Bookish Review: Muse of Nightmares

Muse of Nightmares by Laini Taylor

Published: 2 October 2018 by Hodder & Stoughton

Series: Strange the Dreamer

Genre: Fantasy, Romance, Young Adult

Rating: ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ 

Goodreads | Book Depository

Synopsis from Goodreads:  In the wake of tragedy, neither Lazlo nor Sarai are who they were before. One a god, the other a ghost, they struggle to grasp the new boundaries of their selves as dark-minded Minya holds them hostage, intent on vengeance against Weep. Lazlo faces an unthinkable choice—save the woman he loves, or everyone else?—while Sarai feels more helpless than ever. But is she? Sometimes, only the direst need can teach us our own depths, and Sarai, the Muse of Nightmares, has not yet discovered what she’s capable of. 

As humans and godspawn reel in the aftermath of the citadel’s near fall, a new foe shatters their fragile hopes, and the mysteries of the Mesarthim are resurrected: Where did the gods come from, and why? What was done with thousands of children born in the citadel nursery? And most important of all, as forgotten doors are opened and new worlds revealed: Must heroes always slay monsters, or is it possible to save them instead?

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Review: Muse of Nightmares was not only my first read of 2019, but my first read in a very long time full stop. 2018 was a pretty dire year for me reading-wise – I barely even finished my already modest Goodreads Challenge. Anyway, I got some inspiration from my younger sister who decided she wanted to follow in the bookish footsteps and start her own blog (as well as an app – but more about that another time…!)

Strange the Dreamer was one of my FairyLoot books from last 2017 – and it was a gorgeous one both physically and story-wise. The FairyLoot version was all sprayed edges and gold filigree *heart eyes*. Strange sucked me right in (review here!), and I have to admit, it being a duology sold me – who really has time for trilogies these days? 😉

Muse of Nightmares picks up right where Strange ended and it weaves a powerful story. Any critic who believes there isn’t stories of depth to be found in YA really needs to immerse themselves in a Taylor book stat. One of my absolute favourite things about this series and Taylor’s writing is just how exquisite her command of the English language is. Laini Taylor is an author of authors – in that reading her books makes you a better reader and writer. I find myself looking up lots of words because of the diverse vocab she exposes us to. She also uses the most creative similes and metaphors which makes you feel like you’re learning English anew: 

His smiles had been pickled things, as though they’d been preserved in vinegar on some earlier occasion, to be pulled out to act as garnish to his artfully plated expressions.

The character development in Muse was wonderful to follow. The whole cast of this series is so distinct, memorable and relatable. I felt like each character go enough page time and space to grow. Minya deserves a special mention – it’s not easy for authors to create so incredibly multi-faceted antagonists but I was impressed at how her story unfolded. I was obviously cheering on Lazlo and Sarai but the whole host of secondary characters had me enthralled with their actions, thoughts and desires. It was great to see the interactions between human and gods (one in particular I didn’t realise I needed until it was happening), as well as the blurring of lines in general.

Their shames were different, but their fear was the same: of seeing rejection in the other’s eyes. Instead, they saw hope, a mirror of their own.

One area where this was very clear was how sometimes opposites and differences can seem to set us apart but really its like two sides of the same coin. Taylor explored this really well through Erin-Fane and Minya’s fates as well as Azareen and Suheyla’s experiences at the hands of the Mesarthim gods. Taylor also considers how at the end of it all, the powers that set these characters apart are nought compared to the emotions they share. These emotions, shared by humans and gods alike, are the most destructive force and all-enduring, not the powers. I loved the way the powers were written not as technical ‘things’ to wield but as a product of an individual’s past, their feelings, and their relationships with others.

But Sarai understood. A person could be driven mad by hate. It was a force as destructive as any Mesarthim gift, and harder to end than a god.

If it’s not obvious, I devoured this book in just under 12 hours. It was a fitting end to the duology but also set up nicely for further exploration of Taylor’s universe which I, for one, am not averse to. There’s something satisfying about a series that knows less is more but at the same time doesn’t rule out more of-shoots. Because frankly, it’s the characters and worlds that I adore and I’m happy to return under a different guise, but stories – well they need endings 🙂

Have you read any Muse of Nightmares? Duologies – yay or nay? Drop me a comment below 🙂

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Reflections and Resolutions…

Well this is embarrassing isn’t it? Usually at this time of year bloggers are busy writing our annual wrap-ups on our favourite books and other fun lists.

