The Vanishing Stair

The Truly Devious case – an unsolved kidnapping and triple murder that rocked Ellingham Academy in 1936 – has consumed Stevie Bell for years. It’s the very reason she came to the academy. But then her classmate Hayes Major was murdered, and though she identified his killer, her parents quickly pull her out of school. For her safety, they say.

Stevie’s willing to do anything to get back to Ellingham, be with her friends, and solve the case. Even if it means making a deal with the despicable Senator Edward King. And when Stevie finally returns, she also returns to David: the guy she kissed, the guy who lied about his identity – Edward King’s son. But larger issues are at play. Was Hayes’s death really solved? Where did his murderer hide away to? What’s the meaning of the riddle Albert Ellingham left behind? And what, exactly, is at stake in the Truly Devious affair?

The Ellingham case isn’t just a piece of history – it’s a live wire into the present. The path to the truth has more twists and turns than Stevie can imagine, and moving forward involves hurting someone she cares for. In New York Times bestselling author Maureen Johnson’s second novel in the Truly Devious series, someone will pay for the truth with their life.


This review will contain at least a few spoilers for Truly Devious. Sorry about that.

When I started reading Maureen Johnson’s Truly Devious series I sort of assumed it’d be like the Shades of London books – each new release a fresh mystery to unravel. Not so. Truly Devious and the mystery of Albert Ellingham’s missing daughter is the overarching theme of the series, and for every question The Vanishing Stair answered it raised at least three more.

I loved it, obviously.

At the end of the last book we saw our favourite wannabe detective, Stevie Bell, yanked from Ellingham Academy by her parents following the revelation of Hayes’s murderer. She is not okay with the situation. The Ellingham case remains unsolved and the whole Hayes affair at least somewhat unfinished. So when the opportunity to return comes up in the shape of a dodgy offer from the worst sort of Republican Senator Edward King – boss to Stevie’s parents and (surprise) father to Stevie’s on-again-off-again love interest David – despite her misgivings she’s prepared to do whatever he wants.

That particular decision looms large over everything else that happens in The Vanishing Stair.

I flew through this book. Continuing the split narrative of Stevie’s present divided by snapshots of the unfolding mystery in 1936 – the one Stevie came to Ellingham in the first place to solve before all the Hayes business – Maureen builds ever more layers of complexity onto a mystery that has already confounded everyone who has tried to solve it in the 80-odd years since it began. New and intriguing figures enter into play, from the possibly murderous runaway Ellingham students of the past, Francis Crane and Edward Pierce Davenport, to Dr Irene Fenton, the probably alcoholic true crime professor as eager to solve the Ellingham case as Stevie herself.

David continues to do the most. I’ve read several reviews where readers aren’t so keen on Stevie and David’s dynamic – some going as far as to describe it as insta-lovey and thin. I couldn’t disagree more. David and Stevie are pulled towards each other in a way that read electric to me – though they both remain defensive weirdos they can’t help but keep circling, each one taking turns to pull back in the other when they pull away. They share a similar sort of darkness, I think. It may not be the healthiest basis for a relationship, but for reading purposes it is delicious. Don’t believe the rumours: Stevie and David are a pairing you ship hard, however unlikely their resolution turning out to be a happy one is at this point.

A lot of pieces clicked into place during The Vanishing Stair, but there are a lot of questions still to be answered in the Hand on the Wall, and I for one cannot wait to see where Maureen Johnson’s twisting mystery takes us next.

Truly Devious

Ellingham Academy is a famous private school in Vermont. It was founded by Albert Ellingham, an early twentieth century tycoon, who wanted to make a wonderful place full of riddles, twisting pathways, and gardens. “A place,” he said, “where learning is a game.”

In 1936, shortly after the school opened, Ellingham’s wife and daughter, Iris and Alice, were kidnapped. The only real clue was a mocking riddle listing methods of murder, signed with the frightening pseudonym “Truly, Devious.” It became one of the great crimes of American history. Something like that could never happen again, obviously…

Years later, true crime aficionado Stevie Bell is set to begin her first year at Ellingham Academy, and she has an ambitious plan: She will solve this cold case. That is, she will solve the case when she gets a grip on her demanding new school life and her housemates: the inventor, the novelist, the actor, the artist, and the jokester. But something strange is happening. Truly Devious makes a surprise return, and death revisits Ellingham Academy. The past has crawled out of its grave. Someone has gotten away with murder.


