Sunday, June 6, 2021

Book review: Aria's Travelling Book Shop by Rebecca Raisin

 Title: Aria's Travelling Book Shop

Author: Rebecca Raisin

Publisher: HQ Digital

Publication date: 8th April 2020

Genre: Contemporary Romance

Source: Review copy via NetGalley

Rating: 5/10


Aria Summers knows what she wants. A life on the road with best friend Rosie and her beloved camper-van-cum-book-shop, and definitely, definitely, no romance. But when Aria finds herself falling – after one too many glasses of wine, from a karaoke stage – into the arms of Jonathan, a part of her comes back to life for the first time in years.

Since her beloved husband died Aria has sworn off love, unless it’s the kind you can find in the pages of a book. One love of her life is quite enough. And so Aria tries to forget Jonathan and sets off for a summer to remember in France. But could this trip change Aria’s life forever…?

My thoughts:

On the one hand, this was a light, enjoyable read and a bit of travel escapism while we were all stuck at home during the pandemic. It's a delightful look at some French villages, as the bookshop van travels along. There's a lovely little community of several travelling shops who move along together, including Aria's friend Rosie (who stars in the first book of the series), and there's a really nice friendship between Aria and Rosie. 

On the other, I don't think it holds up to other contemporary romance I've read & enjoyed in the last couple of years; I won't be going back to reread it. The encounters between Aria and Jonathan felt a bit awkward more often than not, and there's a lot of focus on the troubled relationship between Aria and the mother of her late husband. And maybe it's because I was pregnant while I read this, but there's a plotline I found particularly frustrating: one character, who's in a relationship, has some of the stereotypical signs of pregnancy and it takes everyone a long time to realise that's what's happening. Then, once it's confirmed, people try to wrap the woman in cotton wool and comment on what she's doing & what's "safe". I wanted to yell at these 'friends' and tell them she's pregnant not ill. 

So, a light read with some travel escapism, but there are a whole bunch of other contemporary romance books I'd point you to before this one. 5/10. 

Thursday, April 15, 2021

Book review: Beach Read by Emily Henry

Beach Read
Author: Emily Henry
Publisher: Penguin Books
Publication date: 20th August 2020
Genre: Contemporary Romance
Source: Review copy from publisher via NetGalley
Rating: 10 stars

Description: He doesn't believe in happy endings.
She's lost her faith that they exist.
But could they find one together?

January is a hopeless romantic who likes narrating her life as if she's the heroine in a blockbuster movie. Augustus is a serious literary type who thinks true love is a fairy-tale. January and Augustus are not going to get on. But they actually have more in common than you'd think:

They're both broke.
They've got crippling writer's block.
They need to write bestsellers before the end of the summer.

The result? A bet to see who can get their book published first.
The catch? They have to swap genres.
The risk? In telling each other's stories, their worlds might be changed entirely...

Set over one sizzling summer, Beach Read is a witty, feel-good love story for fans of The Flat Share and Our Stop.

My thoughts: I really enjoyed this book. January and Augustus are both published novelists. When January's father died, she inherited a lakeside house she didn't know he owned, which she finds out about when his mistress turns up at the funeral to give her the keys. So she's a little conflicted arriving there, and is planning to finish writing her latest novel in some peace & quiet while also clearing out the house to sell. The first night, she has an awkward encounter with the neighbour next door - Augustus. I won't spoil the details, but when they run into each other in daylight, it turns out she's met him before, and knows who he is, although he clearly doesn't remember her. 

They don't get on, but gradually their antagonism leads to the bet described in the blurb: they're going to swap genres for their current writing projects, and they each try to show the other some 'research situations' to help them with the new genre. I read a lot of light contemporary romance of characters being away somewhere for the summer, meeting someone, and having some important realisations over the course of the book. I love that stuff, and Beach Read does it perfectly. But it's like it takes that typical light, quick, contemporary romance read and elevates the writing level a step. I don't know how to describe it better, just that it seemed... deeper, than some things I've read recently. The story itself wasn't so different, but the telling of it made it stand out. You also only get the story from January's point of view, so that adds some more tension to things in particular places, wondering what on earth Augustus is doing or thinking. 

