The Power of Phil Collins Compels You: My Best Friend’s Exorcism by Grady Hendrix

Just when I think I’ve started to gravitate away from YA books, gems like this reel me back in. I’ve heard My Best Friend’s Exorcism described as a cross between The Exorcist, Heathers and Beaches, and you know what, that’s about right. This book is all 80s vibes, malicious demon exploits (slash mean high schooler antics), and the amazing power of friendship. And gosh, it’s good.

Who, What, Where?

Our story revolves around best friends Abby and Gretchen who have been tight ever since they were ten years old. While partying at their friend Margaret’s lake house, the girls take LSD and Gretchen mysteriously disappears into the woods only to return hours later disoriented and dishevelled. Although Gretchen claims to be fine, in the weeks that follow she begins to act strange, scared and, eventually, cruel. As terrible things start to happen to their classmates, Abby tries to put the pieces together and starts to wonder whether Gretchen might in fact be possessed by a demon.

Time After Time

If you love 80s nostalgia, come right this way. I know I normally criticise books for an overreliance on pop culture references but, much like Ready Player One, this is an exception because I had a blast. I mean, even the chapter titles are named after 80s songs! The feel of the story and setting details (complete with ‘just say no’, rumours of satanic cults, and crazy 80s diet fads) are spot on, even the attitudes of the characters are believable for the time. The story itself also follows a similar trajectory to an 80s horror/teen flick and balances creepy and gory against a slightly tongue-in-cheek approach to high school drama. It’s probably why it’s so bingeable.

Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For

Although MBFE deals with horror themes like demonic possession and it’s marketed as involving “unspeakable horrors”, don’t go in looking for something genuinely scary. That isn’t what it is, and you’re bound to be disappointed. Sure, there are a couple of gross out moments, one of which involves a tapeworm, but it’s more on the side of paranormal thriller. Almost like an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The possession itself happens fairly early but the book does require some patience afterward with regards to Gretchen’s transformation. It’s somewhat of a slow burn to reach the sly demonic mayhem you’re probably looking forward to most but, for me, it’s worth it.

Never Gonna Give You Up

While the nostalgia and high school horror is fun, the heart of the book is the friendship between Abby and Gretchen in all its Phil Collins sing-a-longing, roller-skating, late-night phone calling, ET loving glory. Hendrix fantastically sets up the bond between the two early on and it’s so easy to believe that the girls are as close as sisters, especially in the face of their difficult home lives. Despite being severely tested, it was lovely to see just how far Abby would go to save her friend, even at the risk of potentially permanently blowing up her own life. The exorcism scene itself hit me hard in the feels because the Devil may be strong, but ain’t nothing stronger than the love of high school besties.

Every Rose Has Its Thorn

I really enjoyed this book but there were a couple of little things that let it down. First, there are a few issues with the editing, particularly names, which caused some confusion during certain scenes. Not the end of the world, though. Second, I wish we’d gotten more clarity as to how Gretchen became possessed. We’re given a few puzzle pieces but never told how they fit together. Third, there are some references made to satanism and a murdered girl that are never expanded on. It’s kind of odd and I’m left wondering, was there a purpose or was it simply referencing the 80s satanism panic? Guess I’ll never know.


Should I Stay Or Should I Go?

Sorry, couldn’t resist using another 80s song title. If you’re looking for a quirky and fun take on 80s horror that blends creepy with coming of age and features a heart-warming female friendship, pick this one up!

4 stars

(If I gave out extra points for awesome covers, the paperback edition pictured above would get so many. The old VHS look is ridiculously cool).

Monstrous Genius: The People in the Trees by Hanya Yanagihara

The People in the Trees is a ridiculously difficult book for me to rate and review. Although it’s only around 360 pages long, it took more than two and a half months for me to finish and sent me into a book slump for most of June. So, do I blame the book or myself? The fact that I managed to read the last 130 pages in the space of around 2-3 days probably suggests option B but honestly, who knows. I guess the more important question is, is it possible to be impressed by a book and still dislike it?

Who, What, Where?

TPITT tells the story of scientist Dr. Norton Perina, who in 1950 signs on to an anthropological expedition to the remote Micronesian island of Ivu’ivu searching for a rumored lost tribe. They successfully locate the tribe only to also discover a group of exiled jungle dwellers they call “The Dreamers,” people who seem to be fantastically long-lived but with signs of mental degradation. Perina suspects the source of their “immortality” to be the consumption of a rare turtle. Unable to resist the scientific implications, he kills one and smuggles its meat back to America. He proves his thesis, earning worldwide fame and a Nobel Prize, but soon learns that the turtle’s gift comes at a price. As things spiral beyond his control, Perina finds that his discovery brings a terrible cost for the islanders and sets him down a path with a monstrous destination.

Am I Engaged or Bored?

As I was reading this, there were moments where I was highly engaged in what was happening. Yet, there were also many others during which I was bored stiff and seriously considered DNF-ing (I almost did but it ended up just being a month long break). TPITT is written in the form of a non-fiction memoir – something I don’t read much of. While my copy looked reasonably short from the outside, I soon discovered that it was often dense, involved plenty of footnotes, and, as with any real person’s life story, had several snooze-worthy periods (in particular, the first 70 pages detailing Norton’s life before Micronesia). Sure, much of the information included was essential to the believability of Norton’s story and his voice as an arrogant, asshole scientist, but as a reader there were so many things that I did not give two craps about.

Hello, Darkness

I read Yanagihara’s A Little Life in 2020 and, despite it’s difficult themes, I loved it. I knew to expect similarly dark topics with this book but reading TPITT felt like a different kind of unsettling and uncomfortable. Animal cruelty, traces of misogyny, graphic child rape, colonialism – this isn’t a feelgood story or “easy” read in the slightest, especially when it comes to its bleak epilogue. I don’t usually have too much of a problem with this sort of thing, but I’d be lying if I said there weren’t times where I felt something ugly twisting in the pit of my stomach.

