‘The Toymakers’ – Robert Dinsdale

A captivating read from start to finish. A truly magical tale that will appeal to the child we all hold within us.

Enter the world of Papa Jack’s Toy Emporium and nothing is what we expect. From toys that seem to be alive to toys that defy our expectations everything to be found within this store is a wonder.

We learn about the story of Papa Jack’s when young Cathy Wray runs away from home upon learning she is pregnant. Like so many other lost souls, the doors of the Emporium open to her. And so begins a relationship with the extraordinary that sees her through to old age.

We pass through some awful years, watching how the effects of war tarnish the innocence that Jakebs Goldman and his two sons, Kaspar and Emil, try to keep alive. Throughout, the presence of the magical Emporium is a constant.

While I was captivated by the delights and wonders presented to us in the opening part of the book, it came into its own when we began to explore the concerns of adulthood and the impact family rivalry can have (even years on).

I must thank NetGalley for allowing me to read this prior to publication, and now need to order my own copy to pass onto others who need that little bit of magic in their lives.

‘The Last Samsara’ – Kristen Ciccarelli

In the beginning, there was the Namsara: the child of sky and spirit, who carried love and laughter wherever he went. But where there is light, there must be darkness—and so there was also the Iskari. The child of blood and moonlight. The destroyer. The death-bringer.

From its opening lines where Asha lures the dragon by telling it a story, we are in fantasy territory and it is compelling stuff.

From childhood Asha has lived with the old tales about the Namsara and the Iskari. They cost her mother her life, and Asha knows she cannot ever let anyone know she continues to tell them in spite of her father’s edict banning them. Yet, as her country’s Iskari, Asha is forced to hunt dragons and do what she can to prove herself good.

As the opening in a series we know there’s a much grander scope to this tale. However, for the first instalment we are given plenty to entertain us.

We watch Asha struggle with her sense of duty; we have the background of the country’s turmoil; there’s the callous Jarek, to whom Asha has been pledged; we have a developing romance, some truly inspiring relationships and…dragons.

I wasn’t totally convinced when I saw the cover that I would like this. Thankfully, it entranced me from the start and I cannot wait to see how Ciccarelli continues this tale.

‘The Wren Hunt’ – Mary Watson

The hunt for the wren is a traditional Irish event, taking place in late December, which is thought to symbolise the sacrifice of the old year in readiness to welcome in the new.

In this novel, an assured debut, we focus on the fight for survival of two ancient groups – augurs and judges – and the young girl born of both groups who is to decide their fate.

Initially, I have to say this was a puzzling start. I was not sure who Wren was, how she was connected to events or even what kind of book this was. However, the writing style totally drew me in and I felt that we learned of some of the key events through the eyes of our main character which allowed us to truly empathise with her.

The story drew heavily on folklore and the fantasy elements of this entranced me. The development of our main character will surely be enough to captivate most people and I was more than a little surprised by the themes and ideas that ran through this.

Though I have read that there is a second book due – and it should provide us with a satisfying link to what we see here – this is one of those rare books that you would not feel hard-done by if it remained a stand-alone. It’s also a story that I think would be one I could read again and still delight in.

A huge thank you to the publishers Bloomsbury, the author Mary Watson and a NetGalley for allowing me the chance to read this prior to publication.

‘Brightly Burning’ – Alexa Donne

The gravity stabilizers were failing again. I glanced up from my sketchpad to see globules of liquid dancing up from my drinking glass. They shimmered red, like droplets of blood, though I knew it was just cherry-flavored nutri-drink. Dammit, that’s my protein ration for the day wasted.

A sigh escaped me, and resignedly I stowed my drawing tablet and stylus in the drawer under my mattress. They would be calling me any minute.

A moment later, right on time: “Stella Ainsley, please report to Area Twelve.” The speaker crackled and popped, as it had done for years. I’d tried to fix it, but on a ship as old as the Stalwart, there was only so much you could do.

With this extract from the opening chapter of Donne’s debut, due for publication in May 2018, we can see this is no ordinary retelling of Jane Eyre.

From the moment I saw this on NetGalley I have to say I was curious about how it would work. There’s a few differences in order to fit the futuristic space setting, but it’s quite faithful to the original text.

Seventeen year old Stella is determined to not end up an engineer the rest of her life. With her space home looking close to the end, her choices are limited. When she gets a post as governess on board the much better-equipped Rochester we know exactly where this is going.

Many of the expected events are there. It was good fun to spot the links (while not being too precious about the adaptations made to fit the new setting) and I could see this appealing to teens with no sense of the source material, as well as being a bit of fun for those who know what’s coming.

Thanks to NetGalley for giving me the chance to read this prior to publication.

‘The List’ – Patricia Forde

I’m finding it increasingly hard to not be too dismissive of books marketed as middle-grade simply because I’m so far away from the target age of the intended readership. Sometimes, a story comes along that just carries you away regardless of age and though this wasn’t quite there it was a story that I can see appealing to many readers.

John Noa (obvious parallels) is not a man we know much about until later on in the story. However we are told that he is the founder of the new community, Ark, and that he has made many changes to this new society to help them adjust to this future world. He’s no genial gentleman though – his actions throughout the story hint at a steely determination and a willingness to do anything he deems necessary to carry his plans to fruition.

