The Stars Are Fire by Anita Shreve

I review The Stars Are Fire by Anita Shreve.

From the New York Times best-selling author of The Weight of Water and The Pilot’s Wife (an Oprah’s Book Club selection): an exquisitely suspenseful new novel about an extraordinary young woman tested by a catastrophic event and its devastating aftermath–based on the true story of the largest fire in Maine’s history.

In October 1947, after a summer long drought, fires break out all along the Maine coast from Bar Harbor to Kittery and are soon racing out of control from town to village. Five months pregnant, Grace Holland is left alone to protect her two toddlers when her husband, Gene, joins the volunteer firefighters. Along with her best friend, Rosie, and Rosie’s two young children, Grace watches helplessly as their houses burn to the ground, the flames finally forcing them all into the ocean as a last resort.

The women spend the night frantically protecting their children, and in the morning find their lives forever changed: homeless, penniless, awaiting news of their husbands’ fate, and left to face an uncertain future in a town that no longer exists. In the midst of this devastating loss, Grace discovers glorious new freedoms–joys and triumphs she could never have expected her narrow life with Gene could contain–and her spirit soars. And then the unthinkable happens–and Grace’s bravery is tested as never before.

32324273

Wow. The Stars Are Fire is an absolute gem of a book. It’s the perfect historical fiction – pick an event, and tell me about the people who lived through it. The concept – the fire that destroyed part of Maine in 1947 – is terrifying,

Grace is an amazing woman. Stuck in an unhappy marriage, Grace is bored, frustrated, restrained. Shreve approaches marital rape with the attitude of the time, but also with a modern perspective. Grace’s husband, Gene, views sex as his right, and cares nothing for how Grace feels. Their third child is conceived through what Grace comes to think of as “that terrible night”, but what readers of today would, rightly, identify as rape.

But then, the fire. Grace grabs her two children, both infants, and, together with her neighbour Rosie, runs down to the beach. Somehow, somehow, she manages to keep her children safe. I wonder if this part of the story is based on a true account, if some woman laid face-down on the beach, legs in the water, a wet blanket covering her and her children, waiting for help to arrive. I’m inclined to believe it. The bravery of women, the strength of mothers, is unimaginable.

Gene, along with other men who were helping fight the flames, disappears. Grace, homeless, injured, stays with friends while she heals, gets back on her feet. She remembers that Gene’s mother had left her house to him, and that Gene had intended to move the family into it. A huge house, belonging to them, is standing empty. So she, her children, and her mother, move into it. But the house is not quite as empty as Grace believed. There’s a squatter, a young musician, with whom Grace becomes friends, and then more.

Grace’s story is sad, heartbreaking. With the disappearance of her husband, the fallout of the disaster, she becomes independent. She gets a job at a local doctor’s office, she gets a car, she provides for her family. She is happy. But worse is still to come.

This is absolutely a feminist story. It’s about a woman who, having never been able to stretch her wings, suddenly finds herself free of her cage, and takes flight as if she was born to it. It’s about the restrictions of society, of marriage, and how women are the ones who suffered, who still suffer. The Stars Are Fire is a breathtakingly beautiful story. I strongly recommend this one.

The Stolen Child by Sanjida Kay

From the author of Bone By Bone, I review The Stolen Child by Sanjida Kay.

Zoe and Ollie Morley tried for years to have a baby and couldn’t. They turned to adoption and their dreams came true when they were approved to adopt a little girl from birth. They named her Evie.

Seven years later, the family has moved to Yorkshire and grown in number: a wonderful surprise in the form of baby Ben. As a working mum it’s not easy for Zoe, but life is good.

But then Evie begins to receive letters and gifts.

The sender claims to be her birth father.

He has been looking for his daughter.

And now he is coming to take her back…

33260844

Unable to have children of their own, Zoe and Ollie adopted Evie (love this name!) from birth. They love her as if she was their own, but, a few years later, Zoe becomes pregnant with Ben. It doesn’t make a difference to them, but Evie appears to be affected by the presence of her brother. She starts receiving gifts from her Real Daddy, left in places only Evie will find them. And then, Evie goes missing.

Who was sending Evie these notes and gifts – is it really her biological father? Do they want to hurt her? Where have they taken her? Full of twists, The Stolen Child is a thrilling, atmospheric story.

Kay drip-feeds information to her readers, keeping them hooked until the very end. Kay is an incredible writer, and I’ve enjoyed both of her books. I look forward to her next work of fiction.