A Triumph of Style & Voice

Now, you’re probably wondering why it’s so difficult for me to rate TPITT. Why not just hit 1 star and move on with my day? Well, there are a few other important things to note. The first being, this book is an amazing example of narrative style and voice. Norton may be an awful human being to view the world through the eyes of, but gosh does Yanagihara perfectly capture the tone, focus, unreliability and language of her narrator from start to finish. The book is extensively researched, detail rich, and entirely believable as the memoir of a disgraced Nobel Prize-winning scientist, written from the confines of his prison cell. Part of this is likely due to the story drawing heavily from the life of deeply problematic scientist Carleton Gajdusek. The prose itself is also undeniably stunning at points, a reminder of Yanagihara’s talent for beautiful descriptions and exposition which, without warning, drills right to your emotional core.

The Rape of the Natural World

The other major reason for my conflict is the book’s approach toward certain issues. These include: colonialism/westernisation, the destruction of the environment, weighing someone’s contributions to society against who they are as a person, and humanity’s selfish, single-minded pursuit of scientific discovery. These are all key themes in TPITT and whilst I may not have enjoyed its story, I believe it explores these ideas in effective, impactful ways which continue to encourage me to think about and discuss them. When I consider the novel, my mind is always drawn back to Norton’s return to Ivu’ivu after his discoveries are made public to the international community. The devastation this knowledge wreaks on the island’s culture, flora, fauna, economy and people will never cease to be heartbreaking.


The People in the Trees was a challenging read in more ways than one and, even now, I find myself thinking about it. Maybe that’s just the power of Hanya Yanagihara. While this may not have been the book for me, I understand why others have rated it so highly and can’t help but admire it as a piece of literary fiction.

2.5 Stars

The Roads to Greatness and Revenge: She Who Became the Sun by Shelley Parker-Chan

She Who Became the Sun is an ambitious debut. It’s large in scale, weaves together fantasy and history, involves complex characters, and navigates challenging political and military plotlines. I expected to love this book but, while it does a lot of the right stuff, it just didn’t click with me personally as much as I would have liked.

Rise of an Emperor

SWBTS is a reimagining of the rise of the founding emperor of the Ming Dynasty. It’s set in Mongol-occupied imperial China and follows several major characters. One of the most prominent is a peasant girl, Zhu, who, after the deaths of her brother and father, takes on her brother’s identity and becomes a monk. In doing so, she also assumes his foretold destiny of “greatness”. Zhu eventually joins the Red Turban rebellion and works to ensure she makes her mark on history. On the other side of the conflict we have General Ouyang, a eunuch who has served the royals ever since his family’s treason when he was a small child. Despite this, he has formed a strong bond with Prince Essen, second in-line to the throne of the Yuan Empire.

A Large Cast

Due to the range of the story, there are a lot of characters. Unfortunately, I often had trouble keeping track of who everyone was, their roles and allegiances. This was exacerbated by the fact that sometimes people were referred to by their first name, others their surname and then alternatively a special title. There are also multiple characters present from within the same families. Among these, there were only a couple that I grew attached to – General Ouyang and Wang Baoxiang (the Empire’s chief administrator and Essen’s bastard brother). I normally have no problem with books involving morally grey characters, something this book has in spades, but many of the ones here rubbed me the wrong way or just didn’t interest me.

Striving for Greatness

As far as leads go, Zhu is quite a unique and refreshing one. She’s unattractive, gender non-conforming, not really a physical threat, cunning, and willing to do whatever she has to do to attain her goals. Yet, I found it hard to get invested in her journey. For most of the book we’re made aware that she fears falling into nothingness and her aim is to achieve “greatness”. But, it takes until around the 80% mark before we understand what Zhu actually believes greatness to be. Consequently, until that point it seems like she’s running around, gaining power and influence without reason or direction. On the other hand, I did appreciate being able to follow her journey in a more holistic way than Ouyang’s so as to track her evolution as a character.

An Eye for an Eye

Ouyang has a clear goal – revenge. Considering his reasons, I was able to easily get on board with this (burn it all down Ouyang!), but I felt as though the emotional weight of his journey was undermined slightly by the fact that the reader is only told what happened to him. For something that informs his entire journey, we aren’t given many vivid memories of it or detailed emotional reactions, and this created a sense of detachment for me. This aside, I found Ouyang to be a complex, intriguing and flawed character, and the comparisons between him and Zhu were interestingly done. Something else I quite enjoyed was Ouyang’s complicated relationship with Prince Essen. Essen amounts to a confusing mix of friend, ruler, romantic interest, and object of revenge, which makes for some tension and subtext filled conversations. Still, I wish that this bond had been delved into a little bit deeper.

Gender and Sexuality Diverse Fantasy

It’s really important to note that this book involves some complicated gender issues. It’s written by a genderqueer author and features two genderqueer, non-straight leads. These elements of gender identity factor heavily into the themes and plotlines of the novel which is great. I would be interested to hear about the quality of this representation from queer reviewers as I question some aspects of it, but I think it’s amazing to see more variety and representation in fantasy characters.

A War Minus the…War?

When it comes to pacing and plot, my feelings are mixed. For the most part, I found the pacing in the novel to be decent and there was usually a good sense of momentum – political squabbling, training, troops moving around, etc. However, there were several sudden time jumps throughout, some larger than others, and this was disorienting for me. Not only did I have to really concentrate to follow what was happening, but I frequently felt like I’d missed something. Also, for a story heavily based in military conflict, I thought it was odd that the book skipped over so much of the actual battles. For me, this took away from the gravity of events and made things seem choppy. The decision to tell the story in multiple third person POVs was one I really appreciated, though, as it worked well to humanise both sides of the book’s overarching conflict.

Fantasy Light

For those of you going into this anticipating strong fantasy elements, I would advise adjusting your expectations as these parts of the book aren’t super prominent. Perhaps more towards the end, but definitely not for most of the story. They’re also not very strongly explained on a world building level, but I assume they’ll be dealt with in more detail in the sequel.

