Book Review: Knight in Paper Armor

“This is a country of immigrants. Hate it all you want, but immigration is America. I’m America, more than you’ll ever be.”


TW — This book and the following review contains topics relating to hate crimes, antisemitism, xenophobia, racism, violence, torture, suicide, sensory deprivation, traumatic injury/disability, the Holocaust, and emotional abuse.

Beth Shalom is the 93rd state of the 179 United States of America, which is the setting of this stunning work of dystopian fiction. In a place called Heaven’s Hole, a boy named Billy Jakobek has grown up in laboratories, at the hands of Caleb, the force behind the megacorporation, Thorne Century. Caleb’s motivation behind subjecting this boy to countless experimentation is that he’ll be able to harness his powers to create a new type of warfare — one that is “clean. Contained. Beautiful.”

In many ways, it is a world far away from our own — but not far enough away that we cannot see the influence of the contemporary world within every detail. Natalia Gonzalez, one of the main protagonists, is a rebellious young artist, and the daughter of Guatemalan immigrants, who falls in love with Billy as their paths cross. Living in Heaven’s Hole, Natalia regularly experiences the deprivation ensured by Thorne Century’s regime, as her family and community work within the factories that keep the regime running. Her world is one of poverty, deprivation, and an endless cycle of suffering. With an eye for creativity and a rebellious spirit, she hopes to one day break out of this cycle.

When these two character’s cross paths — their worlds collide. Together, they aim to bring down the megacorporation Thorne Century and strive to create a better world. But it is not that easy, defeating Caleb will be the biggest fight of all. This novel is entirely dystopian in feel, scope, and intent — but it contains elements of fantasy, science fiction and young adult themes — in being narrated by two teenagers who fall in love despite the crumbling world around them. However, it is also rooted in our world. It shines a light on the everyday xenophobia, antisemitism, class inequality and capitalist exploitation which is rife within the US — and the rest of the world.

Please note, a copy of this book was kindly gifted to me by the author, in exchange for an honest review.


About the Author

Nicholas Conley is a full-time writer — who has written for several publications such as Vox, The Huffington Post, The Jewish Reporter, Dictionary.com and others. He is also the author of four books, Knight in Paper Armour being his most recent one.

Nicholas is Jewish and a descendent of Ashkenazic refuges from Russia and Sephardic refugees who fled from the Spanish inquisition. On a personal level, he is a great believer in human rights, social justice, systemic reforms and living in a fairer world — for all.

“… we all share the same world. We’re all in this together. No matter what, we should do the best we can to take care of each other.” — Nicholas Conley 

You can find out more about Nicholas Conley via his website.


My review

Rating: 5 out of 5.
Image courtesy of Nicholas Conley

My first thought upon finishing this book was “wow” — it sounds cliché, but it is entirely accurate. Upon writing up my notes when I finished the book — there was no doubt in my mind that I was going to give this a 5/5, there’s simply nothing that I can fault. I am incredibly grateful to Nicholas for asking if I would like to review his book because it is not the kind of book I would have picked up myself.

So what did I like about this book?

Firstly — I found the ideas woven throughout this book utterly compelling — and could empathize with the struggles of Natalia Gonzalez because of her belief in a fairer society. Despite being a dystopian novel through and through, it draws upon many sentiments that we are currently dealing with globally in social, cultural, and political life. Thorne Century, the megacorporation which controls all the aspects of life for those who live in Heaven’s Hole, is, in a way, a metaphor for capitalism itself.

It crushes people’s ambition, perpetuates inequality just by existing, and fails to bring about a fairer way of life. Caleb, the perpetrator and manipulator of Billy Jakobek, is a power-hungry individual — who rules Heaven’s Hole for his own benefit. This is a vision of society that is divided along the lines of ethnicity, race, economic status and gender — thus, in many ways, it mirrors our world. However, this is a creative, dystopian state which provides enough fantasy to escape from our world.

Therefore — I resonated with this book because it felt current and there is so much to unpack. In many ways, it contains the classic element of good versus evil. Still, it is told with so many complexities that reading it, is enough to make you stop in your tracks and re-evaluate the world around you. 2020 has been dominated by American politics and the continuous systemic racism that lingers — and in this novel — it lays bear this influence within a unique, fast-paced and believable story.

