‘What’s A Girl Gotta Do? – Holly Bourne

The third in The Spinster Club series so you know what to expect…and Bourne doesn’t disappoint.
The word ‘feminism’ has, too often, come to seem like an insult. Even with the things that have changed since this book was published, some of the attitudes explored within are deeply ingrained. What is wrong with wanting to call out people if their attitudes/views challenge the way we think about gender?
The book focuses on Lottie, still determined to get her place in Cambridge and still more than a little intimidating. When she is sexually harassed on her way to college it sparks a new project. Fed up with the little things – and when we read them it’s terrifying just how common some of these still are – Lottie decides to spend a month calling out examples of sexism.
It’s a project that garners support and vitriol in equal measure. It highlights how awful people can be, but it also asks us to examine just how far we’ll be pushed before we decide to make a stand for what we think is right.
This series deserves to be pushed into the hands of all. It might do nothing more than get people talking. But you have to start somewhere…

‘Scars Like Wings’ – Erin Stewart

It’s not often I thank people for reducing me to tears. In this case, it’s thoroughly deserved. So, thank you to Erin Stewart via NetGalley for making me sniffle in public in a way I wasn’t expecting to.

I went into this story expecting it to be a very earnest read about how we treat survivors, expecting to find it all too much. What I got was a brutally honest exploration coming-of-age story that just happened to have a burns survivor as its main character.

Ava has not had it easy. Caught in a house fire a year before the book opens, she has had countless surgeries and has endured numerous grafts to help her recovery. She can just about bear to look in the mirror, but misses the fact that all anyone sees when they look at her is her scars. Having lost her parents and cousin in the fire, Ava now lives with her aunt and uncle. All of them are struggling to adjust to their new reality.

There’s a line quite late on in the book that is used on the cover. It reminds us that everyone has scars, some are just easier to see and that really sums up the message of this book for me. As teenagers the characters in this book are finding out who they are, feeling their way in life and trying to work out how to move on from their own individual shortcomings. Just some of them have more obvious barriers to this process.

I’m not a particular fan of musicals but the part these play in Ava’s development make perfect sense. It’s only a small thing, but having the courage to get up on stage and reclaim something she loved so much shows how much she’s moved on during the story.

The friendships in the book are crucial to its success. Ava and Ashad develop a bond that hints at more, but he sees her for who she is. Her friendship with fellow burns survivor Piper isn’t always positive, but its honesty was really encouraging. On occasion I was concerned it was rather mentally and emotionally unhealthy, but I don’t know how much of this was down to the situation these characters were in. There were plenty of ups and downs in their friendship, but they are good together.

‘The Best Lies’ – Sarah Lyu

Sometimes the hardest person to tell the truth to is yourself. In this tale of obsessive destructive friendship, Remy learns this lesson the hard way.

When we first meet Remy she’s struggling to feel she has a place in her family. Her parents argue all the time, and are clearly unhappy in their relationship but neither wants to break the mould and actually separate. Her older brother, Christian, is academically talented and part of the popular crowd at school. Remy has talked herself into believing there’s no point trying to challenge the way she’s seen at home. She is living in a fairly toxic environment, but also seems unwilling to take any steps to challenge this.

Into this potentially damaging relationship comes Elise. Something of a mysterious character she has spark and takes Remy under her wing. There’s only ever talk of friendship, but there’s a clear sense of dependency between the two girls. They start to ostracise other members of their peer group, and the pranks Elise plays quickly escalate in seriousness.

The book focuses on the fact that Remy is being asked to talk to the police. Her boyfriend, Jack, has been shot and it appears that her best friend, Elise, was the one who did it. Someone knows more than they’re letting on, and we – just like the police – want to know exactly what.

A lot of the details about the friendship between Elise and Remy are told in flashbacks. This is necessary, but it does mean we always feel like we’re playing catch-up. It takes time to show their dependency on each other and to plant suspicion as to what might have brought about this situation.

As we come to see more of the events in their friendship, we can see that not everything is straightforward. Each is hiding things, and the way they interact seems like it’s only a matter of time before we get something big.

Though not quite what I was expecting, this was an intriguing read. So often I wanted to shake Remy and it was evident this scenario need not have happened. However, as an exploration of friendship and the damage we can do – to ourselves and others – it was an unusual take on things.

