#ARC #Review: To Best The Boys by Mary Weber #YALit #Dystopian #Fantasy

Today’s review is for To Best The Boys by Mary Weber. Don’t let the short page count fool you, because there is an absolute ton packed into this baby including deep discussions of class stratified societies and gender roles. And despite this all, it never feels like an overwhelming or heavy read as we follow a plucky heroine on her journey to find a cure, love, and higher education. Beautifully imagined and expertly written, To Best The Boys is Coco Channel meets The Maze Runner, and it’s an absolute must read!


bestTitle: To Best The Boys

Author: Mary Weber

Publisher: Thomas Nelson

Publication Date: March 5, 2019

Genre: Fiction, YA, Fantasy, Dystopian

Themes: Family, Friendship, Survival,

Features: N/A


My Rating: 4.5/ 5


Synopsis

From Goodreads…

Every year for the past fifty-four years, the residents of Pinsbury Port receive a mysterious letter inviting all eligible-aged boys to compete for an esteemed scholarship to the all-male Stemwick University. Every year, the poorer residents look to see that their names are on the list. The wealthier look to see how likely their sons are to survive. And Rhen Tellur opens it to see if she can derive which substances the ink and parchment are created from, using her father’s microscope.

In the province of Caldon, where women are trained in wifely duties and men are encouraged into collegiate education, sixteen-year-old Rhen Tellur wants nothing more than to become a scientist. As the poor of her seaside town fall prey to a deadly disease, she and her father work desperately to find a cure. But when her Mum succumbs to it as well? Rhen decides to take the future into her own hands—through the annual all-male scholarship competition.

With her cousin, Seleni, by her side, the girls don disguises and enter Mr. Holm’s labyrinth, to best the boys and claim the scholarship prize. Except not everyone’s ready for a girl who doesn’t know her place. And not everyone survives the maze.


My Review

A lot of this book will feel familiar to readers: There are two distinct classes, uppers and lowers (I’m sure you can figure that one out), that makes achieving valuable social change difficult; then there’s rigid and firmly entrenched gender roles, where the men and boys get educations and the women and girls tend to the home – any one who breaks from this pattern is seen as a rebel who needs to be tamed; and then there’s he whole dystopian survive the contest trope. But guess what, these things are familiar because they work, and in To Best The Boys they work incredibly well together.

We’re brought into a society where courtship is formalized, exposed ankles are scandalous, and walking home with the wrong fellow can ruin your reputation. Enter Rhen Tellur – she’s bright, driven, irreverent and against all odds an absolutely brilliant scientist. She’s not afraid of getting her hands dirty, or even covered in the effluence of a dead body, she’s determined to find a cure for the crippling disease that’s making it’s way through the Lower community in Pinsbury Port – especially since the Uppers only seem to care about their parties, pastries, and stationary choices.

Matters are complicated but the fact that Rhen belongs to both worlds – her mother was once an Upper who lost her standing when she married a brilliant (but Lower) alchemist.  As a result, Rhen must divide her time on either side of the river attending Upper parties with her cousin Seleni only to return home to the working class community in which she lives to run experiments with her father in their basement laboratory. Why the duality when Rhen could easily accept what’s offered from the Uppers? He mother has been hit with Crippling Disease.

Oh, and lets just make things a little more complicated – brilliant though she may be, the last hope of the lowers, she’s also dyslexic.

Cue the moment of awakening where the next Katniss/ Tris/ Eowyn is born. Rhen boldly says the ‘hull’ with it all and enters an all-boys competition to win an education and hopefully save her mother. And let’s be honest here, I fell for this story hook, line and sinker (fishing pun and reference to lover-boy Lute fully intended). I can’t say too much more about the plot without risking spoilers other than Rhen’s time in the maze is fast paced, exhilarating, and utterly amazing.

The supporting characters are wonderful as well – Beryll with his constant screams and disapproval, Seleni with her unwavering commitment to supporting the ones she loves, Vincent with his ridiculous ego unbearable condescension, and Lute with his brooding and unpredictable moods. Now add in a healthy dose of magic, ghouls in the mist, sirens out at sea, and a parliament that only serves the rich and you have the perfect recipe for a smashing read.

