contemporary · review · young adult

One Of Us Is Lying – Karen M. Mcmanus

“Is everybody in it together, or is somebody pulling the strings? Who’s the puppet master and who’s the puppet? I’ll give you a hint to get you started: everyone is lying.”

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Blurb: “On Monday afternoon, five students at Bayview High walk into detention.
Bronwyn, the brain, is Yale-bound and never breaks a rule.
Addy, the beauty, is the picture-perfect homecoming princess.
Nate, the criminal, is already on probation for dealing.
Cooper, the athlete, is the all-star baseball pitcher.
And Simon, the outcast, is the creator of Bayview High’s notorious gossip app.
Only, Simon never makes it out of that classroom. Before the end of detention Simon’s dead. And according to investigators, his death wasn’t an accident”

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

When a group of teenagers from different social groups end up in detention together, they think nothing could possibly get worse. Until Simon, the school gossip, dies an hour later. As the only people in room when it happened, the group become persons of interest. Who is telling the truth? And who is lying?

The initial start of this book feels very much like The Breakfast Club and I worried  that the story would feel too similar but once the driving force of the plot –Simon’s death – kicks in, it started to move away for that and grew to become its own story. While the unexpected death shakes the school, leading to threatening tumblr posts and a media frenzy, One of Us Is Lying is more about the characters. The use of multiple perspectives allows the reader an insight into each of the character’s lives and does a really good job of breaking down preconceived ideas we have of people based on how they appear from the outside.

Personally I’ve been having a lot of problem with plot-length in books this year and One of Us Is Lying is one of those. In a “who done it” type of story it’s hard to get the balance between the investigation elements and the getting-to-know-the-characters element and, for me, there was too much of the latter. But I think a lot of that played into the fact that apart from Bronwyn (who I could really relate to), I didn’t really connect to any of the characters enough to want to know more about their lives outside of the school walls. Which was more fault of me than the book itself.

The big reveal was underwhelming and I’ve seen a lot of other reviewers express their concerns about it.

This one just wasn’t for me.

 

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contemporary · review

All The Good Things – Clare Fisher

“Writing about the good things is hard, because sooner or later you get to the edge, and if you’re not careful, you fall off.”

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Blurb: “Twenty-one year old Beth is in prison. The thing she did is so bad she doesn’t deserve to ever feel good again. But her counsellor, Erika, won’t give up on her. She asks Beth to make a list of all the good things in her life. So Beth starts to write down her story, from sharing silences with Foster Dad No. 1, to flirting in the Odeon on Orange Wednesdays, to the very first time she sniffed her baby’s head. But at the end of her story, Beth must confront the bad thing.”

*This book was sent to me by the publisher in exchange for an honest review*
The story follows a twenty-one year old woman called Beth who is serving time in prison for a crime she refuses to talk about. She attends frequent sessions with her therapist, Erika, who one day encourages Beth to come to terms with what she did by writing a list of all the good things in her life.  However, instead of just writing a list, Beth also writes stories about her life linked to the good things she mentions. As the reader travels through the list, it’s almost like walking through Beth’s house as she opens door after door, inviting you into another room.

I expect this to be a book that I would enjoy but not one that would leave a massive impact. Dear reader, I have never been more wrong. This book came out of nowhere and slapped me across the face… then a second time just to make sure I don’t forget about our encounter. All The Good Things is driven by an utterly compelling main character. I found myself going from reading a few chapters over an hour to walking down the street with my face glued to my kindle because I was simply unable to stop reading. I went from wanting to know what Beth did that was so horrible – referred to as “the bad thing” throughout – to just wanting to know more about her life; from her days working at the Odeon, to the relationship she had with a married man, to the birth of her daughter. I was unbelievably encapsulated by this character and her backstory to the point where I found myself screaming, unbearably upset, when I turned the page to be met with the acknowledgements.

I am struggling to put into words what I felt when finishing this book. The only way I can describe it that I am walking around with this heavy weight in my chest, feeling lost now this character has moved on to other things and left me behind.

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children's fiction · review

Demon Dentist – David Walliams

“That fateful afternoon the boy vowed he would never ever go to the dentist’s again.”

