Sunday, 30 June 2019

How my reading habits have changed

My blog is coming up to its ten year anniversary. This got me thinking about how my reading habits have changed over that time. Some of the changes have been a direct consequence of blogging and some have just changed naturally over time.

1. I DNF (Did Not Finish) books that I'm not enjoying. This has definitely been the biggest change for me, as in the past I would always finish every single book I started...even when I wasn't enjoying it. I always thought the book might improve near the end, or that I would miss out if I didn't finish it. I even occasionally felt ashamed if I didn't read every single page of a book, as how could I then record with good conscience that I'd read it. About 6 years ago, I was laid up in bed recovering from an operation. During that time I read a LOT of books. I needed to read to distract me from the pain. I needed the story to enchant me, sweep me away and fully occupy my attention. If I started reading something that didn't do that then for the first time in my life I would give up on it and put it down. I've decided since then that life is too short to read books that I'm not enjoying. There are so, so many books that I do want to read that I'm much more likely to DNF a title that is not ticking all my boxes.

2. I read a lot more new releases. I think this is a direct consequence of blogging because I'm lucky enough to receive a lot of new releases from publishers. I'm also more aware of new titles which I either buy or hunt for in the library.

3. I plan my reading schedule. Before I started blogging, I would read whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted. Now however, I plan what I'm going to read next based around the publication date of new books that I want to review, or around blog tours that I'm taking part in. I often try to get ahead of schedule with books I'm reading or blog posts that I'm writing. This then enables me to have some time during the summer or at Christmas to take a break and maybe read some non-fiction or whatever I fancy. This works for me as I'm super organised and it helps me not to get stressed with keeping up with my blog.

4. I read a wider selection of authors and genres. I've always read extremely widely but I think I'm now reading even more genres and trying more books by authors that I might not have come across before. There are very few books that I wouldn't at least try a few chapters of. I LOVE discovering authors with huge back catalogues that I can then go and binge on (e.g. the Agatha Christie love knows no bounds!)

5. I think more critically about what I read. This helps when it comes to reviewing books on my blog. Again, I've always tended to do this (which is a consequence I think of having a Literature degree) but I've noticed that I make more notes now when I'm reading or jot down points about the book that I want to remember when I'm writing reviews.

Have your reading habits changed? If so, how do you read differently? Has blogging had an affect on your choice of books?  

Tuesday, 25 June 2019

Review: The Weight of a Thousand Feathers - Brian Conaghan

The Weight of a Thousand Feathers by Brian Conaghan, published by Bloomsbury Children's Books on 13th June 2019

Who is Bobby Seed? He's just your average sixteen-year-old - same wants, same fears, same hang-ups. Dull, dull, dull. But then there's the Bobby Seed who's a world away from average. The Bobby Seed who has to wipe his mum's backside, sponge her clean three times a week, try to soothe her pain. The Bobby Seed whose job it is to provide for his younger brother, Danny, to rub his back when he's stressed and can only groan and rock instead of speak. That's Bobby Seed. Same, same, same, yet different, different, different ...

'The Weight of a Thousand Feathers' is Brian Conaghan's fourth novel and winner of the 2018 Irish book award for Teen and YA Book of the Year. It's the story of teenager Bobby Seed, who is your average 16 year old, apart from the fact that he is a carer to his Mum and also looks after his younger brother Danny. Bobby's mother has MS and is dependant on him for her care. He has to cook, clean and basically do everything for her.

I haven't read any YA books before that are told from the point of view of a family caregiver and especially not one who also happens to be just a teenager. As well as caring for his Mum, Bobby is also trying to navigate his own issues at school, shield his younger brother and deal with relationship dramas and questions about his own sexuality. Bobby was an extremely strong voice in the story who ends up confronted with an impossible dilemma. His train of thought is full of indecision, guilt and angst and I really felt for him.

During the story, Bobby meets Lou at a young carers support group. He is attracted to him and they share their emotions and thoughts with each other but I wasn't actually very keen on Lou. I found it hard to feel the same sympathy toward him as I felt for Bobby.