Well, I’m afraid 2018 has been a little *tumbleweed* on Bookish At Heart and I don’t really have anything to “wrap up”… My current job has taken up quite a big chunk of my life whilst other things like language learning has taken up what spare moments I did have.

No regrets though. I always promised myself when I started this blog that I would not let it become a burden to the point where I’m not enjoying what should be a passion I do on the side. Earlier this year, just contemplating reading and then writing a post made my head hurt and I would immediately push it to the back of my mind.

I found all I wanted to do at the end of my workday was to totally switch off, for example by watching a K-drama on Netflix or doing some mindless online window shopping. Besides the sheer lethargy, my focus was also elsewhere. This year I took the plunge and decided to try out freelance writing. The trial process was hard but honestly seeing my pieces online is so unbelievably rewarding and I’m glad I gave myself the space to explore that! So I cut myself some slack and put Bookish At Heart on hold.

And frankly if there’s anything I learned from it, taking the time out is something we all should do. Mindfulness is very 2018 (and hopefully not a fad) and for me that meant allowing myself to deprioritise things without the accompanying self-inflicted guilt trip.

So I’ve had a fulfilling year but I’m itching to get back to writing for myself (now that I actually write for an audience which has its own share of pitfalls 🙈). I’ve decided to take some baby steps towards coaxing myself back into things. Read on to find out my book-slump busting methods!

  • BLOGGER JOURNAL – this wasn’t something I actually found nor bought myself. My family is super supportive of my blog and love for writing. So it was my sister who spied the journal in Paperchase and decided to buy it for me, as a way to rekindle my love for blogging. It’s a neat way to get inspiration, record ideas, and then transform them into actual posts; I think a bit of structure is exactly what I need at this point. I’ll do a full review of the journal when I’m properly using it but for now suffice to say it made my stationery-lover heart happy.

    

  • BOOKLY APP –  I stumbled across Bookly when browsing through the recommendations on the App Store over Christmas. The app definitely piqued my interest because I am such a nerd for recording things (see entry 1. above) as well as reviewing performance stats, all of which Bookly prepares you to do but for reading! I’m hoping it will help me to understand my reading patters and motivate me a bit more actively than my Goodreads challenge. Again I’ll do a full review when I’ve used it properly but for now it seems like just the thing to help me out of my slump.

  

  • READ WHAT YOU WANT – I went to Foyles today and browsed with no intention of buying… but ended up walking out with three books (yay the book blogger in me lives!) Two of the books were written by PoC and the other was a mystery – all genres I adore, along with fantasy and sci-fi. I know there’s a tendency to feel like you have to read the popular new releases that everyone is raving about but this is where the fun of blogging disappears for me. So my aim is to branch out into PoC readers this year (blog post coming soon!) and get back to reading for the sake of reading!

I’m hoping these small, baby steps will reignite my love for reading (which is still there, believe me) but in a stress-free, no-pressure way. And once again, I’ll keep in mind that my posts are not supposed to Pulitzer Prize nominees nor my Goodreads challenge a crazy double-digit figure. And I hope if you’re in the same position, you cut yourself some slack too – you deserve it!

P.S. Happy 2019!! Here’s to a year of more bookish goodness!

Have you ever felt like abandoning your blog because the pressure felt like too much? What methods have you used to get out of your book slump? Let me know in the comments below 🙂

Bookish Review: Red Winter Trilogy by Annette Marie

Red Winter Trilogy by Annette Marie

Published: October 2016 – April 2017 by Dark Owl Fantasy 

Genre: Diverse, Fantasy, Young Adult

Rating: ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ 

Goodreads | Book Depository

Synopsis for Book 1 from Goodreads:Emi is the kamigakari. In a few short months, her life as a mortal will end and her new existence as the human host of a goddess will begin. Carefully hidden from those who would destroy her, she has prepared her mind, body, and soul to unite with the goddess-and not once has she doubted her chosen fate.

