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Tea-drinking introvert found either behind a book or within arm's reach of one. Book reviewer, and book sniffer. You may have seen me on W24, BooksLive, Aerodrome, Bark Magazine, CultNoise Magazine, or Expound Magazine.

28 Sept 2021

Review: The Gilded Ones by Namina Forna

For Deka’s whole life, she has been raised according to the principles of Oyomo; that a woman’s place is to serve and honour men. Yet on the day of the Ritual of Purity, in which Deka will be cut to demonstrate the purity of her blood, everything changes. Instead of the crimson life force that flows through the veins of the other village girls; Deka’s blood is liquid gold. She is Unpure, and the sentence for this crime is death, because the Unpure are descended from demons.

Only Deka doesn’t die. Again and again, the elders try to end her life, yet her spirit and body remain intact. Just as the elders think they have discovered the way to truly kill her, she is saved by an unexpected source; an emissary of the emperor.

Instead of death, Deka must join an army of girls like her to fight the worst threat that the land has ever faced. And the emperor is willing to sacrifice them all to win.

But when training starts, Deka realises that there’s more to her new position, and the army itself, than she could ever have expected. What she learns shakes the very foundations of her world.

The Gilded Ones satisfies every possible craving a fan of Young Adult could have. Namina Forna has given us a glorious mythology with horrific yet strangely familiar limitations and social ills. We have a love story that is like no other, a generous dose of magic and intrigue, and even a range of action sequences. All of this has been woven together and perceived through a fantastic (literally) lens to make it pure magic. Once you start reading, you cannot stop. The characters are too enticing, the sub plots too arresting, and the writing too convincing and powerful to refuse.

The Gilded Ones will impress more than just YA fans – it will woo lovers of myth and legend, the seekers of fantasy, and those who want a peek of realism through struggle and inequality. It is superb.

The Gilded Ones by Namina Forna is published by Usborne, AND IS AVAILABEL IN South Africa from Penguin Random House South Africa.

10 Sept 2021

Review: Serial Killers of Russia by Wensley Clarkson

Wensley Clarkson has made a career of getting into the minds of the world’s deadliest and darkest murderers. And this time, he’s heading to unchartered territory: Russia. Serial Killers of Russia comprises the true events behind nine of Russia’s deadliest serial killers, and how these murderers evaded capture for so long.

If you though serial killers were purely an American phenomenon, prepare to be proven wrong. Just because we haven’t heard about these homicides before doesn’t mean they never happened – as Clarkson explains, it’s all due to something equally terrifying: Russian politics, and the refusal of the nation to admit to anything that might tarnish its reputation in the West.

It’s immediately apparent from the start of this book that Clarkson is incredibly confident. He claims that his experience with true crime writing and documentaries has given him an unusual and in-depth understanding of what makes a psychopath tick. Yet it pains me to say that the execution falls a little flat.

After several disclaimers of the morbid nature of the crimes, and warning to squeamish readers, this book isn’t as advertised. Perhaps it says something about the macabre nature of human interest and today’s media, but many of the crimes included in the volume are nowhere near as scary as Hollywood’s offerings. Instead, there is a glaring over-reliance on extreme adjectives which constantly forces the reader to remember that this is bad shit. But there are only so many times you can use words like heinous, gruesome or horrific in a sentence before the language loses its appeal and becomes distracting.

And then there are those inconsistencies. Despite promises of insights from killer’s minds, the majority of commentary about the mental state of these murderers comes in the form of unnamed experts, who seem to know a great deal about the inner workings of these homicidal maniacs without revealing how. Furthermore, Clarkson spends a great deal of time lamenting the state of Russian politics, and how this has affected the country’s lackluster policing. Yet his constant reminders that the Russian police force were inept and corrupt, with no interest in solving murders or putting in the work are peppered with notes from detectives, eyewitness testimonies (from sources that also remain nameless) and arrest details that prove the contrary. Altogether, this lends Serial Killers of Russia a degree of implausibility which reads more like fiction than non-fiction.

But it’s not all bad. The details about Russia’s socio-economic past are incredibly intriguing, and do wonders for helping the reader understand the various ways these killers could stalk their prey so successfully, while evading capture for so long.

Serial Killers of Russia by Wensley Clarkson is published by Welbeck, and is available in South Africa from Jonathan Ball Publishers.

28 Aug 2021

Review: For Your Own Good by Samantha Downing

Teddy Crutcher takes immense pride in his work. He’s a teacher, tasked with shaping the minds of some of the wealthiest kids in the country, at an elite school. Despite not coming from a wealthy background, he’s good at his job. In fact, he’s just been awarded the coveted Teacher of the Year award.

But not everyone thinks he deserves this honour.

There’s Zach, the straight A-student whose grade he just destroyed, and Fallon, a disgruntled former pupil who never misses a chance to send him a scathing email.

Yet when Fallon suddenly becomes his co-worker, everything changes, and not least because she arrives amid a series of unusual deaths at the school.

Now, Teddy must deal not only with a colleague dead set on revenge, but he’s also got to try find a way to help students like Courtney, a top pupil arrested in connection with the deaths.

Teddy knows that Courtney didn’t do it, but who did?

