February Reading Wrapup

We’re only just getting back on our feet after a bout of illness floored us so sharing my February reading wrap-up a bit later than planned. February was another good month for reading, and Lunar New Year had me seeking out books with Asian settings and characters.

Not Here to be Liked by Michelle Quach

I started February with Not Here to be Liked by Michelle Quach, which is a YA romance about a Chinese-Vietnamese American girl, Eliza, who has been ruthlessly working towards becoming the editor of her High School newspaper, but whose ambitions are thwarted at the last minute by the cute baseball player Len, who only joined the paper last year but gets himself elected editor instead. Although I’ve always enjoyed stories with a romantic subplot, I really enjoyed how much depth this romance novel had as the teens wrestle with sexism and feminism, stereotypes and double standards, race and immigrations, and other issues. Romance is a new and unfamiliar genre for me but I adored Not Here to be Liked, it’s the perfect combination of adolescent awkwardness, humour, social commentary and romance.

The Dragon Republic by R.F. Kuang

I tend to avoid grimdark fantasy and while I enjoyed The Poppy War (reviewed here), I found some of the descriptions of war harrowing to read, and it’s taken me almost a year to psych myself up to read the second part of the trilogy inspired by modern Chinese history. The Dragon Republic did feel like a middle book, as I found it a lot slower than The Poppy War as Rin and her allies deal with the aftermath of the previous war and prepare for a civil war between the Twelve Provinces, but I didn’t find the descriptions as distressing as those in the first book. Unsurprisingly for a character inspired by Mao Zedong, Rin isn’t always likable or sympathetic but she is fascinating and I’m really intrigued to see how this trilogy ends.

The Green Bone Saga by Fonda Lee

My husband bought me Jade City for Christmas, and I was only halfway through it when I rushed out to buy the other two parts so I could binge read this urban fantasy trilogy. The story follows the youngest generation of the Kaul family who lead the No Peak Clan, one of the two biggest clans operation in the city of Janloon: there is Lan the eldest brother and a prudent leader, Hilo the charismatic but hot-headed middle brother who leads the clan’s military operations and their younger sister, Shae, the business mastermind of the family. This is a slow-burn story as No Peak find themselves at war with their biggest rival, the Mountain Clan, headed by the ruthless Ayt Mada, but it’s tense, gripping and I was thoroughly invested in the fate of the Kaul family. The world building is brilliant and vivid, and I loved the setting of Janloon, though the story did sometimes get bogged down in describing the politics. I also really liked the magic system where some people can wear jade to enhance their perception, strength and give them other supernatural abilities. The final part Jade Legacy was the longest book and definitely suffered from some pacing issues as it had several time skips forward to allow the children of the next generation of Kauls to grow up but was still full of suspense, heartbreak and tied up all the threads in a very satisfying conclusion to this original and gripping trilogy.

Have a lovely week. X

October – December Reading Wrapup

I’ve ended up with a little backlog of reviews from the final quarter of 2021 so thought I’d share a wrapup of some of the books I read between October and December.

The Hawthorne Legacy by Jennifer Lynn Barnes

The second part of the Inheritance Games trilogy picks up shortly after the first book with the heiress, Avery, and the Hawthorne brothers investigating the mysterious disappearence of their uncle 20 years ago that led billionaire Tobias Hawthorne to disinherit his family and leave everything to Avery instead. The Hawthorne Legacy is loaded with revelations about Avery’s identity and her connection to the Hawthorne family as well as the kidnappings, death threats, explosions and romance that makes this series gripping and so much fun to read.

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie

The great Belgian Detective Hercule Poirot has retired to the English countryside to grow marrows, but when the wealthy Roger Ackroyd is murdered, he’s compelled to investigate, taking on the narrator, Dr Sheppard as his sidekick. This is a very clever murder mystery as Poirot gradually uncovers the secrets each of the suspects is hiding from debt to drug addiction, until he reveals the real muderer, the motive and method. I actually guessed the murderer fairly early on, but still enjoyed as it’s far from predictable with plenty of red herrings and misdirection.