Shiro is a yokai, a spirit of the earth, an enemy of the goddess Emi will soon host. Mystery shrouds his every move and his ruby eyes shine with cunning she can’t match and dares not trust. But she saved his life, and until his debt is paid, he is hers to command-whether she wants him or not. On the day they meet, everything Emi believes comes undone, swept away like snow upon the winter wind. For the first time, she wants to change her fate-but how can she erase a destiny already wrought in stone? Against the power of the gods, Shiro is her only hope… and hope is all she has left. untitled

Review: This is a rather unusual review because I’ll be reviewing an entire series in one post – but I can promise no spoilers! Whilst I will rave about the plot and characters in general, this post will instead be a celebration of underrated books and diversity in YA. It all started with a holiday to Japan I had planned over Easter – I was going to be spending a fortnight traversing the country and needed a reading list. Usually when I’m heading off on holiday I like to match up my reading list with the country I’ll be visiting – I find it’s a great way to get a better appreciation of the culture. As a bibliophile, there’s also something really thrilling about being able to visit the setting and sometimes the specific locations mentioned in books and imagine the scenes from your book being played out – it’s a totally immersive experience!  

I became aware of the Red Winter Trilogy whilst researching a TBR list for my holiday to Japan. Knowing that I was travelling to that part of the world I immediately defaulted to fictasian.com. This is a site run by the brilliant Eri (you can find her on Twitter here) with the intention of bringing together a masterlist of YA fiction that, in her own words, “promotes books with Asian characters as well as books written by Asian authors and of course, books that are both”. Since coming across the site, Eri’s lists have been invaluable in not only helping me to compile my TBR as I travel through Asia but also increase my awareness of some excellent diverse books. It’s great to have a resource where I can find YA books that offer an accurate representation of others like myself.

One of the other things that I’m grateful to Fictasion for is the fact that I have stumbled across some great books that are otherwise ridiculously underrated! Often some of these titles don’t come up in Goodreads searches when you’re after a particular genre or country. The Red Winter Trilogy is one such gem that I guarantee would never have made it on my TBR list which is a travesty because it is hella good – the 4.35-4.73 Goodreads ratings and the glowing 5-star reviews will convince you if I haven’t already! And if that’s not enough, I read the trilogy right after reading Flame in the Mist by the unsurpassable Renee Ahdieh and it more than lived up to competition! 

As the blurb for the first book above will indicate, the Red Winter Trilogy is about a girl who is trying to figure out what she wants, what her destiny is, and whether those are the same thing. We follow her on an intense and breathtaking adventure throughout three books that honestly had me turning the pages like there was no tomorrow (and this coming after an enduring book slump that lasted months!) Emi is a great character, very relatable and really develops throughout the series. Shiro, the Yokai mentioned in the blurb, plus a whole host of colourful secondary characters really make this book what it is – you have been forewarned that attachment to the characters is inevitable. The plot moves along at a good pace and the wider trilogy arc always feels like it is making progress.

But what really sets this series apart is the breathtaking depth of mythology and world-building that Marie weaves throughout the book. Using yokai and the Shinto faith as a foundation she builds a great story with so much colourful detail, and as far as I can tell, with a lot of respect for the culture she is portraying. I couldn’t help but immerse myself in the series, and Emi’s world in the fortnight that the trilogy practically became my life. I honestly can say that this series added to my holiday in Japan – every time I came across a Torii gate or saw the washing ritual in a Shinto shrine I felt transported to the world of the Red Winter Trilogy. And vice versa actually, the background on the mythology and customs really enriched my understanding of Japan.

If you’re still not entirely convinced, there’s more! For the manga fans among us, the Red Winter Trilogy has some of the most beautiful illustrations peppered throughout the book. The artist is super talented and got the characters just right in terms of how I’d visualised them in my head. And finally, the trilogy is complete – in fact they were all released within six months (Ms Maas please take note…) and they are all on Kindle for silly prices. If you adored Flame in the Mist, are interested in Japanese history and mythology, or a huge manga fan (or all of the above) the Red Winter Trilogy is definitely for you! 

