First a quick explanation!
Due to some severe health issues over the last few years, and a lingering chronic condition, my planned review schedule went right out of the window and I have been scrabbling ever since to get it back on track.
In my latest attempt to try to regain some lost ground, I have been scrunching some of my (overdue) NetGalley reviews together into one or two posts each week: shorter reviews, but still covering all of the points I intended to.
That’s the plan anyway and so far, so good…!
Title: Rumaysa: A Fairytale
Author: Radiya Hafiza
Publisher: Macmillan Children’s Books
Blurb: Step into a Once Upon a Time where anything is possible . . . Radiya Hafiza’s enchanting and funny debut weaves together three stories, spinning the classic fairytale to show that anyone can be a hero.
‘Rumaysa, Rumaysa, let down your hijab!’
For as long as she can remember Rumaysa has been locked away in her tower, forced to spin straw into gold for the evil Witch, unable to leave. Until one day, after dropping a hijab out of her small tower-window, Rumaysa realizes how she might be able to escape . . .
Join Rumaysa as she adventures through enchanted forests and into dragon’s lairs, discovers her own incredible magical powers and teams up with Cinderayla and Sleeping Sara!
Rumaysa: A Fairytale is a magically fresh, empowering and funny debut, which retells three classic fairytales – Rapunzel, Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty – with beautiful inside illustrations by Rhaida El Touny and cover illustration by Areeba Siddique.
Review: Three classic fairytales – Rapunzel, Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty – retold with Muslim main characters and a feminist slant that will be appealing to modern middle-grade readers who aren’t keen on sitting around waiting for a prince to sort all of their problems out.
Rumaysa, Cinderayla and Sleeping Sara’s stories link together as each ‘princess’ solves her own problems and rescues herself (with perhaps a little help from her friends!). We also meet Suleiman, who, unlike most fairytale boy-wanderers, is a reluctant adventurer, but a very keen student.
There are plenty of useful lessons about not judging someone by their appearance, creative problem-solving and finding your own path, along with interesting cultural details about Islamic food and clothing. As well as being an entertaining story in its own right, I can see this making a fantastic school resource for talking about different cultural storytelling and about effectively changing an existing story to paint a very different picture.
Full of unexpected twists and clever, practical (or magical) solutions, this is an ideal book for fairytale fans looking for own voice representation and more modern morality.
Purchase Link: Rumaysa: A Fairytale on Amazon
Title: The Cleveland Heights LGBTQ Sci-Fi and Fantasy Role Playing Club
Author: Doug Henderson
Publisher: University Of Iowa Press
Blurb: On Thursday nights, the players assemble in the back of Readmore Comix and Games. Celeste is the dungeon master; Valerie, who works at the store, was roped in by default; Mooneyham, the banker, likes to argue; and Ben, sensitive, unemployed, and living at home, is still recovering from an unrequited love. In the real world they go about their days falling in love, coming out at work, and dealing with their family lives all with varying degrees of success. But in the world of their fantasy game, they are heroes and wizards fighting to stop an evil cult from waking a sleeping god.
But then a sexy new guy, Albert, joins the club, Ben’s character is killed, and Mooneyham’s boyfriend is accosted on the street. The connections and parallels between the real world and the fantasy one become stronger and more important than ever as Ben struggles to bring his character back to life and win Albert’s affection, and the group unites to organize a protest at a neighborhood bar. All the while the slighted and competing vampire role playing club, working secretly in the shadows, begins to make its move.
Review: This story intersperses a series of LGBTQ love story vignettes with those same characters coming together to play a table-top RPG (Dungeons and Dragons).
In theory, the characters are all supposed to be in their mid-twenties, but I felt most (if not all) of them acted younger, and while there are A LOT of sex jokes and references, there is no explicit sex to restrict this to a more adult audience.
In addition to the relationship ups and downs, and the characters’ inner struggles – Ben’s low self-esteem and loneliness; Valerie’s lack of communication and volatility; Moonyham’s issues with external and internalised homophobia – there is a sub-plot about vampire cosplayers challenging the D’n’D’ers in an imaginary power contest, which felt a little underdeveloped and underconnected to the rest of the plot.
While I didn’t really connect to the characters on an emotional level, finding the focus on relationship drama a little too intense for me (I preferred the RPG drama) and the characters a little bit unlikable, this was a fairly enjoyable, easy read which covered some interesting relationship issues and may find a more appreciative audience in a teen-/young adult readership.
Title: The Metal Heart
Author: Caroline Lea
Publisher: Penguin Michael Joseph UK
Blurb: Wild, beautiful and spellbinding, this is the compelling wartime story of freedom and love on the windswept islands of Orkney.
Five hundred Italian prisoners-of-war arrive to fortify these remote and windswept islands.
Resentful islanders are fearful of the enemy in their midst, but not orphaned twin sisters Dorothy and Constance. Already outcasts, they volunteer to nurse all prisoners who are injured or fall sick.
Soon Dorothy befriends Cesare, an artist swept up by the machine of war and almost broken by the horrors he has witnessed. She is entranced by his plan to build an Italian chapel from war scrap and sea debris, and something beautiful begins to blossom.
But Con, scarred from a betrayal in her past, is afraid for her sister; she knows that people are not always what they seem.
Soon, trust frays between the islanders and outsiders, and between the sisters – their hearts torn by rival claims of duty and desire.
A storm is coming . . .
In the tradition of Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, The Metal Heart is a hauntingly rich Second World War love story about courage, freedom and the essence of what makes us human during the darkest of times.
