Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo

I read and loved the Six of Crows duology (reviewed here and here) last year, and I was curious about Leigh Bardugo’s first adult novel set outside of her Grishaverse series. Ninth House is about the eight most powerful secret societies at Yale and how each one specialises in a different type of arcana. Into this world of wealth, privilege and the occult, comes high school drop out and stoner Alex Stern who is admitted for one single reason: she can see ghosts. Alex is invited to join the Ninth House which oversees the rituals of all the other houses. Haunted by both the ghosts she can see on campus but also the mysteries of her past as the sole survivor of a gruesome multiple homicide, she finds herself investigating the murder of a girl on campus and unravelling a more sinister conspiracy in the process.

The narrative switches between Alex and her mentor, Darlington, which was a little confusing at first because Darlington’s narrative is all set in the past while Alex’s runs from the past to the present. This is incredibly well plotted and there are several different mysteries running through the story, the murder on campus, her mentor’s disappearence, the night Alex survived a multiple homicide that she has no memory of, and another related to one of the ghosts haunting New Haven that Alex accidentally befriends, yet the story has a very clever resolution and still sets itself up for a sequel too.

I loved the setting, the descriptions of Yale and New Haven, and the awkward juxtaposition of student life and frat parties with ghosts (or grays as they’re called in the story) and the occult practices of the secret societies. I also adored the characters from Alex who is just trying to survive and make the best of the second chance she’s been given, Darlington the gentleman scholar, and Dawes, the reticent PhD student who works as the Ninth House’s housekeeper to Turner the straight laced detective who is Yale’s liaison with the local police department and the ghost of a local murderer who wants to clear his own name.

I enjoyed Ninth House so much that I tracked down a second copy in hardbook to survive rereads and because I will definitely be buying the second part in the series in hardback as soon as it comes out rather than waiting for the paperback like I normally do. Ninth House was thrilling, original, addictive and delightfully macabre, it’s a story to keep you up reading late into the night but one that might give you a few nightmares too, and a perfect read for Halloween or a dark and stormy night. Have a lovely week. X

3rd Quarter in Books

Evenings have been cold, dark and dreary lately in our part of the world, good for nothing except curling up under a blanket with a cup of something warm to drink and a book to read. Earlier this month, I hit my reading target for the year ahead of schedule and thought I’d share a round up of some of the books I read between July and September.

The Rules of Magic by Alice Hoffman

I’ll preface this review by saying that I loved Practical Magic, it was one of my favourite books last year, and at the end I wanted to know more about the aunts that raised Sally and Gillian, and more about their parents, which is exactly what The Rules of Magic is about. Unfortunately, this had a very different mood and atmosphere from Practical Magic, and I found it quite heavy as the aunts, Franny and Jet, and their brother, Vincent, try to navigate the family curse that love leads to ruin against the backdrop of the Vietnam War. I was disappointed by this prequel which lacked the charm and suspense of Practical Magic.

Death on the Nile by Agatha Christie

Set on board a steamboat cruising the Nile, this murder mystery seems like a simple crime of passion with the jilted ex-lover murdering the rich, beautiful and charming rival who stole her man, except that the most obvious suspect also has the most solid alibi and the victim had other enemies among the passengers. One by one the murderer picks off the witnesses before they can expose them, but the retired Detective Hercule Poirot is there to investigate. I thoroughly enjoyed this clever mystery that kept me guessing until the end with plenty of clues and misdirection.

This Poison Heart by Kaylynn Bayron

A young adult fantasy about a girl with the ability to grow plants and a natural immunity to almost all poisons finds herself caught up in a family legacy to prevent a very rare plant falling into the hands of people who would use it for their own nefarious purposes. This Poison Heart was like a cross between The Secret Garden and Poison Ivy and a dollop of Greek mythology thrown in too, I enjoyed the mystery but found it too slow paced and I probably won’t read the sequel.

Redemptor by Jordan Ifueko

Raybearer is very likely to be one of my Top 10 favourite reads this year, and I read the sequel as soon as it came out to find out if Tarisai succeeded in annointing her own council as the first Empress Raybearer and survived her journey through the underworld to end the sacrifice of hundreds of children to appease the spirits who threaten to bring war, disease and chaos to their lands if they don’t. I found Redemptor a little bit too meandering in places and I missed some of the supporting characters from Raybearer who drop in and out of the sequel, although I enjoyed getting to know a few new characters too. Tarisai’s journey through the underworld was the highlight of the story, a true physical, mental and spiritual challenge with sacrifices and betrayals that me gripped up to the very satisfying conclusion.

