‘Never Have I Ever’ – Joshilyn Jackson

Thanks to NetGalley for allowing me to read this before publication. A deceptive read, where nothing is quite as it seems and our hero is (in some ways) just as bad as the villain.

The story begins in a way that almost had me switching off. A mum’s book club in a well-to-do neighbourhood full of women who are obsessed with their appearance and getting one over on the neighbours. The opening focuses on the appearance of a new neighbour, Angelica Roux, and her childish game of ‘Never Have I’ which seems a way of prising secrets out of those present.

Before we know it, Roux is trying to blackmail our main character, Amy, out of nearly a quarter of a million dollars.

Slowly we unpick why Amy has become a mark. We learn of some of the secrets she’s been hiding from those around her. Though, perhaps, they come from good motives, there’s no doubting that she has skeletons aplenty. It then becomes a question of which of these game-players will come out on top.

There’s some tense moments. We also get into some murky territory regarding Amy’s past…though nothing is quite as awful as what we learn about Roux. When faced with something so awful, I have to wonder who would be prepared to overlook Amy’s actions.

No easy answers here. No black or white response is evident, and the shades explored certainly made this more intriguing than first impressions seemed to warrant.

‘Wonderland’ – Juno Dawson

Wonderland is a riot of hedonism, mental health issues and privileged people trying to keep their positions of power. It’s bonkers, and at times reads like we’re following someone on a bad trip. I felt myself pausing for breath at times to gauge whether people could ever be as awful as they are here…and I think they probably can.

In Wonderland Juno Dawson takes us on a journey with Alice, a transgender girl who becomes worried when a friend of hers (Bunny, no less) goes missing. At her exclusive school, nobody seems concerned. So when Alice finds an invitation to an exclusive weekend party she decides to attend in the hope that she can learn the truth of Bunny’s disappearance.

As we follow Alice through her Wonderland experience we have so many of the characters you’d expect – transported to their contemporary rich clique. Alice finds herself having a number of exciting new experiences, but there’s a clear dark undercurrent that threatens to consume her. The very real threat she is under is presented in an almost cruelly casual way. Someone wants Alice out of the way…but how far are they prepared to go?

When we learn of Alice’s mental health issues, knowing she is without her medication means I was never quite sure what was happening and what Alice was imagining. The ending brought a number of strands to a head, but didn’t really resolve much for Alice.

Thanks to NetGalley for allowing me to read this before publication.


‘Bloom’ – Kenneth Oppel

The last book I read by Kenneth Oppel was Inkling, so this was quite a different experience but similarly engaging.

Our story takes place on a small island, and our main focus is three younger characters who are somewhat isolated from their peers. We have fostered Seth, Anaya who is allergic to everything and Petra who is allergic to water. We are not quite sure what unites these three at first, but when the rain comes we start to get little clues that there might be more going on than we might have ever dreamed of.

With the rain comes new plants…black vines that grow rapidly and spread pollen that causes extreme allergies in anyone coming into contact with them. Before too long the vines are taking over and we have a worldwide state of emergency. Something has to be done, but we see that nobody really knows what to do when they’re facing something they’ve never dealt with before (the parallels with the current situation regarding Covid-19 make this all the more terrifying). The only thing we do learn quite early on is that Seth, Anaya and Petra are seemingly immune to these plants.

What we get is a rather slow start but the tension is quickly ramped up once we find out a little more about the plants. Oppel creates a drama-filled experience and an awful lot gets thrown into the mix, but it works.

It was great to see the bond develop between the three characters, and there were positives in terms of the initial threat. They come out on top. But the chilling ending serves as a reminder that we’re dealing with something new…something that might have more to come…what will the people of Earth do when the second wave hits? I can’t wait to find out.


‘Again, but Better’ – Christine Riccio

Again, but Better seems to have very mixed reviews, and though it won’t go down as one of my favourite reads I enjoyed many elements of it. I had no awareness of the author prior to reading this, and I can’t decide whether or not that was a good thing – but certainly meant I was able to take the story at face value.

The story itself is straightforward. Hard-working student, Shane, hasn’t really felt comfortable in her chosen studies. Her parents want her to go into medicine as it’s a safe choice. She’s always worked hard to try and fulfil their hopes for her, but evidently doesn’t really enjoy it. Her passion is reading and she dreams of being a writer. So it comes as little surprise when she finds a way to organise a semester studying abroad – in London, on a creative writing course.

We watch Shane arrive in London and settle into her new life. She ends up with new flat mates that she finds great fun, and loves the freedom she has to travel to new cities and experience things she’s only read about. She finds herself with more than a little crush on one of her flat mates, Pilot. Unfortunately, though it seems they’ll get on and sparks are there, Pilot has a girlfriend. There’s some late night conversations and an almost-kiss…but before we know it they are leaving to return home and there’s a definite sense of what might have been.

It was at this point that things became less convincing. Shifting to six years later for part two, we see Shane has returned home and is about to further her career in medicine. She still dislikes it, realises she doesn’t particularly like her boyfriend who has recently proposed…and feels there’s still some unresolved issues with regard to the boy she crushed on all those years ago.

