‘The Deathless Girls’ – Kiran Millwood Hargrave

Gothic, intoxicating, feminist, darkly provoking and deeply romantic – this is the breathtakingly imagined untold story of the brides of Dracula, by bestselling author Kiran Millwood Hargrave in her much-anticipated YA debut.

With a tag-line and cover like that, who could resist?

The myth of Dracula is fascinating, and to go beyond the main character is particularly interesting. In this story, Hargrave focuses on what happened to perpetuate the story of Dracula – the women behind the man, in a manner of speaking.

We begin our story with twins, Lil and Kizzy, seeing their home burned and their family slaughtered. The girls and children of the village are taken as part of a retinue to be sold to the various Counts who rule the land. As twins, Kizzy and Lil are in high demand.

We follow them as they’re taken to the castle,their new home, and put to training. The life is brutal, but even within these walls there are hints of potential happiness.

Sadly this is destroyed when Lil is betrayed. Kizzy is then taken and Lil begins a perilous journey to rescue her sister.

As she journeys across the country to the land ruled by the man known as the Dragon, Lil starts to understand some of the rumours circulating about him. She learns he is able to turn people into Strigoi, and that his skills go far beyond anything they are familiar with.

Much as she wants to rescue her sister, Lil doesn’t bank on how someone used to being manipulated might find the lure of power too promising to give up. And so we learn of the origins of the Brides of Dracula. Hargrave gives a very human face to characters that are always portrayed as inhuman.

A huge thank you to NetGalley for providing me with an advance copy in exchange for my thoughts.

‘The Chain’ – Adrian McKinty

Well, that was a rollercoaster read.

We begin with Kylie on her way to school. She’s kidnapped at gunpoint, and chained in a basement. Horrific stuff, but even worse when we learn that her kidnappers are doing this because it is part of the condition of getting their own kidnapped son released.

The family have become part of The Chain, a terrifying concept that threatens your very existence unless you follow the rules.

Kylie’s mum is desperate to get her daughter back. She gathers the ransom then plans to carry out her own kidnap. The key rule is that she must not involve the police and must do as she is told.

I recall chain letters being a thing (a bit like those ‘share this post’ stuff) when I was younger, and the advice you were given was to ignore them because the senders couldn’t do anything. While you know this behaviour is morally unacceptable, how far would you be prepared to go to protect your children?

Horrific subject though it is, this was a story that really had you from the off.

The only thing that marred it for me was the shift to the viewpoint of the perpetrators. It seemed to move the focus of the book in a way that lost my interest a little, and I still find it hard to believe that someone who’d set this up for so long – and clearly been very successful – would make such careless errors.
Still, I can see why this is being touted as a thriller to read.

‘Top Marks for Murder’ – Robin Stevens

A welcome return to Deepdean. A murder witnessed from afar becomes the focal point for the Detective Agency this time around, but they are up against it as nothing is quite what it seems.

Daisy and Hazel are changing (as you’d expect) and the setting echoes the sense of growing turmoil. They have a rather predictable response to returning to school and finding things have changed a little in their absence, but quickly things settle into their usual routine.

Their friend witnesses a murder so the girls decide to investigate. Nobody is found, so as parents descend on Deepdean for the anniversary celebrations the girls decide to monitor things carefully. It’s not long before they have witnessed an actual murder, so the race is on to learn exactly who is behind this crime.

We have the usual red herrings and a bit of sidetracking with other events. All too soon, though, the girls piece things together and end up solving the crime.
The usual great fun, and it’s lovely to see the characters growing and developing. I love this series!

‘Swipe Right for Murder’ – Derek Milman

Aidan, our main character, is a bit of a pampered young man. He’s friends with some wealthy people, and this explains why we find him at the start of the book in an exclusive hotel. At this point I didn’t find myself that keen on him – he was very focused on the impression he gives and too bothered about himself to really take note of those around him.

Finding himself alone in this lovely hotel in New York City, Aidan gets himself logged onto a dating app and tries to find himself a no-strings hook-up for the evening. Effort one is someone he knows from school, and things don’t go well. Rather than lock himself away, Aidan tries again.

Second time round he’s met by a rather older man called Benoit who keeps asking him about an item he’s meant to deliver. Aidan (naturally) has no idea what he’s talking about. When he wakes up and finds his one-night stand dead beside him Aidan realises he’s got himself into something very very dangerous.
What follows is high-adrenaline action-packed stuff, the likes of which I love reading about but if there was the slightest hint of it happening in real life I’d curl under the nearest table before running away.

