‘I Hold Your Heart’ – Karen Gregory

From a distance, everyone thinks they can spot the signs of an abusive relationship.

From a distance, you think you know that some actions are just not what forms part of a healthy relationship.

But when you’re the one in that situation, how easy is it to tell?

When Gemma first meets Aaron she’s confident and outgoing, has a part-time job, dreams of singing and is just starting A-levels. Within weeks of meeting Aaron things are shifting. She starts giving up things that meant so much to her. Is it because Aaron loves her, or is there a more sinister angle?

Reading this knowing what the story focused on meant I was on alert throughout, looking for signs that it was heading that way. But the way the story developed felt very natural, and it’s easy to see just how easy it could be to end up in a situation you’re not entirely comfortable with.

An emotional journey, which may not ring true for everyone, but it will certainly get people talking.

The link to the e.e. cumming’s poem has now given a much more sinister vibe to what always seemed such a heartfelt sentiment. The power of words.

‘How to Make Friends with the Dark’ – Kathleen Glasgow

The kind of experience that you’d hope nobody ever has to go through at such a young age, but you know it happens frequently. Grief isn’t something you’re ever really prepared for. Knowing how to feel when someone close to you dies isn’t always possible, and when you’re just a child it could so easily be over-whelming.
Grace – known as Tiger – is close to her mother, but she finds her restrictions hard to accept at times. They have a huge argument. Something that happens daily for some. But for Grace, this becomes a key moment…as later that day her mother dies suddenly.

At 16 Grace becomes a ward of the state and everything she knows has gone. We follow Grace through her time in foster care; her sudden learning of a previously unknown family member who becomes her guardian, and her brief foray into the depths of her darkness.

The story itself felt disjointed at times. So many strands were unresolved or left open in a way that felt a little frustrating. However, there were some wonderful characters helping a Tiger through her experience, and the eloquence with which Glasgow captures the grieving process was to be applauded.

Everyone’s experience of grief will be different, but this allows a brief insight into some of the things that might affect people and how they can deal with them.

‘Can You See Me?’ – Libby Scott and Rachel Westcott

Can You See Me? is a definite one to recommend.

We focus on the story of Tally, a young girl just starting Year Seven. She tries very hard to be ‘normal’ and to fit in but doesn’t always find it easy because she is autistic. While her experience might not be the same for everyone, it certainly offers a glimpse into her life and offers the reader a chance to walk in her shoes a while. However, it goes beyond sharing just her experience as an autistic child; focusing on how many of her peers also feel about the experiences they face.

I loved the authentic feel to Tally’s voice, and the perceptive comments about how those around her react to her/her ‘meltdowns’ and the quirks that make her who she is.

A great cross-over read for primary/high school students.

‘The Furies’ – Katie Lowe

With its references to mythology and classic literature, its private school setting, exclusive ‘study group’ and murders it’s not hard to see why I was getting a sense of The Secret History as I read this. Unlike that book, I never got the feeling that our narrator – Violet – was trying to establish herself as better than the group she joins. If anything, her naïveté and somewhat gauche decision-making is understandable and stops us totally disliking her.
Opening with what becomes a key closing image meant there was a definite sense of inevitability to the events contained within. At the beginning, when we’re told about Violet’s family situation, it’s hard not to feel some sympathy for her. How wise the decision to go to this exclusive Academy to study A-levels was is not up for question – but, with an absent mother dealing with grief by opting out, it’s not hard to see how easy it was for Violet to be seduced by the camaraderie offered to her.
Violet does not seem particularly likeable. She ignores obvious issues with those attempting to befriend her, gets herself into crazy situations and seems content to put it down to being seduced by the thrill of what’s happening. The blurring of moral boundaries and the toxicity of the girls’ friendship seemed, to me, to be at the heart of the story. As it’s a theme often explored, linking it to the supernatural and the age-old obsession with ‘difference’ offered another way in.
As the events progressed, it was genuinely hard to work out exactly who was guilty of what. There were hints of so many characters doing inappropriate things that part of me couldn’t help but feel it was inevitable that they’d pay a price of some sort, eventually.
Though this bore resemblances to a number of stories, I felt it came into its own as we watch Violet at the end. Older, a little wiser, but still part of the ongoing cycle that seems to be so vilified throughout.

‘Red, White and Royal Blue’ – Casey McQuiston

Will we ever see such a reality? A female President whose bisexual son starts a relationship with the Prince of England…probably not, but that’s why we have books.

Alex is convinced that he hates the Prince of England – but for someone who is so disliked, Alex spends a lot of time reading about him. Of course, his feelings are pretty obvious to everyone but Alex for the start of the book. Interestingly, it’s not him who makes the first move and this was a little more graphic than I was thinking it would be.

Some of the scenarios we were given were – I imagine – highly improbable. However, this was a romance with a difference.Great fun. Cheering. Highly entertaining.

‘All We Could Have Been’ – T.E. Carter

Lexie is used to running. Each year she starts a new school, under a new name, in an attempt to get away from the inevitable bullying when people find out about the awful thing her brother did.

