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As winter draws in and a roaring open fire becomes a much more common – and pleasing – sight, the temperature drops and the British nights seem to never end, November seems to become a time for introspection and retrospection – which is, I suppose, what really prompted this blog post.

I recently had some bad news in that I was dismissed from my job, and although there’s never a right time to be fired, this time of year doesn’t seem to lend itself to positive thoughts for the future and seeing things in a more optimistic light. Yet, at the risk of sounding like something you would read out of a fortune cookie, sometimes the most negative of circumstances can be a good thing. I hope that somewhere down the line I retrospectively see this as a turning point; as the moment I was forced to pick  a new – and potentially more rewarding – path to go down. But enough about that.

It has been seven months since I last posted on this blog and that is inexcusable. I could make my excuses, and indeed it has been a tricky year for me, with a lot of personal issues stopping me from turning my attention to writing reviews and posts on a regular basis. However, for all of that, if I’m being honest, the lack of content is my own fault: I’ve become disillusioned with writing, jotting down my thoughts and opinions became a chore. I’ve always been of the mindset that if I didn’t enjoy what I was doing, I would stop: and that is what I did. Instead, I’ve read books without the pressure of deadlines; neglected creative writing to the point where I haven’t written a thing – unless tweets count? – for a very long time.

Yet recently I’ve realised this was a mistake. I enjoy writing, crafting reviews and sharing my thoughts – if not to a wide audience, or even any readers at all – but the actual process is invaluable to me, and it’s time I stopped fighting against that. I’m lucky enough to be in a position where publishers – whether via Netgalley or in physical form – and friends in publishing, will kindly send me books for review. They, and indeed the authors, deserve better than for me to sit looking at said book without ever writing the promised critique.

So it’s time to stop making excuses and start making amends. I hope that in the near future I can blog more frequently – with this website being used as a platform to share whatever I can dreg out from the dusty corners of my creativity. My apologies for being so rubbish – and I hope dearly that you can all jump on board once more.

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Glass Sword by Victoria Aveyard

https://d.gr-assets.com/books/1436460934l/23174274.jpgRise, red as the dawn…

So here it is, the book hundreds of Victoria Aveyard fans have been waiting for since the explosive conclusion of its predecessor Red Queen—a Young Adult novel that really set the cat amongst the pigeons and had the critics full of praise. If anything, Glass Sword now sets the ceiling even higher than before.

Mare Barrow has fled the capital in stunning fashion, hurried away underground by the Scarlet Gard and reunited with her brother Shade—who she believed was dead. Cal, the exiled prince—believed to have murdered his own father the king—is a reluctant member of a group who burst back into life like they never left: Farley, as battle-scarred and tenacious as ever, is a particular well-crafted highlight throughout.

It doesn’t take long before Mare realises that the Guard is much more than she ever imagined: better prepared, with bigger assets than the Silvers could ever expect; a well-oiled machine ready to cause chaos and bright the fight to King Maven, his sentinels, and, well, his army. As expected, Maven hunts the Guard—and indeed both Mare and Cal—with all his considerable resources and influence, leaving no stone unturned. Yet this is a war between more than just Silvers and Reds.

With Julian’s list in hand, Mare goes with her new friends—but remember, “anyone can betray anyone”—to hunt the “newbloods”, those people that are neither Silver or Red, just like Mare, and who contain powers and abilities far beyond those normally comprehensible. Indestructible humans; those with the ability to fly; young girls who can squeeze the life out from your body until you can no longer breathe and stare death in the face. You can tell Aveyard had fun letting loose with her imagination for this one.

Yet finding these newbloods—training this new “army” to fight Maven and his legions—is evidently not going to be a walk in the park: the new king has the list too, and for every member of the list they track down, there is an increasingly growing likelihood that the King’s men have got there first. Their retribution, as ever, promises to be cold, calculating and ruthless.

Aveyard’s biggest compliment should be the work she has done with Mare. Instead of your usual Young Adult fare, the character development with our chief protagonist is nicely done: after all, with prison breaks and firefights—not to mention the ability to cause lightening storms at will—you would expect her to change. After being forced to make some horrible moral choices, it seems Mare will finally succumb to the pressure heaped upon her shoulders. Or, at the very least, come of out it a different person—and not necessarily for the better.

To be fair to Aveyard, something about this sequel feels more ambitious than Red Queen. There’s a more expansive feel to the second book, as we learn more about the world Aveyard has created, and get to go plunging around its darkest corners and exploring its depths. I got a Game of Thrones-esque feel as I was reading this one: each of our main characters gets their moment of glory, while we’re introduced to a sweeping supporting cast of extras that also play their part.

Aveyard could have gone even further with this, and I’m almost certain she will do in the next book, but at just over 400 pages Glass Sword really does rattle breathlessly along. There’s more twists and turns than a rollercoaster at a national theme park—and good grief, prepare to be bowled over by one of the best cliff-hanger endings I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading—bur I actually enjoyed the slow change in character and temperament for most of our main cast.

This is a solid follow-up from a writer that holds a large audience in the palm of her hand. I for one am excited to see what she has up her sleeves next.

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My thanks as ever to the wonderful Sophie Calder (@SophCalder) and Orion Books for the ARC.

