YA

REVIEW: Dread Nation by Justina Ireland

When the War Between the States was derailed when the dead began to walk the battlefields of Gettysburg and Chancellorsville, America’s history took a different turn. In this new nation, safety for all depends on the work of a few, and laws like the Native and Negro Reeducation Act require certain children attend combat schools to learn to put down the dead. Jane McKeene is studying to become an Attendant, trained in both weaponry and etiquette to protect rich white folk. It’s a chance for a better life for Negro girls like Jane, but not one Jane wants. Almost finished with her education at Miss Preston’s School of Combat in Baltimore, Jane is set on returning to her Kentucky home. But when families around Baltimore County begin to go missing, Jane is caught in the middle of a conspiracy, one that finds her in a desperate fight for her life against some powerful enemies – not all of them undead.

I find alternate history stories fascinating. They can easily not work if they change the outcome of a big historical event, but then present things are 100% better or a lot of society’s problems are solved now that change has been made. That’s not the case with Dread Nation. While the outcome of the Civil War is different as the Union states and the Confederacy have had to stop fighting in order to fight the dead, that doesn’t mean prejudices and racism has disappeared.

Jane and the other black girls at her combat school now have a skill that can be used by society, but that doesn’t mean they are treated well by white people, especially those in positions of power. It’s the way Dread Nation combines the horror of racism with the horror of zombies that is really interesting. Jane is not just fighting against the dead, but also the systematic racism that’s prevalent in every situation she encounters.

Jane is a great character. It took me a little while to warm to her as she’s so headstrong and doesn’t know when to stop when it comes to answering back her superiors. But she’s also smart, resourceful, and can lie like a rug. She’s one for tall tales and can think outside the box which is important when she’s put in dangerous situations.

Her reluctant friendship with Katherine, another girl from the school who can pass for white (which in term brings about a lot of interesting discussions of race and how Katherine feels about what her perceived skin colour can get her), is great as they are so different. Jane is a rule-breaker, constantly looking to learn things people would rather people like her didn’t, whereas Katherine is more reserved, looking forward to the life of an Attendant and doesn’t wish to rock the boat. They are both extremely capable of taking down the undead, or shamblers as they’re known.

The shamblers are unsettling and the way they’re described makes their presence felt almost constantly. They are a threat that’s always on the peripheral of Jane’s life, and when one or two or a dozen are near, it’s a fight to survive.

Dread Nation is a fast-paced, action-packed story with an interesting premise that lives up to the potential. It’s the first book in a series and I’m looking forward to continue it as there’s still so much to learn about the shamblers, how they group together, and what the government of each state is planning to do about them. 4/5.

REVIEW: The Places I’ve Cried in Public by Holly Bourne

Trigger warnings for controlling behaviour, emotional abuse, gaslighting, sexual assault and rape.

Amelie loved Reese. And she thought he loved her. But she’s starting to realise love isn’t supposed to hurt like this. So now she’s retracing their story and untangling what happened by revisiting all the places he made her cry. Because if she works out what went wrong, perhaps she can finally learn to get over him.

Do you ever start a book, and you’re only a couple of chapters in or less than 50 pages in, but you think to yourself “Wow, this book is going to be incredible”? Because that’s how a felt about The Places I’ve Cried in Public when I’d only read the first two chapters and I’m happy to say that gut reaction was correct.

The Places I’ve Cried in Public really was incredible. It has two timelines, Amelie in the present going to the various places she’s cried over Reese, a park bench, a bus stop, her music class, and trying to process everything that has happened and her own thoughts ad emotions. Then when Amelie is at these various places, she remembers the incident that had made her cry, and slowly the rose-tinted view of her relationship with Reese is worn away as she sees the red flags she didn’t notice before, or saw but ignored them because she was so caught up in Reese.