Goodreads | Amazon UK

Manipulated Lives by H.A. Leuschel

I review Manipulated Lives by H.A. Leuschel.

Five stories – five lives

Have you ever felt confused or at a loss for words in front of a spouse, colleague or parent, to the extent that you have felt inadequate or, worse, a failure? Do you ever wonder why someone close to you seems to endure humiliation without resistance?

Manipulators are everywhere. At first these devious and calculating people can be hard to spot, because that is their way. They are often masters of disguise: witty, disarming, even charming in public – tricks to snare their prey – but then they revert to their true self of being controlling and angry in private. Their main aim: to dominate and use others to satisfy their needs, with a complete lack of compassion and empathy for their victim.

In this collection of short novellas, you meet people like you and me, intent on living happy lives, yet each of them, in one way or another, is caught up and damaged by a manipulative individual. First you meet a manipulator himself, trying to make sense of his irreversible incarceration. Next, there is Tess, whose past is haunted by a wrong decision, then young, successful and well balanced Sophie, who is drawn into the life of a little boy and his troubled father. Next, there is teenage Holly, who is intent on making a better life for herself and finally Lisa, who has to face a parent’s biggest regret. All stories highlight to what extent abusive manipulation can distort lives and threaten our very feeling of self-worth.

30509344

Just like my own collection, Weltanschauung, Leuschel splits Manipulated Lives into five short stories: The Narcissist, Tess and Tattoos, The Spell, Runaway Girl, and My Perfect Child. Each story is incredibly crafted to entice and cling on to the reader.

My favourite story was Runaway Girl. It shows that anyone is capable of manipulating you. In the story, Holly has been desperately saving money in order to embark on an adventure, to get away from her overcrowded house, with her overworked and underpaid parents. She finally has what she feels is enough to get her started, but things soon start to go downhill. A boy from school, Luke, starts taking an interest in her, and their relationship quickly becomes abusive.

I loved how Leuschel managed to pull so many strings together, to tell a complex, poignant story. All of the stories in this collection were interesting, well-written, and somewhat concerning. Leuschel shows that anyone is capable of manipulation.

Larchfield by Polly Clark

I review Larchfield by Polly Clark.

‘We need the courage to choose ourselves’ W. H. Auden

It’s early summer when a young poet, Dora Fielding, moves to Helensburgh on the west coast of Scotland and her hopes are first challenged. Newly married, pregnant, she’s excited by the prospect of a life that combines family and creativity. She thinks she knows what being a person, a wife, a mother, means. She is soon shown that she is wrong. As the battle begins for her very sense of self, Dora comes to find the realities of small town life suffocating, and, eventually, terrifying; until she finds a way to escape reality altogether.

Another poet, she discovers, lived in Helensburgh once. Wystan H. Auden, brilliant and awkward at 24, with his first book of poetry published, should be embarking on success and society in London. Instead, in 1930, fleeing a broken engagement, he takes a teaching post at Larchfield School for boys where he is mocked for his Englishness and suspected – rightly – of homosexuality. Yet in this repressed limbo Wystan will fall in love for the first time, even as he fights his deepest fears.

The need for human connection compels these two vulnerable outsiders to find each other and make a reality of their own that will save them both. Echoing the depths of Possession, the elegance of The Stranger’s Child and the ingenuity of Longbourn, Larchfield is a beautiful and haunting novel about heroism – the unusual bravery that allows unusual people to go on living; to transcend banality and suffering with the power of their imagination.

32766337

I confess, I knew nothing of W.H. Auden before downloading Larchfield, but he seems like an incredibly fascinating individual. Clark introduces us to Auden as a recently published poet, heading north to join the teaching staff at a school in Helensburgh, Scotland. A homosexual in a time where being gay was illegal, Auden is careful and secretive, but he cannot help how deeply he falls in love – or with whom.

Dora, too, is a great character. Newly married, mother to a premature baby, Dora loses herself in the daily grind, the humdrum of life. A poet, with artistic friends stuck in their youth, Dora feels her own youth, her artistic reputation, slipping away – along with her senses. The neighbours upstairs are making her life hell; the small town is tightening around its own, forcing her out. After a particularly nasty encounter, Dora takes Bea, her daughter, down to the sea. There, she finds a bottle, and inside is a note from W.H. Auden. Already on the brink, Dora takes a step, and finds herself in a world that isn’t her own.