We learn that when Lexie was twelve her brother forgot to pick her up from school. She walked home. She recalls blood, lots of it. And since that time her brother has not been part of her life – although his actions, and the consequences of those actions, permeate every part of her being.

So often in a tragic event, the focus is on those who were lost or the perpetrators. People are suspicious of the family members – how could they not know?

We watch Lexie try to deal in her own way with yet another new beginning. She starts to form tentative friendships and, eventually, makes the decision to tell people the truth. Sadly, not everyone reacts as she’d hoped.

This tried to explore how important it is to feel comfortable with your decisions, but it didn’t quite work for me. The group Lexie allied herself with didn’t seem like young adults (perhaps their petty immaturity was intentional), Lexie herself never really felt like a fully-developed character (again, she’s a work in progress so perhaps this was intentional) and it seemed to send a rather odd message that she only felt strong enough to start addressing some of her issues once she’d had sex.

Thanks to NetGalley for granting me access to this in exchange for my thoughts. Based on other reviews I’ve read, this wasn’t really the book for me but I’m looking forward to reading his first one.

‘Girls With Sharp Sticks’ – Suzanne Young

From the moment I saw this cover I couldn’t wait to read the book.

Set in The Innovations Academy, we meet a group of privately educated young girls who are being given the best education their families can provide. They are encouraged to be their best, but from the start there are signs that this might not be the best thing for the girls.

Our main focus is Mena, a model student, who shows signs of discomfort with her surroundings. She begins to question what’s happening, and starts to see signs that things are not quite what the girls have been led to believe.

The first half of part one – where we start to read the clues given about what might be happening – felt slow and I wasn’t enjoying it. However, once we started to see Mena probe further, I was gripped.

The reality of this world was, sadly, testimony to what are regarded as common attitudes surrounding gender even now. Thankfully the events of the novel showed these views being challenged, and even gave hope that they might – in time – change. Though this works well as a stand-alone, I think book two might answer some of the questions posed by events of this part of the story.

‘The Boy Next Story’ – Tiffany Schmidt

In this second book in the series there’s a sense of familiarity to some of the components, but the changing book focus and new characters stops it seeming repetitive.

In this story we focus on aspiring artist Aurora who’s had a crush on her next door neighbour Toby since she was five. Unfortunately, he seems to be in love with Aurora’s sister even though she’s unaware of it.

This could have been irritating beyond belief, and there were moments that I wanted to smack heads together because people were being so dense, but the warmth of Aurora and her friends Clara and Huck kept it entertaining. When the focus was on The Great Gatsby I was uncertain if this was the book for me – but after a false start a new book becomes the focus and this is much more pertinent.

This was no easy ride love story, but everything turned out nicely and kept me entertained along the way. A great bookish journey, and I must thank NetGalley for granting me access to this prior to publication.

‘My Brother’s Name is Jessica’ – John Boyne

Where to start?

I’ve seen so much criticism surrounding this book, and I was in two minds about reading it.

I’d hate to accuse writers of jumping on a bandwagon, but there is a cynical part of me that wonders whether this seemed an opportune time to write a novel about an issue that is high-profile. Boyne’s comments at the end of the novel would suggest not, but it certainly raises points of concern for many readers.

The story is told through the eyes of Sam, a thirteen year old whose mother is a Member of Parliament, and how he feels when his elder brother, Jason, tells the family he is transgender. As a result, there’s a lot of stereotypical negative comments made that don’t really help anyone to gain understanding of the situation.

From the outset I felt that there was a rather outdated feel to this. Sam did not come across as representative of many thirteen year olds and their awareness of issues around gender. Some of the comments may be realistic, but perpetuating the clichés and insults is no way to go if you’re trying to raise awareness.

The parent figures were vile. Their initial comments and behaviours showed a total lack of empathy. Perhaps that’s the point, but I don’t think it really helps anyone to consider their standpoint if they only see one view.

A hard review to write and I may well edit this in the future.

To me this felt a little misguided, and I can’t help but think someone else has done it better.

Thanks to Sophia Bennett@Twitter for drawing my attention to a great review of this novel from the perspective of someone who has a little more understanding of the situation than I do:  https://frejawoolf.tumblr.com/post/184559813853/my-brothers-name-is-jessica-by-john-boyne-a

 

‘A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder’ – Holly Jackson

Nancy Drew for the modern era…and the kind of book that will have you desperate to solve crimes and right wrongs.

Pip is a model student, hard-working and resourceful. She’s also determined that in her little town someone has, literally, got away with murder.

Andie Bell and Sal Singh are names that everyone in the town knows. Andie was the good girl murdered by her jealous boyfriend, who then killed himself because of his guilt, denying family the chance to mourn Andie properly. Pip, however, recalls Sal and can’t reconcile the view of him she has with what people say about him. She is determined to find out what really happened and prove Sal’s innocence.

Nothing prepares her for what she uncovers in the course of her investigation. Her doggedness, however, makes for great reading.

Most people would run a mile at the situations Pip finds herself in. She seizes them and battles through some pretty scary stuff to show what really happened. The truth is far darker than you’d imagine.

Pip was foolish at times, but a great story and I’m grateful to NetGalley for allowing me access to this prior to publication.