‘The Stolen Sisters’ – Louise Jensen

When we meet the Sinclair Sisters – Carly, Leah and Marie – they are fairly typical kids. However, they are about to undergo a traumatic experience, one that will shape them for the future. Carly resents being left to babysit her younger sisters, but her only thought is to protect them when they are abducted from outside their house.

Told in split narrative we see that the girls survived their experience, and the story focuses on us learning how this has affected them. We follow them as they deal with both their past and present.

The style of writing was absorbing, and there were plenty of hints about secrets being held – meaning plenty of chances to hypothesise and try to work out exactly what was being covered up. While some elements were quite obvious, there were one or two surprises that meant some parts of the story didn’t feel resolved until later.

Thanks to NetGalley for giving me the chance to read this prior to publication.

‘The Searcher’ – Tana French

Thanks to NetGalley for giving me the opportunity to read this prior to publication. A very different, slower-paced, read to those by French that I’ve read before but it has a curious charm. It took me a while to attune myself to its rhythms, but once caught up it was hard to not want to learn more.

Our main character, Cal, is an American ex-cop who’s moved to a remote Irish village. He wants a peaceful life, but finds himself caught up in a situation he can’t walk away from.

Young Trey comes from a local family not known of for their good decisions. Trey’s brother went missing earlier in the year, and Cal is curious enough to do some searching. Of course he gets himself caught up in some strange shenanigans, and those around him harbour a few secrets of their own.

We do get answers, though not quite what we expected. Cal makes some curious decisions and in spite of the bleak subject, there were some positives to this. Rural idyll it might not be, but it certainly showed a charm of its own…

‘The Graveyard Book’ – Neil Gaiman

 

The Graveyard Book opens by plunging us into the horror surrounding a young toddler. His family are murdered by a sinister man known only as Jack, but he is saved by his curiosity because earlier in the night he escaped his cot and made his way outside and to the graveyard at the top of the hill near his house. Marked from the very start as a rather unusual character, our young toddler is saved by the Owenses…who just happen to be dead.

From his unlikely beginning our young toddler – Nobody Owens – is granted the right to live in the graveyard and to learn their ways. He is very much alive, but is given these magical skills to enable him to escape detection. His guardian, Silas, protects him and ensures someone is always available to look after him.

We watch Bod grow. He makes a tentative friendship, examines the world around him and is privy to many of the mysteries surrounding the dead. His curiosity develops as he learns about the world around him – and all too soon he shows a dangerous (yet very understandable) desire to learn how to navigate the land of the living.

Going to school causes problems. Bod can’t help but draw attention to himself, and so we watch the noose tighten as those who started by trying to kill him return and attempt to finish their task.

There was a wistful tone to this as we know Bod has to live his life, but his life with the dead was so positive it felt awful that he had to make this step.

‘Bearmouth’ – Liz Hyder

Bearmouth was one of the books recommended to my students by our 2020 Book PenPal, Holly Race, so I couldn’t resist reading it before I passed my copy round to those interested.

When I began reading I, like a number of other readers, took time to adjust to the phonetic style of writing used to mimic our main character’s voice. Initially this meant the reading felt slower than I’d like, but it certainly became one of the features of the book that I really enjoyed. The voice of Newt changed as they developed in confidence, and I enjoyed seeing the shifting patterns of language as they grew in awareness of the world around them.

Our first encounter with Newt was intriguing. We are told, very early on, that Newt is ‘not a boy nor yet a wimmin’ and though this becomes important later, it is their life in the Bearmouth mine that grips us. Newt has worked in the mine for many years, and is looked after by his team. There’s a grim sense of camaraderie to the team as they risk their lives on a daily basis to dig for coal, and to earn a living for others.

From the outset Newt points out the harshness of their life underground. We quickly come to realise the superstitions that bind these men and boys, and the injustice that they face on a daily basis as someone else controls their every move.

As the story progressed we learn more about Newt and their unease surrounding the appearance of a new boy, Devlin. With the arrival of the new face comes a sense of growing awareness of the injustice of their existence, and a slow-burning plan to change things.

