‘Stunning’ – Sara Shepard

Stunning

Eleventh in the ‘Pretty Little Liars’ series, and if you’ve got this far you know what to expect.

There is an increasing suspension of disbelief as I read this series. Firstly, I cannot believe the parents of these girls are so oblivious to the issues they are facing; secondly, it amazes me that the girls themselves are so easily manipulated and, lastly, it’s all far too convenient how new characters wander into the series and just happen to be connected to all the others in some way.

In this instalment, Emily finds out more about the baby she gave up. Spencer is starting to find her feet as she prepares to go to Princeton. Aria is back with Noel, but learns some things about his parents that threaten to drive a wedge between her and Noel. Hanna continues to bumble around desperate to get Mike back. And in the shadows lurks A – a new A – who might or might not be Ali, determined to make the girls suffer (but not ever bring things to a head or the franchise would break down!)

So, pretty it isn’t and there is a very real sense that someone is cashing in on the success of the TV series. Only five more to go…

‘The Naturals’ series – Jennifer Lynn Barnes

The Naturals – finished 5th November 2016

Seventeen year old Cassie has a special talent for reading people. She has never thought it a particular skill, until the FBI come calling with the revelation that they are setting up a group to help profile cold cases – a group of teenagers with very unique skills.

Cassie has never really got over the death of her mother, and she is convinced that involvement in this process will allow her to gather clues as to the identity of her mother’s killer. It soon becomes clear that nobody in this program is quite what they seem, and when we receive information about a new killer it seems that this one might be closer to Cassie than was previously thought.

Admittedly the idea is quite preposterous, but it was highly engaging and has appealed to teen readers – both boys and girls – in school.

Killer Instinct – finished 22nd November 2016

Having already been caught up in some rather uncomfortable events, the Naturals hope to be focusing on cold cases. The teenagers are left reeling after the events of the first book, and it’s hardly surprising that they are worried about Locke’s replacement.

Agent Veronica Sterling is Briggs’s ex-wife and the FBI Director’s daughter. She was also one of Daniel Redding’s intended victims, and has a close relationship with Dean. From the off, she’s an intriguing character and her presence brings a little more to the characters.

This story focuses on a killer who seems to be copying Redding’s MO. The intercutting of the killer’s thoughts is quite unsettling, but this was a cracker of a story.

There was, for my liking, just a little¬†too much angst over Cassie’s dilemma regarding whether she fancies Dean or Michael more. It was a bit of a distraction, but I suppose it made her seem a little more human.

All In – finished 2nd December 2016

Cassie and the other Naturals are called to Las Vegas after three bodies are discovered on three consecutive days. Initially thought to be accidental deaths, with the different killing methods it soon becomes evident that this bears the marks of a serial killer.

I loved how we got to learn a little more about Sloane and her background, and the other Naturals are developed clearly. Cassie is also dealing with issues arising from her past, but the group worked so well together as they tried to get to the bottom of this.

In a development from the earlier books we are told that these killings are linked to many others, and that a shadowy cult may well have a bigger part to play in this than anyone realised.

The story was well-plotted and I really was gripped as we started to get more background to the events. I’m just desperate to find out what happens in ‘Bad Blood’.

Bad Blood – finished 24th December 2016

Cassie’s journey with the FBI Naturals program is drawing to a close and, in this finale, we watch as Cassie and her companions try to work out exactly what is going on. Everything Cassie thought she knew about her mother’s disappearance is being called into question. There’s an awful lot going on behind the scenes, and it’s all too apparent that the Naturals themselves are being hunted.

We are led down one or two garden paths here-quite literally. Following their discovery that the deadly killer Nightshade is linked to the group known as the Masters, Cassie becomes convinced that this case could well be linked to her mother’s disappearance.