Remotely situated boarding schools for the excellent – be that wizards, vampires or, in this case, geniuses – have always been one of my favourite literary escapes. So when Maureen Johnson, one of my forever faves, presented us with Ellingham Academy – a school with ‘…no application, no list of requirements, no instructions other than “If you would like to be considered for Ellingham Academy, please get in touch.”’ – I was totally in before I even read the first page.

Truly Devious is a murder mystery split into two separate timelines. There’s Stevie Bell, a new arrival at the school, true crime enthusiast and Sherlock Holmes-in-training at present day Ellingham Academy, sticking her nose into history to see what she can sniff out there, interspersed with chapters covering those shocking days of April 1936 when the course of Albert Ellingham’s life was thrown dramatically and tragically off course. The only thing both timelines have in common is that no one yet understands what on earth has gone on.

Stevie has lived all her life feeling like a misfit. From a politically conservative family – her parents even work for a local senator who is the unfortunate embodiment of Make America Great Again-ism – and a high school filled with kids she got on well enough with, but never felt especially connected to, she’s frustrated and desperate for a new chapter of her life to begin.

Yeah, Stevie. We can all relate.

The school is populated by the sort of colourful characters you might expect from an institution for the strange and genius – Janelle, an engineering superstar who was caught mending the toaster at 5 years old; Nate, the teenage author of a best-selling Game of Thrones-type series called The Moon Bright Cycles; Hayes Major, writer and star of The End of it All, a web series about a zombie apocalypse; and, finally, David. Oh, David. Constantly on the edge of expulsion, it’s unclear what David’s talent is besides disruption – of the school, and of Stevie’s general sense of wellbeing – but all I can say is you’re always glad he’s around. It’s Maureen Johnson we’re talking about, so you can’t guarantee a happy ending for the pair, but however it all turns out I am invested.

Like all Maureen’s books – has anyone else read her Shades of London series? I was obsessedTruly Devious is totally addictive. There is a sense of foreboding over the entire narrative, the weight of the unsolved murders Stevie is at the Academy to investigate, plus that of the murder the summary promises is coming. Who will it be?

I’m not going to give it away.

All I will say I was reaching for the sequel as soon as I could get my hands on it.

Permanent Record

On paper, college drop-out Pablo Rind doesn’t have a whole lot going for him. His graveyard shift at a twenty-four-hour deli in Brooklyn is a struggle. Plus, he’s up to his eyeballs in credit card debt. Never mind the state of his student loans.

Pop juggernaut Leanna Smart has enough social media followers to populate whole continents. The brand is unstoppable. She graduated from child stardom to become an international icon, and her adult life is a queasy blur of private planes, hotel rooms and strangers screaming for her just to notice them.

When Leanna and Pablo meet at 5am at the bodega in the dead of winter, it’s absurd to think that they’d become A Thing. But as they discover who they are, who they want to be and how to defy the expectations of everyone else, Lee and Pab turn to each other. Which, of course, is when things get properly complicated.

Mary H.K. Choi appeared on one of my favourite podcasts, Call Your Girlfriend, a few months back and I fell in love with her within the first five minutes. She’s just really fucking cool. Read/listen to any interview she’s ever given and you’ll quickly see what I mean – this one is a good start, if you’re interested.

Permanent Record offers an authentic take on what it means to be young and lost. Though classified as YA, perhaps what I liked most is that Permanent Record wasn’t about teenagers, but people in their early twenties. It wasn’t about high school, or university even, but that vast space you find yourself in when you’re finally thrown out of all the institutions in whose structures you’ve been immersed your entire life up until that point. Technically you’re an adult – employed full time, no longer living with your parents – but the reality is that you don’t have a clue what you’re doing. There’s this old musical that we used to have on VHS when I was a kid, Singin’ In The Rain. My brother and I’s favourite song in the whole thing was ‘Make ‘Em Laugh’, sung by Cosmo Brown, the clown to Gene Kelly’s leading man. Anyway, while he’s singing this stupid song, for the final flourish he goes to do his signature move – this back flip that involves first running up the wall before springing back off of it and landing on his feet. We see him manage it successfully a couple times, but the final wall turns out to be fake – they’re on a movie set – so he crashes straight through. Basically what I’m getting at is that I think early adulthood is a lot like Cosmo Brown singing ‘Make ‘Em Laugh’.

You’ll fall down a lot, and you probably won’t be the leading man.

That’s pretty much where Pablo is at when an escape hatch arrives in the shape of Leanna Smart. I once heard Dylan Moran say that relationships in your twenties are a continual process of not wanting to turn around and face your bullshit, so instead you find another person to whom you can attach yourself and be all “you look at it”, and that particular dynamic forms the heart of Pablo and Leanna’s relationship. It’s all-consuming and chaotic, it further fucks Pablo’s already pretty fucked up priorities and, more than anything, presents a fast-moving tide he can ride along rather than going about the difficult business of gathering the pieces of his scattered life.