As an aspiring writer myself, and working in publishing, I particularly loved that Augustus and January were writers. It prompted me to do a bit of writing on my own stuff, reading January's struggles! And I love the small town setting, especially being by the water, as that's very similar to the way I grew up. 

Overall, I highly recommend Beach Read. It was one of my favourite books I read last year, and I'd like to get a physical copy at some point so I can reread it and keep it on my shelves. Contemporary romance at its best. 

Monday, July 27, 2020

Book Review: Give Birth Like a Feminist by Milli Hill

Give Birth Like a Feminist
Author: Milli Hill
Publisher: HQ
Publication date: August 2019
Genre: Non-fiction, Pregnancy & parenting, feminism
Source: Review copy via NetGalley
Rating: 10/10

Description: Birth is a feminist issue. It’s the feminist issue nobody’s talking about.

For too long women have been told, ‘a healthy baby is all that matters’. This book dares to say women matter too.

Finally blasting the feminist spotlight into the labour ward, Milli Hill encourages women everywhere to stand and deliver, insisting that birth is no longer left off the list in discussions about female power, control and agency.

From the importance of birth plans to your human rights in childbirth, and including birth stories from women across the world, this call-to-arms will help you find your voice, take an active role in your choices, and change the way you think about childbirth.

My thoughts: So when I started reading this book, I thought it sounded like an interesting topic, and I was planning to start trying to have a baby soon, so it seemed like a particularly good time to read up on the topic. Then over the course of reading, I became pregnant, which made it an even more interesting book to be reading. However, I think it's really important that it's not just pregnant people or mothers who read this book. It's important that these topics come into the general discussion of feminism. 

Milli Hill highlights from the beginning of the book that in the birth room, people have got too used to saying 'that's just how it is' when experiences are unpleasant, undignified or traumatic, and instead we should be questioning things, exercising human rights, and pressing for change. Women shouldn't be told to 'leave their dignity at the door' or that 'a healthy baby is all that matters'. Of course, we want a healthy baby at the end of the process. But that doesn't mean totally discounting the mother and her experience. 

Some key topics she looks at: 
  • Consent during pregnancy & birth
  • The urge in some places (mainly first world countries) to push medicalised interventions, and discourage more 'hands-off' types of birth
  • Being 'allowed' to do things & the language around permission. (Clue: the mother should be the one in charge. She is allowed to do anything she wants.) 
  • Belittling & dismissive language used towards pregnant & labouring people
  • Difficulties for women who want to give birth in a way that differs from what's most common & accepted in their area 
  • The 'postcode lottery' of what you 'can' and 'can't' expect from your birth experience in the UK
  • The colour of your skin affecting your birth experience 
  • So many others! 

There are some stories of what a hospital birth was like in the UK for the author's mother & friends of that age that horrified me. There are stories of births in the UK today that were shocking. There are stories of brith practices that happen in Europe, Australia, and the US that made me very glad I'm having my baby in the UK. These stories were shocking because we don't hear about this stuff; people don't talk about this stuff. In my (39 week) experience of pregnancy, it's only at this stage of life that you hear about different policies between first world countries, through places like Facebook and Mumsnet where I've seen women talk about typical timelines and medical interventions that vary from place to place, like the UK vs US vs Australia. Outside of this book, I haven't seen much about what pregnancy & birth are like in other countries. We need to make the stealing of mothers' rights a big part of the feminist conversation, highlight the indignities and inequalities, and change them. 

Milli Hill does a really good job of providing scientific evidence around various policies, from delayed cord cutting, to giving birth lying on your back (did you know it's really not the greatest position to give birth in? I did not) to inductions. 

