‘The Wren Hunt’ – Mary Watson

The hunt for the wren is a traditional Irish event, taking place in late December, which is thought to symbolise the sacrifice of the old year in readiness to welcome in the new.

In this novel, an assured debut, we focus on the fight for survival of two ancient groups – augurs and judges – and the young girl born of both groups who is to decide their fate.

Initially, I have to say this was a puzzling start. I was not sure who Wren was, how she was connected to events or even what kind of book this was. However, the writing style totally drew me in and I felt that we learned of some of the key events through the eyes of our main character which allowed us to truly empathise with her.

The story drew heavily on folklore and the fantasy elements of this entranced me. The development of our main character will surely be enough to captivate most people and I was more than a little surprised by the themes and ideas that ran through this.

Though I have read that there is a second book due – and it should provide us with a satisfying link to what we see here – this is one of those rare books that you would not feel hard-done by if it remained a stand-alone. It’s also a story that I think would be one I could read again and still delight in.

A huge thank you to the publishers Bloomsbury, the author Mary Watson and a NetGalley for allowing me the chance to read this prior to publication.

‘Stillhouse Lake’ series – Rachel Caine

Book one is an exhilarating read.

But for an unfortunate accident, Gina/Gwen (our narrator) would have remained oblivious to the actions of her husband. Giving him space to potter in his workshop takes on a whole new level of yuck here! When he’s sentenced for multiple murders many believe she knew…we’re never in any doubt of her innocence, but it was certainly interesting to see this from the other side.

Four years later, having spent the time running to keep her kids safe from those who still believe she knew, our narrator has changed her name and Gwen is finally feeling settled. She starts to put down roots at Stillhouse Lake, but someone knows more than they’re letting on.

When another body is discovered at the lake, Gwen is a prime suspect. It soon becomes a dangerous game of cat and mouse. Someone is watching her. There’s more than one or two who have an interest in the family, and we’re constantly second-guessing who she can trust/who’s betrayed her.

While I had suspicions about certain characters (and did think her feelings of guilt were overdone on occasion) this was a gripping read.

After Stillhouse Lake, with all its revelations, it is no surprise that book two picks up with a dramatic event and keeps ramping up the excitement.

With her ex on the run, Gwen is now desperate to find him. She is adamant that no harm will come to her kids. But how can you ensure that when some of the seeds have been sown long ago?
In book two we focus on the attempts of Sam and Gwen to try to get Mel before he comes for his family. Unfortunately we are quickly alerted to the fact that he is but a small part in a much darker picture.

Though there were some pretty sinister details I could not get through this fast enough. I enjoyed gaining more of an insight into the minds of Gwen’s kids and though you guessed things would not go quite as key characters hoped, there was enough misdirection to stop it being too obvious.

Much as I want to get onto book three as soon as I can, part of me wishes that Gwen could just have a quiet life now and be given the opportunity to heal. Where on earth can things go from this point?

‘The Nowhere Girls’ – Amy Reed

At a time when we can easily see some of the awful comments attributed to one of the most powerful men in the United States revealing his derogatory attitude to women and when the #MeToo campaign is sharing more and more disturbing stories of how women are treated, there’s no doubt in my mind that this is one of those books that everyone should be encouraged to engage with.

The Nowhere Girls. A group of young women, from all spheres of life, who come together to try to combat the toxic culture in their hometown.

New girl Grace is unsure how to fit in. As the only child of devout Christians their life has been in upheaval as their old church community was resistant to having Grace’s mum as a pastor. She wants to stand for something, but is so unsure of herself at the start of the novel. Grace finds herself making a rather unusual choice of friends at her new school, and when she learns that the girl who used to live in her home was forced to leave school after accusing three star footballers of rape she is determined to make a stand.

Along with Grace we are told the story from the points of view of Rosina and Erin. Each have their own concerns that impact on their lives, but their voices were pretty authentic. I was particularly fond of Erin who was a character you couldn’t help but root for.

As the Nowhere Girls movement gathers force we see the impact it has on some of the key players in perpetuating this slut-shaming culture. Small steps initially, but there is a hint of light at the end of the tunnel.

There’s no doubt in my mind that this relatively happy ending would not happen in real-life. I was repulsed by some of the characters (intentionally I think) and really irritated by the complacent and, at times, combative attitudes of those who have the power to tackle such institutional sexism.