Daring Greatly by Brene Brown

I’ve been a fan of Brene Brown since watching her TED talk on shame several years ago, and have been working my way through her books ever since. Daring Greatly is a book about how to recognise and overcome shame, and practice vulnerability in different spheres of our lives in order to cultivate connection, creativity and integrity. I didn’t think this is one of her best works, and it didn’t have the profound effect on me that I Thought It Was Just Me or Rising Strong did but I did appreciate the blend of research and personal experience, and how Brene practises and models vulnerability, courage and empathy for her children and in her family were the highlights for me.

Spin the Dawn by Elizabeth Lim

Spin the Dawn is the most charming and captivating story about a young woman, Maia, who pretends to be her brother in order to become the Emperor’s new tailor – a role forbidden to women. At court, Maia finds herself drawn into the political intrigues between the young Emperor, the Lord Enchanter and the Warlord’s daughter reluctantly betrothed to the Emperor in order to restore peace between the North and South following the Five Winters War. With the gift of her grandmother’s enchanted scissors, Maia embarks on the Warlord’s daughter’s seemingly impossible challenge to create three wedding dresses made from the laughter of the Sun, the tears of the Moon and the blood of the Stars. I simply adored this story that is as much a romance as a coming-of-age quest, though unfortunately I didn’t find the sequel, Unravel the Dusk, as charming or gripping.

The Inheritance Games by Jennifer Lynn Barnes

The Inheritance Games is a fast paced and gripping YA mystery about a seemingly ordinary girl, Avery, grieving her mum and trying to get the money and grades to get into a good college whose life is turned upside down when Tobias Hawthorne – a billionaire she’s never met – disowns his entire family and leaves his fortune and estate to her instead. This reminded me of Knives Out and Rebecca as Avery tries to solve the mystery of why Tobias Hawthorne chose her and finds herself caught up in the scheming Hawthorne family, working with and against Tobias’ four charming and clever grandsons to solve an elaborate treasure hunt with a few assassination attempts along the way. The only thing that let this story down for me was the fairly predictable love triangle between Avery and two of the Hawthorne brothers, but this was a fun mystery with plenty of suspense and I’ll definitely be reading the rest of the trilogy.

Have a lovely week. X

Becoming by Michelle Obama

I’ve been binge-reading lately, finishing one book and immediately starting another, but a little while ago in the midst of a reading slump, I decided to try listening to the audiobook of Michelle Obama’s autobiography, Becoming. I found it really easy to dip in an out of while washing the dishes or cooking dinner, and giving it my full attention at other times. At 19 hours in length it did feel like quite a commitment, but I found it so easy to listen to Michelle Obama narrating her story, from her wry comments (usually poking fun at herself or Barack) to the way her voice cracks slightly when describing her father’s death.

Unsurprisingly, Michelle manages to combine the personal and political describing the discrimination and racism that limited the educational, housing and employment opportunities of her parents, aunts, uncles and grandparents that were mirrored for black people all across the United States. Although there’s no doubt that her own determination, courage and work ethic helped her rise above her humble beginnings, she’s keen to acknowledge and full of gratitude for her parents, teachers and friends who supported and enouraged her every step of the way. Becoming is highly informative, inspiring and relatable and there’s so many themes running through this memoir about race, sexism, disability, poverty and social class but also about family, community, hard-work, determination and ambition.

Michelle’s story covers everything from her childhood in South Chicago in the 1960s, through her awkward adolescent years, her first romances, studying at Princeton University, her career choices, meeting and falling in love with Barack Obama, their struggles with infertility, motherhood, and entering the maelstrom of public scrutiny as he campaigned for and won the Presidency. I really appreaciated how open and honest she is about the resentment she felt about when Barack’s political aspirations interfered with their family’s life, and the compromises they made to find a balance for their family as well as the huge adjustment to life under the spotlight, it’s a fascinating glimpse behind the scenes into their marriage, family life and the inner workings of the White House.

Becoming is an informative and inspiring autobiography, full of humility, humour, vulnerability and candour, and I’d thoroughly recommend the audiobook. Have a lovely weekend. X

The Strawberry Thief by Joanne Harris

Set 17 years after Chocolat (reviewed here), The Strawberry Thief is the fourth book in the series; Vianne and her youngest daughter, Rosette, are still living above their chocolaterie in Lansquenet-sous-Tannes (while her oldest daughter, Anouk, lives in Paris with her boyfriend) and the local florist, Narcisse, causes a stir in the village when he dies and leaves part of his estate to Rosette. Lansquenet is still the same town full of gossip, secrets and simmering resentments, but there’s a new witch in town who threatens Vianne by bringing the winds of change with her and challenging her to face her fears.

