The Last Bookshop In London Review (Audiobook)

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Book: The Last Bookshop In London

Author: Madeline Martin

Narrator: Saskia Maarleveld

BECHDEL TEST: Pass-Grace and Viv talk about their war work.

Content Warnings: War, bombing depictions, death, grief, mentions of loss of a parent, loss of a child, misogyny, blood, discovery of bodies (not graphic), mentions of the Nazis

It’s very rare since becoming a blogger that I come across books that I’ve not heard much about before, but that’s exactly what happened with this one. I saw it on someone’s Top Ten Tuesday list a few months back, and it sounded right up my alley (bookshops, historical fiction, all very Jo) and it turned out the narrator who did The Rose Code & The Alice Network also narrated this one so I jumped on the chance to read it. It was a really lovely surprise, a very heart-warming story about the resilience of the human spirit, and in a change of speed for me, focused on the home front during the Blitz. Here is a short synopsis of the book:

Inspired by the true World War II history of the few bookshops to survive the Blitz, ‘THE LAST BOOKSHOP IN LONDON’ is a timeless story of wartime loss, love and the enduring power of literature.

August 1939: London prepares for war as Hitler’s forces sweep across Europe. Grace Bennett has always dreamed of moving to the city, but the bunkers and blackout curtains that she finds on her arrival were not what she expected. And she certainly never imagined she’d wind up working at Primrose Hill, a dusty old bookshop nestled in the heart of London.

Through blackouts and air raids as the Blitz intensifies, Grace discovers the power of storytelling to unite her community in ways she never dreamed – a force that triumphs over even the darkest nights of the war.

As I said at the top of the review, one of the reasons I was so excited to read this one was because of the narrator. I’ve mentioned before when reviewing The Rose Code and The Alice Network that Saskia Maarleveld is a wonderful narrator, and naturally the same is true here, she is such an impressive performer and really brings life into every book she reads, every character is so easily differentiated, her accents are on point and she kept me so engaged throughout. I know I’m going to be constantly looking for more audiobooks read by her because she’s one of my favourite narrators now!

It was nice to read a WWII book focused around ordinary people just doing what they could to get through. I love reading WWII books about spies and pilots and soldiers, don’t get me wrong, but the contributions of people not directly fighting on the frontlines in the wars were just as important, and it was nice seeing people just trying to muddle through as best they could. Also for all the fiction I’ve read on WWII, I think this was the first one I’ve ever read set during the Blitz, most WWII fiction I’ve read tends to focus more on the latter years of the war, so it was nice to see that different focus here.

I really liked the main character Grace, she was smart and brave, and so caring about the people in her community, so I found it really easy to root for her. I loved that her name was an obvious nod to Pride and Prejudice as well, that was a nice touch for a book all about books. Honestly, I actually realised after reading that she reminded me a lot of Liesel Meminger from The Book Thief, obviously Grace is quite a bit older than Liesel, but they have a lot of similarities: they both discover a love for reading after initially being non-readers, they’re both orphans and develop a surrogate father-daughter type relationship with an older male figure in their life, they both use their love of books to help their community during bombing raids (the scene with Grace reading in the train station reminded me of a very similar moment from The Book Thief) and Liesel is one of my favourite fictional characters, so I think those similarities definitely endeared Grace to me even more.

I loved that this book showed a younger protagonist with strong friendships with older characters, it’s something I’ve definitely noticed seeing more in books I’ve read in the last couple of years, which is nice, especially as older characters tend not to be seen as much in fiction. Grace’s relationship with Mr Bennett in particular was really endearing, I loved seeing him go from not really wanting her around, and then slowly through the book, seeing them develop this father-daughter type of bond. I also really loved her relationship with Mrs Weatherford, it was lovely how much the two cared for each other, and how the helped each other with their grief over their respective losses.

Community was such an important part of this book, and I really loved that, seeing everyone coming together and helping out after bombings, picking up the pieces after their neighbours had suffered tragedies, that sense of collective spirit was really lovely to read about.

Primrose Hill Books sounded like such a charming shop, I wish it was a real place that I could visit, because I could definitely see myself getting lost in there. I didn’t realise until I was writing up my notes for this review and came across an interview with Madeline Martin that she’d based the story on the real life bombing of Paternoster Row, which was at the time the centre for publishing in London (I clearly only skimmed the synopsis for the book!). I didn’t realise that bookshops in London were so badly affected by the bombings in the Blitz, apparently an estimated 5 million books were destroyed in the bombing Martin describes in the book. One of the things I love about WWII fiction, is despite the fact that it does seem like the market is overloaded by it at times, I always come out of every book learning something about some event in the war that I’d never heard of before.

I loved seeing Grace fall in love with reading, it was great to see someone of a similar age to me (Grace is around 23), who hasn’t been a reader their whole life, learning to love books, it just goes to show that you can find reading at any age, you don’t have to be a child to fall in love with books. I also really liked that Martin did it through her finding a particular book that caught her attention, and made her want to read more, because I think that’s something every reader can relate to, no matter when you found books. This whole story was a real love letter to books and reading, and of course, I loved that.

I even, surprisingly for me, liked Grace and George’s romance. It’s fairly low key and doesn’t take up much page time, but to be honest, that’s probably why I liked it! They were very sweet together and I loved seeing them bond over books, but it didn’t overpower the main narrative.

Martin’s writing style is simple, but effective. I liked that it wasn’t overly descriptive, but still really managed to capture the emotions of the characters and the tragedies they faced. For all the heart-warming moments in this book, and there are many, it is still a war and there’s obviously a lot of incredibly emotional moments, and Martin’s writing with Maarleveld’s narration conveyed these in a soul-crushing way.

It was a very quick read, clocking in at just over eight hours, and I never felt bored. One of the downsides of this though, was that some of the characters and their relationships did lack depth. Viv is probably the most prime example of this, she’s basically just Grace’s “wild” best friend (“wild” here meaning wears red lipstick) and doesn’t really get much development in her own right. I really wish we’d got to see more of their friendship, as Viv disappears fairly early on to contribute to the war effort. This is one of very few books I actually do think could have benefitted with being slightly longer, as the last few chapters, plus the epilogue felt a little rushed, and whilst I appreciate it was mainly focusing on a small section of the war, I think if it had been slightly longer, some of the characters might have had a bit more time to breathe and develop.

There is a cat in this book. Just so you all know in advance, THE CAT IS FINE. THE CAT SURVIVES.

Mrs Nesbit, the rather nasty rival bookshop owner who comes to blows with Grace, really got on my nerves for a lot of the book, I would not have been as nice to her as Grace was. It was good to see her coming around by the end of the book though.

I will say that this falls into the same trap as a lot of historical fiction, in that the cast of characters are very white and heteronormative. I’m not taking the it’s historical fiction excuse anymore, the past was way more diverse than we give it credit for, especially in big cities like London, so there was no reason for Martin’s book to be filled with just white, straight people.

I did feel that the ending was a little too sickly sweet and neatly wrapped up for me. Though the whole book is definitely going for a cosier feel than most WWII fiction, it definitely felt very, let’s tie a neat bow on everything and that’s just not my preferred kind of ending. It’s a very personal preference thing though, and I’m sure a lot of readers, especially romance readers, will like it.

Overall, this was a really lovely little book, and I’m so glad I came across it on someone’s blog because I’m not sure I would have found it on my own! Madeline Martin’s next WWII book is about American library spies and I’m so excited for it now, I can definitely see myself reading her historical fiction for years to come!

My Rating: 3.5/5

My next review will be of my final August audiobook, Sky Breaker, the sequel to Night Spinner, by Addie Thorley. I’m really getting up there with my backlog now, only four more reviews to go!

The Song of Achilles Review (Audiobook)

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Book: The Song of Achilles

Author: Madeline Miller

Narrator: Frazer Douglas

BECHDEL TEST: FAIL-By construct, this book fails as it has a male narrator and he is present for pretty much all the conversations.

Content Warnings: War, death, violence, misogyny, abduction, abandonment, blood depictions, child abuse, human sacrifice, human trafficking, murder, plague (mentioned, graphic), rape, self-harm, slavery, torture

After reading Madeline Miller’s most recent release, Circe, last year and loving it, I wanted to try Miller’s debut novel as I’d heard so much praise for it. Unfortunately The Song of Achilles didn’t quite live up to the hype for me. Whilst I loved her writing just like Circe, I found Achilles and Patroclus quite underdeveloped as characters, the pacing was incredibly slow and I had a lot of issues with the way the narrative dealt with female characters, quite a surprise to me as she did so well with Circe. Here is a short synopsis of the book:

Greece in the age of Heroes. Patroclus, an awkward young prince, has been exiled to the kingdom of Phthia. Here he is nobody, just another unwanted boy living in the shadow of King Peleus and his golden son, Achilles.

Achilles, “best of all the Greeks,” is everything Patroclus is not—strong, beautiful, the child of a goddess—and by all rights their paths should never cross. Yet one day, Achilles takes the shamed prince under his wing and soon their tentative connection gives way to a steadfast friendship. As they grow into young men skilled in the arts of war and medicine, their bond blossoms into something far deeper—despite the displeasure of Achilles’ mother Thetis, a cruel sea goddess with a hatred of mortals.

Fate is never far from the heels of Achilles. When word comes that Helen of Sparta has been kidnapped, the men of Greece are called upon to lay siege to Troy in her name. Seduced by the promise of a glorious destiny, Achilles joins their cause. Torn between love and fear for his friend, Patroclus follows Achilles into war, little knowing that the years that follow will test everything they have learned, everything they hold dear. And that, before he is ready, he will be forced to surrender his friend to the hands of Fate.

So I’ll start with the thing that bothered me most in this book, and as usual, we’re back with old friend, PACING. I know, I come back to this one time and time again, but it really is so crucial in my enjoyment of a book and it makes such a difference when it’s done right. The Song of Achilles manages to be both incredibly slow paced, and yet also go too fast at the same time, which I know sounds confusing but I’ll explain what I mean! It takes ages to get into the action, the actual Trojan War part so in that respect, the book moves along quite slowly. However, there are a lot of skips forward in time, both at the beginning of the book, and during the Trojan War, and these parts felt like they were too fast paced, as it made it hard for me to keep track of where I was in the narrative. Both of these pacing problems together, led to the story feeling somewhat disjointed and uneven. Either the book needed to be longer and the Trojan War parts more fleshed out, or the initial part of Achilles and Patroclus growing up needed to be trimmed, preferably both!

And then we have the narrator, always crucial with an audiobook. For me, Frazer Douglas’ narration was one of my big problems with this book, as I found his reading kind of flat and monotone, which isn’t really great for keeping a reader hooked into the story. His voices for the women in the book were also terrible, and that kind of took me out of the story.

On the upside, as with Circe, Madeline Miller’s writing was lovely, it had such a nice flow to it and so many really gorgeous lines.