The book explores the ethical dilemma of assisted suicide or euthanasia which makes it an incredibly hard-hitting read. It is such a complex and difficult question: would you help ease the suffering of a loved one if they were dying or in pair or with no quality of life? It is an extremely controversial and emotive issue and one which creates a lot of debate. I thought that Brian Conaghan presented the situation with care and a sensitive touch. I found it so heart-breaking and extremely difficult to read at times. My heart went out to Bobby and his brother. 

This is a story that is both thought-provoking, as well as incredibly sad and moving. Be prepared to read with a big box of tissues by your side.

Sunday, 23 June 2019

Review: The Hunting Party - Lucy Foley

The Hunting Party by Lucy Foley, published by HarperCollins on 24th January 2019

During the languid days of the Christmas break, a group of thirtysomething friends from Oxford meet to welcome in the New Year together, a tradition they began as students ten years ago. For this vacation, they’ve chosen an idyllic and isolated estate in the Scottish Highlands—the perfect place to get away and unwind by themselves.

They arrive on December 30th, just before a historic blizzard seals the lodge off from the outside world. Two days later, on New Year’s Day, one of them is dead.

The trip began innocently enough: admiring the stunning if foreboding scenery, champagne in front of a crackling fire, and reminiscences about the past. But after a decade, the weight of secret resentments has grown too heavy for the group’s tenuous nostalgia to bear. Amid the boisterous revelry of New Year’s Eve, the cord holding them together snaps.

Now one of them is dead . . . and another of them did it.

Keep your friends close, the old adage goes. But just how close is too close?

I wanted to read 'The Hunting Party' after I heard it described as 'like Agatha Christie on acid'. Since I'm knee-deep in the middle of a huge binge on Christie's books, I decided that I absolutely had to read Lucy Foley's debut crime novel.

The story is set around New Year's Eve, when a group of old school friends gather in the Scottish Highlands at the remote Loch Corrin Estate. They've known each other for 10 years and always gather once a year on a celebratory getaway trip. The location is remote, they are practically the only guests there and with the snow falling heavily, they have no way out. The celebrations seem to be in full swing until a body is found in midst of a thick blizzard and all signs point to the fact that this was not an accidental death. There is a murderer among them.

The narrative switches between various characters in the book, giving differing perspectives on events. There's the glamorous Miranda, who always seems to get everything she wants and who loves making a project of those who are less fortunate than her. Then there's Emma, who is a slightly less polished version of Miranda, hasn't always been a part of the group but who this year, has planned the whole trip. And finally, Katie, who was one of my favourites. She is the quiet one, the odd one out among all of the other couples and the person who came across as having changed the most since their school days at Oxford. In addition, the narrative is also shared between Heather, who manages the Estate and the gamekeeper Doug. Everyone seems to have their own secret and it was interesting trying to work out what they were all hiding.

I thought it was a stroke of genius, not to reveal immediately who the dead guest was. I made my own guess (which turned out to be right) but I enjoyed the not knowing at the start. I also loved trying to work out who the murderer could be and why. It kept me absolutely gripped and even when I briefly put the book down, I was still thinking about the story and trying to puzzle the mystery out.

The setting was brilliant and reminded me exactly of an Agatha Christie novel. The remote setting seems at first to be a wonderful spot for a getaway but eventually the silence and claustrophobia surrounding the place, begins to expose all the cracks in the relationships between the old friends. There is no where for them to escape each other and being in close confinement means old wounds being opened, secrets being brought to light and their true feelings about one another finally being exposed. I could easily picture the snowy wilderness and feel the chilling atmosphere, as the sense of fear begins to surround them.

This was exactly my kind of book. Lucy Foley keeps the tension and suspense high throughout the story, proceeding to turn it up a notch when the murderer starts to get desperate and things begin to spin out of control. The storytelling was fast-paced and I was gripped by intrigue from the very first page. I loved this book so much and I hope that Foley will stick to this winning recipe in the future. If she does, I'll be first in line to get my hands on her next offering.

Also, I'm thrilled to discover that the TV rights to the novel have been sold, so we should see 'The Hunting Party' in the future, on the small screen. Great news! 

