Posted in contemporary, review, young adult

Dear Evan Hansen – Val Emmich

“Fantasies always sound good but they’re no help when reality comes and shoves you to the ground.”

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Blurb: “When a letter that was never meant to be seen by anyone draws high school senior Evan Hansen into a family’s grief over the loss of their son, he is given the chance of a lifetime: to belong. He just has to stick to a lie he never meant to tell, that the notoriously troubled Connor Murphy was his secret best friend.

Suddenly, Evan isn’t invisible anymore–even to the girl of his dreams. And Connor Murphy’s parents, with their beautiful home on the other side of town, have taken him in like he was their own, desperate to know more about their enigmatic son from his closest friend. As Evan gets pulled deeper into their swirl of anger, regret, and confusion, he knows that what he’s doing can’t be right, but if he’s helping people, how wrong can it be?”

 

*This book was sent to me by the publisher in exchange for an honest review*

Trigger Warnings: talk of suicide and death, themes of depression.

Dear Evan Hansen is a book inspired by the incredibly popular Broadway musical of the same name. With the news of it finally crossing the pond and finding a home in the UK West End next year, I felt that it was finally time to take the plunge into this story.

Evan Hansen is a trouble teenager: his family life isn’t stable, he doesn’t really have any friends, and he’s in therapy where he’s asked each week to write a letter to himself in order to process the struggles he’s facing. The narrative encourages you to feel, and in some cases, be able to relate to what Evan is experiencing, and then express horror when one of his self-written letters ends up in the hands of his classmate, Connor. When it’s announced that Connor has taken his own life and Evan’s letter is believed to be Connor’s suicide note, Evan is put in a difficult situation: break the family’s heart and tell the truth, or maintain the lie. This is where the book just gets really uncomfortable. Evan is determined not to tell the truth. He employs another classmate to forge email exchanges that create the appearance of Evan and Connor being friends, has dinners with the family where he shares more fake stories, becomes close with Connor’s grieving sister, and even becomes the front of a foundation to raise money in Connor’s name. It’s a very difficult and unfortunate situation to be in but I just couldn’t fathom all the lengths that Evan goes to in order to back up all the things he comes out with, and any of the good that comes from the campaign and foundation was muddled by the intentions behind it.

The campaign itself is nice to see and very relatable to true life and I liked how social media was tied into it, and how it was showed that the news was getting around to the point where strangers were starting to donate. Again, the co-creator, Alana, didn’t know or really care about Connor and is forcing Evan to be the face of it, clearly using the traction it’s getting for her own personal gain. I guess, in its own way, the book highlights how some people will use bad instances to their own advantage, and some people are just unaffected; including Evan’s therapist. In fact, Connor’s passing is the catalyst for Evan to ignore his own life and pretend to be someone else for a while.

The book flits occasionally between Evan and Connor’s perspectives which I feel works a lot better in a stage setting where you can see the actors. The formatting in my E-Arc was really off which meant that I spent a good portion of the reading experience confused when these perspective shifts happened and when text conversations happened because there wasn’t any distinction in font. Also the perspective shifts just felt really jarring. I get that maybe it was to make the reader feel more for Connor who is essentially a non-character and viewed solely through Evan’s eyes otherwise.

This a story that I imagine works really well on stage, but as a book I feel it missed the mark. Now I’m going to listen to the soundtrack.

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Posted in contemporary, lgbt, review, young adult

Odd One Out – Nic Stone

“None of this is simple as we want it to be. And I think that should be okay. Being who you are and losing who you love may not be easy, but it’s always worthwhile.” – Author Note

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Blurb: “Courtney “Coop” Cooper: Dumped. Again. And normally I wouldn’t mind. But right now, my best friend and source of solace, Jupiter Sanchez, is ignoring me to text some girl.

Rae Evelyn Chin: I assumed “new girl” would be synonymous with “pariah,” but Jupiter and Courtney make me feel like I’m right where I belong. I also want to kiss him. And her. Which is . . . perplexing.

Jupiter Charity-Sanchez: The only thing worse than losing the girl you love to a boy is losing her to your boy. That means losing him, too. I have to make a move. . . .

