Review: Hold Back the Stars by Katie Khan

26804769A startling and evocative novel, harkening to both One Day and Gravity, a man and a woman revisit memories of their love affair on a utopian Earth while they are trapped in the vast void of space with only ninety minutes of oxygen left.

After the catastrophic destruction of the Middle East and the United States, Europe has become a utopia and, every three years, the European population must rotate into different multicultural communities, living as individuals responsible for their own actions. While living in this paradise, Max meets Carys and immediately feels a spark of attraction. He quickly realizes, however, that Carys is someone he might want to stay with long-term, which is impossible in this new world.

As their relationship plays out, the connections between their time on Earth and their present dilemma in space become clear. When their air ticks dangerously low, one is offered the chance of salvation—but who will take it? An original and daring exploration of the impact of first love and how the choices we make can change the fate of everyone around us, this is an unforgettable read.

Before I say anything: look at that cover, take it in. It is gorgeous. The hardback is beautifully produced, with some of the stars spot varnished it really looks like a shining space scene. I bloomin’ love well-designed books.

I will admit, this was a cover buy – well, it was a birthday present but it was a cover wishlist add. It looks beautiful and it has stars on it.

But it’s so much more than a pretty book. I really didn’t know what to expect but the whole thing was poignant and heartbreaking. I cannot recommend it enough, it’s a beautiful, beautiful book.

At its heart,  Hold Back the Stars is a love story. It follows Carys and Max. It is the last moments of their lives, and how they each got to be there. It is their journey and their tragedy and it is breathtaking. The characters are so well-written, I really felt for them which is so important for a book which is so deeply character-led.  The supporting cast was also wonderful and I really don’t have any complaints.

The world-building was excellent, it was unlike anything I’ve seen before. In fact, the whole book was unlike anything I’ve ever read. Due to the nature of the story, it was very much about the little details and the details soared in this book, every question I had about the world was answered on the page, it’s like the book was reading my mind.

I just loved it. I am so happy when a book I know little about turns into a book I love and this definitely happened with this one. It is as beautiful inside as it is out and I want everyone to read it.

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Review: On the Other Side by Carrie Hope Fletcher

33785086Evie Snow is eighty-two when she quietly passes away in her sleep, surrounded by her children and grandchildren. It’s the way most people wish to leave the world but when Evie reaches the door of her own private heaven, she finds that she’s become her twenty-seven-year-old self and the door won’t open.

Evie’s soul must be light enough to pass through so she needs to get rid of whatever is making her soul heavy. For Evie, this means unburdening herself of the three secrets that have weighed her down for over fifty years, so she must find a way to reveal them before it’s too late. As Evie begins the journey of a lifetime, she learns more about life and love than she ever thought possible, and somehow, some way, she may also find her way back to her long lost love…

This is a bit different from my usual read, and I wasn’t sure I was going to read it (even though I am an unashamed Carrie Hope Fletcher fangirl) because I didn’t think it would be my sort of thing. Then, I discovered that it has little slices of magic in it so decided to give it a go.

I’m glad I did. I’m a sucker for interesting book production, so when Carrie announced that there would be a special, limited, Waterstone-only edition with purple sprayed pages, I had to buy it. It’s such a pretty little book. The whole package is lovely, from cover to typesetting.

The novel follows Evie Snow, who has recently died, on her journey to gain entry to her own personal heaven. When she died at 82, she was weighed down by her secrets so now in the waiting room of the afterlife, restored to her 27-year-old self, her door won’t open. Through a dual timeline, we are given both Evie’s past and her present. We come to understand why Evie was too heavy, why she made the choices she did and the consequences they had for other people, particularly the lost love of her life Vincent Winters.

I managed to read it incredibly quickly, it’s a very speedy read and a very easy read. The writing style is simple, sometimes leaning a little on clichés but it’s a cutesy read, so that approach works for it. The only thing that let it down in places was a trend of telling, rather than showing.