Tuesday, 18 June 2019

Review: The Record Keeper - Agnes Gomillion

The Record Keeper by Agnes Gomillion, published by Titan Books on 18th June 2019

After World War III, Earth is in ruins, and the final armies have come to a reluctant truce. Everyone must obey the law--in every way--or risk shattering the fragile peace and endangering the entire human race.

Although Arika Cobane is a member of the race whose backbreaking labor provides food for the remnants of humanity, she is destined to become a member of the Kongo elite. After ten gruelling years of training, she is on the threshold of taking her place of privilege far from the fields. But everything changes when a new student arrives. Hosea Khan spews dangerous words of treason: What does peace matter if innocent lives are lost to maintain it?

As Arika is exposed to new beliefs, she realizes that the laws she has dedicated herself to uphold are the root of her people's misery. If Arika is to liberate her people, she must unearth her fierce heart and discover the true meaning of freedom: finding the courage to live--or die--without fear.

'The Record Keeper' is Agnes Gomillion's debut novel. It is described as a 'fresh new take on the afro-futuristic science-fiction genre', which made me curious about the book but also wonder whether it was going to appeal to my tastes. I haven't read a lot of science-fiction and it's not normally a genre that I choose.

The story is set in 170 AE (After the End). Earth has been left in tatters after World War III and a fragile peace has been met. The main character Arika, is taken from a community nursery when she is very young. She is destined to become a member of the Kongo elite but before then she has to survive the years of training that lay ahead of her under the watchful and sometimes brutal eye of Teacher Jones. Arika becomes an exemplary student, always ready with the correct answer in class but never quite forgetting her earlier rebellion when she was seven and tried to rally her fellow comrades. Her carefully constructed existence and beliefs come under threat when a new pupil arrives at the school and cracks start to form. Arika is no longer sure if she can follow the path set out for her as Hosea opens her eyes to the truth about the society they now live in.

One of the book's main themes is racism. The white English ruling class have the dominant place in society and the Kongos' job is to work the fields and provide food for them. The balance of power is uneven and black people are suppressed by the ruling class. They are made to go through a Rebirth, where they have to take a pill that reprograms their memories and makes them forget their pasts. This is simply a tool that is used to control them and ensure they stay in their place. Everyone in the story has to fulfil their role and obey the law or they threaten the peace of society.

This was an interesting and unique read but I did struggle to fully engage with the story and the characters. I think a large part of that is down to the fact that there was nothing familiar that I could grasp onto and I found the world building a bit lacking. I couldn't quite find my feet in the new world that Gomillion had created and this meant that I often couldn't follow all the nuances of the plot. I think that is probably down to the fact that science fiction isn't my favourite genre, so if you do like SF then that won't be a problem for you. Arika was an extremely strong protagonist and her courage and determination were definitely qualities that I admired. Her journey is not easy but she is tough and fierce and gradually becomes a new voice to be listened to in a world where people have long been quietened.

Sunday, 16 June 2019

Review: Stepsister - Jennifer Donnelly

Stepsister by Jennifer Donnelly, published by Hot Key Books on 2nd May 2019

Isabelle should be blissfully happy – she’s about to win the handsome prince. Except Isabelle isn’t the beautiful girl who lost the glass slipper and captured the prince’s heart. She’s the ugly stepsister who’s cut off her toes to fit into Cinderella’s shoe ... which is now filling with blood.

When the prince discovers Isabelle’s deception, she is turned away in shame. It’s no more than she deserves: she is a plain girl in a world that values beauty; a feisty girl in a world that wants her to be pliant.

Isabelle has tried to fit in. To live up to her mother’s expectations. To be like her stepsister. To be sweet. To be pretty. One by one, she has cut away pieces of herself in order to survive a world that doesn’t appreciate a girl like her. And that has made her mean, jealous, and hollow.

Until she gets a chance to alter her destiny and prove what ugly stepsisters have always known: it takes more than heartache to break a girl.

This book made me so happy! I absolutely adore fairy-tale retellings and while this wasn't strictly speaking a retelling, it was a spin-off of Cinderella with a twist which was so brilliantly executed, that it was a sheer delight to read. It was a lot darker than the traditional tale and instead of focusing on the character of Cinderella and her wooing of the Prince, it centred around Isabella, one of the so-called ugly stepsisters. It picks up from the moment when the sisters try to squeeze their feet into the glass slipper.

