‘The Reunion’ – Guillaume Musso

25 years after leaving, our narrator – a celebrated writer – is called back to his school for a reunion. This could be an invite to ignore, but for the fact that Thomas knows this event could change his life because of something that happened years earlier.

The story is told in a rather chaotic fashion, jumping from time and narrative focus, but this actually allows us to pick up (albeit unwittingly) all manner of details to help piece together what may or may not have happened.

At its heart this is a story of flawed characters doing pretty awful things and trying to do just enough to survive. Not all of them do.

Without giving too much away, the narrative focuses on the beautiful Vinca, the girl Thomas adored at school. She disappeared one night and rumours have circulated since. Many believe Vinca ran away with one of her professors, but certain characters know this not to be the case because of their actions on that night.

Thomas spends the novel with the ground shifting underneath him as he expects to be charged with murder at any moment. What we come to realise is there’s bigger game-players than Thomas who, from the off, have been firmly in charge of proceedings and taking whatever steps are necessary to protect their children.

I ended this still not entirely sure of what happened on that night (and the vagueness is deliberate), but recognising the strength of some of those caught up in circumstances beyond their control.

‘Fragments of the Lost’ – Megan Miranda

Jessa is given the unenviable task of sorting through her boyfriend’s room when he dies. His mum doesn’t know that Caleb and Jessa were no longer an item, but when Jessa is asked to do this final thing, she feels she has to help out. Even though she feels Caleb’s mum holds her responsible.

Jessa was one of the last to see Caleb alive. He turned up to her cross-country meet then left. Rumours circulate as to why, but nobody could have predicted that Caleb would be caught in the floods that swept their town that night and that his car would be swept off the local bridge.

Jessa is everywhere in this room, and it is certainly not the kind of experience you’d wish on anyone. However, as Jessa packs up Caleb’s belongings there are clues that perhaps she didn’t know him as well as she thought.

In the opening stages of the novel it seems to focus very much on the relationship and grief element, which had limited appeal. However, very quickly we move into Jessa trying to uncover the mystery of Caleb’s last days and putting together the clues she’s been left as to exactly what happened. This soon became a tense mystery, and slowly trying to put the pieces together was great fun. Jessa was believable and though I was surprised by the ending it really was a great read.

‘All The Things We Never Said’ – Yasmin Rahman

All The Things We Never Said is a book that aims high in terms of topics being explored. Abuse, depression, anxiety, self-harm, suicide, on-line bullying…all feature in some way, and at times I couldn’t help but feel anyone trying to deal with all these things would find life tough. For these reasons, this will be a book that some won’t like.

The story focuses on three characters – Mehreen, Olivia and Cara – who are paired together by an online suicide pact. They meet and are set a series of tasks to complete to help each other in their bid to end their lives. The unknown organisers of this site become increasingly manipulative and start to show their sadistic and damaging tendencies.

The concept behind the site and the way this panned out didn’t quite ring true. I can’t help but feel that if the police were aware of the existence of such a group that such vulnerable people would not be left to their own devices as they are here.

That gripe aside, the book was interesting for not shying away from some difficult topics. The friendship that developed between the three girls was well-depicted and it showed the importance of talking to those around you.

Thanks to NetGalley for providing me with access to this prior to publication.

‘The Whisper Man’ – Alex North

An accomplished debut that had me completely caught up in the events described.

A small child with an imaginary friend who begins to talk about the boy under the floor. An unknown man believing he’s doing the right thing by the children he’s taking. A police officer intent on making up for what they see as the mistakes of the past. A terrifying set of circumstances that draw a group of people together. This book had so many elements that combined to form a compelling read.

In the small town of Featherbank everyone has heard the rumours of The Whisper Man. All small children know not to leave their doors open, and stories of children hearing whispers outside their windows are common. Yet the man behind these rumours was caught and imprisoned, having admitted to the murders of five children.

When we learn that widowed Tom Kennedy has decided to move to Featherbank with his son, Jake, it’s pretty obvious that things are not going to be quite what he’d hoped. And opening with the description of a young child being abducted sets us up for the idea that, perhaps, The Whisper Man had an accomplice. The moment when Jake starts to talk about hearing voices there was an awful sense of inevitability to this story.

Thankfully, the details of the crimes against the children were not recounted in graphic detail. However, there was a fair amount of graphic violence, and the psychological focus was intense.

Early on in the story I had my doubts as to well this mood could be sustained. I needn’t have been. Throughout I was double-checking details and trying to test theories.

A huge thank you to NetGalley for allowing me to read this prior to publication, and it’s already been recommended to a number of friends.

‘The New Boy’ – Paula Rawsthorne

The cover gives us some clues as to what’s going on, but I had a niggling feeling throughout that something wasn’t quite right. Once the pieces slotted into place, it was rather worrying.

Preying on our concerns makes for scary stories, and this certainly had the potential to do just that.

When our main character starts college she is excited to be with her closest friends. On the very first day they notice the new boy, Jack Cartwright. Model looks, impeccable behaviour, interested in a range of activities…he sounds too good to be true. Having started the book with Jack and our narrator on top of a tower block we know that, yes, he is not quite what he seems. The question is, just what is going on?

Against her first thoughts, Zoe ends up in a relationship with Jack. He’s full-on, and I wondered if he was going to turn out to be an emotional abuser. The truth is far stranger. Nobody escapes the fall-out from this relationship.