An Ending to Hook You

While SWBTS is only around 400 pages, it felt longer as I was reading and took more time than I expected to finish. I’m not entirely sure why this was, there just seemed to be an odd disconnect for me. Although, I did find that my interest picked up around the ending, which was big, dramatic and really paved the way for interesting things to happen in the next book. The pathway for each of the main characters is clear and exciting, and will likely hook a lot of readers into continuing with the duology.


In the end, this wasn’t the five star read I’d been hoping for but I can easily see it being popular among fantasy lovers. Especially so for those who love Asian history inspired fiction or are looking for stories featuring more diverse characters.

3 Stars

**Thank you to Netgalley and Macmillan-Tor/Forge for this ARC in exchange for an honest review.**

Alternate History, Shapeshifting and an Epic Motorcycle Race: ‘Wolf by Wolf’ by Ryan Graudin

Something I have difficulty coming up with recommendations for is underrated or hidden gem type books. Because, let’s be real, when it comes to my reading choices, I have a strong tendency to stick to novels and authors which are popular, talked about or considered “good”. This is extremely silly because I’m likely to miss out on some amazing books. Books like Wolf by Wolf for instance, which is now officially my “hidden gem” pick.

What If…?

Wolf by Wolf is an alternate history story set in 1956 in a world in which the Nazis and Japanese won WWII. Between the two powers, they now control most of the world. To honour their victory, each year the legendary Axis tour is held – an epic, cutthroat, and gruelling motorcycle race from Berlin to Tokyo. Eighteen-year-old Yael is a survivor of the camp at Auschwitz where she was experimented on, leaving her with the ability to shapeshift. Now part of the resistance, Yael is set the almost impossible task of assassinating Adolf Hitler. However, in order to get close enough, she must first disguise herself as former tour winner, Adele Wolf, and win the race. It won’t be easy though, especially with Adele’s brother, Felix, and Luka, who has history with Adele, among the competitors.

On the Road

I’m not usually drawn to travelling/journey type plots, but Wolf by Wolf is a wonderful exception. This is a book with both a fantastic premise and great execution. The bulk of the novel follows Yael through the different legs of the Axis Tour as she deals with the elements, potentially life-threatening sabotage attempts by other racers, and maintaining her cover as Adele. I loved the competitive aspect. It was exciting, fast paced and a lot of fun. Plus, the couple of unexpected moments thrown into the mix made it even more enjoyable. Even better, the book managed to sustain this degree of momentum right til its last moments.

Slowing things Down

Graudin balances out the action-packed sections with plenty of slower, character-oriented moments. The book flicks back and forth between the present and flashbacks to Yael’s past. These start with her arrival at Auschwitz at five years old and lead up to her resistance training before the race. Yael’s memories are heartbreakingly centred around the people she’s lost and reveal the evolution of her character in an emotional way. I’ve found that books which utilise this method of storytelling sometimes end up feeling a bit choppy but the transitions here were well done.

In the present, the book also works at developing Yael’s relationships with both Luka and Felix during pit stops and rest breaks. Both these characters were very likeable in different ways. I couldn’t help smiling at Luka’s cocky, flirty, bad boy persona and sympathising with Felix who is desperate to avoid losing another sibling. Each brings out something different in Yael and often forces her to rethink notions about Germans and herself.

A Touch of Romance

Yes, there’s a romantic subplot in this book but to my immense relief, it (a) isn’t cheesy and (b) doesn’t take over the main story. It’s there, but just enough to add to the story and aid in Yael’s character development/journey.

Lone Wolf

As far as leads go, I really liked Yael. She walks the line between strong and vulnerable very well – physically and mentally very capable, but at the same time with deep emotional baggage. Also, major point in her favour, she’s not stupid. As a character, Yael has a complicated relationship with identity in that she no longer remembers what she actually looks like, often has to act out other personas (as she does with Adele), and has been separated from her family, culture and heritage. The events of the novel really force her to think about who she is and how her past & abilities define her.

A Few Extra Points:

  • The book takes a couple of chapters to kick into gear but once it finds its stride, it really gets going
  • Some of the side characters are somewhat like window dressing – they pop up when needed and fade into the background the rest of the time
  • The writing style gets a little bit “artsy” at points but as someone who’s not usually a fan of this, I found it alright for the most part

Wolf by Wolf was a huge surprise for me – the really good kind, and I’m so glad I stumbled across it. If you like historical fiction, competition-based plots and well written heroines, I can’t recommend this book enough.

4.5 stars

2020 TBR: 30 Books to Read in 2020

Yes, I am very much aware that ’20 books for 2020′ has a much better ring to it but, as usual, once I got started working through the books I wanted to read this year, it got very difficult to stop. So, here we are instead with 30 books. This year I really wanted to draw myself up a year long TBR for two reasons: (1) to remind me to read more broadly and (2) to read some of the books I’ve been putting off. As the months go by, I’ll use this post as a checklist to keep track of my progress. I expect to read far more books in 2020 than what’s listed here but it’s always good to leave plenty of room for reading mood swings and new discoveries.