While most of the reviews I’ve read of this focus on the writing style, I was also struck by the brutality of their lives underground and the grudging acceptance of death in its many guises. There are a couple of scenes that I think I will need to advise some of my students of and give them the decision as to whether or not to read, but I feel the situation that prompts Newt to develop a social conscience is sympathetically presented and Hyder should be applauded for not shying away from the less salubrious elements of their lives.

Throughout the book I was rooting for some form of happy ending and though this is rather more ambiguous than you might like in a stand-alone read, I felt our ending offered enough to leave me satisfied with Newt’s choices and their consequences.

 

‘Kingdom of the Wicked’ – Kerri Maniscalco

 

From the moment Emilia and her twin sister, Vittoria, are introduced to us at eight years old we know the amulets they wear are significant. These are girls whose family are part of a hidden group, witches who work in secret and who are well-versed in prophecies. However, no matter what knowledge they have they could not be prepared for what transpires here.

Early on, Vittoria is murdered, her heart ripped out and her body left for Emilia to discover. Understandably, Emilia wants to find out what happened and for whoever is responsible to pay. But nothing comes easily here and Emilia ends up in a situation that heralds great danger.

To cut a long story short, Emilia decides to take matters into her own hands, and to summon a demon. The one she ends up summoning is Wrath, one of the seven Princes of Hell. Determined to get answers and avenge her sister’s murder, Emilia ignores much of what she has heard and enters a bargain – the possibilities of which are only hinted at here.

Maniscalco creates an interesting character in Wrath. Obviously intent on a higher purpose it is blindingly obvious that he is not to be trusted. Yet there is something hinted at under the surface, something that definitely suggests Emilia has got under his skin and offers something he wasn’t quite prepared for. While I’d have been quite content if we’d seen this side through to its conclusion, I actually liked the fact that Wrath kept his eye on the main goal and set up a much more intriguing scenario (which I imagine we’ll see in the sequel). I can’t wait to see what happens now Emilia has her own endgame in sight.

Huge thanks to NetGalley for allowing me to read this prior to publication.

‘The Cousins’ – Karen McManus

Scheduled for release in December 2020, I don’t have to stress how excited I was to get approval for this on NetGalley. McManus has quickly become one of those authors that seems a guaranteed winner for a story that draws you in and leaves you feeling more than satisfied with what you’ve read. Having just finished The Cousins earlier this morning, I can safely say that she’s onto what I think will be another hit.

Having raced through the previous books by McManus, I was struck by the relatively slow-paced start to this. We are in a very different world, but one in which characters are just as duplicitous and where we are waiting for the secrets to be unearthed from the moment we start reading.

Our main characters are Aubrey, Millie and Jonah – cousins who are not close, and who haven’t really seen each other in years. But when they each receive a letter asking them to go and work for their grandmother’s resort for the summer you can’t help but be curious. Even more so when we realise that the cousins have no relationship with their grandmother, and that she cut off her children years earlier (after the sudden death of their father) and has refused contact with them since.

Each of the characters has their own reasons for deciding to agree to this mysterious demand. Once they arrive at the resort, however, it is evident that their grandmother had no idea they were coming. Her best friend seems determined to keep the cousins away from her, and an old man in town – the family doctor – drops a hint that there is more to this story than anyone has been prepared to let on.

Once we get our teeth into the mystery things pick up. We have sections of the story from years earlier, giving details of the original children and their interactions, which offer little clues as to what might have happened and how it might be resolved in the present. As our main characters start to piece together the events leading to the family break-up, the pace really cranks up…until I found myself racing to finish and find out exactly what had happened.

By the time I got near the end I was already knowing this would be a read I’d heartily recommend to others. Rather unexpected, and it offers some resolution of a potential issue with the book, but it also offers a delightful hint that we might not be fully done with this world just yet.