‘The Frozen Sea’ – Piers Torday

Scheduled for release in early September 2019, this sequel to The Lost Magician picks up the Narnia vibe so prevalent in that story. Ever since I read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe as a child I loved the idea of another land waiting to be discovered. To have such a land ruled by Readers…combining the two best things…a recipe for a great story.

Even if you haven’t read book one this story makes sense and captures the imagination perfectly.

Jewel is often singled out for being different to her peers. When we first see her being chased out of school by those bullying her, we know just how desperate she is to find her place in the world. Stumbling into a mysterious bookshop, Jewel finds herself reading an unusual atlas – one that seems to bring the world around her to life. Before we know it, Jewel and her hamster Fizz have been transported to Folio and are assigned a mysterious quest.

The links to book one are explained clearly, which keeps new readers up to date. One of the original four has found their way back to the world of Folio and set in motion a chain of events with potentially dire consequences. Jewel is charged with helping rescue her aunt Evie.

So begins a series of adventures and Jewel’s knowledge of stories stands her in good stead to navigate this scenario. Naturally, we learn some not wholly unexpected news and Jewel learns plenty about herself.

Framing the story of Jewel’s adventure are the mysterious excerpts from official documents suggesting there’s more to come in this story.

Great fun, capturing perfectly the power of imagination.

‘The Liars of Mariposa Island’ – Jennifer Mathieu

A very different book from Jennifer Mathieu, but I’m grateful to NetGalley for giving me the opportunity to read this prior to publication (scheduled for September 2019).

The ARC I received has the simple title ‘The Liars’ and this definitely indicates more characters could be given this title than the family of three we predominantly focus on.

The majority of the story focuses on 17 year old Elena, and her desperate attempts to force a life for herself in spite of her mother’s controlling behaviour. Her older brother, Jouqain, is allowed to work and go out at night but he recognises their mother’s behaviour is abusive. With nobody else to support him though, Jouqain doesn’t know what to do to improve their situation, although he does what he can to improve the situation for Elena.

Alongside the story of these two and the summer that starts to signal change, we get the background to their mother’s life. It is jarring at first, but the details about her wealthy home in Cuba and the change in lifestyle when she’s sent alone to America do explain – at least in part – some of her actions.

Nothing is really resolved by the end of the book for Elena, but the circumstances around Jouqain do give some hope that things might change in time.

‘Jemima Small Versus the Universe’ – Tamsin Winter

Jemima Small is a big character. She has so much going for her – kind, loyal, knowledgeable – but in her mind these count for little. This is because Jemima is overweight. For years she has had peers ridicule her, mock her size and basically try to destroy her confidence.

When we first meet Jemima it’s hard not to feel sympathy for her. Whatever your view on the best way to support children with health issues, nobody should have to put up with the comments she experiences. When Jemima and some of her schoolmates are put into what becomes known as Fat Club, it’s hard to see where this will go.

Yet this book has a really positive message. There’s no quick fix. Some of it is hard work, and most of it is about adjusting your mental outlook. You won’t satisfy everyone, and sometimes it’s about finding other things to occupy your time with.

Set alongside the exploration of weight/body image is the set-up of a competition to enter Brainiacs. Jemima does, as we expect, get through and it was great to see knowledge and the acquisition of it seen as a positive thing.

‘Only Ashes Remain’ – Rebecca Schaeffer

After the close of book one I wasn’t sure where this would take us…due for publication in September 2019, this is a sequel I was determined to read.

Having escaped the Black Market and decided to try and rely on Kovit’s help, Nita is determined to try and avenge what happened to her.

Not quite sure who to trust, Nita ends up having to make some tough decisions. She wants her life back, but with certain people desperate to treat her as a victim, she needs to do something drastic to rectify the situation.

This book has Nita hiding out in Canada, trying to establish who she can trust and to what extent. There’s hints of murky business regarding her father and the Zebra who killed him. Her mother reappears, but the substantial part of the story focuses on both Nita and Kovit trying to reconcile their personal interests with their belief they could be friends.