I loved everything about 'Stepsister' but particularly the message that people shouldn't have to try to fit in and conform to the norm or peoples' expectations of what they should do or be like. Isabelle has done that her whole life. She has given up everything that she once loved and everything that she once enjoyed doing. She has tried to please her mother over and over again and in the process she has lost who she really is. She has become someone that she hates, allowing her petty jealousy and envy of others to eat away at her.

The premise of the story is that Fate in the form of an old crone, has Isabelle's life mapped out, with an inevitable tragic ending. The character of Chance however, wants to change this and steals the carefully inked out map to give Isabelle the opportunity for a different future. The struggle between Fate and Chance was a really interesting angle, as they wrestle between them to try and get the upper hand. I liked the way that it came across as quite a friendly rivalry at times, even though they both ultimately want to get their own way.

Isabelle, her sister Tavi and their mother are ostracised by the village community, after their treatment of Ella comes to light. Isabelle believes the horrible words that are thrown at her but desperately tries to keep what is left of her family afloat. She longs only to be pretty, like Ella, so that she can have all the things she thinks she wants. Step forward a powerful fairy called Tanaquill, who has the power to grant her exactly that...if it's her true desire and only after she has found the three missing pieces of her heart. The rest of the story unfolds with Isabelle trying to find her true self, while the battle over her future plays out in the background.

I really did love everything about this wonderful book but especially the characters that were brilliantly depicted and grew to feel like friends. If you are looking for a fairy-tale story with a dark and unusual twist then this is definitely one for you. An absolute knock-out YA that is not to be missed!

Thursday, 13 June 2019

Review: The Switch Up - Katy Cannon

The Switch Up by Katy Cannon, published by Stripes on 13th June 2019

LAX Departure Lounge. Two girls board the same flight to London as complete strangers. When the plane touches down, it’s the beginning of the craziest plan ever. Can Willa and Alice really swap lives for the summer?
Things are going to get complicated...
Katy Cannon is my go-to author for contemporary YA with a solid heart of gold. I loved her previous books 'Love, Lies and Lemon Pies' (read my review here), as well as 'Secrets, Schemes and Sewing Machines' (read my review here).
Katy's latest book 'The Switch Up', was high on my list of titles I was looking forward to being published this year. It is the perfect summer read for either sitting with on the beach or reading during some downtime on a city break. I devoured it in one sitting and am now desperately hoping that there will be a sequel.
'The Switch Up' follows in the same vein as Freaky Friday and The Parent Trap. It features two girls, Alice and Willa, who on the spur of the moment, decide that they will swap lives for the summer. Willa ends up in London and Alice in Italy, pretending to everyone around them that they are someone else. The book alternates between the two girls as they face new adventures, make new friends and ultimately learn some big lessons about themselves.
Alice was my favourite of the two because I seemed to identify with her more. She likes to please people, she likes to feel in control of things around her and she likes to have everything planned out. Spontaneity is not something that is normally associated with her but when she has a chance meeting with Willa at the airport, she is convinced to swap places and ends up spending the summer in Italy with Willa's Aunt Sofia and her foster children. There are lots of layers to Alice's story and I thought that Katy Cannon handled this with a deft touch. She highlights some of the stresses and insecurities that Alice has been dealing with, while also allowing her to blossom and grow in confidence.
Willa ends up in London with Alice's potential stepmother Margo. She meets a friend of Alice's called Hal, who helps her to hide her real identity. Willa is extremely confident and outgoing but she too has secret worries and fears, as well as family problems to face up to. I enjoyed seeing her become more aware of others around her and their feelings, as she discovers some painful truths about herself.
'The Switch Up' was a sparkling read which I thoroughly enjoyed. Katy's storytelling is exceptional and her books are the perfect reads for young teens. The story explores common issues such as family, identity and friendship, while also weaving in light touches of romance. While I was reading, I could almost feel the sun on my face and the sand in my toes. A superb contemporary YA that was enormous fun to read.

