The Once and Future Witches

I was lucky enough to request and be approved to read this on netgalley in exchange for an honest review. All views and opinions are my own.

The Once and Future Witches by Alix E Harrow, art work by

This might end up being one of the shortest reviews I write as I just can’t seem to find the words for this book, but it is utterly, utterly spellbinding and I absolutely LOVED it.

Following three sisters (naturally), it is a tale of family and of loyalties, betrayals, suffering and survival, set in a time when women are second class citizens with no rights and no voice.

The sisters Eastwood are unexpectedly reunited following the death of their abusive father, but as they meet, magic stirs.

For this is also a tale of magic. Of wills and ways and words, of forgotten rhymes and passed down tales, of nature’s treasures and objects found, of old wives’ tales and whispers on the grapevine.

Juniper is a wonderful character, a determined and wilful force of nature. Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned seems like an apt description, although it tuns much deeper than that and her tenderness, fragility, youth and yearning are all expertly woven into her tale too.

Determined to see a change, or to be that change, what begins as her joining the suffragist movement quickly becomes much more as she riles against the injustice and mistreatment rife around her.

This is a story of sisterhood, of strong females and strong female bonds, of standing up for yourself and helping those around you do the same.

It is a tale of revenge, regret and powerful emotions; of hate, grief, love and fear.

It is a tale both historical and relevant, political and personal, magical and real.

It is a tale showing how fierce a fairytale can be.

Indeed, the way in which fairytales are used in the story is so clever and effective and, ultimately, so incredibly captivating.

Absolutely one of my favourite reads this year. I had it on netgalley but bought the hardback halfway through, as soon as it was released and have ordered Alix’s first book ‘The Ten Doors of January’ to be one of my first reads in the new year.

This is a story that spoke straight to my heart and my love of all things fairytale, witchy, folkloric and other.

The Lost Future of Pepperharrow

I was lucky enough to request and receive a copy of this from the publishers in exchange for an honest review. All views and opinions are my own, and I have since bought a finished copy too.

The Lost Future of Pepperharrow by Natasha Pulley

I loved The Watchmaker of Filigree Street, Natasha Pulley’s first novel, and Bedlam Stacks, which was her second – a standalone that nevertheless ‘overlaps’ somewhat with Filigree Street in a rather pleasing way – so I was incredibly excited about a sequel to Watchmaker, but would it deliver?

In short, yes! If you enjoyed Watchmaker you must read this (and if you haven’t read Watchmaker stop now and go and read that first!)

We return to Thaniel, Mori and Six a few years after we left them, this time as they embark on a journey to Japan; Thaniel for work and health reasons and Mori to finish something he started decades earlier…

I loved seeing Mori’s home and the way the Japanese setting affected our characters. As with Natasha’s previous books, her love and knowledge of the country, its history and culture are clear and give us an immersive sense of time and place.

I must admit that after the somewhat softly spoken, almost genteel feel of Watchmaker I found the harsher, cruder tone a bit surprising and hard to get into at first, but I soon did and it soon felt much more appropriate for the story too. I also found the author’s note on the language and her choice of and use of it very interesting.

Likewise, I struggled to see Thaniel as a big man, a boxer as that’s not at all how I’d imagined him in Watchmaker, but I soon grew into this ‘new’ Thaniel and it worked very well.

Mori might just be one of my favourite ever fictional characters and here he is as enigmatic and magnetic as ever. I thought the way that despite thinking I trusted him absolutely and feeling such warmth towards him, we’re still led to doubt and second guess him, and by extension our own judgement. It’s so cleverly written.

There’s some new characters too who are brought to life just as well, evoking a host of different reactions and feelings between them. From the power-hungry Kuroda to the ruthless Tanaka to the complex, strong and determined Takiko Pepperharrow.

I will struggle to say much about anything without either giving away huge spoilers or just sounding confusing, but it is brilliantly sprawling and intricately woven, as one would expect if you’re already familiar with Mori.

Seemingly unconnected, insignificant or minor events come together to create a puzzle which only reveals itself once all its pieces are in place.

Bringing together folklore, superstition and an air of the supernatural in a rich, historical tale of power, love and destiny, this is an outstanding sequel and joins The Watchmaker of Filigree Street as one of my favourite books.

