The Mud and Stars Book Blog

thoughts from a girl who spends her days in other worlds…

ARC Book Review: ‘The Hazel Wood’ by Melissa Albert

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The Hazel Wood. Melissa Albert. Penguin. Release date: 8th February 2018.

Seventeen-year-old Alice and her mother have spent most of Alice’s life on the road, always a step ahead of the strange bad luck biting at their heels. But when Alice’s grandmother, the reclusive author of a book of pitch-dark fairy tales, dies alone on her estate – the Hazel Wood – Alice learns how bad her luck can really get. Her mother is stolen away – by a figure who claims to come from the cruel supernatural world where her grandmother’s stories are set. Alice’s only lead is the message her mother left behind: STAY AWAY FROM THE HAZEL WOOD.

To retrieve her mother, Alice must venture first to the Hazel Wood, then into the world where her grandmother’s tales began…


Thank you to Netgalley and Penguin for providing me with a digital ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review.

I finished reading The Hazel Wood over the Christmas holidays and I have been putting off writing my review ever since, because I had no idea what to say about it without being too spoilery. It’s one of those books you’re better off going into without knowing too much, because the weird twists and turns are what make it such a compelling read.

When I first read the description of this book, I was DESPERATE to get my hands on it, especially when I saw that one reviewer had compared it to Night Film by Marisha Pessl (which is one of my favourite books of all time). When I initially requested the book on Netgalley, I got rejected, and I was SO disappointed, but then a few weeks later I randomly decided to try my luck again and this time I got approved! I was OVER THE MOON.

This was such a fantastic book to read over Christmas because it provided a strange and absorbing world to escape into whenever Christmassy socialising got a bit overwhelming. It’s one of those books that really draws you in and makes you forget where you are. The writing is creepy, atmospheric, and surreal; in other words, my ultimate cup of tea.

What made The Hazel Wood such an addictive read for me was the weird mystery of it all, and the blurred lines between fantasy and reality. I can see why this book has been compared to Night Film, because both books are reality-bending, thrilling reads, and both involve a character investigating the works and worlds of a mysterious, elusive creator (in Night Film it’s a cult horror movie director, but in The Hazel Wood it’s a cult fairytale writer; what a cool thing to be obscurely famous for, amiright?!).

Althea Proserpine, author of ‘Tales From The Hinterland’ was such a fascinating character, because she is such an enigma in the story; Alice, her granddaughter (and our protagonist) has never even read a copy of her book because it’s so rare and difficult to get hold of. Her stories are a mystery, her fans are full of strange theories which they discuss on shady internet forums, her estate ‘The Hazel Wood’ has attained mythical status, because nobody knows where it is, though many have tried to find it, and being an absent Grandmother, she’s a missing piece in Alice’s family puzzle too. I adored the experience of unravelling each thread in this complex, one-woman mystery.

Another thing I really enjoyed about The Hazel Wood was the mother/daughter dynamic between Alice and her mother Ella. Ella is something of an enigma too, because she is a keeper of many secrets, and as the majority of the book’s storyline is Alice’s quest to find Ella, they don’t get that much page-time together. However, it was lovely to see how close Alice felt to, and fiercely loyal she was towards, her mum (something we don’t often see in YA books), and Alice’s connection with her mum really helped me to find a connection with her (something I struggled with initially, because I found her spiky and difficult to warm up to).

I really enjoyed all of the flashbacks from Alice’s childhood with Ella, and it was interesting to see how their lifestyle affected and deepened the bond between them; Alice’s whole childhood was spent moving from place to place, sometimes at the drop of a hat, so, being all each other really had in the world, Alice and Ella were bound very tightly together from the beginning.

Undoubtedly what I loved most about The Hazel Wood was its use of fairytale. Although we don’t get to hear all of Althea’s tales, I was gripped completely by each and every one of them. I wish ‘Tales From The Hinterland’ was a real book (or at the very least, a spin-off written by Melissa Albert 😛 ), because I would give anything to read it.

The fairytales interspersed within this novel were so dark, strange, and creepy, and I just devoured them. The beginning of the story ‘Alice Three Times’ in particular made me shiver. I don’t want to say too much about the stories and how they tie in with Alice’s quest, because I don’t want to spoil anything, but I found the whole concept very imaginative, and very well executed. I would have liked the last section of the book to have been a little longer, so we could have delved more deeply into the setting of Althea’s stories, but I’m pretty sure there is going to be a sequel to this book, so I’m grateful there is still plenty more to explore.

All in all, The Hazel Wood was a novel I couldn’t put down (and immediately decided to re-read upon finishing!) I cannot wait for this book to come out in February so I can get my hands on a physical copy, and I can’t wait for more people to read this so I have someone to talk about it with!

Have you read The Hazel Wood? What did you think of it? Reviews seem to be mixed, but for me it completely lived up to my (very high) expectations!

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Book review: ‘The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue’ by Mackenzi Lee

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The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue. Mackenzi Lee. Katherine Tegan Books. June 2017.

Henry “Monty” Montague doesn’t care that his roguish passions are far from suitable for the gentleman he was born to be. But as Monty embarks on his grand tour of Europe, his quests for pleasure and vice are in danger of coming to an end. Not only does his father expect him to take over the family’s estate upon his return, but Monty is also nursing an impossible crush on his best friend and traveling companion, Percy.

So Monty vows to make this yearlong escapade one last hedonistic hurrah and flirt with Percy from Paris to Rome. But when one of Monty’s reckless decisions turns their trip abroad into a harrowing manhunt, it calls into question everything he knows, including his relationship with the boy he adores.


I don’t tend to reach for historical fiction often, but if more historical fiction books were written like this one, I would be far more inclined to pick them up. This book’s writing style was so accessible and modern, which made it light and fun to read. There was plenty of historical detail, and I could picture everything vividly, but there wasn’t so much as to make the book dry, and I never felt like the author was trying to overwhelm me by cramming in everything she knew about the period.

