gemma herself is a fascinating character. Ostensibly, she has a good life. She has parents who care about her, a nice house to live in, friends who love her and dreams to follow. But her brother (who is adorable by the way) is on the road to becoming a professional footballer, which takes most of her parents’ time, and she feels she matters less because of it. Her dad wouldn’t let her go to the college of her choice because it was too far away, but he’ll drive her brother anywhere he needs to go. It’s easy to see how Aaron is able to exploit that feeling. Aaron makes Gemma feel seen, that she is the most important thing in the world to him, and it’s the first time she’s ever felt that. I absolutely understand why she can’t see what her friend, Esi, sees, and I can equally understand that she wants to show she reciprocates. I loved (while hating that it was happening) that you could see Gemma changing right there on the page. She starts off so confident, and you can actually see her confidence being whittled away. I’m in awe of Karen’s writing skill to be honest, because that’s so hard to do when it’s written in first person.

I need to talk about Esi for a bit, because I loved her, and there’s a part of me that would have liked to see more of her, even though that wouldn’t work in the story. She’s the best sort of friend, the sort who isn’t afraid to call you out on your BS, but is also fun and caring and looking out for you, even if you aren’t doing the same in return. Everyone needs an Esi in their life!

I can’t actually talk about some of my favourite things, because they would be firmly in spoiler territory, more so than what I’ve already talked about, but trust me when I say the entire book is fantastic. It is, as I said above, hard to read at some points, because you can see what’s happening so clearly and it’s frustrating that Gemma can’t, and there are scenes that are actually painful, but that’s what makes it so brilliant. I can’t recommend I Hold Your Heart enough – Karen Gregory has definitely done it again!

Don’t forget to check out the other stops on the blog tour!

5/5

I Hold Your Heart is out on 11 July from Bloomsbury. Many thanks to Bloomsbury and Faye Rogers for my gifted copy in exchange for an honest review

Book Review: Patron Saints of Nothing

When Stripes Publishing did a blogger callout asking for people to review Patron Saints of Nothing by Randy Ribay, I grabbed the opportunity with both hands. I’m so glad I did, because this is a stunning book I might not have picked up otherwise.

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A powerful coming-of-age story about grief, guilt and the risks a Filipino-American teenager takes to uncover the truth about his cousin’s murder.

When Jay Reguero hears of his cousin Jun’s death, everything changes. Although years have passed since they were last in contact, the stories about Jun just don’t fit with the boy Jay knew. Hoping to uncover the truth, Jay travels to Jun’s home in the Philippines – but the shocking realities of life there lead to even more questions. Can Jay find the answers he seeks?