The Bedlam Stacks

The Bedlam Stacks by Natasha Pulley

I thought I’d reviewed this but it turns out I’d only posted it on waterstones and not on the blog (maybe it was before I had the blog?) but as I’m posting my review of The Lost Future of Pepperharrow today, I thought I’d throw this one in too!
When my proof copy (received in exchange for review) arrived, I was both excited and apprehensive about how Natasha Pulley would follow up The Watchmaker of Filigree Street, which I loved – could she do it again?
Superbly written, combining historical fiction with wonderfully imaginative surroundings (exploding trees and moving statues for starters) and believable characters the answer is an emphatic yes.

I loved this just as much – fans of Watchmaker will not be disappointed and will be pleased by some subtle (and not so subtle) nods to her first novel. For those who have not read Watchmaker – if you enjoy this, I urge you to also read that!
Bedlam Stacks is cleverly written with an underlying sense of mistrust and doubt: can others be believed? Can the character’s own minds be believed? Are the statues really moving, is it a trick, or are they really some sort of gods?

The scenes are brilliantly set – richly described, with a perfect balance between the hard terrain, extreme weather and altitude sickness that roots them in reality and the glowing pollen, glass rocks and cities in the treetops that steeps it in an air of mystery.

And the story similarly manages to walk the tightrope between historical fiction rooted in fact and magic, myth and folklore.
An utterly brilliant book, which has confirmed Natasha Pulley as one of my favourite authors.

The Mercies

I was lucky enough to receive a copy of this from the publishers in exchange for an honest review. All views and opinions are my own.

The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave
Ever since reading Kiran’s debut MG novel The Girl of Ink and Stars when it was our Children’s Book of the Month at work a few years ago, I have been hooked and she has quickly become one of my absolute favourite authors.

When she released a YA novel, The Deathless Girls, last year, I was excited but nervous – would it live up to her MG? Would I still enjoy her writing for an older audience? I needn’t have worried, of course, and the same is true here; The Mercies is her first novel for adults, and it’s brilliant.

Based on true events, the book tells the tale of a storm which wipes out – almost entirely – the male population of a small, Norwegian island as they are out fishing. Left to fend for themselves, initially at least, we see the women coping with loss, grief and adjusting to the harsh challenges of island life in very different ways, in a time when there were still very clear expectations of what women should, and more emphatically, should not do.

A new Commissioner arrives, with both his inexperienced young wife and plans to root out any unholy behaviour, leading to persecution and witch trials.

The book very much examines how such things came about, both in the wider world and in a more specific and personal way to our characters. How personal gain, spite, fear and beliefs all contrive to bring out the very worst in us. It is eminently relevant and relatable today, despite bring based on events over 400 years ago. The more things change…

As well as the over-arching witch hunts, there are many other more domestic issues at play here too. This is a book which deals unflinchingly with a range of uncomfortable truths – male dominance and female subjugation (in more ways than one); racism, religion and control; alliances, cliques and betrayals, superstitions and suspicions. Ultimately it is a book about power, those that wield it, crave it, use it and suffer by it.

Kiran’s writing is always rich in detail and atmospheric, and this book is certainly that. Harsh landscapes match bleak times and heavy hearts and we feel all of it. Events here unfold slowly – I loved this as it gave time to really get under the skin of all the characters and into their lives. It also felt right for the isolated, rural setting of the book and for the history it told. I felt a part of that tiny community and when those characters I’d grown close to hurt, so did I.

Likewise, the ending broke me. The slow build and blow by blow account were so effective. I also really liked the actual ending (clear as mud, I know! But no spoilers!) both satisfying, but – like all of her books – with a tiny glint of hope.

I should say that I loved the slow pace of this book, but it will not be for everyone. If you were dissatisfied at The Deathless Girls dealing with the backstory of the brides and lacking much in the way of pace and action (I was not, I loved that too!) you may feel the same here.

However, I urge you to give it a try as it’s a simply magnificent book. As hopeful as it is harsh, as rich in detail as it is stark in reality. Already one of my favourite books this year, I can’t wait for my finished copy to arrive.

Gingerbread

I requested and received an advance copy of this free from the publishers, in exchange for an honest review. All views are my own.