Both Achilles and Patroclus felt underdeveloped to me, they both seemed to inhabit the same character archetypes throughout the book: Achilles, the great warrior and Patroclus, the weak, but kind and caring lover, and I didn’t feel like either showed much growth throughout the book. They both felt fairly flat to me, and that stopped me from really caring about either of them. Despite this, I did manage to feel quite invested in their relationship, as Miller’s writing was able to show their connection well, so that part of the book was well done. However, I think herein lies the problem: Miller was great at developing the connection between the two of them, and making the romance believable, but the pair are never really allowed to developed as individuals, so as a couple: great, can totally get behind them, but Achilles and Patroclus as individual people: stuck in their one-dimensional archetypes.

The intense focus on Patroclus and Achilles’ relationship also makes the story feel somewhat lacking in plot, as all the attention is focused on developing their relationship and less on important plot beats, like the war.

Patroclus also seemed to do a massive 180 at the end and suddenly become an impressive warrior, largely because the plot required it, which didn’t really fit with how Miller had established his character up to that point.

Also, having said that I liked Patroclus and Achilles’ romance (and I did!), I did find it a little cringey Patroclus mooning over Achilles’ great beauty all the time!

Completely unrelated, but Agamemnon was categorically THE WORST in this book.

Then we come to my other big problem of the book: the treatment of the women. The women in this book definitely get the short end of the stick, being raped, abandoned, sacrificed, I could go on. Whilst yes, this is accurate to women in Greek mythology, this is a retelling! We can do things differently here. I mean she has Patroclus rescue the slave girls but we can’t lose the rape scenes? REALLY? I mean Briseis gets a much better deal than in the myths, but that’s not saying much. I also felt terrible for poor Deidamia, who is basically used as a pawn by Thetis, gets pregnant and is shipped off and abandoned by her family.

I would also have liked the female characters to have more depth. Briseis was a really interesting character, but all we really get of her is that she’s Patroclus’ friend, nothing more. Helen of Troy gets merely a passing mention, and she’s pretty darn important in the whole war thing (even though yes, the Trojan war was more about land grabbing than love). I know this is Achilles’ and Patroclus’ story but I was a little disappointed that Miller didn’t give the female characters (few though they were) more depth as I know how well she did this in Circe.

Speaking of the rape scenes, Deidamia forcing Patroclus to have sex with her, was NOT IT and totally unnecessary for the story. The same thing happens with Achilles, he’s also forced into having sex with her, and it’s not acknowledged at all how wrong that is.

For a retelling, I was kind of disappointed that Miller told the story very straight, in Circe, she interweaves a lot of other Greek myths into the narrative and really plays with her story, but this felt like a very straight rehash of the events of the Trojan War and I would have liked it if she’d been a bit more creative with the story.

One of the most important moments of the book, where Patroclus dies (it’s a thousands of years old myth, so I don’t consider this a spoiler, you know from pretty early on in the book that both Achilles and Patroclus will die), felt so glossed over, it was covered in a matter of a few sentences, which took away from what is meant to be an incredibly emotional moment in the book.

I also found it really weird that the story carried on, after that moment? I mean when your narrator is dead, the story is over! It made the actual ending feel super anti-climactic because it felt like Patroclus’ death was a more natural end-point.

For me, this book definitely suffered from hype, I think my expectations were just too high, especially after loving Circe so much. Generally I find that the debut book is never an author’s best work, and I think Miller improved a lot between this and Circe. This wasn’t a bad book, despite my complaints, there were quite a few things I liked about it, but the poor pacing, flat characters and the way the female characters were treated really did take away my enjoyment of an otherwise fairly solid book.

My Rating: 3/5

My next review will be of my second August audiobook read, The Last Bookshop in London by Madeline Martin (yes, pure coincidence that I read two books by authors named Madeline back to back!). I’m down to five reviews in my backlog now, and ideally I’d like to try and have it cleared by the end of this month, but we’ll see how things go!

The Alice Network Review (Audiobook)

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Book: The Alice Network

Author: Kate Quinn

Narrator: Saskia Maarleveld

BECHDEL TEST: PASS-Multiple conversations between different female characters about subjects that aren’t to do with men.

Content Warnings: War, at home abortion (pre abortion being made legal), mentions of suicide, PTSD, grief, torture, physical mutilation, blood/gore, child death, gun violence, vomiting, misogyny, pregnancy, sexual assault, hospitalisation, mentions of surgery, imprisonment, stalking, mentions of Nazis and anti-semitism, alcoholism

After reading The Rose Code back in the Spring and really enjoying it, I was recommended The Alice Network by Brittany in the Goodreads Book Club that I’m in, and as spies are always something I’m interested in, particularly female spies, I was naturally excited to try it. I ended up really enjoying it and I can’t wait for Kate Quinn’s new book The Diamond Eye to come out next year. Here is a short synopsis of the book:

In an enthralling new historical novel from national bestselling author Kate Quinn, two women—a female spy recruited to the real-life Alice Network in France during World War I and an unconventional American socialite searching for her cousin in 1947—are brought together in a mesmerizing story of courage and redemption.

1947. In the chaotic aftermath of World War II, American college girl Charlie St. Clair is pregnant, unmarried, and on the verge of being thrown out of her very proper family. She’s also nursing a desperate hope that her beloved cousin Rose, who disappeared in Nazi-occupied France during the war, might still be alive. So when Charlie’s parents banish her to Europe to have her “little problem” taken care of, Charlie breaks free and heads to London, determined to find out what happened to the cousin she loves like a sister.


1915. A year into the Great War, Eve Gardiner burns to join the fight against the Germans and unexpectedly gets her chance when she’s recruited to work as a spy. Sent into enemy-occupied France, she’s trained by the mesmerizing Lili, code name Alice, the “queen of spies”, who manages a vast network of secret agents right under the enemy’s nose.

Thirty years later, haunted by the betrayal that ultimately tore apart the Alice Network, Eve spends her days drunk and secluded in her crumbling London house. Until a young American barges in uttering a name Eve hasn’t heard in decades, and launches them both on a mission to find the truth…no matter where it leads. 

As with The Rose Code, The Alice Network is narrated by Saskia Maarleveld, and she was absolutely brilliant! She’s such an engaging narrator, and she does all the different character accents so well and switches between them effortlessly. She really brings the story to life so vividly and I’ve definitely been on the look out for as many audiobooks narrated by her as I can find since reading The Rose Code!

In terms of the characters, I really loved Eve. Her story in 1915 was hands down my favourite part of the book. Eve is so funny, and brave and smart and determined, and even in 1947 when she’s been through so much and is traumatised from her experiences, has this wonderful spark that you can’t help but love her and root for her. I loved that her stammer was portrayed as a strength in her spy work rather than a weakness, and in the present day parts of the book, it was so wonderful to see an older woman in a starring role. Yes, she’s a little abrasive and rough around the edges in 1947, but to be honest, that made me love her even more!

Her mentor and boss, Lili was also a highlight of the book. Lili, a fictionalised version of the real life leader of The Alice Network, Louise De Bettignies, was so brilliant, she was so smart and sneaky and funny and just such a larger than life personality, it was impossible not to fall in love with her and her penchant for as she called it “silly hats”. I definitely came out of The Alice Network wanting to learn more about Louise de Bettignies!

On the other hand, the other main character, Charlie, I didn’t love quite as much, at least in the beginning. She was very naive, a little annoying, her dialogue felt extremely cringey and she definitely read as younger than her age of 19. However, she definitely grew a lot over the course of the book, and in the end I liked her a lot more. Her chapters were weaker than Eve’s though, especially in the beginning, they got much better towards the end when the 1947 storyline started to tie in more with the 1915 one.

Though I did have issues with the dual timeline in The Rose Code as well (actually very similar to this book, I found the past timeline more engaging than the present), I felt the two tied together very nicely. In this book however, the 1915 and 1947 storylines felt like two different stories for much of the book, they only really converged in the latter half of the book, which made it feel quite disjointed a lot of the time. One of the things I did appreciate though, was that even though we know a bit of what happened to Eve already since we first meet her in 1947, the past events still felt really suspenseful and I was still worried when things happened to her even though I knew she was going to survive and that’s definitely a testament to Quinn’s writing.

I learned so much I didn’t know before whilst reading this book, which is always a mark of a good historical fiction to me, though I studied History at Uni, there is always so much more to learn and I love it when historical fiction books teach me something new! I learned about The Alice Network, Louise De Bettignies, WWI spycraft, and the Oradour-Sur-Glane Massacre which is something I couldn’t believe wasn’t covered when we did WWII in school. Quinn clearly did her research with this book which is something I always appreciate. One quibble I did have though, and this is fairly minor, was that at one point in the book, she describes Eve hearing Belgian at the port in Folkestone, Belgian is not a language! Belgian people generally speak Dutch, French, or German and this would have been super easy to Google!

As with The Rose Code, Quinn does a super good job of handling her characters’ PTSD, particularly Eve’s and she also does a really great job at dealing with character grief, both Eve and Charlie’s pain over losing respective loved ones felt incredibly real and raw.

I really enjoyed Quinn’s writing style, aside from the occasionally cringey dialogue, she has such a vivid style and she’s particularly good at depicting the emotions of characters and scenes, I felt the emotion in the book really leapt off the page. The Oradour Sur-Glane massacre and the scene where we find out what happened to Eve in WWI that left her both physically and mentally scarred were some of the toughest to read in the whole book because Quinn paints the fear and horror and desperation in those scenes so incredibly vividly. The scene where we find out what happened to Eve in WWI that left her hands mutilated, I actually almost had to stop listening at several points in that chapter because it was so horrifying, so be warned!

Like The Rose Code, The Alice Network is also heavily focused on female friendships and I really loved that. I thought the camaraderie between Lili, Violette and Eve (the fleur du mal) in 1915 was so well done, and made it all the more heart-breaking when you see what Eve and Violette’s relationship has come to in the present day. I also really loved seeing the development of Charlie and Eve’s relationship from animosity (largely on Eve’s end) to grudging acceptance, to genuine friendship, it was really beautiful to see these two women who had both suffered trauma for different reasons, find comfort and friendship in each other and really help each other to grow. Seeing a friendship between a younger woman and a middle aged one was also really lovely as that’s not something that you often get to see.

It was perhaps a little overlong, and the pacing a little uneven, particularly in the beginning. I reckon some of Charlie’s chapters could have been trimmed a little, as a lot of them acted like filler. It didn’t help that the mystery of what happened to Rose, at least initially, is nowhere near as interesting as Eve’s spy work (any kind of mystery will struggle to compete with spying, to be honest!).

As in The Rose Code, Quinn doesn’t shy away from discussing the issues that both Eve and Charlie face living in times where women had far less rights than we do now. The fact that Charlie couldn’t access her own money without her father or husband’s permission, whilst I knew that was something that happened (and was still a law till as recently as the 1970s) made me feel just as indignant as she was! I also really loved seeing Eve taking Charlie and under her wing and teaching her techniques that she learned as a spy to move through a male dominated world as a woman, and use her gender to her advantage.