Something I really appreciated about his book was the author’s guide to the historical context at the end. There had been points throughout the story where I had been thinking ‘Could that really have happened in the 1700s?’ (even though I know NOTHING about the 1700s, so I was clearly talking out of my posterior), but everything had a factual basis, and it was clear the author had done her research. I learnt a lot from this book, particularly regarding race, sexuality, and scientific thought during this time period, but the story always came first, and I never felt like I was being lectured, which to me is the way all historical fiction should read.

Monty was a fabulous narrator – funny, self-deprecating, arrogant, yet insecure. Monty messed up A LOT in this book, but he felt like a real person BECAUSE of his flaws. I abso-bloody-lutely adored him, and just wanted to cuddle him, and tell him everything was going to be okay. Percy was another wonderful character. He was calm and sensible, but never boring. Beneath his quiet façade he had a wicked sense of humour, and the solid sense of confidence needed to call Monty out whenever he was being an idiot. Percy, despite growing up in a white aristocratic household, was a mixed raced character, which was a refreshing perspective to see explored in a historical novel. Characters of colour are not often enough given the spotlight in historical fiction, unless said books are exploring race-related topics specifically (which of course this book does too to a certain extent); it was wonderful to read a story about a POC character in the 1700s embarking on a thrilling (and romantic!) adventure with his best friend. We need more books like this one!

My favourite thing by far about this book was the relationship between Monty and Percy. Monty is a bisexual character who is secretly (but quite obviously) in love with his best friend, and I felt so many feels in all of the scenes where Monty was pining over Percy. These two were SO shippable, but also their relationship was flawed and realistic. There are moments when Monty is being selfish, and not really thinking about what Percy needs/how he feels, and there are moments when he really needs to be called out on that. Percy doesn’t hesitate to do so, and I felt like Percy really helped Monty to grow as a person, and acknowledge his areas of ignorance. I felt like Percy was the perfect match for Monty, bringing him back to reality whenever he went too far, and brining balance and harmony to their relationship. Percy, in short, was exactly what Monty needed.

Monty’s sister Felicity was also a character I loved to pieces. She was crotchety, smart, and always had her head stuck in a book, even at the breakfast table. Basically, she was a girl after my own heart. I hate the phrase ‘strong female character’, but to me, Felicity was exactly that. She wasn’t someone who knew how to fight, or use a weapon, but she was someone who could use her brain to outsmart anybody, and her self-taught knowledge and practical skills helped her to come up with solutions to so many of the problems the trio encountered throughout their journey.

I loved how far from the course of their original Tour the characters ended up, and I loved how much of an adventure this book became. I don’t want to go into plot details too much, as I don’t want to spoil anything, but this book takes you all over Europe, leading you into lots of unexpected, and dangerous, situations along the way. This story never stopped being exciting! If I had one little quibble, it would be that the pacing was at times too fast, which sounds like a strange criticism, because nobody wants a 500-page book to drag! I just sometimes felt like we jumped from one situation to another too quickly, without any time to breathe in between. However, this was a very minor grumble – it didn’t bother me enough to spoil my five star rating of this book.

I loved this book so much; it more than lived up the hype for me, and I highly recommend it if you’re looking for a well-written, entertaining, funny, diverse read full of characters you will fall in love with. JUMP ON THAT BANDWAGON, YOU KNOW YOU WANT TO!

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Thriller review: ‘The Marriage Pact’ by Michelle Richmond

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The Marriage Pact. Michelle Richmond. Penguin. July 2017.

Would you stake your life on your marriage?

Newlyweds Jake and Alice are offered a mysterious wedding gift – membership of a club which promises its couples will never divorce.

Signing The Pact seems the start to a perfect marriage.

Until one of them breaks the rules.

The marriage of their dreams is about to become their worst nightmare.

Because The Pact is for life.

And its members will do anything to make sure no one leaves . . .


Thank you to Netgalley and Penguin for providing me with a digital copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

The Marriage Pact is hands down the best thriller I have read this year. I very rarely give 5 stars to a thriller these days because they are often samey and predictable, but this one had such a unique concept, and it was so well executed, that it ended up really wowing me.

I’ve always been fascinated by cults, but all of the cult-related books I have read have featured closed-community type cults. I loved that The Pact was a completely different kind of cult – an organisation operating on a global scale, with seemingly unlimited funds, and extreme levels of secrecy regarding its members and its methods. The scale, influence, and sinister mystery of The Pact made it all the more terrifying.

Jake and Alice were both likeable and believable characters, and I really enjoyed the development of their relationship, particularly seeing how it fared under such pressure (the whole being terrorised by a marriage-cult thing… just your standard marital problem). Although I loved both characters, they both frustrated me at times. The Pact really got between these characters, and the danger it put them in forced them to hide things from each other. But, if only they had communicated with each other more, they’d have had so much more ammunition with which to fight back against The Pact. I just wanted to smack their heads together, and be like: ‘Talk to each other, you fooools!” That being said, the deeper the trouble Jake and Alice got themselves into, the faster I was turning those pages. I cared about them, and I could barely put this book down; I carried it with me whilst I washed, dressed, cooked, ate, and absent-mindedly participated in conversations.

The Marriage Pact is told from Jake’s point of view, and I really connected with him as a narrator, although I would have welcomed some chapters from Alice’s point of view. There are sections of this book where Alice is going through (scary, scary) things that I would have loved to have heard about from her perspective. However, I guess I can appreciate why the author has chosen not to do this; the tension is ramped up to the max when Jake is separated from Alice and has no idea what is happening to her.