I could pick out more topics and probably devolve into ranting, so instead I'll say - go and read this book. It's well balanced, it's full of supporting evidence and it shines a spotlight on a topic that I think has been very neglected in our society. It might be very different from most of the books I've read this year, but it's still one of my 'best books read in 2020'. 10 out of 10. 

Saturday, July 4, 2020

Book review: Deal with the Devil by Kit Rocha

Deal with the Devil
Author: Kit Rocha
Publication date: 28th July 2020
Publisher: Tor
Genre: Post-Apocalyptic Romance
Series: The Mercenary Librarians #1
Source: Review copy via NetGalley
Rating: 10/10

Description: The United States went belly up 45 years ago when our power grid was wiped out. Too few live in well-protected isolation while the rest of us scrape by on the margins.

The only thing that matters is survival.
By any means. At any cost.

Nina is an information broker with a mission: to bring hope to the darkest corners of Atlanta. She and her team of mercenary librarians use their knowledge to help those in need. But altruism doesn’t pay the bills—raiding vaults and collecting sensitive data is where the real money is.

Knox is a bitter, battle-weary supersoldier who leads the Silver Devils, an elite strike squad that chose to go AWOL rather than slaughter innocents. Before the Devils leave town for good, they need a biochem hacker to stabilize the experimental implants that grant their superhuman abilities.

The problem? Their hacker’s been kidnapped. And the ransom for her return is Nina. Knox has the perfect bait for a perfect trap: a lost Library of Congress server. The data could set Nina and her team up for years…

If they live that long.

My thoughts: I've been a fan of Kit Rocha for several years now, particuarly the two series they have which are set in the same world as Deal with the Devil, so I was really excited to hear about this new book, and new series, and the fact that they were moving to a major publisher. But the switch (they self published the other series') also made me a bit nervous: would aspects that I loved from a Kit Rocha book be toned down or absent, to try accommodating to that big publisher audience? I needn't have worried. 

We meet Nina first, as she fights off multiple attackers before retrieving a mysterious package. Amongst the fighting, the authors put in enough casual details of the surroundings that you build up a clear image of the run-down city, and start to get a feel for Nina's personality. Knox has been following her, and when the story shifts to his point of view, you get more details about the city, the corruption running through it from the big corporations that rule the place, and the information that both Nina and Knox have some kind of biological enhancements to their genetics. Nina is super fast, and Knox himself is very strong, as well as having a communication chip of some kind wired into his head to help him keep in touch with his team. All of Nina's crew and Knox's Silver Devils have more to them than meets the eye; there's a bit of a superheroes, x-men quality to things, except all of these characters went through operations and years of training to change their bodies, rather than being born with the abilities. 

Knox introduces himself, and offers Nina the job of finding the old server. Nina & co know that it is absolutely a trap of some kind, but decide to go for it anyway, and the two groups set off on a road trip like something out of The Walking Dead or Station Eleven, where you never quite know what kind of little local community you're going to find in the next desiccated town, or round the next bend of the road in the quiet forest. And through it all, both fully aware of the dangers, Knox and Nina start to fall for each other. The tension of knowing about upcoming betrayals and also the hope for a romance between two tired people working out kept me turning pages late into the night. But even knowing that there were big shocks coming for various characters when secrets got exposed, what actually happened did come as a twist to me.

In both the Silver Devils and Nina's little group, there are the found families and their unbreakable bonds that make a key part of any Kit Rocha novel. Other things I was really pleased to find, that I'd been wondering about: the chemistry sizzles between Nina and Knox from their first meeting, and builds to some exciting sexy scenes later on. There's also enough page time for the secondary characters that I'm already looking forward to seeing them get their own books later on in this series, and Kit Rocha has laid the groundwork for another excellent series of a corrupt system gradually being overturned the good guys, and the power of friendship, love and compassion. 