There was also the way she handled both Charlie and Eve’s unintended pregnancies. Whilst yes, this parallel was a tad cliche, I loved how Quinn handled their respective choices, when both lived in a time where they had limited options (Eve even moreso than Charlie, as Charlie at least had family with the money to send her to a legal abortion clinic). They make different choices, Eve choose to abort her baby and undergoes a makeshift surgical abortion with the help of Violette, a former nurse, whilst Charlie chooses to keep hers. Both choices are portrayed as valid, and the narrative doesn’t judge either woman for their choice, which I massively appreciated! I also just appreciated that Quinn included abortion in general, as it’s still a topic that I don’t see touched on much in books, though this has been improving in recent years.

Speaking of this, though obviously both Eve and Charlie face misogyny, I really appreciated that the main male characters in this, Captain Cameron in 1915, and Finn Kilgore in 1947, both really respected the women in their lives. I also appreciated that though Eve and Charlie are obviously the main characters of the story, the narrative doesn’t make all the men around them seem completely flat and one-dimensional (which can often be a problem), like Eve and Charlie, Finn and Cameron are both complex and three-dimensional characters in their own right, since just as I don’t want women to be underdeveloped in stories that centre men, I also don’t want men to be underdeveloped in stories that centre women.

The little details of being a spy, how they passed messages wrapped around hairpins or drew secret maps on the petticoats of their skirts, and the way they distracted border guards by frustrating them by emptying out the contents of their bags and taking ages to look through them, so they got so annoyed they sent them through without checking their papers, and the way Lili so effortlessly slipped in and out of different identities, were definitely a highlight of the book for me.

Rene, the main villain of the book, was truly despicable, and there’s a scene where Eve confronts him in 1947, over 30 years since the pair last saw each other, was incredibly powerful and one of my favourites of the entire book.

The disability rep with Eve felt well done, she has a stammer and a physical disability (she can’t use her hands properly due to injuries sustained in WWI) and she’s not presented as any less capable than any of the non-disabled characters in the book. However, the world in The Alice Network is still largely a white and heteronormative one, and again, it being historical fiction is no excuse for that.

The main romance was incredibly predictable, I knew from their first scene together that something would happen between Finn and Charlie. It wasn’t a problem as such, they were a sweet couple, but I didn’t think it was entirely necessary to the story, and I was more invested in other aspects of the plot than their romance. However, I did appreciate that the romance was very much background and the main narrative events were given more importance.

The ending did feel rather neatly wrapped up, and a little convenient after everything that happened in the book, but I didn’t begrudge Eve and Charlie a happy ending after everything that had happened to both of them.

Overall I really enjoyed this book! Whilst it did have its pacing issues, and the past storyline was much stronger than the present, the characters were brilliant, the female friendships were amazing and it definitely packed an emotional punch, plus the narration was so brilliantly done! I’m so excited for Quinn’s next book, The Diamond Eye to come out in March!

My Rating: 4/5

My next review will be of one of my August audiobooks, The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller. Once again, thank you for bearing with me whilst I catch up with these reviews, I’m using my days off to chip away with them, but I still have 6 more to go, and as I want to give you the detailed reviews you have come to expect from me, they do take a while to write up, so I really do appreciate your patience!

The Poppy War (The Poppy War #1) Review (Audiobook)

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Book: The Poppy War (The Poppy War #1)

Author: RF Kuang

Narrator: Emily Woo Zeller

BECHDEL TEST: PASS-Rin talks with the other girls about getting a chemical hysterectomy.

Content Warnings: Ableism, child abuse, physical and mental abuse, drug addiction, self-harm, body horror & gore, graphic violence, slavery, genocide, medical experimentation, animal cruelty/death, war crimes, rape, sexism, colourism, ethnic cleansing, self-sterilisation, trauma, racism, chemical warfare, bullying, discussion of suicide, human experimentation

I’d been seeing The Poppy War everywhere on Book Twitter over the past year, and back in June (because I am super behind on my reviews, sorry guys!) I finally decided to see what all the hype was about. I was a little apprehensive because I’d heard how violent the book was, but I’d heard nothing but praise about it so I thought it was worth the try. Unfortunately it really wasn’t for me, the violence felt incredibly gratuitous, the pacing was definitely off and the characters were underdeveloped. Here is a short synopsis of the book:

A brilliantly imaginative talent makes her exciting debut with this epic historical military fantasy, inspired by the bloody history of China’s 20th century and filled with treachery and magic, in the tradition of Ken Liu’s Grace of Kings and N. K. Jemisin’s Inheritance Trilogy.

When Rin aced the Keju, the Empire-wide test to find the most talented youth to learn at the Academies, it was a shock to everyone: to the test officials, who couldn’t believe a war orphan from Rooster Province could pass without cheating; to Rin’s guardians, who believed they’d finally be able to marry her off and further their criminal enterprise; and to Rin herself, who realized she was finally free of the servitude and despair that had made up her daily existence. That she got into Sinegard, the most elite military school in Nikan, was even more surprising.

But surprises aren’t always good.

Because being a dark-skinned peasant girl from the south is not an easy thing at Sinegard. Targeted from the outset by rival classmates for her color, poverty, and gender, Rin discovers she possesses a lethal, unearthly power—an aptitude for the nearly-mythical art of shamanism. Exploring the depths of her gift with the help of a seemingly insane teacher and psychoactive substances, Rin learns that gods long thought dead are very much alive—and that mastering control over those powers could mean more than just surviving school.

For while the Nikara Empire is at peace, the Federation of Mugen still lurks across a narrow sea. The militarily advanced Federation occupied Nikan for decades after the First Poppy War, and only barely lost the continent in the Second. And while most of the people are complacent to go about their lives, a few are aware that a Third Poppy War is just a spark away . . .

Rin’s shamanic powers may be the only way to save her people. But as she finds out more about the god that has chosen her, the vengeful Phoenix, she fears that winning the war may cost her humanity . . . and that it may already be too late.

So as I mentioned at the top of the review, the violence in this book really bothered me. I’m usually fine with violent content in books, I read a lot of fantasy with big battles and death, but this was definitely on a whole different level of detail. There’s a description of a pregnant woman being torn in half, incredibly detailed descriptions of corpses, and one character describing her violent rape in detail, it was all too much for me and parts actually made me feel physically sick. It all felt very gratuitous as well, like it was just violent to that extreme to shock the reader, rather than serving any particular purpose. I get it, war is awful and violent, but you can get that across without being detailed to the extreme. Venka’s rape particularly bothered me, because the character is literally just brought back after chapters of absence, to describe in detail her brutal rape and then disappears again. That just didn’t sit right with me, rape is a super traumatic experience, and it felt like Venka was exploited for her trauma and then just faded into the background. I think part of this is because Rin feels very detached from all of it, the suffering doesn’t seem very personal so as a reader you feel disconnected from it all, it has no real impact. I also found that I got kind of bored of the war, because it lasted for so much of the book, and again, the battles lose their impact if they’re happening all the time.

I also wasn’t a massive fan of the narrator, which is a bit of an issue when you’re listening to an audiobook! I didn’t find her the most engaging reader, and her voices for the characters lacked differentiation which made the dialogue hard to follow because I was always a little confused about which character was speaking.

The book is split into three parts, and the first part seems incredibly disconnected from the second and third. The first part is your classic boarding school story, but then the second and third part were all war stuff. It gave me whiplash going from Part One to Part Two because they felt like entirely different books! It was also fairly slow paced and much longer than it needed to be. There were also random time skips in Part Two, Rin’s second and third year at Sinegard get skipped over super quickly so suddenly you’re three years ahead in time, but all of that happens within like two sentences.

I really hated the main character Rin, and whilst that’s not always an insurmountable obstacle, it doesn’t really help. She’s super stubborn, she’s massively insubordinate, she does whatever she wants whenever she wants without thinking about consequences & she always gets what she wants even when she shouldn’t. Also she’s bigged up as being massively good at strategy but she makes dumb decisions over and over again that harm the war effort, so it doesn’t seem like she’s actually all that good at it. She also reads much younger than she’s meant to be, she’s supposed to be 16 at the start and 19 towards the end, but I thought she read more as 14/15 all the way through. Everything also always seems massively easy for her, she passes top in the insanely hard test, gets into the top school in the country, is picked to be mentored by the teacher who never picks anyone, so the stakes always feel very low because you know that everything is always going to work out for her.

Rin’s motivations are also very murky which makes it hard to pin down why she does what she does, and hard to root for her, because you never really know what she wants. Like the fact that she goes to Sinegard in the first place, she doesn’t seem to have any real passion for the military, it’s more a means to an end for her, which makes it hard to understand why she’s killing herself to stay when she doesn’t seem to like it much, the only reason she wants to be there is because it’s free.

She’s also incredibly hypocritical, like she’s incredibly judgey of people who are dependent on opium, particularly Altan and then by the end of the book she’s perfectly happy taking tons of drugs herself?

Then we have the events at the end of the book, which I can’t really go into without being massively spoilery, but Rin takes an incredibly drastic action at the end of the book that is completely unforgivable and if I’d liked her from the start, then that end part of the book would have completely ruined it for me.

There was one particular bit that really bothered me: when Rin gets a chemical hysterectomy basically because she gets her first period and finds it inconvenient. Now don’t get me wrong, I totally understand the feeling, I hate my period too, but it does seem like a wild overreaction. My issue with it isn’t that she doesn’t want kids, I actually really appreciated that representation as a person who doesn’t want kids myself. No my issue is that Rin isn’t given enough information to make an informed choice, the only options she is given are either destroy your uterus and therefore have no periods and not have to take time out of class for period pain, or just deal with your periods and everything that comes with that. There’s no indication that there’s any kind of option for managing period pain, which seems odd given that there’s a potion for leaving you infertile, it stands to reason that there should be something that reduces or eliminates period pain. She’s also not given any information about potential long term side effects of the hysterectomy, so she’s taking this potion with no idea what it might do to her body in the long term. I also felt like the story looks down on the other girls who haven’t decided to stop their periods because it implies that Rin is better than they are for making the opposite choice and I think the implication that women who have periods are inferior warriors and the only way that you can succeed is by stopping that part of yourself is quite a damaging message to send and felt like an attack on the other female characters. It also just felt like a very lazy way of dealing with periods, like the author wanted to include periods in her book, but didn’t want to have to deal with the consequences of them so just magicked the problem away.

I also didn’t love that Rin had no female friends. Don’t get me wrong, Kitay was a cinnamon roll who must be protected at all costs, and I did appreciate a platonic male/female friendship, but Rin seemed to view all other women as her competition and there was no camaraderie there, and I really hate when authors go down the route of having few women in a male dominated environment treating each other like the enemy. It may be realistic, but this is fiction! We can have our women in male dominated environments getting along! I also found it super unrealistic that Nezha and Rin go from being enemies to friends with very little explanation in the second half of the book.

Speaking of characters, they all seemed to be pretty underdeveloped. I think this is mostly down to the sheer number of characters, there are far too many for them to all be fully developed and it doesn’t help that the cast almost entirely changes in the second part. I think the book would have been better if it had had fewer but more developed characters and stuck with the same cast the whole way through. The one character I did quite like was Jiang, he’s the quirky mentor character, and he added a bit of levity to an otherwise dark book. I enjoyed his and Rin’s mentor/mentee relationship and was kind of sad it wasn’t utilised more.