Do you have any Japanese or Asian fantasy recommendations? Any lists or sites for Asian YA that are your bibles? Let me know in a comment below 🙂

Bookish Review: The Rasputin Dagger by Theresa Breslin

The Rasputin Dagger by Theresa Breslin

Published: 10 August 2017 by Random House Children’s

Genre: Historical, Young Adult

Rating: ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥

Goodreads | Book Depository

Synopsis from Goodreads: Russia, 1916. Nina Ivanovna’s world is in turmoil. Her only hope is to travel to St Petersburg, to escape the past and find a future. Stefan Kolodin is a medical student – young and idealistic, he wants change for Russia and its people. Amidst the chaos of a city in revolt, their lives collide. And a stormy relationship develops . . . full of passion and politics. But soon Nina is drawn in to the glamorous, lavish lives of the Russian royal family – where she begins to fall under the spell of their mysterious monk, Grigory Rasputin. The ruby-studded dagger he carries – beautiful and deadly – could save her and Stefan from a cursed life . . . or condemn them to it. untitled

Review: The Rasputin Dagger was my first historical YA in a while, and I was really craving a good one. Luckily it delivered! Theresa Breslin, a Carnegie Medal winner, is a heavyweight in YA historical fiction – her war romance novel Remembrance has remained unforgettable to this day. So I was definitely looking forward to seeing how she handled a slightly different, but nonetheless exciting, period of history.

A story is the most powerful weapon in the wide, wide world.

As a fully confessed history nerd (and history major!) when I pick up a historical novel, I’m after a faithful use of the setting and Breslin always seems to deliver on this front. I feel like often in YA a historical setting can be a little secondary to the plot – so you’ll have this brilliant setting but you never really scratch the surface beyond the usual mentions around dress, behaviours, location etc. In The Rasputin Dagger, however, you really get a sense of St. Petersburg and the lives of the people in the city. I found it totally immersive and got caught up in the daily hardships faced by the average Russian because of the war effort and the relatively untouched lives of the Imperial family.

The whole of Russia, and in particular our city, is like a huge barrel of gunpowder surrounded by desperate souls brandishing lighted tapers.

I adored the way politics was woven in, something which is often neglected or glossed over in YA books, seemingly because teens aren’t given enough credit for being interested/able to digest slightly ‘heavier’ topics (when hello Teen Vogue anyone?) In The Resputin Dagger, you get a real sense of the divisions in society, and the different ideologies at play – I thought it was clever how each of the characters seemed to represent a different point on the political spectrum but still be able to call each other friends and family. The characters were generally just great – Nina, our female protagonist, and Galena the housekeeper were fabulous female characters, resourceful and strong, and not at all content to sit back and watch their lives as they know it pretty much change before their eyes. I also really liked how understated and slow burn the romance was – there was absolutely no instalove here.

No on is taking me anywhere. I go where I please. I too am a bread-queue woman, and today I will join with my fellow women.

Breslin was also brilliant at portraying historical figures like Rasputin and the Imperial family – they were neither black nor white. Oftentimes with historical novels it seems there’s a tendency to sensationalise famous people in history. Instead, Breslin doesn’t get caught up in making characters ‘bad’ or ‘good’ but rather show them as they might have been, letting the reader make up their own mind. The same goes for the plot. I liked that The Rasputin Dagger stayed true to history and didn’t overly rely on the famous figures to drive the plot. Instead, you really get to know the main fictional characters and, because of their well-developed back stories, learn why they think and are the way they are.

A person with a book in their hands wields more power than the one who holds a gun.

One thing I have to say is that the blurb doesn’t seem all that faithful to the book itself in my opinion. The romance and supernatural/fantasy element is played up more in the blurb and made to seem like the focal points of this book. Instead, I found The Rasputin Dagger to be way more subtle and intricate, and it seems a shame that this isn’t reflected in the blurb. I loved how the supernatural curse element is woven throughout the book, more subtle and used more as a plot device for Nina to learn her history. Overall, I really enjoyed The Rasputin Dagger and think if you’re a historical YA fan or at all interested in this part of Russia history, this book will not disappoint!

What are your favourite historical YA books? If you have any recs, send them my way please! 🙂

Bookish Travels: Istanbul Edition!

