The Good Neighbours by Nina Allan is one of those books that sits squarely on the border between speculative and literary fiction. It reminds me a bit of The Cottingley Cuckoo by A.J. Elwood, which came out from Titan a little while ago (see my review here) in that respect, though it approaches the themes in a very different manner. But if you like one, chances are you’ll like the other too. Both are rather odd, but charming in a lot of ways, even if not necessarily books that worked super well for me personally.
Massive thanks to riverrun for sending me a review copy. All opinions are my own.
RELEASE DATE: 10/06/2021
STAR RATING: 3/5 ✶
SUMMARY: Cath is a photographer hoping to go freelance, working in a record shop to pay the rent and eking out her time with her manager Steve. He thinks her photography is detective work, drawing attention to things that would otherwise pass unseen and maybe he’s right…
Starting work on her new project – photographing murder houses – she returns to the island where she grew up for the first time since she left for Glasgow when she was just eighteen. The Isle of Bute is embedded in her identity, the draughty house that overlooked the bay, the feeling of being nowhere, the memory of her childhood friend Shirley Craigie and the devastating familicide of her family by the father, John Craigie.
Arriving at the Craigie house, Cath finds that it’s occupied by Financial Analyst Alice Rahman. Her bid to escape the city lifestyle, the anxiety she felt in that world, led her to leave London and settle on the island. The strangeness of the situation brings them closer, leading them to reinvestigate the Craigie murder. Now, within the walls of the Craigie house, Cath can uncover the nefarious truths and curious nature of John Craigie: his hidden obsession with the work of Richard Dadd and the local myths of the fairy folk. (from riverrun)
OPINIONS: This story starts out really intriguing. I enjoyed this book a lot until about two thirds through, when I realised that ultimately the story was not going to be resolved in a manner that would be satisfying to me. It’s difficult to put a finger on exactly why that was, but I think it boils down to character potential falling flat. There are so many strands that are presented, that would be really interesting if followed through on, that then aren’t explored properly. It feels like answers are always either far too simple or completely out of the blue with little perceived logic.
For example, Cath is said to be a photographer. She sets out on this photography project. But there is awfully little photography in the story. She is also shown to have a visual disability – something that one would think would be explored and discussed in relation to being a visual artist, but is only brought up as an explanation why she doesn’t drive. And all of The Good Neighbours hinges on such unquestioned acceptance of character traits and actions and an ignorance of logic. This is something I struggle with, and ultimately it hindered my enjoyment of the story quite a bit.
The Good Neighbours wanders on the boundary between fairy tale and literary fiction quite a bit, trying to reconstruct the past and using individual’s belief in fairies which may or may not exist. These elements are interesting and make up a lot of the tension in the story. It is a compelling tale, even if it is one that didn’t fully work for me.
It’s release day for Ed Cox’s wonderful The Wood Bee Queen, and I’m thrilled to open the Gollancz blog tour for it. With a title this punny, how could I not love this book. Massive thanks for Will O’Mullane and Gollancz for having me and sending me a review copy. All opinions are my own.
RELEASE DATE: 10/06/2021
STAR RATING: 4/5 ✶
SUMMARY: Somewhere in England, in a small town called Strange Ground by the Skea, Ebbie Wren is the last librarian and he’s about to lose his job. Estranged from his parents, unable to make connections with anyone except the old homeless lady who lives near the library, Ebbie isn’t quite sure what he’s supposed to do next. His only escape from reality is his deep interest in local folklore, but reality is far stranger than Ebbie can dream.
On the other side of the sky and the sea, the Queen of House Wood Bee has been murdered. Her sister has made the first move in a long game, one which will lead her to greatness, yet risk destruction for the entire Realm. She needs the two magical stones Foresight and Hindsight for her power to be complete, but no one knows where they are. Although the sword recently stolen by Bek Rana, small time thief and not very good at it, might hold a clue to their location… and to stopping the chaos. But all Bek wants is to sell the sword and buy herself a better life. She’s not interested in being a hero, and neither is Ebbie.
But someone is forcing their hand and playing for the heart of the Realm. Ebbie and Bek are destined to unite. They must find a way to stop the destruction of House Wood Bee, save the Realm, and just maybe save themselves in the process. All victories come at a price. The Oldungods are rising. And they are watching… (from Gollancz)
OPINIONS: I think the best way to describe The Wood Bee Queen is to say that it’s a children’s fantasy adventure for adults. This does not mean that it’s a childish book or a story without depth, but that its form as a portal fantasy, coupled with a fairy-tale style world and its use of a deus ex machina plot device is most often found in that area. As I love both adult fantasy and children’s books, I thought this was a really cool concept and I really enjoyed my reading experience.