The only reason why this baby didn’t land a 5* review is that some of the bigger issues, such as gender disparity, are too often and too obviously stated. I think that the story itself was strong enough to cary this message without being outright, and the constant reminders almost devalues the intelligence of the reader when it comes to drawing conclusions and making connections. Don’t get me wrong, my feminist heart is rejoicing after reading this sucker, I’m just someone that believes in the power of a whisper over that of a shout.

Regardless, would I recommend this book? Absolutely! It’s fun, thoughtful, challenging, and surprisingly sensitive with regards to it’s diverse and special needs characters in a way that dystopian literature often is not. To Best The Boys is a thrilling read, and I can only hope to see more of Rhen, Lute, Seleni, and Beryll in the future.


Many thanks to NetGalley for providing a Advanced Reader Copy in exchange for an honest review. 

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#BlogTour #CoverReveal: The Blameless Dead by Gary Haynes @GaryHaynesNovel @EndeavourQuill

Today I have the pleasure of taking part in the bog tour cover reveal for The Blameless Dead by Gary Haynes. Part WWII Fiction, part murder-mystery and investigative thriller this baby has the best of both worlds – and now it has a beautiful cover to match!

The Blameless Dead.jpg


Synopsis

In the dying days of World War Two, Pavel Romasko and his Red Army colleagues pick their way through the carnage and detritus of  a dying Berlin. Stumbling upon the smoking remains of a Nazi bunker, they find something inside that eclipses the horror of even the worst excesses in the city above them.

As the war ends, retribution begins. But some revenge cannot be taken at once. Some revenge takes years.

And so it is, as post-war Europe tries desperately to drag itself back onto its feet, and soldiers attempt a return to normality, that retribution continues to ferment in the Gulags of the Soviet Union and beneath the surface of apparently ordinary lives.

Which is how, seventy years later, FBI agent Carla Romero and New York lawyer Gabriel Hall are enlisted to investigate a series of blood-chilling crimes that seem to have their roots in the distant past — even though the suffering they cause is all too present. And for one of them, the disappearance of young women is a particularly personal matter.

The Blameless Deadis an epic, compelling, edge-of-the-seat drama that sweeps the reader from twentieth century Europe to modern-day New York, taking in some of the most important events of modern history and exposing them in honest and unflinching terms. Part murder-mystery, part historical novel and shot through with adrenalin-pumping action, this novel superbly demonstrates that, while the hostilities may cease and the peace be signed, the horror that is war is never really over.


Author Information 

Gary Haynes author image.jpgGary Haynes is a bestselling thriller writer. He studied law at university and passed his post-graduate legal qualifications before becoming a commercial litigator. He is a Freedom of Speech advocate and is interested in history, philosophy and foreign policy. Gary’s previous novels include the popular Tom Dupree series:State of Honour and State of Attack.

Social Media Links 

website: https://garyhaynes.weebly.com/

Twitter: @GaryHaynesNovel

Add it to your GoodReads Shelf! https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/42653835


Many thanks to Hannah Groves at Endeavour Media for inviting me to join in this cover reveal.

#Review: My Real Name Is Hanna by Tara Lynn Masih #WWIIFiction #HistoricalFication #NetGalley

I originally received this galley as an ARC in early September, but then my TBR got a little out of control and we all know what happens from there. However, when I finally opened the pages I instantly knew I was pulling an all-nighter. Poignant and authentic, My Real Name Is Hanna is undeniably powerful and the absolute perfect blend of YA and WWII fiction.


HannaTitle: My Real Name is Hanna

AuthorTara Lynn Masih

Publisher: Mandel Vilar Press

Publication Date: September 15, 2018

Genre: Fiction, YA, Historical Fiction

Themes: Family, Friendship, Survival, WWII, Holocaust

Features: N/A


My Rating: 4.5/ 5


Synopsis

From Goodreads…

Inspired by real Holocaust events, this poignant debut novel is a powerful coming-of-age story that will resonate with fans of The Book Thief and Between Shades of Gray.

Hanna Slivka is on the cusp of fourteen when Hitler’s army crosses the border into Soviet-occupied Ukraine. Soon, the Gestapo closes in, determined to make the shtetele she lives in “free of Jews.” Until the German occupation, Hanna spent her time exploring Kwasova with her younger siblings, admiring the drawings of the handsome Leon Stadnick, and helping her neighbor dye decorative pysanky eggs. But now she, Leon, and their families are forced to flee and hide in the forest outside their shtetele—and then in the dark caves beneath the rolling meadows, rumored to harbor evil spirits. Underground, they battle sickness and starvation, while the hunt continues above. When Hanna’s father disappears, suddenly it’s up to Hanna to find him—and to find a way to keep the rest of her family, and friends, alive.