So much of YA is consumed with firsts (for obvious reasons) – first love, first sexual experiences – and oftentimes, at least in contemporary novels they are written in a way that’s very much idealised. And look, I’m not complaining. There is a very important place for uncomplicated love stories (I mean, the first thing I did when lockdown happened was start rewatching Parks & Rec because I needed my Lesliemin fix) and there is something regenerative and hopeful about reading them, but the older I get the more I want to live in complicated spaces, and Permanent Record is the perfect read for this.

It’s also straight up uncomfortable at times. You know when your friends are doing better than you and you don’t exactly celebrate their achievements as you should because you’re so caught up in your own sense of inadequacy? Mary writes that to perfection. What about when you realise that those people in your life you’re totally judgey towards maybe aren’t actually doing it (it = life) wrong? That maybe despite what you’ve always thought they actually aren’t a joke, but had it figured out in a way you can only hope you will one day the entire time? Mary. Fucking. Gets it.

Permanent Record grabbed a hold of my heart with the wild abandon of a murderous Damon Salvatore and I loved it. Bittersweet and packed with uncomfortable truths, it was every bit as cool as Mary H.K. Choi herself. From this book to her extremely helpful podcast Hey, Cool Life, Mary has now cemented her place as one of my favourites, and a voice I am very glad to have during this lockdown.

Read Permanent Record. Seriously. It’ll blow your mind and break your heart a bit – but you can deal with that.

Then maybe watch Singin’ In The Rain because it doesn’t get much more pure than tap dancing, and I feel like we need that right now.

Starsight

All her life, Spensa has dreamed of becoming a pilot. Of proving she’s a hero like her father. She made it to the sky, but the truths she learned there were crushing. The rumours of his cowardice are true – he deserted his flight during battle. Worse, he turned against his own team.

Spensa is sure there’s more to the story. And she’s sure that whatever happened to her father could happen to her. She’s heard the stars too – and it was terrifying. It turned her world upside down. Everything Spensa has been taught is a lie.

But Spensa also learned a few things about herself, too – and she’ll travel to the end of the galaxy to save humankind if she needs to.

After ploughing through Skyward in a couple of days, I quickly picked up Starsight, the sequel to Brandon Sanderson’s story about space pilots fighting a seemingly endless war against an alien race known as the Krell. Like I mentioned in my Skyward review, aliens aren’t really my thing, but after spending two books with Spensa and her multi-planetary (and species) war, I might be willing to change my stance.

There are a lot of aliens in this book. But I’ll get to that.

I’m not going to lie, diving pretty much straight from Skyward to Starsight was a bit of a disorientating experience. There’s a time jump between the events at the end of book one and where Starsight picks up. It’s been six months – and a pretty significant six months at that. The people of Detritus, Spensa’s home planet, have seen their knowledge advance a lot since the reveals at the end of the first book in the series, and while in a lot of ways this was no bad thing – it certainly pushed the story into some new and surprising territory quickly – I did find myself feeling a little bit robbed. After gradually putting the pieces together throughout the first book to finally understand Spensa, her father and what really went down that fateful day he appeared to abandoned his army in the midst of battle, missing out on much of the development of that understanding meant that the start of Starsight did fall a bit flat for me.

But don’t fear – Brandon pulled it back. It becomes apparent within a couple chapters that he made the choice to skip over six months of Spensa’s life because he had something big in mind.

Those other planets that were hinted at during Skyward are explored during Starsight, and it’s quite a ride. As I’ve mentioned, this book things get fully alien, and we find ourselves up close and personal with the Krell (who it turns out are crab people); diones, who tend to be either blue, red or purple and are non-binary; the kitsen, who are tiny fox people; and figments, which are invisible – plus a very scary murdery force out there in the stars which I won’t go into. It’s really better if you learn about those guys yourself.

Much like in the first book where Sanderson used a story of war as a way of thinking about courage, Starsight is more than anything a novel about compassion. When Spensa first encounters the other alien races that populate Starsight she sees them as just that – alien. Other. Not on her side. What becomes increasingly apparent though is that this war Spensa has spent her entire life consumed by is a lot more complicated than she had ever imagined. She comes into the situation as the persecuted party, but as she experiences more of the war from the other side she starts to realise that her own race isn’t blameless. And not only that, but the alien races she is surrounded by maybe aren’t so alien after all. What it means to be ‘human’ – from M-Bot’s struggles to make decisions independent of its AI’s programming, to the dione who wants to be a soldier even though that really isn’t something diones do – is the overarching theme, and I was 100% here for it.

