The Charmed Life of Alex Moore by Molly Flatt

The Charmed Life of Alex Moore

I received a free e-ARC of The Charmed Life of Alex Moore by Molly Flatt from NetGalley in return for review consideration. The Charmed Life of Alex Moore is an SFF novel (though it was listed on NetGalley as Women’s Fiction which I would disagree with), due to be published by Pan Macmillan, in the UK on 3rd May 2018.

Synopsis

Below is the Goodreads synopsis of the book:

How would you feel if everything in your life suddenly started to go . . . right? Six months ago, Alex Moore was stuck in a dead-end job, feeling her potential quietly slip away. Then, seemingly overnight, she launched her dream start-up and became one of London’s fastest rising tech stars. At thirty-one, her life has just begun. But Alex’s transformation isn’t easy for those around her. Her friends are struggling to accept her rapid success, her parents worry she’s burning out and her fiancé is getting cold feet.

Then weird things start to happen. Muggings, stalkers – even a wild claim that she murdered a stranger. But when Alex visits the Orkney Islands to recharge, weird turns into WTF. Because there she discovers the world’s oldest secret – and it’s a secret that Alex’s stratospheric rise has royally messed up.

Review

I read this book pretty quickly, and found it a very easy and enjoyable book to read. But once I put it down, I realised I had no idea whether I’d enjoyed it or not.

There were definitely elements I definitely did enjoy. I though Platt’s prose was lovely, and I felt that most of the main characters were well-defined, with their own personalities and styles of speaking. I also enjoyed the parts set in London, as they were largely areas I know (I see you, Homerton Hospital!), and I liked that they weren’t the obvious, touristy parts of town.

I also mostly liked the character of Alex Moore. While she was sometimes very frustrating, I thought she was very well-realised and represented feelings that I, and I imagine a lot of other people, have experienced – wanting to break away from the status quo but not knowing how to, finding something new and going a bit evangelical about it, trying to balance work and friends and family and partners.

The main plot, revolving around her trips to the Orkney Islands and what she discovers there, was absolutely not what I expected. It was complex and kind of off the wall, but I think Platt mostly handled that well. There were a few sections that were a little exposition heavy, but Alex’s discoveries felt fairly organic and well-placed in terms of moving the plot forward. I did struggle to keep track of all the characters on the Orkney Islands though. Particularly with the changing allegiances and secrets, I didn’t always follow who Alex was with and what role that character was supposed to be playing.

I also had some quite significant problems with Alex’s platonic and romantic relationships. There’s a limit to what I can say without spoiling things, but I definitely felt like the main romantic relationship was quite troubling, and I was never quite sure whether Platt was acknowledging that or not. Towards the end of the book in particular, some of these relationships went in quite unexpected directions, and whilst I felt the main plot was wrapped up quite nicely, the very end of the book was…abrupt. And I think that’s part of why I’m so unsure how I feel about the book. For the most part, it was enjoyable, but there were a few elements that really threw me and left me feeling a little disappointed.

Summary

Overall, this was an entertaining and well-written book, which I think could have done with paring down in some areas, and more depth in others, and a more settled ending. But the main idea was fascinating: I think the book is worth a read because of that central plot, and I would definitely check out more of Molly Platt’s writing in the future.

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Top Ten Tuesday – 24th April

I’m doing the Top Ten Tuesday meme, which is now hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl, and the theme for 24th April is…Frequently used words in [insert genre/age group] titles. My initial thought was to be obnoxious and say ‘the’, ‘in’, and other shit like that, but I’m a grown-up so I’m not going to! I have picked a variety of genres though, as I read a lot of different things.