General Fiction

  • Little Fires Everywhere – Celeste Ng [ ]
  • Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine – Gail Honeyman [ ]

Historical Fiction

  • Where the Crawdads Sing – Delia Owens [ ]
  • The Silence of the Girls – Pat Barker [ ]
  • City of Girls – Elizabeth Gilbert [ ]

NON-FICTION

  • Becoming – Michelle Obama [ ✔ ]
  • Educated – Tara Westover [ ]
  • This is Going to Hurt – Adam Kay [ ✔ ]
  • Know My Name – Chanel Miller [ ✔ ]
  • In Cold Blood – Truman Capote [ ]

Crime/Thriller

  • The Whisper Man – Alex North [ ✔ ]
  • Stillhouse Lake – Rachel Caine [ ]
  • Miracle Creek – Angie Kim [ ]

Classics

  • Emma – Jane Austen [ ✔ ]
  • Little Women – Louisa May Alcott [ ]

Fantasy

  • The Dragon Republic – R. F. Kuang [ ✔ ]
  • The Ten Thousand Doors of January – Alix E. Harrow [ ]
  • The Priory of the Orange Tree – Samantha Shannon [ ]
  • Gideon The Ninth – Tamsyn Muir [ ✔ ]
  • The Diviners – Libba Bray [ ✔ ]
  • Throne of Glass – Sarah J. Maas (reread) [ ]

Romance

  • 10 Blind Dates – Ashley Elston [ ✔ ]
  • The Bromance Book Club – Lyssa Kay Adams [ ✔ ]
  • Loveboat, Taipei – Abigail Hing Wen [ ✔ ]
  • Love and Other Words – Christina Lauren [ ]

Horror

  • The Shining – Stephen King [ ]
  • Let the Right One in – John Ajvide Lindqvist [ ]

Science Fiction/Dystopia

  • The Toll – Neal Shusterman [ ✔ ]
  • Iron Gold – Pierce Brown [ ✔ ]
  • Starsight – Brandon Sanderson [ ✔ ]

As you can see, that’s 30 books with a mix of genres, authors, and page lengths. I’ll do my best to cover as many of them throughout the year as I can. Knowing me, I’ll get distracted by other books and won’t end up finishing them all but fingers crossed I get through a majority.

Sex, Drugs and Rock n’ Roll: Daisy Jones & The Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid

The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo was easily one of the best books I read in 2018 (my number one pick, to be exact). When I heard that Reid’s next release was to be another historical fiction novel, this time focusing on a rock band during the 70s, I was just a little bit excited. After having finally got my hands on Daisy Jones & The Six, it wasn’t everything I was hoping for, but a fairly enjoyable ride all the same

Who, What, Where?

In the mid-70s, The Six were steadily growing in fame to become one of the biggest music acts in the world. However, it was only after they were joined by free-spirited, up & comer, Daisy Jones, that they reached true superstardom. With sold out arenas and their music on every radio station, the band seemed like they were on top of the world. Until in the summer of 1979, they suddenly split. Told in the style of a music documentary, the book details the band’s rise, success, and everything behind the scenes that eventually led them to go their separate ways.

He Said, She Said

As I’ve already mentioned, DJ&TS is not told in traditional style. Instead, it’s written as an intermixed set of interviews with all the players relevant to Daisy and the band’s story. A few people will likely find this approach choppy. While the novel does jump around from person to person, what they’re discussing is chronological and always links to common topics, events and people. For this reason I found that, for the most part, it managed to maintain a decent sense of flow. Something else I enjoyed about this approach was that, as a reader, we get to experience a variety of different perspectives on the same characters and big moments. Seeing just how differently one character interpreted or remembered something to that of another is one of the most interesting things about the story and really makes you wonder what the truth is. 

Raw Honesty

DJ&TS features a large roster of characters, but there’s only a couple that you reach more than surface level with and care about. However, Reid really does go all in on her chosen few – Daisy, Billy (singer/songwriter) and, to a lesser extent, Karen (keyboardist), Graham (lead guitarist) and Camila (Billy’s wife). The rest often feel like mere plot devices or, worse, parts of the scenery. With the novel’s interview approach, the ability to connect with the characters rests heavily on how important each character is to the overall events (which explains the list of characters above) and what they’re willing to tell the “interviewer” about their thoughts and feelings during those events. Reid’s “interviewees” are completely honest and raw about their experiences. The novel gives the impression that they’ve been sitting on all of this for a long time and it’s almost cathartic for them to finally speak about it. I may not have always liked each of the characters, Billy in particular, but I can’t deny feeling deeply for them at certain points.

The characters in DJ&TS deal with some heavy things – addiction, infidelity, abortion, loneliness, toxic relationships, being overlooked and undervalued, and they dive into all of it head on. Despite this, there are moments where I can understand some readers’ difficulties connecting with the story emotionally. However, there are also many others where it really shines with just how beautifully it describes ideas above love, trust, and being your own worst enemy.

Not a Muse, The Somebody

This is a story with three major female characters. They’re completely different and yet, all of them are strong and empowered. You’ve got:

  • Camila: a mother who believes in her family and is willing to fight to keep it intact
  • Karen: a musician who, despite pressure, rejects traditional women’s roles because she wants her career to be her greatest achievement
  • And Daisy: a performer who knows exactly what she brings to the table, does what she wants, and refuses to accept anything less than what she deserves.

Even better, all the female characters in DJ&TS, including Daisy’s friend Simone, are extremely supportive of one another. *claps* YES TO WOMEN SUPPORTING AND UPLIFTING WOMEN. For a book featuring a sort-of-almost-ish love triangle, that’s a pretty amazing thing. Don’t understand how it’s possible? Just read the final conversation between Camila & Daisy.

Go Your Own Way

One of my biggest issues with this book was the lack of a twist or big, dramatic moment. Going into the story, we know that the band broke up, but we don’t know why. As we progress through the narrative and watch the characters start to implode, there’s the expectation everything will finally culminate in a bang. As it turns out, DJ&TS isn’t that kind of story – something I wish I’d known going in, because I would have viewed it quite differently. This is a book about characters dealing with personal dramas whilst trying to be a part of something supposed to be a team effort and, in the end, failing.

Other Thoughts

  • Just like with Evelyn Hugo, the sense of place in this book is great. The feeling of 70s LA with all its shifty undertones comes across perfectly and it’s easy to get caught up in the sex, drugs and rock n’ roll vibes.
  • The story feels extremely genuine and believable – it’s so easy to forget these aren’t real people and that DJ&TS wasn’t running around, making music in the 70s.
  • The book has song lyrics scattered throughout and full songs from the band’s final album at the end of it. I am so damn impressed TJR wrote these. Talk about going the extra mile.

