Monday, 11 July 2016

The Apprentice Witch - James Nicol

Published: 7th July 2016

Source: owned

Format: paperback

My Rating:  5 out of 5 stars

The Set Up:

Arianwyn has fluffed her witch’s evaluation test.

Awarded the dull bronze disc and continuing as an apprentice – to the glee of her arch-rival, mean girl Gimma – she’s sent to protect the remote, dreary town of Lull. 

But her new life is far from boring. Turns out Gimma is the pompous mayor’s favourite niece – and worse, she opens a magical rift in the nearby Great Wood. As Arianwyn struggles with her spells, a mysterious darkness begins to haunt her – and it’s soon clear there’s much more than her pride at stake …
(from the back cover)


After James Nicol appeared as a guest on my podcast and I first heard about this book, I've been dying to read it - and it has seemed a very long wait. The book finally turned up a few days ago on my birthday and today I actually had time to sit down and read a few pages. That was the intention anyway. Just a taste. Now it's several hours later and I've read the entire book. I sincerely hope there's going to be another one in the not too distant future!

The Apprentice Witch is one of those books that transcend time and age group - very much as Harry Potter or Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials do. There is something here that will resonate with anyone who has ever felt 'no quite good enough' or been wracked with self-doubt or just felt they haven't measured up against their prettier more popular peers.

Arianwynn is taking her witch's evaluation now that she is fifteen. She loves her Grandmother, who has raised her, but is also secretly embarrassed that she is apprenticed to a relative - not the done thing anymore, that her Grandmother is an Elder working with the counsel, that she's not really fashionable and doesn't fit in. So getting her qualification and a Real Witch's post is very important to Arianwynn, who sticks out like a sore thumb and feels awkward and inept most of the time. However her plans take a nose dive when she fails and she's awarded what she feels is an embarrassing 'apprentice continuation' status and a posting in a quiet, out-of-the-way place near the Great Wood, in the town of Lull. Despite its name, Lull is not the tame backwater its reported to be. Dark spirits and strange creatures creep out of the wood. And just as Arianwynn starts to get her feet under her, shadows start to creep into her own magic. If only she could stop seeing that glyph...and if only she could get rid of her pretty, popular and snobby rival, Gimma Alveston, maybe then spells would work the way they are supposed to and she will be a proper witch at last...

I loved this story. The world building was great with tantalising hints of a much larger world and a seamless blending between modern and old fashioned devices. The book is peopled with great characters - Arianwynn especially but I also loved Ms Delefield and Colin (who I hope we'll see more of in future books *fingers crossed*) The magic system is well imagined and evoked, and I loved all the different spirit creatures. Nicol really makes you feel for his MC so that by turns you are embarrassed, frustrated, amused and finally cheering her on to a grand finale. 

This was one of those rare books where I found myself smiling as I read it. Well worth the wait. Highly recommend this to fans of Harry Potter, Diana Wynne Jones and anyone who loved Kiki's Deivery Service. 

Thursday, 26 May 2016

Bookishly Ever After - Isabel Bandeira

Series Title: Ever After Book 1

Published: 19th January 2016 Spencer Contemporary

Source: ARC kindly provided by NetGalley in exchange for an honest review

Format: ebook

My Rating: 3 out 5 stars

The Set Up: 

In a perfect world, sixteen-year-old Phoebe Martins’ life would be a book. Preferably a YA novel with magic and a hot paranormal love interest. Unfortunately, her life probably wouldn’t even qualify for a quiet contemporary. 

But when Phoebe finds out that Dev, the hottest guy in the clarinet section, might actually have a crush on her, she turns to her favorite books for advice. Phoebe overhauls her personality to become as awesome as her favorite heroines and win Dev’s heart. But if her plan fails, can she go back to her happy world of fictional boys after falling for the real thing?


It's always daft to go into a book with expectations - not that you can eradicate them entirely but still. I expected to identify with the MC a lot more than I did. This is a girl who loves books - the very books I wanted to escape into as a teenager - and who quite understandably woul have liked a life less ordinary. I completely get that. I can even cope with the second hand embarrassment of her going to her beloved books for advice on how to get her 'dream guy'. It could have been really funny. Instead it felt stilted and it went on so long that any momentum that was built up got lost. Often the most interesting part of a relationship is the will they/won't they part before they get together but I found myself losing interest. It's a great concept but for me it just didn't deliver.

The Star-Touched Queen - Roshani Chokshi

Published: 26th April 2016, St Martin's Griffin

Source: ARC kindly provided by NetGalley

Format: ebook

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

The Set-Up:

Mayavati is the unwanted, overeducated daughter of the Sultan. No prize on the marriage market due to her horoscope which is full of ill luck and the prediction that she will wed only death, she navigates her way through the women's quarter's avoiding her bully of a brother and the more viscous of the Sultan's wives. With the threat of war looming, the Sultan reveals that he has made an alliance for her after all - she will indeed marry and die. Only the intervention of an unknown prince stops her and then her world changes into a dark mystery of wars, death, rebirth and a hard won love that survives even time and death itself...