What I loved most about this novel was the world-building. World-building isn’t something I would usually associate with a thriller novel, but The Pact, as a wide-reaching cult-like community, needed a lot of setting-up. I think the author did a marvellous job of making The Pact feel like an authentic ‘world’, and succeeded at weaving in details throughout the story, rather than information-dumping everything at the beginning to set the scene. Every aspect of The Pact was well-thought out, from the rules, to the rituals, to the ridiculously terrifying Pact headquarters, named Fernley. I don’t want to reveal any details about what Fernley is/is like in this review, because I don’t want to spoil anything, but I felt like this gigantic place was so well described, so intricately thought out and revealed, that it felt scarily real, like the setting of a vivid nightmare.

If you are going to read this novel, naturally you are going to require a little suspension of disbelief. One thing that perplexed me when I first started reading this novel was how readily Jake and Alice signed their lives over to The Pact. Of course, they didn’t really know what they were letting themselves in for, but that’s where my issue lies; neither of them read The Pact’s main text ‘The Manual’ before deciding whether to join. In fact, they both scribble their signatures hastily, without even bothering to have a proper look at the contract they are signing. Alice is supposed to be an attorney, so it made no sense to me that she would sign a legal document without reading it first! Anyway, I quickly decided to suspend my disbelief, and I’m glad I did, because the story that followed was so exciting, I ended up being fully appreciative of Alice’s moment of madness (even if I do still think she needs to go back to Law school!)

All in all, I loved this thriller to pieces, and I decided to give this one a full 5 stars, because it gripped me so hard I was still thinking about it hours after finishing it. Highly recommend this book, especially if you’re looking for something to devour in one sitting.

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The ‘cute’ children’s classic that filled me with rage! #rantbookreview

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The Peppermint Pig. Nina Bawden. (First published 1975)

It is a difficult year for the Greengrasses. Poll’s father has lost his job and gone overseas, the family are living off the charity of two aunts, and Poll and her brother Theo just can’t seem to keep out of trouble. It takes a tiny, mischievous pig to bring laughter back into their lives.


I picked up this book because I love pigs and I thought this cosy-looking children’s classic would be the perfect cheer-me-up book. I am not usually one to discourage people from reading a particular book, but if you are an animal lover, vegetarian, or sensitive soul, I would strongly advise you don’t read The Peppermint Pig. I am also not usually one for spoilers, but I am going to spoil the ending of this book in my review/discussion because I need to talk about it and vent my feelings. Look away now, if you don’t want to be spoiled.

So, just to give you a brief idea of why I was so upset by this book, let me give you a synopsis:

  • Children’s dad loses his job. Dad goes off to America to try and make his fortune, leaving the rest of the family to move in with their aunts in a cramped cottage. They do not have much money.
  • Family get a little pet pig called Johnnie who is so small he fits inside a pint glass. Johnnie is a mischievous pig with a penchant for Hot Cross Buns, and cheers the family up with his cheeky antics.
  • Johnnie gets large and fat and too big for the house. Family gets a new puppy to distract the children from what is about to happen.
  • Mum sends Johnnie to the butcher to be slaughtered.

DEAR GOD, WHAT A CRUEL AND BRUTAL WAY TO END A STORY. I had no idea how to rate this book out of five stars, so I ended up giving it no rating at all. I wanted to give it 1 star, but I felt it would be unfair of me to give the book such a bad rating for having a sad ending. But I felt so angry with the author, and even more so with the publishers. Let me explain…

Up until Johnnie is killed, the book had been sweet and lovely and heartwarming. If this book didn’t have such a horrible ending, I might have given it four or five stars for its cosy, charming writing and amusing characters. But I felt incredibly betrayed by this book, because it pretends to be something it isn’t. If I was reading a Stephen King novel, I would expect at least one of the characters to come to a grisly end, because that’s kind of what I signed up for. But, the adorable pig on the front cover and the cutesy blurb on the back cover give no indication that Johnnie is going to end up on someone’s dinner plate by the end of this story. This book is packaged so that it will appeal to animal lovers, yet animals lovers are exactly the kind of audience who should avoid this book like the plague. It all feels so misleading: “Read this cute piggy book, it will make you so happy… oh wait, we’re lying to you, it will actually rip your heart out of your body and spit on it, whilst you sit there and cry a salty river of tears!”

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An even cuter purveyor of evil lies!

I think in some way the author intends for her audience to feel betrayed, because in feeling so we can fully empathise with the little girl protagonist Poll, who loves her friend Johnnie and feels horribly betrayed by her mother for sending him away to be killed and eaten. Perhaps the author is trying to explore the theme of adults lying to/misleading children, and that we cannot always trust those we love. But, the thing is, a few scenes later, the author attempts to justify what has happened to Johnnie by having Poll’s Aunt Sarah take her to the butcher and explain that animals HAVE to be killed so that we can eat them. After this, Poll forgives her mother without much more fuss. So, I’m not really sure what message the author is trying to convey. It doesn’t really seem like she’s on Johnnie’s side though. (RIP)

Don’t get me wrong, I understand why the mum has to sell the pig; I understand that the family are poor and struggling, and that sometimes bad things happen. I know that bad things happening in a book doesn’t make the book itself bad. I know that not all stories have happy endings, and that we shouldn’t shy away from helping children to understand that. But, at the same time… I would never read this story to a child, and I regret reading it myself. Sometimes we NEED a happy book with a comforting ending, to give us hope, to make us feel better. That’s what I thought I was getting, which is the reason I was left so bitterly disappointed by this book.

This is not a bad book, and I can see why lots of people DO love it, because it is well-written, with loveable characters (especially the late Johnnie, RIP). However, this book really wasn’t for me. I’m sorry if this review was an incoherent rant where I repeated myself a bunch of times. I probably could have just typed the word BETRAYAL over and over again and it would have had the same effect. 😛 Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to go read something fluffy with a proper happy ending. Recommendations welcome!

