City of Brass

In the markets of eighteenth century Cairo, thieves, tricksters, con artists and outcasts eke out a living swindling rich nobles and foreign invaders alike.

But alongside this new world, the old stories linger. Tales of djinn and spirits, of cities hidden among the swirling sands of the desert – full of enchantment, desire and riches – where magic pours down every street, hanging in the air like dust.

Many wish their lives could be filled with wonder, but not Nahri. She knows the trades she uses to get by are just tricks and sleights of hand: there’s nothing magical about her. She only wishes to one day leave Cairo, but as the saying goes…

Be careful what you wish for.


City of Brass by S.A. Chakraborty is a rich and imaginative fantasy that weaves elements of Islamic folklore with the political machinations of monarchy to create a vivid world filled with tension – of both the romantic and warmongering kind.

The story starts with Nahri, an orphan surviving via the means of the age-old con (fake healings, telling the future, the occasional exorcism, etc) who stumbles from the life she had known as just another Cairo trickster into the magical world of the djinn, beings born of fire who live, for the most part, in a magical land hidden from the human world by, you guessed it, more magic. This dangerous new world of flying carpets, flesh-eating ghouls and terrifying demon-djinn known as ifrit – regular djinn are sexy, ifrit decidedly not so. From what I gather there are a lot of claws and fangs happening – might hold the keys to Nahri’s mysterious past, if she can only get her new sexy djinn friend Dara to answer any of her questions.

I clicked with Nahri right away. A survivor well versed in thinking on her feet, she’s always got a witty retort and a means to make a buck tucked in her back pocket. She has an unusual talent for diagnosing and healing, skills she’s honing with a local pharmacist, and dreams of leaving Cairo behind to seek a career in medicine – even though that’s not something women really do, where she’s from. She can also speak any language as soon as she’s heard it, which is just very cool, honestly.

On the other hand, we have Ali, the other narrator of City of Brass. The prince of Daevabad, the aforementioned hidden magical land, he took me a lot longer to warm up to. But now, two books in (I finished Kingdom of Copper a couple of weeks back), I have come to the conclusion that this was kind of the point. Ali is not an easy person to like, but as I, and Nahri, discovered, he does kinda grow on you. Ali is the kind of guy who is stubborn about all of the wrong things. He holds himself up as the one with principles and his identity is very much wrapped up in that, but the principles – if not the high and mighty attitude that comes with them – seem to melt away when they present any personal risk. Trapped by the confines of royal life and his politically and personally domineering father, there’s a sense throughout City of Brass that he isn’t a fully formed person yet, and though to start with I read him as a weak manboy I didn’t have a lot of time for, after a while his story became one I could engage with. But initially, I’m not going to lie to you, whenever the narrative flipped from what was happening with Nahri to what Ali was up to, the story massively slowed down for me.

City of Brass is, in many ways, a totally perfect book for right now. Rich and complex, Chakraborty goes deep on the many different tribes of the djinn, their histories (a lot of which are bound up in conflict) and how those have led to the balance of power we see in Daevabad now. Keeping track of what different tribes were, which tribes didn’t like other tribes and how those feelings impacted Ali and Nahri required my whole brain. It was exactly what I needed – when I picked up the book and stepped into the world of Daevabad, everything that was going on in my day fell away. There’s not much higher praise for a fantasy than that, right?

Also, the sexual tension between Nahri and Dara… It’s also a very effective distraction.

Just saying.

Clap When You Land

Note: trigger warning for sexual assault.

Camino lives for her father’s visits to the Dominican Republic. But this year, on the day when his plane is supposed to land, Camino arrives at the airport to see crowds of crying people.

In New York, Yahaira is called to the principal’s office, where her mother is waiting to tell her that her father, her hero, has died in a plane crash.

Separated by distance – and Papi’s secrets – the two sisters are forced to face a new reality in which their lives are forever altered. Now Camino and Yahaira are both left to grapple with their grief, their new-found love for one another and what it will take to keep their dreams alive.


15 September – 15 October is Latinx Heritage Month, a 30-day celebration of the culture and contributions of Latinx, Hispanic and Latin-identifying people around the world. Here in the book community, we celebrate by reading, and seeing my WordPress and Instagram feeds fill with recommendations of authors familiar and new to me has been wonderful. That said, as has been noted by many Latinx bloggers and bookstagrammers (I really recommend this article in particular from @lupita.reads on Insta), a lot of the people currently reading and posting about these authors do not mention them at all the rest of the year. That is not okay. We should be reading and recommending a racially diverse selection of authors all year round. So this post is part screaming about a book I loved and part a call for accountability, from myself and everyone celebrating Latinx Heritage Month who is not part of the community (especially my fellow white folks) – this is a whole-life thing, not a everybody’s-doing-it-so-I-guess-I’ll-performatively-join-in thing.

Now for my review.