There are so many great, thought-provoking lines and whole passages in The Places I’ve Cried in Public. Especially in how it deals with trauma and abuse, slowly working things out as Amelie does, giving words to the things she’s feeling as she starts to process them. One of my favourite quotes is: “Crying is a very obvious sign that something isn’t going right in your life. You should not ignore tears.”

And another favourite passage is: “I wonder how many times in a given second girls are told that their guts are wrong? Told our tummies are misfiring, like wayward fireworks. No, no, no, dear, it’s not like that at all. Where did you get that from? I promise you that’s not the case. You are overreacting. You are crazy. You are insecure. You are being a silly little thing. And, then, days or weeks or even years later, we look back on The Bad Thing that happened to us because we ignored all the signs, and we say to ourselves I wish I had listened to my gut.”

I think they both sum up the difficulties people, but perhaps girls especially when so often the media and society wants to mould them into a certain way, have when trying to figure out their own emotions. There are so many moments in The Places I’ve Cried in Public that are like a punch to the gut with their poignancy.

The Places I’ve Cried in Public is so compelling because as an outsider, you see a lot of the little warning signs that Amelie ignores, or sees in a positive light, even when friends, some of who she’s known her whole life, point them out to her. It’s well-written because even as you see the issues, you can also understand where Amelie is coming from, making her a sympathetic character as her whole sense of being is changed by her connection to Reese.

The Places I’ve Cried in Public is an incredibly sad story but also one that offers hope for anyone who may be in a similar situation to Amelie. There are scenes of Amelie going to a counsellor which were very well-written and important as it shows how there are people out there to help and no one should feel lesser for needing help. The Places I’ve Cried in Public really is a fantastic book and it’s one that’ll leave a lasting impression. 5/5.

REVIEW: Let It Snow (2019)

When a snowstorm hits a small town on Christmas Eve, a group of high school seniors finds their friendships and love lives unexpectedly colliding.

Let It Snow is Netflix’s latest foray into YA book adaptations. The book with the same name was written by John Green, Maureen Johnson and Lauren Myracle and was three interconnected stories about teenagers finding romance in the snow. I can’t comment on how it was as an adaptation as I haven’t read the source material, but as a film it was really good.

The young cast are so great in their roles that it’s very easy to be charmed by them and quickly get invested in their relationships. There’s Julie (Isabela Moner) who accidentally runs into pop star Stuart (Shameik Moore), there’s Tobin (Mitchell Hope) who finally plucks up the courage to tell his best friend Angie (Kiernan Shipka) how he feels about her when JP (Matthew Noszka) comes into their lives, and Dorrie (Liv Hewson) is not only head over heels for a cheerleader but she’s also getting frustrated with her best friend Addie (Odeya Rush) who doesn’t see how great she is. There are even more characters than that and different relationships and friendships but those are the main ones that run through the film.

The relationship between Julie and Stuart could’ve felt very instalove but thanks to Moner and Moore’s great chemistry it doesn’t, and you find yourself rooting for these two very different people meet and form an unlikely connection.

While Let It Snow does follow a lot of the usual romance or teen movie tropes, it does have a different take on a couple. JP, for instance, is supposed to be the guy you hate as he’s getting in the way of a potential romance between Tobin and Angie, but because he’s such a nice guy (but not a Nice Guy™) you don’t, and neither does Tobin. It’s also lovely to see the friendship between two teenage girls getting such prominence and the two of them trying to help one another even when the truth hurts.

The film does a good job at juggling all the storylines and interweaving them and the characters in a way that feels natural. One storyline never feels like it’s getting more attention than another and having the film take place over one day is great as it’s like peaking through a window into these characters lives.

Let It Snow is just so sweet and fluffy! It’s the right balance of funny and sad, and with its snowy setting, which does look like a picture-postcard, Let It Snow feels like a warm Christmassy hug – which is exactly what you want from a Christmas movie. 4/5.

REVIEW: Sherwood by Meagan Spooner

Narrated by Fiona Hardingham.