Larchfield is easy to fall into. Clark is an incredibly talented writer, who evokes 1930’s and draws the reader in from the present day. Her characters are well-crafted, and the story flows beautifully.

I’m not entirely certain what happened at the end. Was it real, or was it all inside Dora’s head? Perhaps Clark meant for it to be ambiguous. I think I’ll choose to believe it was real – whether it happened inside Dora’s head or not is an entirely different matter.

Larchfield is due out at the end of March.

Goodreads | Amazon UK

The Dragon’s Blade: Veiled Intentions by Michael R. Miller

James McStravick reviews The Dragon’s Blade: Veiled Intentions by Michael R. Miller.

Rectar has always had his sights set on conquering the human lands. His demonic invasion of the west is gaining momentum – an unrelenting horde unhindered by food or sleep. Now, only the undermanned Splintering Isles lie between the demons and the human kingdom of Brevia. If the islands fall, the rest of Tenalp will soon follow.

The Three Races must work together if they are to survive, but they have another problem – Castallan. The traitorous wizard has raised a deadly rebellion and declared himself King of Humans. He believes himself safe in the bowels of his impenetrable Bastion fortress, but Darnuir, now King of Dragons, intends to break those walls at all costs.

To face these threats, all dragons, humans and fairies must truly unite; yet old prejudices may undermine Darnuir’s efforts once again. And as the true intentions of all are revealed, so too is a secret that may change the entire world.

veiled-intentions

Veiled Intentions is the highly anticipated sequel of The Reborn King. When I read and reviewed The Reborn King last year, I thoroughly enjoyed it and sung its praises. If you want to read my review you can find it here.

When I was offered a copy of Veiled Intentions I quickly jumped at the opportunity, due to how much I liked The Reborn King. Before I delve into my review all I will say is that this book certainly does not disappoint.

Veiled Intentions picks right up where The Reborn King left off. I really like it when authors pick up a story right where the previous book finished almost as if you are resuming from a natural point. That’s not to say that I don’t like it when authors do a time jump or pick up shortly because sometimes I find depending on an authors style of writing, skill or the pacing of the book this can be with variant levels of success. Personally though I think no matter what Miller chose to do, he would he do it brilliantly.

Veiled Intentions takes the writing, story, world, and characters, and makes them all better in so many ways. Not only do we learn more about the characters we read about in The Reborn King, but the author has now included some new POV’s and I think these were a breath of fresh air to the book as it allows us to learn more about the world as a whole and gives us a better understanding of everyone’s feelings towards whats happening. I’m not going tell you the names of the new POV’s characters as I think that will spoil some of the fun of reading this book, but one of the them has certainly become a firm favorite of mine.

With new characters being introduced that opens us up to a whole part of the world that we had never explored before, and I thoroughly enjoyed reading about these uncharted areas. This sequel also gives you the opportunity to learn more about the world and its inhabitants, as well as how the war was affecting the wider world. This helped bring a whole new aspect to the world building and this made just love the world it encompassed so much more.

I felt overall the flow of the story and the pacing was done very well; I think the author did the flow and pacing of the book very well. I was extremely excited to start reading Veiled Intentions but also a bit worried, as sometimes sequels don’t always live up to the quality of the first book or to your own hype. But I was glad to see that Veiled Intentions lived up to my expectations and more. If you are a fan of fantasy and you haven’t yet read anything by Michael R. Miller, then I highly recommend you check him out.

 Goodreads | Facebook | @MMDragons_Blade

Feminist February: Unslut: A Diary & A Memoir by Emily Lindin

Unslut is one of my choices for Feminist February, and you can see why. Emily Lindin kept a diary while in middle school, which documented the sexual bullying she suffered. In her 20’s, she decided to publish these diaries as a blog, with commentary, to share her story, and to help girls currently going through the same thing.

23845830

When Emily Lindin was eleven years old, she was branded a “slut” by the rest of her classmates. For the next few years of her life, she was bullied incessantly at school, after school, and online. At the time, Emily didn’t feel comfortable confiding in her parents or in the other adults in her life. But she did keep a diary.

UnSlut presents that diary, word for word, with split-page commentary to provide context and perspective. This unique diary and memoir sheds light on the important issues of sexual bullying, slut-shaming, and the murky mores of adolescent sexual development. Readers will see themselves in Emily’s story—whether as the bully, the shamed, or the passive bystander. This book also includes advice and commentary from a variety of distinguished experts. 

