Unboxing | Illumicrate August 2018 Oh So Criminal Box

Hi All! I thought I’d do something different for my blog post today and do an unboxing and review of the latest Illumicrate box ‘Oh So Criminal’.

I love book subscription boxes, but the UK ones have especially stepped up their game in recent years with both Fairyloot and Illumicrate putting fantastic quality items in their boxes!

So, first things first:

There was an awesome ‘Villains are my Bag’ tote bag with very good quality straps. It feels really well made and who doesn’t love a good pun?

This was designed by KDP Letters and is so gorgeous I am absolutely going to be using this as my main tote bag from now on.

Next was a coaster by Katie Abey and a mirror with a Holly Black quote from White Cat designed by Reverie and Ink. Both very pretty, though I may not use the coaster, I may put the mirror in my handbag and be reminded of how awesome Holly Black’s writing is every time I use it.

Then, we have a Six of Crows lanyard with ‘No Mourners, No Funerals’ on it by Fable and Black which is my favourite quote from that series! This will be so useful at work and I get to show off my love for Leigh Bardugo’s characters all over the office.

Next were some prints and postcards: A Harley Quinn and Poison Ivy one by Jamila Mehio which is so cute and I love those two so much, a Tempests and Slaughter and a Girls of Paper and Fire postcard, and a little card advertising the 10 best upcoming books as chosen by Harper 360.

And then we have a candle by Even Wick Candles called ‘Perfect Heist’ which smells like Sweet Melon, Water Lily and Musk. Not my favourite smell when it comes to candles, but still a very nice one. And a sampler of The Sisters of the Winter Wood which I can’t wait to read!

Next (yes I’m still going because this box was crammed full!) we have a necklace by Down The Rabbit Hole which is so adorable I wear it all the time! It says ‘Antagonist’ on one side and ‘Protagonist’ on the other, it’s so hard to choose which to be. Also, there was a nail file with a little Jay Kristoff quote from Nevernight on it by Hey Atlas Creative. Again, another super useful item because I always have a nail file in my bag and glass files are the nicest!

And Last but not least, the book! I have to admit I was a little disappointed this box didn’t contain an Advance Reader Copy like Illumicrate usually add, but with all the cool stuff in it I really couldn’t help but love it anyway!

The book was an awesome copy of Catwoman by Sarah J. Maas with purple sprayed edges (!!!) and the most gorgeous cover ever. It wasn’t signed but again, it was so pretty I wasn’t too bothered.

Overall I’d say the value of the items in this box must be around £50 or more! Given this box costs around £30 that’s an incredible added value and I can’t help but love Illumicrate boxes every time I receive them.

Have you ever got an Illumicrate box?

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Review | Girls of Paper and Fire by Natasha Ngan

Each year, eight beautiful girls are chosen as Paper Girls to serve the king. It’s the highest honor they could hope for…and the most cruel.

But this year, there’s a ninth girl. And instead of paper, she’s made of fire.

In this lush fantasy, Lei is a member of the Paper caste, the lowest and most oppressed class in Ikhara. She lives in a remote village with her father, where the decade-old trauma of watching her mother snatched by royal guards still haunts her. Now, the guards are back, and this time it’s Lei they’re after–the girl whose golden eyes have piqued the king’s interest.

Over weeks of training in the opulent but stifling palace, Lei and eight other girls learn the skills and charm that befit being a king’s consort. But Lei isn’t content to watch her fate consume her. Instead, she does the unthinkable–she falls in love. Her forbidden romance becomes enmeshed with an explosive plot that threatens the very foundation of Ikhara, and Lei, still the wide-eyed country girl at heart, must decide just how far she’s willing to go for justice and revenge.

TW: violence and sexual abuse.

Title: Girls of Paper and Fire

Author: Natasha Ngan

Genre: Fantasy

Rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

[DISCLAIMER] I am reviewing an advanced reader copy of this novel, so please allow for various changes between this and the final version. This did not influence my review at all.

Girls of Paper and Fire, for me, was a story about feminism and marginalisation. The paper castle are marginalised because of the demon-skewed rule, and the Paper girls themselves are used as trophies or fetishes by the Demon King himself. It covered how women are seen as property, and how we see others of a different race to us a either ‘lesser’ or ‘greater’ in some way.