In these instances, we would be told something and then Carrie’s writing would show us that thing later in the paragraph, rendering the ‘telling’ moot. The most obvious example I can think of is when she reveals that Vincent is bisexual, she states it explicitly and hammers the point in, which felt a bit unnecessary when the next couple of paragraphs showed us his former relationships, one of which was with a man. Later in the novel, despite being with Evie, he shows attraction towards another male character – his sexuality was perfectly (and sensitively) explored in these instances. I understand wanting to make sure the reader knows that this is not a straight man, but you have to have faith in your writing skills and your reader, you don’t need flashing lights and a billboard when you’re already showing us. It is, however, really great that the effort has been made to be inclusive.

That was really my only complaint – I loved the story and found the characters endearing (the names took a while to get used to but once I had settled into them, they added a wonderful sense of whimsy to the novel). I adored Carrie’s approach to magical realism, which has been a point of contention among reviewers (especially those who weren’t expecting it). It is definitely unlike anything I have ever read. It is set apart from other novels in the genre and that can only be a good thing, I think.

On the Other Side is both very much my sort of thing (despite my earlier impressions) in its sense of whimsy, and very much not at the same time. I find that incredibly appealing.

If you’re looking for a sweet, quick read, with a little bit of magic and a lot of feeling, On the Other Side is the book for you. I will definitely be giving it a reread in the future.

Now, I just need to get my hands on Winter’s Snow.

Review: Victoria by Daisy Goodwin

30841109In 1837, less than a month after her eighteenth birthday, Alexandrina Victoria – sheltered, small in stature, and female – became Queen of Great Britain and Ireland. Many thought it was preposterous: Alexandrina — Drina to her family — had always been tightly controlled by her mother and her household, and was surely too unprepossessing to hold the throne. Yet from the moment William IV died, the young Queen startled everyone: abandoning her hated first name in favour of Victoria; insisting, for the first time in her life, on sleeping in a room apart from her mother; resolute about meeting with her ministers alone.

One of those ministers, Lord Melbourne, became Victoria’s private secretary. Perhaps he might have become more than that, except everyone argued she was destined to marry her cousin, Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha. But Victoria had met Albert as a child and found him stiff and critical: surely the last man she would want for a husband…

I watched the Victoria TV show religiously, as I will do when it returns for its second series. I’ve always been fascinated by all things Victorian, and I love old-timey Kings and Queens but oddly, I don’t read that much historical fiction. When I discovered Victoria was also a book, though, I had to read it because I am invested. Very invested.

The book and the show were being written at the same time (I do believe) and it shows, the book is so much like the series, which for me is perfect. It takes everything I loved from the series and delivers it in a delicious booky form. The difference between the book and the series being only where the book ends. If you’ve watched the series, you’ve already passed the end of the book – I am hoping there will be more novelisations released to coincide with the series, I definitely wanted to see a bit more of Albert, who only enters into the novel in the last act.

I thoroughly enjoyed it and found that the emotional moments pack the same punch in book form as they did visually. Victoria was just as feisty as I was hoping and had me rooting for her from the beginning.

Before I started reading, I was worried that the writing style might mimic classics from the same period – I have a lot of trouble reading classics (I just don’t click with that style of writing) but I so wanted to enjoy the novel. I was pleasantly surprised to find that the narration while dealing with the historical was actually quite contemporary in style. Praise be to Ms. Goodwin!

All in all, it was a lovely book, and it was lovely to revisit characters that I have missed during the break between series. A great read if you’re a historical fiction novice like me, and if you love all things Victoria. If you liked the series, you’ll like the book.

Review: Mostly Void, Partially Stars by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor

29634931From the authors of the New York Times bestselling novel Welcome to Night Vale and the creators of the #1 international podcast of the same name, comes a collection of episodes from Season One of their hit podcast, featuring an introduction by the authors, behind-the-scenes commentary, and original illustrations.

Mostly Void, Partially Stars introduces us to Night Vale, a town in the American Southwest where every conspiracy theory is true, and to the strange but friendly people who live there.

