Book Review: The Deepest Breath

Can you tell I’m trying to play catch up with my reviews? The Deepest Breath is an utterly gorgeous novel in verse by Meg Grehan, which came out in…May. I mean, at least it was this year, right?

the deepest breath

Stevie is eleven and loves reading and sea-creatures. She lives with her mum, and she’s been best friends with Andrew since forever. Stevie’s mum teases her that someday they’ll get married, but Stevie knows that won’t ever happen. There’s a girl at school that she likes more. A lot more. Actually, she’s a bit confused about how much she likes her. It’s nothing like the way she likes Andrew. It makes her fizz inside. That’s a new feeling, one she doesn’t understand. Stevie needs to find out if girls can like girls – love them, even – but it’s hard to get any information, and she’s too shy to ask out loud about it. But maybe she can find an answer in a book. With the help of a librarian, Stevie finds stories of girls loving girls, and builds up her courage to share the truth with her mum. 

I adored The Deepest Breath. I read it so long ago now, but it’s stayed with me since. I definitely remember that it made me cry a lot, in the best possible way of course. It’s written from Stevie’s point of view as she tries to understand her feelings for Chloe, a girl in school. She doesn’t know if it’s ok for girls to like other girls like that, but she doesn’t feel like there’s anyone to ask. And Stevie likes to understand things. She asks questions. She reads huge non-fiction books, full of facts, because understanding things makes life that little less scary. So not knowing what the way she’s feeling means is terrifying for Stevie. And no matter how hard she tries, she doesn’t seem to be able to ask her mum, or make her understand.

The relationship between Stevie and her mum was one of my favourite things. There’s a bit towards the end of the book when the loveliest librarian ever written thinks Stevie’s mum has rejected her because she has feelings for a girl, and I wanted to shout no! She just hasn’t understood what Stevie’s trying to tell her! Because Stevie’s mum is not the sort of person who would reject her daughter for anything. Their closeness is evident in every line, and you can see that they mean the world to each other. They get each other through the tough times and it was just lovely to see that sort of relationship on the page.

The writing in The Deepest Breath is just gorgeous too. It’s a stream of consciousness from Stevie, full of feelings and sadness and questions and, maybe above all else, love – for her mum, for her friends, for Chloe. It is really quite breathtaking how much of Stevie we get to see in a relatively short book, and I love all of her.

I really can’t recommend The Deepest Breath enough. I am so thankful for the gifted copy because I know it wouldn’t have crossed my radar otherwise, and it’s one of the best books I’ve read this year. It’s also one of the most important – I don’t think there’s enough LGBT+ fiction aimed at this age group (the younger end of YA), especially this well written. Please do yourselves a favour and pick it up. I promise you won’t regret it!

5/5

Many thanks to Nina Douglas and Little Island Press for the gifted copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: Girl Squads

Girl Squads was sent to me for free in exchange for an honest review.

I’m going to be honest with you: when Girl Squads by Sam Maggs (illustrated by Jenn Woodall) arrived on my doorstep *cough*last year*cough*, I had absolutely no memory of requesting it. I still don’t know if I requested it or was sent it unsolicited, but I don’t really care, because this is a fab little book, full of real-life women making a difference in a range of fields. I like to think I’d have picked it up at some point if it hadn’t been sent to me – it’s exactly the sort of thing I like, and goes very well with my copies of Rejected Princesses and Bygone Badass Broads – but it probably wouldn’t have been top of my wishlist and I might not have noticed it.

girl squads

A modern girl is nothing without her squad of besties. But don’t let all the hashtags fool you: the #girlsquad goes back a long, long time. In this hilarious and heartfelt book, geek girl Sam Maggs takes you on a tour of some of history’s most famous female BFFs, including:

• Anne Bonny and Mary Read, the infamous lady pirates who sailed the seven seas and plundered with the best of the men
• Jeanne Manon Roland and Sophie Grandchamp, Parisian socialites who landed front-row seats (from prison) to the French Revolution
• Sharon and Shirley Firth, the First Nations twin sisters who would go on to become Olympic skiers and break barriers in the sport
• The Edinburgh Seven, the band of pals who fought to become the first women admitted to medical school in the United Kingdom
• The Zohra Orchestra, the ensemble from Afghanistan who defied laws, danger, and threats to become the nation’s first all-female musical group

And many more! Spanning art, science, politics, activism, and even sports, these girl squads show just how essential female friendship has been throughout history and throughout the world. 

My favourite thing about Girl Squads was the way we didn’t just get stories about “important” women. We had athletes, artists and scientists, as well as activists and warriors, and there was a wide range of countries and cultures represented as well. I also liked that it wasn’t all historical, there were some very modern entries that readers might not have heard of, such as the Zohra Orchestra. There were a few people that had come up in other books of this type, but a lot of them were new to me, and I love learning new things.

