‘D.O.G.S’ – M.A. Bennett

This series doesn’t seem to have grabbed everyone, but I enjoyed the first part of the series (however ridiculous the scenario seemed) and this more than delivered.

Trying to come to terms with her role in Henry’s death, Greer is back at S.T.A.G.S and needing something to bolster her chances of getting into Oxford. She doesn’t question the timing of events, but we are very suspicious when the first Act of a lost Ben Jonson play is put under her door. Greer is intrigued by the idea of putting on something thought to be so dangerous that it closed the theatres.

Before we know it we are following the preparations for this play, and – of course – things are inextricably linked to Longcross and Henry’s family. We know someone has secrets, and we can’t help but wonder just how this play fits with our current story.

I loved the feeling of a story within a story, and yet we still have a sense of Greer’s story developing in ways that perfectly blend a sense of threat with excitement. It wasn’t clear just who was hiding what, and even at the end there’s a murkiness to this that suggests our understanding of the Order and the threat they pose has more layers to reveal.

I can’t wait to read the final part.

 

‘The Pull of the Stars’ – Emma Donoghue

 

The Pull of the Stars would be a great read at any time, but as we find ourselves still fighting Coronavirus every page felt important.

Set in Ireland, 1918, we focus on a small part of a much wider problem. Still fighting the ravages of war, the effects of this flu sweeping the nation are evident everywhere. We see them through the eyes of nurse Julia, a woman dedicated to her patients on the maternity ward as she goes about her work.

I was struck by the hopelessness of the situation these people were in. The cheery slogans urging people how to fight this seemed so at odds with what they were experiencing due to poverty or a lack of social care that I felt real anger about how such situations are handled (more a response to what’s happening now than through any knowledge of the time).

From the opening pages I found myself fascinated by the little details Donoghue records about life on the maternity ward in the grip of a pandemic. There was so much to find bleak and dispiriting about this – with the characters we encounter having a high death rate – but there were also some beautiful moments that will stay with me awhile. The joy of the singing between Bridie and the orderly, the elation at a healthy birth after a problematic experience and the sense of hope found from the eating of the blood orange her brother brought all the way from Italy and saved for her birthday.

While there was a lot to find frustrating about this, the time overwhelmingly was one of resolve and determination to wring the life out of your time on this world. A good lesson.

Thanks to the author, publishers and NetGalley for sending me an ARC in exchange for my honest thoughts.

‘The Damned’ – Renée Ahdieh

In this second instalment of the series, we start to get answers to some of the questions that so niggled me in the opening.

This time round we begin with the aftermath of what took place with Celine and Bastien. Celine has asked for her memories to be removed in exchange for letting Bastien live. He has been turned into a vampire, thus breaking an old agreement that looks as if it’ll cause trouble. She seems to be settling into her new life, even looking forward to a future with Michael Grimaldi, but we soon learn she is not fully unaware of her past experiences.

The answers behind Celine’s immunity to the mind-altering came as something of a surprise (I wondered if there were details I’d missed from earlier). I enjoyed her determination to be true to herself, in spite of what those around her say, though it didn’t really seem that we were in a particularly different time.

It won’t come as any surprise to see Bastien and Celine are more closely linked than people might like them to be. We get hints of a much bigger picture, and the references to the past and the other worlds suggest that there could be exciting times ahead.

Thanks to NetGalley for letting me read this prior to publication.

 

‘Death Sets Sail’ – Robin Stevens

I can’t believe we’ve arrived at book nine of Daisy and Hazel’s adventures already, and that this is it. Due in August 2020, I feel privileged to have been given the opportunity to read it early…and, boy, is it a treat!

Death Sets Sail really is a homage to Agatha Christie, with the girls taking part on a cruise on the Nile as they are invited on holiday with school friend, Amina. Along with the boys from the Pinkerton Agency, Daisy and Hazel quickly get caught up in the activities surrounding a mysterious group of wealthy individuals who all believe themselves to be reincarnations of Egyptian leaders. When one of their group is murdered, we have a quick confession and everything seems straightforward.

Nothing is ever so simple. The girls – with a little help from Hazel’s amazing little sister who is, most definitely, a voice to watch – are not convinced the sleepwalking murderer story is wholly plausible. With their usual spirited and wholly intuitive approach to detection, Daisy and Hazel are determined to crack the case.

From the outset we’re alerted to a truly shocking fact. This looms large and overshadows every single advance in the investigation. As we moved towards this moment I felt genuine horror that we might actually have to face this, and there would be no last-minute reprieve or a twist we weren’t expecting. When it finally arrived I was a little surprised that we had waited so long and wondered why Stevens had organised things as she did.