 

‘Heartbreak Bay’ – Rachel Caine

 

If this is to be the last in the series (and I fervently hope not) then what a story to end on. From the moment I picked this up I was desperate to find out exactly how the pieces fit together, and hoping against hope that things would not be too bleak for Gwen.

The story begins with a mother driving her two baby girls into a lake. We don’t know why, and we don’t know what happens to her after. What we quickly learn is that this is, in some way, linked to Gwen.

Gwen and Sam are starting the book in a relatively happy place. He officially adopts the kids, they’re settling into their new home and they seem to be moving forward after the events of the last few years. But for some reason the internet trolls are back out. Someone is determined that Gwen will pay for her past and engineers some increasingly dangerous scenarios in order to force her to confess to what they believe.

The pace of this is quite relentless once the pieces start shifting into place. It takes a little while for the various scenarios to start drawing together, but once they do it really is a white-knuckle ride.

With danger at seemingly every corner, not everyone makes this. On more than one occasion I feared reading on just in case someone I’d grown to like as a character was cut down. I was kicking myself at not fully appreciating one or two key moments at the time, but I was so desperate to find out how things would end that I could overlook this slight feeling of manipulation. For a series featuring a serial killer we’ve become used to some graphic violence, but this really forced me to confront some quite unpalatable moments. The need to question ourselves and our decisions runs throughout, and I was pleased that some of our characters acted with the integrity I expected of them in spite of monumental pressure.

I’m so excited to have been given the chance to review this prior to its publication, and grateful to NetGalley for the opportunity. I’m sincerely hoping Rachel Caine will succeed in her personal battle and be able to offer more stories about these characters as I don’t feel quite ready to give up on them yet.

‘A Deadly Education’ – Naomi Novik

 

A Deadly Education had me hooked from the moment it mentioned a school where strategy was all…where you graduate or die. I was expecting something dark, and wasn’t wholly disappointed.

This was a school like no other, where danger lurks round every corner (and on the ceiling and behind doors) and if you make it through the year you either have power of the magnitude others should be scared of or you have friends in high places. Our main character is El, daughter of a renowned healer, who is not particularly sociable or likeable, who has skills she wants to keep hidden and who is sick to death of being rescued by the school hero Orion.

From the opening I liked El. Rather abrasive but well-meaning, she is easy to empathise with. Watching so much from the sidelines, she is a rather reluctant main character who realises that sometimes you have to adopt a different strategy to win the long game.

In their final year the power being shown by the dark creatures attacking them is of concern. Orion is doing what he can to keep people safe, but our unlikely alliance offers a different approach. It felt strange to have a book set in a school where there is little adult presence, and where we can see the stakes are so high.

The story itself built as expected. Slowly we see the rising threat and watch as they work out how to tackle it. I was more intrigued by the message from her mum at the end warning her to stay away from Orion – a little late, and of course I want to know what is in store for them in what I imagine will be a dangerous senior year.

‘The Magpie Society: One for Sorrow’ – Zoe Sugg and Amy McCulloch

 

One for Sorrow is the first in a series set in an exclusive boarding school, where secrets are kept and nobody can be sure who to trust.

At Illumen Hall students are used to behaving in a certain way, and making the most of the privileges they are afforded. New girl Audrey is harbouring her own reasons for moving from America to attend the school, but she’s in no hurry to share her secrets. She’s required to share a room with one of the students who seems to be on the inside, Ivy.

The summer before our story starts one of the students is found dead. People suspect there’s more to the story, though the police claim the death of Lola was an accident. Someone is determined to push this, and a podcast is set up aiming to investigate the crime. A clear aura of mistrust springs up, and of course Audrey and Ivy end up teaming up to try and get some answers about what’s going on.

As the investigation continued, elements of the story were a little rushed. Some definite suspicious elements got overlooked because it didn’t suit the narrative the students were wanting to put forward. One or two elements were clearly on the way, and then not developed in any way to show why they’d been set up.
By the end we had some clues, but not a lot of answers as to what happened. Everything hinges on the mysterious Magpie Society…and I’m pretty sure the next book will start to look more at Clover and her significance.

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