The Once and Future Witches by Alix E. Harrow

This had such a slow start that I almost gave up on it, but I’m so glad I persevered as by the end my heart was racing and it brought a tear to my eye. The Once and Future Witches is set in an alternative history in 1893, and follows the three Eastwood sisters, Bella, Agnes and Juniper, as they bring witchcraft to the women’s rights movement. While suffragettes campaign for the vote and the city prepares for Mayoral elections, an unnatural fever spreads and sisnister shadows stalk New Salem. Threaded by retellings of fairy tales, the Eastwood sisters each represent and subvert the feminine archetypes of Crone, Mother and Maiden, and their own relationships with one another are complex combining misunderstandings and betrayals with love and loyalty. This is a story of female empowerment but full of love, courage, family, friendship, sacrifice and magic.

Halloween Party by Agatha Chrisite

Joyce, a thirteen year old girl, reveals that she once witnessed a murder at a Halloween party, and later she is found drowned in pail used for bobbing for apples. When Poirot starts to investigate, he finds that solving the murder young Joyce claimed to have witnessed may be necessary before he can solve her murder. I admit I struggled with this mystery, partly because it wasn’t the atmospheric or spooky read I was hoping for, but also because almost none of the other characters had anything kind to say about the victim all describing her as a liar and a show-off, which seemed callous regarding the murder of a teenager.

The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V.E. Schwab

I put off reading this for a long time because I’d heard so many glowing reviews that I wasn’t sure it would live up to the hype. The story follows Adeline “Addie” LaRue who trades her soul in exchange for immortality with an old and capricious diety, who grants her wish but with the caveat that no one will be able to remember her once she is out of sight. Other reviews had me expecting this to be a contemporary romance, and it does focus on two significant relationships in Addie’s life, the first with the toxic, possessive and manipulative God, Luc, who granted her immortality, and the second with Henry, a New York bookseller who becomes the first person in 300 years to remember Addie, but has a few dark secrets of his own. I often find V.E. Schwab’s books have slow beginnings but I actually thought this had a fairly brisk start but lost momentum in the middle and the ending felt rushed, but the pacing issues didn’t detract from my overall enjoyment, it’s a bittersweet and haunting story of love, time, life and Faustian bargains.

Daughter of a Pirate King and Daughter of the Siren Queen by Tricia Levenseller

This is a lighthearted fantasy swashbuckler duology about a female pirate, Alosa, who is sent on a mission by her father, the fearsome Pirate King, which involves getting taken hostage by a rival pirate crew. The plot is definitely secondary to the romance between Alosa and the First Mate, Riden, but this was so much fun that I didn’t mind at all. In the sequel, Alosa turns against her father when she discovers a brutal betrayal and learns more about her Siren heritage, it’s a tense, angsty and bloodthirsty conclusion but still an easy, fun read.

Reaper at the Gates by Sabaa Tahir

The second book in this series had a very slow start, but the third lauches straight into the action. The narrative follows Laia as she tries to lead the Scholar Resistance, her lover, Elias who has become the Soul Catcher guiding spirits to the afterlife, and Helene, a Martial Warrior trying to stop the ruthless Commandant and the Nightbringer from destroying the Martial Empire . Reaper at the Gates is tense, brutal and gripping.

Dance of Thieves by Mary E. Pearson

I was genuinely surprised to find another favourite so close to the end of the year. Dance of Thieves follows Kazi, an orphan and thief that was recruited into the Vedhan Queen’s Elite Guard, who has been tasked with tracking down a fugitive wanted for treason and mass murder, and Jase, the new Patrei and leader of the Ballenger family from a little country eager to prove their sovereignity and legitimacy. I was absolutely hooked by this enemies-to-lovers to enemies-to-lovers again fantasy romance, full of twists and betrayals as the protagonists struggle with their conflicting loyalties and secrets.

A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers

I don’t read much science fiction but I make an exception for Becky Chambers’ Wayfarers series because they are such thoughtful, comforting reads. A Closed and Common Orbit is set shortly after The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, following the ship’s AI which has been downloaded into an illegal, synthetic body, and a human engineer called Pepper who agrees to take care of her. The narrative switches between the AI’s present and Pepper’s past leading up to the present. It’s a slow moving but engaging story about found family, friendship, identity and purpose.