Robin of Locksley is dead. Maid Marian doesn’t know how she’ll go on, but the people of Locksley town, persecuted by the Sheriff of Nottingham, need a protector. And the dreadful Guy of Gisborne, the Sheriff’s right hand, wishes to step into Robin’s shoes as Lord of Locksley and Marian’s fiancé. Marian never meant to tread in Robin’s footsteps—never intended to stand as a beacon of hope to those awaiting his triumphant return. But with a sweep of his green cloak and the flash of her sword, Marian makes the choice to become her own hero: Robin Hood.

I have such mixed feelings about this book. I listened to it on audio and it took me a while to get into the story because I couldn’t get on with the accents the narrator chose to do. Though, if I had not have been listening to the audiobook, I probably would’ve stopped reading it. Sherwood is quite slow to get going and even when there were fights, they were often predictable.

I had such a love hate relationship with Marian. Sometimes she was kind and thoughtful and clever, but then other times she’s so dense, self-centred and reckless it’s infuriating. She is written to be better than Robin of Locksley in every single way, she’s better at archery, she’s smarter, she’s more loyal. It’s weird and contradictory because she’s constantly putting Robin on a pedestal in her mind but at the same time often says things a long the line of “Robin could never do this”. I liked her relationship with her maid Elena but that’s probably because I liked Elena as a character more than Marian a lot of the time.

The “romance” between Marian and Guy of Gisborne was not good. It’s a problematic relationship from the start as they both use and manipulate one another and Guy is needlessly stupid when it comes to not realising that the Robin Hood he’s chasing, and the girl he’s attempting to woo are one and the same. The author tried to give Guy more of a backstory make him more sympathetic and all the time I was like “Why are you trying to make this bad guy misunderstood?!” and this character development was done so slowly that where his character ends up at the end seems so rushed.

Speaking of rushed, the ending of Sherwood became really rather convoluted as there were too many plot threads that were attempted to be addressed in the big final showdown. It was hard to keep track of where characters were, who knew what, and what they were trying to achieve.

I think my main problem with this book is that it is a retelling, and a retelling of a story and characters that I hold dear. I’ve read and enjoyed retellings before like The Lunar Chronicles, and I’ve read retellings that I didn’t really like, like Frankenstein in Baghdad but my dislike of it wasn’t due to it being a retelling. Previously when I’ve read retellings, they’ve been based on stories I’ve had little to no attachment to and then it’s fun to see the new twists on a well-known story.

With Sherwood, I didn’t like what the new twists did to characters I like. My Robin Hood story is Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves and I’ll admit the versions of the characters in that film are the ones I know and love. Here, none of the Merry Men get any sort of character development. Will Scarlett is nothing more than a wet weekend while Little John, Alan-a-Dale and Much are only recognisable by their names. I liked the idea of Marian being good with a sword and independent, but it becomes far too close to her being Not Like Other Girls that it’s cringey.

Perhaps Sherwood would’ve worked if it hadn’t had been a retelling. If it was the story of a noble young lady wanting to help people and making friends and having adventures separate from the Robin Hood myth it might’ve worked. Because naturally Sherwood lends itself to comparisons of not only the original story but to the many adaptations that have come before it, and in those comparisons it is found severely lacking.

When I started writing this review I thought I’d give it two stars, but as I was writing I came to the realisation that there was far more that I disliked about Sherwood than liked, and if I hadn’t had it on audio from my library, I definitely would’ve given up on it.

I love the premise of Sherwood but the execution leaves much to be desired, especially when it tears down other characters to make its lead a Strong Female Character, and unfortunately the majority of the story and its characters fall flat. 1/5.

Wildest Dreams Book Box: Self Care

This week October’s Wildest Dreams box arrived at my door – well technically I had to pick it up from the post office because neither me nor my flatmate were in when the postman came. Wildest Dreams is a UK subscription box that tends to have a YA contemporary book in it along with some tea, a self-care product, and some other little things. Wildest Dreams is a more affordable option compared to the majority of book boxes out there.