I highly recommend Deal With The Devil, and I can't wait for the sequel! Overall, I'm giving this 10/10. 

Thank you Tor for the e-review copy. 

Saturday, April 4, 2020

Book review: The Way of All Flesh by Ambrose Parry

Title: The Way of All Flesh
Author: Ambrose Parry
Publisher: Canongate Books
Publication date: 2nd October 2018
Genre: Historical Fiction
Series: Raven, Fisher & Simpson, #1
Source: Review copy from publisher via NetGalley

Description: Edinburgh, 1847. City of Medicine, Money, Murder. Young women are being discovered dead across the Old Town, all having suffered similarly gruesome ends. In the New Town, medical student Will Raven is about to start his apprenticeship with the brilliant and renowned Dr Simpson. Simpson’s patients range from the richest to the poorest of this divided city. His house is like no other, full of visiting luminaries and daring experiments in the new medical frontier of anaesthesia. It is here that Raven meets housemaid Sarah Fisher, who recognises trouble when she sees it and takes an immediate dislike to him. She has all of his intelligence but none of his privileges, in particular his medical education. With each having their own motive to look deeper into these deaths, Raven and Sarah find themselves propelled headlong into the darkest shadows of Edinburgh’s underworld, where they will have to overcome their differences if they are to make it out alive.

My thoughts: I went to university in Edinburgh and its one of those places where you can feel the history leaking out of the stones all around you. So a historical story set here, and in one of my favourite historical periods to read about, was a definite 'yes' from me. The book starts just before Will starts an apprenticeship with a doctor. Before he can get there, he discovers that a young woman he'd been visiting has died, and it doesn't seem like natural courses. Will is determined to investigate, even if it jeopardises his new position.

Dr Simpson is wealthy, but treats many patients who could never normally afford a doctor as well, and his specialism is childbirth. Midwifery is a key part of the book, and I found it fascinating and horrifying to see some of the medical practices of the period. It was one of those books where I paused to google quite a few times and learn a little bit more about what was happening in the wider medical and legal community at the time that fell outside the immediate view of the book. Pain relief in childbirth is just starting to be experimented with, but half of the doctors using it have no idea what they're doing, and many women tragically died.

There's a gripping crime plotline through the middle of the book, which I really enjoyed, and an examination of privilege and the position of women at the time through the character of Sarah. But it was the historical aspects that I really found fascinating. Beyond the midwifery, it's woven wonderfully into the story, from the setting of Edinburgh itself, to episodes like when Will spends a day with some photographers and sees how their art is developing.

I really enjoyed this book, and I'm so glad it's the start of a series. If like me you'd like to know more about the author, I was interested to learn that it's actually a writting team: Scottish crime writer Christopher Brookmyre, and his wife, who got interested in some of the topics explored in the book while working on her PhD.

Overall, I'm giving this one 9/10, and I will definitely be reading the sequel at some point.

Wednesday, April 1, 2020

Book Review: An Absolutely Remarkable Thing by Hank Green

Title: An Absolutely Remarkable Thing
Author: Hank Green
Publication date: 25th September 2018
Publisher: Trapeze
Source: Complimentary copy from publisher
Rating: 9/10

Description: The Carls just appeared. 
Roaming through New York City at three am, twenty-three-year-old April May stumbles across a giant sculpture. Delighted by its appearance and craftsmanship - like a ten-foot-tall Transformer wearing a suit of samurai armour - April and her best friend Andy make a video with it, which Andy uploads to YouTube. The next day April wakes up to a viral video and a new life. News quickly spreads that there are Carls in dozens of cities around the world - from Beijing to Buenos Aries - and April, as their first documentarian, finds herself at the centre of an intense international media spotlight. 

Seizing the opportunity to make her mark on the world, April now has to deal with the consequences her new particular brand of fame has on her relationships, her safety and her own identity. And all eyes are on April to figure out not just what the Carls are, but what they want from us. 

