‘All Boys Aren’t Blue’ – George M. Johnson

All Boys Aren’t Blue covers so many areas, but I would urge people to read it, even if you don’t see it as having direct relevance to you.

Part memoir, this series of reflections offer an insight into the author’s life as a child and growing up (as he calls himself) black and queer. We journey from an early memory of having his teeth kicked in at five years old to dealing with the death of a close friend at college and, along the way, get to hear about family members and the various events that he recalls shaping him as he grew up.

I was struck, more than anything, by the love and strength gained from family. Things may not have always been articulated, but there’s a clear sense that when it counted they would have your back. You might be held to account, but you would always be loved – and it strikes me that this may well be the best gift you can give someone.

So many of the memories were tinged with sadness and made me feel angry that they had to be experienced, but if all of us were to pinpoint moments that shaped us I’m sure that not all of them would be positive. As so eloquently written in the latter stages of the book, reading about the experiences of others can help us define ourselves and for this reason alone I would recommend this book. While so much was nothing like my own experiences, that search for yourself and the need to find your family will resonate with most readers.

I’m in awe of Nanny and the devotion she has so clearly inspired. I feel privileged to have been allowed to see inside our author’s head, and grateful to have been given this opportunity.

 

‘The Last Girl’ – Goldy Moldavsky

Thanks to the publishers for granting me access to this via NetGalley prior to its scheduled April 2021 release.

The Last Girl is a must-read for horror fans…a lovingly crafted homage to movies that revel in gore, jump-scares and violence. Even readers like myself (who can only read horror stories during the day and who can conjure up threats from the merest hint of shadows and strange noises) will find themselves sucked into this story.

Even knowing the rules doesn’t always help. Sometimes you are up against something for which it’s hard to be prepared.

Our story focuses on new girl Rachel who’s started at an exclusive school where her mum teaches. She is not naturally sociable, and the trauma of killing a masked invader to her old home is something Rachel does not want to share with anyone. She is befriended by Saundra who is desperate to fill her in on the school gossip, but then Rachel finds herself part of a secret club.

Like Fight Club, the rules around this club are tight. Members cannot associate with one another, and nobody should talk about it. The Mary Shelley Club has a seemingly innocent aim, to gather and share a love of horror movies. Another aspect of the Club is the challenge that each member faces…to scare someone.
Initially, like Rachel, we see the Club as harmless – but there are signs that’s not the case. Before long we have a decidedly more dangerous scenario, and the question is whether Rachel will survive this experience.

Not to be taken too seriously, and not something you’d ever want to experience in reality, but self-aware enough to feel the author was having just as much fun writing it as I did reading it.

 

‘People We Meet on Vacation’ – Emily Henry

Due for release in May 2021, I was thrilled to be invited by the publishers to read this prior to publication.

Without giving too much away, this is a book where everything seems as if it should go horribly horribly wrong but it works so well.

Our main characters are Poppy and Alex, two very different people, whose first meeting seems as if it will quickly become the kind of meeting that you talk about in years to come with a sense of having escaped something. They are unlike each other in so many ways, and everything one likes the other dislikes. They have little in common – their only shared ground discovered in their first meeting is that they both have an irrational hatred of anyone who calls boats ‘she’. Yet that first meeting sets in place a relationship like no other.

Poppy and Alex spend years on the outskirts of each other’s lives. A remnant of their college years, they spend time each summer on a vacation. Their only stipulation that it should give them the chance to experience something new.

Over the years they’ve had some memorable trips…and we get to catch up with a few of them, learning as we go just what a place these two have for each other.
Alongside learning about their past, we see them in their present. Poppy writing for a travel magazine and based in New York; Alex teaching at his former high school, in the town Poppy couldn’t wait to escape. Still very different, but with a history whose reach is hard to ignore.

It didn’t surprise me to see what happened by the end. That always seemed likely, but it was great to see how they got to this point in their lives.

 

‘The Upside of Falling’ – Alex Light

This was an unbelievably quick read, and though it was good fun for the most part I can’t help but feel that some elements of the story were a little rushed.

Becca Hart has got used to living alone with her mum. When her dad left them Becca lost faith in the power of love. She closed off a little, and vowed never to fall in love because it would only mean getting hurt. Of course, that makes her ripe for the situation that develops in the book.

Within the early stages we see Becca being criticised for her rather unspoken opinions on love. She is rescued by popular guy, Brett, the boy who seems to have the perfect life and for whom love is something to believe in.

So begins a rather unlikely scenario – the fake dating where both Becca and Brett decide they have something to gain from convincing their peers that they are in a relationship. Naturally, they spend time together and it soon becomes clear that the boundaries are getting blurred and things aren’t quite as fake as they first thought.

The whole story rattles along at some pace. It’s hard not to like Becca and Bret, but I was struck throughout by their naivety and the speed with which they went from disinterested in a relationship to confessing their love for one another.
There’s a little blip on the way, but we know exactly how it’s going to end up.

 

‘The Project’ – Courtney Summers

The Project certainly encouraged me to think about some of the issues within, but it wasn’t quite the story I expected and I felt rather ambiguous about the ending.
Our story focuses on one group and their charismatic leader. Many outside the group regard it as a cult, and our main character Lo is one of those people. Working for a respected journalist, Lo dreams of writing an expose about the group, and getting answers to the questions she has about her sister.