The Wood Bee Queen is humorous, compelling and entertaining. The story is quite fast-paced and keeps up tension throughout. I think what might make this a make-or-break kind of book is the use of a deus ex machina device that explains things to the characters and leads them on their journey – enjoyment of the story is hinged on being able to go with it and accept a magical guiding hand. The plot as a whole isn’t anything new – it’s a fairly straight forward quest – but its packaging in a detailed and imaginative world makes it stand out.
I really enjoyed the characters – Ebbie Wren, small-town librarian in his late twenties who doesn’t know what to do with himself is far too relatable for comfort. Bek Rana is a badass snarky thief and I fell for her very quickly. And Mai, whose death is the catalyst for the story, never appears herself, but oversees the events through her memory. Simply wonderful. Another thing I appreciated about this book is that there is NO ROMANCE. It’s just a story, a quest, with found family elements and friendship. So good to read a book that focuses on those elements rather than romantic ones for a change.
Rabbits is a new novel based on the podcast Rabbits – set in the same universe, this is a new story. Centred around K and the mysterious game called Rabbits, I thought this had an interesting concept, but ultimately I felt very disappointed.
Many thanks to Black Crow PR and Pan Macmillan for sending me an ARC, all opinions are my own as always.
RELEASE DATE: 10/06/2021
STAR RATING: 2/5 ✶
SUMMARY: What happens in the game, stays in the game…
Rabbits is a secret, dangerous and sometimes fatal underground game. The rewards for winning are unclear, but there are rumours of money, CIA recruitment or even immortality. Or it might unlock the universe’s greatest secrets. But everyone knows that the deeper you get, the more deadly the game becomes – and the body count is rising. Since the game first started, ten iterations have taken place… and the eleventh round is about to begin.
K can’t get enough of the game and has been trying to find a way in for years. Then Alan Scarpio, reclusive billionaire and alleged Rabbits winner, shows up out of nowhere. And he charges K with a desperate mission. Something has gone badly wrong with the game and K needs to fix it – before Eleven starts – or the world will pay the price.
Five days later, Scarpio is declared missing.
Two weeks after that Eleven begins, so K blows the deadline.
And suddenly, the fate of the entire universe is at stake. (from Pan Macmillan)
OPINIONS: I was very intrigued by the concept of Rabbits – it’s not unique, reminding the reader of books like The God Game or Ready Player One, but one thing these books tend to have in common is that they are fun. I expected Rabbits to be similar – fast paced escapism with a fun message. And it does start out like that. Except that all the plot strands that are introduced don’t really fit together to make a coherent puzzle, and I ended the book feeling very confused. It has the feel of a series of curve balls, without them stringing the story and world together properly.
Added to that, the characters felt incredibly superficial. At the end of the book I felt like I didn’t really know anything about K or Chloe, never mind any of the more minor characters. I feel like the audiodrama podcast version of Rabbits probably worked better – I can see parts of this translating really well to that format. But as a novel, the writing isn’t strong enough in my opinion. Through relying on plot twists and curve balls to try and keep readers compelled, the overarching plot and worldbuilding suffers, and I felt like twists did not make sense in the story as a whole. So I was left fairly disappointed in the end – though it may well be that my experience is not your experience.
Welcome back to another round of Monday Minis, aka Fab reads too much and can’t keep up with writing full length reviews for everything… Massive thanks to the respective publishers for sending me eARCs for review via NetGalley, all opinions are my own.
All Eyes on Her by L. E. Flynn is an interesting book. It’s a YA mystery, in which the reader hears from everyone involved, except for the main character. Tabby’s boyfriend died on a hike they went on – and now she is accused of his murder. The story is told in fragments from many of the people in their lives, and it is not made clear what actually happened until the very end, keeping the reader guessing. But because it is so fragmented, I felt like the story lost its drive and tension didn’t build up the way it should have. Once it got to the reveal, I didn’t care much about how it ended. Nevertheless, the concept and set-up is interesting and unique, even if it didn’t fully work for me.