My thoughts: This is one of those tricky books to review because there are so many twists, and I really don't want to give anything away and spoil the suspense of other readers uncovering things for themselves. So, I'll start by saying I really loved this book.

It's about a lot of things: fame and its consequences; the fickleness of people; the power of the internet; working together; puzzles; friendship; growing up; personal values; consequences. Hank Green's personal experience as someone who not only became well-known through YouTube but also managed to maintain his online presence over time comes through. There were a lot of points where I felt like you could see his interests and history reflected on the page.

I think it's really well written, and I enjoyed the pacing. Something else I enjoyed about it was that April May as a character has the personal background that the decisions she makes and the way she works to stay in the public eye is believable. This isn't just someone getting really lucky. That accounts for the first incident with her making the viral video. But her experience with marketing and branding gives her a starting point early in the book where you see her and one of her friends sit down and properly work out a strategy of what they are going to do, which I think doesn't happen very often in fiction (at least not the things I've read) and added a really good level of grounding to it, balancing out some of the other things. It was one of those small details in a story that helps sell the less-believable aspects.

I did go into the book thinking it was a standalone, which it is not, so beware of that, but I'm relieved that the sequel will be out soon! Overall I'm giving An Absolutely Remarkable Thing 9 out of 10. I was able to attend the blogger launch party for this book in London, and picked up a free copy there, so although it wasn't specifically a copy for review, it was gifted - thank you Trapeze!

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Book Review: The Caged Queen by Kristen Ciccarelli

Title: The Caged Queen
Author: Kristen Ciccarelli
Publication date: September 2018
Publisher: Gollancz
Series: Iskari #2
Genre: Fantasy
Source: Review copy from publisher

Description: Once there were two sisters born with a bond so strong that it forged them together forever. Roa and Essie called it the hum. It was a magic they cherished--until the day a terrible accident took Essie's life and trapped her soul in this world.

Dax--the heir to Firgaard's throne--was responsible for the accident. Roa swore to hate him forever. But eight years later he returned, begging for her help. He was determined to dethrone his cruel father, under whose oppressive reign Roa's people had suffered.

Roa made him a deal: she'd give him the army he needed if he made her queen. Only as queen could she save her people from Firgaard's rule.

Then a chance arises to right every wrong--an opportunity for Roa to rid herself of this enemy king and rescue her beloved sister. During the Relinquishing, when the spirits of the dead are said to return, Roa discovers she can reclaim her sister for good.

All she has to do is kill the king.

My thoughts: I loved so much about the first book in this series when it came out - it was one of my absolute favourite reads of 2017. So, I had high hopes coming into The Caged Queen, but I was also nervous: that was a lot for it to live up to! Dax and Roa were both introduced as secondary characters in The Last Namsara, with Dax in particular playing a crucial role. His actions in the last few chapters of that book are now bringing out consequences. It was really interesting to see how he handled the new challenges that came to him, and how he tried desperately to balance the needs of Firgaard, and helping and appeasing his wife.

There were parts of the book where I didn't like Roa much. I could understand some of the motivations for how she was feeling, but I thought she was being a bit hard on Dax a lot of the time. Maybe that's just because we'd seen more of Dax's story and background in book one, and I was biased to see him as a 'good guy', but I found it frustrating that Roa had made firm decisions in her mind about some things and wasn't going to re-examine those.

Another thing I enjoyed (and still found frustrating to read at times) was that Dax and Roa might have a political marriage, but they're still very much relearning each other, after being close as children and then spending years apart with a lot of history and politics falling into that time apart. They also both care a lot for each other, something that's very clear to the reader, but doesn't seem quite as straightforward to the pair of them! There is the usual mixture of misunderstandings, half-confessions, and attempts at denying feelings that you often get in romance plot lines, but even anticipating how some of those issues could lead to disasters I really enjoyed reading their journey.

I'm giving The Caged Queen 8/10. Thank you Gollancz for the review copy!