The narrative switches between Vianne, Rosette, the priest Francis Renaud and Narcisse who leaves his final confession to Reynaud – though it changes hands a few times through the story. I love returning to these characters to see how they’ve grown and changed, both Vianne and her former nemesis Reynaud, have been humbled by their experiences over the years, and have forged a friendship with one another.

I especially appreciated Vianne’s perspective on motherhood, and that bittersweet mix of emotions between her fierce desire to protect her daughters and the sweet sorrow of watching them grow up and outgrow their need for their parents. Yet as Vianne realises that her fear of commitment is rooted in her fear of loss, her daughters teach her that change can be liberating, and that the past can’t be changed, nor the future controlled but the only time that really matters is now.

I’ve enjoyed all of these stories, finding them all so absorbing, easy to read, full of humour and wisdom, and as comforting as a cup of rich, spiced hot chocolate, yet they’re not without tension or conflict. The Strawberry Thief is a story of secrets and confessions, guilt and forgiveness, parents and children, friends and lovers, fear, loss, love and change. Have a lovely week. X

Raybearer by Jordan Ifueko

Sharing a review of the young adult fantasy novel Raybearer today to refresh my memory of events before starting the concluding part, Redemptor, which came out this week. Raybearer follows Tarisai, the daughter of the mysterious Lady who has been training her daughter since birth to infiltrate the Council of Eleven and murder the Crown Prince, but joining the Council means being connected to the Prince and his Council by his telepathic Ray.

I really loved Tarisai as she was raised in relative comfort and wealth yet lacked family, warmth or affection, which she craves deeply, and she’s torn between seeking her mother’s love and approval, and the family she could have as part of the Raybearer’s Council. Tarisai also struggles with her devotion and loyalty to the well-meaning but often naive Crown Prince, and the injustices she sees across the Arit Empire, which is steeped in tradition, such as the Treaty of the Underworld that demands the sacrifice of 300 children every year to prevent the spirits of the underworld from cursing the Empire with plagues, famine and war.

I found the West-African inspired Arit Empire really refreshing, the world was vivid and vibrant full of culture, history, mythology and folklore.

Raybearer is a captivating and enchanting story about family, friendship, love and courage, full of twists, suspense and moral dilemmas, and I’m really excited to find out what happens next in the sequel. Have a lovely week. X

Legendborn by Tracy Deonn

The weather has turned in our part of the country, and I’ve spent the last few evenings curled up on the couch reading while raindrops drummed against the windows and thunder rumbled. I’ve been reading a lot of YA fantasy this year, and have found some really original and captivating stories, one of my favourites so far is Legendborn.

The story follows 16-year-old Briana ‘Bree’ Matthews as she atempts to infilitrate a secret society at university that she suspects may have had something to do with her mother’s death. I did struggle to suspend my disbelief a little bit that the direct descendents of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table (the Legendborn) are fighting demons (shadowborn) in North Carolina but this turned out to be a really refreshing and modern retelling of Arthurian folklore.

I adored the protagonist, Bree, and really appreciated her observations about race, privilege and grief. Legendborn does feature a love triangle between Bree and two rival members of the secret society, Selwyn and Nick, which is one of my least favourite YA tropes as there’s always a risk that readers will be disappointed if their preferred pairing don’t end up together but it does fit with Arthurian legend, the love interests are very different from one another and it’s not at all obvious who Bree will end up with. There are a lot of supporting characters some of which I found quite unremarkable but others I’m really looking forward to seeing more of such as Bree’s gay Taiwainese-American bestfriend, a non-binary member of the secret society, the secret society’s healer and Bree’s dad.

I found the first half of the story a bit too heavy on exposition explaining the history and hierarchy of the scions, squires, pages, vassals and regents that make up the Order of the Legendborn which did slow down the plot. I also found the mastermind manipulating the order towards war with the shadowborn fairly obvious, but this story still packed a few clever twists and I raced through the second half, and the sequel (hopefully due out in 2022) is one of my most eagerly anticipated books. Legendborn is an orignal twist on Arthurian lore with a great cast of characters, plenty of humour, romance, mystery, magic and action. Have a lovely week. X

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

I’m embarrassed to admit that I’ve never read Pride and Prejudice given how enduringly popular it is, probably even more suprising is that despite vague memories of the BBC adaptation starring Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth, I knew very little about the story before reading it. The premise is that the five Bennet sisters are seeking to marry well in order to avoid destitution when their father dies as his home is due to be inherited by the nearest male relative in line.