I liked the Asian inspirations and the diverse cast of characters, but I did feel that the worldbuilding & magic system left something to be desired. The magic system is essentially using drugs to channel the world’s gods, and all of the scenes where Rin is using poppy were extremely confusing. I didn’t really understand the pantheon of gods and their history, and everything to do with the magic system felt extremely vague. The places in the book are hardly described and whilst I don’t visualise what I read, I do need a little more of a sense of place than Kuang gives us. The setting was also very confusing because at first it seemed very medievally but then it mentions 20th century technology and it pulls from 20th century events so it seems like a sort of mish-mash of time periods. There’s also a lot of modern Americanisms used that don’t seem to fit with the setting. I also didn’t really understand the politics with the warlords. Basically I found it all a bit confusing!

The Mugen, the villains are also incredibly underdeveloped, so it’s hard to tell exactly why they hate the Nikara so much.

Kuang’s writing is fine, but she definitely has a tendency of telling and not showing, you get a lot of montages, of training, of war etc, but the details are missing, which makes it feel like the entire book is just skimming the surface rather than going into any depth. This was her debut though, and I’m sure she’s improved a lot in her more recent releases. There’s a lot of infodumping, particularly when it comes to the explanations of the Poppy Wars.

I did appreciate that there was no romance in this book, that’s definitely something that there needs to be more of, the furthest Rin gets to romantic involvement with anyone is a crush. However, the guy she had a crush on, Altan, was incredibly abusive towards her and the book definitely romanticises him and blames his abusive behaviour on his trauma which is not okay. Dealing with trauma does not excuse you being abusive, ever.

In the end I was really disappointed with this book, I’d heard so much good stuff about it, but I found the characters underdeveloped, the worldbuilding somewhat lacking, and the incredibly gratuitous violence really bothered me. I don’t think that I will be coming back for the sequels, it just wasn’t for me.

My Rating: 2.5/5

My next review will be of my July audiobook read, The Alice Network by Kate Quinn (I’m going to be slowly chipping away at these on my days off so hopefully I’ll be able to catch up fairly soon!).

The Unbound (The Archived #2) Review

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Book: The Unbound (The Archived #2)

Author: Victoria Schwab

BECHDEL TEST: PASS-Mackenzie and Dallas talk about her problems.

Content Warnings: PTSD, death, grief, incidence of self-harm, dissociative episodes, blood, mention of attempted sexual assault, incidence of drugging a drink, hospital & scenes of a medical nature, mental torture, explosions

I first read The Archived in 2017, and I’ll be honest, I’d been putting off reading The Unbound, because I knew the series was unfinished and not knowing if the third book was ever going to come out, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to read the second book knowing we might never get the proper ending. I definitely had to familiarise myself with what happened in The Archived before reading this, which I don’t usually do, but it had been so long, I’d definitely forgotten a lot of stuff! Still, this year I finally decided to dive into The Unbound as one of my #RockMyTBR Challenge books and I have to admit, I was disappointed. It was a really slow paced book, taking me almost three months to get through, and I still didn’t really connect with Mac as a character. Here is a short synopsis of the book:

Imagine a place where the dead rest on shelves like books.

Each body has a story to tell, a life seen in pictures that only Librarians can read. The dead are called Histories, and the vast realm in which they rest is the Archive.

Last summer, Mackenzie Bishop, a Keeper tasked with stopping violent Histories from escaping the Archive, almost lost her life to one. Now, as she starts her junior year at Hyde School, she’s struggling to get her life back. But moving on isn’t easy-not when her dreams are haunted by what happened. She knows the past is past, knows it cannot hurt her, but it feels so real, and when her nightmares begin to creep into her waking hours, she starts to wonder if she’s really safe.

Meanwhile, people are vanishing without a trace, and the only thing they seem to have in common is Mackenzie. She’s sure the Archive knows more than they are letting on, but before she can prove it, she becomes the prime suspect. And unless Mac can track down the real culprit, she’ll lose everything, not only her role as Keeper, but her memories, and even her life. Can Mackenzie untangle the mystery before she herself unravels?

So as I said at the top of the review, my biggest problem with this book was definitely the pacing. I had the same problem with the first book, but it felt even worse here. The pace didn’t really start to pick up until around the last three chapters, so that’s a very long time to not feel massively invested as a reader. Honestly if it hadn’t been Schwab, I probably wouldn’t have finished this book. It was a slog to get through the first half and then the ending felt really rushed, so you didn’t really have time to take in all the stuff that was happening. A lot of the chapters were overly long as well which added to the slow pace.

This book is focused a lot around Mac’s time at her new school, which I found kind of dull, though I’m sure actual teen readers would probably like that more. This was definitely more of a me thing, at almost 25, I don’t really relate to school stories anymore, which is why I read more YA fantasy than contemporary, but the problem here for me was that there was so much focus on the mundane day to day of Mac’s school life rather than the fun fantastical elements.

I appreciated once again that her parents were actually present in this book, and I feel like this was a really good example of how including parents can actually increase rather than take away the drama from characters’ lives as Mac’s parents were somewhat of an obstacle to her adventures in the Archive. I actually felt kind of bad for Mac’s parents and didn’t blame them for not trusting her, she was constantly lying to them and even though I know she couldn’t tell them the truth, she did seem quite harsh on them when all they wanted to do was protect her (I’m clearly getting old being on the side of parents in YA books!).

I was glad that Mac’s trauma from the first book was addressed in this book: she’s really struggling after the confrontation with Owen at the end of the last book. It was super frustrating to see her refuse help, I understand that she couldn’t tell anyone about The Archive, but I felt like she could definitely have dealt with her other issues. Still, that is probably coming from a privileged place, never having dealt with the kind of trauma that Mac is in this book, and I’m sure there are a lot of people dealing with mental health issues that find it hard to ask for help, so on that front it did feel realistic, it was just more frustrating from a reader perspective because you so want her to deal with everything that’s happened to her. I was so glad when she finally did get to a therapist though, and it was really refreshing to see a YA fantasy book actually deal with the trauma that a main character faced, as honestly, pretty much all YA fantasy heroes could probably use therapy!

It was super frustrating that Schwab threw Mac into another love triangle situation, with Mac, Wesley and Cash in this book. Not only did it feel unnecessary because it was so clear that Mac and Wesley were going to get together, I felt genuinely bad for Cash because he seemed like a really sweet guy. It also just felt like super contrived drama to keep Mac and Wes apart.

It was frustrating that even though Mac ostensibly had a little circle of friends in this book, that she kept them all at arms’ length and seemed like she only used Amber in particular to get information because of who her dad was. I also didn’t love that the only people Mac seemed able to form proper connections with were the boys, her connection with Amber was very superficial, Safia seemed to hate her for no reason and the same with Sako. Schwab does seem to have a bit of problem with allowing her female characters to have proper and meaningful friendships with other women, which is something that I’ve seen carry through in her work: aside from Vengeful, and her Cassidy Blake books, her other books really aren’t that great with female friendship and I hope this is something that she works on in future!

Surprisingly, I didn’t think the writing in this one was all that great? I mean this was one of her earlier published books, so naturally she’s improved a lot since it was released, but even compared to The Archived this one wasn’t that great. There were a lot of overly long, clunky sentences and it didn’t have the same atmosphere as The Archived. The dialogue at least was still good, Schwab has always done great dialogue.

The cycling of settings was very repetitive, we were either at the coffee shop, at school, in Mac’s apartment building or in The Archive building, so once again, you really don’t get a good sense of the world. I still have a lot of questions about The Archive: how do they decide on who gets to be a Keeper? It’s clearly a genetic thing as it seems to get passed down through families but what is it in your genes that makes you a good Keeper? I was hoping that Schwab would expand on the world of The Archive more in this book but it didn’t seem like that was the case.

I wasn’t massively invested with the villain in this book, without wanting to spoil anything, I wish Schwab had gone in a different direction as to who was responsible for the people disappearing into the voids. The villain reveal felt kind of cheap and I feel like had she gone in a different direction, it would have actually resulted in a more interesting plot.

I don’t really get why Mac looked up to Da so much? I mean I understand he was her grandfather and she loved him, but he threw her into this life that she doesn’t even really seem to want and lied to her so much, I was surprised that she wasn’t angrier with him to be honest.

The characters in this all felt kind of flat. I had that problem with Mac in the first book and it didn’t seem to have improved any in this one. The villains were also surprisingly two-dimensional for a Schwab book when she’s usually so good at villains. Even Wesley who I really loved in the first book came across as kind of a jerk, at least in the first part of this book, though he did improve towards the end.

Mac made a lot of stupid decisions in this book, which yes, realistic for traumatized teenager, but very frustrating as a reader! She could have let Wes in on her plans, especially when she went to break into the crime scene and it didn’t really make sense to me when she didn’t. She cuts Wes out a lot in this book, which didn’t really make much sense to me as he’s literally the only person in her life who she can actually be honest with.

Honestly I wasn’t really sympathetic with Mac wanting to keep on with her Archive duties, because it felt to me like it actually would have been better for her if she’d been declared unfit for duty as she clearly wasn’t in a place to be handling Archive work. I mean I get why she was so adamant about wanting to hide it because she didn’t want her mind altered, but it was tough to read about her pushing herself way too far when she clearly wasn’t ready. I didn’t think Roland was actually really helping her out by covering for her, I think having the one adult she could trust pretend like she was able to do something she was clearly struggling with, actually made things worse for her.

There were quite a few YA cliches that as an adult reader kind of made me roll my eyes, like Wes being the guy that all the girls fawn over and Mac drooling over his abs. Again this is just a me thing, I’m sure actual teens would probably be able to relate to it more than I could!

There were a few kind of unrealistic things that bothered me: the fact that Mac was able to function as well as she did on less than four hours sleep a night was kind of unbelievable. Also I went to a private school, and okay maybe it’s different in the US, but I found it hard to believe that the Hyde school party dress code would be so strict that everyone wore uniform to it. When we had no uniform days at my school, as long as you weren’t wearing anything too short (like super short shorts and crop tops), you could wear pretty much whatever you wanted.

The action when it finally did happen at the end of the book was great, I just wish there had been more of it throughout.

Honestly Mac was supremely lucky throughout the book that things went her way, a lot of her plans were not well thought through and it was sheer chance that anything came off. It seems like Mac has nine lives the amount of times she managed to overcome what were surely fireable offences in this book!

Despite me really not getting along with this book, I really do hope that the third book eventually comes off because the way the book ended was not conducive to a proper ending and I want to see Mac and Wesley get a proper send-off. I also think Schwab has improved so much as a writer since writing this book, that Archived #3 will probably be the best book of the trilogy-if or when it happens!