Clap When You Land is a heart-rending novel about grief, lies, family and forgiveness. Written in verse and divided between the perspectives of Camino, who lives in the Dominican Republic, and Yahaira, who lives in New York, it tells the story of two sisters separated all their lives by the shame of their father learning of each others’ existence for the first time, while dealing with his sudden and devastating loss. He had two wives and two daughters in two countries, and neither of those daughters found out about it until he could no longer give them any answers.

How you deal with that is a question Elizabeth Acevedo answers with deep empathy – for everyone involved – complexity and breathtaking understanding of all of the big and small ways broken people navigate a world where their foundations have turned shakey.

There is so much in this book it’s hard to know where to start.

What is most immediately, unavoidably striking is the stark differences in Camino and Yahaira’s daily lives. Camino lives in the Dominican Republic, and though she and her aunt Tía live in relative comfort because of the money Camino’s father sends from America, the rest of her neighbourhood is another story. Poverty is rife, and the healthcare system too expensive for most people to access. Tía is a healer and Camino is her assistant, so she witnesses first hand those in her community suffering – from the woman dying of cancer to her best friend Carline, young and pregnant with no pre-natal care available to her. Camino wants nothing more than to escape to America to go to university, but there are endless obstacles. When Camino tells her father she wants to be a doctor in America, he laughs at her.

Yahaira’s life in New York is much more familiar – at least to this reader – but no less deeply felt. Half closeted but utterly in love with her girlfriend, Dre, a chess champion (though she’s quit, now) and harbouring a secret about her father that is eating her up inside, Yahaira’s life has been as filled with struggles as anyone’s, but none of them are concerning survival like they are for Camino. Like I said though, you don’t have the sense that Yahaira’s problems are less-than as a result of that. Her pain – and she has been through some real trauma – is never compared to Camino’s. The girls just exist in their different worlds without the author passing any judgement and it’s that masterful writing that makes your own feelings so complicated once they finally meet. Because Yahaira gets it wrong a lot – as is inevitable when meeting someone whose life experiences are so far outside of your own, let alone when that person happens to be the sister you didn’t know existed. And even though you cringe for her, and at times even feel frustrated by her behaviour, you can never judge her for it, because by the time the sisters meet, Yahaira has utterly captivated your heart. This novel is such a nuanced look at privilege and how it can be used that was as heartfelt as it was challenging.

This complicated, dysfunctional family has no villains, and it’s a testament to Acevedo’s writing that even with the amount of wrong that had been done by them, particularly the parents, none of them ever felt like either Camino or Yahaira’s enemy – even their deceased father, who started all the problems in the first place. Don’t get me wrong, you’re constantly angry at them, frustrated by them, even mystified by them, but the storytelling demands your empathy extend to them anyway.

Clap When You Land is a book about acceptance and forgiveness, acknowledging – finally – everything that is wrong and deciding to walk towards something better, together. It’s beautiful, and once you start reading I promise you won’t want to put it down until you’ve made it all the way to the end.

Vicious

Victor and Eli started out as college roommates – brilliant, arrogant, lonely boys who recognized the same ambition in each other. A shared interest in adrenaline, near-death experiences, and seemingly supernatural events reveals an intriguing possibility: that under the right conditions, someone could develop extraordinary abilities. But when their thesis moves from the academic to the experimental, things go horribly wrong.

Ten years later, Victor breaks out of prison, determined to catch up to his old friend (now foe), aided by a young girl with a stunning ability. Meanwhile, Eli is on a mission to eradicate every other super-powered person that he can find – aside from his sidekick, an enigmatic woman with an unbreakable will. Armed with terrible power on both sides, driven by the memory of betrayal and loss, the arch-nemeses have set a course for revenge – but who will be left alive at the end?


My favourite fictional characters have always been the evil ones. The murderers, liars, cheaters and manipulators safely ensconced in the pages of books allow us all to indulge ourselves for a little while in the potential of pressing the fuck-it button and letting life crumble into delicious chaos.

We’d never actually do it, of course. If we have learned anything from Tokyo off Money Heist it’s that chaos is not a sustainable lifestyle unless you don’t happen to mind getting your much more likeable co-workers killed from time to time.

We mind.

Anyway. Vicious, by my forever fave V.E. Shwab is an ode to the fuck-it button. It’s about what happens when entitled masculinity meets paranormal science plus murder.

The result?

Chaos, of course. Delicious chaos.

Vicious, like so many of my favourite reads recently, is split into a few different timelines. This, combined with the short chapters and ever evolving list of times, locations and perspectives really drives the narrative, which, like all the best villain stories, has everything to do with revenge. Every player in this story is harbouring something – a God complex (actually, there are a few of those going around), a suspected curse, the exact details of their own murder (yes, you read that right) – and these separate threads weave together in gripping and surprising ways as our MC, Victor gathers the gang of misfits required to finally bring down his ex-university bestie, Eli, for reasons you’ll find out as you go along.