Not wanting to spoil anything for anyone reading this I apologise for sounding so cryptic.

So, it really is over. I’ve loved this series and watching the girls develop as characters as they learn about their world. Each book has its charm, but I think this really does go down as my favourite because of the possibilities it leaves open for me to create my own ideas about the future for those involved.

 

‘The Vanishing Half’ – Brit Bennett

This was a story that I’m so pleased I had the opportunity to read thanks to the publishers and NetGalley, and I can’t wait to see what others make of what I genuinely feel is a must-read story.

Desiree and Stella Vignes are twins, and the main focus of our story. When they were little they witnessed their father dragged from his home by white men and killed. They live in a small town called Mallard that cannot be found on any map, where anyone with dark skin is looked down upon. Is it any wonder that after such a beginning they might not feel comfortable here?

The girls leave Mallard for a new life. Together, they feel they can take on anything, no matter how difficult it gets. Illegal work in a laundry and sleeping on a friend’s floor is not ideal, but they’re managing. Then one day Desiree comes home to discover Stella has gone.

Our story is told through the viewpoints of a number of characters (Desiree, Stella, and their respective daughters) and piece by piece we establish what each has done and how their early life has set up their present. From Desiree escaping an abusive marriage to return home with her dark-skinned daughter, to Stella living in constant fear that she will be found out for passing as white for so long. We watch Jude leave the racist taunts for a new life in California where she finds love with Reese, a man facing his own battles, and we follow Kennedy as she tries to find herself and come to terms with the truths she learns about her mother.

We are set in a changing world where race and attitudes to it remain something to examine. There were so many painful stories, and though I understood the choices Stella made it still felt unbearably hard that she should feel that was necessary.

The main characters of the twins had a complex relationship, but it was their daughters who I found fascinating. In these two girls there were signs of shifting attitudes on a number of subjects, and their stubborn refusal to ignore each other gave an indication that family connections run deeper than we might think.

 

‘Mad, Bad & Dangerous to Know’ – Samira Ahmed

Thanks to NetGalley for allowing me to read this prior to publication, and introducing me to a story that reeled me in slowly.

The title stems from a phrase used to describe the poet, Lord Byron. I wasn’t sure how this phrase could possibly link to the story, but it eventually became clear.

Our narrator is Khayyam, a seventeen year old American student who is fascinated by Art History but who is smarting from her most recent essay being discredited. While on holiday in Paris with her parents, Khayyam meets Alexandre Dumas (yes, really) – a descendant of the writer. They get talking, and before we know it a strange kind of hunt for missing treasure begins.

Both are convinced that Dumas had links with the painter Delacroix, and think that the link has something to do with a mysterious raven-haired beauty mentioned in works by Dumas and Byron, and featuring in paintings by Delacroix. Alongside this story in the present – which, in itself, would have been intriguing – we have the story of Leila, a young woman in the 1800s who has been the favourite of the Pasha, but who cannot bear him children.

It takes a while for the links between the characters and their stories to become clear. The hunt itself took something of a backseat for me as I was captivated by the attitudes to women and how history has, often, overlooked so many stories simply because of the gender of the person telling the story.

This was definitely a story that appeals on a number of levels. Yes, there are some amazing coincidences in this hunt, but the exploration of identity and the passion coming through for the subject was evident.

‘The Kingdom of Back’ – Marie Lu

In some ways I think this is a story that could have been told many times over, that of a talented young woman denied the chance to share her talent purely because of her gender.

Our focus is Nannerl, the older sister of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. A girl I had never heard of, yet the author’s note suggests her talent was comparable – if not, in some ways, more than that of her lauded younger brother.

We follow Nannerl as she recounts her forays into composition, and her growing frustration at the way her talent is ignored by her father as he touts his young children around the world in an attempt to ensure the name of Mozart is never forgotten.

While the historical element of the story is interesting, I was more entranced by the fantasy elements Lu employs to examine Nannerl’s feelings about the events she lives. We watch as she conjures up The Kingdom of Back, a mystical place, and is persuaded to undertake a number of quests in order to achieve her heart’s desire.

This was, evidently, a story that had captivated Lu and one that seems to have taken her years to finish/share with the world. It will certainly introduce someone overlooked to readers, but it also offers us the opportunity to see an imaginative exploration of two very talented children and how their relationships develops over time.

 

‘Chain of Gold’ – Cassandra Clare

Cassandra Clare…you’ve done it again.

Another group of characters tightly bound by their bonds/expectations and desires…where things aren’t always quite what they seem, and where we end up in dangerous situations with nobody batting an eyelid.