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Blurb: “Darkness had come to the town. Strange things were happening in the dead of night. Children would put a tooth under their pillow for the tooth fairy, but in the morning they would wake up to find… a dead slug; a live spider, hundreds of earwigs creeping and crawling beneath their pillow. Evil was at work. But who or what was behind it?”

I’ve been slowly making my way through all of David Walliams’ books and Demon Dentist marks the third stop on this adventure.

The story follows a boy called Alex who has avoided going to the dentist even since he suffered an unfortunate incident there. As a result his teeth are brown and rotten. It can be no coincidence that children wake up to gifts of dead frogs, eyeballs and creepy crawlies from the tooth fairy just as the new dentist, Miss Root, moves to the town.  The strange occurrences encourage Alex and his new (friend that’s a girl, not girlfriend!) Gabz to investigate what’s exactly going on.

When I was a child I was terrified of the dentist and to be honest, not much has changed and the darker – while still comical – tone of this book really does re-affirm why my fear of the dentist is quite legitimate… okay maybe I should book a dentist appointment. In addition to the regular Walliams humour you can find in his books, Demon Dentist features “made up words” which just adds to a more hysterical reading experience. It’s a small thing but packs a big punch.

Miss Root is a truly suspicious character that had me on edge throughout the story; you never really can work out what her deal is. Alex faces a lot of hardships (outside of his rotting teeth) because his dad is in a wheelchair, making Alex his sole carer. I thought this was a wonderful addition to the story as there are real-life cases where children are put in situations where they have to look after family members. It centred the story more in the real world and provided some representation to those children who may pick up this book.

What I’ve discovered with Walliams’ books is that the minor characters are always the one that make the biggest impact. In Demon Dentist that role is taken on by Winnie; a social worker sent to look after Alex’s dad. There’s one scene where she chases Alex through the school on her moped to try and make him go to the dentist. I laughed so hard my stomach hurt!

Demon Dentist is the best of Walliams’ works so far and if you’re looking for somewhere to start, this is the best one to dip your toe in the water.

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contemporary · review · young adult

Stranger Than Fanfiction – Chris Colfer

“Joining a bunch of strangers on a road trip isn’t something I make a hobby out of, but I figured, why the fuck not?”

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Blurb: “Cash Carter is the young, world famous lead actor of the hit television Wiz Kids. When four fans jokingly invite him on a cross-country road trip, they are shocked that he actually takes them up on it. Chased by paparazzi and hounded by reporters, this unlikely crew takes off on a journey of a lifetime–but along the way they discover that the star they love has deep secrets he’s been keeping.”

Chris Colfer is another one of those celebrity-turned-writers that I was initially sceptical of when it came to his Land of Stories series but quickly proved me wrong. As I’ve witnessed Colfer grow as a writer over the past few years he has become a firm auto buy author for me.

Going back to his old roots, Colfer returns to the Young Adult age range with Stranger Than Fanfiction with a story following a group of teenagers, about to go off to college, who decide to go on a road trip. Their bond exists through their mutual love of a sci-fi TV show called Whizz Kids, fronted by heart-throb Cash Carter. As the group set off on their final adventure together before college, they invite their favourite actor along not thinking for one minute that he might actually say yes… until he shows up.

Stranger Than Fiction is fundamentally like every other road trip style novel you’ll come across. It’s formulaic to the point where some landmarks visited are ones I’ve seen in countless other books.  So that aspect left little to the imagination. Colfer’s overall flair remains throughout but I was left disappointed: none of the characters really stood out for me despite the depth of their backstories, except for Cash Carter who is the real driving force for the plot and the only really interesting part as you get to see what really goes down on the other side of a media story.

This is a tale about identity, friendship, final goodbyes and making memories that are sure to last forever.

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Non-Fiction · review

Scrappy Little Nobody – Anna Kendrick

“It’s possible that in ten years, every word in here will send me into fits of humiliated paralysis. But the crazy wants out. Let’s do this.”