P.S. If anyone needs cheering up now, you are welcome to look at this photo of me hanging out with an adorable micro pig (who just would not look at the camera, sorry!) and live vicariously through me 🙂

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Mini reviews: ‘Scrappy Little Nobody’ and ‘Let the Right One In.’

Review number one: ‘Scrappy Little Nobody’ by Anna Kendrick

Rating: 5 stars

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I picked up Anna Kendrick’s book when I was feeling poorly, and it was exactly what I needed to cheer myself up. I love the way Anna writes and she is so damn funny I was laughing out loud the whole way through.

When I was younger, I used to think celebrities weren’t ‘real’ people. Obviously I don’t think that now, but Anna Kendrick’s book made me fully appreciate that they *are* real, and Anna Kendrick is one of the realest. (Too many reals in that sentence, for real.) Anna comes across as so human, relatable, and down to earth. Even though she’s a successful actress, she’s just as awkward and anxious as I am. She’s got a fabulous self-deprecating sense of humour, she’s struggled with insecurities throughout her life, and she doesn’t take anything she’s achieved for granted. I loved reading about her school days full of awkward relationships and embarrassing moments. I just wanted to hug her and be like: aww, Anna, me too.

It was fascinating learning about Hollywood movies behind the scenes. It’s actually a lot less glamourous than I would have imagined, and there is no way in hell I would be able to do it. I need way more sleep than Anna Kendrick gets (and it sounds like she does too!) It was awesome reading about the funny things that happened on the sets of some of my favourite movies too.

My favourite section of the book was the chapter entitled “The World’s Most Reluctant Adult”. I swear to God I’ve never related to anything harder in my life! It’s so reassuring to know that even someone as successful as Anna Kendrick procrastinates doing housework, and promises herself every year that THIS will be the year she gets her shit together.

My other favourite part of the book was the ‘bonus reading group guide’ at the end of the book, a total satire full of hilarious questions written by Anna herself which had me cracking up with laughter. I desperately want to quote them, but they won’t make a dollop of sense unless you’ve read the book.

I thought I loved Anna before I read this book, because I enjoy her movies and find her tweets funny, but now I know I adore her and want her to be my best friend, thank you please.


Review number two: ‘Let the Right One In’ by  John Ajvide Lindqvist

Rating: 3 stars

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I have mixed feeling about this book, hence the three star rating. The writing was five stars for me: it was so atmospheric, and the author put just enough detail in to make every scene vivid, yet not so much as to make the descriptive sections drag. He managed to make a fairly ordinary suburban setting creepy as hell, and I found the first half of the novel so thrilling because of said creepiness.

The plot for me, however, was only okay. I didn’t feel that much actually happened, and for a 500+ page book I needed way more *story*. Most of the characters were interesting, but Eli, the vampire, who is the whole point of the book, was two-dimensional for me. I know Eli was supposed to be an enigma to begin with, but by the end of the novel I at least expected to have a clear understanding of how Eli became a vampire. But, nope. Eli was severely lacking in the back-story department.

Oskar and Hakan were the most interesting characters for me, but I didn’t feel like they underwent a whole lot of development as the story progressed. Everyone in this novel felt static to me. I felt like if I were to leave them, and come back to revisit them at a different point in their lives, they would all be sitting exactly where I left them. Despite this, I enjoyed reading about these two characters, because I found both of them very twisted.

Hakan is a paedophile, and reading from his perspective was extremely uncomfortable, but somehow fascinating. The author took this character to some very dark places indeed. Oskar, our main character, was also an interesting one: he’s a young, clever, slightly overweight boy, and by all appearances sweet and innocent, but spends his spare time scrapbooking articles about serial killers and fantasizing about murder. He was a pretty messed up kid, but I did find him likeable, and I was rooting for him. Not sure what this says about me…

I really rated the first half of this book, but the second half dragged. I did enjoy this book, but I think I would have loved it more had it had either had more character development and exploration of Eli’s backstory, or simply been about 100 pages shorter!

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A creepy & atmospheric Autumn read: ‘S.T.A.G.S.’ by M.A. Bennett

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S.T.A.G.S. M.A. Bennett. Hot Key Books. August 2017.

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…


I picked this book up at YALC on the recommendation of somebody I met in the Waterstones queue. As soon as she had explained the concept to me I was SO desperate to read it that I immediately ran to the Hot Key Books stand, terrified that they might sell out before I got there. Thankfully I got my copy, despite the book being their best-seller of the weekend! As I was so excited to read this, I had very high expectations, but I’m happy to say I wasn’t disappointed. This book was SO exciting, and I was hooked from the very intriguing beginning to the chilling final sentence.

S.T.A.G.S. tells the story of Greer, a scholarship student who is struggling to fit in at her elite boarding school. Having made no friends by the time the first school holiday rolls around, she is excited and surprised when she receives an invitation to spend the weekend at Longcross, an estate in the Lake District belonging to the de Walencourt’s, a wealthy family who have been attending S.T.A.G.S. for generations. There is something off about this invitation from the beginning, because neither Henry de Walencourt, nor his group of friends (who refer to themselves as ‘the Medievals’) have ever spoken to Greer, except to make fun of her Manchester accent. Nevertheless, Greer is charmed by Henry, intrigued about the group’s way of life, and lonely, so she accepts without question.

This book is beautifully written, with vivid, immersive descriptions that transported me directly into the story’s setting. S.T.A.G.S (which the author herself has described as a kind of ‘dark Hogwarts’) was a wonderful creation, and the worldbuilding employed to set the scene was magnificent. Longcross estate was also constructed with so much detail that I believed in its existence wholeheartedly. I adored all of the descriptions of the vast rooms and endless corridors, the named bedrooms with their roaring fireplaces, and the sinister presence of stags’ heads on almost every wall. I also appreciated the detail which went into describing every elaborate dinner which took place at Longcross. Every page felt like taking another mouthful of some rich, decadent meal – one in which you can taste every single flavour – and it was just so satisfying to read.