Ever since I read ‘Boy, Snow, Bird’ a few years ago I’ve been a huge fan of Helen Oyeyemi’s books, so when I saw this was coming out I was VERY excited!

And when this beautiful book arrived in the post (the cover is by Neil Lang and I think it’s stunning) I was itching to get going with it!

Influenced by the mysterious place gingerbread holds in classic children’s stories…Helen Oyeyemi invites readers into a delightful tale of a surprising family legacy, in which the inheritance is a recipe.

As many of you will know, I’m not the quickest reader at the best of times and even slower since trying to fit it in around Peapod, so despite my enthusiasm and best efforts it took me an age to finish! But it was worth the long journey…

…and a journey it was – from modern day life through fairytale farms in non-existent countries, through ‘looking-glass’ cities with dark, gingerbread underbellies, and back to the familiar, albeit slightly warped!

This book is impossible to pin down and almost as hard to describe.

It’s a family saga but not like any you’ve ever read before, with an extremely eclectic cast.

It’s sort of magical realism but it’s a very matter of fact magic, if indeed it’s magic at all.

It’s a sharply observed commentary on society, politics, prejudice, feminism, class and more…But one that’s hidden in talking dolls, changelings in wells and not-haunted houses.

It’s like Margaret Astwood collided with Haruki Murakami in a fairytale world.

Deftly written with a lyrical beauty that’s laced through with a sharp wit, this book demonstrates a detailed knowledge, and love of, fairytales and their tropes as well as a shrewd understanding of people – of cliques, of types, of behaviours and, especially, of women and families.

I can’t lie, it’s not an easy read. There’s often a complaint that books don’t flow; if anything this flows so freely that it takes a bit of concentration to try and follow its weird and winding ways.

That said, I was snatching a page or two here and there where I could – I think if I could have read it in larger chunks, I would have followed much easier.

So if I have one piece of advice in regards to this book it is – Read It. But read it when you have time to really read it – lose yourself in it, allow yourself to luxuriate in it, indulge.

The Binding

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Imagine you could erase your grief.
Imagine you could forget your pain.
Imagine you could hide a secret.
Forever.

Emmett Farmer is working in the fields when a letter arrives summoning him to begin an apprenticeship. He will work for a Bookbinder, a vocation that arouses fear, superstition and prejudice – but one neither he nor his parents can afford to refuse.

I was lucky enough to be sent a copy of this from HarperInsider/Borough Press to review and I’ll be honest, it’s another of those magpie books that I was drawn to, initially solely because of its oh-so-beautiful cover (sadly, I don’t know who designed it, so I can’t credit).

But then I found out that this was a book about books – specifically books which are not so much banned as shunned, feared, locked away, secreted; and specifically books which are created by specialists (some more scrupulous than others) by binding – not works of fiction as we would know them, these books contain memories that for one reason or another someone wants forgotten.

I was hooked before I’d begun.

The fact that it had elements of all my favourite genres without really being confined to any of them only added to this. Even the fact that it is essentially a love story couldn’t deter me (and it shouldn’t – it’s beautiful, full of hope, frustration, guilt and despair: raw feeling and not in the least bit sentimental and squishy).

While this is a work of fantasy, it is hinged on real lives and the everyday, in particular society, class and prejudice. Magical realism if you must. But really I don’t think either of those pigeon-holes are quite right for it. Similarly, it has the feel of the best gothic, historical fiction, but it’s not really that either – there is unquestionably an atmosphere of times gone by but no concrete time period to pin it down.

The setting is richly described and I was drawn right into the thick of it. My favourite part of the book is the time Emmett spends at Seredith’s bindery: the workshop and vaults, the surrounding marshes, the changing seasons and the isolation – all of it felt so tangible. I could happily have had this book go down a completely different route and spent the whole novel there (did someone say prequel – Seredith’s story anyone? Come on, Bridget, you know you’d love to!) But all of it felt incredibly vividly and real.

Likewise, the characters are well-drawn and believable. Though at first I felt some of them were going to be a little stereotypical, with some of their relationships looking to play out in ways we’ve seen before, the way they develop as the story progresses, the way each character is vital to the story and the way we see it from different angles and viewpoints helps bring them much more depth, purpose and realism.