Daisy Jones & The Six isn’t Evelyn Hugo, but that’s okay. While the book certainly has its flaws, there’s many things to appreciate about it as well. If you’re a music fan looking for something deep, a little dark, with slower pacing, and the feel of non-fiction, this might be one to check out.

3.5 STARS

Let’s Steal a Magical Artefact: The Gilded Wolves by Roshani Chokshi

The Gilded Wolves was one of my big anticipated releases for 2019. ASix of Crows-esque squad pulling a heist in post-revolution France with some magic thrown in? How could I possibly resist?

Complex World Building

I don’t know if I’m not paying enough attention, just obtuse, or it’s the book itself, but either way, I was massively lost on a lot of the world building elements of TGW because there’s just so much to process.

There was once the Tower of Babylon which God broke up into a bunch of smaller pieces. These fragments were then hidden in different parts of the world. Through their presence, some members of the population developed special abilities. Known as ‘Forging’, these abilities are either physical or mental and involve altering objects in unique ways (forged objects). Forging affinities are also highly specific e.g. manipulating stone.

To protect the fragments, the Order of Babel was created and is made up of powerful houses spread across the globe (there were once 4 French ones each led by a patriarch or matriarch, now only two remain). The members of the order are responsible for moving the Babylon fragments every few years and ensuring the location isn’t discovered. This is to avoid someone attempting to misuse, destroy or reunite them. 

Still following? Because I haven’t even mentioned anything about:

  • The special rings the house heads wear
  • The forged objects designed to locate Babylon fragments
  • OR the branches of forging that somehow allow you to transfer souls (…what?)

In one word, it’s overwhelming. As the book went on, despite the author’s attempts to explain, I just found myself getting more confused, especially during the climax. The frustrating thing is that I’m so impressed by the amount of work and creativity that’s gone into crafting this world and I feel as though it has so much potential for awesomeness, but at this point, I AM CONFUZZLED. SEND HELP.

It’s Heist Time

The plot of TGW revolves around a heist. It’s Paris, 1889 and Severin Montagnet-Alarie is the denied heir to one of France’s two now-extinct houses of the Order of Babel. When he and his associates come across something that may lead them to an object Severin believes could force the Order to give him his rightful place as patriarch and resurrect his house, he jumps at the idea. That is, until he finds out the object is locked inside the protected vaults of House Korre. Deciding to let it go, plans change when he’s soon forced into a magically sealed deal by the head of House Nyx, the charismatic Hypnos –  deliver him the object and he’ll give Severin exactly what he’s always wanted.

The plot of TGW is intricately linked with its world building and because of that, I had trouble understanding (or even just avoiding zoning out during) some of the technical parts of the story. However, because the pacing is so spot on and the narrative has such a great balance between action-packed/tense scenes and quieter character moments, it actually managed to distract me from this fact on numerous occasions.

Me: I have no idea why Zofia & Enrique broke into this museum but OH MY GOD, THAT DUDE JUST THREW A BLADED HAT!

As you’d expect, there’s also some romantic drama which I quite enjoyed because we got both the cute, awkward flirting pairing and the intense I-love-you-but-we-can’t-be-together pairing.

The End

I have to give Chokshi points for her ending. I was on the fence about reading the sequel for ages and then…we got to the last few chapters where she dumps a whole bunch of teasers for future character drama and THEN wham, hits us with a solid twist in the last line. *sigh* I think she may have got me.

Diversity & Commentary

This book has such an ethnically diverse cast of characters and it makes me ridiculously happy. We have Algerian-French, Indian, Filipino-Spanish, Polish, Haitian-French and…Tristan.

Through the use of her cast and setting, Chokshi also makes some great commentary on some of the darker issues associated with France during this period in history such as:

  • Cultural appropriation and exploitation – Laia is pushed to perform a traditional Indian dance for mere entertainment
  • Racism & Discrimination – Severin is denied his place as head of House Vanth because the Order refused to have two mixed-race patriarchs, Zofia is harassed for being Jewish
  • Slavery & Human Trafficking – the existence of human zoos
  • Colonialisation – The occupation of the Philipines by the Spanish & Enrique being of mixed race is considered part of neither population.

A Loveable Family

My favourite part of TGW, hands down, was the characters. Severin’s team of quirky, adorable and brilliant associates are all likeable and distinct. They also interact with one another in ways that feel real, familiar and humorous.

Severin: Owner of the L’Eden Hotel , Severin is calculating, good at recognising the talents of others and using them to his advantage, and generally tries to hide his emotions behind a calm exterior. However, deep down, he thinks of his team much like a family and would protect any one of them at all costs.      

Laia: Exotic dancer & hotel baker. Laia is wonderfully confident, cool-headed, mysterious and always trying to feed everyone. She has the unique ability to read the history of objects by touching them and can go toe to toe with Severin.

Enrique: The team historian and a massive nerd for all things scholarly. He’s bisexual and possesses that cocky bravado thing which pretty much assures I will fall in love with you. Also, will turn up to parties to get first dibs on chocolate covered strawberries.

Zofia: A Jewish, Polish engineer with autism who’s great with numbers, patterns, and chemicals. Zofia’s not so good with people or humour and tends to count things when she’s nervous. She has a love of sugar cookies and is basically an awkward, little cinnamon roll. 

Tristan: A botanist with forging abilities centred around plants. Tristan is like a little brother to Severin and he’s pretty much an overexcited puppy who spends most of his time in the greenhouse working on his inventions with his pet tarantula, Goliath. 

Hypnos: Charming, ostentatious, and flirts with anything that moves. Hypnos is smarter than he seems, adept at getting what he wants and swears by using alcohol as a thinking asset. If there’s one thing he needs, it’s friends. He opened his mouth, and I fell in love.

The Gilded Wolves showcases solid writing, good momentum, and diverse, interesting characters. However, due to the overly complicated nature of the world building and it’s inextricable links to the plot, I found myself unable to enjoy the story as much as I wanted to. Still, with an intriguing ending, the chances of me reading the sequel remain high.