The characters in S.T.A.G.S. are just as layered as the setting. Although there are nine characters in total (eleven if you count ‘Perfect’, the creepy headkeeper of the estate who never speaks unless it’s to his master, and ‘Betty’, his surly wife), they were all well drawn and distinctive. The dialogue in this book was fabulous, and it was never difficult to tell which character was speaking because they all had a clear ‘voice’.

There are only three likeable characters in this novel, and all of them are ‘outsiders’: we have Greer, our main character, Nel, a girl who doesn’t fit in because she comes from the ‘wrong’ kind of money, and Shafeen, an Indian boy, who despite growing up with the same privileges as them, is mercilessly bullied by the Medievals. I really enjoyed the bond that begins to form between these three characters as they start to realise they are in danger. The rest of the characters, the Medievals, are all unlikeable, and yet there is something seductive about them too; I found it so interesting to see the way Greer found herself manipulated by them and the charm they could so believably conjure, and yet quickly and bluntly turn off when they were about to do or say something insidious.

One of the most interesting things about the novel was the exploration of privilege and ‘otherness’. Greer, Shafeen, and Nel are considered to be ‘different’ by the Medievals. They don’t fit in to the aristocratic, white, privileged world of the Medievals; Greer because of her class, Shafeen because of the colour of his skin, and Nel because of her family’s ‘new money’. The views the Medievals held disgusted me, and the ignorant way Shafeen in particular was treated was very hard to stomach. The Medievals’ sense of entitlement and self-importance led each of them down a very dark path in this book, and I think their belief in what they were doing, and the casual, dispassionate way they went about it, as if they were doing nothing wrong, were the most chilling aspects of this novel. Naturally there was a fight against their bigotry in this story, but I would have liked to have seen a stronger counter to what the Medievals were saying. I wanted Greer to speak out more. I understood that she was being seduced and manipulated by Henry, but I did find myself getting annoyed with her every time she gave him the benefit of the doubt.

What I loved most about this book was the creepy atmosphere and tension it managed to sustain throughout. I loved that even in scenes of supposed safety, nothing felt safe. This book wasn’t super-gory like I was expecting, but somehow it didn’t need that to be utterly chilling. I also felt that, even without the concept of the teenagers themselves being hunted, the scenes where the Medievals were hunting and shooting animals were sinister enough in their own right.

This book really made me think about the brutality of hunting, and the arrogance of it too: assuming that our lives are more important than the lives of animals, and the idea of hunting them for sport, for fun, makes me feel sick. Of course, I’ve always held that opinion, but reading about it made me consider that maybe I should do more in terms of fighting against it, particularly as our conservative government in the UK want to lift the ban on fox-hunting. Going back to the story, however, what was most interesting and terrifying about the hunting scenes was how compelling they were to read, despite the repulsiveness of the action they contained. The scenes were so immersive and atmospherically written that it was somehow believable that Greer would be swept away by it all, even if she disagreed with it in principle. Very clever storytelling.

The ending of this book was unexpected and the last sentence gave me chills. I can’t really say any more about that because I don’t want to spoil anything, but it was the perfectly sinister way to end a book. If you want to read something dark, original, well-written, and gripping I highly recommend giving S.T.A.G.S. a read. I gave this book five stars, and I can’t wait to see what the author writes next.

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Book review: ‘Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness’ by Susannah Cahalan

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Brain on Fire. Susannah Cahalan. Penguin. September 2013.

Brain on Fire is the stunning debut from journalist and author Susannah Cahalan, recounting the real-life horror story of how a sudden and mysterious illness put her on a descent into a madness for which there seemed to be no cure

‘My first serious blackout marked the line between sanity and insanity. Though I would have moments of lucidity over the coming days and weeks, I would never again be the same person …’

Susannah Cahalan was a happy, clever, healthy twenty-four-year old. Then one day she woke up in hospital, with no memory of what had happened or how she had got there. Within weeks, she would be transformed into someone unrecognizable, descending into a state of acute psychosis, undergoing rages and convulsions, hallucinating that her father had murdered his wife; that she could control time with her mind. Everything she had taken for granted about her life, and who she was, was wiped out.


Brain on Fire is the one of the most interesting books I have read this year. I don’t often pick up memoirs, but this one sounded too fascinating to ignore. Susannah’s story was terrifying, but so compelling, and I couldn’t put it down. Although there are scientific explanations and statistics peppered throughout this book, it is primarily told like a story. To begin with, it feels psychological-thriller-esque, as there is so much mystery surrounding Susannah’s increasingly worrying behaviour, and what exactly *is* going wrong in her brain. You can’t help but put yourself in Susannah’s shoes and imagine how scary it would be if this were happening to you.

Susannah takes us from the point at which she first becomes ill, through her period of hospitalization, up to her diagnosis, and beyond to her eventual recovery. Whilst Susannah remembers very little about her time in the hospital, she has used interviews with family, friends, and those who treated her, to piece together the missing month of her life. She also describes videos of herself, recorded in the hospital, which give an insight into what was happening to her body when her mind was seemingly absent. These descriptions are unnerving to read, as I am sure they were unnerving for Susannah to watch. She doesn’t recognise the person in those videos, and I can’t comprehend what a strange, disconcerting experience it must have been to see herself like that.

The scariest thing about Susannah’s story is that this could happen to any of us, without warning, at any time. Our brains and the bodies they live in are unfathomably complex and wonderful, but if even the tiniest part of the system malfunctions, our lives can descend into chaos. What Susannah went through is horrifying – seizures, paranoia, insomnia, psychosis, and eventually catatonia – and I can thoroughly appreciate why Susannah describes herself as having been ‘betrayed’ by her body. All of these symptoms came about because Susannah’s body decided to turn on her, and she had no control over the situation whatsoever. It was so interesting to see Susannah trying to come to terms with *why* this happened to her, but also with why *she* survived her illness when many others don’t.