One story. Three sides. No easy answers.”

*This book was sent to me by the publisher in exchange for an honest review*

Like her debut, Dear Martin (of which my review can be found here), the topic of her latest book is something close to Nic Stone’s heart. In her acknowledgements, she talks openly about her own struggles with sexuality and why she felt it important to add to the growing list of LGBT titles for Young Adult readers.

Odd One Out is told through three perspectives: Courtney who is in love with his lesbian best friend, Jupiter. New girl Rae who kind of loves both of them, and Jupiter who thinks she likes Rae but really like Courtney. On top of this, Courtney appears to have this sense of ownership over Jupiter as if, despite her being unobtainable, she is meant to be his and Jupiter is struggling with her sexuality as she experiences that same desire of ownership for Courtney, and Rae is stuck in the middle. Basically, it’s one giant complicated love triangle.

Normally I’m very wary of multiple perspective stories because it’s rare that I like them all. In this case, I found some to be weaker than others and my favourite ended up being Jupiter. She’s a big fan of the rock band Queen which feeds a lot into her narrative and it made her more fleshed out than the other characters because she stood on her own separate to them. It made her feel more like a real teenager. Also her struggles with sexuality were very relatable: she identifies as lesbian but begins to worry about whether that label fits and if she will add fuel to the stigma that LGBT teens are just seeking attention or “waiting to be turned.” I could just feel the hurt she was going through and I was powerless to help her. I also think that she experiences the most character growth overall. Rae is of the similar vein; battling with the bisexual label and the ever-present stigma that she doesn’t want to validate. In fact, the only one who is firmly comfortable in their sexuality is Courtney.

This book also features awkward sex scenes combined with the handling of consent which is really nice to see becoming more common in YA books. It just came across really natural and authentic in the scenes and added to the characters experiences.

Another important point to note is how it’s shown that everyone experiences situations differently and this book does a fantastic job of showing how a character perceives an event compared to how it actually exists.

Once again, Nic Stone proves that she is a writer very much worth watching.

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Posted in contemporary, review, romance, young adult

Always And Forever Lara Jean – Jenny Han

“To love a boy, to have him love you back, it feels miraculous.”

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Blurb: “Lara Jean is having the best senior year. And there’s still so much to look forward to: a class trip to New York City, prom with her boyfriend Peter, Beach Week after graduation, and her dad’s wedding to Ms. Rothschild. Then she’ll be off to college with Peter, at a school close enough for her to come home and bake chocolate chip cookies on the weekends. Life couldn’t be more perfect! At least, that’s what Lara Jean thinks…until she gets some unexpected news. Now the girl who dreads change must rethink all her plans—but when your heart and your head are saying two different things, which one should you listen to?”

After completely falling in love with this series from the first book, it’s not surprising that I’ve flown through the trilogy and found myself faced with the finale.

Always and Forever Lara Jean sees our favourite protagonist being thrown in the deep end: with her school life coming to an end and future plans falling apart, not to mention facing being long distance with her rather attractive boyfriend. This is the book where it feels like the reader really gets to see Lara’s character arc as a whole. It’s been wonderful to see her grow and still hold the same moral and family values no matter what she came to head with, and the finale is no different. Lara is very much a perfectionist so when things don’t go how she wanted, it was interesting to see how she found a way to readjust and see the new opportunities available to her that she may have not considered otherwise.

The most interesting character shift for me personally was Margot, who seems incredibly abrasive and unlike herself compared to the pervious book, but as the story progressed it was understand how she felt like she had lost her place among the family after physically seeing her father’s new relationship flourish. As she has been away at college, getting to see how she learned to also accept a new form of change really hit home with the themes the book was trying to convey.

It seemed only right to end this adventure the same way I began: by listening to the audiobook. As I’ve mentioned in previous reviews, Laura Knight-Keating has cemented herself as one of my favourite audiobook narrators ever. It’s been a real treat listening to her bring this story and its characters to life and I honestly wouldn’t have binged on this trilogy in any other way.