Sparse, resonant, and lyrical, weaving in tales of Jewish and Ukrainian folklore, My Real Name Is Hanna celebrates the sustaining bonds of family, the beauty of a helping hand, and the tenacity of the human spirit.


My Review

When it comes to WWII history I have some rather limited knowledge when it comes to the actions carried out in the Ukraine. So, I was instantly drawn by the blurb when it mentioned families and communities surviving in cave systems for extended periods of times. This just took the idea of ‘going underground’ to a whole new level – literally and figuratively and I couldn’t stay away.

I really appreciated the amount of text that was dedicated to establishing the setting and context. Everything from the town before the onset of war, the parade of leaders and dictators, the fluidity of ‘official’ religion, the slow descent into rampant antisemitism, and finally to the circumstances that drove the Slikva’s from their home and into the woods had relevancy. While it meant that less time was given to the time when Hanna was in the woods and caves, it really highlighted the ways in which these communities experienced gradual shifts, how this descent into depravity was a process, and how conflicted both sides of the issues were when it came to both the costs of survival and the shift in attitudes towards former friends and neighbours.

Hanna was an instantly likeable protagonist. The love she shared for her family was practically contagious, and her passion for life (and books) was a force to be reckoned with. In seeing the story through her eyes we were able to share in her experiences, grow alongside her, grieve her losses, and feel the same helplessness as innocence youth slip uncontrollably away. As an adult reader I was drawn to how Hanna’s eyes were opened to the cruel realities of a world at war, and can only hope that younger readers can relate to her awakening in the same way.

The presence of Hanna’s family, her friends, and her neighbours made the horrors endured seem more bearable. Kindness was injected at the moments where it was most needed, logic and compassion when hatred threatened to overtake, and love was always abundant even when food wasn’t. Their perseverance showed that while fighting for survival for absolutely worth it, but that integrity and family were always worth more.

The writing itself was phenomenal. Word choices were approachable yet never repetitive, the pacing was quick but never fast that key moments were rushed, and Masih struck a beautiful balance between explanation and exposition. And while gore and murder was often alluded to it was never overdone, moments of drama were heightened and plentiful, and just enough culture was injected into the narrative to give a sense of community and belonging without ever feeling like a lesson.

Would I recommend this book? To adults and teen readers alike! It features hope in the darkest of times, the tenacity of youth, and the lengths that we can go through for our family. Get your tissues and hug your pillows… and don’t read this one in public places if you’re prone to the ugly cry.


Many thanks to NetGalley for providing a Advanced Reader Copy in exchange for an honest review. 

#Review: Crush by Svetlana Chmakova #GraphicNovel #Crush #NetGalley

I am in love with this book… probably more than Jorge loves Jazmine. But seriously, it’s so dang good! If you’ve never read anything by Svetlana Chmakova before you’re seriously missing out. Crush is fun, funny, and absolutely fabulous. It brings back the growing pains of being in middle school, navigating the complex world of social relationships, and the confusion of finding your place in the world. If you read only one graphic novel this year, this should be it.


crushTitle: Crush

AuthorSvetlana Chmakova

Publisher: Yen Press

Publication Date: October 30, 2018

Genre: Fiction, YA, Graphic Novel, Middle Grade Fiction

Themes: Friendship, First Love, Bullying, School

Features: N/A


My Rating: 5/ 5


Synopsis

From Goodreads…

Following the overwhelming success of AWKWARD and BRAVE, Svetlana Chmakova’s award winning Berrybrook Middle School series continues with its next installment – CRUSH!

Jorge seems to have it all together. He’s big enough that nobody really messes with him, but he’s also a genuinely sweet guy with a solid, reliable group of friends. The only time he ever really feels off his game is when he crosses paths with a certain girl… But when the group dynamic among the boys starts to shift, will Jorge be able to balance what his friends expect of him versus what he actually wants?