The sections of the book when Susannah is in the hospital awaiting her diagnosis were the most interesting to me. It was worrying, but fascinating to see the diagnosis process laid out, because the doctors on Susannah’s case tried so many different things before they eventually landed upon the correct diagnosis and treatment for her. It is scary when you consider that there are some people for whom the correct diagnosis is never found. There were times when it felt like Susannah’s doctors were trying to find a needle in a haystack, but they found that needle, and I found the whole thing mind-blowing. Reading this book gave me so much awe and respect for those working in the medical profession: out of the millions of possibilities as to what could have been causing Susannah’s symptoms, they had the correct one within a month, and were able to treat her. How incredible is that? Medicine, honestly = magic.

What I found so remarkable about this book is that it exists at all. Whilst Susannah is in hospital, and before she is correctly diagnosed, her illness gets progressively worse until she is unable to read, write, eat, walk, or hold a conversation. The fact that she made a full recovery, and went on to write this incredible piece of non-fiction, which is intelligently written, journalistically researched, as well as being a powerful story, feels nothing short of miraculous. Brain on Fire is a fascinating read, and Susannah Cahalan is an incredible woman. Highly worth picking this one up!

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Cute YA contemporary romance set in Tokyo! ‘Seven Days of You’ by Cecilia Vinesse

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Seven Days of You. Cecilia Vinesse. Little Brown. March 2017.

It’s Sophia’s last week in Tokyo, and she’s going to make it count…

Sophia has spent her life ping-ponging between different countries and schools, so, in theory, saying goodbye should be easy. But now she’s leaving Tokyo – the place that finally felt like home. The only way she can get through this is to make her final week perfect.

Then Jamie Foster-Collins shows up, just in time to ruin everything. Jamie and Sophia used to be friends . . . and his return stirs up feelings she thought she’d forgotten.

Suddenly, hours and minutes become meaningless. Only time spent together, exploring the hidden streets of the city they love, is real.


I have to admit that I would never normally pick up a book that was set over a span of seven days, particularly a romance. I always feel like love stories set within a short space of time are rushed, and don’t dive deep enough into the emotions. And of course, said premises usually mean insta-love. These reservations aside, I decided to pick this one up because it was set in Tokyo (and I’ve always wanted to visit Tokyo), and it had a glowing endorsement from Becky Albertalli on the back cover (whom I love and adore).

I’m pleased to say that my reservations were unfounded. The romance didn’t feel rushed at all because there was plenty of history between the two characters, and despite the short amount of time spent together in this novel, I fully believed in their feelings for each other, and felt the heartbreak of the impossible situation they found themselves in. This book deals with lots of messy emotions between friends, love interests, and families, and I was very impressed with how much was covered in such a short space of time. In particular, I really enjoyed the family dynamics in this story; the strained relationship between Sophia and her sister Alison underwent some very satisfying development, and the scenes between these two sisters ended up being one of my favourite aspects of the novel. SISTERS FTW.

Moving on to love interests, Jamie was such an adorable fluffy bunny, and was definitely my favourite character in the novel. I just wanted to cuddle the crap out of him. I have to say that it took me longer to warm to Sophia because she was so mean to Jamie at times, and also rather unfair to Caroline (a girl who is dating David, her friend, and the guy she has a crush on at the beginning of the story).  However, Sophia grew on me throughout the novel, and I came to understand that her behaviour stemmed from some seriously mixed up emotions over leaving the place she calls home, trying to work out where in the world she belongs, and saying goodbye to the people she loves. By the end, I really appreciated the fact that Sophia was a flawed character who had a lot going on in her head, and she felt like a more realistic, relatable person because of it.

I found Sophia’s friends, David and Mika quite unlikeable to begin with. David, whom Sophia has been crushing on for a while, was very arrogant, a bit of a playboy/user of girls, and I couldn’t understand what she saw in him, despite his flirty charm. Mika irritated me because she was so sarcastic, told people to shut up all the time (and not in a playful way), and could be pretty unapologetically mean and blasé. By the end of the book, my opinion about David hadn’t changed much, but I liked Mika a little more, and appreciated the friendship between her and Sophia. I wasn’t feeling those girl power vibes between them to begin with, but I could see a hint of them by the final page.

What I loved most about this novel was undoubtedly the setting. I loved wandering around Tokyo with the characters, exploring the big tourist destinations like the Meiji Shrine and the Imperial Palace, but also the little, lesser known streets with their ramen shops, karaoke clubs, and konbinis (basically Japanese convenience stores full of amazing snacks I need in my mouth like now.) I adored all of the descriptions of food (because I LIVE for food), but I also really fell in love with the portrayal of the city at night and all those twinkling neon lights. There is something surreal about cities after dark, and although this book is a contemporary, the dreamy way the city streets at night were described brought so much magic to the story. I found myself completely transported from my living room in London to the heart of bustling Tokyo.

Overall, I really enjoyed this book. Although the characters behaved in ways which annoyed me at times (I wanted to slap each and every one of them at some point), I found them to be realistic, believable people BECAUSE they messed up now and again. This story was a fascinating exploration of what it means to belong somewhere, a love story which made me happy-squeal, and a stunning depiction of a city I am DYING to visit.

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Mini reviews: “This Is What Happy Looks Like” by Jennifer E. Smith, and “Ink” by Alice Broadway

This Is What Happy Looks Like by Jennifer E. Smith

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If fate sent you an email, would you answer?