I’m not going to lie, Starsight is not what I was expecting. Spensa spends the vast majority of the story away from Detritus, and therefore the flight team I fell in love with in book one, and while to start off with I felt pretty resentful about that (I love those guys!), the unexpected places Starsight took me had me sucked in again in no time.

Bring on book three. Soon please.

Skyward

Spensa’s world has been under attack for hundreds of years. An alien race called the Krell leads onslaught after onslaught from the sky in a never-ending campaign to destroy humankind. Humanity’s only defence is to take their ships and fight the enemy in the skies. Pilots have become the heroes of what’s left of the human race. Spensa has always dreamed of being one of them; of soaring above Earth and proving her bravery. But her fate is intertwined with her father’s – a pilot who was killed years ago when he abruptly deserted his team, placing Spensa’s chances of attending flight school somewhere between slim and none. No one will let Spensa forget what her father did, but she is still determined to fly. And the Krell just made that a possibility. They’ve doubled their fleet, making Spensa’s world twice as dangerous… but their desperation to survive might just take her skyward.

I’m not really a sci-fi person generally speaking, so when one of my housemates lent me Skyward by Brandon Sanderson to occupy a couple days of quarantine I went into it with low expectations. But, actually, as so often happens, I really enjoyed it. Turns out an immersive look at a totally different world (despite the blurb saying that Spensa and the other humans live on Earth, they actually don’t) with pilots, aliens and weird genetic irregularities that may or may not make you evil/cowardly was exactly what I needed to take my mind off what’s happening in the world right now.

Who knew?

Spensa is a fun character to hang out with. When she was a kid her dad was killed during a battle after apparently bottling it and turning to run from the fight (by run I mean fly away – this was all happening in space), and her entire life she and her family have been shunned because of her father’s so-called act of cowardice. Despite the continuous bullying, isolation and poverty this has brought on her family (they make a living by selling rats as food, which Spensa spends most of her days hunting in the caves below their city), Spensa is not the type of girl to let this get her down. Brought up on stories of brave warriors by her Gran-Gran, she’s come to see her life as a heroic tale with herself at the centre. Her objective? Get into flight school, where she can prove everybody wrong – she’s no coward, whatever her father did. Spensa’s obsession with proving her bravery manifests itself in some slightly odd ways – primarily in her way of expressing herself. She has a habit of saying things like ‘I shall bathe in the blood of my enemies’, which initially I found off-puttingly weird – as does literally every character in the book, so I think you’re supposed to – but over time I came to see as part of the armour Spensa had built to protect herself from a world that said she was a cowardly nothing. If you’ve grown up with that you either accept it and live out that assumption, or, Spensa-style, you go in the opposite direction in a big way – and sometimes that involves bathing in the blood of your enemies, I guess.

The vast majority of the book takes place in flight school, a cut throat training programme to join the military in charge of fighting the Krell, the alien race trying to kill the humans – that the humans weirdly know nothing about, despite fighting them for many years. Flight school is brutal. Of the recruits in Spensa’s class, only a few will make it to earn their pilot’s pin – the rest will either drop out, get kicked out or, worst of all, die during battle. The relationships Spensa builds with the other members of her flight are the heart of this book. I don’t know about anyone else, but for me what always draws me to a story more than anything else is the relationships – I think I could read a story set in almost any scenario and keep going through it if the relationships were compelling enough. The personalities in Spensa’s flight are distinct, and even those members who don’t stick around for very long (not a spoiler, Sanderson tells us from the off that not everybody is going to graduate) felt complex and real – they all served a purpose in the story and I liked that. There is nothing that turns me off more when the main character – especially one with as much personality as Spensa – is surrounded by people who feel less than her.

There’s a hate-to-love ship in this too that it very easy to get behind. He’s duty-driven and emotionally unavailable – so, exactly my type.

The plot really drives this book forward, but within it Sanderson spends some time dwelling on ideas of bravery and cowardice. Like I’ve mentioned, cowardice is considered really the worst thing a person can be in Spensa’s world. But throughout their training, Spensa and her cohort find that bravery is actually a much more complicated concept than they had been raised to believe. It’s not the absence of fear, and it certainly isn’t pride – something too many young pilots don’t figure out until it’s too late – and, sometimes, it’s even saving your own life. More than anything though, as Spensa demonstrates, bravery is an absolute refusal to give up. And that is an idea I can 100% get behind.