As well as the ideas, I loved the characters and execution of this novel. I empathised with Natalia, who becomes somewhat of a revolutionary figure in the book with her opposition to Thorne Century, and I saw a lot of myself in her. She ardently believes that through a collective effort and vision, we can change the systems of oppression that ensnare us. As a character, she is also good-humoured and utterly likeable.

Billy Jakobek is a complex character who spends most of his time within a tank monitored by Caleb for the harnessing of his psychic abilities. He is subject to countless experiments and deprived of living in the real world — until he meets Natalia. Many themes in this novel also evoke the feeling of a classic coming of age story — but set amongst a dystopian state — it is truly original and enthralling.

The book is fast-paced, full of action and chops and changes between different character perspectives. It keeps you reading with every twist and turn, as you follow Billy and Natalia’s hopes of creating a better world. Crucially it also had a very satisfying ending which is essential for me when giving out five-star ratings. Often, if I give a book a 4-star rating, it will mean that I was left dissatisfied, but this is far from the case here. The ending to this whirlwind of a book was satisfying, heart-warming and convincing.

I would highly recommend this book to anyone who likes dystopian novels that distract you from the present, but also make poignant points about the way we live now. And importantly, the systems that dominate our world and perpetuate multiple forms of inequality. This book is endlessly captivating and provides us with an essential insight into our contemporary world.


For fans of dystopian novels and readers of fantasy and sci-fi, this is the perfect book. I went into it not knowing what to expect but came away utterly mesmerised.

Knights in Paper Armor was published in September 2020 and is available to buy in paperback or as an e-book on Amazon.


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Book Review: The Stone in My Pocket

Mysterious goings-on are filtered through this coming of age novel with unique twists and turns.


“Why would I want to read about the paranormal when I was living it?”

Overview

In the dead of night, Nathan Love suddenly hears a strange voice in his garden, accompanied by a shadowed figure watching over him. Immediately, his world is tinted with a sense of strangeness, that he cannot quite work out. 

After a visit to his local bookshop, Nathan soon ends up with a Saturday job there and finds himself apart of a spiritual circle group, led by the owner of the bookshop, Iris.

Nathan hopes that in joining this group, he will be able to uncover the mystery of the shadowed figure he saw in this bedroom. All of this, he keeps from his parents. After all, his mother is a devout Catholic and his father has always turned a nose up to his strange stories. 

Through a mixture of messages, spirits and realisations, Nathan is led to believe that the shadowed figure was a reincarnation of his Grandfather who recently passed away, and Nathan believes that he is trying to convey a message to the family.

Strange goings-on, struggles at school and difficulties with making friends make the experience of adolescence one that is fraught with difficulties. Nathan is not close with his parents and finds solace in his job at the bookshop and the friendships made within the circle group. But sooner rather than later, the strangeness and questions in his life will be uncovered.

Please note, a copy of this book was kindly gifted to me by the author, in exchange for an honest review.


About the Author

Matthew Keeley is the author of two novels, A Stone in My Pocket being the most recent, due to Covid related delays, this is now due to be published in early 2021 by The Conrad Press. His debut novel, Turning the Hourglass, was published in 2019. 

Whilst being a full-time author and writer, Matthew also teaches English to secondary school pupils. He likes to write within the realms of speculative fiction, magic realism and literary fiction.

You can find out more information about Matthew and the expected release of A Stone in My Pocket, via his website.


My Review

Rating: 4 out of 5.

First and foremost, what I loved about this book was the immediate hook. The mysterious figure seen in Nathan’s garden is enough to keep anyone reading. 

Immediately the reader has all sorts of questions “who is the figure?” “what is it doing here?” “what does this mean for Nathan and his family?” are just a few that crossed my mind in the first few pages. Being gripping from the start is always a good thing, but the result of the story was told in such a fast-paced and well-structured manner, that the remainder of the novel was never a disappointment.

Due to the initial hook — the rest of the story is spent trying to explain the mysterious happenings that occurred in Nathan’s garden and what this could mean. Nathan, the protagonist, aims to finds answers to this by joining a spiritual circle, where he truly immerses himself in the medium world.

Everything about the story contains an element of strangeness, from the eerie small-town setting to the use of a protagonist who never quite fits in -  this is a coming of age novel with unique twists and turns.

Nathan spends a considerable amount of time working in the bookshop where he also attends his circle meetings, which naturally appealed to me, as someone who also loves bookshops. There’s something special about a novel that heavily features all things bookish. 

Image via Uplash

The range of characters presented and how they are woven throughout the story to unravel the mysterious goings-on is impressive. 