In a Land of Paper Gods by Rebecca Mackenzie

https://i1.wp.com/d.gr-assets.com/books/1438885095l/25923223.jpgRebecca Mackenzie’s debut novel, In a Land of Paper Gods, is surely set to delight readers this spring, as we’re treated to an often startling—and decidedly perceptive—look at one child’s journey into a strange world that is far from home.

Here we see Henrietta—or: Etta to her wild group of girl-friends and fellow classmates—as she spends her days amongst Christian missionaries, at a school in amongst the mountains. Her life is that of a daughter of parents who spread the word of God, as China sits on the brink of war, and all that implies.

Etta is thrust into a world where she is influenced by two separate cultures, and it is fascinating to see how Mackenzie picks through these ambiguities and conflicts, as the tension of the impending war ticks menacingly in the background.

The steadily approaching Japanese soldiers spent the most part of the novel in the background—conspicuous by their absence—before becoming increasingly more important figures in these girls’ lives. Mackenzie writes with a natural touch, contrasting the beauty with the impending war so subtly that you sometimes have to pause for breath before you realise what she’s done. She captures the spiritual world of China and forests, as mountains and waterfalls seem to come alive, leaping off the pages.

Mackenzie’s cast of characters are delightfully strange and innocent, often laugh-out-loud funny. Sarah, Isobel, Fiona, Kathryn, Edith, Flo, Hilary—and let’s not forget Big Bum Eileen—will form the weird and wonderful Prophetess Club.

At first their predictions seem just a little too ridiculous, hard to take seriously, but it’s quickly understood that this is a child’s way of dealing with the circumstances of war: of allowing themselves to disappear, Narnia-esque, away from reality and all that comes with it, in the soon to be war-torn Chinese mountains.

In the latter stages of In a Land of Paper Gods, inevitably the war catches up, as it has threatened to do in patches throughout its pages. At times Mackenzie’s writing can be brutal—but always hauntingly beautiful—as we are swept forward to an emotionally draining denoument that will have the most hardened of hearts aflutter.

This is a book that teems with beautiful images and descriptions—on love, friendship, and mostly: what it means to be human, regardless of your upbringing or culture. Mackenzie has crafted a debut novel that blends the historical with the personal, and she has done so with ease. I for one look forward to the next adventures that surely wait in future pages.

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My thanks, as ever, to the ever-wonderful Ella (@EllaMatildaB) and @TinderPress for the ARC.

In a Land of Paper Gods by Rebecca Mackenzie is available online and in all good bookstores, January 28.

The Devil is a Black Dog by Sándor Jászberényi

27207060This collection of short stories, translated from Hungarian by Matt Henderson Ellis, offers a truly breathtakingly stark glance—in a series of carefully constructed snapshots, mirroring each in their haunting portrayal of violence—at the horror of countries torn apart by war. The Devil is a Black Dog by Sándor Jászberényi explores the destruction that plagues these obscure, far-away nations—making us feel as though it is the reader who stands alone, dust and sand sticking to one’s clothes.

It’s to Jászberényi’s credit that the tales that make up this thin volume never quite feel like fiction: the image of a photojournalist’s jacket riddled with bullets—or of a man, lined up with others against a wall and offered a smoke, before being shot by a commander as that very same, just-lit cigarette hangs from his lips—is all too real. Similar images adorn our newspapers and television news channels on a daily basis, often to the point where we have, more than ever, become desensitized to the violence of war.

Despite that, Jászberényi’s stripped-back narrative style—which does not concern itself with political detail or very much background information at all—works effectively in bringing to the forefront the harsh realities of these war zones. In a manner that evokes Ernest Hemingway—and in particular the short vignettes that are interspersed between the stories of his first collection, In Our Time—Jászberényi gives us just enough, concentrating on the personal reactions of the people caught up in the violence, rather than the detail behind why these things are happening. All of the stories in The Devil is a Black Dog can be read without prior knowledge of the specific conflicts that are taking place.

At the same time, there is a peculiar sense of displacement; despite the sudden and often shocking images of bullet-ridden bodies and blood-spattered walls, our narrator—who, when all said and done is Jászberényi himself, the stories based on his time spent as a photojournalist in the likes of Cairo and Chad—mostly stays apart from the action, drinking whisky on a rooftop bar while and playing games on his phone while remaining detached. Ultimately, the reader struggles with this attachment too.

Perhaps “favourite” isn’t the right word for a collection of this kind, but for this reader there were certain stories that jumped out more than others. “The Dead Ride Fast”, the final tale in this collection, tells the story of two photojournalists—our reoccurring character Marosh, who often narrates throughout the book, and a scarred German woman—both of whom are trying to make the most of living in this world of rebellion and gunfire. “The Field’ is effective in a different way: its cruel conclusion—where a British humanitarian aid worker sits complaining about the delays in Heathrow airport, while the village she has just left is being burned to the ground—is a punch to the gut.

Each short story in Jászberényi’s The Devil is a Black Dog offers something different, even if the overreaching theme—the consequences of war—remains the same, as we’re swept along from Benghazi to Budapest. Perhaps inevitably—by the very nature of the author’s personal experiences being written about via fiction rather than, say, memoir—the writing is assured: Jászberenyi knows exactly what he wants to say, but more importantly how he wants to say it.

This, Jászberényi’s first collection, is an impressive read—and this reader at least will be looking forward to future publications.

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Thank you to the lovely people at @ScribeUKbooks for the ARC.