So… maybe I’m into sci-fi now? If you have any recommendations do throw them my way. Right now, I’ve got nothing but time.

Orangeboy

Sixteen-year-old Marlon has made his mum a promise – he’ll never follow his big brother, Andre, down the wrong path. So far, it’s been easy, but when a date ends in tragedy, Marlon finds himself hunted. They’re after the mysterious Mr Orange, and they’re going to use Marlon to get to him. Marlon’s out of choices – can he become the person he never wanted to be, to protect everyone he loves?

Orangeboy by Patrice Lawrence is a gripping story about gang warfare and revenge. It’s a page turner, to put it mildly. I finished this book mostly during a train journey (back when we were still allowed to go outside) and clambered out of the carriage with it still stuck to my face, walked down the steps to the station exit and barely closed the book to say hi to my mum, who I was going to visit – to give you some idea of quite how hard it is to put this one down.

Lawrence’s carefully constructed tale of downfall grabs you by the throat and doesn’t let go.

The worst part is, Marlon is an innocent kid, a good boy dragged into somebody else’s mess. It all starts with an unlikely date; Sonya, cool, worldly and with a pocket full of ecstasy should never have shown up at Marlon’s door. But she did, and he went – how could he not?

And it all goes downhill from there.

There are lots of times during Orangeboy when, as the reader, you want to throw your hands over your eyes, such is the intensity with which Marlon’s life barrels off course. You want to shout “No! Don’t go in there!” like he’s a girl going down to the basement at the beginning of a horror movie, but realistically in his position it is hard to judge his decisions, as bad as most of them are. Failed by the institutions that are supposed to protect him – the police assume the worst of him because of his brother’s history, and because he’s a black kid, and his school much the same – it’s easy to see how Marlon feels there is nowhere to go but further down the rabbit hole of violence and destruction.

It’s a thriller with a compelling mystery at its heart, but the novel also makes a vital social commentary on cycles of violence. Marlon’s brother Andre was a criminal until a car chase led to a tragic accident – one that killed his best friend and left Andre with a head injury he’d never fully recover from. Marlon has always carried the weight of that on his shoulders, and the pressure to be the good kid that his mother could rely on – but despite all his best intentions the world that consumed his brother comes for him anyway. Such is the depth of Lawrence’s writing though, that even as my heart was beating out of my chest, fearing for Marlon’s life during a terrifying chase scene, she was challenging me to consider the structures that had failed these young people – the ones doing the chasing – to take them down this path in the first place. I can’t get into it in too much depth without heading into major spoiler territory, but suffice to say the life of these scary kids is not one they’d choose if they had any better options.

Lawrence has quickly established herself as a vital voice in the UK YA scene, and I’m really looking forward to reading the rest of her books. Especially now I’ve got all this time on my hands.

The Everlasting Rose

What would you do to be beautiful? Camellia and her sisters are Belles. Only they can be beautiful.
All our lives, my sisters and I have served the people of Orleans.
For years, they’ve held their abilities over us. Not anymore.
Now the queen hunts us, because we know the truth about the rightful heir.
Camellia murdered our princess and fled with her sisters.
The princess is still alive, and we’ll help her take back the throne.
Together, we will return the Belles to their rightful place.
The queen wants us caged. But we will not go quietly.
Then they will give us what we deserve: beauty, everlasting.
We demand our freedom. No matter what the cost.

I was a MASSIVE fan of The Belles from Dhonielle Clayton. I became pretty obsessed with it when it came out and was all over again when I reread it in anticipation of The Everlasting Rose, the sequel. The rich and complexly imagined world; the complicated dynamics between the women who loved each other but, regardless, had been raised to compete; the stark ridiculousness and horror of the way that the beauty industry overtook the importance of any other single thing in Orleans; the way the Belles had been raised to believe they were basically Goddesses on earth so they didn’t notice they were actually slaves – all of his came together in a fantastic slow burn novel that utterly captivated me. Also, Remy – sigh – the stern and watchful but also adorable with his younger sisters sexy soldier of my dreams.

So, when I picked up The Everlasting Rose, obviously my expectations were high, as were my fear levels – I knew not everybody was getting out of this situation alive.

I was right about the latter*, if not the former.

*Come on – barely a spoiler. Someone always bites the dust in a series like this.

Unfortunately, where its predecessor completely took over my brain and immersed me in its strange and morally bankrupt world, The Everlasting Rose was comparatively a little… all over the place. For a start the romance with Remy goes from nought to one hundred in, like, the first chapter. Which was fine – as I have mentioned, I am a big fan of Remy – but it felt a little rushed. And rushed, as it turns out, would be the theme for this entire novel.