Overall, I was really disappointed in this book. It was poorly paced, had flat characters and the things that Schwab usually does well like world building and villains just weren’t up to standard here. Maybe that is just a sign of how much she’s improved as a writer since 2014 though. Either way, I do still hope that she gets a chance to end this series on a high and in the way she always intended to.

My Rating: 2.5/5 (it kills me to give a Schwab book such a low rating, but here we are).

My next review will be of my June audiobook read, The Poppy War, by RF Kuang.

The Rose Code Review (Audiobook)

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Book: The Rose Code

Author: Kate Quinn

Narrator: Saskia Maarleveld

BECHDEL TEST: PASS-Mab, Osla and Beth have multiple conversations that don’t revolve around men.

Content Warnings: Death, bombing depictions, parental abuse, patient abuse, incidence of using a straightjacket, vomiting, sexual assault, blood, description of lobotomies, alcoholism, infidelity, PTSD, racial slurs, sexist slurs, grief depictions, war themes, forced institutionalisation

I actually came across The Rose Code by chance, I was scrolling through Instagram and shown an ad for it, it sounded interesting and so I decided to check out the audiobook! Never say targeted ads don’t work eh? Anyway, it’s no secret that I love women’s history, so naturally, a story about female codebreakers in WWII was always going to be right up my alley. I ended up really enjoying it, particularly the narration and have gone on to read another of Kate Quinn’s books, The Alice Network since. Here is a short synopsis of the book:

1940. As England prepares to fight the Nazis, three very different women answer the call to mysterious country estate Bletchley Park, where the best minds in Britain train to break German military codes. Vivacious debutante Osla is the girl who has everything – beauty, wealth, and the dashing Prince Philip of Greece sending her roses – but she burns to prove herself as more than a society girl, and puts her fluent German to use as a translator of decoded enemy secrets. Imperious self-made Mab, product of east-end London poverty, works the legendary codebreaking machines as she conceals old wounds and looks for a socially advantageous husband. Both Osla and Mab are quick to see the potential in local village spinster Beth, whose shyness conceals a brilliant facility with puzzles, and soon Beth spreads her wings as one of the Park’s few female cryptanalysts. But war, loss, and the impossible pressure of secrecy will tear the three apart.

1947. As the royal wedding of Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip whips post-war Britain into a fever, three friends-turned-enemies are reunited by a mysterious encrypted letter – the key to which lies buried in the long-ago betrayal that destroyed their friendship and left one of them confined to an asylum. A mysterious traitor has emerged from the shadows of their Bletchley Park past, and now Osla, Mab, and Beth must resurrect their old alliance and crack one last code together. But each petal they remove from the rose code brings danger – and their true enemy – closer. .

I have start with the thing I loved most about this book: the narration. Saskia Maarleveld was incredible, I think the best audiobook narrator I’ve listened to. She does the whole audiobook in an accent that isn’t her own, which is impressive enough anyway but then she does multiple different accents for all the different characters as well, and slips into and out of them so easily. She really made the book such an excellent listening experience, and one of the reasons I was so excited to read The Alice Network is because I saw she was the narrator.

I also really loved how much this book centred female friendships, as I’m sure you know if you’ve followed me for a while, female friendships are like catnip to me. Anyway, I loved how supportive Osla, Mab and Beth were of each other and the way that they formed their own little family. Even though I knew the moment that their friendship fell apart was coming (not a spoiler, it’s in the synopsis), I was so devastated when that moment came because I had become so invested in their friendship as Quinn had developed it so well.

Beth’s character development was a highlight of this book for me. At the start of the book, she’s 24 and under the thumb of her emotionally and physically abusive mother. As a result, she’s painfully shy and withdrawn, to the point of barely being able to speak to people and has very low self-esteem. It was so wonderful to see her come into her own over the course of the story, gaining confidence through her work as a cryptanalyst and eventually being able to stand up to her abusive mother. Of the three characters, I felt like she grew the most over the course of the story.

I also really loved Osla, I think she was my favourite of the three girls (Beth being a close second). She’s smart, determined, desperate to prove herself and not be overlooked as a “silly deb” & she’s the most fun of the three. I also thought her trauma was really well handled, she experiences a bombing fairly early on in the war and it really colours her experiences afterward, it’s not just brushed under the carpet. The way she used humour as a way of dealing with her trauma really rang true, and her loneliness and longing for a family really made me feel her.

Mab on the other hand, kind of rubbed me up the wrong way. There were certain things I did like about her, I liked how feisty she was and how determined she was to forge her own path in life but I didn’t love how judgemental she was of other women. In the beginning, she’s incredibly judgemental of Beth, referring to her as “weak” and “spineless” and I thought this was really unfair given that Beth has been emotionally and physically abused by her mother for years. She’s also fairly unreasonable to Osla following the incident that breaks up their friendship, and whilst it is somewhat understandable given her state at the time, Osla had also been through a lot of trauma and it seemed like she was trying to be supportive of Mab’s trauma, but Mab gave no thought to hers. Having said that, I did appreciate that Quinn allowed her female characters to be flawed: Mab is judgemental, Beth is so hyper focused on work to the extent of ignoring other people’s feelings and what is happening in their lives and Osla constantly referring to not wanting be considered a “silly deb” could be annoying.

The dual timeline was generally done well: they tied together nicely, but I definitely found the past timeline more engaging and better paced than the present: the present was a lot of Osla and Mab griping at each other which wasn’t the most fun to read.

Speaking of the pacing, this book is a little long and could probably have been trimmed down a little, it definitely took a while for things to build up. Having said that, the narration was so engaging that it didn’t really matter, I still wanted to keep listening, even when the plot was lagging a little. The chapters were also nice and short, which kept things ticking over nicely.

All the codebreaking stuff was really interesting and I learned a lot that I didn’t previously know by the end of this book-for instance, I had no idea that the Duchess of Cambridge’s grandmother was a codebreaker at Bletchley!

I wasn’t massively enamoured with the romance plots. I didn’t find Mab and Francis’ relationship particularly interesting, they didn’t seem to have much chemistry and I found Francis kind of dull so I wasn’t massively convinced when she was suddenly in love with him. Osla and Philip definitely had more chemistry, but I found it slightly odd reading about them since Prince Philip was a really person and died not long before I started reading the book. You also know from the start that it’s going to end: though I will say Quinn did a great job of making the inevitable still seem heartbreaking. Beth and fellow codebreaker Harry Zab actually had the most convincing connection as they had a lot in common, but he was married, so I couldn’t really invest in their relationship as I really hate cheating.

I really loved that this book made a big deal of talking about contraceptives, not many contemporary books do, so it was really great to see it in a historical one.

Quinn’s writing style was really great, she creates a wonderful atmosphere throughout and the sense of suspense heading up to D-Day was really well done. You get a very vivid picture of the inner workings of Bletchley Park and she captures the sense of camaraderie but intense secrecy very well.

Obviously being a war book there are some very devastating parts, and whilst I don’t want to go into too many details about the specifics in order to avoid spoilers, Chapters 43-46 are particularly heartrending. Quinn handles character grief exceptionally well.

It’s not the most diverse cast, all of the main characters are white & the one important non-white character suffers much racial abuse. Being a WWII book isn’t an excuse for lack of diversity, plenty of POC were involved in the Allied War effort and it would have been nice to see more of that here. It’s also very heteronormative, and the only non able-bodied character is the son of Beth’s love interest, who has leg braces after suffering from polio.

The scene where Osla and Mab first meet is probably one of my favourites of the entire book: the way Osla embarrasses the man who was masturbating on the train was priceless!

Quinn has clearly done her research in terms of the real life operations, bombing raids, the way that cryptography worked, the day to day life of Bletchley Park, all of this detail really enhanced the story. Being a history graduate, I love it when I read historical fiction and it’s clear that author has properly researched the time period! She also managed to integrate the historical cameos very well, in a way that felt natural to the story.

Some of the 1940s slang felt a little cringey and there were some overused phrases like “silly deb”, but generally the dialogue was really good.

I liked that Quinn wasn’t afraid to confront some of the harsh realities of 1940s Britain, like the treatment of patients in asylums, and the sexism that the three girls faced in their work, especially Osla who is constantly looked down on for being traditionally feminine and a society girl, and is even suspected of being a traitor just because of who she is dating. I found the asylum parts of the book particularly harrowing to read, Beth’s experience there sounded truly horrendous.

Being a mystery book, there are naturally quite a few twists along the way, the main one being this traitor from Bletchley Park and I have to admit, I had the completely wrong end of the stick for a long time on that one. There were also a couple of other mysteries from the past that I didn’t work out, even though in hindsight they probably should have been super obvious.

I loved Beth and Dilly’s mentor/mentee relationship, I thought that was really heartwarming, and I enjoyed the little nods to Alice in Wonderland throughout the book (the characters’ book club being called “The Mad Hatter’s Tea Party, the asylum parts being referred to as into the clock, several allusions to codebreaking being like “going down the rabbit hole” etc).

Also I feel I should mention: there is a dog in this, the DOG IS FINE. The dog survives, I promise.

I did feel like the end was almost a little too neat? Don’t get me wrong, the characters definitely deserved a happy ending after everything they went through and I found it quite heartwarming, but everything was resolved just a bit too easily for me and we didn’t get to see any of the fallout from the events that happened towards the end of the book. It would have felt a bit more earned I think if more development had gone into rebuilding the girls’ relationship and if everything hadn’t been resolved so quickly: I think the conclusion could have actually done with a bit more space, which is strange to say for such a long book!

Overall I really enjoyed this book. The narration was fabulous, I loved the female friendship at the heart of the story, I enjoyed the characters and the setting, and whilst it could have been a little pacier in places, I found myself engaged the whole way through. Plus it made me seek out another of Quinn’s books, which is always a mark of success!

My Rating: 4/5

My next review will be of The Unbound by Victoria Schwab, I know I said that would be my next one last time, but I do these in the order I finish them, and I finished The Rose Code before The Unbound. Please bear with me as I catch up on reviews, I’ve been busy with work over the past few weeks and haven’t had a chance to sit down and write reviews for my most recent reads! I’m hoping I should be all caught up by the end of the month!

Lore Review (Audiobook)

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Book: Lore

Author: Alexandra Bracken

Narrator: Fryda Wolff

BECHDEL TEST: Uncertain (didn’t really keep track! Find it super hard to on audio).

Content Warnings: Blood depiction, murder, loss of loved ones, graphic torture depictions (some to children), graphic violence, gore, sexual assault, grief depiction, PTSD, child abuse, threat of paedophilia, threat of rape, implied paedophilia, slavery, talk of cancer (leukaemia), child cancer (mention of chemo, radiation & stem cell transplants), mention of heart attack, mention of cancer recurrence, bombings, explosions, brief mentions of suicide, war themes, sexism, loss of a limb, drowning, injury, discussions of child marriage, animal attack, fire/burning, sacrifice & self-sacrifice.