My Review

When I was still working in elementary schools Awkward and Brave were two of the books I went to battle over including in a start-up graphic novel collection. I stood my ground against the PTA because 1) graphic novels are ‘real books’, 2) the visual nature of comics levels the playing field when it comes to lexiles and reading levels, and 3) graphic mediums are known to convey more information regarding interpersonal dynamics and internalized feelings as they allow for readers to imagine themselves in the character’s shoes.

So, when I saw the Galley for Crush I simply had to get behind one of my favourite graphic novelists. Be warned, I am massively biased in favour of Chmakova’s work. And truth be told, the latest addition did not disappoint. The style remained consistent with her previous work, both visually and thematically, and once again Chmakova’s tackled some serious issues without delivering any overt lectures. Themes on the docket this go round include: first loves, peer pressure, group dynamics, bullying, and bodily autonomy. Whew! That’s no small chunk of change when it’s all packed into a middle grade graphic novel.

I loved the diversity in the characters, and appreciated how the inclusive elements never felt token or forced. The representation of the school populous was anything by homogenous and presented an honest reflection of the average public school. There were cliques, distinct personality types, and it even played on the typical clubs and groups that can be found in almost any school. There’s the drama kids, the athletes, the cheer leaders, the nerds, and on and on. But what I loved most about these representations is that even though there are characters that play to stereotypes, that those characters that represent toxic masculinity and abusive behaviours are thoroughly condemned for their actions. So too are the bullies, the gossips, and the mean girls. No excuses are made, no free passes are given, and the real-word consequences for being horrible are detailed in full. Hello, cleverly disguised teaching moments!

And just as there are examples of poor behaviour and what not to do, there are some shining examples of how to be kind and conscientious human being. For this alone, I love Jorge! He’s a jock without being a jerk, doesn’t feel the need to participate in petty drama, and despite what his peers are doing he doesn’t cave to the pressure of commenting on or physically invading other’s bodily autonomy. He is supportive, respectful, and absolutely adorable. Svetlana Chmakova, thank you thank you thank you for putting forward an absolutely crush-worthy knight in shining armour. Thank you for setting the bar high when it comes to how people should be treated.

I appreciated that Jorge was painfully shy and unsure of how to navigate his first crush. He was human and relatable, yet at the same time Jorge is also confident in his individuality and unwavering in his treatment of others. I loved his patience, his willingness to forgive, and his refusal to stand idly by why others are bullied. That’s right my friends, while Crush might be about Jorge’s first love it also hands out some (not so) subtle tactics on how to stand up to d-bags of all ages.

With that being said though, the kids really taken centre stage in this book, as the few adult characters serve only to advance the plot rather than deliver lectures or provide guidance. The kids themselves navigate the grounds of what’s right and wrong, and that alone keeps it more relatable for to a middle grade audience.

As far as the artwork goes, I absolutely loved it. The line work is clean, the characters unique and easily distinguished – abstracted enough to be relatable yet detailed enough to convey meaning, and the panel arrangement easily readable. The facial expressions and body language effectively convey the differences in personalities and internal emotions, and speak volumes in a way that text never could. The panel arrangement is clean and not to cluttered, in fact it follows the  left to right, top to bottom pattern of a standard books with only a few full page panels or exceptions to the rule. The result is that this text is an easy introduction to graphic novels for those new to the medium. The colours are used for maximum impact but aren’t overwhelming. They’re subtle, soft, and don’t detract from the visual language employed. Additionally, enough action takes place in the gutter to keep the imagination firing on all pistons, but not so much as to leave the reader to their own devices – especially when it comes to the emotional implications of decisions and behaviours.

Would I recommend this book? Let’s put it this way, I’ve already bought a copy and sent it to my old school! Great for parents, kids, and anyone in-between. This is a smash hit, home-run, middle grade must read.


Many thanks to Yen Press, Svetlana Chmakova, and NetGalley for providing a copy in exchange for an honest review. 

#Review: Courtney’s War by Wilbur Smith with David Churchill #WWIIFiction #HistoricalFiction

Okay, once more I’m breaking my rule regarding reviewing in order. Enter Courtney’s War by Wilbur Smith and David Churchill. Having never read anything in the Courtney series, and jumping in at #17, I was expecting for this sucker to take some serious intuition and back-story sleuthing in order to make my way through it – wrong! Instead it turned out to be a fantastic stand-alone packed with drama, back story, and a strong as hell female protagonist. Basically, I loved it!