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Blurb: “Even before she made a name for herself on the silver screen starring in films like Pitch Perfect, Up in the Air, Twilight, and Into the Woods, Anna Kendrick was unusually small, weird, and “10 percent defiant.”
At the ripe age of thirteen, she had already resolved to “keep the crazy inside my head where it belonged. Forever. But here’s the thing about crazy: It. Wants. Out.” In Scrappy Little Nobody, she invites readers inside her brain, sharing extraordinary and charmingly ordinary stories with candor and winningly wry observations.”

Like probably many others, I discovered Anna Kendrick through Twilight and Pitch Perfect. I’m not really that person who is a fan of a celebrity to the extent where I’m willing to read a book about their lives, but there’s something so down-to-earth about the way that Anna Kendrick presents herself during interviews that I am willing to watch literally anything she’s involved in.

In Scrappy Little Nobody, Anna discusses fashion, sex , relationships and her path into acting (which started as a child in theatre – something I didn’t actually know). She talks about what actually goes on behind the scenes at those flashy award ceremonies and how, even though you may star in really successful films, you might not actually earn that much.

One aspect I really like was that the photos from key points in Anna’s life were sprinkled throughout the chapters rather than being lumped together in the middle of the book. It felt like the photos being with the corresponding stories Anna shared really added something special and helped me get more immersed in the memories she was sharing.

Overall it’s an honest, insightful read with a sprinkling of Anna’s witty humour that might just have you laughing out loud.

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contemporary · review · young adult

The Hate U Give – Angie Thomas

“I always said if I saw it happen to somebody I would have the loudest voice, making sure the world knew what went down. Now I am that person, and I’m too afraid to speak.”

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Blurb: “Sixteen-year-old Starr Carter moves between two worlds: the poor neighborhood where she lives and the fancy suburban prep school she attends. The uneasy balance between these worlds is shattered when Starr witnesses the fatal shooting of her childhood best friend Khalil at the hands of a police officer. Khalil was unarmed. Soon afterward, his death is a national headline. Some are calling him a thug, maybe even a drug dealer and a gangbanger. Protesters are taking to the streets in Khalil’s name. Some cops and the local drug lord try to intimidate Starr and her family. What everyone wants to know is: what really went down that night? And the only person alive who can answer that is Starr.”

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past few months, then I’m sure you’ve heard about The Hate U Give. At the time of writing this post, the book is celebrating its sixth week at the top of the NYT Bestseller list and is still receiving overwhelming positive reviews.

The Hate U Give is a debut novel following Starr Carter who is stuck between two worlds: she goes to a posh predominantly white school during the day but she lives in a rough neighbourhood. One night Starr witnesses her friend, Khalid, being shot by a police officer. Inspired by the black lives matter movement, this is a raw and brutally honest narrative about what it means to be on the other side of a media story; to be mourning the loss of yet another person to police gun violence in America.

Starr is an utterly compelling character, bound to keep the reader hooked through the emotions she feels after Khalid’s death and the events that follow; including the court case at which she has to testify.

Every time the police showed up in the plot I found myself staying still and even holding my breath as if somehow breaking either would have an effect on the story. It shocked me into the reality of the situation. There are groups of people out there who fell threatened by the police and see them as something to avoid, not do anything to provoke, rather than someone they can go to when they need help. And that is truth: there are people out there when The Hate U Give is their everyday lives and that is terrifying and needs to change.

Starr’s friends at her school also need their moment in the spotlight because they added extra layers to this story. Hailey is a textbook High School girl and openly makes racist comments and refuses to apologise for them. She reflects so many people I’ve come across in the past few years as I’ve opened myself up to learning about other cultures and experiences. The other friend, Maya, is Chinese and also suffers a Hailey’s sharp tongue. I feel she represents a lot of people I know personally and I related to her a lot. She’s the type of person that acknowledges bad things but stays quiet. In a world of Maya’s we need to endeavour to be a Starr.

It’s very rare that I find a Young Adult contemporary where the protagonist drives the story. The Hate U Give is the opposite. I was walking along with Starr Carter every step of the way and I will continue to carry her story in my soul.