With explicit scenes featuring sexual violence this will not be an easy read, but it’s a sadly necessary one. My biggest gripe with this was the relentlessly happy ending that, for me, belies the battle that many in such a situation will face. However, that doesn’t detract from the need for novels such as this to encourage young men and women to consider how they can truly make a difference.

‘Brightly Burning’ – Alexa Donne

The gravity stabilizers were failing again. I glanced up from my sketchpad to see globules of liquid dancing up from my drinking glass. They shimmered red, like droplets of blood, though I knew it was just cherry-flavored nutri-drink. Dammit, that’s my protein ration for the day wasted.

A sigh escaped me, and resignedly I stowed my drawing tablet and stylus in the drawer under my mattress. They would be calling me any minute.

A moment later, right on time: “Stella Ainsley, please report to Area Twelve.” The speaker crackled and popped, as it had done for years. I’d tried to fix it, but on a ship as old as the Stalwart, there was only so much you could do.

With this extract from the opening chapter of Donne’s debut, due for publication in May 2018, we can see this is no ordinary retelling of Jane Eyre.

From the moment I saw this on NetGalley I have to say I was curious about how it would work. There’s a few differences in order to fit the futuristic space setting, but it’s quite faithful to the original text.

Seventeen year old Stella is determined to not end up an engineer the rest of her life. With her space home looking close to the end, her choices are limited. When she gets a post as governess on board the much better-equipped Rochester we know exactly where this is going.

Many of the expected events are there. It was good fun to spot the links (while not being too precious about the adaptations made to fit the new setting) and I could see this appealing to teens with no sense of the source material, as well as being a bit of fun for those who know what’s coming.

Thanks to NetGalley for giving me the chance to read this prior to publication.

‘Piecing Me Together’ – Renée Watson

Thank you to NetGalley for the opportunity to read this.

In the sense that it explored race/identity it reminded me of The Hate U Give, but this focused also on our narrator, Jade, learning about who she was and how to feel comfortable in her skin.

A scholarship to a predominantly white school leads to our narrator feeling stuck in the middle. Too black for school; too white for home. When she’s signed up to participate in a mentoring program she starts a pretty tough process learning about what’s important to her.

Lots of questions raised about identity and the role race plays in our lives, and it was done in such a way that I think is pretty relatable on some level.

‘The List’ – Patricia Forde

I’m finding it increasingly hard to not be too dismissive of books marketed as middle-grade simply because I’m so far away from the target age of the intended readership. Sometimes, a story comes along that just carries you away regardless of age and though this wasn’t quite there it was a story that I can see appealing to many readers.

John Noa (obvious parallels) is not a man we know much about until later on in the story. However we are told that he is the founder of the new community, Ark, and that he has made many changes to this new society to help them adjust to this future world. He’s no genial gentleman though – his actions throughout the story hint at a steely determination and a willingness to do anything he deems necessary to carry his plans to fruition.

The focus on words is what drew me, and it’s an obvious link to want to feel for the main character Letta whose job is to record the few words prescribed as permissible to use under List. Far too young to be placed in the position she is, her refusal to turn her back on an injured boy leads to some dangerous meetings that have her questioning everything she’s been led to believe.

Throughout, there were many echoes of other well-known stories but I don’t think this is a problem per se. My main issue with the plot was that it was quite predictable and that we never seemed to get a fully-developed sense of the world/people in it.

‘The Hazel Wood’ – Mimi Albert

‘Alice in Wonderland’ for contemporary readers seems to be the consensus of some early reviewers. Like Stephanie Garber’s ‘Caraval’ this is a novel that looks like it will inspire extreme responses. With a lyrical prose style, some dark content and a sustained use of the absurd, this book will either appeal completely and be devoured in one sitting, or you’ll admire parts of it but be left generally non-plussed.

I was completely smitten!

Alice has never met her grandmother, a reclusive writer, but her short book of fairy tales is a literary phenomenon. The stories surrounding the writer and her mysterious Hazel Wood estate hint at strange events. The only things Alice knows for certain is that her mother, Ella, is determined she will never go there and that she has spent her life moving from place to place hiding from the strange things that follow them.

One day Ella goes missing. Alice becomes convinced that the odd characters she sees have something to do with it. Mysterious letters arrive for Alice, but nobody can help her. With the aid of super-fan, Finch, Alice resolves to make her way to Hazel Wood and learn for herself the truth about the Hinterland.