Aidan manages to drag himself through a range of incredibly bizarre scenarios. He’s being used by the FBI to bait a highly-organised terrorist organisation and his picture is plastered all over the news. Given the profile of this group/scenario what happens seems quite unbelievable, but it doesn’t stop it being good fun to read.

‘All Eyes on Us’ – Kit Frick

All Eyes On Us focuses on two girls – Amanda and Rosalie – who seem very different, but who have a lot more in common than they realise…Carter Shaw, son of a local businessman.

Amanda is part of his social circle and their families have been pushing for them to be a couple since they were little. Amanda’s life is mapped out for her. College with Carter, a long engagement and then children, turning a blind eye to Carter’s indiscretions because that’s what’s expected of her. For years, she’s gone along with this but when Amanda starts to receive anonymous text messages she begins to question the wisdom of her life choices.

Amanda knows Carter has not always been faithful to her. She knows he is currently seeing Rosalie on the side. But what neither she nor Carter knows is that Rosalie is actually using Carter as a cover for the fact that she is a lesbian and her fundamentalist Christian parents can’t accept her choices. Forced to hide who she is, Rosalie decides to use Carter as her cover, while seeing her girlfriend in secret.

The messages that both girls receive are meant to be vaguely threatening, but there’s a limit to what people can do if you don’t succumb to their threats. Unfortunately, in the vein of the Pretty Little Liars characters, the girls in this respond to the messages and threats and start to let them rule what decisions they make. This is frustrating and leads them into quite unrealistic scenarios.

The book is a bit slow to get going as we establish the characters of Amanda and Rosalie. There’s a lot of focus on the parents of Amanda and Carter which makes little sense at first, but we do realise its significance eventually. My biggest gripe was with the character of Carter who was, in essence, a serial cheater and not a particularly appealing character.

Thanks to NetGalley for the advance copy in exchange for my thoughts. This is a definite must-read for fans of the Pretty Little Liars books.

‘Fated’ – Teri Terry

In this chilling prequel to the Slated trilogy, we are shown an all-too-believable scenario.

Sam Gregory is the daughter of the Deputy Prime Minister. She loves her father but can’t help but feel some concern at his increasingly hard-line political standpoint. Without really knowing the details we watch as Sam’s world is plunged into chaos.

People protest at the changes made. Increasing violence and a climate of fear leads to increasingly draconian measures taken to preserve law and order. It is – scarily – not too far off some of the things happening around us now. Naturally the measures taken to control people may seem unlikely, but it is feasible, and that makes it all the more scary.

Sam is a rather blank character initially, but she does develop over the course of the story. Her friendship with Ava is an interesting side-story and I was absorbed in the details given about the changes to daily life and how people tried to challenge these.

‘Take it Back’ – Kia Abdullah

Take It Back is a gripping courtroom drama, perfect for fans of Apple Tree Yard, He Said/She Said and Anatomy of a Scandal.

A compelling read, and I’m grateful to NetGalley for allowing me the chance to read this prior to publication.

When we first meet Jodie Wolfe, she’s walking into a Rape Crisis centre asking for help. At sixteen, and with extreme facial deformities, Jodie has become accustomed to abuse. As she relays her experience, the reader cannot help but feel sympathy for her. Her physical appearance is not the issue here, but when she starts to blame herself for what happened because she thought someone was physically interested in her you can’t help but wince.

The details of her attack by four of her classmates are – understandably – difficult to read. The courage someone in her position shows cannot be underestimated.
The way this story is told focuses most of our attention on ex-barrister, Zara, who is determined to support this young girl because she believes her. We follow Zara as she supports Jodie in preparing to go to trial, and the inevitable fallout this causes as the boys Jodie accuses are ‘good Muslim boys’, well-respected in their community, and Zara’s involvement is quickly seen as evidence of her turning against her faith.

The nature of the case means so much depends on the reliability of witnesses. Four against one. No matter how strong the case seems to be, these are hard odds to beat.

Our narrative swiftly turns to the trial and the various attempts to undermine credibility of witnesses. We also deal with growing unrest in the community, and some awful behaviours as so many people try to appropriate events to suit their own ends.

It’s crucial that you go into this not knowing where this is going. Nothing is what it seems. We get to learn the truth, but talk about a Pyrrhic victory. Few come out of this story well, but it’s a must-read in my opinion.