Nathan as the protagonist is naturally flawed and a confused adolescent who has never really fit in with his peers or family. He is trying to navigate through his life and struggles with school as his mind is preoccupied with solving the strange goings-on that happened outside his bedroom window. I valued his perspective, and it was nice to delve into the mindset of a quirky adolescent — for once.

Iris, the owner of the bookshop, is also a fabulously crafted character who symbolises the sense of strangeness carried throughout the book. She is presented as almost a mother or grandmother figure to Nathan, who finds himself more and more detached from his parents as he tries to keep his activities within the circle group a secret.

The premise is alluring, and the delivery was very sophisticated with the crafting of interesting characters and a suspenseful plot. It had an explosive ending, which I shall not reveal, but all of Nathan’s secrets are suddenly exposed to his parents and everything unravels before his eyes. 

I found the ending to be quite abrupt, which I was slightly disappointed with, given the suspense carried throughout the story. In this way, the story could have benefited from tying up some loose ends. 

Overall, I enjoyed this novel despite it not being a story I would not normally turn to. I am not a massive lover of the supernatural, especially in fiction, but I was pleasantly surprised by this novel and ended up enjoying it. I liked the characters, premise, setting and sense of unrelenting strangeness that filtered throughout the story.


A coming of age novel with a sense of eerie strangeness. For lovers of the supernatural, magic realism and character-driven stories — this is a brilliant read from start to finish.

Many thanks to the author, Matthew Keeley for providing me with a free copy of this book


Originally published on Medium in Write and Review, [insert date]

Book Review: Such a Fun Age

It has been a while since I’ve posted, but after spending lots of time trying to eek this out for as long as possible, I’m back with a review of Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid, which was longlisted for the 2020 Booker Prize. It was the only book on the list that I liked the sound of – and it by far exceeded my expectations.

Such a Fun Age, Kiley Reid (2019)

Coming of Age/Fiction

Synopsis (Goodreads)

“In the midst of a family crisis one late evening, white blogger Alix Chamberlain calls her African American babysitter, Emira, asking her to take toddler Briar to the local market for distraction. There, the security guard accuses Emira of kidnapping Briar, and Alix’s efforts to right the situation turn out to be good intentions selfishly mismanaged.”

The Review

Rating: 5 out of 5.

It’s been a long time since I’ve read a book that feels so close to our current moment. 

Kiley Reid provides, “a beautiful tale of how we live now” (Elizabeth Day). The story is nestled in the city of Philadelphia, and draws upon the social and racial injustices at the heart of modern, American society, through the young, black protagonist, Emria.  

The story alternates between the perspective of Emira and Alix, a white middle-class blogger. They are worlds apart but are brought together by Alix’s employment of Emira as a babysitter for her daughter, Briar. This dual perspective Reid uses allows the two polar experiences of class and race to be played off against each other, which illustrates the existence of Alix’s inherent privilege and mistreatment of Emira. 

Alix struggles to see why her treatment of Emira is problematic, despite making her wear a uniform and her history of only employing black childminders. It’s almost as if she thinks by having a black babysitter, she is doing her bit. Emira is half aware of all this, and it is her boyfriend, Kelley that exposes it more blatantly. But Emira loves looking after Briar and doesn’t want to break that bond between them. And also, the job is a lifeline, in just keeping her above the water. It takes her a while to confront these microaggressions – but the best thing of all, is that she eventually triumphs. 

The novel also looks at the influence of race in relationships. Emira meets Kelley during the incident with the police and then once again on the subway, and they hit it off immediately. But there are many differences between them, and these are explored by drawing upon their relationship,

“Emira had dated one white guy before, and repeatedly hooked up with another during the summer after college. They both loved bringing her to parties, and they told her she should try wearing her hair naturally. And suddenly, in a way they hadn’t in the first few interactions, these white men had a lot to say about government-funded housing, minimum wage, and the quotes from Martin Luther King Jr.”

Reid eloquently raises the potential fetishisation of race in relationships through the perspective of Emira and her group of friends. Emira and Kelley’s relationship is topsy turvy but explored in such a human and real way, that it’s hard not to be drawn in by it. Additionally, through their relationship Reid explores the issue of microaggressions – forms of indirect or subtle forms of racism that can often go unnoticed. There’s a performative element to the type of equality Kelley tries to portray in his social standing and worldview, that doesn’t go unrecognized by Emria,

“Like… I get it, you have a weirdly large amount of black friends, you saw Kendrick Lamar in concert, and now you have a black girlfriend…great.”

