Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Barbara the Slut and Other People, Lauren Holmes

Pages: 272
Publisher: Fourth Estate
Release Date: 13th August 2015
Edition: UK e-proof, NetGalley review copy

A fresh, honest, darkly funny debut collection about family, friends, and lovers, and the flaws that make us most human.

One woman takes a job selling sex toys in San Francisco rather than embark on the law career she pursued only for the sake of her father. Another realises she much prefers the company of her pitbull – and herself – to the neurotic foreign fling who won't decamp from her apartment. A daughter hauls a suitcase of lingerie to Mexico for her flighty, estranged mother to resell there, wondering whether her personal mission – to come out – is worth the same effort. And Barbara, a young woman with an autistic brother, a Princeton acceptance letter, and a love of sex navigates her high school’s toxic, slut-shaming culture with open eyes.

Fearless, candid, and incredibly funny, Lauren Homes is a newcomer who writes like a master. She tackles eros and intimacy with a deceptively light touch, a keen awareness of how their nervous systems tangle and sometimes short-circuit, and a genius for revealing out most, vulnerable, spirited selves. With heart, sass and pitch-perfect characters, Barbara the Slut is a head-turning debut from a writer with a limitless career before her.

I've recently become really intrigued by short story collections so when I spotted Barbara the Slut and Other People on NetGalley, I snapped it up. And I really enjoyed it!

The ten stories in this collection aren’t really stories; they’re what the title implies – snapshots of people and their lives. None of them have a particularly strong plot or a distinct beginning or ending which makes them kinda hard to review really! The collection covers people of all ages, different lifestyles, situations and personalities, and even the POV of a dog… Every voice was distinct and unique and they sat apart so strongly that I had to have a little Twitter break between each story to be able to move on.

With the exception of the final story, the titular Barbara the Slut, I enjoy the stories in the first half of the collection a lot more than the second half. I loved the brutually honest way they approached sex, love, loneliness, the fallout of living by someone else’s wants for you and not having a distinct path in life. They were bold and refreshing, even if I never fully connected to the characters. The second half was a lot more experimental in narrative and I felt a lot more disconnected from the stories. It felt like Lauren Holmes was trying to experiment and push the boundaries, losing the organic feel of the earlier stories.

Barbara the Slut and Other People is a fascinating collection and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I’ll definitely be keeping my eye on Lauren Holmes in the future, she has a lot of promise.

Thanks to Fourth Estate and NetGalley for the review copy.


Tuesday, 24 November 2015

Blast From the Past: Rebecca

Originally published in 1938 by Victor Gollancz

My edition: the beautiful YA paperback reissue from Virago Modern Classics

What's it about?
On a trip to the South of France, the shy heroine of Rebecca falls in love with Maxim de Winter, a handsome widower. Although his proposal comes as a surprise, she happily agrees to marry him. But as they arrive at her husband’s home, Manderley, a change comes over Maxim, and the young bride is filled with dread. Friendless in the isolated mansion, she realises that she barely knows him. In every corner of every room is the phantom of his beautiful first wife, Rebecca, and the new Mrs de Winter walks in her shadow.

Why now?
I loved the first of du Maurier’s novels I’ve read, Frenchman’s Creek, and I was eager to read more. Rebecca seemed like the perfect, atmospheric read for this time of year.

The verdict:

*SPOILER ALERT: I really want to talk about this properly so there’ll probably be a few spoilers here and there in the review.*

After reading Frenchman’s Creek in the summer, I knew I wanted to read more from Du Maurier and I figured where better to start than with her most famous novel? And boy is it famous for a reason!

Even though I’ve heard the famous opening line many, many times, it still never occurred to me that Rebecca would be a story told in retrospect (I know, duh) and I was thoroughly surprised to find Mr and Mrs De Winter moving from hotel to hotel, hiding from the repercussions of a traumatic event. And then we go back to the protagonist meeting her future husband.

Other than the opening line, the only other thing I knew about Rebecca is that the protagonist has no name. She is nameless until she marries Maxim and becomes Mrs De Winter. She is a shy, nervous and exists purely to serve her husband. Every word, every action, every thought operates in relation to Maxim and making him happy and making him love her. And she’s haunted (metaphorically) by the memory of Maxim’s first wife Rebecca, constantly comparing herself to her and she fades in her remaining light. This novel is almost the death of two women instead of just Rebecca as Mrs De Winter becomes embroiled in the life and death of Rebecca and her marriage to Maxim. It’s a really interesting dynamic and I already want to reread it and see what else I pick up on the second time around, knowing how everything plays out.