A gripping and lyrical YA novel for fans of Angie Thomas’s THE HATE U GIVE, Patrice Lawrence’s ORANGEBOY and Nic Stone’s DEAR MARTIN.
I’m not going to lie, I did put off reading Patron Saints of Nothing for a little bit because I wasn’t in the mood for such a heavy topic. I was wrong to do so, because it meant I took so much longer than I should to find out just how good this book is. I absolutely loved it, even though it did make me cry, but then it made me laugh too, and the journey it took me on was hard, but amazing.
Jay Reguero, our main character, is a Filipino-American, who left the Philippines with his family when he was very young. He’s only ever been back once, when he was ten, but while he was there, he bonded with his cousin, Jun, who was only three days younger than him. They keep in touch through letters until they’re about 14, when Jay finds other things to do with his time and just never writes back. Four years later, he learns Jun has been killed as part of President Duterte’s war on drugs, but can’t rationalise the Jun he knew with a drug dealer and addict, and so he decides to travel to the Philippines to try and find out the truth.
Jay is such a great character. He doesn’t really feel like he fits in at school – there aren’t many other non-white kids for starters – and he doesn’t really know what he wants to do once he graduates. He has a college place at a good school but he’s not excited by it at all. HIs older siblings seem to know exactly what they want and are out getting it, but Jay just feels a bit lost. And then he finds out Jun has died. Not only that, because of the way he died, there’s not going to be a funeral or memorial, and nobody will mention his name. Jay is completely thrown by this and his grief practically swarms off the page. He can’t concentrate on anything other than Jun. He researches what’s happening in the Philippines, something he’s never done before, and he starts to feel ashamed that he had no idea what’s been going on there. He also realises he’s never going to find out what actually happened to Jun by just sitting in his bedroom and he persuades his parents to let him go and visit the rest of his family – which they allow, on the condition he obeys his uncle and never mentions Jun.
I loved how we got to see Jay learning more about his family and getting to know them as adults. It was also interesting to see how he felt he didn’t fit in there anymore than he felt he fitted in in America. His uncle takes every opportunity to denigrate Jay for being too American and not Filipino enough, and he’s disgusted Jay doesn’t know more about the history or language of the Philippines. Even his nice relatives don’t think Jay can understand what’s happening in the country because he’s too much of an outsider. As we go through the book, we see Jay learning and understanding more and more about a heritage he left behind years earlier, and unpacking his identity and privilege. Also, his Tita Chato and Tita Ines were awesome and I’d quite like to see them in a book of their own!
I also loved how we got to know Jun through the letters he wrote to Jay. It was really quite bittersweet, knowing that the person who had written them had died, but it was also very effective in making us care about Jun, and allowing us to see why Jay was so convinced that he was being lied to.
The other thing I thought Ribay did really well was educating his readers about the war on drugs in the Philippines. I must admit, I had no idea this was happening, and I thought he included the information we needed in a very readable, but still sensitive  way. He doesn’t pull his punches though. The consequences of Duterte’s brutal war are laid bare on the page, and it can be a hard read at times. There’s also an author’s note at the back with resources for your own research.
This review has in no way done justice to the book, but I think it’s definitely one of those books you just have to read. Once you’ve read it, you’ll understand. I really didn’t expect to love it in the way that I do but there you go. Sometimes a book surprises you, or you read it at just the right time. I urge you to give Patron Saints of Nothing a go – but I’d probably make sure you have tissues nearby!
(If you’d like to read what Filipino reviewers think of the book – and I highly recommend that you do – check out the US blog tour hashtag on twitter #PatronSaintsPHTour)
5/5
Patron Saints of Nothing is released in the UK on 27 June by Stripes Publishing, who kindly sent me a gifted copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.

Blog Tour: Tulip Taylor

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It’s my turn on the Tulip Taylor blog tour today, and I’m delighted to be sharing my review with you. Contemporary YA is my go-to read at the moment, so getting to read Tulip Taylor [gifted] by Anna Mainwaring was a real treat!

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Challenged to go on a `survival’ reality TV show, fifteen-year-old make-up vlogger Tulip only accepts to escape her mother’s money-making schemes and protect her younger brother and sister. Set up to fail, can she prove to the TV show, to Harvey – the cute but annoying boy who got her on there – and most importantly to herself, that she’s more than just a pretty face? As Tulip puts down her phone and heads for the hills, she finds she has both the courage and insight to take on each new challenge. But as ‘reality’ gets ever more crazy, will either teen escape their families and their time in the spotlight unscathed?

As someone who is very sceptical of reality shows and incredibly popular vloggers, I wondered how I’d get on with Tulip. I’m pleased to report it was very well indeed, and I very much enjoyed reading her story. Tulip herself is a great teenage character – she’s very confident on the outside, but inside she’s plagued with all the usual anxieties. She’s found that make-up helps calm her down – she’s literally putting on a face to the outside world, presenting herself as she wants to be seen. She’s incredibly accomplished at what she does, but also very aware that because it’s make-up, and a ‘girl thing’, others think she’s daft and vapid, and this was something that rang so, so true. It also serves as the trigger point for the story – Harvey, new to the school, thinks that because Tulip is obsessed with make-up, she’s also stupid, and is very surprised to find out that’s not true.

I didn’t get on as well with Harvey as I did Tulip. At some points early on, he seems incapable of realising people can have many facets. Fortunately, he does eventually realise the error of his ways, and as the book goes on, I did become much more sympathetic to him. Harvey has his own issues he’s dealing with, not least that it’s clear to him his older brother is the favoured son. There were some really interesting parallels between Tulip and Harvey and the way their respective parents behaved, and I enjoyed seeing the two of them become closer as the book went on.

Speaking of Tulip’s parents – oh my goodness, how she hasn’t already killed her mother I don’t know! Tulip’s mum has completely thrown herself into the world of online influencers in a desperate bid to make ends meet, and she makes some quite suspect decisions as part of this – including installing cameras around the house so the whole family can be recorded 24/7. Tulip tries to reign in the wildest excesses, but there’s only so much a 15 year old can do, and in the end, the only way she can find to stop her mum’s scheme is to go on the show being run by Harvey’s father, and give her own father time to come up with some money. As reasons go for pushing yourself to do something you know you’ll hate, it’s a pretty good one, and I loved that Tulip’s main motivation was to protect her younger brother and sister.