This was a truly captivating book. It is at times dark, horrifying, bleak, but at other times bursting with hope and possibility. It feels both magical and all too real; historical and incredibly relevant. A book that truly swallows you up into its world and has you reading ‘just one more page/chapter/part’ every time you pick it up.

Spinning Silver

spinning silver

Miryem was brought up in a snowbound village, on the edge of a charmed forest. She comes from a family of moneylenders, but her kind father shirks his work. Free to lend and reluctant to collect, his family faces poverty – until Miryem intercedes. Hardening her heart, she starts retrieving what’s owed, and her neighbours soon whisper that she can turn silver into gold. Then an ill-advised boast attract the cold creatures who haunt the wood. Nothing will be the same again, for words have power.

Loving all things fairy-tale based, I’ve meant to read Uprooted by Naomi Novik for years, but still not got round to it somehow. So when I was offered a copy of Spinning Silver for review by Macmillan, I jumped at the chance to sample her fairy-tale retelling skills!

I say ‘retelling’ but it’s really so much more than that. This is a fantasy novel which puts down its roots in Rumplestiltskin particularly, but which references a multitude of more general fairy tale tropes throughout (the rule of three, relationships and roles, poverty and riches, wishes and bargains etc.). But it is the subtle, skilful and original ways in which Novik weaves these into her tale that elevate this from being either a simple retelling or veering into cliche: they feel integral to the story, the fairy-tale similarities almost coincidental. Similarly, alongside it’s rich fairy-tale and mythological background sit societal themes of race, debt, class, equality which are as relevant today as ever.

While I love fairy-tales and all that goes with them, I’m not a big fantasy reader. So, for me, the first half of this book was by far my favourite – it had much more of the fairy-tale and less of the fantasy, whereas the balance had flipped a little by the end. Not that this stopped me from enjoying it: I was still very much immersed in its world, but while the beginning of the book felt like an old friendship rekindled after years – almost unrecognisable, but still themselves – the second took a bit more effort on my part, and I found the Chernobog elements of the storyline hard-going at times.

But, it was worth it. Atmospheric and vividly depicted, the world sucks you in. As so much of it revolves around the frosty lands of the Staryk, it did feel a little odd to be reading it mid-‘heatwave’ in July, but I can’t wait to re-read it in front of the fire with plenty of hot chocolate come winter! Without wanting to give away too much, it was the little details that really did it for me – the description of everyday family life (both good and bad), the seemingly abandoned cottage in the woods, Stepon’s white nut…

The book begins with Miryem as our main protagonist, but soon develops to incorporate two more female leads, as well as other important if more minor female characters, not least in the roles of mothers. The differences between them, and their differences with each other as their stories begin to come together serve as a useful mirror for women in society as a whole: the variety of ways in which women are strong, cunning, protective, brave; the choices they make for the sake of themselves, their family or others; as well as both their wisdom and folly – these women are not infallible and some of the most interesting twists and turns of the story come as they deal with the fall-out from their own or others’ decisions. It’s not just the women though: the male characters are equally well-developed and nuanced, and also challenge/provoke thought on stereotypes and expectations.

The thing I loved best was the building up of the narratives in the book: each chapter from someone else’s point of view, flitting between viewpoints, worlds and characters frequently but without ever becoming confusing or distracting from the various plots. Indeed, for me, it was this which served to bring the various characters’ tales together so well.

An incredibly well-crafted, magical and thought-provoking book. I look forward to finally getting round to reading Uprooted soon, and to whatever Novik writes next!

P.S. On adding my review to waterstones.com, I’ve just found this interview with Naomi Novik about the book which I thought was a really interesting read!

Map of Salt and Stars

map of salt and stars

Even a review quote from the Mail on Sunday couldn’t put me off this one (although the idea of the Mail positively reviewing a book whose main characters are Syrian refugees is still making my head spin). I loved the sound of it from the start and was thrilled to receive a copy to review from Orion, thank you!

 

“The Map of Salt and Stars is the moving and magical story of Nour, a young Syrian girl who must journey as a refugee in search of a new home – a journey that will mirror that of Rawiya, a fabled map-maker’s apprentice, many centuries before. This is a novel about hope, the power of imagination, and what it takes to find your way home.”

We first meet Nour in her New York home, grieving after losing her father to cancer and remembering the stories he used to tell her, in particular the story of apprentice Rawiya and map-maker al-Idrisi and their adventures attempting to map more of the world than ever achieved before.