Wildest Dreams is a monthly book box and this month’s theme was Self Care. As you probably know by now, I’m not a regular purchaser of book boxes, instead I keep an eye out on what themes interest me and just get the odd box. I liked the sound of this month’s theme because as winter comes closer and it gets darker earlier, I could definitely use some self-care.

The tea this month was vanilla black tea from Rosie Lea Tea and it was inspired by 13 Reasons Why by Jay Asher. I’m not a tea drinker but I have friends who are so I can pass the tea onto them. I like how the tea comes with its own tea bags because I always think people might not have their own tea strainer handy for loose tea.

There was a Cinderella inspired pumpkin wax melt from Pumpkin Parcel. I don’t have a wax burner, but to be honest I don’t even need one as the melt smells so strongly. I’ve currently got it sitting on my bedside table and I like the smell a lot. There was a bracelet from Mermaid Mary’s inspired by Turtles All the Way Down by John Green and an exclusive art print by Lia from @lostinink_. The art print is beautiful, and I think I’m going to take it to work. There’s a pin board near my desk and I think it’s always a good idea to remember to breathe when you’re at work and potentially stressed.

The book in this month’s box is The Places I’ve Cried in Public by Holly Bourne. I’ve not actually read any books by Holly Bourne before (despite seeing them everywhere!) so this gives me the perfect chance to give her work a try. The synopsis reads: “Amelie loved Reese. And she thought he loved her. But she’s starting to realise love isn’t supposed to hurt like this. So now she’s retracing their story and untangling what happened by revisiting all the places he made her cry. Because if she works out what went wrong, perhaps she can finally learn to get over him.”

The Places I’ve Cried in Public sounds like it’s going to be a tearjerker as it tackles abusive relationships. Handily, the book came with a little pack of tissues, and there was also a bookmark and a letter from the author. The book also has purple sprayed edges which match the purple text on the cover which looks very pretty.

Once again, I liked my Wildest Dreams box a lot. It’s simple but well put together. Everything is wrapped in tissue paper in the box and the book is wrapped in brown paper which I always think looks smart. I’m looking forward to reading my first Holly Bourne book – even if there’s a good chance it’ll make me cry.

REVIEW: Internment by Samira Ahmed

It’s been one year since the census landed seventeen-year-old Layla Amin and her parents on the registry. And one month since the President declared that “Muslims are now a threat to America”. now, Layla and her parents are suddenly taken from their home and forced into an internment camp in the desert for Muslim American citizens. With the help of newly made friends trapped within the internment camp with her, her Jewish boyfriend on the outside, and an unexpected alliance, Layla begins to fight for freedom, leading a revolution against the internment camp’s Director and his guards.

Part of the reason why Internment is so affecting from the first few pages, is how close it is to our reality now. The rhetoric that comes from the fictional President, and the reactions of white nationalistic people in this story, mirrors what we’ve seen ourselves over the past few years. It’s unsettling because it’s as if the events in Internment could happen, or maybe something very similar already is.

Layla gets frustrated with her parents conforming to societies new rules (her dad gets fired from his job, and she gets suspended from school for kissing her Jewish boyfriend) before they even end up in the internment camp but it’s out of fear and wanting to protect themselves and their child that they do this. In the camp everyone is under constant surveillance and Layla gets more frustrated about how her parents are acting. It’s a self-preservation tactic but Layla is so angry about the injustice she’s experiencing because of her religion that she doesn’t care.

Ayesha, Layla’s new friend in the camp, is great and she makes just the right number of pop culture references without it being too on the nose or cringey. How the two of them lift each other up in such dark times is wonderful to see, and together they make plans for how they can resist and fight for their freedom.