Unlike many people who might put that down to timing and move on, Shane finds her ex-friend/crush and decides to tell him how she feels. Before we know it, thanks to what we’re meant to believe is a fairy godmother-type character who pops up regularly at key moments in Shane’s life, the pair of them have travelled back in time. They get the chance to redo their time in London, but better.

The second part was, in many ways, more credible than the first in spite of the time-travel premise. It would have been all too easy for the romance to be the driving force here, but this was just a part of the story. Pilot and Shane, inevitably, balk at sharing their feelings on this matter, then decide to take the plunge…but even this time it doesn’t quite go to plan. Shane has a bit of a wake-up call (and I think this had potential) and realises she, ultimately, has to be happy with her decisions before she can expect to be happy with anyone else. This didn’t get pushed as it could have done, and we still get the happy ending. That doesn’t make it bad, but it was safe. I also found myself increasingly irritated by the never-ending stream of references to books, films and music that we are expected to see as helping present this character. She was more engaging when we actually dealt with her, and not the construct she seemed desperate to present to others.


‘Destination Anywhere’ – Sara Barnard

A difficult story to review in some ways, because there were elements that didn’t quite seem plausible but everything else about this book drew me in, tugged at my heartstrings and had me feeling Barnard had perfectly captured that sense of uncertainty so many feel but never want to admit to.

Our main character is Peyton King, a seventeen year old travelling on her own to Canada. She has no discernible plan, has walked out on college and left a note for her parents…my first thought hearing this was what on earth could have happened to get so bad that this extreme action seemed like a good idea? As we journey with Peyton we learn more about her, and how she came to be in this situation.

Peyton, we learn, was bullied throughout her five years at secondary school. Isolated incidents initially, but they do gather in seriousness and there’s no doubting the impact they’ve had on her. Spending all this time with no friends, Peyton has a somewhat skewed view on friendship and the extent to which she’ll sacrifice herself to have what she sees comes so easily to many others. When she starts at sixth form college she is quite desperate to form friendships…and when she falls into a group she gets caught up in the excitement of this that she never takes the time to think about how healthy it is for her.

This won’t be an experience everyone can identify with. We see things from a viewpoint we might not necessarily understand, but Peyton herself also comes to see that she made choices in this scenario. No matter what self-awareness she reaches, her so-called friends were awful in so many ways – but it seems they each had their own issues. However, when we reach the dramatic revelation of what they actually did I was appalled.

There’s no quick fix here. Peyton is, obviously, finding things out and luckily she ends up taken under the wings of some more seasoned travellers who offer a very different definition of friendship. She has a wonderful travelling experience and this is definitely more of a positive experience than you might imagine someone in her position might have had.

There were some wonderful descriptions of the travel experiences, and the way this ended had a sense of perspective. Not everything was magically solved, but there were steps towards a more positive hopeful future.

Thanks to NetGalley for allowing me to read this prior to publication.

‘Beach Read’ – Emily Henry

Beach Read has so many of the elements I’d expect of a light summer read, but there’s a glimpse of darkness within that actually makes this so much more engaging than you might expect it to be.

Our main character, January, has always felt like someone who believes in love and its power to transform us. She writes romance and has always looked for her happy ending. But when we see her things aren’t going quite to plan. She is struggling to write, she is grieving her father and yet trying to reconcile herself to the discovery that her father had a secret second life.

Upon arriving at his second hideaway home, January is nervous about what she’ll find. Nothing could prepare her for the discovery that her new neighbour is an old college acquaintance, Gus.

Like January Gus is a writer. But we quickly see that, like January, things in his life aren’t quite going to plan.

What follows is quite obvious – they slowly form a new bond, breaking down the barriers each had in place and eventually starting a relationship each has secretly harboured dreams of since they first met.

The interaction between these two was great fun. Seeing two such different outlooks and the little bet to each write a book in the style of the other gave it an interesting twist. Not everything runs smoothly, but it always feels like we’ll end up where we hope.

A huge thank you to NetGalley for granting me access to this prior to publication. I loved it!

‘The Challenger’ – Taran Matharu

Talk about leaving you hanging! A frustrating (yet fitting) end to a cracking story.

Picking up not long after the events of Book One, Cade learns that he is to act as the representative in a much bigger battle. It’s a threat he is ill-equipped to deal with, so the priority for the group at the start is to find armour.

Unfortunately, while searching for what they need the group are taken by slavers. Cade has to barter for his freedom – resulting in them being forced to participate in the emperor’s gladiatorial games.

What follows is fraught with danger, but wholly believable. Seen from Cade’s perspective we are made to witness a number of awful battles as he strives to complete the tasks put in front of him to secure what he needs to have a chance of success. We get a lot of awful scenes, but Cade’s honest reactions to these mean we never see them as anything other than a very necessary step towards what he needs to do to get home (or be in with a chance to).