It’s June – seventeen-year-old Ellie O’Neill’s least favourite time of year. Her tiny hometown is annually invaded by tourists, and this year there’s the added inconvenience of a film crew. Even the arrival of Hollywood heartthrob Graham Larkin can’t lift her mood.

But there is something making Ellie very happy. Ever since an email was accidentally sent to her a few months ago, she’s been corresponding with a mysterious stranger, the two of them sharing their hopes and fears. Their developing relationship is not without its secrets though – there’s the truth about Ellie’s past… and her pen pal’s real identity. When they finally meet in person, things are destined to get much more complicated. Can two people, worlds apart but brought together by chance, make it against all the odds?

My rating: 3.5 stars

This book was a cute, quick read and the perfect summer escapism story. It’s pretty grey and grim weather in the UK right now, so it was lovely to spend a few hours in a small, sunny town in Maine getting away from it all.

I mainly purchased this book because I read the first few pages in the shop and discovered that the love interest, Graham, had a pet pig. A pet pig is the thing I want most out of life, but my boyfriend is not at all keen on the idea, so for now I’ll just have to live vicariously through Graham. I very much enjoyed all of the Graham’s-pig related anecdotes; although they weren’t the biggest part of the story, they were my favourite part of it.

The romance between Ellie and Graham was gentle and sweet. I wasn’t overwhelmed by feelings and chemistry because it happened fairly quickly, but I enjoyed reading all of the email interactions between them, and their banter about whether the ‘whoopie pie’, the supposed ‘state treat’ of Maine, actually existed. Graham’s determination to find somewhere that sold whoopie pies in Maine was a force to be reckoned with.

Ellie and Graham were both interesting characters. Reading Graham’s chapters left me wanting to give him a big hug. Sure, he was a famous movie star – theoretically he had it pretty good… But delving into Graham’s perspective reinforced what I already suspected: being famous would really suck. The thing which had me feeling most sorry for Graham was the way his family treated him differently from how they had before he became a star. Graham just wanted people to treat him like an ordinary person, but even his parents acted awkwardly around him. Poor baby.

Ellie had an interesting family background, and it was fascinating to see how secrets from her past impacted her relationship with Graham. I also appreciated how selfless Ellie was when considering their relationship and its consequences. She thought about how the press attention would impact her family, and treated her own feelings as secondary. But of course, I was rooting for her to get together with Graham anyway!

All in all, I really enjoyed this novel. It didn’t wow me, but it was a fun read that made me smile and took me away from rainy reality for a while. I’m glad I picked it up!


Ink (Skin Books #1) by Alice Broadway

INK

In Saintstone, every action, every deed, every significant moment is tattooed on your skin for ever. When Leora’s father dies, she is determined to see her father remembered forever. She knows he deserves to have all his tattoos removed and made into a Skin Book to stand as a record of his good life. But when she discovers that his ink has been edited and his book is incomplete, she wonders whether she ever knew him at all…

My rating: 3.75 stars

Ink is an underrated book – I haven’t heard anybody talking about it in the bookish community, but I would love for more people to read it. I picked this book up at YALC because a) the cover is SO gorgeous and b) the author spoke on her panel about writing this book whilst she had severe depression, and I thought that was such an incredible, brave thing to do, and an amazing achievement. It inspired me so much to get back into writing.

I’m really glad I bought this book, despite knowing very little about it beforehand, because I thoroughly enjoyed it. The writing was beautiful and fairytale-like, without being flowery. The plot wasn’t packed with action, yet the book felt pacey – the story flowed very smoothly, and the short chapters had me whizzing through the book. I almost want to go back and re-read it, because I went through it really quickly, and didn’t savour as many of the details as I would have liked. The way this book is written also feels very cosy – it’s the kind of book which would be perfect to read in Autumn, curled up in a blanket with a hot chocolate.

My favourite aspect of this novel was the worldbuilding. Although the plot itself was quite standard dystopian, and it didn’t throw all that many surprises my way, the society of Saintstone felt very unique, and the concept was woven so perfectly into every aspect of life within that society. I particularly enjoyed the use of the myths and fairytales which were scattered throughout the novel; these stories were the foundations of the society and its beliefs, and it was so interesting to see how those in power used stories, which they insisted were literally true, to strengthen their agenda.

I loved all of the scenes in the tattoo shop (or the ‘inker’s’ as it is referred to in this story) where Leora begins her first work placement. It was fascinating to read about all of the different marks people asked for, and the meanings behind them. I don’t have any tattoos myself, but I like learning the stories behind other people’s, and I loved that this book explored the idea of how much we can read into another person from the marks on their skin. Tattoos are a big part of many people’s identities, yet they cannot possibly reveal every little detail of a personality, and I liked the way that Leora, who has always believed she can read people, starts to question whether she truly knows the people in her life after all.

The reason this book just missed out on a 4 star rating was because I didn’t feel like the characters were super-distinctive. The society of Saintstone itself feels like the main character in this story, and the other characters feel like they are there to tell Saintsone’s story, if that makes sense. There was also a romantic subplot in this book which I felt was unnecessary. It’s such a small part of the story, however, that it didn’t bother me all that much.

I highly recommend this book if you’re looking for a dystopian with a fresh concept, strong worldbuilding, and beautiful writing. Pick it up and let me know what you think!

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The most important book you will read this year: ‘The Hate U Give’ by Angie Thomas

the hate u give

The Hate U Give. Angie Thomas. Walker Books. April 2017.

Sixteen-year-old Starr lives in two worlds: the poor neighbourhood where she was born and raised and her posh high school in the suburbs. The uneasy balance between them is shattered when Starr is the only witness to the fatal shooting of her unarmed best friend, Khalil, by a police officer. Now what Starr says could destroy her community. It could also get her killed. Inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement, this is a powerful and gripping YA novel about one girl’s struggle for justice. 