Sunday, 9 June 2019

Blog tour: The Switch Up - Katy Cannon guest post

I am thrilled to be taking part in the blog tour for Katy Cannon's new book 'The Switch Up'. I finished reading this a few days ago and absolutely loved it. Don't forget to stop by the blog next week to read my full review. It's the perfect summer read to pack in your suitcase!

For today's blog tour stop, I have a fantastic guest post from Katy herself. It's the ultimate 'Surviving Summer: An Introvert's Guide and it's a great read that I could really identify with.

Summer is a great time for getting together with friends, going out and doing things, and making the most of the great weather. Of course, for introverts (like me) it’s also a time to start panicking about being expected to do All The Peopling All The Time.

Don’t get me wrong; I like people, I like spending time with friends, and I like getting out and doing things. I even like sunshine, as long as I have enough sunscreen on. I just find all of the above – what I call Peopling - mentally and physically exhausting, after a while.
So, over the years, I’ve come up with my own methods for keeping my summers fun and enjoyable, not overwhelming. Here they are:

1. Build In Downtime. If you know that spending a lot of time with loads of people is going to leave you exhausted, try to schedule your summer so you have breaks between big social gatherings. This might take a bit of planning, but having a day – or even a morning, afternoon or evening – to yourself between commitments with friends or family will help you re-energise and enjoy your time with others more.

2. Make Your Own Fun. You don’t have to spend your time alone moping in your room or doing homework though (well, not all of it, anyway). Try jotting down some activities that do give you more energy and make you happy. Mine include reading, getting outside in the sunshine for a walk (or more reading), listening to podcasts, going to the cinema - or a museum or exhibition - by myself, following an online yoga video, and daydreaming (which sometimes turns into napping). Whatever your list is, having it there in front of you when you get your downtime will remind you of all the fun things you can use it for.

3. Pick Your People. Even for us introverts, some people are more draining than others – and a select few can even make us feel better than or as good as being alone! So pick who you spend your summer with carefully. Okay, so you can’t choose your family, and friendship groups often include at least one person who doesn’t thrill you, but just thinking about how different people make you feel can be a starting point. Even a subtle shift towards spending more time with those people who energize you, and building in more downtime between time spent with those who don’t, can help improve your summer.

4. Set Goals and Say No. These two sort of go together. If you’re anything like me, saying ‘no’ to people who want to spend time with you can be difficult. I’ve found that what helps me is having a really good reason I can’t hang out. So, I always keep a summer goals list – maybe a handful of books I want to read, an exhibition I want to visit, a project at home, that sort of thing. Then, when I need to not be Peopling, I can say with confidence that I have something else I really need to do that day. Because I do. It’s on my list, and it matters to me – and friends will respect that. (Really good friends will also totally understand if you tell them ‘I can’t People today. Can we People tomorrow?’ incidentally.)

5. Be You – and Love It. Above all, embrace being an introvert! All it means is that you find more energy in time alone than in large groups – like a third or more of the population. Introverts tend to be more thoughtful and reflective – which can lead to being more creative, more empathetic and able to build long lasting friendships. So, love who you are, and love summer again!

Huge thanks to Katy for writing such a lovely guest post and don't forget to check out all of the other stops on the blog tour. My review will be going live on the blog on publication day (13th June).

Wednesday, 5 June 2019

Review: Maresi Red Mantle - Maria Turtschaninoff

Maresi Red Mantle by Maria Turtschaninoff, published by Pushkin Children's Books on 6th June 2019

Goodreads synopsis:
For Maresi, like so many other girls, the Red Abbey was a haven of safety in a world ruled by brutal men. But now she is a young woman and it is time for her to leave. She must take all that she has learned from her sisters and return to her childhood home to share the knowledge she has gained.

But when Maresi returns to her village, she realises all is not well - the people are struggling under the rule of the oppressive Earl, and people are too busy trying to survive to see the value of her teachings. Maresi finds she must use all the terrible force of the Crone's magic to protect her people, but can she find the strength to do so when her heart is weakening with love for the first time?

'Maresi Red Mantle' is the third and final book in the Red Abbey Chronicles. It follows Maresi as she leaves the sanctuary and safety of the Red Abbey and returns to her childhood home of Rovas. She is reunited with her mother, father and siblings but after so many years apart, she has to learn how to be a part of the village and its community. Maresi returns with a mission to carry out and the story follows her as she tries to bring knowledge to Rovas, while facing new challenges and adversity along the way.