I just signed up for a 3 month trial for Audible, so I downloaded Unslut for free. I’ve never been a fan of audiobooks before, but I can see the allure of “reading” while stuck in traffic on my way to and from work, so I may continue with it. In any case, I’m so glad I chose to read Unslut as part of Feminist February. It’s a story so many of us women know – girl meets boy, girl does “things” (or “it”) with boy (or maybe she doesn’t, he calls her “frigid”), boy spreads rumour, peers join in. Suddenly there’s a half-naked picture of you on Facebook, and you’re receiving messages that tell you to kill yourself.

That’s pretty much what happened to Emily Lindin, except the messages came over AIM. In the late 1990’s, access to the internet was restricted by old-fashioned dial-up connections, and social media was in its infancy. Unslut is an attempt to shine a light on the sexual bullying that girls suffer, that we as grown women suffered (and perhaps still do, in a way), that our daughters may suffer. The Unslut Project allows women to share their stories, so I’m taking the opportunity to share my own here.

I was born in 1991, the year of Nevermind, so I was a teenager in the mid-00’s. Our culture was inspired by US reality shows. We aspired to be blonde and thin and tanned like Mischa Barton and Paris Hilton. We ended up with orange hands and uneven highlights and constant hunger. We fantasised about spending our long summer holidays in California or Italy, when really we were lucky to get a weekend in Clacton. I grew up in a working-class family in London, the eldest of three, and by the time I went to secondary school, we lived in Hertfordshire, which some say is affluent, and others say is a shithole. In January 2004, I was the new girl at the worst school in the area. I’d come from Essex, where I spent the later part of my childhood. By 10, I had started my period and grown breasts, and, by 12, I was wearing make-up and had highlighted my hair. By thirteen, I’d lost my virginity to someone a lot older than me; by fourteen, I was regularly having casual sex, usually while intoxicated. At fifteen, I was raped, and didn’t recognise it for what it was. At 11, Emily Lindin let her then-boyfriend put his hands down her knickers, and she was branded a slut.

Did I experience sexual bullying? No, I don’t believe I did. Certainly not to the extent that Emily describes. I was a sexually active teenager, and I’m sure I had a reputation, but it didn’t bother me. I found it empowering. I definitely went for the “cool girl” stereotype as a teenager (cringe). I was the cool girl who wore stripey colourful socks, could handle her booze, and let the guys “dick slap” her (yuck). I could be “one of the lads”, “not like other girls”, but I also had big breasts and was willing to do almost anything. I probably had the reputation of being easy, because I was. I used alcohol, drugs, and sex to escape an abusive home life, to escape my own head. I put myself in those situations, and I blamed nobody but myself. I was a product of my upbringing, society in the mid-00’s, internalised sexism.

So no, I wasn’t sexually bullied, because I was too wrapped up in my own life to notice if I was. But I did see many girls go through a similar thing to Emily, and, even as a teenager, I knew it was wrong. When we were about 16, a friend (we’ll call her Sally) had a boyfriend (we’ll call him Adam) who was known for cheating. They were together for a couple of years, but throughout, he would constantly cheat on her, and he tried it on with me several times. He’d join us on Friday nights out, and wait until I was drunk before making a move. He’d lean in for a kiss and I’d always push him away, and, thankfully, he never pushed me further than that. But he did have a fling with a girl who was a few years younger than us (we’ll call her Danielle), while he was still dating Sally. Danielle, thirteen and naive, sent Adam pictures of herself in her underwear. Sally found them on his phone, and, enraged, sent them to her own phone, and then proceeded to share them around school. Adam protested his innocence – he hadn’t asked for those pictures! She’d just sent them! Danielle was a slut! And that’s how she became known.

Most of us knew that Adam probably had asked for those pictures, and sent some himself, because he’d sent pictures to some of us, Sally’s friends, in the past. But Sally didn’t want to hear it. She wanted to keep her boyfriend, so she shamed Danielle, recruiting school-friends to send nasty messages. I never participated, and defended Danielle against Sally and her tirade (I also had a reputation for being “scary”, simply because I regularly spoke out). I wish I’d stood up harder for her. I can’t remember what happened to Danielle. When I left school, I barely glanced back. I hope she made it out okay.