  1. Blood – I typically see this in crime or fantasy novels. Sometimes it’s because someone’s died, and sometimes it’s more about family or some kind of trait being passed through generations
  2. Sword – this is usually fantasy, but sometimes pops up in other genres
  3. Glass – I feel like this one turns up in a lot of genres
  4. Ship – mainly for spaceships, but it also sometimes turns up in fantasy and steampunk
  5. Heart – I wonder if this is the most common one. It’s in romance novels, it’s in fantasy, it’s in YA, and in so many other genres
  6. King/queen/prince/princess – I think these all belong under one umbrella. Again, this is mostly in fantasy
  7. Girl – ‘boy’ comes up as well, but ‘girl’ is definitely more prevalent. I saw a picture a while back of a display an enterprising librarian had put together of all the ‘girl’ crime and thriller novels they could find – it was brilliant
  8. House – another genre-spanning word. It’s houses where bad things have happened, it’s houses in quaint villages where love is blossoming, and it’s houses in fantasy novels
  9. City – I think this word mostly turns up in the titles of SF, crime, and literary fiction novels
  10. Fire – the final word is another that appears in many genres, and I can think of probably half a dozen books from just this year alone with fire in the title

This was a really fun challenge! Once I started the list, I realised there were so many words that keep popping in things – I think I could’ve kept going for another ten!

What are the words that you’ve noticed come up in whatever genres you read?

The Leavers by Lisa Ko

The Leavers

I received a free copy of The Leavers by Lisa Ko from NetGalley in return for review consideration. The Leavers is a work of contemporary literary fiction, due to be published in the UK by Dialogue Books, an imprint of Little, Brown, in the UK on 26th April 2018.

Synopsis

Below is the Goodreads synopsis of the book:

One morning, Deming Guo’s mother, an undocumented Chinese immigrant named Polly, goes to her job at the nail salon and never comes home. No one can find any trace of her.

With his mother gone, eleven-year-old Deming is left with no one to care for him. He is eventually adopted by two white college professors who move him from the Bronx to a small town upstate. They rename him Daniel Wilkinson in their efforts to make him over into their version of an “all-American boy.” But far away from all he’s ever known, Daniel struggles to reconcile his new life with his mother’s disappearance and the memories of the family and community he left behind.

Set in New York and China, The Leavers is a vivid and moving examination of borders and belonging. It’s the story of how one boy comes into his own when everything he’s loved has been taken away–and how a mother learns to live with the mistakes of her past.

Review

It took me quite a while to get into this book, because I sometimes struggle with stories where nothing’s going right for anyone and everything seems very bleak and unfair, and The Leavers is, for much of the book, one of those stories. But I’m so glad I stuck with it, as it ended up being an incredibly satisfying read, and something else I can recommend to my mum (which is a huge compliment, as she’s very picky!)!

The stories of Deming (later Daniel) and his mother, Polly (Peilan), are told in tandem. The early chapters of Deming’s life are difficult, but he feels loved and safe, living with his mother, her partner, his sister, and her child. But when she fails to come home, he ends up in the care system before being adopted. We don’t learn until later in the book what has happened to Polly, but we read about her childhood in rural China, and her life once she moves into the city and tries to find a way to get out to America. The contrast between their childhoods is stark, but there are similarities as well, which are all the more poignant as their adult lives take such different directions.

There’s an incredible sense of isolation throughout the book. Even when Deming and Polly are spending time with others, they feel separate, held apart from the world. Part of this is because of their personal experiences, and part is due to the structural impediments they face, both in the US and in China. Particularly in Deming’s experience as a person of colour growing up in a largely white area, with well-meaning but ultimately quite harmful adoptive parents, I really felt his isolation, his attempts to first distance himself from his upbringing and then embrace it. As someone who is considering adoption in the future, it certainly brings home the problems that can be present in inter-racial adoption, and what adoptive parents need to be aware of when raising children from different cultures.

The book is brilliantly paced, and each section resolves some questions whilst asking new ones and creating new connections. Much of the book is from the perspective of young Deming and young Polly, and Ko writes wonderfully from that child’s point of view. Reading those sections as an adult is sometimes heartbreaking, because you can see that the child has been lied to or that they’ve misunderstood something key about the world, and you know that the resolution of that issue will inevitably cause more pain. I also found that I was slightly surprised by the ending of the book, but in a good way, as Ko shows how resilient people can be, and how unexpected ways forward can be found even in difficult situations.

