‘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.

 

‘The Rules’ – Tracy Darnton

Amber has, for as long as she remembers, been prepared by her father to expect the unexpected. As a survivalist he insisted on teaching her how to prepare for the worst. Her key rule was to ensure she followed his rules.

We’re not sure what happened, but we see Amber is in foster care. She is in the UK, and we learn her mother has died. A letter from Amber’s father has arrived from America and it immediately puts Amber on alert. She realises she will have to leave.

We follow Amber on her journey to try and learn more about her father’s plans. She doesn’t trust him, and journeys to familiar places in her attempt to learn what she needs.

For someone who is meant to be so well-trained she seems to make some silly mistakes. She places her trust in another person who used to be in foster care with her, and this results in some crazy decisions being made. Before too long, Amber’s father catches up with her and we start to glimpse for ourselves the extent to which one man’s delusions can impact on the lives of those around him.

Throughout the story I got a sense that things weren’t quite what we thought. Amber made some strange decisions, and the details of her past indicated there may be more to the story that she was telling us.

When we get to the rather explosive finale it seems to justify what Amber had told us, but it also suggested that perhaps Amber was better prepared than she wanted to let on!

Thanks to NetGalley for letting me read this, and I’m curious to see how this goes down (particularly in light of recent events that may have led people to question the extent to which they are reliant on others).

 

‘Date Me, Bryson Keller’ – Kevin van Whye

I can’t begin to imagine what it must be like to have to think so much about your sexuality, or to be so cautious about your thoughts/feelings. Whatever your views, however, nobody should be forced to come out unless they choose to. Some of the actions in this made me unbelievably cross, and I hate the fact that this will be something people even have to consider.

I’ve read a couple of views criticising this novel for being so similar to some other stories. I can’t comment on that, but I can certainly say how much I enjoyed this story.

Our main character, whose point of view we’re predominantly focused on, is Kai. He knows he’s gay, but hasn’t said anything to either his friends or family. He seems fairly happy in himself, but we learn he’s desperate to head to college so he can be himself. Kai is a character on the periphery of his high school experience, but he finds himself in a rather unusual situation.

This situation involves the school golden boy, Bryson Keller, who’s got himself caught up in what could be a pretty crass scenario. Whoever asks him out on a date each Monday he has to accept, and date them for the week. For reasons I’m still not totally sure about – but it stems from a chance detention and a drama task – Kai ends up asking Bryson on a date. And he agrees.

We follow Kai and Bryson through their somewhat unexpected week. They keep it quiet, and at points I feared this might be because Bryson was going to do something awful. That wasn’t the case, though, and this quickly becomes a tale of two boys finding a mutual love. Almost insufferably cute, it would take a fairly hard-hearted person not to warm to these two.

There’s hints that this will not be plain sailing. I know some might have a worse experience, but when it matters people are generally seen to do the right thing. Kai’s little sister was wise beyond her years and the kind of cheer squad anyone would be proud to have. Plenty to like in this, and I’m grateful to NetGalley for allowing me to read this prior to publication.

 

‘The Apartment’ – K.L. Slater

A quick thriller that draws you in despite the rather obvious holes in the story. Thanks to NetGalley for the entertainment, and I’d recommend this for anyone wanting an easy escapist read.

It’s clear from the outset that there is something weird being set-up. We don’t know exactly what, and there’s a few attempts to divert our attention until the author chooses to make their revelation.

Our main character, Freya, tells us she’s always been used to relying on herself and that she doesn’t trust easily. So, her decision to trust a random stranger who offers her a cheap apartment in a pretty exclusive area of London seems odd. We are told she’s recently widowed,so perhaps this could excuse her seeming lack of judgment.

Misgivings aside, Freya and her daughter move in. Determined to make it work, Freya overlooks the weird things that happen and the strange behaviour of her landlord. She clings to the friendship of the pleasant old lady who lives below them, and who strikes up a friendship of sorts with the young daughter.

From early on we are aware someone is watching these two. This someone has a plan, and we know it’s linked to a past experiment carried out by someone with the same surname as Freya’s new landlord. We’re suspicious, and I was keen to see just when/how the full story would be revealed.

If I’m being entirely honest this probably wouldn’t hold up to close scrutiny, but if you’re prepared to overlook these elements you’ll find plenty here to entertain you.