I finished The Hate U Give this afternoon, and whilst I have a bunch of other reviews waiting to be posted, I felt I wanted to post this one straight away, in light of what happened in Charlottesville last weekend. Books like this one are more important than ever at a time when hateful voices are trying to shout the loudest. Let’s not let them. Let’s listen to voices like Angie Thomas’s instead. And let’s shout louder.

The Hate U Give is an amazing book, and I’m struggling to covey just how powerful it actually was in my own words. This book deserves every word of praise it has received and then some. I firmly believe it should be required reading for all of humankind.

This is a novel about racism and hatred, but it’s also so much more than that. Overwhelmingly this is a novel about love and hope. For every act of racism in this novel there is an act of bravery, and for every feeling of hopelessness that things will never change, there is an encouragement to speak up anyway. Starr is an inspirational main character, and her love for her best friend Khalil, and her determination to show the world who he truly was (rather than let him be remembered as the criminal the police and media are portraying him to be), were so incredibly powerful and moving. There is a quote in this story, which is repeated on the final page of the novel, that sums up the overall message of this book perfectly: “Sometimes you can do everything right and things will still go wrong. The key is to never stop doing right.” Starr completely embodies that message, speaking out even though she feels afraid, and even when everything seems to be against her; I had so much admiration and respect for her.

All of the characters in this novel are well drawn and memorable, because Angie Thomas is, quite simply, a fantastic writer. Starr’s voice is distinctive – you really feel like she is speaking directly to you – and all of the other characters are written with such depth, compassion, and humour that they feel like real people. I loved how close-knit Starr’s family were, and I loved the banter between them, which constantly had me chuckling. I think they may be one of my favourite fictional families of all time. I loved how real they were; they weren’t perfect, and they had been through some messy situations together, but the pure love they showed for each other in every scene melted my heart. I particularly loved Starr’s parents, and there is an amazing scene where Starr is watching them being cute together, and comments that her parents are her ‘OTP’, which is one of my favourites in the book. How adorable is that?

The character I liked least in this novel was Starr’s friend from school, Hailey. Hailey was so ignorant and insensitive, and if she wasn’t a character in this book, she’s exactly the kind of person I think would benefit from reading it, and educating herself. Hailey doesn’t consider herself a racist, but some of her actions, whether intended or not, are racist. I really hated Hailey’s unwillingness to consider her behaviour from Starr’s perspective, and listen to what she had to say. At the same time, I really LOVED that Starr called her out for her racism anyway, regardless of whether she could be confident it would sink in.

One of the things I found most interesting about this novel was the way Starr acted differently at her predominantly white school than she did with her family, or other people of colour. Starr changed the way she spoke, and hid huge parts of herself from the people she went to school with, including from her boyfriend, Chris, who was white. It was so heartbreaking that Starr felt she couldn’t be completely herself, because she was afraid she would be dismissed as the ‘girl from the hood’, and it was eye-opening to read from her perspective. It was wonderful to see Starr slowly starting to share parts of herself, and her life, with Chris, and her other friends, as her story developed, gradually learning to accept and love the place she comes from, despite its problems.

Garden Heights, the neighbourhood where Starr lives, was so well described, and had so much personality that it almost felt like a character in its own right. Despite the crime, poverty, and gangs fighting territory wars, there were so many wonderful things about Starr’s neighbourhood too, which Starr gradually comes to recognise as the story progresses; the sense of community, of family, and of neighbours who will always have each other’s backs and help each other out. Starr’s own father, Big Mav, is a perfect example of this; as an ex gang member, he is determined to help younger members of the community, and stop them from falling into the life of crime he was once a part of. Mav was such a caring, selfless, brave person, a real role model, and despite not being perfect, he was easily one of my favourite characters in the story.

Of course, this book had some devastating scenes, and I can’t write this review without mentioning them, although it’s very difficult to think about them, because they were so upsetting to read. The scene where Khalil is shot was abrupt, brutal, and felt like a punch in the stomach. Possibly the most difficult thing about this scene, however, was the reality of it. What happened to Khalil has happened to so many black people (predominantly young men) in America (and for all I know, other countries too, but American police brutality against black people is what I have heard most about in recent years). The fact that these murders of unarmed people, who are doing nothing wrong, happen in real life makes me sick, and the fact that the perpetrators nearly always get away with it, and are not charged with murder, turns my stomach.

The people who attempt to justify these murders by painting the victims as criminals, drug dealers, etc. (which is what happens with Khalil’s murder in this story) are also sickening to me. There’s a scene where Starr is being questioned about what happened, and, in her narrative, she tells us: “I didn’t know a dead person could be charged in his own murder, you know?” This really struck a cord with me; Starr is treated as if she and Khalil are the ones on trial, rather than the cop who shot Khalil, and this was, sadly, the perfect way to demonstrate how institutional racism works. Now that I have read this book, I want to do more research into institutional racism, and police brutality, because it has made me want to take action. It has lit a fire in me, as I am sure it has done in many other people.

I thought I knew what racism was before I read this story, but I actually came away with a sense of my own ignorance, and I think that’s why books like this one are so important. We need to learn by listening to the voices of those who have experienced racism firsthand, and we can always learn more. Voices like Starr’s, like Angie Thomas’s, are so important, and the time is NOW, considering we have white supremacist marches going on in America, and a white supremacist in the White House. We ALL need to speak out against this.

The Hate U Give really opened my eyes to so many things I had never thought about before, and I’m so grateful that this book exists. Despite the horror of what happens to Khalil in this story, and the insensitive, racist views of some characters, this book is not without hope, and it was thoroughly compelling to read. It is full of loveable characters, humour, and, most importantly, encouragement, inspiration, and love. This book had a huge impact on me, and I think it is impossible to read this book and come away wanting to stay silent. 5 stars for this incredible book. Please, please pick it up if you haven’t already.

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