What We Devour by Linsey Miller is a dark YA fantasy. I loved her previous book, Belle Révolte, which came out last year. So I had very high expectations for this one, and I ended up quite disappointed. It’s not a bad book – but it lacks the mind-blowing magic that made me fall for Belle Révolte. What We Devour is the story of Lorena, who is hiding out as an undertaker so the powers that be don’t take notice of her, in a world that is ruled by the Door that is supposed to keep back the Vile. But then she does get involved in a major threat to her world, and has to decide what she is willing to sacrifice to save as many as she can. What frustrated me about the story is that none of the characters seem to have a lot of personality, which I expected from the story. This made me not connect with the story and struggle to stay motivated to read it. This might me a me-thing more than a book thing – so if the blurb has you interested, check out a sample.
The Conductors by Nicole Glover is a delightful murder mystery where the Underground Railroad meets magic. From the blurb: “As an escaped slave, Hetty Rhodes helped dozens of people find their own freedom north using her wits and her magic. Now that the Civil War is over, Hetty and her husband, Benjy, still fight for their people by solving the murders and mysteries that the white authorities won’t touch.” I really enjoyed my reading experience, though this is not a perfect book. I felt like the plot was a bit thin, and the mystery itself not very compelling in itself. What I struggled most with is that the book reads as if it was from the middle of a series rather than the start of a new one. But The Conductors makes up for that with superb character work. Hetty and Benjy have a wonderful rapport and the way their relationship grows – chef’s kiss. They are interesting and multi-dimensional characters, along with the side-players in this story. The characters in this are so strong that I did not mind the plot as much, and I am looking forward to spending more time with them in the next installment.
For The Wolf by Hannah Whitten has one of the most tempting book covers out there – it screams READ ME very loudly. I love the design so much I requested the book before even really looking at the blurb. But that too is great: For The Wolf is a mix of Beauty and the Beast and Red Riding Hood, turned into a creepy gothic fairy tale all of the author’s own. It’s not a perfect book, but a very entertaining and compelling one.
Massive thanks to Orbit and Netgalley for sending me an eARC for review – all opinions are my own.
RELEASE DATE: 03/06/2021
STAR RATING: 3.5/5 ✶
SUMMARY: As the only Second Daughter born in centuries, Red has one purpose – to be sacrificed to the Wolf in the Wood in the hope he’ll return the world’s captured gods.
Red is almost relieved to go. Plagued by a dangerous power she can’t control, at least she knows that in the Wilderwood, she can’t hurt those she loves. Again.
But the legends lie. The Wolf is a man, not a monster. Her magic is a calling, not a curse. And if she doesn’t learn how to use it, the monsters the gods have become will swallow the Wilderwood – and her world – whole. (from Orbit)
OPINIONS: I really enjoyed For The Wolf. This is a fun, compelling fairy-tale inspired atmospheric story with a large dash of romance. I think the atmosphere of the Wilderwood was probably my favourite element of the book, as it is really immersive and I’m a dark and gloomy atmosphere kind of person. While this has clear elements of Red Riding Hood and her story with the wolf, it really is a story about human monsters rather than traditional ones. I am very happy that there are quite a lot of forest-set fantasy novels published this year, and For The Wolf is in good company.
I did feel like the book was tethering on the border between YA and adult quite a lot – it feels like a YA fantasy that is trying really hard to be adult, but really it would have been more natural to sell it as a YA novel. Red, Eammon and Neve all seemed more like characters who had to finish growing up rather than as settled adults. Especially Red and Neve, the sisters at the heart of the story, are still acting like YA characters. In general, the characters weren’t quite as well-developed as I would have liked and I felt like the book as a whole would have benefitted from some more ruthless cutting in terms of dead plot. Nevertheless, I enjoyed my reading experience a lot.
This is the second installment in the Rosetta Academy series – I was lucky enough to get to review the first one, Of Curses and Kisses last year (find my review here). Of Princes and Promises is set in the same world, around the same characters, but focusing on a different set of protagonists. Thus, it works as a standalone as well, no need to read the first book to understand what is going on. And this is the wonderful kind of addictive book that I read in a single sitting, which I haven’t done in a while.
Many thanks to Kate Keehan and Hodder for sending me a copy for review, all opinions are my own.
RELEASE DATE: 08/06/2021
STAR RATING: 4/5 ✶
SUMMARY: Caterina LaValle is determined to show she’s still the queen of St. Rosetta’s Academy. Sure, her crown may be slightly askew after her ex-boyfriend, Alaric, cheated on her, but she’s a LaValle. She’ll find a way to march right back in there, her hands clutching the strings to the whole puppet show. This time, she’s going to be untouchable.