Add to that, the slow-burn f/f romance and this book is officially a winner!

Let’s start with the things I liked:

Worldbuilding:

This world is so unique and detailed. I loved the demon/animal/human hybrids and how this affected the world. The power dynamics are a very good allegory for racism; seeing one type of person as better or more worthy than another, which is always nice to see being dealt with well. The Asian side to it is also lovely, and a culture we don’t see as much of in YA fantasy. I hope we’ll keep seeing more and more of it, and done well too.

Plot speed:

A lot happens in this book, even forgetting to count the entire world that Natasha builds in a good level of detail for the first book in a series, but it doesn’t happen too quickly. We get to see the hatred for the King rise to its peak, the romance between the two paper girls in a slow burn, and fragments of the mystery surrounding the main character’s mother be revealed piece by piece. I liked it and I never felt too rushed.

Delicate take on hard issues:

It’s hard to write a book with various kinds of assault in it and various different reactions to it without being accused of any glorifying of it. Girls of Paper and Fire manages to deal with these issues, not shy away from them, while also giving us the understanding of how wrong they truly are and how hard people fight to survive them. It was really nice to read and I appreciated the honesty.

Easily dislikeable evil character:

The King is a demon, sure, but his personality besides that is what makes him evil here. His blatant racism against the paper caste, his complete lack of empathy and respect for women, his terrifying rage and abuse… I could go on for pages!

Now the few iffy bits:

Characterisation:

Some of the characters were a bit stiff and a little stereotypical. I judge harshly the twin characters with names that pair well or rhyme: Tim and Tom, Jess and Bess, etc. This book had those and yes, it bothered me – being an identical twin myself I don’t like to give people excuses to only see us as a pair and never as individual human beings. I understood they’d both be Paper girls because if you’re taking people solely on attraction, it’s likely that both twins would cover that, but especially since we saw practically nothing of their personalities, this was the only thing notable about them and I wasn’t impressed.

Plot holes:

A couple of things minimally bugged me and I’ll try and say them without spoiling anything. Firstly, where did the herbs come from? And also, why is the King randomly guarded to within an inch of his life one minute, and the next alone? Those would make more sense once you’ve read the book, but again, tiny things.

Jumpy fight scenes:

The fight scenes are a little rushed and a little quick. A bit more description and detail would have gone a long way to make them flow a bit better and be a bit easier to follow exactly what’s happening.

There was also an issue I had with the final scene which had a similar problem to the ‘Indiana Jones and the Raider of the Lost Arc’ in that I don’t think the main character really changed what would have eventually happened anyway if she hadn’t been there. I don’t think this was a major flaw, just something that I thought was interesting.

Overall though, this was an awesome book, and one I’m incredibly excited about! If the ending of this book is anything to go by, it’s likely to have a sequel and I can’t wait for it to come out!

Top Five Friday | Top Five Retellings

Im planning on doing a “Top Five Friday” on the last Friday of each month, and this one is about my favourite retellings!

I love a good fairytale and folk story, so when a book brings out a retelling of one I really liked, I love seeing how they’ve interpreted it.

So without any further ado, here are my top five retellings.

1 – Spindle’s End – Robin McKinley

This is the book I recommend to everyone, regardless of if they were even looking for a fairytale retelling or not! It’s a gorgeous and lyrical book, reminding me of Terry Pratchett in its style. The fairytale it’s based on is Sleeping Beauty but it is so much more detailed and fantastical than the original story. It’s a good book to sink into, and it’s the book that really got me into Fantasy right at the beginning.

2 – East – Edith Pattou

This is a heartwarming book for me, partly because it was a gift from one of my best friends as ‘one of her favourite books that got her into fantasy’ which just means the world to me. Also, the story is so sweet and based on a folk tale ‘East of the sun, west of the moon’. The story follows a very similar pattern to this folk tale, but fleshes it out a lot more and lets you see into the minds of the characters involved in this fantastical tale. It’s such a dramatic story, and I’d recommend it to anyone who loves the romance and mystery in folk tales.