There remains a fascinating insight into the procedure of profiling, and the psychology behind a killer. What I particularly liked in this novel was the growing understanding that we see Cassie coming to of herself and her situation.
While the story itself reached what could be deemed a satisfying conclusion in many ways, I was totally unprepared for the shocks we were given regarding one or two characters. These revelations cast into doubt a lot of what had come beforehand, and lent a somewhat more creepy air to the earlier novels in the series.

My main gripe with this was that certain characters, who I’d come to have more than a little soft spot for, were slightly more in the background than I’d have expected. I also can’t help but wonder whether Barnes will be tempted to add to this series as we watch characters such as Laurel develop.

All in all this series was a surprise hit for me – and one that I wish had been around when I was younger.

‘The Girl Before’ – J.P. Delaney

The Girl Before

I’d been intrigued by this novel when I read a sample from NetGalley, and was very excited to be sent a copy by the publishers in advance of publication in January 2017.

Having just finished this, my feelings are mixed. I raced through the book, desperate to know where this was going, but there were things that I feel will increasingly infuriate me once a little time has passed.

The story is told from two perspectives: that of Emma, then, and Jane, now. Both women look similar and have similar vulnerabilities (which only come to light as we progress through the narrative). Through what seems a fortunate set of circumstances, the women are authorised to rent an award-winning architect-designed home that comes with a clear set of rules that need to be followed. I’ll be frank, nobody in their right mind would deign to go along with this set-up. The approach of the two women to this experience, and the behaviour of Edward the architect, smack of some serious personality issues. Dare I say it, the whole premise of this experience felt exploitative.

From the beginning of the story it is evident that something awful happened to Emma. The evident similarities in the experiences of the narratives – told in a fairly linear fashion, though separated by some time – sets alarm bells ringing for Jane. The page-turning element was here in abundance, and it doesn’t surprise me in the slightest that there is talk of a big-budget Hollywood movie before the book has even been published. I could not wait to find out exactly what was going on, and spent a lot of time second-guessing who exactly had done what, and why.

What concerned me most in this was the portrayal of the main female characters. Though we come to learn more about Emma, and perhaps come to understand her better by the end of the novel, I couldn’t help but feel she was presented in such a way as to make us believe that she deserved what was happening to her. Nothing is quite as it seems, but there was a sense that Delaney (thought to be another previously published thriller writer) put Emma in scenarios that encourage us to see her negatively. This is less apparent with Jane – who comes out fighting – but the behaviour of Edward was, at best, obsessive, but, at worst, abusive.

There were some genuinely creepy moments revolving around the house, and the experience of living by these clearly defined rules. Worryingly, there were moments where you could see the appeal of such an existence. What this reaction says about me, I probably don’t want to know!

All in all, this was a story that was skilfully presented. Perhaps, if I’m being brutally honest, this is a novel that seduces with its pared-down approach to telling us the story. While I found the narrative cleverly structured, I was more than a little surprised by the final outcome as there was a lot to explain this that I don’t feel we were given. I also found it hard to be asked to sympathise with such intensely unlikeable characters. What I did admire was the ending, which suggests that the story could continue in the future.

‘Twisted’ – Sara Shepard

Twisted

Having ended the original series with ‘Wanted’ it’s painfully clear that number nine in the series is cashing in on the success of the TV series.

There’s nothing particularly new here. It’s not bad, but there’s nothing to really mark it out as anything other than more of the same.

The story begins with the girls going on holiday to a fabulous resort in Jamaica. Next thing we know it’s a year later, the girls are barely talking and there’s something shocking that happened on the holiday that we spend the whole book being taunted about.

Throughout this the girls acted in fairly expected fashion. They get themselves into situations that nobody in their right mind would contemplate, they are determined to act alone and the adults in their lives are so damaged themselves that it’s little wonder the girls are so skewed in their outlook. A has returned – even though she is thought to have died.

By my reckoning there have now been three incarnations of A, and you start to think the girls would realise they might be better off simply acknowledging the mistakes they make and accepting the consequences of their actions. Nothing is credible, but it’s great fun and there is something about the series that draws you in (even if it’s sticking with it until the end to work out just where it will all go).