 

Summary

The Leavers was not, for me anyway, an easy read. The characters did things that frustrated me, sometimes out of choice and sometimes out of necessity, and their lives were almost never easy. But it is a beautifully written book which tells the kind of story that is often forgotten. I would highly, highly recommend it.

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The Waking Land by Callie Bates

The Waking Land

I received a free a copy of The Waking Land by Callie Bates from the publisher via Bookbridgr in return for review consideration. The Waking Land is YA fantasy, published by Hodder and Stoughton, in the UK on 29th June 2017.

Synopsis

Below is the Goodreads synopsis of the book:

Lady Elanna Valtai is fiercely devoted to the King who raised her like a daughter. But when he dies under mysterious circumstances, Elanna is accused of his murder and must flee for her life. 

Returning to the homeland of magical legends she has forsaken, Elanna is forced to reckon with her despised, estranged father, branded a traitor long ago. Feeling a strange, deep connection to the natural world, she also must face the truth about the forces she has always denied or disdained as superstition powers that suddenly stir within her. 

But an all-too-human threat is drawing near, determined to exact vengeance. Now Elanna has no choice but to lead a rebellion against the kingdom to which she once gave her allegiance. Trapped between divided loyalties, she must summon the courage to confront a destiny that could tear her apart.

Review

When I received this book, I went into the Goodreads review section and was a little worried, as there seemed to be quite a few DNFs. But I really enjoyed it! The plot moves quickly, uncovering secrets and finding new problems, as Elanna travels across her world, visiting places both familiar and unfamiliar.

Elanna, as a character, really worked for me. I particularly enjoyed her internal frustration and turmoil each time she found another lie she’d been told or another layer of corruption was discovered. In recognising and acknowledging her own naivety, she seemed very realistic to me. The changes she goes through over the course of the book felt satisfying and well thought-out to me, and at the end of the book, I already wanted to start on the second to see how she grows from there.

The magic system in the book was fascinating and unlike anything I’ve read before. As the book progressed, it did get a little overwhelming, and Elanna’s powers did seem to grow and change a little randomly, suddenly giving her the ability to do something at a very convenient moment in the plot. But I would be interested in seeing how that all develops in the sequel, and hopefully as she learns more about her powers and how to use them, there might be a little more structure to what she can and can’t do, and exactly how it all works.

There’s a fairly large cast of secondary characters in the book – some better developed than others. Elanna has female friends, which I really liked, and I would like to see more of them in future books, as well as more character development for them. Some of the family members and family friends/supporters seemed a little one-dimensional to me though, coming in to move the plot along, without necessarily having much agency of their own. Again, in the second book, I would like to see more development for some of them, and maybe a reduced number of supporting characters overall, so we have more time to get to know the truly important ones.

The romantic storyline was not what I was expecting, largely in a positive way! Some of the frustrating YA clichés were there – a little bit of insta-love, some ‘oh no, my friend and I like the same guy’ – but overall, I think Bates did a good job of creating love interests that I was interested in, and an outcome to the romantic storyline that was by and large satisfying, and left me interested to see where those relationships would go in the next book.

Summary

All in all, I found The Waking Land to be a really enjoyable read with a distinctive magic system and an appealing heroine. I was swept along in the action all the way through, and am looking forward to getting hold of the second book. If you’re looking for YA with good female characters, interesting magic, and a focus on nature that ties everything together, give The Waking Land a read.

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Top Ten Tuesday – 17th April

I’m doing the Top Ten Tuesday meme, which is now hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl, and the theme for 17th April is…Freebie. So I went into the archives and picked a previous topic, which is…Top ten settings I’d like to see more of, and I’m going with both geographic settings and time periods.

