‘The Echo Chamber’ – John Boyne

The Echo Chamber is a curious read. It’s being touted as biting satire and a topical exploration of our obsession with social media…I’m not wholly convinced that’s quite what we’ve got, but it’s an entertaining diversion in some areas.

The focus of the book is the Cleverley family. George has been a favourite of the BBC for years, prone to the odd gaffe on air and his wife, Beverley, is a writer of popular romances (though she employs a ghost writer and merely gives the ideas) who has been having an affair with her partner on Strictly. Their three children have led a rather charmed life, and the whole family is obsessed with their social media accounts and profiles. The story (such as it is) focuses on a short period of time in their lives when everything blows up in spectacular fashion, leading them to reflect on their reliance on others’ affirmations.

As I was reading this I couldn’t help but rail at just how unlikeable each of the characters was. Much was made of the role social media had in this family’s trials and tribulations, but they seemed to be doing a very effective job of being rather unlikeable and messing things up in their own. For us to care about the fates of the characters there really has to be something about them we might like/admire. This was lacking, so it meant I read the book not really feeling anything had happened to these characters that they weren’t instrumental in bringing about.

There were some moments of mild amusement, but some of the observations became repetitive and simply telling us over and over again about an issue without offering any alternative doesn’t really seem the point of satire. For too much of the book it felt like Boyne had generated his own echo chamber. The reading of this felt like ordering and drinking an overpriced coffee, where everything was superficially appealing but the reality was full of froth with little substance.

I’m grateful to NetGalley for giving me the opportunity to give my honest thoughts on this prior to publication, but it was not quite the experience I’d hoped for.


‘Once Upon a Broken Heart’ – Stephanie Garber

Due for release in September 2021, I have to thank the publishers and NetGalley for allowing me to read this in advance of publication in exchange for my honest thoughts.

I adored the first two books in the Caraval series, and though the final brought some closure it didn’t work as successfully for me. This book features some of the characters that will be familiar to readers of Caraval (and though I think this could standalone, it offers more insight into the actions of some of the characters) and immerses us in another magical world where characters are pushed to their limits in order to define themselves.

Our main character is Evangeline Fox, who believes herself to be in love with childhood friend Luc. She is reeling from the sudden change of heart he appears to have had, and now he is about to marry her stepsister Evangeline wants to find a way to stop events that she believes shouldn’t be happening. So she strikes a bargain with Jacks…

Things do not go as expected. Suddenly the wedding party is turned to stone and Evangeline finds herself in a rather unusual situation. Without hesitation she sacrifices herself, so this is the kind of world that rewards selflessness…and then pitches her into the kind of scenario straight from Grimm’s fairytales.

We learn that Evangeline is sent up North, where she becomes betrothed to Prince Apollo. We know early on that manipulations are at play, but we’re not told the full extent. What we do learn is that many – Jacks included – believe Evangeline to be a crucial part of a long-believed prophesy.

The story focuses on the magic and machinations of those who desire something. Few are exactly as they seem, and it becomes a puzzle for Evangeline to work through. There’s plenty of hints as to what could happen, and we end on a sweet high…happy that some elements have been resolved, but sensing that Evangeline’s ordeal is far from over.

‘In the Wild Light’ – Jeff Zentner

In the Wild Light is a book that I’m going to have to recommend with caution. I imagine anyone who picks it up will enjoy it, but this book – in the right hands – has the capacity to break someone time and time again, before slotting the broken bits back together and forging something new. Yes, this is going to be a book that I know I’ll read again (and that doesn’t happen often), will find ways to use excerpts from in class and will always wish I could recapture the feelings I had as I read it for the first time.

Our main characters, Cash and Delaney, come from a small town called Sawyer in Tennessee. Cash lives with his grandparents after the overdose of his mother, and Delaney’s mother seems to be heading the same way. Cash’s grandfather is dying of emphysema, and the pair of them are coming under pressure from a local dealer to get involved in things they’d rather avoid. At the start of the book I was convinced this would be bleak reading.

We are told early on that Delaney has made an important scientific discovery. How big a thing this is doesn’t become obvious until we’re told that she has an exclusive prep school offering both her and Cash full scholarships to study there. Though they have reservations about leaving at such a time, they are encouraged to break out of their home environment and take a risk.

The opportunity to study at such an establishment cannot be ignored. It changes them both in ways they could never have foreseen, but it also allows them to reflect on what they have come from and what is important to each of them.

There were so many passages and moments within the book that I loved that it’s hard to focus on specifics. The friendship between Delaney and Cash is at the heart of the book, but they would not be where they are without the support of Cash’s grandparents. The professor who fosters Cash’s ability to write was inspiring, and each of the students Cash and Delaney find themselves befriending had something about them. The story is quite simple, but the way in which is written is achingly beautiful. Though I was expecting some of the bleak moments, there were more…but, at its core, there was a strong sense of hope that cannot be ignored.