The only minor quibbles I have with Internment concerns David, Layla’s boyfriend, and Corporal Jake, a guard in the camp. Layla almost seems obsessed with David and the risks she puts herself, and others, through to make contact with him is reckless. He is her one piece of normalcy and a connection to the world outside of the camps electric fences, but it almost gets a little unbelievable at times. Corporal Jake is an unlikely ally for Layla, but it’s never really explained why she trusts him so quickly, or how he seems to have so much power and respect in the camp when he’s still pretty young himself at only a few years older than Layla. Those issues can be forgiven though as the messages in Internment and how resilient Layla is to be commended.

Internment touches on a lot of themes to different extents. Islamophobia, racism, fascism, the power of the media, how women and girls who decide to wear the hijab or men who wear traditional dress can have different experiences as they are more “visibly” Muslim. Layla doesn’t wear the hijab and even she must reflect on some of the unconscious stereotypes she believes as first about those who do.

The last third of Internment had me all choked up. Layla is put through so much pain – mental, emotional and physical – as she and her friends and her parents are constantly threatened, but she still manages to stay strong and resolute in her aims. It’s as more and more people from different backgrounds join Layla in her protests that it shows how powerful protests, even peaceful ones can be. The way social media is used to spread the word of what is happening in the camp, and how people outside of it react feels true to life and shows Layla and her fellow prisoners aren’t as alone as they might’ve feared.

Internment is a tough yet powerful read. It showcases the true horrors of human nature, how fear or greed can make people turn on each other, but it also shows the strength people have, how people can fight for what’s right and protect one another. It’s (unfortunately) a timely read but that makes it all the more affecting. 5/5.

REVIEW: A Blade So Black by L.L. McKinney

Alice is a normal teenager with school, a high-maintenance best friend and a mum who gets annoyed when she misses her curfew. But what her mum doesn’t know is that the reason she so often misses curfew is because she’s fighting monsters called Nightmares. Nightmares come from Wonderland, a dark realm where there’s magic, creatures and secrets. When Alice’s handsome and mysterious mentor Addison Hatta is poisoned, Alice must venture further into Wonderland than she ever had before to find the antidote. She’ll have to use all her skills and connections to keep from losing her head – literally.

As you might imagine, A Blade So Black is inspired by Alice in Wonderland and it’s fun to see the references to the sour material and how the author puts a spin on certain aspects like characters names and idiosyncrasies. When it comes to Wonderland itself, not a lot of the world is explained but what you do see of it is very weird and eerie. The Nightmares are indeed nightmarish creatures and Alice’s battles with them are fierce. Alice is strong and skilled, but she also makes mistakes, gets scared and doubts herself a lot which means it’s never clear if she’ll come out on top in a battle.

A lot of the conflict in A Blade So Black comes from the fact Alice struggles being a normal teenager with being a Dreamwalker. She’s keeping secrets and lying with the only person in her “normal” life who knows about what she does in Wonderland is her best friend Courtney. Alice is black and, in her neighbourhood, a teenage black girl has recently been gunned down which adds to her mum’s anxiety when Alice seems to disappear and not answer her phone, as she is almost constantly worried the same thing is going to happen to her daughter.

Alice is a bit of a stroppy teenager (which is allowed) and one with magical responsibilities, but she doesn’t often think things through and how her actions can hurt other people. Her mum has very justifiable reasons to be angry and scared when Alice isn’t contactable for long periods of time, but Alice can’t really see that which is frustrating.

A Blade So Black is bit of a weird book pacing-wise. The first half spends the time setting up the conflicts between Alice and her friends and family as she juggles her Dreamwalker duties and being a normal teenager and introduces you to Wonderland but nothing big plot-wise happens until the halfway point. It’s then that Hatta gets poisoned and after that a lot happens very quickly with new characters being introduced and you learn more about the history of Wonderland and what it could mean for Alice. It makes the second half of the book feel rushed and, while it is the first book in a series so it’s understandable that not all plot threads will be tied up, there’s a pretty major one that doesn’t feel like the characters make much headway with.

The premise of A Blade So Black and its setting is more interesting than the actual plot. Still, it’s a quick and enjoyable read and it’s a solid foundation for future books in the series to build on. 3/5.