The focus on words is what drew me, and it’s an obvious link to want to feel for the main character Letta whose job is to record the few words prescribed as permissible to use under List. Far too young to be placed in the position she is, her refusal to turn her back on an injured boy leads to some dangerous meetings that have her questioning everything she’s been led to believe.

Throughout, there were many echoes of other well-known stories but I don’t think this is a problem per se. My main issue with the plot was that it was quite predictable and that we never seemed to get a fully-developed sense of the world/people in it.

‘The Hazel Wood’ – Mimi Albert

‘Alice in Wonderland’ for contemporary readers seems to be the consensus of some early reviewers. Like Stephanie Garber’s ‘Caraval’ this is a novel that looks like it will inspire extreme responses. With a lyrical prose style, some dark content and a sustained use of the absurd, this book will either appeal completely and be devoured in one sitting, or you’ll admire parts of it but be left generally non-plussed.

I was completely smitten!

Alice has never met her grandmother, a reclusive writer, but her short book of fairy tales is a literary phenomenon. The stories surrounding the writer and her mysterious Hazel Wood estate hint at strange events. The only things Alice knows for certain is that her mother, Ella, is determined she will never go there and that she has spent her life moving from place to place hiding from the strange things that follow them.

One day Ella goes missing. Alice becomes convinced that the odd characters she sees have something to do with it. Mysterious letters arrive for Alice, but nobody can help her. With the aid of super-fan, Finch, Alice resolves to make her way to Hazel Wood and learn for herself the truth about the Hinterland.

Nothing could prepare her – or us – for what she learns.

Having been declined for an ARC from the American publishers of this book I thought I was stuck waiting for my copy to come in February. Then Penguin UK came to my rescue…I can’t wait to read it again, which I think is the surest sign of a book finding its mark.

‘The Bear and the Nightingale’ – Katherine Arden

Something a little different here. Thank you NetGalley for granting me access to this; it was the kind of book I might not have picked up otherwise, but that would have been a real shame.

Our story focuses on ‘wild girl’ Vasya – basically, a girl who is not conventionally pretty and who does not fulfil the expectations her society has of her. There’s a strong sense that her mother might have had some witch-blood and this is enough to mark her as different.

This is not a grip-you-from-the-start read; a slow-burner, it takes time to immerse ourselves in the world and come to understand how these people live/what is important to them. We have a blending of new religion and old beliefs, and this causes a dangerous scenario.

When Vasya’s father brings home a new wife from Moscow she is determined to make her mark. She forbids the family to continue their traditions of feeding the spirits that protect their homes, and determines to have Vasya placed in a convent. As the village weakens, the new priest plays a key role in what transpires. The question is whether Vasya will have the strength to play her own part in this story…

I admit that even having finished the book I am not totally certain who the two brothers are and why they have chosen Vasya as the object of their affection, but this was a compelling read. The world-building was elaborate and there was a wonderful sense of fairy-tale to this.

I personally can’t wait to read part two when it is released.

‘Shadow Weaver’ – MarcyKate Connolly

Emmeline has a skill, one which terrifies those around her. She can talk to Shadows, and manipulate them to her own purposes. Since she was little this has been a source of comfort to her, though it scares everyone in her house. When her family prepare to let her be taken to the mysterious Lady Aisling who says she can cure such children, Emmeline believes she has to run.

We follow Emmeline on her adventure as she journeys away from her home. She meets Lucas, a young man with his own talent. The question, however, is who can Emmeline trust?

I had suspicions throughout the story and there’s no getting away from the fact that you get what you are expecting. In spite of the reader probably guessing that Emmeline will be betrayed in the worst possible way, the story is well-told and I think younger readers will empathise with Emmeline’s situation.

Thank you NetGalley for sending the advance copy in exchange for my review.

‘The Cruel Prince’ – Holly Black

An unexpected treat, and very different to the Magisterium series. Thank you NetGalley for allowing me to read this prior to publication (scheduled for January 2018).

As you may expect from Black, there’s plotting, intrigue, darkness and something otherworldly. I was uncertain at the beginning simply because it took a while to get into the character of Jude. However, as we pick up pace and start to see more of what’s going on it becomes more and more intriguing.

From the outset it seemed inevitable that the characters we thought we could trust might not be quite what they seem. There’s plenty of little details spread throughout the book that we only see the significance of later. I loved the premise of this, and the blending of fae and mortal worlds was deftly done.

Typically, we’re left with many questions for part two but this was a cracking start to the series. I’ll post a more detailed review/update after publication.

‘Tarnished City’ – Vic James

Thank you to NetGalley for authorising me to read this. Number two in the series is another cracker, though there are signs that things are changing (and not always for the better).

I admit to being a little scared I would have forgotten details, as it felt a long time since I’d read book one. However, I felt I was quickly taken back to the world and didn’t feel too many details were missing from my mind.

There is a lot of alternating between Luke and Abi following the events of Gilded Cage. Neither is in a good place, but they at least have something to fight for. The Equals we observe are also in pretty dire situations, but some have more of a chance of escape than others.

I felt Tarnished Cage was bold in its attempts to explore the more morally dubious characters. I can’t say I liked many of the characters/ideas we come across, but James portrays them with skill. It was interesting to see their motivation, but there’s still an awful lot we’re not being told.

In many ways this was bleaker than Gilded Cage, but I got a sense of how events were moving on. I’m very excited to see where we go in the final part of the trilogy.