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contemporary · review · young adult

Under Rose-Tainted Skies – Louise Gornall

“The best you can hope for is to contain it, make it as small as possible so it stops being intrusive. Am I coping? Yes, but it’s taking a monumental amount of effort to keep the dynamite inside my stomach from exploding.”

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Blurb: “Agoraphobia confines Norah to the house she shares with her mother.
For her, the outside is sky glimpsed through glass, or a gauntlet to run between home and car. But a chance encounter on the doorstep changes everything: Luke, her new neighbour. Norah is determined to be the girl she thinks Luke deserves: a ‘normal’ girl, her skies unfiltered by the lens of mental illness. Instead, her love and bravery opens a window to unexpected truths…”

In the autumn of 2014 I was diagnosed with Anxiety Disorder and it felt like such a relief to finally find a doctor who believed what I was going through. I wanted to see anxiety discussed more within books, especially Young Adult, as there’s still so much stigma around mental illness. Surprisingly, it’s quite hard to find books that accurately depict what it is like living with anxiety and I was pointed in the direction of Under Rose-Tainted Skies.

The story follows a girl called Norah who has agoraphobia, OCD, Anxiety and spends her life living within the safety of her home. She frequently sees her therapist, Dr Reeves and has a mother who bends over backwards to look after her. One day, a new boy called Luke moves in next door and the story takes off from there.

I really didn’t want this to be one of those “cute boy cures mental illness” stories and from very early on it started to lean that way. Luke is a very forward boy: coming over to introduce himself, offering to drive Norah to school (after she lies that she goes to public school and accidently names the one he attends) which naturally makes her curious about getting to know him. However, over the length of the novel it didn’t feel like a realistic balance of the process of a relationship while one of the partners deals with severe anxiety. There were points in the narrative where Norah even talks about how “weird” she used to be as if the issues she faces every day have suddenly evaporated. As someone who is in a long term relationship and deals with anxiety every day, it just felt hurtful at times that she seemed to flick it off like a switch in certain situations. She uses Luke, in a way, as a goal to aim for in improving her life which is brilliant to see but falls flat in the actions.

She lays out boundaries that she doesn’t want Noah to cross but inevitably does and leads to a messy outcome which angered me. However, he did go on to fully research agoraphobia, anxiety, OCD and how to help someone you know dealing with any of those and comes back to Norah and mentions some of the things he learnt which is really good character growth.

The other characters I really liked were, as mentioned earlier, the mother who has quit several jobs in order to be flexible so that she can look after her daughter. Good mothers are something I feel is rarely seen in Young Adult so it was great to see a YA novel showcasing a mother who really does want the best for their child. The therapist, Dr Reeves, was wonderful, insightful, and understanding; even going as far as to conduct a therapy session in a car outside the building because Norah is too afraid to leave it.

I came out of this reading experience feeling depleted. So many other bloggers had recommended this book to me and sung its praises that I felt almost as if I’d missed the point. But I couldn’t get past the message that in some aspects it showed that maybe your mental health problems can be solved simply by meeting a boy.

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contemporary · lgbt · review · young adult

Radio Silence – Alice Oseman

“If nobody is listening to my voice, am I making any sound at all?”

 

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Blurb: “Frances has always been a study machine with one goal, elite university. Nothing will stand in her way; not friends, not a guilty secret – not even the person she is on the inside.
But when Frances meets Aled, the shy genius behind her favourite podcast, she discovers a new freedom. He unlocks the door to Real Frances and for the first time she experiences true friendship, unafraid to be herself. Then the podcast goes viral and the fragile trust between them is broken.

The story follows a girl called Frances who is very much a model student: she’s the head girl, has really good grades and is on track to securing a place at Cambridge University. On the side she is a devoted fan to a YouTube based podcast called Universe City and spends the gaps between studying not only listening to the show but also creating fan-art for it. When she is approached by the creator to make official art for the show it feels like a dream come true and she finally learns the identity of the person behind Universe City and they become close friends but things quickly turn sour within her beloved online community.

I was reccomended this book on the basis of it having a bisexual character. Frances identifies as bisexual and unlike many books which claim to have one but is never stated, Frances outright says that she identifies so and the way in which it was portrayed felt very authentic; it was just another layer to the story rather than being the main focus.