The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken

I picked up this children’s classic when I was in the mood for a wintry story, and thoroughly enjoyed this thrilling and chilling adventure about two cousins, Bonnie and Sylvia, who have to outwit the scheming and cruel governesses and their criminal associates trying to turn them out of their home and seize their family’s wealth.

The Book You Wish Your Parents Had Read by Philippa Perry

I’ve been dipping into this parenting book since September, and really enjoyed this reassuring, informative and inspiring book that challenges the reader to consider how their own childhood experiences might be influencing their parenting and offers some solid advice on how to strengthen and improve the relationship between parent and child at any age.

Apologies for the length of this post, but 2021 was a great year for reading and I read so many wonderful books that I wanted to capture my thoughts about. Have a lovely week. X

The Empire of Gold by S.A. Chakraborty

My most anticipated book of 2021 was the final part of the Daevabad trilogy, The Empire of Gold. Having been in a bit of a rut before this arrived, I was relieved and delighted by how quickly I was pulled into this wonderful story full of romance, suspense, betrayals, revelations and Arabian mythology.

Set almost immediately after the end of The Kingdom of Copper (reviewed here), the narrative switches between the three protagonists Nahri, Ali and Dara. When Nahri and Ali fled Daevabad, they find themselves transported to Cairo, while Dara has helped Nahri’s long presumed dead mother, Manizheh, to slaughter her enemies (including Ali’s family) and reclaim her throne. The stakes couldn’t be higher as Manizheh turns out to be every bit as ruthless and tyrranical as the King she replaced, forcing Dara into slavery again, and Nahri and Ali to ally with their enemies.

I’ve loved watching these characters evolve and The Empire of Gold is full of bargains, sacrificies and betrayals as the protagonists fight to save the city they all love. Nahri has always been a firm favourite, growing from a con-artist and thief who only dreamed of practicing as a physician to a gifted healer and surgeon, and a brave, compassionate leader, and it was so satisfying to finally learn her identity and parentage. Ali has changed from the idealistic and self-righteous Prince to a self-sacrificing warrior and wise leader. Finally the redemption of Dara, the most loyal warrior of Manizheh and her people who committed unforgivable attrocities in their name, was genuinely moving.

The Empire of Gold was such a bittersweet read in that I’ve fallen in love with these characters and their world, and I was desperate to know how it all ends, but didn’t want to be over either, The Daevabad trilogy has become one of my favourite fantasy series and one I’ll definitely reread. The Empire of Gold is about destruction and healing, love, friendship and family, loyalty and slavery, revenge, sacrifice and redemption, and it’s an incredibly satisfying conclusion to a brilliant trilogy. Have a lovely week. X

A Deadly Education by Naomi Novik

A Deadly Education is the first part of The Scholomance trilogy which follows Galadriel “El” Higgins a student at a boarding school for witches and wizards that is a bit like Hogwarts except that there are no teachers, no holidays and the school itself and about half the other students are trying to kill you before graduation. El has an affinity for spells of mass destruction but is trying her hardest not to become the evil sorceress fate seems to have cast her as. Rude, sarcastic and terminally unpopular, she finds an unlikely ally in her ridiculously and infuriatingly heroic classmate, Orion Lake.

I adored El with her extensive range of creative insults (“you tragic blob of unsteamed pudding” is a personal favourite), she’s such an outsider and outcast who is just trying to survive high school in the most literal sense, and I was rooting for her the whole way as she finds her own little circle of friends and a slow-burn romance, and starts questioning the wizarding enclaves that hoard power and resources leaving everyone else to fend for themselves.

There’s quite a lot of exposition throughout the story explaining the rules of magic, generating mana for spells, the maleficaria (wizard-eating monsters) and maleficers (wizards that kill others for mana), but it didn’t really slow the story down and the plot – covering just a couple of weeks in the school year – trots along at a brisk pace.

The narrative cleverly combines the painful and awkward adolescent experience of trying to fit it and social rejection with the high stakes of constantly scheming students and monster attacks, as well as the rather more mundane stress of trying to pass exams and coursework. The Scholomance seems like the antithesis of Hogwarts, and really captures the loneliness and homesickness of boarding school life.

A Deadly Education is a really refreshing twist on superpowered teenagers and boarding school stories, I was hooked from start to finish and this is easily one of my favourite books this year. Have a lovely week. X

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

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

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