‘The Institute’ – Stephen King

I’ve always had a mixed response to the Stephen King books I’ve read. The sense of horror and unease always creeps me out, and yet there’s usually a point in the book where things cross into implausible or are exaggerated to the degree that I find it irritating. There’s so much about his writing that sucks you in, but I always have a moment where something jars and it doesn’t quite seem to work. With The Institute this didn’t quite happen.

The concept to this immediately intrigued me, so I was rather surprised when the opening focused on Tim Jamieson and his decision to get off an overcrowded plane before ending up in the small town of Du Pray where he became a night knocker. It didn’t seem to make sense, so I was immediately intrigued to see how this element would be incorporated.

Our main character is Luke, an exceptionally talented kid who, at twelve, is being touted to attend two colleges. Unfortunately, before this can happen Luke’s parents are killed, he is drugged and taken across country to The Institute. What we then experience through Luke is an experiment of unimaginable horror.
Perhaps because this is told through Luke’s perspective, there’s a lot about The Institute that we don’t get told. There are hints of some of the things taking place, but even the small glimpses we did get were enough to have me scared. The group of teens/kids that are at this place though were all fascinating. The suggestion of what was being undertaken there was just plausible enough to have you wondering ‘what if’. It also raised some very interesting questions about the extent to which the mind could be manipulated.

While I can’t help but feel the whole thing was quite unlikely, my heart was definitely rooting for Luke as he undertook his dangerous game. As things drew together, Tim’s role became clearer. As things drew to a close the action was ramped up, and yet it didn’t seem off-putting. The final hints of a much bigger picture suggest King is happy for us to fear establishment and question the extent to which we are controlled. It certainly wasn’t neatly packed-up but it was enough.


‘Lullaby’ – Leila Slimani

I’ve had Lullaby on my bookcase for ages, but never really felt I could face reading it because of the subject. After reading the opening, which is pretty graphic, describing the violent way in which the nanny has attacked her two young charges I felt vindicated in not having picked it up earlier. What on earth would possess someone paid to care for children to attack them?

Having opened in this way it was inevitable that time would then have to be spent plotting the lead to this event. We get to see Myriam and Paul adjusting to life as parents, and Myriam’s resentment of her husband which leads to the decision to find a nanny. I felt the attitude of these parents was quite disturbing. They wanted cheap childcare but felt a sense of superiority over the women they were interviewing.

When they meet Louise she’s given glowing referrals, immediately bonds with the children and – before we know it – she’s hired. There’s then a slow creeping sense of unease as we watch Louise insidiously work her way into the very heart of the family. She cleans, cooks, keeps the children entertained and seems a regular Mary Poppins.

Having seen how this turns out, we’re acutely conscious of any signs of a problem. Initially it seemed as if Louise might end up having an affair with Paul, but the reality was much more scary. The family need her, but not as much as Louise seems to need them. Her declining mental health was hinted at, but each character was exhibiting signs that they could cause a problem.

As I neared the end of the book I was struck by the ambiguity of the situation. There’s no evident resolution, and yet this felt more appropriate than tying things up neatly. I feel this will sit with me for some time.

‘Wayward Son’ – Rainbow Rowell

For fans of ‘Carry On’, this is long over-due.

Baz and Simon still don’t seem to have things sorted. Now they’re not needing to save the world, it’s a bit harder to work out your feelings.

One thing we know for certain is that Simon is depressed. So, his best friend decides a road trip through America will be the perfect thing.

As you’d expect, nothing quite goes to plan. We watch somewhat taken aback as one awful event after another befalls the group. From Micah dumping the girl who’s travelled to the US to see him, to being attacked by vampires, before taking on a group who are determined to change the way we see the world, you’re never quite sure what is going to be thrown at this group next. But it’s okay, because Baz can let his vampire self out, and Simon has wings!

This was a rather crazy scenario. It hinted at further potential for problems but had so many comic moments that I couldn’t help but laugh out loud.

‘The Poet X’ – Elizabeth Acevedo

Xiomara comes from a strict religious background. She feels a wedge between her and her parents, and this novel explores how that impacts on her life.
Like so many teenage girls she’s opinionated, and curious about the world around her. She is – we’re told – quick to use her fists to defend her twin brother, but sometimes you have to find another way.