Review: A powerful, emotional story about love and war, trauma, obsession and power, compassion and kindness.
The heart of the story is the bond between the two sisters, Dot and Con, living isolated in their remote refuge after an assault which has left Con fearful and distrustful. Interwoven with the complex sisterly bond is historical detail about the conditions for foreign POWs, a suspense-laden plotline about obsessive love, and a sweet romance that develops despite the adverse conditions.
There is a strong sense of time and place throughout – you can taste the sea salt and feel the wind’s chill through your bones as you read – and the ways the main characters face their challenges are a testament to the perseverance and endurance of the human spirit.
I was quite worried towards the end of the story, as in the build-up to the climax I wasn’t sure how the author was going to manage a happy-ish ending for the characters at all, and I was desperately rooting for it after everything they had been through. However, Caroline Lea skilfully navigates those dangerous waters to deliver an ending which, while not exactly happy, is certainly both narratively satisfying and satisfyingly unexpected.
Purchase Link: The Metal Heart on Amazon
Author: Cari Thomas
Publisher: HarperCollins UK, HarperFiction, HarperVoyager
Blurb: Within the boroughs of London, nestled among its streets, hides another city, filled with magic.
Anna’s Aunt has always warned her of the dangers of magic. Its twists. Its knots. Its deadly consequences.
Now Anna counts down the days to the ceremony that will bind her magic forever.
Until she meets Effie and Attis.
They open her eyes to a London she never knew existed. A shop that sells memories. A secret library where the librarian feeds off words. A club where revellers lose themselves in a haze of spells.
But as she is swept deeper into this world, Anna begins to wonder if her Aunt was right all along.
Is her magic a gift … or a curse?
Review: This feels like two different stories, tightly knotted together, with some mysterious murders as a backdrop.
We start with Anna and her Aunt, who seem to be locked in an abusive, coercive relationship which Anna is due to willingly commit to any day now. When another Aunt turns up with a pair of ‘too-cool-for-school’ teens in tow, Anna hopes for a lifeline that will save her from choosing between defying her Aunt and giving up what little magic she has forever. Instead, she is plunged into the drama of a more normal teen life (if you ignore the magical elements!) – bullying, hazing, peer pressure and romance. This strand reminded me of The Craft in many ways.
I love the world of magic and magic use (or not) that Cari Thomas has created here, with its Binders and Hunters, and personal magical ‘languages’, such as music, plants, potions, or *shudders* knots. The Binders and their knots definitely got in my head and under my skin… by the end of the story I was feeling every knot, needle and nasty comment along with Anna.
While the ending does resolve Anna’s personal mysteries, the bigger storyline is left open to lead into a sequel, and I will definitely need to check that out and find out what happens to Anna, Effie, Attis and Rowan. If you love YA fantasy with a bit of everything – romance, mystery, horror, magic – then this is a great start to a promising new series/trilogy.
Purchase Link: Threadneedle on Amazon
Title: Circus of Wonders
Author: Elizabeth Macneal
Publisher: Pan Macmillan, Picador
Blurb: Set in a spectacular circus in the pleasure gardens of Victorian London, this is an addictive novel about power, fame, and a love that is threatened by a terrible secret.
1866. In a coastal village in southern England, Nell lives set apart by her community because of the birthmarks that speckle her skin.
But when Jasper Jupiter’s Circus of Wonders arrives in the village, Nell is kidnapped. Her father has sold her, promising Jasper Jupiter his very own leopard girl. It is the greatest betrayal of Nell’s life, but as her fame grows, and she finds friendship with the other performers and Jasper’s gentle brother Toby, she begins to wonder if joining the show is the best thing that has ever happened to her.
In London, newspapers describe Nell as the eighth wonder of the world. Figurines are cast in her image, and crowds rush to watch her soar through the air. But what happens when her fame eclipses Jasper’s own? And as she falls in love with Toby, can he detach himself from his past and the terrible secret that binds him to his brother?
Review: This carnival drama explores the destruction that can be caused by the jealousy of two brothers, the egos of two proud men, and the self-effacing self-loathing of two lovers.
Initially I believed Nell to be the main character, as she deals with the negativity of others towards her unusual beauty and attempts to find a role in which she can shine. Gradually, however, the interplay between Jasper and Toby, and the war secrets they are both hiding, soon begin to eclipse poor Nellie Moon’s rise.
There were similarities here to A Girl Made of Air, also set in a circus full of jealousy, love and despair, but while this story is both well-written and entertaining, I never quite felt the magic catch alight in the way I had hoped, and the unsatisfying ending felt like a bit of a damp squib. Even so, this is a beautifully mesmerising read.
Elizabeth Macneal is a superbly talented writer, with a knack for emotional family- and romantic drama that carries a touch of underlying magic, and fans of magical realism will enjoy this latest spectacle.
Purchase Link: Circus of Wonders on Amazon
Five strikingly beautiful covers for this batch – it was definitely the covers that drew me first, then the blurbs sealed the deal!
I hope you enjoyed this quick sweep through a middle-grade fairytale retold, a YA LGBTQ drama, an historical romance, a YA fantasy series-starter and a historical magical-realism story. I’m sure you know by now that I read widely across any and all genres, so a mixed bag shouldn’t be much of a surprise to you!
If you find a book you love, or one that tempts you into trying it, do get in touch and let me know your thoughts… I’d love to hear them!
Keep reading and sharing the #booklove!