Emira

As a white, privileged person, this strikes a chord and left a profound effect on the way I perceive race, and how it influences class and relationships. It is written in a way that makes it embody the current moment. It illustrates the simmering and overt racism that exists within American society, and the small acts of unintentional racism that can go unnoticed. 

Reading this made me laugh, cringe, feel angry, and annoyed all at the same time, but one thing for sure – it touched me completely. I fell in love with Emria’s ballsy personality and sense of determination. Reid provides the reader with characters who come alive through the pages and makes you feel something, and that is the greatest gift a writer can have – I can’t believe this is a debut novel and feel excited at the prospect of Reid writing more in the future. 

This is sharp, witty, well-executed and grips you right from the start – there’s simply no messing about. I would describe it as a millennial coming of age story that combines the important, intertwining messages of class, race, privilege and how to navigate this within families and relationships.


Like many others, I am still learning about the best ways to talk about race. As always, If you think I need to phrase something differently or I’ve said something out of line – please let me know. I won’t take offence but will be thankful you have pointed it out.

Book Review: Salvation Station

Firstly, many thanks to She Writes Press and Book Publicity Services for providing me with a copy of this book, in exchange for an honest review.

Salvation Station, Crime Fiction

Synopsis (from Goodreads)

“When committed female police captain Linda Turner, haunted by the murders of two small children and their pastor father, becomes obsessed with solving the harrowing case, she finds herself wrapped up in a mission to expose a fraudulent religious organization and an unrepentant killer.
 
Despite her years of experience investigating homicides for the force, Captain Linda Turner is haunted by the murders of the Hansen family. The two small children, clothed in tattered Disney pajamas, were buried with their father, a pastor, in the flower garden behind a church parsonage in Lincoln, Nebraska. But Mrs. Hansen is nowhere to be found—and neither is the killer.
 
In St. Louis, the televangelist Ray Williams is about to lose his show—until one of his regular attendees approaches him with an idea that will help him save it. Despite his initial misgivings, Ray agrees to give it a try. He can’t deny his attraction to this woman, and besides, she’d assured him the plan is just—God gave her the instructions in a dream.
 
Multiple story lines entwine throughout this compelling mystery, delving into the topics of murder, religious faith, and the inherent dangers in blindly accepting faith as truth. While Reverend Williams is swept up in his newfound success and plans for his wedding, Captain Turner can only hope that she and her team will catch the Hansens’ cunning killer—before more bodies surface.”


Combining a classic whodunit and an exploration of Christianity and blind faith, Kathryn Schleich in her debut novel, creates a unique and gripping read. Schleich combines multiple story-lines to uncover the corruption and horror at the heart of a devout Church community in Nebraska.

The Review

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Do not be deceived by the disturbing front cover depicting a plastic doll, left abandoned in the leaves. This book despite appearances is not a horror story, but rather, a classic crime fiction whodunit. I had my reservations when I started, as the cover led me to think it would be more of a horror/thriller, but alas, it wasn’t.

The first thing that stood out to me, was that the lead police investigator was a woman, which I loved. Of course, there are some writers within the genre that feature female leads, like Kay Scarpetta in Patricia Cornwell’s novels, but even then, Scarpetta is the chief medical examiner, rather than the lead police role.

It was so refreshing to see and made a change from having a typically male leading character as the head of police. The story features different perspectives, but Linda Turner and Reverend Ray Williams are the main narrators. I got on with Linda as a character and valued her honesty and commitment to solving the horrific crime.

Schleich has an eye for creating great characters. Ray Williams, the Reverend and host of The Road to Calvary, a hit evangelist organization, soon to be a successful TV commercial, is very likeable. Although gullible and a bit haphazard, Ray desperately cares about his local community.

Susannah comes into Ray’s life out of the blue and goes headfirst into wanting to improve The Road to Calvary. Ray falls in love with her ambition and readiness to help, and their relationship blossoms, but all is not what it seems. Susannah from the off is dislikable in her manipulation of Ray – but she also makes him happy, so what’s the problem?

Having a range of good characters for me is key in any good story, and Schleich definitely provides this.

The plot is simple, mirrored on a classic whodunit premise. The reader is hit with a dark and ominous feeling at the beginning and this is continued right through to the end. The chapters are short and sharp and give a sense of pace – which I liked. Aside from the gripping beginning, the novel isn’t suspenseful and not a page-turner by classic definition – but I was so invested that I didn’t need an added incentive to keep reading.