Mostly Void, Partially Stars features an introduction by creator and co-writer Joseph Fink, behind-the-scenes commentary and guest introductions by performers from the podcast and notable fans, including Cecil Baldwin (Cecil), Dylan Marron (Carlos), and Kevin R. Free (Kevin) among others. Also included is the full script from the first Welcome to Night Vale live show, Condos. Beautiful illustrations by series artist Jessica Hayworth accompany each episode.

Welcome to Night Vale is a cult phenomenon. If you’ve not heard of it, I urge you to check it out. It’s wonderfully weird and weirdly wonderful and more than a little bit odd.

I’ve listened to some of the Welcome to Night Vale podcast and thoroughly enjoyed it. My only problem with it has been that if I am doing anything else at the same time, I don’t properly pay attention. With Night Vale if you don’t pay attention for a moment you can end up lost in the middle of a completely different plot point than you remember having heard before. I wanted to consume it a lot quicker than I was able to listen to it, so I was so happy when my boyfriend bought me the books for Christmas. I do intend to listen to the rest of the podcasts but having the book meant I could devour it in a few sittings.

At first Mostly Void, Partially Stars is very, well, random. Most of the scripts are almost entirely separate, with only Cecil, the Night Vale Community Radio Host, and the mention of other characters connecting them. This is not a bad thing by any means. You never quite know what to expect with a Night Vale. Fink and Cranor are especially good at being ridiculous without it being so ridiculous that it just makes no sense. It makes very little sense. But it makes a weird Night Vale sort of sense.

By the time the book draws to a close, story lines are being woven through the episodes and everything seems that much more connected. I found the later episodes more enjoyable than the earlier ones. The earlier episodes were like dipping a toe in the water of Night Vale every week and coming out with a different kind of water, whereas the later ones seem to have found their particular flavour and clung to it, determined to make it taste like the best flavour ever.

If you’ve already listened to the podcasts then you know what you’re getting with the book – you can probably hear the podcasts as you read. However, also included are the commentaries alongside each episode. I loved these. It was so great to get an insight into the creative minds behind the series, and it was so wonderful to find that they live up to the surrealness of the series.

The episodes are decorated with illustrations by the fabulous Jessica Hayworth. They are perfect. The style of them is so appropriate and they really bring the world to life. I have so many favourites that I can’t possibly choose any. They’re such a brilliant companion to the scripts, I really can’t praise them highly enough.

If you’re a fan of Welcome to Night Vale, I would recommend reading Mostly Void, Partially Stars for a different experience. If you think you’re not a very podcasty person but love weird, out there sorts of things, read Mostly Void, Partially Stars. It is very much out there.

Review: The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden

25493853At the edge of the Russian wilderness, winter lasts most of the year and the snowdrifts grow taller than houses. But Vasilisa doesn’t mind—she spends the winter nights huddled around the embers of a fire with her beloved siblings, listening to her nurse’s fairy tales. Above all, she loves the chilling story of Frost, the blue-eyed winter demon, who appears in the frigid night to claim unwary souls. Wise Russians fear him, her nurse says, and honor the spirits of house and yard and forest that protect their homes from evil.

After Vasilisa’s mother dies, her father goes to Moscow and brings home a new wife. Fiercely devout, city-bred, Vasilisa’s new stepmother forbids her family from honoring the household spirits. The family acquiesces, but Vasilisa is frightened, sensing that more hinges upon their rituals than anyone knows.

And indeed, crops begin to fail, evil creatures of the forest creep nearer, and misfortune stalks the village. All the while, Vasilisa’s stepmother grows ever harsher in her determination to groom her rebellious stepdaughter for either marriage or confinement in a convent.

As danger circles, Vasilisa must defy even the people she loves and call on dangerous gifts she has long concealed—this, in order to protect her family from a threat that seems to have stepped from her nurse’s most frightening tales.

I cannot even begin to tell you how hopelessly I have fallen in love with this book. I mean, I am going to try but it might just sound like loving nonsense. I am okay with this, as long as you know that I love it. I’ve already mentioned this book on here before, and I am almost certain that I will be mentioning it again.