  1. Space – okay, so I’ll admit that there’s already a fair chunk of literature set in space out there, but in my opinion, there can never be too much
  2. Deserts – for such a fascinating landscape, I’m always surprised that there aren’t more books set in deserts making their way onto my TBR
  3. The Arctic/Antarctica/other cold places – I’ve mentioned before that I love reading things set in super-cold locations, and I’m always on the lookout for more
  4. High-rise buildings – there are some very famous books set in high-rises out there (indeed, JG Ballard’s High-Rise comes to mind!) but they offer so many opportunities and I personally would like to see more novels based in and around high-rises, or in places shaped by them
  5. Mountains – continuing on the theme of inhospitable locations! I can think of a fair number of books that involve journeying through and across mountains, but fewer that base themselves entirely in the mountains, with all their benefits and drawbacks
  6. The nineties – I’m pretty much over the eighties nostalgia by now. I’m definitely ready to move to the era of my childhood, and see the pop culture references that I get take centre stage
  7. Any mythological setting – I’m a huge, huge fan of retellings of myths and legends, and would particularly love to see more that focus on women and queer characters
  8. Alternative histories – I love alt histories, and would love to read some that look at changes to more recent events. Given how quickly technology and things are changing these days, even a small change ten or twenty years ago could have had a massive effect by now!
  9. YA set between WWI and WWII – having recently read Nothing But Sky, it got me thinking about how unusual it seemed (to me, at least) to have a YA novel set in a relatively recent historical period, and the 1920s and early 1930s were such an interesting time that I would definitely be interested in reading more things set then
  10. Queer and gender non-conforming characters throughout history – it’s sometimes easy to think that where we are today is the result of a series of developments, one after the other, that have led to greater tolerance, understanding, and opportunities (though we obviously still have a long way to go!!). But we also know that’s complete bullshit, and that things have been incredibly different at different periods throughout history (i.e. sexuality in Ancient Greece). So I would love to see more books about queer and gender non-conforming characters in different historical periods, full of research and interesting facts.
What settings would you like to see more of? Do you have any suggestions for books using any of the settings I’ve suggested?

Lachesis’ Allotment by Diana RA Morris

Lachesis' Allotment

I received a copy of Lachesis’ Allotment by Diana RA Morris directly from the author in return for review consideration. Lachesis’ Allotment is a collection of essays, thoughts, and screenplay, published in the UK on 6th March 2018.

Synopsis

Below is the synopsis from Goodreads:

In Greek mythology, Lachesis (lack-eh-sis) allots each of us a length of thread to weave with as we will. This hybrid collection of short essays and screenplay explores the nature of friendship and our relationships with the people in our lives over time. From the friendships we form in childhood to the adult friendships we form with our parents–even after they’re gone–this work weaves together memory, meditations on making our dreams a reality, and the evolving nature of our connections as we knot our strands together or unravel the knitting we’ve achieved.

Review

When Diana Morris approached me (after seeing my details on The Indie View) to ask if I would be interested in reading and reviewing her book, I was immediately intrigued. The title, alluding to the Greek fate Lachesis who was believed responsible for deciding the length of each person’s life thread, is already a great start for anyone who, like me, is a mythology geek.

The book comprises a series of short essays and comments on the nature of family, relationships, and life itself, interspersed with scenes from a screenplay. The screenplay is about two women, Olivia and Bethany, who meet for coffee having not seen one another since they graduated college many years previously. Over the next few scenes, they catch one another up on their lives – where they are now, how they feel about their careers, and what caused them to lose touch all those years ago. For anyone who’s ever lost touch with someone and tried to reconnect, these scenes can be painful to read, reflecting the universal experience of relationships that grow and change, and can’t always be rebuilt.

The essays themselves cover a variety of different subjects, but are all incredibly personal. Morris talks about her friendships, her hopes for her life, and her family – the latter subject, in particular, makes up some of the most intense sections of this short book. She relates some of her parents’ own stories, and how that informed her upbringing and her relationship with them. I would specifically recommend Chapter Six, about Morris’s time studying abroad and what was happening with her family back home at that time – it’s incredibly honest and moving.