It’s hard not to like the older sisters, Jane and Elizabeth; Jane is kind, forgiving and thinks the best of everyone, while Lizzie is lively, opinionated and I admired her refusal to settle for a loveless marriage (though at times I was also convinced she’d end up homeless and penniless because of it!), and how I cringed for them every time their mother or younger sisters embarrassed them in public.

There’s quite a large cast of characters, some of them comical and some of them downright scheming as they attempt to secure their own marriages and fortunes, but far from being a historical rom-com, it impressed upon me how few options women without means had during the Regency-era. There’s a fair amount of meddling, misunderstandings and personal pride and prejudices to overcome before any of them can live happily ever after.

Although slower-paced and very different from the novels I usually read, I was swept along by this delightful story. Even knowing the ending, there were times when I genuinely wondered how the characters would ever find their way there as they navigated all the obstacles in their way. I don’t read many classics but Pride and Prejudice is such an absorbing, witty and comforting story that it’s not at all hard to see why it’s such an enduring favourite and one that I thoroughly enjoyed. Have a lovely week! X

Mid Year Reading Roundup

Halfway through 2021 and I’ve read more books in the first half of this year than I managed to read in the whole of 2020. Sharing a little roundup of shorter reviews for the books I’ve read during the second quarter of the year.

A Song of Wraiths and Ruin by Roseanne A. Brown

The story follows Princess Karina, last surviving member of the Royal Family, who wishes to resurrect her recently murdered mother, and Malik, a refugee whose sister is captured by a vengeful spirit, who agrees to kill the princess in order to free his sister. I didn’t particularly like either of the protagonists at first, though I was more invested in Malik’s dilemma about whether he could kill the woman he’s fallen in love with in order to free his sister than Karina’s, but both characters go through some significant development and a few clever twists kept me interested until the end.

Incendiary by Zoraida Cordova

Renata is one of the Moria, a race of people with magical abilities – though her ability to steal memories makes her an outcast among her own – and she joins the resistance who are fighting against the humans who persecute them. When her unit’s commander is captured, she agrees to become a spy in the heart of the enemy’s stronghold in order to rescue him. This had a slow start, but it really picks up in the second half, which is full of angst, twists and betrayals, and had me eager to get my hands on the concluding part of the duology.

The Memory of Babel by Christelle Dabos

This was one of my most eagerly anticipated books of the year, but I’m not sure it lived up to my expectations. Set a couple of years after the events of the previous book (reviewed here), following Thorn’s mysterious disappearance, Ophelia remains determined to find him and unravel the mysteries of the creator and their shattered world. None of these books are action-packed but this one was particularly slow-paced, and there are a lot of disparate threads that I’m hoping the fourth and final part of the series will tie together. Ophelia and Thorn remain an odd couple, but their stop-start romance was the highlight of this book for me.

We Hunt the Flame by Hafsah Faizal

A huntress and an assassin are sent on a quest to return magic to their dying land. This was probably one of my biggest disappointments and at times I wondered if I was reading a first draft because it’s full of interesting ideas but there’s little suspense, action or mystery, and it’s full of cliches, tropes and deus ex machina. As I don’t like writing wholly negative reviews, I’ll say that one of the supporting characters, Altair, turned out to be far more interesting and nuanced than I expected, and it was engaging and readable enough that I didn’t DNF.

The Midnight Library by Matt Haig

Nora Seed is living her most mediocre life in Bedford, riddled with regrets about the opportunities she’s squandered through her life, but when she decides to end her life, she finds herself in the Midnight Library where she has the chance to explore all the other possible lives she could’ve lived. This is a story about regrets, philosophy, quantum physics, family dynamics, swimming, music and polar bears. The Midnight Library is an easy, life-affirming story, full of wisdom and humour.