Just thinking about it makes me feel warm.

So, as written in the blurb above, The Bear and the Nightingale tells the story of Vasilisa (or Vasya as she is commonly referred to), an impish Russian girl who lives and breathes the old stories in more ways than one. I love Vasya. I love that she is not pretty. I love that she is gangly and frog-like and her eyes are large and that she likes to climb trees. I have taken Vasya into my heart and I am going to cling to her for the rest of my days.

I love a compelling main character, and Vasya is that. She has a set of beliefs which she values over all but she also has respect for her family, even when they are cruel to her.

Speaking of cruel, I love it when a book gets me to react and, boy, did I react. I wanted to strangle Anna, Vasya’s stepmother, and Konstantin, a priest. Every time they were horrible, every time they were being ridiculous, I found myself shouting a little at the pages (luckily I read this book from the comfort of my own sofa and not on public transport). But I wanted to strangle them for all of the right reasons, I wasn’t supposed to like them. It is a powerful and talented author who can get you to react visibly and audibly, and I bow down.

I find Konstantin particularly apt in the current political climate – he wants people to be afraid. I couldn’t help but compare what Konstantin was doing with what is happening in the real world. Even though The Bear and the Nightingale is steeped in fantasy, I couldn’t help but relate it to my current view of the world.

One of the central themes in the book is the clashing of the old and the new, the old stories, the chyerti with Christianity. The old gods and spirits with the new, and how village life can fit into that. It looks at the roots of its people and pulls them from the ground, only to tentatively put them back again. We learn about all of the various spirits that keep the world turning, the grass growing, the houses protected, and we learn about them both from the perspective of someone who wholeheartedly puts their faith in them, and someone who fears them. It’s so interesting to see both sides, even if one side makes you want to throw something.

It’s a slow burn. The Bear and the Nightingale takes its time and revels in the storytelling. It is in no rush to end but everything feels essential. It’s not heavy-heavy action but it’s not dormant either. It grows into itself as Vasya grows into herself, it is a journey in and of itself.

I just love it so much. I want to shout out to the world, I want to command the world to read this book and love it and take it into their hearts.

Review: Dangerous Women (Part 1) edited by George R.R. Martin & Gardner Dozois

23018850Commissioned by George R.R. Martin and Gardner Dozois, these tales of dangerous women by the most stellar names in fiction are available for the first time in three-volume paperback.

This first volume features an original 35,000 word novella by George R.R. Martin.‘The Princess and the Queen’ reveals the origins of the civil war in Westeros (before the events in A Game of Thrones), which is known as the Dance of the Dragons, pitting Targaryen against Targaryen and dragon against dragon.

Other authors in this volume of warriors, bad girls and dragonriders include worldwide bestselling authors Brandon Sanderson, Lawrence Block and Nancy Kress.

Contents
Gardner Dozois’s introduction
George R. R. Martin, ‘The Princess and the Queen’
Carrie Vaughn, ‘Raisa Stepanova’
Nancy Kress, ’Second Arabesque, Very Slowly’
Lawrence Block, ‘I Know How to Pick ‘Em’
Megan Abbott, ‘My Heart Is Either Broken’
Joe R. Lansdale, ‘Wrestling Jesus’
Brandon Sanderson, ‘Shadows for Silence in the Forests of Hell’

PRIOR WARNING I have a lot of thoughts about some of these stories so there will be spoilers. Only read on if this is not a problem for you.

Now with that out of the way – I had high hopes for this collection despite the dull blurb we are offered on the book’s back cover. I have forgotten why I had high hopes when I added it to my wish list (it was so long ago) but high hopes were had.

I’ve been in the mood to read about fierce and wonderful and dangerous women, and thought the time was right considering the Women’s Marches going on around the world. I was ready to read about women, women who would empower me, women who would terrify me, women who were strong.

The introduction promised me things, several things and I couldn’t help but go back and hiss liiiiies at it every so often while I read. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed the collection overall and will still be reading parts two and three but my hopes are considerably lower. This book did not do what it said on the tin. (George R.R. Martin, I am looking at you in particular.)