The book layout is a series of letters that Maresi writes to the loved ones she has left behind at the Abbey - Jai, Ennike Rose, Sister O and the Venerable Mother. I liked the epistolary format because it felt like being privy to Maresi's inner thoughts and feelings in a very confiding way. It's not always a style that I enjoy but I thought that in this case, it worked really well.

The text is translated from the original Finnish by A.A Prime and the language flowed off the page, with no awkwardness at all.

I found the story really moving and emotional, particularly in the second half. Maresi learns a lot about herself during the course of her life and her revelations are sometimes hard to face and painful but they help her grow into the woman that she wants to become. There is a strong feminist theme throughout the series, focusing on the idea that women can be as strong as men. Turtschaninoff shows through Maresi's choices and decisions that you don't have to concede to a man but can learn to live together in a mutually supportive way; as equals rather than being subservient.

Maresi is a wonderful character and I thoroughly enjoyed following her story as she grows into a unique and caring individual. She embodies the importance of reading and knowledge and that this should be shared with others to help people to grow and feel empowered. The book is a fitting end to the series and to Maresi's journey and it's one that I wouldn't hesitate to recommend.

Tuesday, 4 June 2019

Blog tour: Maresi Red Mantle - Maria Turtschaninoff

I'm delighted to be taking part in the blog tour today for Maresi Red Mantle by Maria Turtschaninoff, which is the final instalment in the Red Abbey Chronicles. I have a wonderful guest post from Maria about writing a trilogy.

I have written a trilogy that is very un-trilogyesque in style and execution. MARESI is written from the perspective of a young girl chronicling one spring in her life at an all-female Abbey. NAONDEL, the second novel, is actually a prequel set hundreds of years before the events in MARESI and written from the perspective of several first-person narrators. They all tell their own stories of how they came to be in an evil man’s harem, and about their eventual escape. The tone and intent in each story is different. MARESI RED MANTLE is written in epistolary form, as Maresi writes letters back to the Abbey after returning home to the province of Rovas and her tiny native village. There are no answers from the Abbey in the book. The text Maresi wrote in the first novel was intended for the Abbey archives and was written by her with that in mind, so the tone is somewhat different to the one she uses in the last novel, when she writes letters to her friends and teachers. In the letters, too, the tone varies: she writes of different things and in different ways when she’s writing to Sister O, her teacher and guardian of the Crone’s secrets, and when she’s writing to her friend Jai or her friend Ennike, now the servant of the Maiden and keeper of knowledge about the female body and love. We get to see new sides of Maresi, as she shows her fears and insecurities to some recipients and not to others. How does she wish to present herself? What worries her, what occupies her mind? During the course of the correspondence Maresi grows and changes quite a lot, while in the first novel she’s the same throughout, as it’s written looking back at a major event that took place.

            So, in short, to me there has been very little of the trilogy in the writing of the Red Abbey Chronicles. I have not had one continuous story, written in the same manner and style. I think I am fairly incapable of doing so: my mind would get bored. I need to challenge myself with something new every time. Of course, this has led to a lot of cursing and hair-pulling during the writing process! I have complained often and loudly to my husband about why I must make it so difficult for myself. Why can’t I just find one way to tell a story and stick with it?

            But there we have it: I can’t. And the result is this: a trilogy that has very little of the trilogy to it, with a prequel in the middle and a different style every time.

            Are the Red Abbey Chronicles now ended? It’s hard for me to say. I have written two books previously, set in the same universe as the Red Abbey Chronicles, ARRA and ANACHÉ. They have not been published in English yet, unfortunately. But to me all five books are part of the same weave, a tapestry that I knit of this imaginary world of mine, book by book. And I am by no means done with the world. For each book I’ve written there are threads left untied, characters whose stories I would love to dive into and learn more about. Will they all be tied to the Red Abbey? Probably not. But the longer I write in this world the more the stories become intertwined. In MARESI RED MANTLE there are references to both the novels ARRA and ANACHÉ, and I foresee more of this kind of intermingling in the future.

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