However, I think that Always and Forever Lara Jean is my least favourite in the series. It just didn’t grab me the same way the others did and I actually had instances where I put off listening because the story just wasn’t moving as fast as I would like. Also Peter became very unlikeable and his actions regarding trying to get Lara to sign a supposedly jokey contract about Lara having to call him every day and put pictures up etc to show she was in a relationship just left a bit of a sour taste in my mouth.

Overall, I would read the whole series again, but To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before is definitely the best.

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Posted in contemporary, review, young adult

Dear Martin – Nic Stone

“Last night changed me. I don’t wanna walk around all pissed off and looking for problems, but I know I can’t continue to pretend nothing’s wrong.”

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Blurb: “Justyce McAllister is top of his class and set for the Ivy League—but none of that matters to the police officer who just put him in handcuffs. And despite leaving his rough neighborhood behind, he can’t escape the scorn of his former peers or the ridicule of his new classmates. Justyce looks to the teachings of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. for answers. But do they hold up anymore? He starts a journal to Dr. King to find out.”

Note: I am aware that as a white reviewer I have privilege and can’t fairly comment on the racial aspects of this book. Any Own Voices reviews are greatly appreciated and I will add them here.

In an attempt to “examine current affairs through the lens of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s teachings”, Nic Stone began writing her debut after seeing the responses to the real-life shooting of unarmed African American teenagers.

Dear Martin follows high school senior Justyce McAllister who starts to question his racial identity after spending three hours in handcuffs for something he didn’t do. Classroom discussions and societal stereotypes come to the forefront of his attention more than they did before. When introduced to a gang, he identifies them as “the ones that make us look bad” and starts to worry more about everything he has to lose.

The book flits around different formats from more script based interactions for the classroom discussions, to prose for present happenings, to the letters. It’s the latter that really stood out to me. Letter writing to someone who won’t read the letters, especially an idol, can be so cathartic and it seems to work for the protagonist. While Justyce feels like he must remain silent in his daily life, especially when topics of equality come up, his letters to Martin Luther King are raw and unfiltered; it’s in these moments that it feels like the reader get the “real” Justyce.

The media fallout following another shooting by a police officer mimics what readers see too often in the real world and the predictability of questions thrown in front of Justyce are predictable and not surprising.

It was interesting to have the white male character, Jared, who starts off as someone who “doesn’t see colour” and truly be lives society is equal start to shift with the events of the book, to the point where he starts to acknowledge his privilege and own up to things he’s said and done in the past. Which is the kind of person I think all of those in a similar positon to him should be trying to do in our own lives.  Alongside this is a white girl called SJ who acknowledges her position from the start but speaks out on important issues and also helps lift up and push Justyce to the front as his voice is more important.

I found it thought-provoking that Dear Martin didn’t just focus on what it means to be a black boy in society, but how that transends into older age: The dad of Justyce’s best friend, Manny, talks about how he has a position of power at his current employment and yet his white colleagues still look down to him or refuse to answer his requests. All of which prompts the further questions in Justyce’s mind of “is this my life now?”

This book can seem almost simple at points. Like I mentioned earlier, certain chapters are just listed dialogue between characters and it feels very reserved in places, but a lot of this is down to it being a lot shorter than I expected. But it still leaves your heart aching at the end. In just over 200 pages, Dear Martin has the reader in the palm of its hand with a protagonist to root for from the very first page, until the very end. My only wish is that it was longer.

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Posted in fantasy, review, young adult

The Belles – Dhonielle Clayton

“At the beginning of the world, the God of the Sky fell in love with the Goddess of Beauty.”

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Blurb: “Camellia Beauregard is a Belle. In the opulent world of Orléans, Belles are revered, for they control Beauty, and Beauty is a commodity coveted above all else. In Orléans, the people are born gray, they are born damned, and only with the help of a Belle and her talents can they transform and be made beautiful.”

Trigger warnings: Sexual assault, “bury the gays” trope.