3.5 stars 

Fame, Money and What it Costs to Keep it: The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid

5 stars

Evelyn Hugo

There are some books that you just know, after only a few pages, are going to be magical. For me, The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo was one of these books. Like any bookworm, I read a lot of novels that I describe as being great, enjoyable, well-written, or exciting. The word ‘love’, however, I reserve only for a select few.

I loved this book.

Who, What, Where?

In 2017 NYC, journalist Monique Grant is surprised to learn that she has been specifically requested by legendary actress, Evelyn Hugo, to conduct the star’s first interview in several years. Monique just hopes to get a few personal details beyond the upcoming charity auction. Instead, she’s shocked to find that Evelyn has called her there to begin work on a tell-all biography in which she plans to finally put everything on the table – her rise to fame, efforts to stay in the limelight, all seven husbands, and the true love of her life.

Rich & Real Characters

Evelyn Hugo is a very people-centric story and its success is due in large part to Reid’s fabulously written characters. As you’d expect, Evelyn, herself, is the heart of this novel. In creating Evelyn and her story, Reid has incorporated characteristics of many famous starlets – Marilyn Monroe’s sex symbol status, Elizabeth Taylor’s marriages and friendship with Monty Clift, Rita Hayworth’s immigrant roots, and Ava Gardiner’s desire to write a tell-all biography. She is a fantastic representation of women in the film industry – the struggles they experience to stay relevant and be taken seriously. Yet, at the same time, Evelyn is so clearly her own person.

“I’m cynical and I’m bossy, and most people would consider me vaguely immoral.” 

Evelyn is vain, not particularly kind, and often selfish in her relentless pursuit of fame and acclaim, but at the same time she’s a very complex, strong and, dare I say it, feminist character. She knows what she wants in life and despite numerous setbacks, refuses to let others stop her from achieving it. You can’t help but love her and watching Evelyn evolve over the course of the book is one of its most compelling components.

While Monique may start off TSHOEH, once the ball gets rolling, she mostly fades into the background and doesn’t return as a strong presence until the climax. Despite this, Reid still manages to make her relatable and give her a good degree of depth, making the most of her limited page time.

Aside from our two leads, Evelyn’s world is filled with an array of interesting and diverse characters. With seven husbands, there was always the risk of these men blending together but each manages to feel distinct from one another, particularly with regards to the roles they play in Evelyn’s life and the effect they have on her character.

Sexual Diversity & Representation

TSHOEH features not one, not two, but three non-heterosexual major characters, as well as several others in smaller roles. The love and care given to these individuals is evident from start to finish and it’s truly wonderful to see queer individuals as dramatic and romantic leads. Evelyn, herself, is bisexual. Living in the public eye as she does, and during the decades she has, this plays a huge part in the trajectory of her story. Despite the time difference, many of the issues Evelyn experiences connected to her sexuality are still faced by bisexuals in today’s world – how she can possibly be attracted to both genders, the jealousy and insecurity of romantic partners regarding her bisexuality, and of course, the fear of being completely misunderstood.

“Don’t ignore half of me so you can fit me into a box. Don’t do that.”

Romance

Evelyn’s romantic relationship with her great love, actress Celia St James, is another wonderful addition to the novel. This relationship is far from easy but it’s also sweet, bitter, intimate, and beautifully crafted. Their story is a rollercoaster of emotion and it’s simply impossible to look away. Yet, the fact that so many of their troubles stem from a need to hide who they are, and their love for one another, is what makes it truly heartbreaking.

“I love you more than anything else in the entire world.”

“It’s not wrong,” Celia said. “It shouldn’t be wrong, to love you. How can it be wrong?”

“It’s not wrong, sweetheart. It’s not,” I said. “They’re wrong.”

Old Hollywood Glamour

“You should know this about the rich: they always want to get richer. It is never boring, getting your hands on more money.”

Despite the rampant sexism, racism, homophobia and a whole host of other issues, there’s always been something glamorous about old-school Hollywood. The beauty, romance, youth, freedom – we can’t help being dazzled by it, but at the same time, we’re very aware of Tinseltown’s darker, seedier and more twisted undertones. TSHOEH embraces this contrast completely and Reid handles it wonderfully. The decision to start Evelyn’s story in the 1940s and progress right through to the 80s suited the themes and natural progression of the book perfectly, and I was hooked from the start right til the very end.

Successful Structure & Style

POV:  The novel is technically written from Monique’s perspective, however, the majority of it consists of what Evelyn is verbally describing, largely uninterrupted, to Monique about her life. Except for the brief segments in which Monique voices a question or the two women stop for the day (and we spend some time in Monique’s head), the story feels like Evelyn’s POV. It makes sense from a narrative standpoint but also ensures an intimate connection with both women.

Parts: Evelyn’s story is broken up into seven parts, each named after one of her many husbands. It’s a choice that works very well as each man represents the start and end of a particular stage in Evelyn’s life. The descriptors for each husband in the section titles also act as a fun teaser for what’s to come next.

Style: Along with the traditional narrative, Reid also incorporates numerous “news articles” in between chapters to showcase public perceptions of Evelyn and her loved ones, and to mark big moments in her life. These were great inclusions as they served to enhance elements of the story but also really drove home one of the ideas of the novel which is that what the public sees of people in the limelight is rarely ever the true or full picture.

“But of course, they got it wrong. They never did care about getting it right. The media are going to tell whatever story they want to tell. They always have. They always will.”

Twist Ending with Emotional Impact

I won’t say too much because of spoilers but using a dramatic twist, Reid is able to link Monique and Evelyn’s stories in an emotional and engaging way. Beyond this twist, there isn’t much of a happy ending but it feels exactly right for the story told and I can’t imagine the novel finishing any other way.

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Summing up the absolute brilliance of this novel seems impossible. So, I’ll simply say, that if you enjoy historical fiction with raw and real characters, fantastic writing, and intense emotion, pick this one up. I guarantee you won’t regret it.