Victor Vale has all the elements of your favourite likeable bad guy. Emotional detachment, a pattern of drastic behaviour and general disregard for personal safety, a great alliterative name and the required enigmatic magnetism that draws fellow weirdos to his side, kind of like those whistles only dogs can hear. Plus, his parents are self-help millionaires because V.E. Shwab always spoils us with these kinds of details. As a young ‘un, Victor spends his days creating black out poetry from his parents’ books, transforming self-help platitudes into statements like “Be lost. Give up. give In. in the end It would be better to surrender before you begin” with the help of a Sharpie – that is when he isn’t trying to figure how to get super powers.

Eli on the other hand is your standard all American boy: blond, gorgeous, popular, charming and totally capable of mass murder with the right motivation. He’s kind of like Payton off The Politician had he set his sights on gaining superhuman abilities rather than the Oval Office. Plus – you know – the whole murder thing.

It’s a page turner, I’ll tell you that. Shwab takes the age-old at this point trope of the science experiment gone wrong and makes it her own, creating a unique standard of what’s morally right in the process.

(We love Victor! But he’s totally evil too? But like, less evil? I mean I know he did the murder but maybe his murdering wasn’t as bad as Eli’s murdering?)

You get the picture.

As morally upstanding as you believe yourself to be, this is the kind of story where you end up implicated.

It’s not going to end well for anyone, surely, and yet I find I can’t wait to pick up the sequel.

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.

Just One Day

When sheltered American good girl Allyson “LuLu” Healey first meets laid-back Dutch actor Willem De Ruiter at an underground performance of Twelfth Night in England, there’s an undeniable spark. After just one day together, that spark bursts into a flame, or so it seems to Allyson, until the following morning, when she wakes up after a whirlwind day in Paris to discover that Willem has left. Over the next year, Allyson embarks on a journey to come to terms with the narrow confines of her life, and through Shakespeare, travel, and a quest for her almost-true-love, to break free of those confines.

Hello.

I would like to get back to this blogging thing.

I am very rusty. You may have to bear with me on this.

I remember a few years ago when Just One Year by Gayle Forman, the sequel to Just One Day, the book I’m reviewing today, came out. I was pretty new to blogging and it felt as though everyone was talking about it. At the time I thought it sounded like a typical romance that didn’t spark my interest (I am yet to read Just One Year so no spoilers please), so of course I never bothered picking up its predecessor. That is, until one of my housemates gave me her copy of Just One Day and told me that I. Must. Read. This. Book.  

So I did, and mate, now do I understand what all the fuss is about. Just One Day, like so many YA books marketed toward girls, is sold as this great story of romance. And while, yes, it is romantic as fuck, that isn’t really the point. It’s about identity, and how for some people that is so heavily informed by parents, friends and their expectations, that what it means to you, for yourself, gets totally lost. That’s what life is like for Allyson. Eighteen years old, she is stuck in the achingly familiar trap of friends she doesn’t have anything in common with and parents who are caring, but utterly oppressive, and she’s just about to crash land into the next stage of her life, university, when everything is supposed to change – except, it doesn’t.

In the midst of this her parents send her on a trip to Europe with the ‘best friend’ she has long since ceased to have anything in common with and she runs into Willem.

Willem.

Willem might actually be one of the hottest book boyfriends ever written. Allyson meets him at an outdoor staging on Twelfth Night and then in a completely out of character move it’ll take her almost half the book to replicate, she runs away to Paris with him for – you guessed it – just one day. Considering Allyson will spend the entire rest of the book obsessing about this man who – as the blurb says – vanishes, he had to be pretty special to sustain your interest. I won’t go into it too much because, spoilers, but suffice to say had I spent really any amount of time with this man, I would have been obsessed with him too.

But, as much as we love Willem (and I really can’t emphasise enough how much we do), it’s after his disappearance that the bulk of Allyson’s character development takes place.

Allyson can be kind of a frustrating character. She’s passive, moody and defeatist. But stick with her. All of these traits – which could easily be unbearably annoying – work in Allyson because of the care Gayle Forman has taken to demonstrate why Allyson is the way she is. She has spent her entire life with no space to breathe; her parents have scheduled and controlled everything down to a T, and the guilt her mother heaps on top of her whenever she tries to switch up the dynamic is so intense you really can’t blame her for crumbling almost every time. It is that sense of crumbling – which we see Allyson do a lot of throughout the book – that makes her such a believable character and ultimately somebody that you want to root for. Digging her way out of the trench that her parents have kept her in is a true struggle.

For Allyson, finding the way out begins with wanting to find the boy – that’s the motivation. But it’s never really about that. In finding for the first time, something – someone – she desperately wants, it’s like she reclaims a little piece of herself back from the pressures around her. She finds a piece of herself that is her own. That feeling, that wanting is strong enough to push up against the guilt that has controlled her for her entire life – and once the spark is lit, it only grows. And Allyson has to follow it.

So Just One Day isn’t so much a romance novel. It’s about building yourself.

It’s about being afraid – and how that fear can totally dominate your life if you let it.

It’s about not letting it.

Yeah, this was a book written for teenagers but, as a 27-year-old woman navigating a life completely changed from the one I had a year ago (hence the total lack of blogging, which, honestly, sorry not sorry) I found it so inspiring. And comforting too.

Change is hard, but worth it.