This is one of those books that I just gobbled up and only put down when I absolutely had to. In structure it is a bit like the fairy tale 'East of the Sun, West of the Moon' but told through Indian mythology and the Greek myths of Hades and Persephone, Orpheus and Eurydice. 
This was lyrical and beautiful, and an unusual approach to a YA book. Yes, you could argue both insta-love and a love triangle if you REALLY wanted to, but neither is really the case, and you'd be missing the point because this book - as well as being a fabulous fantasy - is about learning to trust in yourself. Trusting that you, as you are, unadorned or improved, are enough. Trusting that you're decisions are correct and that if they turn out not to be later, that you will be strong enough to say you were wrong and mend them. 

I liked Maya as a character - sharp, acerbic and cynical, hiding a massive insecurity about whether she deserved to be loved and a deep, natural kindness. Amar would be easy to misunderstand but then that was the point. It was good to see a decent, nice guy as the lead love interest.

All in all, this was brilliant and easily one of my top reads of 2016.

Thursday, 31 March 2016

Salt to the Sea - Ruta Sepetys

Published: 2nd February 2016, Philomel Books

Source: Copy provided by NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Format: ebook

My Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

The Set Up:

Told in the alternating first person POVs of four teenagers, each one born of a different homeland, each one haunted and hunted by tragedy, lies and war. This tells the story of one of the tragic events of WWII which was buried under the overall horror of the war. That of the sinking of the Willhelm Gustloff in 30th January 1945. The four teens are on a collision course as they each try to reach the ship before it leaves port, vyying with thousands of other refugees for a berth that promises freedom and safety.


Without doubt Sepetys is a fine writer. She has a knack for detail and for zeroing in on areas of history that are neglected but need to be talked about. This is very much a 'it's not you it's me' scenario. I didn't enjoy Shades of Grey, I didn't much like Out of the Easy and I really wasn't engaged with this book at all. 

Every time she releases a new book I always think the concept is brilliant and I'm lured into reading it and everytime I don't enjoy or even engage with the book. I can see that they're good books. I can see that they're clever and accessible and well thought out. I can see that the subjects are emotive and poignant. She writes extremely well and invariably I dislike it. This time I'm calling it; I lack something fundamental as a reader to appreciate your style. 

In this instance I didn't connect with the characters. The setting and plot were great but I felt distanced. I think its the style clash for me. If you liked the authors other books or war stories in general definitely give this a go.

Monday, 14 March 2016

Ivory and Bone - Julie Eshbaugh

Published: 14th June 2016, HarperTeen

Source: ARC kindly provided by Edelweiss in exchange for an honest review

Format: ebook

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

The Set Up:

Kol's clan, the Manu, are quietly in trouble. There are no young girls for he and his three brothers to marry. Kol is destined to be High Elder like his father but without a wife - without any of them marrying - does the clan have a future at all?

Then three strangers from a neighbouring clan, the Olen, arrive. Enter Mya - mysterious, beautiful and arrogant. With the strangers comes an unfolding of buried secrets that sets the world upside down and seems likely to pitch three clans into war. For there is a third clan, led by the young woman Lo. Someone is telling lies. Can Kol work out who before his clan is destroyed?

Set at the end of the ice age when mammoths still roamed in herds across the open landscape, this is a fantasy romance unlike any other.


As other reviewers have mentioned, this is something a bit different. Pride and prejudice meets Taming of the Shrew meets Clan of the Cave Bear. Overall this pays off well. The prose is plain and perfect, evoking a time and culture that could have been real. In that respect it was a fantasy novel - but that's about it. Do not expect shamans, medicine women, spirit quests or magic of any kind. The fantasy tag applies only to the creation of the culture, a few mentions of the 'Divine' and a couple of dreams that may or may not be precognitive. 

Still this is an enjoyable read with fully realised characters and a plausible amount of conflict for when it was set. It was interesting that the entire story was told from Kol's perspective - an attempt to engage a teenage male audience perhaps? - since this is essentially a romance with a bit of mammoth hunting involved. Mya is a great character - in fact I like her so much I sort of don't want her to change... Lo makes a good foil for her. Oddly enough Kol himself is most interesting as a young man who really thinks - even overthinks - all his actions, everyone else's actions and looks for outcomes. Despite being slated for leadership in the future, this makes him something of an outsider. Which is in keeping with the story and the culture, is the way people gather and prefer to be together rather than alone - which you would because survival depended on it.

The niggles? If you know anything about palaeontology or paleo-anthropology this book is going to irritate you no end in places. If all of them hunted mammoth like that then I'm surprised that the entire clan wasn't dead several generations before. I'm sure since this was a galley copy that instances of 'Sabre-toothed-tiger' will be changed to 'sabre-toothed-cat' as the sabre-toothed-tiger never existed. There were lots of species of sabre toothed cat, most of which became extinct (due to over specializing and the consequent ecological de-selection)  before this book was set. Certainly before Cro Magnons were wide spread and culturally evolved enough to build canoes. The largest Sabre-toothed cat - Smilodon (which is the one everyone thinks of when someone says sabre toothed tiger) - probably didn't cross paths with prehistoric humans much at all and was also becoming extinct at the time. So exactly why are there so many of them here? While we have skeletal records to show that a leopard sized cat with sabre teeth preyed on Australopithecus, there isn't much evidence that one would have attacked a camp of armed Cro Magnons especially since there were fires going. Fantasy again perhaps? I suppose an injured cat of that type MIGHT have turned man hunter - it seemed a very spurious thread  though. Anyway I'll rein myself in now.