               Istanbul Souvenir & Book Haul

So I’ve been mulling this idea since my trip to Singapore back in March and I’ve decided to take the plunge! I’m starting a new feature here on Bookish At Heart: posts on ‘booksploring’ at home or abroad! I tend to either look up bookish places before travelling, or seek out bookstores when I’m visiting new places. For one thing, it’s a great way to get exposure to diverse books and also I just love how different book shops in different places can be! If a book is a window to another world, well then IMO a bookshop or library is a window into a country and its culture 🙂 So this feature will be a way to show off some of the bookish gems that can be found around the world, as well as (hopefully!) give you guys some ‘booksploring’ inspiration when travelling!

                              Topkapi Palace

I was in Istanbul during the August bank holiday – its a city I’ve been wanting to visit for years! The fusion of east and west, and the ridiculously long and colourful history has charmed me from the moment I first found out about Constantinople. It was beautifully hot whilst we were there and we squeezed in tonnes of culture, sightseeing and food (obv!) in the week we were there. One of the best things about Istanbul is that because of its mix of east and west, there are some solid English-language bookshops to be found!

        Stall at Sahaflar Carsisi book market

One of the first places we visited was Sahaflar Carsisi, the book market just outside the Grand Bazaar in the heart of the historic Sultanahmet area of Istanbul. If you’ve not heard of the Bazaar place before, it really needs to be seen to be believed! Similar to the souks in Marrakech, the Grand Bazaar is a hive of activity with around 600 streets of stalls selling all manner of things – it really is a treasure trove worthy of Aladdin’s cave. From souvenirs, to clothes, to ridiculously good fake handbags, you can get lost here for hours.

        Cat lounging on a book stall in Sahaflar                               Carsisi book market

Sahaflar Carsisi is a secondhand book bazaar made up of various stalls, with a pretty big range of books, both fiction and non-fiction. Whilst most of the books were Turkish, the vibe of this place is well worth detouring for, if not purely for the fact that this market has existed since Byzantine times!!! The shopkeepers are super chill, busy with chai and chatter, so you’re free to browse at your leisure. The best thing about this place though? The cats that you can often spot lounging or dozing literally atop the books on the stall – and no one seems to care. You can totally imagine that not much has changed in the hundreds of years Sahaflar Carsisi has been around 🙂

         Homer Book Shop near Istikal Street

On the northern side of Istanbul, where you can find more western shops and nightlife, we made a beeline for Homer Kitabevi. This bookshop is a gorgeous little oasis from the chaos of Istikal Street, the main shopping thoroughfare, which is just around the corner. Homer is set over three floors with endless shelves in nooks and crannies, and its super browsable too. It stocks English-language fiction and non-fiction, and whilst you’ll find books that you’ll be able to pick up in London or NYC, they also stock more specific Turkey-related titles in their history and literature sections. I saw plenty of Elif Shafak and Constantinople titles. But the gem that I managed to pick up was Dare to Disappoint: Growing up in Turkey by Ozge Samanci!

      Dare to Disappoint: Growing up in Turkey                                 by Ozge Samanci

I first saw this gorgeous graphic novel when I was in Singapore and was very tempted but opted for something else instead. My holiday to Istanbul wasn’t even booked then so clearly fate intervened and me buying it in Turkey was meant to be. Dare to Disappoint, told in graphic novel format, is a memoir of the author’s childhood in Turkey, and has received rave reviews. Samanci explores growing up amongst societal expectations, political happenings and friendship drama in a humorous way and I really cannot wait to read it! 

       Robinson Crusoe Book Shop near Istikal                                              Street

Our last stop was Robinson Crusoe, just a few doors down from Homer. It looks deceptively small from the outside, but is actually pretty big. The shelves go right up to the ceiling and they even have the ladders to go with it *heart eyes*. Robinson Crusoe has an impressively well-stocked comic book and graphic novel selection both in English and Turkish, as well as lots of non-fiction and fiction books. As I’d stocked up on something light already, here we bought Turkey: A Short History by Norman Stone. Although we’d learned quite a bit about the history of Turkey whilst doing tours and the cruise on the Bosphorus, you really can’t squeeze in the thousands of years of history that Turkey has to offer in a few days. I’m looking forward to diving in a deeper into the history, culture and traditions of this gorgeous country! 

    Turkey: A Short History by Norman Stone

Meanwhile, in terms of my holiday TBR, I kept it short and sweet! I read The Loneliest Girl in the Universe by Lauren James and adored it – check out my review here! Also made a start on Piglettes by Clementine Beauvais which was the perfect holiday read. So that’s a quick roundup of my ‘booksploring’ adventures in Istanbul! Let me know if you found this interesting or enjoyable – would love to hear your thoughts!