We soon see Nour moving back to Syria with her two older sisters, Huda and Zahra, and her map-making mother, where they have comfort and support in the form of family friend Abu Sayeed; for her family, this is a return to home, but for Nour, who was born in America, it is an entirely alien country and language. This struggle for identity sets the scene brilliantly for Nour’s personal journey towards adulthood, something which I think is portrayed so well throughout the book in her thoughts, feelings, reactions and encounters.

Not long after returning to Homs, bombing and threats of war see Nour and her family once more on the move: this time as refugees after they are left homeless. And it is here that we start to see Nour and Raiya’s stories really start to intertwine.

As Nour’s journey unfolds, we are told the story of Rawiya’s journey alongside it. I loved the contrast between the two stories – the bleak and unflinching realism of Nour’s life as a refugee and the folklore-heavy tales of Rawiya’s adventures, as well as the many parallels between them – the strong heroines forced to disguise themselves as boys, the long and arduous journeys with many unknown dangers to be faced, the locations they travel through, and of course the central themes of the book: belonging, home, family, identity and courage.

I’d read mixed reviews elsewhere, with many saying they couldn’t see the parallels and found the two narratives disjointed or jarring; personally, I found entirely the opposite. I loved the way the stories mirrored each other, whilst also being very different in tone and style. Alongside the broad parallels between the stories, there were so many moments when smaller, symbolic references between the two popped up which I thought worked so well (in particular the stars and stones) and I thought the way the stories came closer and closer together towards their endings was very effective. It worked brilliantly for me.

The author notes at the end of the book show just how much research went into writing this, and it shows. The modern-day story of Nour is harrowing, tense and devastating by turn and feels incredibly raw and real; the historical tale of Rawiya feels firmly rooted in tales and characters passed down through the generations: it reads like a story that should be told in the oral tradition (which is of course how we are introduced to it, as a tale told to Nour by her father), and the characters and events are, as with Nour’s story, to greater or lesser degrees based on real people and events.

Then there is the writing itself: lyrical, poetic, clever and captivating. As with the history and people, the landscapes and places are clearly well-known or researched, and more importantly well-loved (the shape poems at the start of each chapter are simply stunning). The use of colour is magical and again, very effective. Nour has synaesthesia, but unlike other books I’ve read recently where characters have this condition, it is not ‘a thing’; it is normal for her and reads as such, but also adds tremendously to the rich descriptions which take us with her on her journey (not to mention the story in a clever, but again under-stated way that I won’t spoil). I found myself wishing for a map, or more specifically, the talent and time to create one as I read: the visuals that accompanied this story in my mind were wonderful.

This was a book I expected to devour, race through, inhale. Instead, it took a long time for me to finish: I savoured it, became immersed, journeyed slowly. I read much of it in short bursts, rather than long spells, pausing often to let each part of the story sink in and spending time digesting it, mulling it over, thinking back to it.

It’s also a book that deserves to have incredibly broad appeal. While it is an adult fiction book, there are elements of younger fiction within it, notably the young main characters, the fantasy elements and the themes of growing up and finding out who you are, all familiar to so many younger books. Yes, there are some truly upsetting events (including a sexual attack, although not one described graphically) and it is unflinching in describing the devastation of war and the refugee crisis. However, I think many young adult readers would also enjoy this – it is by no means exclusively an adult book. The viewpoint of the protagonists makes it very accessible to a younger audience too.

A simply beautiful book that I’m already looking forward to re-reading (despite having a proof copy, I have ordered the hardback as a copy for The Bookshelf). Full of compassion, wonder and hope, I can’t recommend this enough.

Holiday Reading: East of Eden

A brief note: this is NOT a brief post! It began as one, but soon became half a post on this year’s holiday reads and half a review of one of them: East is Eden. Dip in and out as you like!

Before I go on holiday, I like to make sure I have plenty of books: I can manage somehow if I forget/run out/lose toiletries, clothes and the like, but books?! I’m not taking any chances.

I also find holidays a great opportunity to read more ‘grown up’ books. Working in the children’s section, I get to read a lot of kid’s books and I love that – I love reading them, talking about them, recommending them, sharing them – some of the books I anticipate the release of most are children’s books (see this post on Square if you don’t believe me). But I do like to read adult fiction too, and often find that it’s these books that are forever being put to the bottom of my TBR pile in favour of new children’s releases, so on holiday I make a point of reading them.