The one thing that really, really bugged me though was the insistence of using terms like squad and BFF and the like everywhere. I know I sound like a grumpy old woman, but it really pulled me out of the text. I get that that’s probably just me though, and I’m sure the younger audience at which Girl Squads is aimed don’t get annoyed at it.

I did also find some of the entries a bit too long, and they felt like a chore to get through. However, most of the entries held my interest and I certainly finished the book with a better knowledge of the people featured, even those I’d previously heard of.

I defnitely recommend Girl Squads if you’re looking for a light, non-fiction book. It’s easy to just read one entry if you have limited time, or pick and choose according to what interests you.

It’s not my favourite of these types of books, but Girl Squads is definitely an interesting read and well worth picking up!

3.5/5

Many thanks to Jamie-Lee Nardone and Quirk Books for my gifted copy of Girl Squads

Blog Tour: Angel Mage

ANGEL MAGE BLOG TOUR PART 2

Today is my turn on the massive blog tour for Angel Mage by Garth Nix. I’ve never read a Garth Nix book previously, but I know so many people love them, so I was excited to head into this one. I wasn’t disappointed!

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More than a century has passed since Liliath crept into the empty sarcophagus of Saint Marguerite, fleeing the Fall of her country, Ystara. But she emerges from her magical sleep still beautiful, looking no more than nineteen, and once again renews her single-minded quest to be united with her lover, Palleniel, the archangel of Ystara.

Liliath’s quest centres round four young Sarancians, all seemingly different but who share something very important. There is Simeon, a studious doctor-in-training; Henri, a dedicated fortune hunter; Agnez, an adventurous musketeer; and Dorotea, an icon-maker and scholar of angelic magic.

The four feel a strange, immediate kinship for each other from the moment they meet, but they do not know why, or suspect their importance. Only Liliath knows their secret, and she aims to draw them in to her complex plot, just as she manipulates the Queen and her musketeers and everyone else around here.

The four friends must learn to rely on each other and each of their unique skills if they’re going to stand a chance to outwit Liliath and the angels she commands.

I really enjoyed Angel Mage. Standalone fantasy books are such a rarity these days that it was just nice to read something that ended. That’s not to say there isn’t room for more, because there definitely is, and I would like to read it should Garth Nix ever decide to write it, but the story is nicely self-contained. I would love to learn more about Liliath’s life prior to the start of the book, but we’re given enough information that we can piece it together ourselves, and sometimes that’s good too.

It’s probably worth mentioning at this point that Angel Mage is a retelling of The Three Musketeers, but my entire knowledge of the musketeers comes from watching Dogtanian 30 years ago, so don’t be expecting any clever comparisons!

We have four protagonists in Angel Mage, each of whom has their own flaws and good points, and I thought the differences between them were well written and very clear. My favourites were Simeon and Dorotea, I think because they genuinely just wanted to get on with their vocations and really didn’t appreciate being caught up in the adventure. Agnez and Henri were after glory and fortune – there’s nothing wrong with that, and they each have perfectly respectable reasons for it, but it does make them slightly less sympathetic.

I’ve seen a lot of people talking about how good the magic system is Angel Mage, and I have to agree with this. Magic is provided by angels, each of whom has their own scope and strength, depending on where they sit in the hierarchy. However, there is a cost – the summoning of an angel is powered by your life force so the more powerful the angel you summon, the more years of your life you lose, which results in mages dying young, looking three times their actual age. I loved this aspect of the magic! The cardinal, for example, has to really need the angels, because she knows the next time she summons one, it will probably kill her. This in turn leads to her authority dwindling, because her enemies know she can’t act against them unless she’s willing to die for it. I found this fascinating, because it had such an impact on the politics of the city, especially considering the queen, king and church were all vying for control.

I liked that we got point of view chapters from all four protagonists, and the antagonist. I always enjoy reading the antagonist’s point of view – why is Liliath doing this? What does she ultimately want? – and I particularly enjoyed being able to anticipate the outcome of events based on reading all the points of view.

Pretty much my only gripe with Angel Mage was the pacing. I found some of it very slow indeed, (I won’t lie – there were moments when I’d put it down and couldn’t bring myself to pick it back up) and then the ending seemed incredibly rushed, and I think the pacing could have been improved. I really enjoyed everything else though!

If you’re already a Garth Nix fan, you’ve probably already picked Angel Mage up. If you’re not, then I don’t think you’ll be disappointed in it as an adult fantasy book!

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

4/5

Angel Mage is out now. May thanks to Gollancz for the gifted copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.

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. 

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

sanctuary cover

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!

 

Blog Tour: Shadows of the Short Days

Shadows blog tour graphic

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!

i hold your heart

‘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.