As I’m sure you’re all aware by now, I love Greek mythology, I’ve been interested in it since I was a kid (actually pre Percy Jackson!) so naturally when I saw Lore, which was described as Greek mythology meets The Hunger Games (one of my favourite books) I was immediately hooked. Sadly, I didn’t find that the final product lived up to the inventive premise: it was confused in a lot of places, somehow managed to be both too fast and too slow at the same time and I didn’t feel massively invested in any of the characters. Here is a short synopsis of the book:

Every seven years, the Agon begins. As punishment for a past rebellion, nine Greek gods are forced to walk the earth as mortals, hunted by the descendants of ancient bloodlines, all eager to kill a god and seize their divine power and immortality.
Long ago, Lore Perseous fled that brutal world in the wake of her family’s sadistic murder by a rival line, turning her back on the hunt’s promises of eternal glory. For years she’s pushed away any thought of revenge against the man–now a god–responsible for their deaths.

Yet as the next hunt dawns over New York City, two participants seek out her help: Castor, a childhood friend of Lore believed long dead, and a gravely wounded Athena, among the last of the original gods.

The goddess offers an alliance against their mutual enemy and, at last, a way for Lore to leave the Agon behind forever. But Lore’s decision to bind her fate to Athena’s and rejoin the hunt will come at a deadly cost–and still may not be enough to stop the rise of a new god with the power to bring humanity to its knees.

My biggest problem with this book was honestly that I was confused a lot of the time! There are an awful lot of characters to follow (9 houses in the Agon, all with a lot of people in them), there were a lot of new terms to learn and very little explanation as to how everything worked, so I spent a lot of the first part of the book incredibly confused. The book sort of acts as if the readers have the same information as Lore and that we don’t really need to know how the Agon works, so it takes a while before you get any kind of explanation for what is going on, which meant in the beginning, I didn’t really know what was happening. I settled into things more during the middle, but then the breakneck speed of the events at the end meant I again lost track. I felt kind of at sea for most of the book, which is not an experience you want to have as a reader.

I also wasn’t the biggest fan of the narrator which is quite a big problem when you’re listening to an audiobook. Her actual reading voice was fine, but I didn’t like her accents for the characters: some it was difficult to tell the difference between them, so I couldn’t really follow when different people were speaking and some were just bad (her French accent for Iro for instance grated on me, and her British accent for Van was the kind of posh accent that every American show assumes that British people have. That’s not to say that accent doesn’t exist, but it definitely felt like the kind of British accent that is hammed up for an American audience!).

I liked the idea of the Agon, but I was expecting there to be more action than there was. Most of the book involves plotting and planning and sneaking around each other but with no actual conflict until the end when there was so much that it was hard to keep track of, it would have been nice if the action had been more evenly spread throughout the book and that the Agon had been a bit more dramatic.

Also I would have liked to know more behind the logistics of the Agon, for instance, this book marks the second cycle in a row that the Agon has taken place in New York, is that usual? Because the author also says that the Agon moves round different cities, so do these Hunters only take part when it’s in New York and there are other Hunters in other cities? Do all these Houses pick up and move to other cities every seven years? Are they usually based in New York? I had so many questions and felt like I got fairly few answers! How the Agon came about was also very vague, we learned that it was a punishment from Zeus for a rebellion, but we never know what the rebellion was about.

This book was definitely trying to make feminist points, by talking about how women were forgotten in Greek mythology and how the women of the Agon were treated by the men, but I think Bracken could have gone further with this as there didn’t seem to be anyone actively pushing for change within the Agon (even Lore just complained about her position without trying to do anything to change it). I also found it hard to believe that the Hunters would be so cut off from the mortal world that feminism completely passed them by? It’s been several centuries and they treat their women like they’re in Ancient Greece even though all of them would have grown up in the modern world. Like I get they are somewhat of a insular society but it seemed ridiculous to me that this generation of hunters would have the same views on women as ancestors several thousand years earlier. Basically, the violent misogyny was a bit much, and unnecessary in my opinion.

One of my other issues, aside from the violent misogyny, is that this book talks so much about female power and how women have been abused and forgotten, but LORE HAS NO FEMALE FRIENDS? I mean kind of Iro, but they’ve not been friends in a long time by the current events in the book. It just felt very wrong to me in a book which I think was attempting to have a feminist message, that the main female character has no female friends AT ALL? It’s also something I really hate just in general, that so many books with female MCs don’t allow them to have any female friends.

The classic YA drooling over boys with perfect muscles was a bit cringey for me, now obviously I’m not a teenager anymore, so not the target audience, but to be honest, I found it quite cringey even when I was a teenager. I really don’t love the general trend in YA that boys must be super muscled and attractive because I think it sets unrealistic standards for boys reading YA if all the boys they read about have “perfect abs” and look like movie stars.

I wasn’t a massive fan of the romance in this book. Usually friends to lovers is one of my favourite romantic tropes, but I didn’t feel like it was done well here. Castor and Lore haven’t seen each other in seven years, they’ve both changed a lot in that time, and barely know who the other one is now and yet suddenly they’re instantly in love after spending less than a week together? I mean I get that there might have been feelings there when they were younger, but it still seemed kind of out of the blue for them to almost instantly couple up given how much time has passed.

Speaking of the past, the flashbacks to Lore’s childhood and the last Agon were kind of clumsily integrated into the main storyline, just as something exciting was happening in the present, which took me out of the story somewhat.

I almost think Bracken crammed too much into one book, it felt like it would have been more natural if this had been a duology? I mean this entire book takes place over one week, and we have to learn all of the logistics of the Agon, Lore’s past, finding the Aegis, there was so much in here, it definitely could have used being two books rather than one.

The world building was fairly lacking, not just in terms of the Agon and the logistics of how everything worked, the relationships between the Houses etc but also just that the author seemed to assume that everyone was familiar with New York City? Like I’ve visited New York once, I could name the tourist attractions but in terms of being intimately familiar with the city? Nah. Even if you are setting your book in a real place, you can’t assume that everyone who reads it is going to be familiar with the place: if I was writing a book about London for instance, I wouldn’t assume all my readers knew London in the same way I did (and even then London is massive, people may be more familiar with certain areas than others). Basically assume that everyone has as limited a knowledge of a real world setting as they do with a fantasy one and put the same amount of effort into your world building please!

The characters weren’t all that well developed, I had high hopes for Lore in the beginning but she never really develops much beyond the surface level, “badass fighter girl” and the same went for all the other characters-like I liked Miles because he seemed sweet and funny but he doesn’t get much development beyond that.

I was expecting the Medusa myth to be more important to the plot of this one given the cover and I was kind of disappointed that it wasn’t.

There is an assault scene in this which I wish I’d known about before because I find them really hard to listen to, thankfully it wasn’t too graphic, but pre-warning for survivors who might be triggered by it.

The writing style was fine, there were some really lovely lines but overall, it wasn’t anything particularly standout or special.

I felt like the characters should have been older, really, at least they read as older to me. I mean the flashbacks has Lore doing all of this stuff when she’s supposedly ten, but she feels more like a teenager and Lore in the present feels more like she should be in her early twenties. I don’t know if this is another case of a story that’s been aged down to be considered YA, or if I just read characters as older than they are a lot, but yeah, I didn’t buy Lore as a teenager.

I struggled to get a handle on Lore’s motivations as well, which made it hard for me to root for her. I almost had whiplash trying to work out exactly what she wanted, if she wanted revenge, if she just wanted out of the Agon, if she wanted power and glory, it was difficult to tell because she seemed to change her mind every ten seconds. I wouldn’t have minded if she did have multiple motivations, if it had been clear, but it wasn’t.

There was some diversity, Miles is Korean and gay, Van is Black, gay and disabled, but it all felt very surface level as neither of them were that well developed and seemed to only exist to help the white MC rather than having their own developed personalities and storylines.

I would have liked the gods’ powers to be developed more, we learn a little about them but not really enough in my opinion, it all felt kind of hand-wavy. Athena was really interesting, I was definitely suspicious of her from the beginning, but she felt kind of flat and distant and I would have liked it if she had been developed more.

There were some great twists, I didn’t predict all of them, though I had my suspicions and some took me completely off guard.

I was a bit annoyed that certain things didn’t really get a resolution, I can’t really talk about them in detail without being spoilery, but there were some storylines that were kind of dropped and unresolved by the end, which is fine in a series, but this was a standalone, I kind of expect everything to be largely resolved and I didn’t feel like it was here.

And that brings me to the most infuriating part of the book: THE ENDING. Never mind that I was super lost and couldn’t really follow what happened in the final battle, which was annoying enough, but the ending was so abrupt! It didn’t feel like there was any resolution to what happened in the book, it was all just kind of over. Like what happened to Lore and Castor? Was the Agon really over? I was just so confused and it kind of left me with a sour taste in my mouth because I just had no idea what happened.

Overall, the concept of this book had a lot of potential, but it didn’t live up to it and I reckon it could have really benefitted from being a duology because there were too many big ideas and too many characters to really do justice to in one book.

My Rating: 2.5/5

My next review will be of The Unbound by Victoria Schwab.

The Silvered Serpents (The Gilded Wolves #2) Review

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Book: The Silvered Serpents (The Gilded Wolves #2)

Author: Roshani Chokshi

BECHDEL TEST: PASS-Zofia and Eva talk about dance and then Laila.

Content Warnings: Ableism, racism, misogyny, anti-semitism, classism, colonialism, sex work shaming, sexual assault (attempted rape by coercion), past child abuse, self-harm for magical purposes, mentions of stillbirth & infertility, blood depiction, physical injury, terminal illness, grief & loss, murder, poisoning, kidnapping, psychological torture, explosion, mentions of being buried alive, animal death mentioned, bodily harm

SPOILER ALERT: This review will include slight spoilers for The Gilded Wolves, I have tried to make them as vague as possible but if you haven’t read the first book then stop reading here.

The Gilded Wolves was one of my favourite books of last year, so naturally I was very excited to read the sequel when it came out (and then I proceeded to not read it for three months, as you do) and find out what happened to Severin and his crew next. I was slightly disappointed? Don’t get me wrong, I still really loved the characters but the plot was a little thin and it was incredibly slow paced (the first book did have some pacing problems but this book had even more for me). Here is a short synopsis of the book:

They are each other’s fiercest love, greatest danger, and only hope.

Séverin and his team members might have successfully thwarted the Fallen House, but victory came at a terrible cost — one that still haunts all of them. Desperate to make amends, Séverin pursues a dangerous lead to find a long lost artifact rumored to grant its possessor the power of God.

Their hunt lures them far from Paris, and into the icy heart of Russia where crystalline ice animals stalk forgotten mansions, broken goddesses carry deadly secrets, and a string of unsolved murders makes the crew question whether an ancient myth is a myth after all.

As hidden secrets come to the light and the ghosts of the past catch up to them, the crew will discover new dimensions of themselves. But what they find out may lead them down paths they never imagined.

A tale of love and betrayal as the crew risks their lives for one last job.