I was on the fence for quite a while about this book until I saw FantasticBooksAndWhereToFindThem’s review  which finally swayed me to give it a go. So with a shiny new audible credit, I decided to opt for the audiobook and straight away, this was the best decision. The narrator – Rosie Jones – is utterly incredible. Her range of accents is phenomenal and she captures the character of Camellia perfectly: all her innocence, passion and naivety. It’s almost impossible not to feel completely sucked up into the world of Orléans with our remarkable protagonist.

In this world, the beauty industry mirrors our own with its set of trends, magazines and beauty rooms where residents can get makeovers but for a price. However, in Orléans, Belles have the ability to make people beautiful but it’s never permanent. The process is brutal and more detailed than I even expected. I often found myself stopping what I was doing and sitting back to just listen to Camellia talk about what she was doing.

The writing is gorgeous. Everything is described through the use of food imagery which was a very clever technique as it made the world feel rich and enticing.

Princess Sofia is a standout character for me on the grounds that she is simply terrifying. Whenever she appeared in the scene I physically tensed as if that would change the course of events in some way.

However, this book was incredibly slow. There’s no real action until the last quarter and by that point I was just feeling bored. The Belles reads very much as a set up book and I feel that the sequel is when that characters are really going to hit the ground running.

As I referenced at the start, there is a scene of sexual assault that is quite heavy and the perpetrator is not reprimanded for it. Also a gay character is killed off for absolutely no reason other than shock value. Please exercise self-care before reading.

Also Clayton wrote a twitter thread about the need for more POC reviewers in general, especially ones talking about her book. Here’s a link to Rich In Colour’s review  that picked up on specific themes I didn’t and if you know any others, please let me know so I can link them as well!

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Posted in Audiobook Of The Month, fantasy, young adult

Audiobook Of The Month | Lady Midnight

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I’m sure every reader on the planet has heard about Cassandra Clare, let alone The Dark Artifices series, but here I am spending the month of October venturing into a reread in preparation for the finale in December.

Lady Midnight is the first installment in The Dark Artifices series and set a few years after the events that took place in the hugely popular The Mortal Instruments which has been made both into a TV show and a movie.

The book focuses on a young shadowhunter Emma Carstairs who is trying to uncover the secrets behind her parents mysterious deaths and seek vengeance upon those responsible, with the help of her Parabatai Julian Blackthorn.

Cassandra Clare made a big point with this new series that it intended to be an entryway to the world for new readers. While that is nice in theory, Clare consistently adds characters of plot elements that tie every one of her books together (for example, if you haven’t read The Mortal Instruments you’re instantly spoiled for the ending in the first twenty pages of Lady Midnight). While I loved this book when I first read it, the constant heads to the other series really took me out of the experience because, to frequent readers, this book is mostly just recap. But, if it was a new reader approaching it, then it’s absolutely necessary.

I’m enjoying seeing the relationship dynamics play out and the story is starting to get going now. I’m 35% through at the time of writing this post.

Have you read Lady Midnight?

What did you think?

Posted in contemporary, lgbt, review, romance, young adult

What If It’s Us – Becky Albertalli & Adam Silvera

“I was the guy in the hot dog tie. You were the guy mailing stuff back to your ex-boyfriend. I loved your laugh. Wish I’d gotten your number. Want to give me a second chance here, universe?”

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Blurb: “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?”

*This book was sent to me by the publisher in exchange for an honest review*

While being a big Becky Albertalli fan, I’m not that keen on Adam Silvera so when What If It’s Us was announced I was very wary about whether I’d like it or not, but it did feel inevitable that these two authors would come together to co-write a book.

What If It’s Us starts with a meet-cute in a post office and becomes the catalyst for everything that follows in the story. It was an unbelievably adorable moment that has such an impact that when Arthur stupidly forgets to get Ben’s name – let alone his number – he ends up trolling through the internet in the hopes of finding this cute boy again. I adored the internet aspect and think it’s something that will be so relatable to other readers. I found myself willing that one of them would eventually find that virtual breadcrumb that would lead them on the path back to each other.

Ben is a white-passing Puerto-Rican recovering from a break up with his boyfriend who is forced to be around in summer school, which doesn’t really help the “moving on” process. Arthur is in New York for the summer and very much believes in signs from the universe.