In Some Girls Do, the novel I’m currently writing, protagonist Jess goes off with a guy she’s been involved with before, with the intention to have sex. But, having drunk too much wine, she feels a bit sick, her head is spinning, and doesn’t want to go through with it. She’s too drunk to consent, she’s too drunk to say no, but the guy goes ahead anyway. Then he takes a picture of her, semi-conscious, skirt pulled up, knickers around her ankles. He sends it to a friend, and soon enough it ends up on social media. And so begins the sexual bullying of Jess.

The story is somewhat based on my own experience, but the guy didn’t take a photo of me (that I know of), and this was before the rise of social media. We had MySpace and MSN, but this was 2006, and not everyone had a smartphone. Some Girls Do is my story, brought into the present.

I wanted to read Unslut in part as research for Some Girls Do, but also because sexual bullying is a real issue that affects so much teenagers. (If you haven’t watched Audrie & Daisy yet, you can catch it on Netflix.) I really respect what Emily Lindin has done by publishing her diaries. Unslut is an honest, unapologetic look into life as a preteen in the late 90’s. It was particularly interesting to listen to as an audiobook, and I feel it only made it more captivating.

Goodreads | Amazon

If you want to sign up to be a beta reader for Some Girls Do when the time comes, pop me an email: thebandwagonreviews@gmail.com.

Empire of The Saviours by A J Dalton

James McStravick reviews Empire Of The Saviours by A J Dalton.

In the Empire of the Saviours, the People are forced to live in fortified towns. Their walls are guarded by an army of Heroes, whose task is to keep marauding pagans out as much as it is to keep the People inside. Several times a year, living Saints visit the towns to exact the Saviours’ tithe from all those coming of age – a tithe often paid in blood. When a young boy, Jillan, unleashes pagan magicks in an accident, his whole town turns against him. He goes on the run, but what hope can there be when the Saviours and the entire Empire decide he must be caught? Jillan is initially hunted by just the soldiers of the Saint of his region, but others soon begin to hear of his increasing power and seek to use him for their own ends. Some want Jillan to join the fight against the Empire, others wish to steal his power for themselves and others still want Jillan to lead them to the Geas, the source of all life and power in the world. There are very few Jillan can trust, except for a ragtag group of outcasts. His parents threatened, his life in tatters, his beliefs shaken to the core, Jillan must decide which side he is on, and whether to fight or run. 

empire-of-the-saviours

People say you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but when you see a cover like Empire of the Saviours, it’s hard not to imagine a great dark and gripping fantasy novel. Sometimes letting your initial judgement of a book be determined by the cover is not a good idea because the book may not meet your expectations, but I was glad to see this wasn’t case with Empire of the Saviours.

When I first picked up Empire of the Saviours, I found it a bit difficult to get into due to the start of it focusing a lot around the locals and their beliefs. I sometimes find it difficult reading books with this kind of environment, but as the story developed we quickly discover all is not what it seems and the pace of the book quickly picks up.

The one aspect that impressed me the most was Dalton’s focus on characterisation and the details we find out about each character. Some people find books with heavy focus on characterisation hard to read due to the amount of information involved, but Dalton’s style of writing and the story he moulds around the characters make it a lot easier to read. The character I enjoyed reading about the most is Jillan because throughout the book we see him experience numerous different emotions due to different situations, and how he dealt with him made his a great character.

If when you first read Empire of the Saviours like myself you find it difficult to get into I highly suggest you push past this because what you will discover is a world that will grip and intrigue you. Not only that but the book has some great actions scenes in it and these were the scenes that I loved devouring the most due to their intensity and great flow. I don’t want to discuss these too much as I feel the battle scenes are one of the books true aces and are a pleasure to read.

Even with all of these great things to say about the book there were definitely some points were I felt that certain scenes dragged on a bit or the pacing slowed down but thankfully there weren’t too many moments of these throughout the course of the book. The one negative about the book I did find hard to deal with the most was when a POV switch occurred, there were no font change or formatting to indicate this was going to occur. So unfortunately there were occasions where I suddenly found myself reading a different POV and sometimes I didn’t discover right away. I feel if a font change or formatting was added to allude to this then the book would become much easier to read.

Other than the small negatives I mentioned above I still thoroughly enjoyed reading Empire of the Saviours, it is a well crafted book with great writing and a thoroughly enjoyable story. I would highly recommend it to any fan of the fantasy book genre.

A J Dalton | Goodreads | Facebook | @AJDalton1