So we’ll start with my old friend: PACING. I know, I know, I sound like a broken record because I talk about this so much, but it’s a major problem with a lot of books, so it’s probably going to keep coming up. But this book really is far too slow paced, it only really picks up in the last third and there’s fairly little action, most of the book is the characters wandering around the Sleeping Palace looking for The Divine Lyrics. Now the first book wasn’t without its pacing issues but because it was a heist, there was a fair amount of action and this book didn’t really have that. Roshani’s description of this book being “more adverbs than action” in the acknowledgements, really did ring true and unfortunately, I am not the kind of reader who likes that! Some of the chapters were overly long as well, which didn’t help with the pacing.

Which brings me to my next point. The writing. The writing is beautiful, but I didn’t feel like it was as good as the previous book? There were far too many adverbs and some of the sentences felt quite long winded and clunky which really bogged me down whilst reading.

On the positive side, I still loved the characters. Zofia’s arc in this book was particularly notable for me, as I thought she grew a lot through the book and I loved seeing how she really came into herself and embraced her power. My favourites didn’t really change from the first book, I still love Zofia, Enrique and Laila the most, they are definitely the standout characters for me, but I wanted to particularly note Zofia’s arc because it was the one I enjoyed the most. It also seemed to suggest that Zofia is on the asexual spectrum, I’d guess demi-sexual which is pretty cool to see!

I also really love how soft Enrique is, it’s so lovely to see a male character who is sweet and sensitive and comfortable with his feelings!

However, the group dynamic was a little frayed, understandably because of the grief all of the characters were experiencing. I do appreciate how well that was done, and how thoroughly Chokshi explored how grief from the death in The Gilded Wolves affected all of the main characters. It did however mean that the fun characters bouncing off each other from the first book wasn’t there as much. I still loved the dialogue in this, but there was by necessity, something missing from the group dynamic I loved so much in the first book.

Severin however really annoyed me. I do understand that his actions were driven by his grief, but it was really hard to see him treating his friends so badly and pushing them away and that lasts throughout the book. I especially hated the way he treated Laila, the whole collar thing really left sour taste in my mouth. Their whole dynamic in this book was super frustrating, Severin basically pushes her away by being cruel because he can’t face losing her and whilst that’s understandable, Laila deserves so much better than the way Severin treated her in this book.

Speaking of the relationships in this book, the Enrique-Hypnos-Zofia love triangle also frustrated me, though I do give Roshani Chokshi props that her love triangle did actually feel believable as Enrique did have chemistry with both Enrique and Zofia, I’m just not a fan of love triangles in general. I also love all three characters so I didn’t want to see any of them hurt and that’s how a love triangle inevitably ends for at least one person in it. I was also really upset with how Hypnos treated Enrique in this book, he doesn’t listen to him, he ignores him and he leads him on. I appreciated that this book showed a break-up as I think it’s important in YA books that characters don’t always end up with the first person they go out with but that doesn’t mean I approved of how Hypnos treated Enrique and I was really rooting for them before this book.

Zofia and Enrique really seem to understand each other, and they seem well suited, but of course neither admits their feelings for each other in this book which is frustrating because they basically spend the entire book internally talking about their potential feelings for each other but it doesn’t go anywhere. I hope that their relationship gets more development in the next book because they have a lovely dynamic with each other.

In terms of the world building, this book still left a lot to be desired. We don’t really get to see much of Russia despite the fact that a large majority of the book takes place there because for most of the book they are in the Sleeping Palace. Whilst I did think The Sleeping Palace was a cool setting, it was fairly limited and I would have liked to have seen more of Russia. I’m also SO FRUSTRATED THAT IT’S THE SECOND BOOK AND I STILL HAVE NO IDEA HOW FORGING WORKS. We get introduced to a new type of forging, Blood forging in this book, which is super cool but I still wish I knew how it worked! So much detail goes into all of the mythology references and I just wish the same detail went into the rest of the worldbuilding. We also didn’t get much of a sense of House Dazbog, and how they worked, despite them being the only house in Russia, which felt like a bit of an oversight. I did love how wintery this book was though!

I’d like to see a little more of the characters interacting with others in the group outside of their regular groups: we get a lot of Severin/Laila and Zofia/Enrique, or Zofia/Enrique/Hypnos but some of my favourite moments in this book actually came when lesser explored pairings were together, like heart to hearts between Enrique and Laila and a nice moment with Zofia and Hypnos. I also missed seeing Laila and Zofia one on one as those moments were some of my favourites in the first book and we don’t get as many of those here.

I had a big issue with some girl hate in this book. A new female character, Eva is introduced, basically as a rival to Laila and it’s another case of girls pitted against each other because they like the same guy. I do appreciate that the text did acknowledge this pattern but it still annoyed me that it leaned into this trope because it wasn’t necessary and didn’t really add anything to the story as a whole. It was especially disappointing because I noted in my review of The Gilded Wolves how much I loved how supportive Laila and Zofia’s friendship was. Eva doesn’t really seem to have much of a personality beyond the stereotypical mean girl, which I thought was a bit of a shame.

I didn’t feel like the plot was as strong this time around, I felt like The Gilded Wolves was definitely more plot focused and it had lots of twists and turns and I never really knew how things were going to turn out, whereas in this book, the plot felt kind of thin and stretched out as they only had the one goal and they were in one place for the majority of the book & I just didn’t think the story in the Sleeping Palace needed to be as long as it was.

I really want Hypnos to have a POV, he doesn’t feel as fleshed out as the other characters and I feel like that’s because he doesn’t have a POV (until the epilogue). We did get to see a little more past the comic relief aspects of his character in this book, but I would really like to get to learn more about him and I feel like he needs to have a POV in order for that to happen. I felt so bad that he was feeling so lonely and left out in this book, he tries so hard to be helpful and is basically unacknowledged by the rest of the group a lot of the time (having said that, that’s no excuse for the way he treats Enrique). I’m also kind of confused as to whether Hypnos romantically likes Severin, or if he’s just desperate for his approval in a familial type way? I don’t know, I could be reading way too much into it but there were definitely points in this book that felt like Hypnos might have an unrequited crush.

I liked getting to know the House Kore matriarch (Delphine) a bit more in this book, especially finding out more about her backstory with Severin. I would have liked to have seen more one on one moments with her and Laila though because I really liked their dynamic, I thought it was really interesting.

There are quite a few twists in this especially towards the end of the book, one I definitely called from the beginning, one I felt a bit silly not working out because it was kind of obvious. The main one though, I didn’t feel like it was quite built up enough. There’s hints in the epilogue of the last book and the prologue of this one, but the book spends so long trying to bait and switch you into thinking that it’s someone else and then when the reveal happened, it didn’t feel entirely earned to me, because I felt like it hadn’t been built up well enough (I know this is super vague, I’m trying to talk about it in the least spoilery way possible)!

So much of this book relies on the miscommunication trope as many of the characters’ problems and puzzles could have been solved if THEY’D JUST TALKED TO EACH OTHER, and it’s one of my least favourite tropes because it really frustrates me!

Some of the historical details in this book are a little messy: to start with, Poland. So in 1890, when this book is set, Poland wasn’t an independent country, it was partitioned by Russia, Prussia and Austro-Hungary, so having it referred to as if it’s an independent entity, is a bit misleading. It’s also strange that Zofia never mentions it, as she does talk about how much she hates Russia, but in relation to her being Jewish, which is of course very valid, but you’d think she’d also mention the fact that Russia has partitioned her country!

There’s also the fact that one of Laila’s dresses is mentioned to have A ZIPPER, when zippers were really only in their infancy in the 1890s and weren’t used in France until the mid 1920s. I know it’s a super petty detail compared to the first but these things do matter. I also saw a review from Uma (@Books.Bags.Burgers) who mentioned that Laila knowing about the story of Laila & Majnun in 1889/1890 was incredibly unlikely, along with some other issues with Laila’s representation that I wouldn’t have noticed so I wanted to point that out and link to their review, since they are South Indian and know a lot more about this than me.

I’m still a little confused as to how old Enrique is meant to be, I thought they were all around 19/20, but then he’s described as being a University graduate when he met Severin two years ago, which suggests that he might be a bit older than the others? Unless he started University very young, or uni was much shorter back then, but it seems more likely that Enrique would be a bit older. I know his age isn’t stated on page (I don’t think) and it’s not really a big deal, I’m just a little confused!

THAT DAMN ENDING. The whole last few chapters of the book were super intense, but THAT ENDING. I can’t believe that Roshani Chokshi ended the book this way and that we have to WAIT UNTIL SEPTEMBER TO FIND OUT WHAT HAPPENS NEXT. I need The Bronzed Beasts now!

Overall, this book definitely suffered from middle book syndrome, with slow pacing and a fairly thin plot and world building that still wasn’t fully explained. However, the characters definitely carried the story and I’m excited to see where the final book in the trilogy goes.

My Rating: 3.5/5

My next review will either be of Lore by Alexandra Bracken or The Unbound by Victoria Schwab depending on which I finish first.

The Midnight Library Review (Audiobook)

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Book: The Midnight Library

Author: Matt Haig

Narrator: Carey Mulligan

BECHDEL TEST: Uncertain, honestly I didn’t keep track!

Content Warnings: Suicide attempt, depression, death of an animal, death of parents, death of a friend, anxiety, panic attacks, alcoholism, mentions of cancer, grief, self-harm, mentions of death by overdose, infidelity

The Midnight Library is one of those books that was seemingly everywhere in the second half of last year. I became aware of it after Matt Haig was on Jameela Jamil’s I Weigh podcast and was really drawn in by the concept of a library that contained all the different options for paths your life could have taken. In the end though, this was slightly overhyped for me, it was a nice enough book but nothing ground-breaking, it was kind of slow in places and I found the ending a real let down. Here is a short synopsis of the book:

‘Between life and death there is a library, and within that library, the shelves go on forever. Every book provides a chance to try another life you could have lived. To see how things would be if you had made other choices… Would you have done anything different, if you had the chance to undo your regrets?’

A dazzling novel about all the choices that go into a life well lived, from the internationally bestselling author of Reasons to Stay Alive and How To Stop Time.

Somewhere out beyond the edge of the universe there is a library that contains an infinite number of books, each one the story of another reality. One tells the story of your life as it is, along with another book for the other life you could have lived if you had made a different choice at any point in your life. While we all wonder how our lives might have been, what if you had the chance to go to the library and see for yourself? Would any of these other lives truly be better?

In The Midnight Library, Matt Haig’s enchanting novel, Nora Seed finds herself faced with this decision. Faced with the possibility of changing her life for a new one, following a different career, undoing old breakups, realizing her dreams of becoming a glaciologist; she must search within herself as she travels through the Midnight Library to decide what is truly fulfilling in life, and what makes it worth living in the first place.

My main issue with this book was our perennial friend, PACING. This book is relatively short, and has short chapters for the most part which usually works well for me, but because it’s a very introspective type of story, it takes a while to get going and there are definitely places where it lags. Weirdly, it actually felt longer than it needed to be, even though it was only a nine hour audiobook! I think if Haig had chosen less lives to explore for Nora but explored them in more detail, that would have helped with that, at times it felt like he was just trying to fit as many lives as possible into the book. I will admit that part of this is probably a me issue though as super introspective novels are not usually my thing!