Jeff Zentner has created a story that goes beyond the boundaries of the page. It’s a love story, testimony to the power of friendship, family and environment. It’s a story that cannot be forgotten.

Thanks to NetGalley for allowing me the opportunity to read this in advance of its August release.


‘The Anniversary’ – Laura Marshall

On 15th June 1994 the small town of Hartstead was shocked when caretaker Travis Green went on a rampage, shooting eleven people. The victims appeared to be indiscriminate, and nobody has ever been able to understand fully why this awful thing happened. Cassie Colman was only four when her father – the last victim – was murdered in front of his wife and daughter.

It is now coming up to the twenty-fifth anniversary of the shooting. As expected, people are keen to revisit the town and to learn how these events have impacted on the lives of those left behind. For Cassie, now a young mum herself and struggling to cope with her mother’s early dementia, this is an unwelcome intrusion. Though she is, herself curious about exactly what happened she has reconciled herself to not getting answers.

When a local journalist starts talking to Cassie, she can’t help but be curious. It seems there are some anomalies in the accounts given of that day, and Cassie finds herself drawn into examining the actions of those she has always known in a different light.

This was an interesting idea. We are given some insight into the way in which such events are portrayed in the media and the way people are expected to behave. We get the stories from the past which help us to draw together a fuller picture of the events of that day. And, shockingly, we learn that sometimes things are not what they seem…

The main story was good, and I really found myself enjoying the way the narrative was structured. As we followed Cassie come to her shocking discovery, it felt so much more nuanced than I was expecting and turned things in a direction that took me rather by surprise.

Thanks to NetGalley for allowing me the opportunity to read this before publication in exchange for my honest thoughts.


‘The Heart Principle’ – Helen Hoang

Due for publication in August 2021, I’m very grateful to NetGalley for letting me read this before publication. I’ve enjoyed the previous two books in the series, but this one touched me in ways I wasn’t expecting. It felt honest, painfully so at times, but it was such a tender read that I found myself desperate to see how things worked out.

Our focus this time round is Quan, who we already know from the previous books, and his romance with violinist Anna.

Anna is a woman who sets herself high standards. She feels pressure to behave a certain way and her usual coping mechanisms are not working. Close to burnout it’s hard to imagine being at a lower point. But then her boyfriend suggests they take a break from each other and start an open relationship to help them figure out whether they’re really suited to one another. Perhaps it’s the way we’re encouraged to respond to him, but this just felt like a way for him to sow his wild oats without losing Anna. He never imagines she might be the one to move on.

When the open relationship thing is first introduced, she doesn’t know how to react. Her friends’ righteous indignation is just what was needed…setting things up perfectly for her to meet Quan.

Of course we want them to work out, and their relationship definitely ticks the boxes, but what I really loved about this was the way the pair of them together talked, shared their vulnerabilities and worked on ways to resolve problems.

Quan is invaluable support for Anna as she comes to terms with her late diagnosis of autism, and how she manages the expectations of others while working out the implications for herself. At the same time, Anna is having to cope with the demands of caring for her father and how these new responsibilities affect her and her family.

As I said, there’s a lot to digest here. Some issues are resolved, while others are not. Though there’s so much going on in this story it never felt cluttered or disorganised. Each strand combined perfectly to create a story that I defy people not to fall in love with.


‘The City We Became’ – N.K. Jemisin


A fantasy like no other, in turns confusing and exhilarating.

In The City We Became we are asked to imagine a world under threat from a supernatural entity which invades its target, sucking the life out of it, consuming its essence and then taking its place in a new world. This could be seen as a metaphor for so many things, and though it did have me scratching my head a little initially I found myself engrossed in the fight.

These kinds of attacks have been going on for years. Nobody remembers the successful attacks as the city that is lost becomes nothing but a story. But this time is different because the city under attack is New York.

In this world, New York can be saved. It can be saved by the physical manifestations of the city – people who represent a borough of New York – working together to save the place they love.

When I started reading I really was not sure what to make of it. Manny, our first character introduced, remembers nothing of his life and can’t really place what’s happening to him. Though this makes it hard to gauge what’s happening, I felt it meant we learnt about the scenario as Manny did. Not really knowing New York I wouldn’t like to say whether the author has painted an accurate picture of these districts and cities, but it was a refreshing concept and highly entertaining.

‘Unsettled Ground’ – Claire Fuller

Unsettled Ground tells the story of a family bound together by tragedy. Dot, the matriarch, has always had a clear set of rules that the family have to live by. Since the death of her husband she has lived in a remote cottage with her twins, Jeanie and Julius. Self-sufficient, they have always shied away from village life. However, when Dot dies of a stroke she leaves the twins alone for the first time in their lives.