3 – Cinder – Marissa Meyer

A Sci-Fi retelling of Cinderella?? Yes please! Some retellings fall down when they try and follow the original story too rigidly, but this story doesn’t have that issue one bit. It adds more in layers, creating a whole new world in which Cinderella can play out, with a much more modern heroine than in the original. It’s a badass and fun story, and you don’t even have to have liked Cinderella to enjoy it just as much as I did.

4 – The Goose Girl – Shannon Hale

This is one I haven’t heard much about in the book community, but it was one I think would appeal to a lot of people. It reminded me of Gail Carson Levine’s novels, who I loved as a kid, and was a retelling of a story I’d never heard of before: Goose Girl. It ended up having a very independent female main character, who saves herself and is a very genuine person, and a storyline with twists and betrayals that kept me hooked until the very last page. It is also part of a series following other characters in the same world, so plenty to get your teeth into!

5 – Sisters Red

A book about werewolves and sisterhood that’s also a retelling of Red Riding Hood is absolutely the sort of book I’d want to pick up. It’s dark and spooky with tension and romantic drama, but all throughout it’s really about the sisters and their relationship… and werewolves. The back and forth point of view between both sisters did take a bit of getting the hang of, but once I’d got in to the story it just added to the drama. I loved it and I’m sure you will too.

What are some retellings you’ve loved?

Review | What if it’s Us by Becky Albertalli and Adam Silvera

Arthur is only in New York for the summer, but if Broadway has taught him anything, it’s that the universe can deliver a showstopping romance when you least expect it.

Ben thinks the universe needs to mind its business. If the universe had his back, he wouldn’t be on his way to the post office carrying a box of his ex-boyfriend’s things.

But when Arthur and Ben meet-cute at the post office, what exactly does the universe have in store for them?

Maybe nothing. After all, they get separated.

Maybe everything. After all, they get reunited.

But what if they can’t quite nail a first date . . . or a second first date . . . or a third?

What if Arthur tries too hard to make it work . . . and Ben doesn’t try hard enough?

What if life really isn’t like a Broadway play?

But what if it is.

Title: What If It’s Us

Author: Becky Albertalli and Adam Silvera

Genre: Contemporary

Rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️💫

[DISCLAIMER] I am reviewing a proof copy, please allow for some changes between this and the finished copy.

You know what hurts my heart? A twin joke within 6 pages of the start of this book. Two guys who were wearing matching stupid outfits and ridiculous moustaches walk by the main characters and both of them make fun and laugh.

I get they looked funny, but being an identical twin I notice this in books whenever it happens and it hurts. I got this so much growing up, you have no idea how much the little laughs and judgements hurt, but even more so when it moves on to bullying.

I just loved the idea of this book so much that this hurt even more and made me feel less included in the book.

It could have been a single person dressed funnily, but no, “make it twins, it’ll be funnier” and then it moves on to hurtful territory.

It just disappointed me. A book that has main characters who are people who are so used to being bullied reminds me of my bullying… that’s not fun.

Then… page 14 got me smiling. And I didn’t really stop from then on.

“And I don’t want to jump to conclusions or anything, but box boy believing in the universe is definitely a sign from the universe.”

I mean, if that isn’t just the cutest thing! This book started to truly earn its 4 and a half stars from here on. (It wasn’t getting back the little bit taken off by the twin joke, no matter how adorable and sweet and meaningful!)

This book is mostly about two gay guys meeting each other and missing each other over and over again, trying to see if the Universe either wants them to be together, or doesn’t. It shows many relationships, romantic and friendships, along the way and does a really good job of showing how navigating them in the modern day is just as awkward and confusing as it’s ever been. Ben and Arthur are both so sweet and the perfect main characters for this kind of book.

And the Biromantic Ace rep was so cute to just appear on the page! Asexual representation is hard to come across in media at all, let alone alongside showing how romantic and sexual orientations are different things. It was a fairly short blip on a page, but it stood out to me and made me smile.

One thing though, Ben and Arthur seem fairly similar, both quite nervous, so I find it hard to tell the two apart sometimes. I mean, a different font for each guy might help, and I suppose I was reading an ARC so the final copy might have done that.