The pacing just felt off. Admittedly I hadn’t understood it was a duology, so had assumed this book would be the middle of the series rather than the end. Even putting that aside, though, you get to the last 50 pages or so and everything looks terrible and you have that moment you always have – or, at least, I always have – where you think wow this writer is clearly planning on pulling off something pretty amazing so this ending isn’t a disappointing clusterfuck and then, they don’t. The Everlasting Rose, I’m genuinely really sad to say, was one of those.

There were a lot of things in the book that I really liked – Dhonielle Clayton continues to take complex ideas and live in the grey with them through her characters. It just felt like those moments weren’t as fully developed as they were before. The Everlasting Rose is a lot about complicity – it’s a reckoning, really, for those people in Orleans that have held up the system for so long, the people whose various acts of passivity or wrong in the hope of gain had paved the way for a monster like Sophia, the main villain of the piece, to be born. Perhaps most intriguingly – and I can’t get too far into this because spoilers – she looks at how the Belles themselves can be complicit in their own imprisonment by the state. How a person can grab for power wherever they find it – even if it isn’t truly power at all – rather than seeking to dismantle the system that oppresses them. Can you blame that person? It’s hard to say, and it’s a major aspect of the book I would have liked to see explored further.

Like so many series like this built around a single female lead – ‘the special one’ – I wanted more development from the side characters. The Belles were separated for most of book one, but even in that time you had a sense of their love for each other, even when that was complicated by the competition to be the best they had been forced to play in their entire lives. In The Everlasting Rose, we finally had some time for these women to actually be together and that sense of the depth of their relationships kind of vanished. Particularly between Camellia and her best friend Amber – what could have been one of the most complex dynamics in the book – there is no time or real detail given to the situation. I know Amber isn’t a likeable or even good person most of the time, but I was intrigued by her (as we know I love a mean girl), and at the end of book one really interested to see what she would be like once she was thrown back into the mix. She never really gets her moment though, and I was disappointed by that.

Overall, still love Dhonielle, but a little confused by what happened here. I don’t know if it’s that this should have been three books rather than two – something I would very rarely advocate for – or something else, but The Everlasting Rose just fell flat for me. Underdeveloped and rushed – if ultimately somewhat saved by how much we love the characters because of an absolutely fantastic book one – this was still ultimately an enjoyable read, if not the experience I was hoping to have.  

The Book Thief

Here is a small fact: you are going to die.

1939. Nazi Germany. The country is holding its breath. Death has never been busier.

Liesel, a nine-year-old girl, is living with a foster family on Himmel Street. Her parents have been taken away to a concentration camp. Liesel steals books. This is her story and the story of the inhabitants of her street when the bombs begin to fall.

Some important information: this novel is narrated by Death. It’s a small story about a girl, an accordionist, some fanatical Germans, A Jewish fist fighter and quite a lot of thievery.

Another thing you should know: Death will visit the book thief three times.

I can’t really get into why, because it’s a massive spoiler, but The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak is without question one of the most traumatic experiences I have put myself through by choice in recent history.

If you have read it, I have only one question for you. And it is this: what the fuck?

For everyone else, The Book Thief is one of those very famous international best seller types that you think you should read, but put off for ages because it’s long and it’s about Nazi Germany, so you know it’s going to be traumatic (but how traumatic you truly cannot imagine. Okay, I did only finish it yesterday, so I’m still in the first phase of my response but what. The. Fuck.), but eventually someone in your life pushes you (in this instance my housemate) and you finally pick it up, because It’s Time.

And you know what, trauma aside, it is an incredible book. Told by Death, in combination with the Nazi Germany of it all, means there is a constant sense of impermanence, of the looming end of it all that we all do our best to ignore day-to-day. That sense of something looming grows in time with the hate and aggression life under Hitler brings to the community. From Jewish-owned shops destroyed before closing down completely – and their keepers vanished – to the lady in the corner shop who will only sell you food after you first Heil Hitler, the bubbling fanaticism and anti-Semitism form a sinister undertone to Liesel’s every day – but as a nine-year-old it’s not something she thinks about a ton. Mostly, she’s concerned with where she and her best friend Rudy are going to go steal some extra food because her foster mother has been cooking nothing but pea soup for months.

