Being the kind of person who is both somewhat underemployed and also not a big watcher of TV (mostly due to my eyeballs being temperamental and full of demons), I read quite a lot. I try to talk about some of the books I’m reading on Instagram, particularly the ones I really like, or where I had an ARC, but since I stopped using Goodreads as a reader, I’ve pulled back from reviewing more broadly. I’m happy with that decision — there’s a weird power balance when you’re also an author which means your opinion is never just another reader’s opinion — but I do think it’s a shame that I’ve read seventy books already this year and not really talked about them that much, so here’s a roundup of some of those I’ve been reading recently. (I’ll probably make this a semi-regular type of post.)
All links in this post are Bookshop.org (UK) affiliate links, so if any of these books take your fancy, ordering from there will support both me and independent bookshops, which feels like a win-win situation. If a book isn’t available from Bookshop, I’ve linked Amazon — again, an affiliate link — for want of a better option.
I won’t be discussing / linking any books I actively disliked, because I’m not about that negativity — if I describe a book here as ‘horrible’, it’s meant as a compliment, because in those cases, I’m fairly sure that’s what the author was aiming for. But there were a few recurring themes this month that characterised all the books that won’t be discussed in this post…
This month, one of my goals was to read more thrillers. My debut is a YA thriller, so I figured I should better acquaint myself with the genre, having largely avoided it during the editing process in order to (a) give my brain a break and (b) avoid comparison. So far, this has been… honestly kind of a mixed bag. I’ve read some brilliant books, but I’ve also been struck by how many thrillers use sexual relationships as a major source of conflict. At best, these are toxic, unhealthy relationships between consenting adults, which can be interesting to read about, even if unpleasant. At worst, though, I’ve read two thrillers featuring sexual abuse of a minor, which was really not what I signed up for. Being a genre that prides itself on dark content, none of the books I’ve picked up in the past month have had any kind of content warnings, and I would probably have preferred if they did — at least I would know in advance what I was getting into, and whether I was in the right headspace for it.
Having said that, I did enjoy being utterly bamboozled by a few books where I could never quite figure out where it was taking me next. Mandy Byatt’s Just Another Liar really caught me out — initially, I’d been thinking maybe I was too young for the book in the sense of the “relatable” problems the characters faced not actually being relatable to me (because I’m young, queer, and single), but then it twisted on me and I lay awake that night thinking about it, putting all the pieces back together, because I realised I’d had them the wrong way around the whole time.
Sarah Bonner’s Her Perfect Twin also left me thinking about it after I’d finished — the way it switches narrator periodically to misdirect the reader and lead you to draw all sorts of conclusions about what, exactly, is going on is very clever, and means every time you think you’ve got to grips with where it’s going, it swerves and goes somewhere else.
I didn’t read any YA thrillers this month that I really loved, but in February I read Tess Sharpe’s The Girls I’ve Been, and really enjoyed that. It’s very twisty and clever, but it never sacrifices character and emotion, which I valued — I was able to get invested, and stay invested, in the characters. There’s some overlap with The Butterfly Assassin, which makes sense (my editor was the UK acquiring editor for this one, which is why I put off reading it so long, because I knew I’d end up comparing them), but the overall vibe is pretty different. Actually, it kind of reminded me of a real-world/contemporary White Cat by Holly Black, although maybe that’s a sign that I haven’t read many books about characters with con artist parents.
One thing I rediscovered while on my Read More Thrillers quest was that there is a difference between books that are good and books that I’ll enjoy reading at that particular moment. Girl A by Abigail Dean is brilliantly well-written — it’s compelling throughout. But it’s also bleak, and dark, and had me crying in a horrified (rather than cathartic) kind of way at one particular revelation. There was a time in my life when I loved that in a book, and anything that managed to emotionally gut me rocketed up my list of favourites. But I’ve mellowed in my old age, and these days I look more for comfort from books, so this one proved a little more than I could handle at this point in time.
If you want a horrible book about horrible people, I also found The Girls Are All So Nice Here by Laurie Elizabeth Flynn was one of those: compelling, but in an unpleasant kind of way. Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s very good, but… again, it had some graphic content that I could have used a warning for (suicide/self harm imagery described at length), and left me rather unsettled.
So what have I been reading for comfort? Well, after I read Girl A I decided I needed a couple of days of reassuring books to help settle my brain, so I turned to KJ Charles, who is ever reliable in that regard, and I reread the Will Darling Adventures. It feels reductive to describe this trilogy as Romance, because while it absolutely is that, it’s also a pulp adventure story with spies, communists, secret societies, and all manner of other shenanigans, set in the 1920s. I love the way KJ Charles has these dual-genres going on. Some of her books will be romance novels… but also a fantasy book, or a murder mystery, or, in this case, an adventure story. I still mark them all in my spreadsheet as Romance, because I only have one genre box, but the vibe can vary considerably.
Anyway, I had a good time rereading the Will Darling books (beginning with Slippery Creatures), and I also reread another KJ Charles book, Spectred Isle. This one’s fantasy, as well as romance, with an archaeologist protagonist reluctantly going along with his employer’s superstitious interest in certain locations… only to find they are, actually significant, and that he’s getting all tangled up in a supernatural world he knew nothing about. It’s delightful. It has some dark moments and some tension, but the reassuring thing about a fantasy novel that’s actually a romance novel is that you know it’ll end up okay, because that’s what the genre requires. Perfect comfort-reading.