‘A Seven Letter Word’ – Kim Slater

A Seven Letter Word

While I’d enjoyed Slater’s debut, ‘Smart’, the protagonist was not necessarily one that people easily warmed to. With Finlay Macintosh Slater has created a young character who has plenty to admire, without him coming across as irritating.

It’s been a couple of years since Finlay’s mum disappeared with no explanation. His stammer has got worse since her disappearance, and he is being bullied at his new school. Finlay’s dad is barely holding things together and we can see he is struggling to support Finlay as he deals with his own feelings. It would be all too easy to paint Finlay as a victim, but – as in life – there’s a lot of positives to him, and it’s a case of him starting to recognise those strengths.

Finlay, though he struggles with speaking, is actually a genius at Scrabble. He ends up involved with his school Scrabble club and, through a number of very convenient factors, ends up forming new friendships, learning about himself and even getting his happy ending (of sorts).

 

‘This Is Our Story’ – Ashley Elston

This Is Our Story

Five go into the woods at River Point. Four come out. Nobody will reveal who actually fired the shot that killed Grant, but all four boys had handled the gun. They know one of them is lying, but vow to stick together.

A gripping premise, and the cover hints at the actual outcome. I was desperate to know more from the opening, and I really enjoyed the twists and turns that made up this story.

It was interesting to see a lot of the story told from the view of Kate, a senior who has more in common with the River Point Boys than those close to her realise. As part of her Senior year work placement, she works in the office of the DA – and just happens to end up working on the case.

What follows is a really intriguing exploration of how a case might be built up, and the effects of a high-profile case on those involved. Throughout, I was second-guessing who might be responsible.

Ultimately, the ending felt a little flat – though not in such a way that disappointed me – ¬†simply because I’d been convinced something really dramatic would occur, but what we got instead was a very appropriate conclusion that made perfect sense.

 

‘Cuckoo’ – Keren David

Cuckoo

As a child soap star, Jake is used to everyone knowing his name and following his every move. One day his character goes up to his bedroom and, six months later, still hasn’t been seen or heard from. Nobody is quite sure what is happening, but then real life takes over and becomes far more dramatic than any story-line Jake has been involved in previously.

Told in an interesting format, we are given the script for a project that Jake decides to post on YouTube in order to give his view of events. As the main protagonist in the story, we’re never certain to what extent Jake is biased in his account, and the comments from other characters does suggest strongly that there is more to the story than Jake is telling us.

The novel focuses on Jake’s deteriorating relationship with his family and shows the ease with which somebody can lose their comfortable life. We are shown Jake dealing with life on the streets, but he falls on his feet and ends up becoming friends with an elderly recluse who just happened to be a great actress.

If I’m entirely honest, this felt rather disjointed and like there was too much going on at one time. Though I enjoyed the general idea, I do wish that David had resisted the urge to give Jake the Hollywood-ending.

‘The Other Alice’ – Michelle Harrison

The Other AliceFrom the moment I saw this cover, I was intrigued. Even without knowing it was by Michelle Harrison, once I read the outline for this story I was desperate to read it.

Midge has always loved his sister Alice’s stories, but he’s acutely aware of the hold they have over her. Alice has always been adamant that a story cannot be left unfinished, and when she has been unable to resolve a story, strange things have happened.

When Alice goes missing, Midge is convinced that the answer lies somewhere in her writing. Her notebook has gone missing, but Midge – along with a curious cast of characters from Alice’s own stories – are determined to find her and help the characters work out their ending.

What follows is a skilful blend of magic and horror, full of riddles and an almost grotesque cast of characters that will haunt your imagination for a long time after you close the pages of the novel. Recommended for readers above 9 years, I think this will also appeal to anyone who loves stories and writing.

I’m not sure if this will make it past the nominations stage for the Carnegie 2017 Awards, but it’s definitely one I’d recommend.