I’ll just be over here recommending this new favourite to pretty much everyone I know.

5 Stars

Love, War, and Cranky Sea Goddesses: The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

5 stars

tsoa.jpgThe Song of Achilles is one of those books. The books you’ve heard so many amazing, gushy things about that you find yourself experiencing the completely normal reaction of: well, it can’t possibly be that good.

Friends, I’m here to tell you, this book is that good.

If you’re looking for a perfect blend of history, mythology, action, romance and crush your heart into a sad, bloody, pulpy mess, then this, right here, is the ticket.

Who, What, Where?

The Song of Achilles is a greatly expanded and more in-depth retelling of Homer’s epic poem, The Iliad. Our protagonist is Patroclus, an exiled young prince sent to live in nearby Thessaly. It’s here that Patroclus befriends the beautiful, demi-god prince Achilles. Yep, you know the one – as in, should have invested in heel protective sandals. The two boys grow up together, developing a special relationship which eventually evolves into something more (*spoiler* it’s L-O-V-E). However, when Helen, wife of Spartan King Menelaus is “kidnapped” by the Trojans, Achilles is called to fight in the coming war. The problem is, there’s a prophecy that he’s to die on the battlefield. Hello, tragedy.

Why You Should Read this Book

Attention to Detail

There is so much love in this book. So much. The attention to detail is just staggering – places, names, music, weapons, myths, it’s mind bogglingly wonderful, but because of the simplistic style of the prose, it rarely feels overwhelming. If I’d been assigned books like this during my history studies, it would have made things so much more enjoyable. This is a classics teacher using their powers for good! If you read books to get away from the everyday and visit somewhere else for a little while, this is the perfect choice.

Character Development

I’ll admit, I knew nothing about Patroclus when this book started. I was like, who the hell is this scrawny ass kid that I’m stuck inside the head of? By the end of the book, I wanted to cuddle him, stroke his hair and tell him it was all going to be okay,  creepy or not. Patroclus starts out as a quieter character, even perceptibly weak, so it’s easy to dismiss him as a mere sidekick. But if we’ve learned anything from Samwise Gamgee, hobbit and gardener extraordinaire, it’s that you don’t have to kick ass with a sword to be a hero. Sidekicks are the real MVPs. Patroclus is brave, compassionate, knows how to play to his strengths, and is just generally one of those characters you can’t help but love because of his pure heart.

Then there’s Achilles. Ah, Achilles. I have a complicated relationship with this one. Achilles begins the book as a reasonably likeable character – he’s kind to Patroclus and there’s a good deal of emotional depth in regards to how he thinks about his destiny. And then…he gets older. And arrogant. And proud. And stubborn. It’s NOT a good combination, leaving him looking like a bit of an ass. He’ll make you want to yell and throw things but despite this, I can’t deny that Miller’s written him well.

Aside from Achilles and Patroclus, there are also a couple of great side characters. Some of these include Odysseus, the smooth-talking king of Ithaca (and hero of Homer’s Odyessy)  and Briseis, a trojan slave captured during the war who forms a close bond with Patroclus. Achilles mother, the (angry, judgy) sea goddess, Thetis, despite her role as a significant romantic obstacle, is also memorable. Each serves to add to the richness of the story in different ways but without ever stealing the limelight.

All Aboard the Sinking Ship

One of the best parts of TSoA is the beautifully written relationship between its two leads, which I shipped right to novel’s bitter end (what can I say, I’m a glutton for punishment). It’s developed gradually from friends to lovers over a period of several years, with all the associated emotions. P & A are vastly different but they complement each other perfectly, their contrasting personalities providing balance to the story. They’re completely honest with each other and in the face of that, accept the other for exactly who he is and what he’s done. One of Achilles most redeeming qualities is just how much he cares for Patroclus, and through Patroclus’ eyes, even in the face of everything he’s done, we see the good in Achilles. The pair share secrets, climb trees, gaze at the stars, and fall asleep wrapped in each other’s’ arms.

Prepare yourself for much ‘awww’-ing.

It’ll Make you Feel Things

This book. Honestly. I don’t think I’m spoiling anything when I say that this is a Greek tragedy. Get ready to either (a) collapse into a puddle of tears or (b) sit on the end of your bed wondering whether there’s enough joy in the world to fill the hole of despair now taking up residence in your chest where your heart used to be. There is no third option. You know it’s coming and it still feels like being run over by a speeding bus (cool it, Keanu Reeves).Divider

Why You Might Want to Skip it

It’s All About the Characters

Even with its dramatic subject nature, The Song of Achilles is definitely a slower build novel. At its heart, this is a book about the relationship between two people. While there’s certainly war, gods and prophecies, most of the novel is devoted to Patroclus and Achilles’ growth as people (for better and worse) and the strength of their relationship. The later parts of the novel do showcase some larger scale drama but you need to have the patience to make it through to the emotional pay off. If you aren’t interested in slower, character-based books, this isn’t for you (me, I loved every conversation).

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HOWEVER, this slower pace rapidly increases in the climax of the novel but not necessarily for the better. There’s a heartbreaking tipping point towards the end of the novel which sets several events into motion. Unfortunately, after this “thing” happens, the plot makes a mad dash for the finish line in a way that causes emotional whiplash. Bonus points to Miller, though, for being able to bring it back in time for the last pages to leave a lasting impression.

Who Are You Again?

A warning. This is ancient Greek history and mythology. There are A LOT of characters, many with long or similar sounding names who pop up infrequently without heaps of background. There will be moments of, now who the hell is this guy again?


Basically, if you love Greek history and mythology, epic battles, great character development, and wonderfully written romance, get that butt into gear and read this book. Now.

It’s amazeballs.

5 Stars*

* In my June wrap up, I gave this book 4.8 stars but I now realise that’s completely stupid and I’ve just rounded the damn thing up, as it should be. Half stars or full stars Ashley, you have rules for a reason. 