There’s a lot of characters in this, and it was a bit confusing to start with. However, as we start to focus on the main group it became a lot easier to follow.
The story is one of those that seems to become more complex the more we learn. It focuses on our Shadowhunters trying to learn who might be responsible for conjuring demons that are killing Shadowhunters. There’s clearly some link with key Shadowhunter families – and we do get some answers.

Once I felt the characters we were focusing on were little more established, I got quite taken in by this. There were enough hints of action to come and suggestions of potential plot strands to make me curious to see what comes next, and I was definitely in turn amused and upset by/for Cordelia, James, Anna, Matthew and Alistair – amongst others.

 

‘Daisy Jones and the Six’ by Taylor Jenkins Reid

Everyone knows Daisy Jones & The Six, but nobody knows the reason behind their split at the absolute height of their popularity . . . until now.

Daisy is a girl coming of age in L.A. in the late sixties, sneaking into clubs on the Sunset Strip, sleeping with rock stars, and dreaming of singing at the Whisky a Go Go. The sex and drugs are thrilling, but it’s the rock and roll she loves most. By the time she’s twenty, her voice is getting noticed, and she has the kind of heedless beauty that makes people do crazy things.

Also getting noticed is The Six, a band led by the brooding Billy Dunne. On the eve of their first tour, his girlfriend Camila finds out she’s pregnant, and with the pressure of impending fatherhood and fame, Billy goes a little wild on the road.

Daisy and Billy cross paths when a producer realizes that the key to supercharged success is to put the two together. What happens next will become the stuff of legend.

A very different story, yet one that feels like it will be played out time and time again.

On the surface it’s a story about a band forged and manipulated in a way we’re all too familiar with now, watching them rise to the giddy heights and then implode. It’s also a love story – played out with a number of characters – that everyone can identify with in some way.

While I spent the first part of the book trying desperately to work out if this was a real band or not, it felt as if it could have been. The passion for music shone through, and it was fascinating to see the way Reid chronicled the art of writing and producing music. However, it also had a seedier side – the chronicling of people at their very worst, driven by demons they have little to no control over and feeling it was a precarious tight-rope that could have gone either way.

I found the interview format rather disconcerting initially, but as I settled into the story it allowed us to see many facets to the characters and their interactions.
I’ve heard great things about the audio version of this, and definitely want to listen to it at some point. I’m also curious to see the TV adaptation of the story – and can’t wait to see who plays Daisy who was not always the most likeable character, but from the moment we’re introduced to the vulnerable child Daisy she was someone I was rooting for.

 

‘The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo’ – Taylor Jenkins Reid

I’d heard lots about this book over the last few months, and the fictional Evelyn Hugo seems to have created quite a stir. The premise certainly made me curious – I couldn’t imagine what would possess someone to marry seven times – but I was reluctant to start this in case I didn’t feel quite the same way.
From the outset we are spun a story about the woman the world knows as Evelyn Hugo. We learn that her daughter has died and she is going to auction some of her well-known dresses to raise money for cancer charities. For reasons that we are not permitted to know until much later on, reclusive Evelyn agrees to an interview – but she insists on a relatively inexperienced journalist called Monique being the one she’ll talk to.
Though Evelyn holds the cards here, we follow Monique as she meets with Evelyn and prepares to interview her. Upon their first meeting we are told that Evelyn wants Monique to write her biography. We know there’ll be a reason for this, but we don’t get told what it is until we’re truly invested in the situation.
I was intrigued by the press excerpts from the time as they showed the reality of the world Evelyn was part of. We are given Evelyn’s frank account of her relationships and her determination to rise to the top of her profession. We follow Evelyn through her marriages to her co-stars, a well-known singer, a director and her best friend amongst others. We see the price she was prepared to pay for her fame and her feeling of wanting to achieve what she felt she should. What we are told fairly early on is how she sacrifices so much for her true love, the one she has never spoken of until now.
While Evelyn herself was not always the most likeable of characters, she was presented in a way that elicited sympathy. Sometimes she made terrible decisions, but she often made these decisions from a desire to do right by those she loved. I felt quite angry for her and Harry, and so many other characters, that they could not be honest about themselves because of attitudes in the world they inhabited.
Monique was a character that I couldn’t quite fathom. Her interactions with Evelyn allowed us to slowly learn about her life, and the time devoted to her background and situation certainly had me thinking she would be more integral to the story than she initially seemed to be. By the time we have revealed the exact link I was imagining all sorts. The revelation certainly justified Monique’s somewhat ambivalent attitude to Evelyn, and it made sense of her actions towards the end.