On the upside, Carey Mulligan’s narration was really great, she has a lovely soothing voice and it was very easy to listen to her.

The library was also super cool! Yes, it’s more of a metaphorical representation of the multiverse than an actual library, but the idea was definitely really cool and I think my “Midnight Library” would definitely be a library or a bookstore (not that it’s appealing to go there since you would have to be dying!).

The chapter names were really great, I love it when authors name their chapters and one of them was “Why Would You Want Any Other Universe When This One Has Dogs?” to which I heartily concur.

I will admit, it’s super unrealistic for Nora to be super successful in all her lives? Like just because she followed through with music, swimming or being a glaciologist, doesn’t mean she would have been super successful at everything. I mean I get the point of The Midnight Library is to allow her to live out her dream lives, but it just felt like A LOT that she would be that successful at everything she did.

I had some issues with the actual workings of the Midnight Library. For one thing, Nora doesn’t remember anything about the life that she’s entering, she’s basically taking the place of the version of her that had already been living the life. So this brought up a few issues for me: firstly, of course Nora isn’t going to be satisfied with a life she feels like an imposter in. So it’s not really giving her a fair shot at deciding whether a life is for her when she has to spend most of her time in a life finding out about what she was like in that life: I feel that if Nora had gone into her lives with the same knowledge and experiences of the version of herself who lived that life then the outcome would have been very different. It was weird to me that it took Nora so long to realise that her lack of knowledge going into a life was the reason why she was dissatisfied with all of them. I do appreciate that finding a new life wasn’t shown to be a cure for Nora’s depression, but I think it would be a lot more interesting if Nora had actually had the knowledge she needed about her other lives and still found them dissatisfying.

To that end, I also wish you found out what happened to the version of Nora who lived the lives she entered? Like does she just get pushed aside while you take over? What happens if you decide to stay in that life, does the version of you who was already there cease to exist? What happens to you in your root life if you decide to go to another life? There’s a lot of mechanics of the Midnight Library that aren’t really explored and as a world building nerd, I would have liked it if they had been!

Matt Haig’s writing was nice enough, though there were definitely times when it felt a little overly preachy and sentimental but generally it was nice enough to listen to.

I will admit, the characterisation in this was a bit flat. All the other characters around Nora are barely fleshed out and even Nora could have done with a little more development, she felt fairly flat like she was kind of just meant to be a blank slate for the reader to impose themselves on to rather than feeling like a developed, nuanced person.

It does get very repetitive, Nora tries out a life, isn’t satisfied, rinse, repeat. I mean that is one of the pitfalls of this kind of story, but as I said earlier in the review, I think this definitely could have been solved if she hadn’t tried out as many lives.

I wish she’d spent a bit more time with Hugo, or met some other sliders in the course of her book, because I felt like that plot thread kind of got dropped which was a shame as I thought it would be really cool to hear about what other people’s “Midnight Libraries” were like.

I did find it kind of annoying that the life she found the most fulfilment in had to be the one where she was a mother. Of course there’s nothing wrong in finding fulfilment in motherhood but it’s just the most common story pushed in media for women, and it would have been nice if this book hadn’t leaned into that.

The ending, UGH THE ENDING. It was so predictable and far too sickly sweet and easily wrapped up. I can’t really say more about it for spoilery reasons, but I actually would have been more surprised if he had gone for a different ending that perhaps might seem more expected. I mean I do get what Haig was trying to go for with the ending, but it just didn’t really work for me.

Overall, this was a decent read, but I think the hype got to me, as I found it kind of slow and wished that the mechanics of the Midnight Library, and the characters had been more developed.

My Rating: 3.5/5

My next review will be of my February #RockMyTBR read, The Silvered Serpents (sequel to The Gilded Wolves) by Roshani Chokshi

Seasons of War (Skulduggery Pleasant #13) Review

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Book: Seasons of War (Skulduggery Pleasant #13)

Author: Derek Landy

BECHDEL TEST: PASS-Valkyrie and her mum talk about her sister, Alice.

Content Warnings: Death, violence, war, transphobia, PTSD, blood, gore, torture, mutilation, grief, addiction, imprisonment

SPOILER ALERT: There will be some major spoilers for Book 12 in this review, and for other books in the series. If you are not caught up, stop reading now.

I was really excited for the latest Skulduggery Pleasant book, after really enjoying the 12th book last year. Sadly, it was unlucky number 13 for Skulduggery, as this 13th outing fell considerably short of my expectations. It was a rather messy book, with too many plot threads crammed in, slow pacing and one of the main plot threads of this new arc of the series being resolved far too easily. I still love Skulduggery but this was definitely one of weaker instalments of the series. Here is a short synopsis of the book:

The thirteenth thrilling novel in the internationally bestselling Skulduggery Pleasant series, SEASONS OF WAR will test the Skeleton Detective and Valkyrie like never before…

War is coming. To avert catastrophe, Skulduggery and Valkyrie are sent on a secret mission that takes them away from everything they know, to a forsaken land of magic and grim, unrelenting terror. It is here that Valkyrie will have to fight the hardest ― not only against the enemies who want her dead, but also against her own self-destructive impulses. It’s only by crawling through darkness that she’ll be able to once again stand in the light… 

So I’ll start off with my biggest problem with this book, our old friend pacing rears its ugly head again! This is a super thick book, and it’s not very well paced at all. A lot of this book is JOURNEYING, which is never my favourite thing in the first place and here it really ground things to a snail’s pace. All the excitement really happens in the last 200 odd pages. The chapters are really short which helps, but I think it still could have used some trimming off the page count.

There’s also a lot of subplots in this that add very little to the overall story. The Flanery subplot, which has been fairly weak throughout Phase 2 of the series, has very little impact here, he’s only present for two or three chapters and since his plot to expose magic was foiled in the last book, I don’t really understand why he’s still present at all. The Sebastian and Darquesse subplot is JUST WEIRD, I don’t want to go to far into it because it would be super spoilery, but yeah….wasn’t a fan.

I also didn’t think the Temper Fray plot added a lot? I reckon had the book simply focused on Omen and Skulduggery and Val’s adventures in the Leibniz Universe, then it would probably have had a better focus and would have been a more enjoyable read.

However, there were things I did enjoy in this book. One of the highlights of this whole Phase 2 of the series has been Valkyrie’s journey with her mental health, YA fantasy books have a tendency to not really explore the impact that traumatic events have on their teenage characters and Val has dealt with A LOT over the years, so it was really cool to see that journey come to a head in this book, and for her to acknowledge that her coping mechanisms have been unhealthy and that she needs therapy was really great. I hope we get to see more of Val working through her trauma in the next two books.

Saracen’s power reveal! We waited years for it and it was hilarious! I’d always figured that some sorcerers must pick a fairly limited use power that seems super cool at the time but turns out not to be and it was so funny to see that with Saracen. Like if you give an 18 year old free reign to pick any magic they want, chances are some of them are going to pick something that’s really only appealing when you’re that age and get stuck with it for hundreds of years!

I’ve been watching Heroes over the past few months (I know, super late to the party, but in my defence, I was like 10 when it first came out, so it wasn’t really suitable!) and Valkyrie’s ability to be able to mimic other people’s powers in this really reminded me of Peter Petrelli in that series. I look forward to seeing more of it, because I think it’s pretty cool.

The whole Last of The Faceless Ones thing that was a super big reveal in the last book? I was really disappointed that hardly anything was done with it in this book. I mean I get that Mevolent is a big deal and they needed to get rid of him, but Valkyrie learned a huge new thing about herself and she barely spends any time digesting it? As a reader, I just wanted more to be done with that.

It was really nice to see the whole group of Val, Tanith, Skulduggery, Saracen and Dexter back together in this book, I think this series really thrives off the group dynamics and I was kind of sad that they got split up for most of the book because the series really thrives on that dynamic.

I was especially sad that we didn’t get as many Val and Skulduggery scenes in this book because I loved that they were finally getting closer again in the last book. Having said that, the ones we did get: GOLDEN. They definitely seem to be getting back into their old rhythms now, which I love.

The dialogue is still great, all the sarcasm and wit that we know and love from this series is definitely still a firm feature. I will say though that I’m not sure this was Derek Landy’s best written book? A lot of the sentences seemed kind of clunky, and I know that this has never been a particularly description heavy series, but this book in particular, they seemed very sparse! I will admit though, some of this may come from the fact that I was editing my own novel whilst reading this and I have some similar issues with description!

It was nice to see Val’s whole family back in this book, it’s been ages since we’ve had a whole family get together!

Also can we talk about Serpine for a second? I was not expecting to enjoy him as much as I did, but he was one of the highlights of this book for me! He was a really entertaining addition to this book and his dynamic with Valkyrie was strangely charming!

The fact that the Leibniz Universe has the same name as a biscuit makes me laugh every time.

It was nice that Omen had more to do in this book, though his storyline had very little to do with what was going on with Val and Skulduggery. I am a little peeved that Landy had to introduce Omen having feelings for Never, WHY CAN WE NEVER HAVE PLATONIC FRIENDSHIPS?????? I mean I’m glad he doesn’t seem to want to act on it, and at least Omen and Axelia seem to have found their platonic friendship groove, but it would be nice if Omen didn’t have to have romantic feelings for all his friends!

Landy always does really great action scenes, though I will admit, a lot of the tension was kind of drained from the final battle with Mevolent because we take a big break in between the first wave of the battle and then the second one. There’s also a lot of deus ex machinery bits with Valkyrie’s injuries in this one as she always seems to be easily able to find a doctor whose powers she can use to heal herself.

It does seem really convenient that Landy has brought back pretty much all of the main villains from the series now! I mean don’t get me wrong, he has had some great villains over the years, but it would be nice if we got to see some new ones rather than Val and Skulduggery defeating the same big bads over and over again. I also felt that Mevolent felt kind of flat as supposedly the biggest bad of the big bads? He could have been way more scary!

I was really disappointed by how the whole King of The Darklands thing was handled, that’s been a plotline that’s been building up throughout the series and I wasn’t expecting it to be resolved as easily as it was.

I’m really interested in Crepuscular, he definitely seems like he’s being set up to be a villain but in this book he’s fairly helpful to Omen, so I’m still kind of wondering what side he’s going to be on? He was actually way more interesting than Mevolent, and his backstory with Skulduggery is really cool, so I hope that gets explored more instead of some of the other weird series subplots in the next book.

I was really sad with the way Saracen’s story was handled in this book, I think it could have been done so much better and I didn’t really feel enough of the emotional impact from it.

The whole Religious Freedom Act was an interesting addition to this book, I look forward to seeing how this is explored in the upcoming two books, this series has kind of touched on religion before but never really gone deeply into it, so it would be nice to see that explored more.

Overall, this book was definitely a pretty messy instalment of the series, it did have some good aspects but it’s definitely not amongst my favourites of the books. I hope that the next book is better and I look forward to seeing what adventures Val and Skulduggery have next.

My Rating: 3/5

My next review will be of Rory Power’s Burn Our Bodies Down.