‘The Nickel Boys’ – Colson Whitehead

There’s no doubting that this is a story some would prefer not told, and though it’s a story that won’t take long to read it is one that will remain with you for a long time.
Our story is about Elwood, a young black boy who grows up conscious of his differences but determined to try to hang onto the things that he has in common with others. From an early age, Elwood showed a fierce determination to better himself and to do the right thing. His desire to learn finds him accepting a lift from someone, and because it’s a stolen car Elwood is sent to the Nickel Centre.
It’s meant to be a juvenile facility but the boys are segregated and, from early on, we see that beatings and abuse are prevalent. Nobody challenges this established order, and it becomes ever harder for Elwood to maintain belief in the words of Dr King.
When he is hospitalised after his first beating (so severe he passes out and is unsure how many times he was hit), Elwood is befriended by Turner. They develop as close a friendship as possible in such an environment, and Turner goes against everything he believes in when Elwood is threatened with being taken ‘out back’.
The two boys run.
What happens next is hard to believe, but this is a story that has to be heard. How such behaviour could be condoned for so long is appalling, and I can understand why Whitehead felt this story needed to be told.

‘Infinity Son’ – Adam Silver

Silvera’s evident love of the fantasy genre is laid out for us in his intro, and is splashed all over the pages of this foray into the genre.
The story itself has some interesting elements. Definitely loving the phoenixes and the details linked to the idea of rebirth. There’s hints of some intriguing developments between the characters of Emil and Mirabelle, and Brighton’s story looks as if it’ll pick up and get a whole lot more interesting in the future. This was a quick read but it was not, unfortunately for me, the hit I was expecting and there’s a few reasons for this.
The main reason I found this not wholly successful was the lack of time taken to establish the world in which it was set. We were plunged straight in, and little was explained in a way that would have made sense to me. Some of the answers were given later, but there was a lot assumed about the world of the narrative and I really wanted more detail so I could understand how this situation had come about.
The next difficulty I had was with the characterisation. It took a while to feel any sense of difference between the characters of Emil and Brighton, and simply hammering the point home that one is obsessed by social media isn’t enough to do this. To suddenly find myself with another viewpoint – which wasn’t really set-up – also made it wobble slightly as I tried to keep track of who was doing what (though this may say more about me).
For some readers, the love interest that develops partway through will definitely get them excited. The feelings Emil has for Ness are hard to ignore, but they are really superficial (guess we have to start somewhere). The initial scene where their feelings were apparent felt like some kind of wish-fulfilment exercise, and Silvera’s comments about his reaction to Cassandra Clare’s series does explain this a little. It seemed they might be able to get into a more nuanced relationship but the events in the narrative make this difficult. No matter how he dresses it up (and perhaps his explanations will make people swoon over his resolve to hurt the one he loves to prevent someone else doing worse) I can’t quite get my head around the way Ness treats Emil. When you look at it in a more detached way it seems horribly abusive and not the basis for a good relationship. Granted, it’s early stages so perhaps this will develop in a slightly different way.
So, all in all, this was a story where someone got to revel in their love for a genre but I can’t help but feel things would be better if the style was a little less exaggerated, world-building was established and we weren’t in some whirlwind attempt to cram excitement onto every page to guarantee people reading on. Sometimes, less is more.
Due for release in early 2020, so it’ll be interesting to see how/if it changes by then. However, I’m really grateful to NetGalley for letting me read this so early in exchange for my honest thoughts.

‘Three Things About Elsie’ – Joanne Cannon

The three things we need to learn about Elsie aren’t explained fully, but we know she’s important to Florence.

Initially I wasn’t sure what was happening with this. An old woman called Florence appeared to be lying on the floor, waiting for someone to discover her. It wasn’t clear what had happened to her, or why nobody had found her. Returning to her during the story we realise she is lying on the floor throughout the five or so hours it takes to cover the narrative.

Alongside the real-time events, we get flashbacks and recounts of the key moments of Florence’s past and slowly come to realise the significance of Elsie.
The story itself focuses on someone unburdening themselves of a secret they’ve held close for years. Unfortunately this secret is also misguided, and we learn events didn’t quite happen as thought. The secret is linked to the presence of a man called Gabriel Price,who bears an uncanny resemblance to a man called Ronnie Butler who Florence knew years ago.

Interspersed with the secret and the details of Florence are a number of characters working in the home that Florence is in. From quite early on, we get signs that Florence is living with dementia, but the significance of this doesn’t really become known until later.

While I preferred Joanne Cannon’s first novel, this was an interesting read and one which certainly made me take a moment to think about how we treat those amongst us who are most in need of help.