Nothing could prepare her – or us – for what she learns.

Having been declined for an ARC from the American publishers of this book I thought I was stuck waiting for my copy to come in February. Then Penguin UK came to my rescue…I can’t wait to read it again, which I think is the surest sign of a book finding its mark.

‘The Chalk Man’ – C.J. Tudor

For me, this was an assured debut that I devoured but did not want to end.
Our narrator, Eddie, is in his early-40s and he lives in his childhood home, teaching in his old high school. One day he receives a drawing of a stick man in the post and it sparks memories of a childhood game he and his friends used to play.

Told in two different time-frames, this really is a compelling read. We jump from the present (2016) to thirty years earlier when Eddie and his friends are on the cusp of adolescence. It’s a very different time, and one which will only be familiar to some readers from Stephen King’s ‘The Body’ and the Netflix show ‘Stranger Things’. Eddie’s group of friends share a lot, but they all have their secrets.

The key secret that the novel focuses on is the murder and dismemberment of a teenage girl in 1986. The group are involved as they find the body having been led there by chalk drawings. We’re never certain if they know more than that, and what quickly becomes apparent is that in this town there’s a lot of people with things they’d rather others didn’t know.

I particularly liked the way the shifting perspective meant we could never be certain what revelations were relevant and how, and the nod to King is evident in so many ways (not least with the teacher being called Halloran). The style of writing was one I found hard to put down. It was very easy to picture this as a film, and seeing the viewpoint of both child and adult narrator added a complexity to this that I found hard to resist.

All in all, a wonderful read for the start of the new year and one I’d highly recommend.

‘The Innocent Wife’ – Amy Lloyd

Our main character, Sam, hints at a lonely life. She strongly suggests there are mental health issues and she does seem quite vulnerable initially, which perhaps explains how she ends up obsessed with the case of Dennis Danson.

When she first starts writing to Dennis on Death Row she is convinced of his innocence. She is part of a large community of people convinced Dennis did not kill the girl he was accused of murdering. With the appearance of a true-crime documentary focusing on his case more and more people are convinced of his innocence. Like so many of his supporters, Sam is determined justice be done and he should be released. Unlike them, she starts visiting him and ends up marrying him.

Putting aside some of the issues I have with this idea anyway, it troubled me that everyone was so keen to get Dennis released. Anyone who opposed this view was portrayed in a rather caricatured manner; their behaviour or appearance being physically repellent to reinforce how they did not agree with Sam’s view.

Once they are married things moved quite quickly. We suddenly have evidence that exonerates Dennis of all charges and he is released. Immediately I felt there were very unsubtle hints that all was not as it seemed, and we were on high alert to see just how wrong we were going to be proven.

The actual ‘truth’ does come out, but I really wasn’t wholly convinced by the way in which events panned out or the behaviour of some key characters.
All the way through I was waiting for the twist, but it really didn’t come. The big revelation was signalled pretty clearly and it lost impetus towards the end.

Thanks to the publishers and NetGalley for allowing me to read this in exchange for my honest thoughts.

‘The Bear and the Nightingale’ – Katherine Arden

Something a little different here. Thank you NetGalley for granting me access to this; it was the kind of book I might not have picked up otherwise, but that would have been a real shame.

Our story focuses on ‘wild girl’ Vasya – basically, a girl who is not conventionally pretty and who does not fulfil the expectations her society has of her. There’s a strong sense that her mother might have had some witch-blood and this is enough to mark her as different.

This is not a grip-you-from-the-start read; a slow-burner, it takes time to immerse ourselves in the world and come to understand how these people live/what is important to them. We have a blending of new religion and old beliefs, and this causes a dangerous scenario.

When Vasya’s father brings home a new wife from Moscow she is determined to make her mark. She forbids the family to continue their traditions of feeding the spirits that protect their homes, and determines to have Vasya placed in a convent. As the village weakens, the new priest plays a key role in what transpires. The question is whether Vasya will have the strength to play her own part in this story…

I admit that even having finished the book I am not totally certain who the two brothers are and why they have chosen Vasya as the object of their affection, but this was a compelling read. The world-building was elaborate and there was a wonderful sense of fairy-tale to this.

I personally can’t wait to read part two when it is released.