There’s hints of romance, which you could see coming a mile off. There’s deepening bonds of friendship and there’s a clear sense that these characters we come to care about are mere pawns in a much bigger game.

I am so grateful to NetGalley for granting me access to this in exchange for my thoughts. Now I need to dig a little and see what the plans for part three are…I have questions that I’m really hoping will be answered!


‘The Family Upstairs’ – Lisa Jewell

A curious read that was, for the early stages, confusing and – at times – irritating, but also which eventually had me astounded at the manipulative behaviour of the characters within its pages.

The story focuses on two different timeframes, and quite a large cast of characters though we only get detailed viewpoints from a number of them. On her 25th birthday Libby receives a letter that she had been prepared for – a letter from a solicitor representing her real parents. The letter tells her that because nobody else has come forward she now is the owner of a very large house in Chelsea worth millions.

Upon visiting the house, it’s clear to Libby that there’s a story to her past. She is determined to find out what she can…and it’s a story so strange that it’s almost hard to believe it.

Alongside Libby’s story we have the view of Henry, one of those living in this home before things went so horribly wrong. A wealthy family, mother charmed by a manipulative conman and a bizarre set of circumstances that leads to a most puzzling situation. Henry is not the most reliable of narrators, and when he appears in Libby’s present it definitely becomes more tense.

For me the thing that was most off-putting was the switching between the past and present, and the mysterious Lucy whose role didn’t become clear until a lot later on. However, if you don’t mind having to work that little bit harder to piece things together then you’ll probably really get your teeth into this.

It’s a fascinating psychological study, and though there’s plenty of questions left unanswered there’s more than enough here to satisfy most readers.


‘The Bromance Book Club’ – Lyssa Kay Adams

The Bromance Book Club was not what I expected at all. Fun, yes, but it also gave some interesting thoughts about relationships and how we interact.

The focus of our story is baseball player, Gavin, who is experiencing difficulty with his relationship. Having learned that ever since they had children his wife has been faking things, their relationship is in trouble. Thankfully, this is a feel good romance so we guess things aren’t as bad as they seem, and the characters just need a bit of a steer.

In this book the steer comes from a most unlikely place…the fellow teammates who all have weathered their own storms, and who have decided the way to sort things out is to look to romance novels.

A rather unusual idea, and there are some weirdly amusing moments. The excerpts from what becomes the guide to how to fix his marriage are cheesy, but it’s quite entertaining to see how these ideas are transferred to the modern times.

At its heart this book was really exploring attitudes to romance and relationships. It showed how honesty and trust are earned, and can help you through some pretty awful moments.

I found this good fun, perfect escapism, and have bought book two just to see whether it’s as good.


‘Into the Drowning Deep’ – Mira Grant

Seven years ago, the Atargatis set off on a voyage to the Mariana Trench to film a “mockumentary” bringing to life ancient sea creatures of legend. It was lost at sea with all hands. Some have called it a hoax; others have called it a maritime tragedy.
Now, a new crew has been assembled. But this time they’re not out to entertain. Some seek to validate their life’s work. Some seek the greatest hunt of all. Some seek the truth. But for the ambitious young scientist Victoria Stewart this is a voyage to uncover the fate of the sister she lost.
Whatever the truth may be, it will only be found below the waves. But the secrets of the deep come with a price.

Into the Drowning Deep was a book that I was, initially, unsure about as whenever I think of mermaids I can’t shake my deep-seated sense of unease about things that we know little of, and old literary tales that talk of sirens and luring sailors to their death. Coupled with the focus on a group of scientists heading to try and establish whether or not mermaids exist, I really went into this with some reservations.

Initially this was a little hard to get into. The first zone, establishing the characters and the ideas behind their trip, was necessary but it didn’t really engage me as much as I’d hope. I couldn’t help but think this was not a story that was going to end well in some way – be it disappointment in a failed mission, or a truly failed mission that proved what they set out to but ended badly for those concerned. What we got was a mix of these ideas, but as the story picked up I was hooked.

We have an intriguing group on board. There’s a mix of scientists who have their own reasons for setting sail. There’s the company spokesperson who has close ties to someone on board, but who also has his own directives at odds with what many think they are there to do.

Once the ship was out on the water, however, Grant completely captivated me. The writing was tense, and the story was so well-constructed. I loved the creation of mood and the sense of foreboding that permeated everything taking place on board.

It wouldn’t be a monster story without the realisation that the thing you’re hunting might actually turn out to be smarter than you thought. It doesn’t take long before we start to realise that not everyone will survive this trip – and though I wasn’t overly keen on the detailed description as the sirens started their hunt, it always felt in keeping with the story and what we needed to know.

The mix of characters worked well in this for me. Throughout, I had a sense of big-screen action and there were some interesting moments that suggested there may be future exploration of the subject (there’s certainly one or two strands opened up that would allow this).

Having been recommended Feed by a colleague some time ago, I should have realised I was in a safe pair of hands here. I might never look at the sea in the same way, and it won’t make me feel any easier about travelling by boat, but this really would be a book I’d have no hesitation in recommending.