Moreover, I liked the way it wasn’t just a crime novel. Using The Road to Calvary, and other religious overtones, Schleich can make a poignant comment on religion and the notion of blind faith. The story and community in which Ray, Linda and Susannah are a part of, is religious and benevolent by nature, but of course, this is a false misconception.

Without saying too much – the ending was dramatic and satisfying. I would recommend this to anyone who loves a good crime fiction novel with a twist, and for fans of police procedurals.

Please note – this post does contain Amazon affiliate links and if you choose to use them, I will earn a small fee but this doesn’t impact my review in anyway.


Book Review: How I learned to hate in Ohio

Many thanks to NetGalley for providing me with a e-ARC copy of this book, I am slowly but surely getting through my shelf! How I Learned to Hate in Ohio is due to be published in January, 2021. You can pre-order your copies via Amazon, if you wish to do so.

How I Learned to Hate in Ohio

David Stuart MacLean

The Overlook Press, January 2021

Coming of Age, Fiction, Literary Fiction

3.5/5 stars

Synopsis (Goodreads)

A brilliant, hilarious, and ultimately devastating debut novel about how racial discord grows in America
 
In late-1980s rural Ohio, bright but mostly friendless Barry Nadler begins his freshman year of high school with the goal of going unnoticed as much as possible. But his world is upended by the arrival of Gurbaksh, Gary for short, a Sikh teenager who moves to his small town and instantly befriends Barry and, in Gatsby-esque fashion, pulls him into a series of increasingly unlikely adventures. As their friendship deepens, Barry’s world begins to unravel, and his classmates and neighbors react to the presence of a family so different from theirs. Through darkly comic and bitingly intelligent asides and wry observations, Barry reveals how the seeds of xenophobia and racism find fertile soil in this insular community, and in an easy, graceless, unintentional slide, tragedy unfolds.

Review ~ 3.5/5

I would describe this book in a nutshell as a dark, seemingly poignant demonstration of the hate that inflicts many communities across America.

Through the exploration of racism, Xenophobia, Islamophobia and white, middle-class discontent, this novel shines a light onto the forms of hatred and division which remain at the heart of many American communities.

Barry Nadler lives in Rutherford, Ohio, and is beginning his freshman year of high school in the 1980s. It’s a time in American history that was fraught with divisions and rising race wars, amidst the backdrop to the Iraq war and the War on Terror to follow. Barry is very much alone and likes it that way, but soon meets Gurbaksh who quickly becomes his one and only friend. Gurbaksh is a Sikh and frequently gets belittled at school and within the neighborhood due to his beliefs, which allows the book to illuminate the extent of Islamophobia present in the community.

I enjoyed this book and the themes it aimed to explore – however, it only really starts to take shape at the end of the book and has no real structure to it. The chapters are remarkably short and snappy which creates a nice pace to it but without this, I fear I would have struggled to get through it. I naturally finished it quickly due to the structure of the book.

The narrator, Barry, was likable enough, but I didn’t like the way he didn’t do a whole lot to challenge some of the racist rhetoric that was thrown around within his community. Maybe he was just too young?

This is the second book I have read that has centred on Ohio and portraying a social commentary through its main character, Ducks, Newburyport offers a similar feel but narrates observations from the present day, rather than the past. I think this book is important and has a place but I was constantly waiting for something to happen and when it did, it was pretty short-lived and left more questions than answers.

The feel of it, mainly executed through its young, teenage narrator, reminded me of The Catcher in the Rye – a novel I didn’t particularly enjoy. I would argue this is better as it is far more poignant and ambitious, and I was quite struck by the penultimate ending.

Fundamentally, this is a novel about multiple forms of hate and how it can divide communities.

“Hate is safe. Hate is urgent. Hate is unkind. Hate is ubiquitous. Hate singes the hated out and provides anonymity for the hater.”

Aside from the rampant exploration of racism, the novel also deals with dysfunctional families and relationships. Barry’s father and mother have a complex relationship which unfolds throughout the novel, eventually resulting in disastrous consequences and I can’t help but think this has some kind of effect on Barry – possibly quelling his ambition.

I enjoyed this book and appreciated what it was trying to do and think it is incredibly relevant to the current climate. I would probably recommend it to others who are fans of books that issue a type of social commentary placed within a distinct community.

Thank you for reading!

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