CourtneyTitle: Courtney’s War

AuthorWilbur Smith with David Churchill

Publisher: Zaffre

Publication Date: September 18, 2018

Genre: Fiction, Historical Fiction, WWII Fiction

Themes: Love, Loyalty, WWII, War, Survival

Features: N/A


My Rating: 4/ 5


Synopsis

From Goodreads…

The brand new Courtney Series novel, and the much-anticipated sequel to the global bestseller WAR CRY 

Paris, 1939 -Torn apart by war, Saffron Courtney and Gerhard von Meerbach are thousands of miles apart, both struggling for their lives.

Gerhard – despite his objections to the Nazi regime – is fighting for the Fatherland, hoping to one day have the opportunity to rid Germany of Hitler and his cronies. But as his unit is thrown into the hellish attrition of the Battle of Stalingrad, he knows his chances of survival are dwindling by the day.

Meanwhile Saffron – recruited by the Special Operations Executive and sent to occupied Belgium to discover how the Nazis have infiltrated SOE’s network – soon finds herself being hunted by Germany’s most ruthless spymaster.

Confronted by evil beyond their worst imaginings, the lovers must each make the hardest choice of all: sacrifice themselves, or do whatever they can to survive, hoping that one day they will be reunited.

Courtney’s War  is an epic story of courage, betrayal and undying love that takes the reader to the very heart of a world at war.


My Review

Now, if you’ve ever trolled the directory on this blog you might have noticed that one of the (many) genres I have a soft spot for is WWII fiction – especially when it features a strong female protagonist and clandestine elements like the SOE. So, naturally, when I say the blurb for Courtney’sWar on NetGalley I simply couldn’t resist hitting the request button.

Now imagine my delight when the romance between Saffron and Gerhard was not just that of two lovers separated by war, but that of star crossed lovers on opposites sides of the front line. Gerhard the German war hero, fighter ace, and decorated officer and Saffron the sharp, driven, SOE officer with a record most operatives world kill for (or die attempting to obtain). So dang good!

Right from the get go Saffron had all of the spunk and grit to pull the book along without the added bonus of the personal drama. I loved her mother’s connection to working as a spy, her privileged background, and her determination to be the best operative possible. I really enjoyed that the Courtney family history only played a small role in the story. There was just enough of it to let you know that there’s a larger narrative that this book belongs to, but not so much that you felt the need to have read any other books in the series. What I appreciated the most though, was how these did-bits were doled out gradually and at well-timed moments to add emphasis to actions and reveal motivations.

I also appreciated that while Saffron and Courtney were touted as the paragons of physical perfection, that their realities as people were almost fatally flawed. However, I almost expected Saffron’s lack of scruples about killing to cause more issues interpersonally, and Gerhard’s pretending to tow the Nazi line to culminate in a much different result. Don’t get me wrong though, I LOVE it when things turn out differently than I think they will – it means that the plot wasn’t predictable.

Perhaps the only thing that stopped this from being a 5 star review was that I found the language to be a touch too flowery. Had I encountered the type and frequency of the vocabulary used to embellish the text in a period romance I don’t think that I would have batted an eye. It just seemed a little out of place when set against the front line of WWII, SOE training and operations, and the internal workings of Baker Street. The only time that I didn’t take any notice was when Saffron was visiting her family in South Africa, where everything just seemed to fit. I can only chalk this up to the more colonial setting of Smith’s previous novels and the literary empire he has built out of the Courtney’s adventures in Africa.

I loved the drama, the breakneck pace, and the clear evidence of thorough research. While real people and events were referenced to throughout, I enjoyed that no fictionalized representations were made of the big players on either side, and that the characters presented were genuinely fictional with no obligation to mimic the history books. With that said though, I appreciated the detail that went into describing military maneuvers and campaigns, the specifics of the physical training endured by SOE trainees, and the repulsive descriptions of the meagre war-time food throughout.

Would I recommend this book? Most definitely. It’s gritty, gripping, and utterly uplifting. For those that love WWII fiction, treacherous spy games, and romantic paradoxes this baby will certainly be for you.


Many thanks to NetGalley, Wilbur Smith, David Churchill, and Net Zaffre for providing a copy in exchange for an honest review.