Magic & Romance Under the Big Top: The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

4 stars

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“The circus arrives without warning. No announcements precede it, no paper notices on downtown posts and billboards, no mentions or advertisements in local newspapers. It is simply there, when yesterday it was not.” 

I have a new rule this month.  Finish a book, write the review before you start the next one. I’ve been very slack with my book reviews lately – I think I only wrote two for the five books I read last month. Time to fix those figures! With book one for October down, it’s review time. The Night Circus, I’m almost ashamed to say, has been sitting on my shelf for over a year now. Drawn in by its mysterious blurb and striking cover, I couldn’t help adding it to the pile. But despite hearing how absolutely wonderful it was for months on end, I never seemed to find myself in the exact right frame of mind to tackle it. But at long last, last week, the time had finally come.

Plot

To discuss Erin Morgenstern’s novel purely in terms of plot would be, in my eyes, a complete disservice to its beauty. If I were to sit down and write you out a timeline of all the events that make up the story, you’d probably look at me and say, “Well, not much happened there”. In terms of the bigger picture, you’d be right. However, with this one, the devil is very much in the details. In truth, The Night Circus is not a novel about events. It’s a little bit about people but really, it’s about a place (Surprise, surprise, that place is a travelling circus that opens at night). It’s about the things that happen there and the way in which it affects the lives of the people directly connected with it. As a result, what I’ll call the “plot” is made up of a series of subtle and gradual developments which take place over the course of many years. In other words, if you were hoping for some crash, bang magic akin to Dumbledore vs Voldemort, sorry, but this is not the droid you’re looking for. But if you’ve got the patience and the appreciation for it, you’ll find something quite special.

If you were to have read the blurb for this book, you’d know two key things – first, the story concerns a competition between two magicians (Celia & Marco) within the confines of a circus, and second, the competition is complicated by the two falling in love. Viewed in black and white, both are correct but without the additional context, it’s a bit like me telling you about my day and only mentioning that I caught a train and ate an apple. There’s just so much more to it. So, while The Night Circus may involve a love story, and that love shapes a great deal of events in the second half of the book, it’s still not what you’d call a romance. The main concern really is the competition.

Understanding the way the competition works took quite a bit of time for both for me and the characters.  I went into this expecting something akin to a boxing match – aggressive and direct, while in reality it was more like a sudden death round of trivia, competitors taking turns strutting their stuff until the other cracks under pressure. Except instead of answering questions, they’re adding new and amazing magical attractions to the circus. Once I finally grasped this, I enjoyed the novel a lot more. Yet, I do have to say that the competition’s resolution, which is tied closely to the romantic relationship, feels quite rushed and somewhat unsatisfying. The last third of the novel is full of teases of coming drama and there’s a slow build of underlying tension. Unfortunately, both of these factors failed really to come to fruition in the big way that I’d hoped.

 The romantic relationship between Celia and Marco doesn’t truly begin until at least halfway through the novel. Even then, the two essentially continue to dance around each other whilst sending the most beautiful and unique forms of love letters through the means of their circus attractions.

 “Everything I have done, every change I have made to that circus, every impossible feat and astounding sight, I have done for her.” 

Some people have argued that the relationship falls on the side of the ‘insta-love’ category but I never felt like this was the case. The novel takes place over an extended timeline and both characters have a very deep knowledge and understanding of the other through their magic long before their first proper conversation. The connection is even more believable considering they both see one another as the only other person who could possibly understand exactly what it is they’re going through. It’s quite a sweet and charming relationship which provides for several lovely moments scattered across the book, and it’s easy to see exactly why the two feel so completed by each other.

Writing

When I wrote my review for Laini Taylor’s Strange the Dreamer, I described her writing as dreamlike. This same description aptly applies to Morgenstern’s prose. Dreamlike and magical. Here is an author who lives and breathes the images in her mind and knows exactly how to make a reader see them too. Clothing, scenery, objects, people, even the intoxicating smells of her fantastical circus are described in such loving detail that it’s difficult not to be absolutely enchanted by it all. You find yourself wanting to read certain moments over again, just to picture the beauty of something as wonderful as a ship made of books floating upon an ink sea beneath a starry sky. There are brief segments throughout the novel written in second person as if you yourself are a visitor to the circus. For me, however, I always found that viewing the circus through the eyes of the story’s characters was far more rich and engaging.

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I also need to emphasise just how lovely Morgenstern’s dialogue and wording is. This is the kind of book you highlight and tab, just to keep track of specific passages. Here are a couple of my favourite examples:

“Memories begin to creep forward from hidden corners of your mind. Passing disappointments. Lost chances and lost causes. Heartbreaks and pain and desolate, horrible loneliness. Sorrows you thought long forgotten mingle with still-fresh wounds.” 

***

“I would have written you, myself, if I could put down in words everything I want to say to you. A sea of ink would not be enough.”

“But you built me dreams instead.”

 ***

“A dreamer is one who can only find his way by moonlight, and his punishment is that he sees the dawn before the rest of the world”

Characters

While Celia and Marco are definitely the two key players of this story, The Night Circus has a large supporting ensemble cast. Each individual is very different and serves important roles in relation to the development and running of the circus. As I said above, this is a book focused centrally on a place and as a result the circus acts as the lens through which we see into the lives of these other characters.  But despite having multiple chapters devoted to each of them (there are about 15 featured characters in total), aside from Celia and Marco, none of them are extensively well developed or experience much in the way of growth. We have a sort of sense of them as people but no real deeper understanding. It’s probably something I’d call fondness or an appreciation, and yet, this doesn’t stop them all being compelling just the same.

If you’re someone who’s getting a little tired with the same-old-same-old books and wants to spend a couple of relaxed hours in a magical world with some romance, historical settings, and stunning imagery mixed in, then I definitely recommend this one to you. Is it the most amazing, fantastical, splendid book I’ve ever read? No. But I can say without a doubt, it was definitely a lovely ride.

 4 Stars

Find it on Goodreads here!