My favourite thing about What If It’s Us was the idea of re-doing moments. After their piovetal first meet, Arthur is determined for things to be perfect, while Ben wants to replace memories of his old relationship with a new one. Whenever something goes slightly wrong, they agree to redo it and have several first dates to try and make it the best it can be. When it comes to sex, it was wonderful to see consent discussed and how when one of the boys changes his mind, the other is fully supportive and waits for another time without pressuring him. Everything about the relationship just felt real; there were bumps in the road, miscommunication, worries about what happens after the summer, all of which were nice to see and just showed them growing as a couple. Not all of it is plain sailing as there are moments of homophobia which  is a sad reminder than not everyone in society is as accepting as those close to us may be. Another thing I loved was how they were willing to look into each other’s passions (such as Hamilton) to get to know the other person. It was little things like that which had more of an impact than words.

My only real issue was that there didn’t seem to be much distinction in the narratives which was a big shame given how much world/character building there was in the different perspectives. I often found it difficult to work out who I was following and I had to go back to the start of the chapter to check.

Overall What If It’s Us is a ridiculously cute story that shows the power of the universe, and fighting for what you love.

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Posted in contemporary, lgbt, review, young adult

The Miseducation of Cameron Post – Emily M. Danforth

“Maybe I still haven’t become me. I don’t know how you tell for sure when you finally have.”

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Blurb: “The night Cameron Post’s parents died, her first emotion was relief. Relief they would never know that hours earlier, she’d been kissing a girl. Now living with her conservative Aunt in small-town Montana, hiding her sexuality and blending in becomes second nature to Cameron until she begins an intense friendship with the beautiful Coley Taylor. Desperate to ‘correct’ her niece, Cameron’s Aunt takes drastic action. Now Cameron must battle with the cost of being her true-self even if she’s not completely sure who that is.”

The first time I heard about this film was when the news came out that the adaptation, starring Chloe Grace Moretz, had won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival. Slowly, it started to peak my interest more.

The Miseducation of Cameron Post is the epitome of someone exploring their sexuality without really focusing on labels. Cameron goes through the novel experiencing attractions to certain girls not really even identifying those feelings. She just likes it. She kisses her best friend and then her parents die the next day and, as any young person would, she sees this as some sort of punishment for her actions. In fact, she has a few semi-romantic attractions before getting to the infamous Coley Taylor who is mentioned on the blurb.

I like the way this book handled the topic of grief and how everything in this story, however unlikely, leads Cameron to processing and moving on from the dark parts of her life. Set in a small religious town in the eighties-nineties, it’s predictable in the places it goes when it comes to differing sexualities but all of it plays a part in building how Cameron sees herself not through her own lens, but the lens of everyone else. Those she has sexual encounters with are more than happy to get physical with her but feel shame and push her away when Cameron tries to return the favour. There are no big twists that will leave the reader shocked (bar one in the latter part). It’s fundamentally about Cameron just going through the “important” stages of her formative years.

There is a big conversion therapy section to this book and as harsh and manipulative as imagined. But at the same time, it felt almost like more of a summer camp with religious pressure and didn’t go in as hard as I was expecting it to.

The writing style itself doesn’t do much for me, there’s a lot of run on sentences and the book is much longer than it needs to be. But there was just something about Cameron’s character that kept me wanting to know more.

A coming of age story that tackles sexuality, grief and religion, The Miseducation of Cameron Post is worth a read.

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Posted in fantasy, review, young adult

Caraval – Stephanie Garber

“Whatever you’ve heard about Caraval, it doesn’t compare to the reality. It’s more than just a game or performance. It’s the closest you’ll ever find to magic in the world.”

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Blurb: “Scarlett has never left the tiny isle of Trisda, pining from afar for the wonder of Caraval, a once-a-year week-long performance where the audience participates in the show. Caraval is Magic. Mystery. Adventure. And for Scarlett and her beloved sister Tella it represents freedom and an escape from their ruthless, abusive father. When the sisters’ long-awaited invitations to Caraval finally arrive, it seems their dreams have come true. But no sooner have they arrived than Tella vanishes, kidnapped by the show’s mastermind organiser, Legend.