Maxim is a strange character, and even as the protagonist’s husband, I can't see him as the hero. He's twice Mrs De Winter’s age and treats her as such for at least ¾ of the novel. He's patronising and sexist and so dismissive of our heroine who’s so desperate for his love and affection; it's all she wants. It’s not until after Maxim makes his confession – a confession that blew my mind so thoroughly I started rambling my shock and disbelief to the cat; she wasn’t interested – that he changed his demeanour. He was suddenly confessing his love for Mrs De Winter, giving her affection and depending on her, just as he changed their lives forever. I couldn’t help but wonder which was the real him. Is he sexist and patronising or had he been holding himself back in fear of losing Mrs De Winter when he confessed? I wasn’t sure, and yet I was still championing him to get away with murder, even though I never felt he was good enough for Mrs De Winter. I think she should have married Frank!

Rebecca lingers in every aspect of Manderley, but most prominently in the memory of Mrs Danvers, the head housekeeper of Mandereley and confidante of Rebecca. She's a vile, vile woman and the main antagonist of the novel; I hated her so much. Mrs Danvers refuses to let Rebecca’s memory die out, manipulating Mrs De Winter into upsetting Maxim and making her life at Manderley as difficult as possible. I ended up wondering if Mrs Danvers had feelings for Rebecca; the strength of her grief and determination to destroy the De Winter’s marriage. I think Rebecca was the type of woman to pick up that and not be afraid to use it…

Clearly, I have a lot of thoughts about Rebecca and I could go on, but I’m going to stop here with a final declaration of love. Rebecca completely and utterly blew me away. I loved every word of it and I was already ready to re-read it. This is one of my very favourite novels of this year and I can't believe it took me so long to get around to it.

Still not convinced?
- It’s a genre mash-up: Gothic, mystery, ghost story, love story.
- It’s one of my favourite books of the year.
- You’re seriously missing out if you don’t pick this up.


Monday, 23 November 2015

An Ember in the Ashes, Sabaa Tahir

Pages: 448
Publisher: Harper Voyager
Release Date: 4th June 2015
Edition: UK proof, review copy

For years Laia has lived in fear. Fear of the Empire, fear of the Martials, fear of truly living at all. Born as a Scholar, she’s never had much of a choice. But when Laia’s brother is taken she must force herself to help the Resistance, the only people who have a chance of saving him. She must spy on the Commander ruthless and deadly overseer of Blackcliff Academy.

Elias is the Academy’s finest soldier – and secretly it’s most unwilling. He has seen too much at on his path to becoming a Mask, one of the Empire’s elite warriors and is desperate to escape the Academy. If he succeeds, he will be named a deserter. If found, the punishment will be death.

With the Masks’ help the Empire has conquered a continent and enslaved thousands, all in the name of power. Now they must find a new Emperor to rule over them. And before Elias can escape he’s ordered to participate in a ruthless contest to the death that will decide the next Martial emperor.

When Laia and Elias’s paths cross at the academy, they find that their destinies are more intertwined than either could have imagined and that their choices will change the future of the empire itself.

In the ashes of a broken world one person can make a difference. One voice in the dark can be heard. The price of freedom is always high. Sometimes it’s life itself.

Sabaa Tahir’s debut has been raved about since long before it even came out in June and I was a little put off by the hype. I'm clearly an idiot sometimes because An Ember in the Ashes is brilliant.

Just over 100 years ago, the brutal, military-led Empire conquered the Scholars and pushed them to the bottom of the pile, enslaving them, raping them and killing them for sport. Blackcliff trains boys to become soldiers of cruelty, ruthlessness and loyal to the Emperor. Laia is a Scholar whose parents were part of the Resistance and killed, and now her grandparents have been as well and her brother imprisoned. She's all alone.

The world is unusually brutal, more so than I’ve ever come across in YA fantasy before. Murder, rape, sexual assault, torture – everything horrible happens in An Ember in the Ashes, and usually at the hands of the Masks. The brainwashing that takes place at the academy is scary and although it’s based on an Ancient Roman Empire, it’s not hard to imagine that kind of state spreading across our world, especially when coupled with the technology we have. It made Elias’s beliefs about Blackcliff, the Empire and how people should be treated so unusual and dangerous for him to possess, and I loved him for it and the mental chaos it caused him.

Laia is a fierce protagonist, but she grows into fierceness. She makes mistakes, has regrets and worries incessantly about doing the wrong thing, but she learns and grows against the atrocities she experienced inside Blackcliff. As Laia discovered more and more, I became suspicious about the Resistance and their true motives and just wanted Laia to get out as quick as she could. But she made it to the end, stronger and more determined than ever and I was genuinely proud of her. And the same goes for Elias.