I did find it strange that the dream sequences about the cats seemed to taper off into nothingness. It looked like they were leading into a major plot point and then just stopped. I was also jarred by words like 'kitchen'. Ok so that was where the food was prepared but cooking hearth or cook-hut would seem more plausible. The complete absence of any religious interpreter of the Divine looked very strange. Perhaps the author didn't want any religious overtones other than the odd mention but tribes people tend to have at least one elder to interpret the 'spirit world', so it really seemed like an obvious gap. I also did not buy the slight edge of male dominance in this for one second. A brother or father  (ok so the mother has some say too in one case) decides on a girl's betrothal? Somehow I don't think so (given prehistoric artefacts that show a leaning towards worship of the female principle and the fact that most societies would probably have been matriarchal in this era - remainders of ancient oral tales suggests this also)  in this particular age although it may be true for tribes centuries later. We'll leave aside the question of exactly how likely monogamy was at that time...

What did make this book work for me was the simple yet engaging story, the escapism of the era and the characters. Don't be mistaken, this is not Lizzie Bennett and Mr Darcy in rawhide - there is no such banter - but Eshbaugh does evoke a people long dead who are every bit as complex as we are, who lived closer to the land and literally had to fight each day for survival. 

A good YA debut.

Thursday, 10 March 2016

After the Woods - Kim Savage

Published: 23rd February 2016, Farrar, Sraus and Giroux

Source: Owned

Format : ebook

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

The Set Up:

Almost a year ago Julia and her best friend, Liv, were running in the woods when Liv got attacked. Instead of running away Julia takes on the attacker and ends up being abducted in her best friend's place - Liv ran away leaving her there. Two days later, Julia makes it out of the woods, scratched, starving, hypothermic and trailing a broken ankle ... with very little memory of what happened.

Julia is trying to remember what happened in the woods, while Liv is on a downward roller coaster seemingly courting her own destruction.With each new discovery, Julia finds the answers twisting further away from her. Could it be that what happened in the woods was not a straight forward case of abduction?

And then a body is discovered, linked to the man who attacked the girls and later killed himself in prison. The entire can of worms is kicked over again and both Julia and Liv are racing against time in different directions...


This is one of those novels with an MC and voice that snatches you up and keeps you turning page after page. I loved Julia - snarky, clever, witty and refusing to be content with ignorance. The dynamic between Julia and Liv is complicated and believable - all the character dynamics are in fact - and the plot is both interesting and horrifying. I'm not sure I'd call this a thriller but it was certainly a page turner. Where I felt it let itself down was at the end. Yes it reflected life where there are no neat conclusions and people don't just get what they deserve but I felt let down by the situation with Liv. No matter what her reasons were, no matter that both girls became masters of survival, I wanted Liv punished. Otherwise a great read with a mostly satisfying ending.

Sunday, 6 March 2016

The Forbidden Wish - Jessica Khoury

Published: 23rd February 2016, Razorbill

Source: Sneak Peak on NetGalley, full copy owned

Format: ebook

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

The Set Up:

Languishing in her lamp, buried in a destroyed and forgotten kingdom, Zahra - oneof the most powerful jinni left in the world - has had plenty of time, centuries in fact, to contemplate the mistake that led to her current situation. She is determined to never care for a human again but when a young thief discovers her lamp, she is pulled into a mortal war for the throne. Offered a chance to be free of her lamp, she finds herself once again choosing between her heart and her freedom.


It really isn't always love at first sight: everything about this book put me off initially from the title to the premise to the blurb to the cover. To me it looked like it was going to be cheesy as hell and not in a good way. But I kept seeing it and curiosity got the better of me. I requested the sneak peak from NetGalley. before I was halfway through it, I went and bought the book. 

This is good. Really good in fact. The voice of Zahra the jinni is perfect. As both oppressed slave and cynic, she thinks she's seen all life has to offer, passed from hand to hand in a succession of unworthy masters. Then 500yrs before the story begins, Zahra discovers there is more to human nature and pays a terrible price for it. Abandoned in her lamp for half a millenia, in the ruins of a forgotten kingdom, jinni is discovered by a young thief driven by a thirst for revenge and everything she has ever learned is turned inside out.

This is a really good retelling of Aladdin. The characters are rounded and complex, the world building is superb and the story is engaging. It's also so refreshing to see all the principle characters pulling against each other but not making themselves stronger by tearing each other down. This story is definitely best told from the Jinni's POV. A real eastern delight. I highly recommend this.