          Piglettes by Clementine Beauvais

How do you decide your holiday TBR? Have you stumbled across any must-visit bookish places whilst on holiday? Let me know in the comments below. 🙂

Bookish Review: The Loneliest Girl in the Universe by Lauren James

The Loneliest Girl in the Universe by Lauren James

Published: 7 September 2017 by Walker Books

Genre: Sci-fi, Young Adult

Rating: ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ 1/2

Goodreads | Book Depository

Synopsis from Goodreads: Can you fall in love with someone you’ve never met, never even spoken to – someone who is light years away? Romy Silvers is the only surviving crew-member of a spaceship travelling to a new planet, on a mission to establish a second home for humanity amongst the stars. Alone in space, she is the loneliest girl in the universe until she hears about a new ship which has launched from Earth – with a single passenger on board. A boy called J. Their only communication with each other is via email – and due to the distance between them, their messages take months to transmit across space. And yet Romy finds herself falling in love. But what does Romy really know about J? And what do the mysterious messages which have started arriving from Earth really mean? Sometimes, there’s something worse than being alone… untitled

Review: I managed to grab a copy of The Loneliest Girl in the Universe at YALC back in July. Honestly, it was no mean feat – every time the Waterstones got new stock of the book in (and we’re talking like a hundred copies!) they’d be sold out within minutes. Anyway, back on topic, this book was a superbly unexpected wild ride! I confess I did glance over some of the Goodreads reviews of The Loneliest Girl before I read it and lots of them said something along the lines of “the less you know going into this book, the better”. I have to say I wholeheartedly agree! This is one of those books that just cannot be pigeonholed into any one label, be it YA, sci-fi etc. So keeping the above advice in mind, this review will be unusually brief and will be spoiler free 🙂 

If I get ill, there will be no one to help me. No one to fix me if I break.

The setting of The Loneliest Girl is one of the most unique selling points – we’ve got a young girl captaining a ship, completely alone, in the far reaches of space. For one thing, titles do not get much more literal than that, and secondly, I don’t think I’ve ever come across a premise like that in any YA sci-fi so major points already going in to The Loneliest Girl and it just gets better from there on out. James has taken a common setting of a spaceship and made it into something feels totally original. I loved how creative James was with the tech on board the Infinity – all of the attention to detail to explain how the spaceship could feasibly keep going made the whole book all the more realistic and immersive. I have to admit though that the light-speed transmission lags were totally lost on me…

Staring through the porthole, I watch the spiralling stars until I make myself dizzy.

The way Lauren James writes really does drive home just how alone Romy is. The casual references to things Romy has not experienced forced me to really consider just how isolated she is. It’s also told in first person and there are mundane “slice of life” details alongside the plot that you just become immersed in Romy’s life, as uneventful as it can be at points I still felt engrossed and totally invested. Films with a similar premise like Gravity and The Martian use all sorts of things like visual effects, body language and amazing scores to make the audience feel unsettled so I’m totally in awe of how James managed to put across the lonely and slightly creepy factor using just words! 

I’d like to have wild stories about my university days to tell my kids, someday. I’d like to have any anecdotes at all, actually.

I also enjoyed how James managed to weave in some really interesting ideas like the ethics around such a mission as well as mental health issues. Romy was a realistic character, struggling to cope, given the magnitude of her responsibilities and the trauma she has experienced. Heroism does not come naturally to her – she often rebels against her predicament, especially as she had no choice in it. Her naiveté is also totally realistic, there are points where she casually drops that she hasn’t been in physical contact with another human being in years, and so anything else would’ve felt unconvincing. Beyond that though, Romy is a really relatable character with her love of fictional characters and fanfic and I really found myself rooting for her throughout the book!

This voyage was never meant to be easy. It was meant to be important.

The Loneliest Girl in the Universe is a solid standalone (whoop!) book that you will not want to put down! It is totally unique and was a fresh take on YA romance/space/sci-fi novels. The plot has a hint of mystery and James did a great job of feeding the reader enough to keep you intrigued whilst also keeping you just enough in the dark that you feel this weird uneasiness as you read on. I would wholeheartedly recommend this book to fans of all genres! The Loneliest Girl in the Universe is out tomorrow so be sure to grab a copy ASAP!