But a normal childhood isn’t a luxury children in Nazi Germany get to experience, and there is something uniquely harrowing about the ways Liesel and Rudy lose their innocence as the war wages on, gradually wending its way toward their homes on Himmel Street. From Liesel, hiding the secret of the hidden Jew in the basement to Rudy, fighting the war with the Nazi Youth but actually fighting the war against the Nazi Youth, both children have a strong sense of justice instilled in them that the misery of their circumstances never quite manages to beat out. Their actions aren’t exactly powerful – reading to a huddled group inside a bomb shelter, standing up for your friend the Nazi Youth would call weak – but small as they are, in the depths of the despair of the situation, they mean everything.

The Book Thief is really a book about changing the world in small ways: saving the life of one Jewish man, even if only for a time; protecting one kid from the fists of the Nazi Youth bullies; leaving the window open so a young girl can sneak inside and steal your books; giving a dying man a teddy bear. It’s about one small street in Nazi Germany and how its inhabitants survived the hatred – and how they didn’t. People can change each other’s lives in ways large and small, and you see all of them throughout the scope of this expansive novel. When one person loses hope for a while another person picks it up and runs with it until they can do so again, and so on and so forth, until Death comes to visit.

A Great and Terrible Beauty

It’s 1895 and, after the death of her mother, 16-year-old Gemma Doyle is shipped off from the life she knows in India to Spence, a proper boarding school in England. Lonely, guilt-ridden, and prone to visions of the future that have an uncomfortable habit of coming true, Gemma finds her reception a chilly one. She’s not completely alone, though… she’s being followed by a mysterious young man, sent to warn her to close her mind against the visions.

It’s at Spence that Gemma’s power to attract the supernatural unfolds, as she becomes entangled with the school’s most powerful girls and discovers her mother’s connection to a shadowy, timeless group called The Order. Her destiny awaits… if only Gemma can believe in it.

I was recently inspired to re-read Libba Bray’s first novel, A Great and Terrible Beauty – a book I haven’t read since my actual teens, which were, um, a while ago – by one of Sophie @ Blame The Chocolate’s recent Theme Thursdays. I am so glad I did. I’m such a fan of Bray’s more recent works, so it’s hardly a surprise that returning to her back catalogue was a joy.

A Great and Terrible Beauty is a book consumed by the question of power: what different power looks like to different kinds of people, who has it, how they use it, and whether it is ultimately a force for good or for destruction. For Gemma and her friends – a group of 19th century schoolgirls whose options are, to put it lightly, limited – it’s a question they are consumed by.

“No one asks how I am doing. They could not care less. We’re all looking glasses, we girls, existing only to reflect their images back to them as they’d like to be seen. Hollow vessels of girls to be rinsed of our own ambitions, wants, and opinions, just waiting to be filled with the cool, tepid water of gracious compliance.
A fissure forms in the vessel. I’m cracking open.”

Each of the girls is confined by the expectations placed on them by the restrictive society they’re growing up in. For Gemma, Felicity and Pippa, girls born rich and upper class, their only options are marriage and children. For Ann, the only scholarship student at Spence and a poor orphan, it’s a life of servitude as a governess or similar that awaits when she leaves school. Though they are all definitely interested in romance – and deal with the shame and confusion that comes along with the desire to express their sexuality as a Proper Young LadiesTM – the often forced marriages to much older men they see their friends doomed to are very far from the lives they have fantasised about. Like, sexual freedom isn’t even a concept yet, let alone a conversation you’re allowed to have with your friends.

So when they discover The Realms – a magical alternate universe that only they can access, a place in which everything they wish for becomes a reality – you can imagine their response.

Um, they want to live there.

But accessing the realms – something that the gang can only do with the help of Gemma’s magical powers – comes with consequences. There is a creeping darkness to the power they’ve accessed – one that raises some interesting questions about what parts of themselves they are willing to sacrifice to gain the control over their destinies that society will not allow them.

“Felicity ignores us. She walks out towards them, an apparition in white and blue velvet, her head held high as they stare in awe at her, the goddess. I don’t know what power feels like. But this is surely what it looks like, and I think I’m beginning to understand why those ancient women had to hide in caves. Why our parents and teachers and suitors want us to behave properly and predictably. It’s not that they want to protect us; it’s that they fear us.”

There is a simmering rage that underscores this series. From the eventual villain – who I won’t go into because spoilers – to Felicity’s explosive personality and Gemma’s dogged need for solutions to the story’s various mysteries, no matter the cost, each of the characters is somehow on the edge of a precipice to some unknown darkness. It lends the book a sense of anxiety that the persistent wrongness of the realms – which are, btw, full of strange and grotesque characters the girls are peculiarly unbothered by (at least, initially) – only increases. One of the lessons I think we all have to learn the hard way is that it’s shocking how much you can ignore when you feel like you’re onto a good thing. But those things you’re ignoring? They’re growing – something as the reader you’re waiting for the Gemma and her friends to realise all along.