But the constant missed connections things are very sweet, and make me really want them to finally meet again!

I also loved how everyone was very positive about the lgbt characters, it’s refreshing and what the world should be. Also, the sensitivity with which they handle the ‘white-passing’ issues Ben worries about is actually really nice to see. The different layers of privilege and racism and homophobia are complex and it’s pretty awesome to see many different kinds of stories and perspectives on them. More books should include these.

[Tiny detour mini rant] They just had to bring back ‘the twins’ *shudders at memories of only ever being called that so much I forgot my own name practically* at the cutesy finale part of the book. Way to add a tiny stab to my heart when I should be just feeling all cute and fluffy, book… [Rant over]

At the end of the day, despite the little issues I had with it, this book was lovely and I ended it feeling very happy. It covered so much and was cute while also being realistic. This is a book that’s likely to have pride of place on my shelves for a long time.

I absolutely adored the ending and the honesty it had in terms of relationships. Some work out, some don’t, but everything’s worth a try if you think it might work. After all… What If It’s Us?

Review | Mirage (Mirage #1) by Somaiya Daud

In a star system dominated by the brutal Vathek empire, eighteen-year-old Amani is a dreamer. She dreams of what life was like before the occupation; she dreams of writing poetry like the old-world poems she adores; she dreams of receiving a sign from Dihya that one day, she, too, will have adventure, and travel beyond her isolated moon.

But when adventure comes for Amani, it is not what she expects: she is kidnapped by the regime and taken in secret to the royal palace, where she discovers that she is nearly identical to the cruel half-Vathek Princess Maram. The princess is so hated by her conquered people that she requires a body double, someone to appear in public as Maram, ready to die in her place.

As Amani is forced into her new role, she can’t help but enjoy the palace’s beauty—and her time with the princess’ fiancé, Idris. But the glitter of the royal court belies a world of violence and fear. If Amani ever wishes to see her family again, she must play the princess to perfection…because one wrong move could lead to her death.

Title: Mirage

Author: Somaiya Daud

Genre: Fantasy/Sci-Fi

Rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️

[SPOILER WARNING] Because I can’t control my spoilering while I rant.

Oh and [DISCLAIMER] – I read an advanced reader copy of this book, so my comments and references are to that copy, not necessarily the finished copy. My review was not influenced by this.

Let’s start with one thing: I’m not a huge fan of this book.

That may seem harsh, but if you knew that my review notes on it almost filled a page and only one point out of all of that was even vaguely positive then you might understand.

I had pretty high hopes for it, having seen many good reviews and excitement for anyone who received a proof copy of the book. I know that never guarantees that a book will be good, but it should at least be average if it’s getting that sort of response, right?

The premise was also good: Space colonies on moons. A girl, a native on one of the moons that’s been invaded, turning out to be identical to the Princess of the invading people. She is then kidnapped and forced to be her body double.

It could have been great; court intrigue, lies, space adventures, an intricate world with an interesting history of how we came to be spread across planets and moons.

But instead we got obvious foreshadowing, iffy writing, one dimensional characters, and a meh romance.

My list of what I didn’t like about this book could go on forever, so let’s get the good bits out of the way:

It got better towards the end:

Yeah, that’s all I could come up with. The dialogue starts to flow a little easier, the plot had a little bit of drama, and it didn’t make me want to put it down immediately.

Also the cover is absolutely gorgeous. It had such promise! *shakes fist*

And now on to the bad bits:

The writing:

The sentence structure was very repetitive through the first chapter of the book, so much so it made me wonder if I’d been reading the same line over and over. And the pacing was pretty fast too: a lot happens with very little exposition.

In one scene the main girl is dancing in a cultural celebration, then suddenly the two girls beside her are named and described as her best friends in the entire world. We never speak to these two, and one of them might be mentioned a single other time. Soon after, one of them is injured, and I honestly couldn’t have cared less.

I mean, surely there’s somewhere in between having half the book be her spending time with and establishing these girls as her friends, and a single cursory mention. Hell, I would have even taken some nice flashbacks of her sneaking out to hang out with them as a bare minimum in this case. But nope.