Have you read any books that surprised or blindsided you? Are you planning to read The Loneliest Girl in the Universe? Drop me a comment below 🙂

Bookish Review: S.T.A.G.S by M.A. Bennett

S.T.A.G.S by M.A. Bennett

Published: 10 August 2017 by Hot Key Books

Genre: Thriller, Young Adult

Rating: ♥ ♥ ♥

Goodreads | Book Depository

Synopsis from Goodreads: Nine students. Three bloodsports. One deadly weekend. It is the autumn term and Greer MacDonald is struggling to settle into the sixth form at the exclusive St. Aidan the Great boarding school, known to its privileged pupils as S.T.A.G.S. Just when she despairs of making friends Greer receives a mysterious invitation with three words embossed upon on it: huntin’ shootin’ fishin’. When Greer learns that the invitation is to spend the half term weekend at the country manor of Henry de Warlencourt, the most popular and wealthy boy at S.T.A.G.S., she is as surprised as she is flattered.

But when Greer joins the other chosen few at the ancient and sprawling Longcross Hall, she realises that Henry’s parents are not at home; the only adults present are a cohort of eerily compliant servants. The students are at the mercy of their capricious host, and, over the next three days, as the three bloodsports – hunting, shooting and fishing – become increasingly dark and twisted, Greer comes to the horrifying realisation that those being hunted are not wild game, but the very misfits Henry has brought with him from school..untitled

Review: This is one of those books that has been marketed well – the cover was gorgeous whilst the blurb was tantalisingly simple. S.T.A.G.S started off well, the premise really intrigued me, it’s exactly the sort of mystery/thriller that would entice me – old private school dripping in privilege and thousands of years worth of history, and the misfits who couldn’t be more out of place. The writing style was pretty brilliant – the teaser first sentences at the beginning of the chapters were genius. But my favourite had to be the canny, wry asides peppered throughout the text – these cleverly acknowledged the frustration felt when characters respond in a silly way to something deeply obvious to the reader. 

Going back to the premise, the idea that people are so entrenched in traditionalism and conservatism that they take preservation to the very extremes is an interesting concept and one that was refreshing to see in a YA book. There were also some promising conversations between characters in the book covering issues like privilege, racism, proliferation of social media which rang true. We are surrounded by these issues on a daily basis and dialogue is absolutely integral to working through issues. I thought Bennett handled both sides of the argument really well – the marginalisation that some characters felt, as misplaced it might seem to some readers, was deftly portrayed.

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Buuuuut… I felt these messages were lost within a convoluted plot that required the suspension of major disbelief and took something plausible and made it unnecessarily into something much bigger. The ending felt really contrived to me. It was like the author was trying so hard to shoehorn in what may have been her favourite film/literary ending that she bent and twisted the story to pay homage to this. Don’t get me wrong, the references to the movies, from film noir to cult classics, to blockbusters was great and  I liked how the protagonist tied them into key scenes. I just didn’t think the references needed to be woven into the actual plot… you’ll see what I mean when you read the book!

One of the things I did enjoy was Bennett’s portrayal of the intricacies of life in the upper echelons of society! The details around the bloodsports, etiquette and traditions, as well as manor house life was brilliantly described and it was clearly very well-researched. However, at times it did feel like a disproportionate amount of page time was given to building the setting of Longcross, sacrificing character development in the process. it meant we didn’t get to know the main characters beyond the stock description given at the beginning to set the scene. I found it difficult to engage with the characters and bring myself to care too much about their predicaments, it all seemed a little too passive. It was a shame because I feel there was much more scope to show the obvious differences between the characters social backgrounds rather than tell us especially in such a setting.

I won’t go into the ending itself because #nospoilers but all in all I am disappointed in S.T.A.G.S because it started off really strong! It was different to most other YA thrillers in terms of the premise and setting but that wasn’t enough to convince me to suspend my disbelief at the ending. If you’re after a solid YA thriller with a great story and character development do check out One of Us is Lying 🙂

Do you have any YA thriller recs? Let me know in the comments below!!