I’ve heard a lot about Caraval since its release but, while the kind of genre I would eat up in a heartbeat, seeing the many mixed reviews put me off delving in. It was only after listening to Stephanie Garber’s interview on the 88 Cups Of Tea podcast that I decided to finally give the book a go.

I will be truthful, as that is a fundamental part of being a reviewer. I found it incredibly difficult to get into the first half of this book. I didn’t connect to any of the characters so it was hard for me to really root for them. Even when the main crux – Tella’s kidnapping for the game – becomes apparent, I didn’t really miss Tella at all. I contemplated putting down the book several times but kept pushing forward because I know so many people who deeply love this book and wanted to understand why. The second half is infinitely better as the pieces of the puzzle start to slot together.

I really loved the letters at the start of book which convey to the reader just how many years Scarlett has spent dreaming about going to Caraval. Her invitation comes at a pivotal moment; when she is just about to get married to her anonymous suitor. When she finally gets there, it reminds me a lot of Coraline in the sense that everything is not as it seems. What appears magical on the surface is rooted in darkness and it’s impossible to take anything at face value. I found myself cursing at points when Scarlett was tricked by certain characters.

Also, a very small thing but I am a sucker for people having nicknames and I loved every time Julian, the sailor boy who became Scarlett’s teammate, calls Scarlett “Crimson.”

Fundamentally, it’s a detective story, rooted in familial love. Scarlett is looking for her sister and it was interesting to see so many dead ends play out over the course of the story, forcing Scarlett to think harder and really prove how much Tella means to her.

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Posted in contemporary, review, young adult

Songs About A Girl – Chris Russell

“This, my friend, could be the beginning of something epic…”

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Blurb: “Charlie Bloom never wanted to be ‘with the band’. She’s happiest out of the spotlight, behind her camera, unseen and unnoticed. But when she’s asked to take backstage photos for hot new boy band Fire&Lights, she can’t pass up the chance. Catapulted into a world of paparazzi and backstage bickering, Charlie soon becomes caught between gorgeous but damaged frontman, Gabriel West, and his boy-next-door bandmate Olly Samson. Then, as the boys’ rivalry threatens to tear the band apart, Charlie stumbles upon a mind-blowing secret, hidden in the lyrics of their songs…”

Songs About A Girl is a book that just happened upon when scouring the shelves at my local library. When I saw it was all about boybands, I knew it was something that would appeal to the teen in me and… let’s be honest, me currently. It’s just an aspect of life that is so intoxicating and easy to relate to.

Charlie Bloom is a brilliant protagonist but not without her tropes: she’s really into photography, just trying to keep her head down and, of course, doesn’t understand why everyone seems to be so obsessed with this boyband called Fire & Lights. Enter best friend Melissa to keep her up to speed. If there was any character I saw bits of myself in through this story it was definitely Melissa: she’s excitable, over the top, obsessed with boybands and knows every tiny detail, wants to marry them, almost pees in excitement at the mere thought of meeting them. Trust me, I’ve been there. She just had this energy the whole way through the plot and she really did steal all of the attention when she was on the page.

I thought it was clever to have the boyband within reach. One of the members used to go to the same high school as Charlie so when he initially reaches out to her to do photography work for the band it didn’t feel that far-fetched. I know it’s fiction but it had that element that just made it believable. Also Chris Russell is in a band himself so I feel that added an extra bit of authenticity to band life.

I loved each of the bandmates and they were fully fleshed out in their own rights and the backstory of Gabriel proved far more interesting than I expected it to be.

There are often discussions about the lack of technology within YA books and for me this is where Songs About A Girl excels. The use of social media plays a big role in not just the story, but the overall daily lives of the characters with excerpts from the number one fan site and, unfortunately there’s a lot of online bullying which is all too common in real life.

I thoroughly enjoyed this whole book and was really pleased to discover that it’s actually the first in a trilogy! However, at just short of 500 pages, it felt longer than it needed to be, though I’m not sure what could have been cut.

A fun read about loving music unconditionally and grabbing opportunities when they come around, Songs About A Girl is such to light up your world.

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