Even her family gets stuck with the vague barely-there backstory. I forgot the main character had brothers at all for large chunks of time!

The Pacing:

The main character trains to mimic the Princess in a very short period of time, or at least it’s shown that way. If we’d maybe seen more tests along the way apart from the one she aced, it might have seemed more tricky and realistic. That or show evidence of her mimicry skills back in her village from when she was younger?

A slower training schedule, maybe with tiny events spacing it out, would have made it more believable that a shy girl from a poor background could so quickly imitate a rude royal so even the Royal family doesn’t know the difference.

Info dumping:

MASSIVE info dump issues with places and names and races all thrown in at once. I’d have like to get used to a small group of names before adding in things they were connected to. Eventually I just gave up and blanked them out. E.g. ‘He was the head of the [random family name] family, who lived north of [random capital city].’ and only keeping the basic knowledge that he must be someone important.

There’s a good way of info dumping, not just throwing names at a reader until one sticks. Describe the history of space travel, how the moons came to need terraforming. A history of overcrowding on earth? Why certain cultures spread to certain moons, if any culture mixing occurred originally, because of who was on what spaceships perhaps fleeing Earth? There’s a lot more I want to know about this world, and all I know are a lot of contextless names. Maybe there’ll be more in the sequels?

The ending:

I know this is the first of a trilogy, so it can’t end all neatly tied up, but the foreshadowing of what happened at the ending was so obvious right from the beginning. That, and it being repeated throughout the book really made it lose any sense of surprise for me which was a shame.

Okay, reading this all back, it does sound a bit like I’m just ranting about this book unfairly. And, to be fair, the difference between a book that I’ll enjoy and one I won’t is a very thin line, so some small changes would have made this so much better. But, honestly, I feel very strongly that some books are published too early; either in a writer’s learning curve, or in the editing process.

This book was one of those to me.

If it had had a little more time or the writer had just written another book between it and any previous drafts, maybe it would have been much more enjoyable.

I’m also never one to hold a grudge, so I’ll happily read anything else this author writes, especially to see them grow in terms of their writing. And so I look forward to the rest of the books in this series, and the final version of this book could have tweaked enough to make a lot of what I’ve written invalid anyway, so I’d recommend giving it a chance.

Onwards and upwards!

Review | Strange the Dreamer (Strange the Dreamer #1) by Laini Taylor

The dream chooses the dreamer, not the other way around—and Lazlo Strange, war orphan and junior librarian, has always feared that his dream chose poorly. Since he was five years old he’s been obsessed with the mythic lost city of Weep, but it would take someone bolder than he to cross half the world in search of it. Then a stunning opportunity presents itself, in the person of a hero called the Godslayer and a band of legendary warriors, and he has to seize his chance or lose his dream forever.

What happened in Weep two hundred years ago to cut it off from the rest of the world? What exactly did the Godslayer slay that went by the name of god? And what is the mysterious problem he now seeks help in solving?

The answers await in Weep, but so do more mysteries—including the blue-skinned goddess who appears in Lazlo’s dreams. How did he dream her before he knew she existed? And if all the gods are dead, why does she seem so real?

Welcome to Weep.

Title: Strange the Dreamer

Author: Laini Taylor

Genre: Fantasy

Rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

I love dreams. That’s just something I have always loved: mine are usually vivid and complicated and magical and I remember them quite a bit more than others I know. So sleep is kind of like reading a really good book for me, one I make myself.

So a book with a Dreamer as a main character was certainly one to catch my interest.

The main characters are Lazlo Strange, a Librarian obsessed with the Unseen City he’s been reading and dreaming about most of his life, and Sarai, a blue skinned girl trapped in the mysterious ‘citadel’ who visits people’s’ dreams at night via the moths she sends to them.

Both of these viewpoints slowly reveal what ends up being an awesome and elaborate story, and how they’re brought closer together really captured my imagination. It’s slow and surprising, and above all adorably sweet. They work well together in a way that only the best book pairings do.

The new world that Laini creates is also gorgeous and terrifying in pretty much equal measure, but that’s what makes it amazing!