There were, for me, some pacing issues and I can’t quite bring myself to totally believe the premise. That aside, an interesting read.

‘Wilder Girls’ – Rory Power

Raxter Island – deserted – and on it a boarding school for girls, with a small number of students. These students have, effectively, been cut off from the outside world after exposure to a virus.

We focus primarily on three girls: Hetty, Byatt and Reese. Like the other girls their exposure to the Tox has created some bizarre occurrences. Yet they’re surviving.

Without really knowing what happened, it was hard to get a handle on this scenario. I spent a large chunk of the book feeling as if I was blindly following someone down a dark alley. Aside from being discomfited as I read, I found the developing situation a compelling one.

I was desperate to know what was happening, while also having a very clear feeling that I wouldn’t like the truth.

There’s a grim darkness to this that might have been handled differently. While I enjoyed it, I always felt there was background info left out and that there were details I was keen to know that were glossed over.

‘The Boy and Girl Who Broke the World’ – Amy Reed

Billy Stoat and Lydia Lemon don’t have much in common. Yet when their schools combine, they find themselves becoming friends.

Both socially inept, the teenagers have family backgrounds that make you want to cry. Yet the two keep a sense of humour, and actually come across very positively.

The story as such is not that exciting. Billy’s uncle (a famous singer) has a breakdown and returns to his home town. He hides away from everyone, relying on Billy to keep him fed. Then the town is hit by a tsunami.

It’s rather rambling, and could have been made more succinct but the appeal of this story was the two key characters, their developing relationship and their growing self-belief.

Thanks to NetGalley for granting me access to this prior to publication.

‘Heartstream’ – Tom Pollock

I should have expected the bleakness after my previous encounter with a Tom Pollock novel, but this was a book to be recommended with caution.

We have what seems to be a fairly standard split narrative. We assume they’ll link in some way, but exactly how isn’t revealed until a lot later…and it really did turn some of my thoughts completely over. The less said about it the better, but my goodness did the revelation fill me with despair.

One of our narrators is Amy. She uses a seemingly innocuous app called Heartstream to try to make sense of her emotions, and to manage her feelings after the death of her mother. We first meet Amy on the day of the funeral, when she returns home to find a strange woman in her kitchen who threatens to blow her up. Why, we assume we’re about to learn.

Then there’s Cat. Sixteen, and one of a group of super-fans who follow their favourite boy band around, using social media to manipulate those around them. While she loves this part of her life, she has a secret. She also happens to be the girlfriend of the lead singer of the band. Naturally, it’s known to no- one. Naturally, it brings her great joy. Naturally (I hate how cynical this made me feel) it doesn’t work out as she’d hoped. In fact, it goes way beyond the worst things you could imagine.

As we slowly establish the story of each character and learn a little more about them, we are drip-fed hints of the link between their stories.

I was enjoying this immensely, reluctantly putting it down to go to work, but then the rug was pulled from under me and I was left with a sense of utter horror.

Bleak doesn’t begin to cover this, but it was a fascinating exploration of obsession and the role the media/internet can play in our lives.

This would have been a hands-down five star read, apart from the fact I felt those characters needed something hinting at a resolution…and there was one character who I was desperate to find out more about, but never got the insight I craved.

‘Flowers for Algernon’ – Daniel Keyes

There’s a horrible inevitability to this, that even though I knew it was coming left me with a sinking feeling.

Flowers for Algernon is the story of Charlie Gordon, a man with profound learning difficulties, and an IQ of 70. He becomes part of an unusual experiment into intellect, and ends up with a genius IQ. We follow him through the experiment and after, as the significance of this event becomes clear.

Initially Charlie can’t read or write particularly well. He is given a job by an old family friend and seems content in his experience. The information he recounts in his reports makes it painfully clear that he is bullied and humiliated on a daily basis. Yet he is unaware of it.

After the experiment, nothing seems to change. Then it does. Suddenly he can read in numerous languages and understand concepts way beyond the level of those he previously looked up to. With this astonishing intellectual development comes the growing self-awareness of how he was viewed by others, and how his family abandoned him.

There’s no easy answers in this novel, but as an exploration of psyche and social interactions it was fascinating.

I’m surprised such an experiment could have been undertaken on a human, and that those around Charlie didn’t try harder to help him adjust mentally/emotionally to his world.

As he grows aware of the temporary nature of this change, it became painful to watch him change and regress to his previous state. This time round he knew what it would mean, and his inability to change things was difficult to read.
I’m quite surprised this is a staple in American schools, but I’d be interested to see what students thought of it.

‘The Girl Who Came Out of the Woods’ – Emily Barr

This story by Emily Barr is definitely one to go into without really knowing too much.

Initially I found the split in narrative quite disconcerting. We focus on sixteen year old Arty who is forced out of her commune when illness affects many of the group. She is thrown into a world of which she has no experience and her story as she navigates what so many of us take for granted was interesting. Alongside this is a curious story told from the perspective of someone locked in a basement.

As the story progressed I confess to getting quite carried away trying to plot how the two would be linked. It did become evident where it was heading, but not before I’d imagined things far worse than we were faced with.

I enjoyed the story, though the reaction of characters to Arty’s innocence did, on occasion, make me frustrated. That irritation aside, this was quite enchanting while not being afraid to touch on some rather unpleasant things.

Thanks to NetGalley for giving me the opportunity to read it in exchange for my honest review.