I usually find that in a dual narrative fantasy novel the two protagonists meet almost immediately and their stories become so intertwined that the dual narrative seems only serve as a glimpse into the minds of the characters, but Laia and Elias’s stories felt like separate stories, even living in the same place. I loved it. They don’t meet until at least 150 pages in and their paths don’t really interlink properly for a long while and I loved speculating on how they would meet again and what would happen between them.

Thanks to Harper Voyager for the review copy.


Sunday, 22 November 2015

Letterbox Love #113

Letterbox Love is a way to give all of the books I receive for review some exposure. Summaries are taken from the cover, or Amazon/NetGalley/Goodreads in the case of e-books, unless otherwise stated.

Lily and the Christmas Wish, Keris Stainton (paperback)

Can one little girl and her dog make a town’s Christmas wishes come true?

Christmas is fast approaching, and the town of Pinewood has decided to do something really special to celebrate. Each person will write down a secret wish and tie it to the town’s Christmas tree!

Nine-year-old Lily isn’t quite convinced. She's not sure that she believes in wishes coming true – although she really wants to.

But then a strange storm blows in, scattering the wishes…and Lily wakes up the next morning to find that her adorable pug puppy, Bug, can talk! It's a wish come true…only it isn’t Lily’s wish.

It seems the storm has sent the Christmas magic awry, and now it's down to Lily, her youngest brother James and Bug to sort out the mixed-up wishes. But can they fix things before Christmas Eve?

This was completely and utterly lovely! Thanks Hot Key!

Seven Ways We Lie, Riley Redgate (e-proof)

In Seven Ways We Lie, a chance encounter tangles the lives of seven high school students, each resisting the allure of one of the seven deadly sins, and each telling their story for their seven distinct points of view.

The juniors at Paloma High School all have their secrets, whether it’s the thespian who hides her trust issues onstage, the closeted pansexual who only cares about his drug-dealing profits, or the neurotic genius who’s planted the seed of a school scandal. But it’s Juniper Kipling who has the furthest to fall. No one would argue that Juniper – obedient daughter, salutatorian, natural beauty, and loyal friend – is anything but perfect. Everyone knows she’s not a saint, not a sinner; but when love is involved, who is Juniper to resist temptation? When she begins to crave more and more of the one person she can't have, her charmed life starts to unravel.

Then rumours of a student-teacher affair hit the fan. After Juniper accidentally exposes her secret at a party, her fate falls into the hands of the other six sinners, bringing them into one another’s orbits. All seven are guilty of something. Together, they could save one another from their temptations – or be ruined by them.

Riley Redgate’s twisty YA debut effortlessly weaves humour, heartbreak, and redemption into a drama that fans of Jenny Han and Stephanie Perkins will adore.

I’m SO looking forward to this! A student-teacher relationship and a pansexual character! Thanks Amulet Books and NetGalley!


Friday, 20 November 2015

Soundless, Richelle Mead

Pages: 266
Publisher: Razorbill
Release Date: 10th November 2015
Edition: US hardback, purchased

For as long as Fei can remember, there has been no sound in her village, where rocky terrain and frequent avalanches prevent residents from self-sustaining. Fei and her people are at the mercy of a zipline that carries food up the treacherous cliffs of Beiguo, a mysterious faraway kingdom.

When villagers begin to lose their sight, deliveries from the zipline shrink and many go hungry. Fei’s home, the people she loves, and her entire existence is plunged into crisis, under threat of darkness and starvation.

But soon Fei is awoken in the night by a searing noise, and sound becomes her weapon.

Richelle Mead takes readers on a triumphant journey from the peak of Fei’s jagged mountain village to the valley of Beiguo, where a startling truth and an unlikely romance will change her life forever…

Soundless was one of my most anticipated books of the year, but it wasn’t quite all I wanted it to be.

I really love the premise of Soundless. An isolated, deaf community reliant on another town for supplies; Richelle Mead’s promise of a ton of Chinese myth and folklore; a standalone fantasy and my love for Mead’s previous novels, but this one didn’t really deliver on its promises. However, it’s a quick, easy and fun read and I was really rooting for the book to succeed on its brilliant ideas.

Everything was there, but there just wasn’t enough of it. This is a short novel at under 270 pages, especially for a standalone fantasy, and I think it was too short. Soundless could have done with at least another 100 pages. The world building wasn’t up to Mead’s standards, the Chinese folklore only came in at the very end and there was so little development with Fei, Li Wei and their relationship. It didn’t entirely feel like a Richelle Mead novel because these are the areas that she excels in; these are the things that made me fall so in love with the Vampire Academy and Bloodlines series’. Such a shame.

Though Soundless isn’t Richelle Mead at her best, it’s still worth a read for fans of her books and those interested in the world she's created here. I’ll just be keeping my attention on her upcoming release, The Glittering Court, and hoping for the best.