The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang

I was apprehensive about reading this as it has pretty much every trigger warning from self-harm (in the first chapter) to genocide, but it was incredibly absorbing. The Poppy War is the first book in a fantasy trilogy inspired by the Sino-Japanese War that took place between 1937 and 1945. The story follows Rin, an orphan from a previous war, raised by her opium dealing aunt and uncle who plan to marry her off to a man three times her age for their own profit. In desperation, she studies for the national exams and secures a place at the elite military academy. It’s a fascinating character study as Rin makes friends and enemies, finds mentors, and starts to consider what and who she’s willing to sacrifice for power. I tend to prefer adventures and heists to grimdark fantasy but even as harrowing and disturbing as this is (and Chapter 21 detailing the atrocities and massacre of a city deserves a trigger warning all to itself), the characterisation and world building are brilliant.

Shadowshaper by Daniel Jose Older

This is an original and quirky young adult fantasy about Sierra who discovers that her family have the ability to animate art and murals with the spirits of the dead when an evil anthropologist steals their knowledge and starts picking off the other artists one by one. I really liked the sassy, streetwise characters, and enjoyed the social commentary about race, ethnicity, immigration and the gentrification of Latinx and Black neighbourhoods in New York.

A Torch Against the Night by Sabaa Tahir

The sequel to An Ember in the Ashes (reviewed here) had a bit of a slow start and took me a while to get into. The narrative switches between Laia, Elias and his best friend, Helene, who has become the new Emperor’s Blood Shrike. Elias and Laia attempt to break into prison where Laia’s brother is being held, while Helene has been tasked with tracking Elias down and executing him as a traitor. Despite a slow start, there were enough twists, turns and betrayals to keep me interested and eager to find out what happens next in this thrilling Young Adult Fantasy series.

Have a lovely week. X

An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir

An Ember in the Ashes is the first part in the young adult, fantasy ‘The Ember Quartet’, and although it’s been all over bookstagram and blogs for the last few years, it was my husband’s recommendation that prompted me to finally read it. The story switches between two protagonists, Elias, a Martial soldier competing in trials to become the new Emperor, and Laia, a girl from the oppressed Scholars whose family were murdered by Martials. In desperation Laia agrees to spy on the ruthless Martial Commandant for the Scholar resistance in exchange for their help in rescuing her brother who has been captured and imprisoned by Martials.

While I found Laia the more sympathetic of the two protagonists, Elias faces the more interesting moral dilemmas as a soldier in training. The Martial Empire is one so brutal and bloody that the lives of their own student soldiers are worth little more than those of the slaves they keep. There are Martials who revel in their power and superiority over others, while some may not agree with everything the Empire does but accept life as it is, and Elias recognises the injustices and brutality but feels trapped and powerless to change anything.

I’ve always been drawn to stories about underdogs standing up to oppression and tyranny, but I really liked that Laia isn’t a daring, devoted resistance fighter, she’s a frightened young woman desperately trying to survive long enough in a brutal environment to save her brother.

An Ember in the Ashes was full of suspense, kept me hooked and wanting to read just one more page, then another, up to the heart-pounding end, and I’m really looking forward to reading the next part in the quartet. Have a lovely week. X

The Republic of Thieves by Scott Lynch

The Republic of Thieves is the third book in the Gentleman Bastards series, set soon after Red Seas Under Red Skies (reviewed here), and unlike the previous books this one didn’t have a slow build-up but hooked me from the start. Locke has been poisoned by his previous employer and is dying, but he’s offered a cure from the most unlikley source, the mother of the Bondsmage he defeated in the first book, The Lies of Locke Lamora, (reviewed here) in exchange for rigging an election.

Locke’s old flame, Sebetha, finally makes her appearence, and it was so fun to see her working for the opposition in the election campaign. I really love Lynch’s female characters from the spymaster in The Lies of Locke Lamora to the pirates Ezri and Captain Drakasha in Red Seas Under Red Skies, and Sebetha is no exception. Locke’s love interest absolutely refuses to be defined as such, as she’s very much his equal and rival, often outwitting him in politics and reducing him to a lovesick fool.

The plot switches between two timelines, the election campaign in the present, and the other following the Gentleman Bastards as youths performing a play over a summer as they hone their thieving, fighting and con-artist skills. It’s a clever contrast with the Gentleman Bastards learning to work together (and falling in love) in one timeline, but being forced to work against each other despite their personal feelings in the other.

I love fantasy heists and the thing that always keeps me interested is how the characters have to improvise when their carefully laid plans fall apart, they’re betrayed and outmanoeuvred by their rivals and enemies, and this kept me guessing right to the end about which side would win the election and whether Locke and Sebetha would finally get together. Despite being over 700 pages long, I found this a really quick and absorbing read, full of humour, romance and clever twists. Have a lovely week. X