Jeanie and Julius are fifty-one, but have never lived apart. They are – for reasons that become clear – quite dependent on one another. After the unexpected death of their mother they come to learn just how harshly life can treat you.

Upon their mother’s death they learn that she wasn’t entirely honest about their situation. They find themselves with ‘friends’ demanding money to repay debts they didn’t know they had. Soon they find themselves evicted from the one family home they know, and scrabbling to survive.

It is clear that both Jeanie and Julius have difficulties in living a normal life. Jeanie can’t read or write, but the spirit and resolve each shows is quite remarkable. Sadly, their self-reliance seems unnecessary and as the book progresses – and we learn more about their history – it is painfully apparent that this need not have been their life.

As soon as I began reading I was struck by the beauty of the writing about the everyday experiences. Though focusing on a very miserable subject, there was an inner strength to this that I couldn’t help but admire. It reminded me in parts of Bruce Chatwin’s On the Black Hill, and left me with a similar feeling of unease upon finishing.


‘The Rule’ – David Jackson

The Rule is simple. Don’t touch anyone. This is to protect people, to stop someone getting hurt. Twenty-three year old Daniel can follow this rule, just one of a number of rules that he follows to keep himself safe. But one day he forgets the rule…and it sets off a devastating sequence of events.
Daniel lives with his mum and dad in a pretty run-down area. He leads a simple life, but when he sees his father being attacked by a man in the lift – the man whose backpack contains bags of white powder, bundles of money and a gun – Daniel knows what he has to do.
Unfortunately, Daniel’s strength results in him killing this man. A tragic accident, but out of concern for how their son might be treated by the police, Daniel’s parents do not do what most would. They cover up the crime…and so begins a terrifying few days as the consequences of their actions catch up with them.
While we cannot help but be invested in the events surrounding Daniel and his family, I really liked the way we also got the story of Hannah, the lead officer investigating the murder (because, of course, this is discovered pretty quickly) and how she is forced to confront her own demons in the course of this investigation.
The story itself is so out of the everyday, but the care with which the characters are presented means you cannot help but follow each twist and turn in desperation of seeing how things pan out.
The Rule is a fast-paced story, but one which draws you in. You’re exposed to a dark underbelly, and though some of the choices made by these characters are definitely putting them on the wrong side of the law it’s hard not to hope things work out for them.
Thanks to NetGalley and the publishers for allowing me the chance to read this in advance of publication.


‘The Girls I’ve Been’ – Tess Sharpe

Thanks to NetGalley for allowing me to read this before publication in exchange for my thoughts. The Girls I’ve Been is a hard-hitting story exploring some awful crimes…but from the perspective of a young girl you can’t help but support (even though she’s had to do some awful things).

Nora O’Malley is waiting in line in her local bank to deposit some fund-raising money. She’s with her ex, Wes, and her girlfriend, Iris. Things are normal for them…until they are almost at the front of the line and the man in front of them pulls a gun. They find themselves caught up in a robbery – which would be a dramatic story of its own – but it becomes the perfect catalyst for us to learn the truth about Nora. She is not what her friends think.

During the course of the dramatic few hours they are held captive in the bank, Nora’s insight into the minds of the men holding them hostage reveals she’s got a lot more in common with them than you might think. Nora has been raised by her mother to con people…to read them carefully, to find the perfect mark, to exploit their weakness and then move on.

As their drama in the bank unfolds, we learn the truth about Nora. She has been many girls – each with a particular characteristic – in order to help her mother get the end result. But what we soon learn is that Nora is hiding a bigger secret…the last ‘mark’ was a seriously dangerous man, her mother fell in love with him and Nora did what she had to in order to escape.

There’s so much going on here, but it never felt messy as I was reading. The background to the characters was fascinating, and I really liked the dynamics between the main three characters. I can’t help but feel there’s more we could have been told, and the way the story ends really could be the start of a whole new story. Great fun!


‘The Box in the Woods’ – Maureen Johnson

The Box in the Woods sees us back with Stevie and her friends, with Stevie doing what she does best.

In this fourth instalment we see Stevie away from Ellingham Academy and heading to a remote summer camp, home to a series of brutal murders in 1978. Of course, we are watching Stevie as she solves this cold case, but we also get to see a little more of what happened on the night in question.

The town of Barlow Corners is a small town, where everyone knows everyone else and nobody’s business is safe from prying eyes. Barlow Corners is a town where people have their secrets and will do whatever is needed to maintain their security. So, it’s clearly going to be a place that Stevie finds fascinating due to it being the site of such a well-known horror story.

The details of the original crime are pretty grim. A group of four teens are murdered when they sneak out of camp one night. Everyone has an opinion of what might have taken place, but the crimes have never been solved. The story of the four teens found murdered and posed in the woods is certainly of its time, but it was interesting to see how modern readers react to the tale and how they attempt to maintain the facade.