As it’s a collection of short stories by different authors, I want to focus on each separately. Buckle up, kids. This is going to be a long one.

Continue reading

Review: Uprooted by Naomi Novik

27827627Agnieszka loves her valley home, her quiet village, the forests and the bright shining river. But the corrupted Wood stands on the border, full of malevolent power, and its shadow lies over her life.

Her people rely on the cold, driven wizard known only as the Dragon to keep its powers at bay. But he demands a terrible price for his help: one young woman handed over to serve him for ten years, a fate almost as terrible as falling to the Wood.

The next choosing is fast approaching, and Agnieszka is afraid. She knows—everyone knows—that the Dragon will take Kasia: beautiful, graceful, brave Kasia, all the things Agnieszka isn’t, and her dearest friend in the world. And there is no way to save her.

But Agnieszka fears the wrong things. For when the Dragon comes, it is not Kasia he will choose.

I’ve wanted to read this book for a while. I read the first paragraph on amazon many moons ago and knew I had to read it.

Our Dragon doesn’t eat the girls he takes, no matter what stories they tell outside our valley. We hear them sometimes, from travelers passing through. They talk as though we were doing human sacrifice, and he were a real dragon. Of course that’s not true: he may be a wizard and immortal, but he’s still a man, and our fathers would band together and kill him if he wanted to eat one of us every ten years. He protects us against the Wood, and we’re grateful, but not that grateful.

It’s a fantastic opening paragraph. That combined with the idea of a Wood with malevolent power and I was all in.

It follows Agnieszka as she is chosen by the Dragon to serve him in his tower for 10 years as he works to keep the Wood from consuming the valley, and the kingdom with it.

I didn’t know how fairy tale-esque the novel would be (the clue should have been in the ‘girl serves dragon in his tower for 10 years but apparently my brain didn’t pick up on that very large cue), I don’t know what my expectations were before reading but they weren’t that! I love fairy tales, and I love stories that feel like fairy tales. So Uprooted was a win.

I really enjoyed the way magic was presented, and the different methods of using it, as well as the names given to the various wizards. They made me very happy. One thing I wished for though, was more of Jaga. I adore the mythology she is based on and would have loved to have seen a little bit more on that.

However, the thing that stole the show was the Wood itself, how it was described, the back story, all of it. I adore the Wood more than anything else, though I think Kasia comes close second.

It’s a lovely little standalone, and I would recommend it to anyone who loves a good fairy tale.

Review: Through the Woods by Emily Carroll

Through the Woods by Emily Carroll‘It came from the woods. Most strange things do.’

Five mysterious, spine-tingling stories follow journeys into (and out of?) the eerie abyss.

These chilling tales spring from the macabre imagination of acclaimed and award-winning comic creator Emily Carroll.

Come take a walk in the woods and see what awaits you there…

I am very into graphic novels and comics at the moment. I’d seen Through the Woods floating around for a while and wanted it. Before that, I wanted it because the author’s name was so similar to mine (and so I was intrigued).

I’m so glad I put this on my wish list. It’s a quick read, I read the whole thing in less than an hour. The art style is glorious, I love it. It differs slightly between each story but it is all tied together, by the use of colour especially. I enjoyed her art so much that I then went on a hunt for more, and will heartily recommend Anu-Anulan & Yir’s Daughter and The Prince & the Sea for any who might want a taste of her work before buying it in print. Do yourself a favour, though, and buy this book.

The stories are effortlessly creepy, and definitely spoke to the teen, Point Horror obsessed version of me (who I still revert back to every now and again) but in a much more satisfying way. Emily Carroll is good at what she does.

The book itself is well produced, the paper choice is perfect and the finish on the cover is wonderful though I am unsure what it actually is. It brings something very tactile to the book and as the stories themselves are tactile in their own way, it’s very well suited.

All of the text is written by hand, which is a lovely touch and makes me envious of her handwriting. It’s easy to read and the layout really works for each spread. Overall, I love it. It’s definitely a winner.