It’s creepy and delicious. I know that in the blogosphere we spend most of our time on new releases, for obvious reasons, but if there was ever an author whose back catalogue it’s worth revisiting it’s Bray. The Diviners didn’t come out of nowhere. For Bray, ghostly territory has been well traversed for a good few years now.

The Astonishing Colour of After

When Leigh’s mother dies by suicide she leaves only a scribbled note – I want you to remember.

Leigh doesn’t understand its meaning and wishes she could turn to her best friend, Axel – if only she hadn’t kissed him and changed everything between them.

Guided by a mysterious red bird, Leigh travels to Taiwan to meet her grandparents for the first time. There, Leigh retreats into art and memories, where colours collide, the rules of reality are broken and the ghosts of the past refuse to rest…

But Leigh is determined to unlock her family’s secrets.

The Astonishing Colour of After

I was lucky enough to win a copy of The Astonishing Colour of After by Emily X R Pan in a giveaway run by one of my absolute faves, Marie @ Drizzle and Hurricane Books. Thanks Marie!

And I am so glad because 1. I NEVER win anything so it was very exciting and 2. I absolutely adored this beautiful book, even though by the end it had me sobbing. SOBBING.*

*for the sake of transparency I should note making me cry is very easy. Like, if I’m watching a TV show, even if I don’t even really care about what’s happening, if one of the characters starts crying I will get choked up. Yeah. There might be something a bit wrong with me. That said, this book is very emotional and if you don’t cry… well, I might judge you a little bit for that.

The Astonishing Colour of After is a heart-rending, magical read about grief, love, family, art and identity. Leigh’s world is shattered when her mother dies by suicide. Things between her and her dad are strained – they were before her mother’s death – as they come to terms with their loss, and her relationship with her best friend Axel is in a strange, confused place. They kissed on the day of her mother’s death and ever since she has found herself totally unable to deal with him. With anyone, really.

So Leigh finds herself isolated, grief-stricken and in complete confusion when her mother returns to her in the form of a bird, a streak of scarlet dancing away into the sky whenever Leigh gets close.

This is just the start of the mysterious magic that creeps into Leigh’s life.

Emily X R Pan expertly weaves the story through various different timelines – Leigh in Taiwan, struggling to connect with her mother’s estranged family, the two years leading to her mother’s suicide and her journey into her mother’s family history, which she can access by burning photographs, a necklace or a letter, and be transported into the memory by the flames. As grief and insomnia take their toll on Leigh’s own mental health, as the reader you find yourself constantly questioning what’s actually happening, or what is just in Leigh’s mind as she isolates herself and spirals down under the weight of her pain and trauma.

It’s a novel consumed by grief, but The Astonishing Colour of After is also a mystery. Leigh’s mother was long estranged from her family in Taiwan to the point that she refused to even teach her daughter to speak Mandarin. The reasons for this are slowly revealed as the novel progresses, and watching Leigh navigate her own racial identity without her mother as her guide was a uniquely painful experience to read. Leigh is mixed race, and often called “exotic” by her white peers in America. In Taiwan, she’s dismayed to find that she is exoticised in much the same manner as in the US – people point and whisper, hunxie, a word she soon learns describes someone biracial. This, combined with the language barrier between herself and her grandparents she is meeting for the first time only adds to her sense of isolation and loneliness.

I loved the way that Pan included Chinese mythology in the story – particularly Ghost Month, the seventh month in the lunar calendar, when ghosts roam the earth like “brushstrokes across a canvas”.  I also really appreciated the way that she wrote about suicide. One of my various jobs is with a CIC that deliver suicide awareness and suicide first aid training, and since I’ve become more involved with media representation of suicide I’ve become very concerned with the way it is often over simplified for the sake of a clickable headline. Pan doesn’t do that. She pointedly makes the choice not to assign a reason for Dory’s suicide. She has had some traumatic life experiences, yes, but her depression is an illness, not something that can be blamed on any one person or event.

I was happy to see that Pan also avoided using the phrase “committed suicide”. It’s one of those things that we say without really thinking about it, but it’s actually very stigmatising. “Died by suicide” or even “suicided” are much better terms to use. There’s a pretty good article here for anyone interested in learning more about this.

The Astonishing Colour of After is an unforgettable, emotive novel that handles its subject matter with compassion and understanding. It delves deep into family estrangement and how that pain can echo across generations decades later. It is probably my favourite YA read so far this year.