‘Maybe This Time’ – Kasie West

Nine events throughout the year. How much difference can a person make in that time? Is it enough to allow someone to fall in love? It’s a Kasie West romance, so you know it’s a pretty safe bet that the answer is yes.

One of our main characters in this is Sophie: a small-town girl with big dreams. Her hackles raise when she comes across Andrew, son of a celebrity chef signed up to help her best friend’s father turn his catering business around. They have quite an obvious attraction but wind each other up.

Throughout the year we spot their interactions at key moments in their town calendar. Sophie spends these occasions determined to avoid the inevitable, but also showing chinks in her defensive armour. Alongside watching her bumble through these at times humorous exchanges, we watch as Sophie has to learn a little about herself and her relationships with those around her.

This was a cute romance, which is rather obvious, but the interaction between the characters is amusingly relayed. Good cast of supporting characters and I liked the fact that not everything got resolved by the end.

‘SLAY’ – Brittney Morris

Thank you NetGalley for giving me the opportunity to read something way out of my comfort zone, which I can see having a pretty big impact when it’s released towards the end of September 2019.

Kiera is an honours student and seems pretty certain where things are going. She and her boyfriend have plans for college and the future. But she has a secret that she doesn’t feel comfortable sharing. She has designed and co-created a digital world where members can form a community…a game called SLAY.

Fed up with the abuse she suffered playing other on-line games, Kiera has taught herself what’s needed to create a whole new world. In this world, black game players don’t have to worry about online trolling and racist abuse. The moves they can use are part of black culture, and Kiera sees this as her safe space. Somewhere she can explore who she is, without being worried she is being judged.

Though the game seems to have come from a well-intentioned place, events somewhat take over and it’s suggested that Kiera has been a little naive. A young boy who plays her game is killed in real life and at the heart of his killing is an in-game dispute. Kiera feels responsible, and so many voices start to point the finger.

When someone hiding behind the handle ‘DRED’ finds their way into the game, Kiera has to come up with something special to show her intent. An interesting way to explore race and attitudes to race. I didn’t really get all the gaming talk, but the issues it examined were definitely compelling.

There’s no easy answers to some of the questions posed in the book, but it serves as another attempt to initiate discussion and certainly a different way into it.

‘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.

‘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.

‘All Eyes on Us’ – Kit Frick

All Eyes On Us focuses on two girls – Amanda and Rosalie – who seem very different, but who have a lot more in common than they realise…Carter Shaw, son of a local businessman.

Amanda is part of his social circle and their families have been pushing for them to be a couple since they were little. Amanda’s life is mapped out for her. College with Carter, a long engagement and then children, turning a blind eye to Carter’s indiscretions because that’s what’s expected of her. For years, she’s gone along with this but when Amanda starts to receive anonymous text messages she begins to question the wisdom of her life choices.

Amanda knows Carter has not always been faithful to her. She knows he is currently seeing Rosalie on the side. But what neither she nor Carter knows is that Rosalie is actually using Carter as a cover for the fact that she is a lesbian and her fundamentalist Christian parents can’t accept her choices. Forced to hide who she is, Rosalie decides to use Carter as her cover, while seeing her girlfriend in secret.

The messages that both girls receive are meant to be vaguely threatening, but there’s a limit to what people can do if you don’t succumb to their threats. Unfortunately, in the vein of the Pretty Little Liars characters, the girls in this respond to the messages and threats and start to let them rule what decisions they make. This is frustrating and leads them into quite unrealistic scenarios.

The book is a bit slow to get going as we establish the characters of Amanda and Rosalie. There’s a lot of focus on the parents of Amanda and Carter which makes little sense at first, but we do realise its significance eventually. My biggest gripe was with the character of Carter who was, in essence, a serial cheater and not a particularly appealing character.

Thanks to NetGalley for the advance copy in exchange for my thoughts. This is a definite must-read for fans of the Pretty Little Liars books.

‘Take it Back’ – Kia Abdullah

Take It Back is a gripping courtroom drama, perfect for fans of Apple Tree Yard, He Said/She Said and Anatomy of a Scandal.

A compelling read, and I’m grateful to NetGalley for allowing me the chance to read this prior to publication.

When we first meet Jodie Wolfe, she’s walking into a Rape Crisis centre asking for help. At sixteen, and with extreme facial deformities, Jodie has become accustomed to abuse. As she relays her experience, the reader cannot help but feel sympathy for her. Her physical appearance is not the issue here, but when she starts to blame herself for what happened because she thought someone was physically interested in her you can’t help but wince.

The details of her attack by four of her classmates are – understandably – difficult to read. The courage someone in her position shows cannot be underestimated.
The way this story is told focuses most of our attention on ex-barrister, Zara, who is determined to support this young girl because she believes her. We follow Zara as she supports Jodie in preparing to go to trial, and the inevitable fallout this causes as the boys Jodie accuses are ‘good Muslim boys’, well-respected in their community, and Zara’s involvement is quickly seen as evidence of her turning against her faith.

The nature of the case means so much depends on the reliability of witnesses. Four against one. No matter how strong the case seems to be, these are hard odds to beat.

Our narrative swiftly turns to the trial and the various attempts to undermine credibility of witnesses. We also deal with growing unrest in the community, and some awful behaviours as so many people try to appropriate events to suit their own ends.

It’s crucial that you go into this not knowing where this is going. Nothing is what it seems. We get to learn the truth, but talk about a Pyrrhic victory. Few come out of this story well, but it’s a must-read in my opinion.

‘Three Things About Elsie’ – Joanne Cannon

The three things we need to learn about Elsie aren’t explained fully, but we know she’s important to Florence.

Initially I wasn’t sure what was happening with this. An old woman called Florence appeared to be lying on the floor, waiting for someone to discover her. It wasn’t clear what had happened to her, or why nobody had found her. Returning to her during the story we realise she is lying on the floor throughout the five or so hours it takes to cover the narrative.

Alongside the real-time events, we get flashbacks and recounts of the key moments of Florence’s past and slowly come to realise the significance of Elsie.
The story itself focuses on someone unburdening themselves of a secret they’ve held close for years. Unfortunately this secret is also misguided, and we learn events didn’t quite happen as thought. The secret is linked to the presence of a man called Gabriel Price,who bears an uncanny resemblance to a man called Ronnie Butler who Florence knew years ago.

Interspersed with the secret and the details of Florence are a number of characters working in the home that Florence is in. From quite early on, we get signs that Florence is living with dementia, but the significance of this doesn’t really become known until later.

While I preferred Joanne Cannon’s first novel, this was an interesting read and one which certainly made me take a moment to think about how we treat those amongst us who are most in need of help.

‘The Unhoneymooners’ – Christina Lauren

This really was a story to take me by surprise. While the end result was obvious, it was such good fun to watch things unfold you’d have to have a heart of stone to not be sucked in.

Olive has always been used to feeling less than her composed sister, Ami. But when Ami and her entire wedding party get sick on the day of the wedding it ends up with Olive and best man, Ethan, taking up the honeymoon.

They hate each other, so it’s obvious they’ll end up together, but this was done naturally and in a way that had me both laughing out loud and swooning.

Great fun, though all quite obvious. A perfect summer read.