I think I pretty much knew how the survival section would go, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t fun finding out if I was right or not! I did get frustrated with some of Tulip’s fellow contestants and how judgemental they were, but I loved Tulip proving them wrong again and again. There were definitely a few moments when I wanted to cheer, on both Tulip and Harvey’s behalf!

In short, I really enjoyed Tulip Taylor. It’s a fun YA contemporary with a serious message about discovering who you are and being true to yourself. It’s also, I think, got a good message about switching off from social media every now and again – nobody needs to be online all the time, and you never know what you might discover about yourself if you give it a try!

Don’t forget to check out the other stops on the blog tour!

4/5

Tulip Taylor by Anna Mainwaring is out on 20 June from Firefly Press. Many thanks to Firefly, Bounce Marketing and Faye Rogers for my gifted copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.

Blog Tour: Somewhere Close To Happy

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Today I’m thrilled to be part of the blog tour for Somewhere Close To Happy, the debut novel by Lia Louis. I’ve followed Lia on Twitter since before her book deal was announced, so I jumped at the chance to receive a gifted copy from Trapeze Books and review her novel!

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Lizzie James is happy. She has a steady office job (with a steady stream of tray bakes), has had the same best friend since secondary school, and she sees her family every Thursday night for take-away and TV. Granted, some members of her family she’d rather not see, and they definitely don’t want to see her after what happened back then… but on the whole she’s happy. Or somewhere close to it, anyway.

Until a letter arrives one day from her best friend, Roman. A letter dated 12 years ago, the exact day he went missing.

It brings all her painful memories flooding back: the new school she had to go to when she was ill, losing her beloved granddad, Hubble, and then losing her first love. As Lizzie uncovers the secrets of the letter, she starts to discover what really happened the year her life fell apart – and all avenues lead back to Roman.

Who sent her the letter, and what happened to Roman?

I won’t lie, Somewhere Close To Happy isn’t my usual choice of book. If you’ve been around for a while, you’ll know I tend to read either middle grade, young adult or fantasy books. But sometimes I just fancy a really good piece of adult contemporary fiction, and that’s what I got with Somewhere Close To Happy.

The story is told through a mix of present day and flashbacks, and I really liked this style as it gently led us to the only ending there could be. It worked really well, and allowed us to get to know all the characters. Obviously this was particularly important in Roman’s case, because otherwise we would only get to know him through Lizzie talking about him, and I don’t think we would be as invested in her trying to find him in that case. The flashbacks allow us to see why he means so much to her, rather than just being told, and we come to care about him as much as Lizzie does. It also gives us insight into Lizzie herself, as we see that she essentially put her life on hold when she was 16, because that seemed to be the easiest way to deal with it.

There were a few moments when I wished the story was told was told in a more linear way – it was frustrating to try and work out what exactly The Grove was, for example, or what had happened to make Lizzie’s aunt hate her so much – but on the whole the style worked for me, and I enjoyed the background being filled in slowly.

Character wise, I loved Lizzie and her immediate family, and couldn’t stand her Aunt Shall, although I’m pretty certain you’re supposed to feel that way about her! She’s so vile to Lizzie and constantly make everything about her, so when Lizzie finally stands up to her, I almost cheered! Fortunately, Lizzie is mostly surrounded by good people – her best friend Priscilla is an absolute darling, as is her sister-in-law, Katie – and they are there to support her as she revisits one of the most painful times in her life.

I also wanted to mention the mental health rep in Somewhere Close To Happy. It’s a really excellent portrayal of how mental illness can be an ongoing battle – maybe not constant, but often there in the background – how there are good and bad days, how easy it can be sometimes to hide the bad days, and how much a lack of understanding from your loved ones can affect you. It also covers grief, addiction, unwanted pregnancy and family drama, dealing with them all sensitively and realistically, without ever taking your focus away from the main story.

I really enjoyed Somewhere Close To Happy. It’s a quiet, gentle book about life and journeys, and the people we meet on the way who shape it in ways we could never imagine. It’s an incredibly well crafted book, and well worth your time.

Don’t forget to check out the other stops on the blog tour!

4/5

Somewhere Close To Happy is released in the UK on 13 June by Trapeze Books