One chapter that particularly spoke to me was about the director James Cameron – he of The Terminator, Titanic and, most importantly to this essay, Avatar fame. Morris talks about the process Cameron went through to get the movie made, which took far longer than I had realised. Without going into more detail, because the chapter is well worth reading, whatever you think of James Cameron and his movies, the process he went through in will hopefully bring inspiration to those others of us who write or create in other ways, and feel we have something we want to bring to the world.

Summary

Lachesis’ Allotment is a short, well-constructed book which has much to offer its readers, both in terms of telling Morris’s story, and offering inspiration and thought-provoking passages for people interesting in how we relate to the world and people around us, and how our art can both influence and be influenced by that. Well worth a read.

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Ponti by Sharlene Teo

Ponti

I received a free e-ARC of Ponti by Sharlene Teo from NetGalley in return for review consideration. Ponti is contemporary literary fiction, due to be published by Picador, an imprint of Pan Macmillan, in the UK on 19th April 2018.

I should also note at this point that I’ve met Sharlene a few times, as we have mutual friends, but this in no way affects my review of this book.

Synopsis

Below is the Goodreads synopsis of the book:

2003, Singapore. Friendless and fatherless, sixteen-year-old Szu lives in the shadow of her mother Amisa, once a beautiful actress and now a hack medium performing séances with her sister in a rusty house. When Szu meets the privileged, acid-tongued Circe, an unlikely encounter develops into an intense friendship and offers Szu a means of escape from her mother’s alarming solitariness.

Seventeen years later, Circe is struggling through a divorce in fraught and ever-changing Singapore when a project comes up at work: a remake of the cult seventies horror film series ‘Ponti’, the very project that defined Amisa’s short-lived film career. Suddenly Circe is knocked off balance: by memories of the two women she once knew, by guilt, and by a past that threatens her conscience.

Told from the perspectives of all three women, Ponti is about friendship and memory, about the things we do when we’re on the cusp of adulthood that haunt us years later. Beautifully written by debut author Sharlene Teo, and enormously atmospheric, Ponti marks the launch of an exciting new literary voice in the vein of Zadie Smith.

Review

There’s been talk about this book all over the place, and I have to say that it is completely worth the hype. Ponti is compelling and beautifully written and full of gorgeous prose and rich characterisation.

Following three characters at different times in their lives gives a deep sense of all these lives unfolding, everyone knowing bits of the story but no-one knowing everything. With Amisa, you have a character who feels hard done by, who has a deep sense of having been destined for greater things than she was ever able to achieve. Where we follow Szu, in her teenage years, there’s that awkwardness that comes from not fitting in, of feeling very distinctly out of place amongst peers. The friendship that she and Circe have has that feeling of intimacy and intensity common to a lot of friendships between teenage girls. And Circe, in the near-future of 2020, is coming through a difficult time in her life and finds herself pulled back into the world of her teenage years when she becomes involved in the marketing for a remake of the film.

The ‘Ponti’ of the title is the Pontianak, a ghostly creature from folklore who appears as a beautiful woman and lures men to their dooms, and a role Amisa played in a series of poorly received horror movies in her twenties. We learn, over the course of the book, of the lengths Amisa went to to inhabit that character, and the impact it had on the rest of her life. It’s affected the lives of the people around her as well, particularly Szu, who has grown up being partly impressed and partly embarrassed by her mother’s acting.

This is, at its heart, a book about three people whose lives are not going how they expected them to go. The people around them, a fascinating and sometimes unexpected cast of secondary characters (my personal favourite being Aunt Yunxi), often have expectations of them they have not met, or have made assumptions about them which are not true. They are also impacted greatly by the expectations society has of each of them at different stages of their lives – to be a devoted wife and mother, to be a well-behaved and polite child, to be a successful career woman – and it’s that none of them fit comfortably into those roles, but aren’t able to move freely outside them.

Summary

Ponti is a brilliant debut novel that will pull you in and wrap you up in the lives of its characters and its vivid sense of place. I would highly recommend it to anyone looking for a new voice in literary fiction, and can’t wait to see what Sharlene will write next.

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