For Your Own Good is another brilliant example of Samantha Downing’s ability to create characters so realistic they could leap off the page. Even if they’re annoying as hell. The desire to like Teddy is continuously tested by his masterful unlikability.

Our protagonist thinks himself the only adult in a world full of children, but his actions and attitude are juvenile to the extreme, and the lows he stoops to would impress limbo dancers the world over. Yet despite his prominence in the story, Teddy remains a mystery – the character with the least developed backstory, and the most reluctant to part with his secrets.

And the frustration that is created by Teddy Crutcher simply existing is exquisite. He challenges the reader with his outlandish beliefs and opinions, while also managing to highlight the many perceived inadequacies of today’s youth. In a nutshell, Teddy Crutcher is a creation of pure genius, and an impressive literary tool.

There’s a downside to having a main character so enveloped in mystique and taboo, and so carefully juxtaposed against the supporting cast. It’s that it becomes difficult to navigate a complicated plot without giving away your hand. Unfortunately, this causes a few awkward plot holes; some clues are thrown in a little too haphazardly, with timing that’s a little too fortuitous. In the world of literary twists, Downing is royalty, but this time around, you can spot a few of those smaller red herrings long before they’re old enough to smell fishy.

For that reason, For Your Own Good cannot be called a perfect novel; but it’s pretty damn close, and absolutely worth reading. Right now.

For Your Own Good by Samantha Downing is published by Michael Joseph, a Penguin Random House company.

26 Aug 2021

Review: Dream Girl by Laura Lippman

Gerry Andersen is supposed to be writing his next best-seller. Instead, he’s finding it increasingly difficult to write. So when he is bed-bound after an accident, it seems the perfect excuse to write, and an equally attractive excuse for not writing.

The truth is, ever since he wrote the critically acclaimed ‘Dream Girl’, he just doesn’t seem to have another great story in him. When he created the character of Aubrey, he created literary perfection, and he’s not sure he can repeat that. To make matters worse, he might be losing his mind. His forced bed rest has put him at the mercy of his assistant, and an oddball night nurse. Yet neither of these women seem to believe him when he complains that someone pretending to be Aubrey has been harassing him. After all, how can someone that never existed torment an aging writer?

As the situation escalates, Gerry can’t help but wonder just what this fake Aubrey wants, and exactly how much she is prepared to do to get it.

Dream Girl is an ingenious novel that sees our protagonist carefully dance between fact and fiction, as his past actions and present predicament collide into a single, messy situation, and someone is going to get hurt. In Gerry’s trip to what he considers the top of the food chain, he’s been blissfully unaware of the damage he’s left in his wake, and now it’s time for him to be reminded, and pay the price.

Laura Lippman has written the aging white male to perfection – while we’re initially shown the world through his eyes, and according to his whims, soon enough, there are inconsistencies in Gerry’s views and opinions that leads to cascades of warning bells, as we finally discover the truth of Gerry’s life and writing. Dream Girl is a perfect and thrilling representation of ‘us vs them’, with a delightful and nuanced discussion of action, reaction, and consequences.

Dream Girl by Laura Lippman is published by Faber & Faber, and is available in South Africa from Jonathan Ball Publishers.

10 Aug 2021

Review: Girl One by Sara Flannery Murphy

Josephine Morrow isn’t your average woman. Not only was she conceived totally without the input of a man, but she was the first of NINE such births. She is Girl One. But before a tenth virgin birth, disaster struck and everything changed. One night, a fire broke out at The Homestead which housed these special mothers and their daughters, killing the man that made it all possible; her namesake, Dr Joseph Bellanger. 

Now that she’s an adult, Josie is following in Bellanger’s footsteps, trying to show herself and the world that his genius was not only brilliant, but repeatable. But she’s interrupted by an unforeseen hitch: her mom, Mother One, is missing.  

In order to retrace her mother’s steps and find her, Josie must do something she’s never been allowed to do: return to the Homestead, and the other Mothers, who might be able to help. 

But her hunt is hindered by a shocking revelation: not only did Dr Bellanger have less of a role than Josephine had always imagined, but he wasn’t anythign like she remembered. And nor were the other girls; because pathogenesis isn’t the only thing that’s special about these girls. They also each have a hidden ability which makes them not just freaks of nature, but a magnet for trouble. 

Girl One is the latest in a long line of speculative feminist writing that’s recently took the literary world by storm, and it deserves its place among its peers. Sara Flannery Murphy has penned something amazing: this book contains well-written prose that has been wrestled into an astonishing story that is as unpredictable and moving as it is dark and delicious. A sprinkling of the supernatural also really elevates Girl One to something beyond dystopia; it brings a glorious color and texture to the story that can only be called art. Murphy's world is a sharp and nuanced creation filled with a satisfying balance between the mundane and the macabre, and boy does it sparkle! Add to that a dash of romance and a sprinkle of scientific horror and you have something that appeals to everyone, and ticks all the boxes.

If the story is familiar at points, it’s only because of the current prevalence of feminist stories – Girl One is an original that deserves to become a beloved classic, and I have NO DOUBT that Hollywood will agree, and snap up the rights to give the story new life on screen. Here’s hoping. 

Girl One by Sara Flannery Murphy is published by Raven Books, a Bloomsbury company, and is available in South Africa from Jonathan Ball Publishers.