I wasn’t wholly surprised by the revelation about Fabricio. However, there was definitely unexpected tension brought into the story towards the end. I liked the fact that Nita could be challenged in this story and I am very very keen to learn how this will all slot into place in part three.

Huge thanks to NetGalley for letting me read this prior to publication in exchange for my thoughts.

‘Jinxed’ – Amy McCulloch

Lacey Chu is a fantastic engineer. She harbours dreams of working for MONCHA, a leading firm behind the concept of the baku – robotic companions that also act as phones. Unfortunately, it looks like her dream will fall at the first hurdle when she’s not accepted at the special school linked to the company.

With her dreams seemingly in tatters Lacey is not thinking straight when she tries to rescue her best friend’s baku and ends up finding something that many people are looking for. A heap of scrap metal, she thinks, but when she gets back to her workshop Lacey realises it’s a baku like no other.

Over the summer she does her utmost to get it working. In a kind of fantasy fulfilment, things work just fine and suddenly Lacey finds herself heading to the school and getting caught up in stuff she only dreamt of.

While this was set in North America, the whole concept and the battling felt like Pokemon had been brought to life and given personalities. That in itself was great fun, and the dynamics between Lacey and her new-found friends was entertaining. However, not everything is as it seems and there are definitely people suspicious of the skills Lacey and her baku exhibit.

I enjoyed this so much I’ve already pre-ordered Unleashed as I cannot leave this not knowing who on earth is behind what happened at the end. I also wonder whether we’ll learn a little more about the mysterious Mr Chu.
Huge thanks to NetGalley for putting me onto this one.

‘The Deathless Girls’ – Kiran Millwood Hargrave

Gothic, intoxicating, feminist, darkly provoking and deeply romantic – this is the breathtakingly imagined untold story of the brides of Dracula, by bestselling author Kiran Millwood Hargrave in her much-anticipated YA debut.

With a tag-line and cover like that, who could resist?

The myth of Dracula is fascinating, and to go beyond the main character is particularly interesting. In this story, Hargrave focuses on what happened to perpetuate the story of Dracula – the women behind the man, in a manner of speaking.

We begin our story with twins, Lil and Kizzy, seeing their home burned and their family slaughtered. The girls and children of the village are taken as part of a retinue to be sold to the various Counts who rule the land. As twins, Kizzy and Lil are in high demand.

We follow them as they’re taken to the castle,their new home, and put to training. The life is brutal, but even within these walls there are hints of potential happiness.

Sadly this is destroyed when Lil is betrayed. Kizzy is then taken and Lil begins a perilous journey to rescue her sister.

As she journeys across the country to the land ruled by the man known as the Dragon, Lil starts to understand some of the rumours circulating about him. She learns he is able to turn people into Strigoi, and that his skills go far beyond anything they are familiar with.

Much as she wants to rescue her sister, Lil doesn’t bank on how someone used to being manipulated might find the lure of power too promising to give up. And so we learn of the origins of the Brides of Dracula. Hargrave gives a very human face to characters that are always portrayed as inhuman.

A huge thank you to NetGalley for providing me with an advance copy in exchange for my thoughts.

‘The Chain’ – Adrian McKinty

Well, that was a rollercoaster read.

We begin with Kylie on her way to school. She’s kidnapped at gunpoint, and chained in a basement. Horrific stuff, but even worse when we learn that her kidnappers are doing this because it is part of the condition of getting their own kidnapped son released.

The family have become part of The Chain, a terrifying concept that threatens your very existence unless you follow the rules.

Kylie’s mum is desperate to get her daughter back. She gathers the ransom then plans to carry out her own kidnap. The key rule is that she must not involve the police and must do as she is told.

I recall chain letters being a thing (a bit like those ‘share this post’ stuff) when I was younger, and the advice you were given was to ignore them because the senders couldn’t do anything. While you know this behaviour is morally unacceptable, how far would you be prepared to go to protect your children?

Horrific subject though it is, this was a story that really had you from the off.

The only thing that marred it for me was the shift to the viewpoint of the perpetrators. It seemed to move the focus of the book in a way that lost my interest a little, and I still find it hard to believe that someone who’d set this up for so long – and clearly been very successful – would make such careless errors.
Still, I can see why this is being touted as a thriller to read.