Which always throws up the inevitable: which books to take?!

This year, I’d been saving my ARC of The Map of Salt and Stars (thank you Orion books, full review will follow!) and I’d bought The Bear and The Nightingale as that was one I’d had my eye on for a while. An ARC of Whistle in the Dark had arrived not long ago for me, so I took that as an easy-ish plane read for the start of holidays (review here) and Alice came up on a #banterwithbooksellers twitter chat and, as another book I’d often umm-ed and ah-ed over, but still never actually picked up, that went on the list too. I picked up The Refugees on impulse (maybe it’s because I’m not as keen on short stories, maybe not, but I just didn’t get into it.) After that I got a bit stuck.

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My manager and I started on one of those “have you read this?”…”but you must have read this?!”…”you haven’t read this?!” conversations around some of the classics/must-read type books. From this I picked up The Road (another book, like Alice, that I’ve deliberated over reading for years but never actually read) despite being warned not to take it as a holiday read since it’s so bleak (I compromised and put it to the bottom of the pile!), Jonathan Strange (which didn’t actually make it on holiday with me: it was just TOO big!) and finally, East of Eden.

east of eden

I was warned not to come back to work if I didn’t like it, so highly regarded was this book, so it was quite a relief to find I enjoyed it! It did take me a chapter or two to get into, though I suspect more from my moving from one style of writing to a very different one than because of the book itself (does anyone else find this? I often get it when I switch from MG/YA to adult for example) but once I was into it, I was completely immersed.

It’s an epic, a saga, a multi-generational family drama: all descriptions which make me think of a soap opera in book form. Luckily, that’s not the case. It is first and foremost, a retelling of the story of Cain and Abel; I wasn’t sure at first how I’d feel about this, but the way it was done won me over. I loved Steinbeck’s writing for so many reasons.

Firstly, the characters: there are many. And to write so many characters, crossing so comprehensive a time period, whilst retaining their distinct personalities, as well as highlighting their inevitable similarities that feed into the Biblical ‘re-telling’ of the book is no mean feat. As with any family, there will be characters you identify with, those you’d like to have a drink with and, of course, those you want to shake some sense into or avoid altogether. I think part of what I enjoyed so much about this as the warmth each of them was written with and how real they felt – none perfect, all flawed, all individuals. Personally, I loved Samuel Hamilton, Lee and Caleb and, while she’s not likeable by any stretch of the imagination, I defy anyone to think Cathy’s not a fantastic character!

The picture Steinbeck draws of the Salinas Valley area is rich and detailed and the homes there, as with their owners are distinct and feel well-suited to their various inhabitants but what I liked best about it was how I could feel it changing throughout the years over the course of the book.

Then there is the writing itself – at times sharp and to the point and at others more philosophical; at times full of warmth and humour and love and at others despairing and bleak and cold. There were many passages, sentences, phrases and thoughts that I could have noted down to repeat here, but I won’t, because I suspect that as with the characters, everyone reading this will come away with their own favourites.

It took up most of my holiday (I came back having only read 3.5 of the 7 books I took!) but it was a perfect read for long, sunny spells of reading and I really benefited from being able to spend long stretches reading it and getting drawn into it rather than stopping and starting like I have to when I need to fit reading in around ‘real life’.

It has also made me determined to keep up reading a classic/must-read every now and then amongst all the lovely new books I get sent/pick up. Which would be your must-read recommendation? Which classics do you love/hate/want to read?

On A Scale of One to Ten/Whistle in the Dark

These books, and consequently this review, contain references to: mental health, depression, self-harm and suicide.

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In the last week, I’ve read both ‘On a Scale of One to Ten’ by Ceylan Scott (thanks to Chicken House for the arc) and ‘Whistle in the Dark’ by Emma Healy (thanks to Penguin Random House for that arc). The first is aimed at YA, the second adult fiction.

When I started this blog, my plan was to only review/blog about books I’d especially enjoyed – those I’d rate as 4 or 5*. I rated both of these 3*, but both resonated with me in various ways and got me thinking for various reasons. So, I’ve decided to post about them anyway, and as it’s Mental Health Awareness week too, it seems pretty fitting.