From the outset it seemed clear there’d be a developing tension between Xiomara and her mother. She is desperate to find her voice and try to establish who she is. But who she thinks she is seems at odds with her parents’ hopes and expectations.

Yet one thing our narrator has is words. Used to pouring her thoughts out in her notebook, the way her mother treats this book could be seen as the ultimate betrayal. Yet it brought about a shift in thinking that offered some solace.

I liked the fact that there were characters around who offered some respite. Her best friend was so different, yet offered genuine love and support. The teacher who introduced her to slam poetry sparked something new. The priest – who seemed to represent everything she found so constricting- was actually the one who helped set things up to indicate a much more positive outcome.

‘The Places I’ve Cried in Public’ – Holly Bourne

Not due out until October, when Holly Bourne tweeted regarding a rather well-known book store selling these beautiful green-edged versions – and sending them immediately…THREE WEEKS BEFORE PUBLICATION – I succumbed and ordered. I’m glad I did, but this was a book that nearly broke my heart.

Our narrator, Amelie, is a shy young lady forced to leave her best friends and boyfriend to move from Sheffield to the South (and I honestly couldn’t tell you where). She is, understandably, anxious about starting anew at college but she seems to make some new friends. Though she’s extremely self-conscious about performing, Amelie loves music and ends up winning a talent show. It as at this point that she finds herself the subject of attention from Reese.

Her new friend’s response is forthright. Many people in their college view him negatively, but Amelie is smitten. All too soon, she’s part of a couple and then we see the damage that others can inflict.

Even though alarm bells are ringing from the off, Amelie ignores them. Where others see aggressive selfish behaviour, Amelie sees honest emotional declarations. Seeing things from Amelie’s perspective had me feeling so angered on her behalf, but it also meant I felt nothing but sympathy for the situation she finds herself in.

I really liked the fact that this story is told after the fall-out, and we get to learn – in pieces – some of the truths of their relationship. It meant that we felt part of Amelie’s healing process, while also gaining details that shed light on how such a vivacious young girl could become so broken.

This is not an easy book to read. The subject matter is tough, and yet it’s such an important book. Once again Holly Bourne takes a highly emotional topic and explores, with sensitivity, that issue. Unflinching in its message, this is another book that I want to force on teen readers and get them thinking carefully about their interactions and the effect their behaviour can have on others.

‘The Testaments’ – Margaret Atwood

Maybe I’m one of few people who haven’t watched the recent dramatisation of The Handmaid’s Tale past series one, but it meant I started reading this with no expectations of what may have happened in the years afterwards. I was intrigued to hear that Atwood had placed certain stipulations on those working on the series to ensure that what came in the book was feasible.

The story focuses on the gradual destruction of Gilead and what it represents. How such regimes are destroyed varies, but this time the threat is from within.
The book is told from three different perspectives and I found it really hard initially to tell who was who. Eventually their voices become quite distinct, but their stories merge and are intertwined.

I found the portrayal of Aunt Lydia quite hard to adjust to. This was not the woman seen previously and it made me curious to see how such a change of heart seemed to have come about. The details given suggest this was part of a long-game. It would be nice to think this was part of the initial idea, but it was very difficult to reconcile the two images.

Alongside this we have two younger voices, Agnes and Jade/Nicole. Each has a very different experience of life under this regime, yet both are needed to bring about its destruction. They are inextricably linked, but I found their shifting relationship rather difficult to find credible.

Perhaps some elements of the story were unfeasible. Certainly this book wasn’t perhaps strictly necessary. However, it offers an intriguing insight into some of the reactions to events described earlier.

‘Tunnel of Bones’ – Victoria Schwab

Having survived her trip into the veil last time, Cassidy’s parents are – understandably – concerned for her welfare. They urge her to take care, but this is Cassidy Blake so we know things aren’t going to remain settled.

This time round the family are visiting Paris for their show. Unfortunately, Cass disturbed the spirit of a young boy who starts to cause trouble for her. After her usual attempts to help the spirit move on fail, Cassidy realises she has to do more.

The quest to work out how to remove the poltergeist ensures Cassidy encounters some unexpected events and finds herself seeing a very different side to Paris.
We have the usual account of her parents’ show but I loved that we get to learn a little more about Jacob.