There are so many new creatures and cities, and even new science and new elements! (The geek in me approves.)

It’s a fairly poetic book, with metaphors and similes abound, but that feels right with this storyline. I don’t think it would have had as much of an effect if the writing had been more straightforward and direct. This whole book was about uncovering the mysteries of a new city and new magic, and to do that properly I think the writing has to reflect the wonder that the characters are feeling in the right way, so we can feel it too.

But she also does creepy writing very well too. The darker characters like Minya and others were written so cold and three dimensional that they actually ‘leapt off the page’ as they say. Even Thyon made me clench the book in anger so much early on in the book!

Her darker writing is so good, but also tinged with grey, so even while you’re angry or nervous about what’s happening you’re still kind of able to see the side of whatever character is being dark at that particular time. It’s a sort of morally-mixed feeling that is so clever and so impressive to me.

I haven’t actually been this obsessed about a book in quite a while, so I know this’ll stay with me long after I’m done reading. (So much so that I’m going to have to force myself to not buy allllll the special editions of this book and its sequel – my poor bank account!)

And that ending! That was absolute heartbreak in ink and paper… Five stars aren’t enough to do this book justice.

And now I can’t wait to read Muse of Nightmares!

Wrap Up | July: Quick fire Reviews

I know this is a smidge late, given it’s almost a week into August, but here are the books I read in July and some mini reviews of them. (Click on the book covers to link to their Goodreads pages.)

Oshun Rising by Jennifer Alsever

Rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

This book was a pretty good sequel; you can tell the author is improving and coming into her own as she writes more. It has an interesting mystery and a dark plot that leads well into the third and final book of this serie which I hope to read soon. I look forward to reading more from this author!

I Was Born for This by Alice Oseman

Rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Alice Oseman just keeps getting better and better. I don’t think there could exist a book she writes that I don’t love! This book was adorable and tear-jerking and such a beautiful insight into what makes a friend. I loved the many different representations as friendships, especially the only-online until recently one, and how they were all written so realistically. This book made me laugh and cry in real life and I would recommend it to anyone – even people who don’t usually read contemporary books.

Leah on the Offbeat by Becky Albertalli

Rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

This is another of those books I think I needed at school. Powerful, funny, and with a flawed main character that I kind of both love and hate a little. She reminds me so much of a friend of mine it’s freaky!

This book was a warm and fuzzy read, with the sweetest plot. The equivalent of a hot chocolate and fluffy blanket in book form. Great LGBT+ rep.

A Quiet Kind of Thunder by Sara Barnard

Rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

This book was a really interesting concept: A partially mute girl from extreme anxiety and a deaf boy being partnered together at school and falling for each other. It had adorable extra touches like describing the signing that was going on and really effectively using font styles to show a mixed signing/speaking conversation. That, and the chapter headings being shown in BSL made this book so very memorable to me. It has a place in my heart.

This Is Going to Hurt: Secret Diaries of a Junior Doctor by Adam Kay

Rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

This was the most I’ve laughed while reading a book in a long while. I recommend you get a friend to read it out loud with you (my sister and I took turns), the suspense and slower speed you get really makes the comedy even stronger. That he somehow manages to mix this with some actually heart wrenching events and personal stories makes this an absolutely fabulous and flawless read. (I immediately lent this one to my parents after I’d finished it, they needed to read it too!)

Orphan Monster Spy by Matt Killeen

Rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

It’s been a while since I’ve seen such a badass female main character who was also so young! Also, I saw Matt Killeen at YALC this year (the panel he was in was so good!) and (due to double booking) had to send my sister with our shared book to get it signed in his queue on her own so unfortunately didn’t meet him. I did however still get a mention in the signature: “To (my sister) and the (absent) Rebecca. (Mysterious!)” which I thought was absolutely hilarious.

Add to that the fact that he looks a tiny bit like a mad scientist and writes amazingly, I couldn’t help but love this book! It had spies and boarding schools and explosions (oh my!). The partnership between The Captain and Sarah in the book is so unique and awesome too. This will be a book I recommend to friends over and over.

Overall, July was a really fun month. I crammed in some books for YALC and really enjoyed everything I read. Bring on August!