It wouldn’t be fair of me to leave this without some visuals, so here are a few spreads to get you interested (trust me, you want to be interested in this book)!

through the woods spread through the woods spread2 through the woods spread3

Review: The Gracekeepers by Kirsty Logan

The GracekeepersA flooded world.
A floating circus.
Two women in search of a home.

North lives on a circus boat with her beloved bear, keeping a secret that could capsize her life.

Callanish lives alone in her house in the middle of the ocean, tending the graves of those who die at sea. As penance for a terrible mistake, she has become a gracekeeper.

A chance meeting between the two draws them magnetically to one another – and to the promise of a new life.

But the waters are treacherous, and the tide is against them.

A floating circus. There was no way I wasn’t going to read this book. Ahem…

In keeping with my current theme of prettily-written post-apocalyptic fiction, with more of a character drive than a plot drive, I present to you The Gracekeepers by Kirsty Logan.

The novel follows Callanish and North, a gracekeeper and circus performer respectively, as they try to find their place in a world which seems to be against them.

Unlike most of the dystopia/post-apocalypse type novels I’ve read, The Gracekeepers takes you to a world of water, where the end of the world was meted out by way of floods, and, unlike most of these novels, the narrative isn’t too pre-occupied by the world of Before. We have no idea whether the end came suddenly or gradually. There are some mentions of it but these are more in-passing than actual plot points. I quite like the lack of importance it places on the world of Before, the idea that the world changed but it is what it is. There’s no sub-plot of trying to restore it – which would be a challenge for any protagonist when the world of before is beneath more water than can be imagined. (Unless the world had a giant plug that no one had discovered yet…)

Speaking of protagonists, the novel has two primarily, Callanish and North (whose name I love), but it doesn’t just tell the story through their eyes. Interspersed between their chapters, we hear from other characters, each a brush stroke adding dimension to the rest of the story. It’s a short book but it covers a fair amount of characters. If I were to name my favourites, I would probably name most of the cast, so I won’t. While not all of the characters are likeable, they are each compelling in their own way.

I really like the idea of the gracekeepers, and graces, and how Damplings (those who live out at sea rather than on land) mourn their dead. The world-building in this novel isn’t the most in-depth but what’s there is both pretty and intriguing.

The one thing, I think, that lets this book down is the ending – something happens which is quite heartbreaking but it isn’t really dealt with in the way that you would expect having read the rest of the novel. It feels as if a few extra paragraphs might have done it a bit more justice. Despite this it is a lovely novel and I did end up thinking about it for a while after finishing – I would love to know what happened to some of the other characters.

It also has a gorgeous cover. Just look at it. Beautiful.

A pretty little read, both sad and hopeful – definitely worth it if you’re into floating circuses.

Review: Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

23306186One snowy night in Toronto famous actor Arthur Leander dies on stage whilst performing the role of a lifetime. That same evening a deadly virus touches down in North America. The world will never be the same again.

Twenty years later Kirsten, an actress in the Travelling Symphony, performs Shakespeare in the settlements that have grown up since the collapse. But then her newly hopeful world is threatened.

If civilization was lost, what would you preserve? And how far would you go to protect it?

This book. This book is a very good book.

It takes place in both the present and in a future where a virus has wiped out most of the population. Unlike most dystopian fiction, Station Eleven deals not so much with the apocalypse but with art – how it connects us, those who perform it and what it can mean.

It’s not so much plot driven as it is concept driven. It’s a novel crossed with a study of art and life, and artists’ lives. Instead of trying to puzzle out the virus and its cause and each nook and cranny of what comes after, it brings our focus in on one man, Arthur Leander, and a girl he once knew, exploring the interconnectedness of their stories.

I love it. It’s a quick read, but a good one. The only thing that disappoints me is that my copy doesn’t have the comic spread created by Nathan Burton (who also designed the cover) inside!

Station Eleven Comic

All in all a great little book which stands out from the crowd. If you like introspection over action, I would definitely recommend.