This is a novel that any reader can relate to: from the stress of exams, choosing universities and even in some cases questioning whether your choice of degree is actually something you want to. Radio Silence does a fantastic job or depicting what it feels like to be young and facing big choices that are intended to set your life on a certain path. I also really like that Oseman showed how university isn’t for everyone.

In a modern age where so many people are connecting via online communities based around something they love, the podcast side of it is very relevent today and shows just how quickly things can become toxic when select members start to stir things.

While there were many elements I liked and appreciated within the plot, overall the story just fell flat for me. I didn’t really connect with any of the characters and, honestly, I haven’t really thought about it since I put it down.

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review · young adult

Margot & Me – Juno Dawson

“I wonder, when writing diary entries such as this one, if we in some way hope they’ll be found.”

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Blurb: “Fliss’s mum needs peace and quiet to recuperate from a long illness, so they both move to the countryside to live with Margot, Fliss’ stern and bullying grandmother. Life on the farm is tough and life at school is even tougher, so when Fliss unearths Margot’s wartime diary she sees an opportunity to get her own back. But Fliss soon discovers Margot’s life during the evacuation was full of adventure, mystery… and even passion. What’s more, she learns a terrible secret that could tear her whole family apart…”

The story is centred on a girl called Felicity (Fliss for short) who is uprooted from her life in London and moved to a farm in Wales where her mother is suffering from cancer. The plan is to stay there temporarily until her mother recovers from the illness which would be much easier to deal with if Fliss didn’t have to put up with her horrid grandma called Margot.  During Fliss’s exploration of her new home she comes across a diary that belonged to Margot during World War II and decides to start reading.

When I pick up a new book from an author I consistently read, I always look for improvements in the quality and writing. Juno Dawson does not disappoint. This book was just on a new level to anything she’s ever written and really did have a Hollow Pike feel to it. Unlike a lot of Young Adult books, Fliss really did feel like a teenager and a lot of the comments she made about things, including Margot, had me out-loud laughing at times. There was a really good balance between the past and present and it didn’t feel like you were lingering too long in the present world or the diary world. It was nice to see the barriers between Fliss and Margot slowly start to dismantle as the story progressed.

This book is a perfect example of how we may dismiss someone because they’re a polar opposite to us only to learn that actually we have a lot more in common than we originally thought.

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contemporary · review

Holding – Graham Norton

“Someone had robbed her of her happiness, and now that they had found his body, she knew exactly who to blame.”

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Blurb: “The remote Irish village of Duneen has known little drama; and yet its inhabitants are troubled. Sergeant PJ Collins hasn’t always been this overweight; mother of­ two Brid Riordan hasn’t always been an alcoholic; and elegant Evelyn Ross hasn’t always felt that her life was a total waste. So when human remains are discovered on an old farm, suspected to be that of Tommy Burke – a former­ love of both Brid and Evelyn – the village’s dark past begins to unravel. As the frustrated PJ struggles to solve a genuine case for the first time in his life, he unearths a community’s worth of anger and resentments, secrets and regret.”

I am always unsure when I hear that a celebrity, not from a literature field, announces that they are writing a book; especially when it’s a piece of fiction. I guess it’s just the sceptical side of me thinking that the person in question is more likely to succeed because they have a ready-made audience there. But that could be said of any kind of art.

Holding is set in the remote village of Duneen in Ireland where not much exciting happens. When a body is dug up by builders at an old farm, the residents come to life with questions of who it might be and who did it. Old memories are brought to the surface and tensions start to rise.

As to be expected this is a slow read at times but that reflects the setting; living in a small village myself I know just how uneventful things can be. The sluggish pace does leave room for Norton to sprinkle back story over the pages and help build up a better picture of the residents from policeman PJ Collins to Brid and Evelyn who have quite a bitter history together. The narrative doesn’t stick solely to one character like I originally thought it might which works really well in giving the reader a movie-montage style view of the lives of these people. While the discovered body is the crux of the snowballing plot, the story is about much more than that. It shows the power of secrets and just what happens if we keep them for too long, as well as if we let them slip free.

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