Speaking of fantasy, I was lucky enough to get an ARC of Rory Power’s adult fantasy novel, In A Garden Burning Gold, which comes out next week. Rory was my mentor during Author Mentor Match, and helped me turn The Butterfly Assassin from a mess into something that would actually be potentially publishable, so I am obviously biased towards her as an author. But Garden is genuinely great. I particularly loved the worldbuilding, and the magic system. It features peculiar, time-consuming, impractical magic — sewing the constellations each and every night, painting the shadows throughout the day — which is both bizarre and firmly integrated into the world it’s creating. I love that. I think more magic should be odd. The ending left me with some unanswered questions, but there’s to be a sequel, so that’s all right. The trouble with an ARC, though, is that it means waiting even longer for the next book…
On the romance front, I also enjoyed The Start of Something by Miranda Dickinson. One character is struggling with chronic pain and limited mobility following an injury, while the other is a Welsh single mum trying to keep her head above water after her ex-husband left her with a pile of debt. Although I don’t love misunderstandings/miscommunication as a main point of conflict, they made sense in this one, where both characters were extremely focused on how they would be perceived by the other, and wont to leap to the wrong conclusions. I also found the chronic pain narrative extremely relatable: what if this doesn’t get better? what if this is just how it is now? are questions I’ve asked myself repeatedly over the last few years, and I really felt that.
I took a detour into sci-fi via a Kindle deal and read A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine, which I really enjoyed. I wasn’t expecting to, because I don’t often have the brainpower to manage lots of worldbuilding, but it was great. It reminded me a little of The Goblin Emperor: an outsider with a partial but incomplete understanding of cultural/social norms adapts to a complex political situation quickly and unexpectedly while dealing with their predecessor’s murder, and also there’s interesting linguistic worldbuilding. (In this case, the use of poetry as an essential part of a society’s transmission of information.)
Finally, a few YA reads, hopping back to February. I read Morgan Owen’s The Girl With No Soul, which came out this month, and fortunately, enjoyed it a lot. I say fortunately, because Morgan was incredibly nice about The Butterfly Assassin and I was terrified I wouldn’t like hers in return 😅 But I did, so we’re safe. It contains a great many things that fascinate me, and which I’ve written about or am writing about: souls, beasties made of shadows, guys with a white streak in their hair… (There were a few details where I had to message Morgan a passage from something I’d written and go, “Do we have the same brain?!”) If you want interesting worldbuilding in a YA fantasy that feels both classic and original, this is one for you.
I also read Hell Followed With Us by Andrew Joseph White, which comes out in a few months. This one is… a lot, in the best possible way. It’s a trans post-apocalyptic horror novel where religious extremists have wiped out most of the population. The protagonist is an escapee from the religious community; he’s also undergoing a horrific transformation and turning into a monster. It’s all about bodies, and power over yourself and your identity, and finding strength in community. It’s also, in places, extremely gross, and I had to take a break from reading for a few days because body horror and post-surgical nausea turned out to be a terrible combination. But if you’re not squeamish like me, you’ll probably find the body horror quite fun, and the rest of the book is full of feelings and it’s just… yeah, it’s a lot.
Then, this month, I reread Matt Killeen’s Orphan, Monster, Spy, because a while back I bought the sequel but didn’t remember enough of book one to read it. I’d forgotten how dark it is. It’s about a Jewish girl going undercover to spy on the Nazis, so it was never going to be a walk in the park, but it really doesn’t flinch from the horrors she witnesses. The violence is never gratuitous, I thought, but nor is it sanitised at all. Book two, Devil, Darling, Spy, is similar in that regard, grappling with the evils of colonialism and medical experimentation, among other topics. Both are powerful, dark, and concerned with the issue of whose stories gets told and who gets protected in times of warfare.
I had a couple of lighter reads in February, too. Rachael Lippincott’s She Gets The Girl is a college-set YA with your classic “I’ll help you win her over! Oh, crap, but now I’ve fallen for you” kind of plotline (I say classic not because it’s been overdone, because it hasn’t, but because it’s a solid and delightful trope). The emotional beats of the romance felt earned in a way that a lot of books don’t quite manage, and I believed in the emotions of it. Sophie Gonzales’ Perfect on Paper has a Sex Education vibe, and grapples with the question of whether it’s ethical for a teenager to be giving paid relationship advice; it has an important narrative about grappling with internalised biphobia, and I liked that the character’s sister is casually trans, too.
Finally, this month I reread CG Drews’ The Boy Who Steals Houses, in order to dive into her serialised-on-Patreon sequel, The Kings of Nowhere. I am loving the sequel so far, and having a great many feelings about it; I’m looking forward to the final chapters being posted tomorrow. While I’m late to the serialisation party, I’m glad I waited, because I’m far too impatient to read only a couple of chapters per week! So if you want stories about codependent brothers, found family, autism, and healing after trauma, I recommend checking those out.
Not a lot of nonfiction in this post, mostly because I’ve been cheating on the two nonfiction books I’m currently reading with all of this fiction. I’m hoping to talk more about Fierce Appetites by Elizabeth Boyle (my current read) once I’ve finished it — it might even get its own post, but we’ll have to wait and see.
Anyway, that’s what I’ve been reading lately. How about you? Any recommendations for me?
With less than two months to go until The Butterfly Assassin comes out, now is a great time to preorder!