Rahul Chopra knows that moment he shared with Caterina LaValle at the winter formal meant something. Surely she feels it, too. He’s a little uncertain how someone like him (socially inept to a point way past “adorkable”) could fit into her world, but he’s loved Caterina for years. He knows they’ll find a way.
When Caterina finds out Alaric is taking a supermodel to the upcoming gala, she knows she cannot arrive without the perfect date. But the thought of taking another superficial St. R’s boy exhausts her. The solution? Sweet-but-clueless Rahul Chopra and a mysterious pot of hair gel with the power to alter the wearer into whatever his heart desires.
When Rahul tries it, he transforms instantly into RC-debonair, handsome, and charming. But transformation comes with a price: As Rahul enjoys his new social standing, the line between his two personas begins to blur. Will he give up everything, including Caterina, to remain RC? Or will this unlikely pair find their way back to each other? (from Hodder)
OPINIONS: This is a perfect escapist book to spend a cosy evening reading with a hot chocolate. I read the whole thing in a couple of hours earlier this week and just loved it so much. It’s not necessarily the kind of book I tend to gravitate towards – I am more likely to pick up slightly ‘darker’ books, with much less of a romance focus. But this series just keeps surprising me and making me enjoy books out of what I tend to read. Of Princes and Promises is a modern fairy tale, with romance as a major theme. It’s basically a comfort read.
Caterina and Rahul are wonderful leading characters – both deeply flawed but undergoing a lot of development over the course of the story. I feel a lot of kinship with Rahul, who is the awkward teen, not sure how social interactions work and more comfortable with books than people. So when he finds a (magical) way to fit in, it changes him. And on the surface, that is a bad choice. But if you dig deeper, that is an understandable way to react. I know I wouldn’t be all that different. Caterina goes from mean girl in the first book of the series to a relateable protagonist – if a more spoiled one than most teens.
I really hate not being able to write a positive review for books. But sometimes, a book just doesn’t work for you. I think Strange Creatures is one of those for me. Based on its components, I should have really liked it, but I ended up feeling very meh about it as a whole.
Massive thanks to Harper360YA for sending me an ARC of Strange Creatures. All opinions are my own.
RELEASE DATE: 01/06/2021
STAR RATING: 3/5 ✶
SUMMARY: From the moment that Annie was born, she and her older brother, Jamie, were inseparable. Alike in almost every way, they promised to always take care of each other while facing the challenges of growing up different in suburban America. And when life became too much for them, they created their own space in the woods behind their house: a fantasy world, called Gumlea, where no one else could find them.
And it was enough, for a while. But then came middle school, when Jamie grew dark and distant. He found new friends, a girlfriend, and a life away from Annie and Gumlea. Soon it was as if she hardly knew the brother who was her other half.
And then, one day, he disappears.
Annie, her family, and the entire community are devastated. And as the days turn into months turn into years, everyone begins to accept that Jamie is gone for good. Everyone, that is, except Annie, who believes that Jamie, somehow, has entered Gumlea, and who believes that she’s the only one who can bring him back.
But as Annie searches for answers and finds a new relationship with a girl she did not expect, she makes startling discoveries about her brother’s disappearance—and has to decide how much of herself she’s willing to give up in order to keep hope alive. (from Harper Teen)
OPINIONS: So, this has elements of story within a story, dealing with mental health issues and queer discovery. Which means that in its parts, I should have really liked it – but as the whole is greater than its parts, it ended up not working for me. I think the main issue I had with it is that it felt really meandering, with no clear direction for the plot to be propelled forward. Added to that was that I found almost all of the characters really unlikeable – not in a villain/anti-hero sort of way, but more in a ‘I couldn’t care less about you’ way.
But! this does feature a wonderful book-girlfriend in its later parts. I loved Court’s character and found her parts a wonderful antidote to the rest of the book. I just wish she ended up playing a more important role in the grand scale of the story. Sadly, one great character does not make up for the rest of the book. Another thing that might have helped cause my disconnect with the story is that it follows Annie from childhood almost through her college degree. For that amount of time spent in a characters head and throughout the course of their life, Annie stays a bland character without much development.
It is also most certainly not the almost whimsical portal-fantasy adventure I expected this to be when I picked it up. It is closer to a contemporary drama – which is less my thing to start with. It touches on a lot of interesting topics, but I feel like it doesn’t actually carry them through to their conclusion, which means that it is much harder for the reader to connect to the story.