The story was well-paced and just the right side of scary. What I particularly enjoyed was the ending, with the mysterious figure causing a very unusual reaction in Cassidy which – I’m hoping – we’ll be told more about in book 3.

‘Maybe This Time’ – Kasie West

Nine events throughout the year. How much difference can a person make in that time? Is it enough to allow someone to fall in love? It’s a Kasie West romance, so you know it’s a pretty safe bet that the answer is yes.

One of our main characters in this is Sophie: a small-town girl with big dreams. Her hackles raise when she comes across Andrew, son of a celebrity chef signed up to help her best friend’s father turn his catering business around. They have quite an obvious attraction but wind each other up.

Throughout the year we spot their interactions at key moments in their town calendar. Sophie spends these occasions determined to avoid the inevitable, but also showing chinks in her defensive armour. Alongside watching her bumble through these at times humorous exchanges, we watch as Sophie has to learn a little about herself and her relationships with those around her.

This was a cute romance, which is rather obvious, but the interaction between the characters is amusingly relayed. Good cast of supporting characters and I liked the fact that not everything got resolved by the end.

‘Stepsister’ – Jennifer Donnolly

When I first started Stepsister I was hesitant, wondering quite where the story would go.

We begin with a well-known scenario, that of the prince trying to find the owner of the glass slipper. We watch a mother desperate to secure safety for her children force not just one but two of her daughters to mutilate themselves in an attempt to win the prince’s hand. Each time, their deception is uncovered. Yet in this story we see that the two sisters are unwilling partners in this deception. They succumb to their mother’s wishes because it’s what is expected of them. As in the fairytale, our forgotten put-upon stepsister gets her prince and leaves.
In this story, however, we remain with those left behind.

The characters of Tavi and Isabelle do not fit the conventional view of a woman. Tavi is obsessed with knowledge, and desires nothing more than to discover something. Isabelle has rather lost her way, knowing only that she wants something that society deems she cannot have. Bound by the expectations of others she subjugates her wishes in an attempt to do the right thing by her family.

I found myself amazed by the very sympathetic portrayal given to characters we’re encouraged to dislike. This feeling only grew as the story unravelled.
Though I was perplexed by this element initially, we have the characters of Fate and Chance playing their own game. Meddling with the lives of Isabelle and her family, each wants to leave their mark.

Without giving anything away, this was a story that showed us a girl full of character slowly learning to love herself and resolve to have confidence in her own desires. Dressed up as a fairytale retelling this was a dark feminist call-to-arms that I would strongly recommend.

A huge thank you to NetGalley for allowing me to read this prior to publication in exchange for my honest thoughts. I’m still gushing!

‘Impossible Causes’ – Julie Mayhew

This is a tricky one to review, and it is certainly a book that was difficult to really get into for some time. However, by the end I was gripped and can certainly see the parallels with something like The Crucible.

Our story takes place on the remote island of Lark. We focus on the narration by Leah, a teacher on the island, who is privy to many of the secrets of the island but who seems rather detached from everything. This sense of ‘otherness’ does become important later on, as it explains why Leah acts as she does.

The island of Lark is cut off from the mainland, physically unreachable for six months of the year. So it is of great interest when an outsider, Ben Hailey, comes to the island to teach.

He – and, as a result, we – comes to learn of the superstitions regarding what are referred to as the Eldest Girls. There are three girls aged 16 who, now, are given what seems like carte blanche to act as they like. There is talk of witchcraft and odd behaviour, but it is what has always been and people turn a blind eye. The inclusion of new girl Viola seems to act as a catalyst for the behaviour to escalate.
Before too long we get told of a dead body and people start to talk about what is happening. As things become more personal for Leah, the ‘new arrivals’ force the villagers to confront what is happening under their eyes.

Initially this seemed to be going in one direction and it was a little hard to follow. Details were vague, but as we learn the truth of Lark it seems there is a reason for this vagueness. By the end, when the true horror of Lark’s dark secret was revealed, I really wasn’t sure what to make of it. Chilling, and definitely worth a look. Thanks to NetGalley for allowing me the opportunity to read this prior to its scheduled November publication.