Whilst they approach it from very different perspectives and are otherwise nothing alike story-wise, both books deal with teenage mental health, and contain references to self harm and suicide (although, interestingly, only the YA one mentions this explicitly on the cover). As someone who has suffered with depression and anxiety on and off over the years, but starting during my teens, I’m always interested in novels that deal with this, so was intrigued by both of these.

It was the title that first made me want to read ‘On a Scale of One to Ten’ – 7 words that I hate. I don’t remember much about the various assessments and appointments I had as a teen when I was first diagnosed and rotated through a variety of tablets, but I do remember my most recent bout of anxiety and how frustrated/annoyed/angry I felt at this oft-used ‘assessment tool’ which didn’t come close to finding out anything about what was actually going on in my head, let alone helping with it.

So, when I saw the title I thought ‘here’s someone who gets it’ and delved a bit deeper. Written when Ceylan Scott was 16 and in a psychiatric hospital, it tells the tale of Tamar, who “is admitted to a psychiatric hospital for teenagers, where she is asked endless questions…But there’s one question Tamar can’t – won’t – answer: what happened to her friend Iris, who died at the weir?”

This really sums up both what I did and didn’t about the book. First the good:

Judging by the goodreads reviews so far, it’s struck a chord with many others too – being hailed as a realistic take on what life as a young person with a mental illness/in a psychiatric hospital is like, and I have to agree with much of this; I’m lucky to have never needed to be admitted to hospital, but there were certainly plenty of parts of the book that described so well my feelings or actions or thoughts at various times, especially (but by no means exclusively) when I was younger

And, while much of the book focuses on Tamar cutting to self-harm, I was pleased (I’m not sure that’s the right word) to see her write about Tamar banging her head against the wall repeatedly too – doors and walls and fists and heads and scratches and nails and pinches etc. that play a big part in my own experiences and it was refreshing to see this represented. I suspect that, through the variety of characters and their many and varied illnesses in the book, there will be moments like this for many readers who’ve been through similar.

However, there were also things I didn’t like as much: mainly the Iris at the weir plotline. I get that there had to be some sort of ‘other’ plot, but the ‘her friend died and she won’t say/we don’t know what happened’ thing just felt a bit tired (to me, personally), and I would have so much preferred this to be a book where there was no ‘major event’ triggering the illness – a representation of someone who has a mental illness just because they’re ill and not one triggered/worsened by – an external factor. Similarly, the Toby storyline, which I won’t go into in detail as I don’t want to slip into spoiler territory, but this storyline also left me unsatisfied and feeling like maybe opportunities were missed for this book to do something different.

I suspect though, this is very much my take on it as an adult; who knows how I’d have felt if I’d read it as a teen?

Which brings us to ‘Whistle in the Dark’. Although this also deals with teenage depression, in the form of 15-year-old Lana, it is written from an adult perspective, namely that of Lana’s mum Jen. Lana has suffered from depression for a long time and part of what I loved about this book was how well it showed the effects of this not just on Lana, but also on those around her, especially her mum and sister. It certainly took me back to my relationship with my mum during my younger years, and led to a fair bit of reflection. As much as ‘On A Scale of One to Ten’ felt like a wonderful insight into teenage mental health as it’s experienced, this felt like a window onto the world of those who live with/love someone who’s unwell and how upsetting/exhausting/frustrating it can be for them too.

I loved the relationships in this, if it had been focused solely on that, I’d have probably rated it much higher. The relationships between Jen and Lana took me back, while her relationship with older daughter Meg felt so relatable now, and the relationship between Meg and Lana was also incredibly easy to relate to.

However, the book focuses on the period shortly after Lana is found after having been missing for four days. Lana refuses to say what happened, and Jen becomes increasingly concerned about it. Some of this, I thought was brilliantly written, especially Jen’s worries about it. However, there were also elements that just felt unbelievable and the ending and resolution of this were ultimately what brought this down to 3 stars for me.

So, two mixed reviews on two similar and yet completely different books. The one thing I stand by for both of them is their portrayal of various aspects of mental illness, which I think – in very different ways and for very different audiences – they each captured and depicted incredibly well.

More information and support of mental illness can be found via the Mental Health Awareness website.