I found it odd that the story begins from the viewpoint of Bea (the older sister) and how she became linked to Lev and the group. We see her as a teen dealing with the deaths of her parents and the aftermath of the crash that claimed their lives. It’s not really a surprise to learn that not long after Bea left to live in the group.

We then switch focus to Lo and her watching as she witnesses a suicide. Hard by any standards, but very odd to learn that the young man who killed him self recognised her and was linked to The Project. It’s not surprising that
Lo is then determined to find a way to expose Lev and what the group practises.
While it was interesting to see how the group operated and the subtle ways in which they exerted their beliefs on others, I found myself surprised that so few would challenge them or be prepared to counter their claims.

I felt uncomfortable watching Lo get sucked into what was evidently an unhealthy environment. The details were interesting, but never really seemed to make sense. Though we got answers, they came very much later and this meant I wasn’t quite as engaged throughout as I might have been.

 

‘Dear Emma Blue’ – Lia Louis

Dear Emmie Blue, you smashed my heart but made me smile, laugh and cry (sometimes at the same time) and I would have to be heartless to not award five stars to this even though some elements REALLY irritated me.
Emmie is a woman who definitely has not had it easy. An emotionally closed-off mother, an absent father who she has no contact with, a friend who refused to stick by her when she was abused by a teacher…thankfully these details don’t come out at once or I think I’d have stopped reading! What Emmie has had as a constant in her life is Lucas, born on the same day and living in France, he has known Emmie since they were both 16 and he found a balloon she released and they started to write to each other.
This kind of friendship over time means lots of memories and recollections. The importance Emmie places on Lucas is evident…and when he asks her to take on the role of ‘best woman’ at his wedding she accepts, even though she’s in love with him and thinks this act will physically kill her.
What we see is Emmie throw herself into this role, determined to do her bit. She smiles at his family, jokes with the fiancé and launches herself into every linked activity as she tries to do the right thing.
For the first quarter of the book I doubted I’d be able to read this. What she was doing wasn’t selfless, it was masochism at its worst. I also found myself intensely irritated by Lucas and how demanding he was of Emmie without ever really giving the same back.
Then things shifted a little. Emmie started to open up to some of the other characters this features, and we see that perhaps her feelings for Lucas stem not from love but a need to feel loved. Big difference.
Once we’d seen this shift I started to get little indications that the love story I expected might be on its way, though not necessarily in the place I expected.
Things don’t always go smoothly. There’s one or two bumps along the way, but I felt privileged to follow Emmie on her journey.

 

‘As Far As You’ll Take Me’ – Phil Stamper

 

Thanks to NetGalley for letting me read this before publication, and it’s another story that takes you through some of the highs and lows faced by many teens finding their way in the world.

Marty is not yet eighteen, a keen oboe player and struggling to feel comfortable with announcing his identity as a gay man to his conservative parents. With the help of his cousin, Marty concocts a rather elaborate scheme to step out into the world in his own terms.

From the outset I feared for Marty. I felt awful that his situation might still be a common one, and yet he retained such optimism about how he might start to live his life in the way he chose to.

We follow Marty to London where he tells his parents he’s attending a summer school. He’s not, but he hopes to play music and do whatever he needs to in order to live happily. We see him forge new friendships, and summon the strength to call out some less positive older friends. There’s a tentative relationship, but the thing that really struck me was the strength of character shown by Marty in working through a challenge, persevering with something scary and the determination to live the life he wants.

‘You Have a Match’ – Emma Lord

Emma Lord will, I’m sure, have another hit on her hands with this cute romance/contemporary about finding your interests and learning to accept yourself.

Abby is our main character. She’s a difficult person to get to know initially – even though we are seeing things from her point of view – because I always got a sense of her holding something back and not wanting to reveal her true thoughts about some key issues.

From early on we learn that she has two best friends, one of whom she has a serious crush on, and since the death of her beloved grandfather she is not coping in school. Her parents hover and try to help her, but we definitely get the impression of a family that is getting by rather than flourishing.

Our big twist comes early on when Abby helps her friend Leo (the one she has the not so secret crush on) by signing up to a DNA registry site. She is stunned to learn through the site that she has a sister. One that she knew nothing about.
Abby meets Savannah, her adopted sister, and learns that they appear to be nothing alike. The girls want to know what happened…so concoct a ridiculous scheme to allow them both to attend summer camp.

During this summer, Abby develops as a person. She finds her voice, starts to move on from the things holding her back and – eventually – finds romance. Things don’t go smoothly, and there’s a lot of people learning things because they happen to be in the right place at the wrong time that sometimes seems all too convenient.

The minor gripes aside, this was good fun and offered an entertaining story that also gave a fairly positive message to readers.

 

‘Concrete Rose’ – Angie Thomas

In the latest (I think, inevitable, bestseller) novel from Angie Thomas we focus on the early life of Star’s father, Maverick.

Set seventeen years before the events focusing on Star’s story we get to see Maverick Carter as a seventeen year old. From the outset we see glimpses of the man Maverick becomes, but we also get an insight into just how hard he had to fight to get to that stage.

The story feels familiar, knowing some of the details that are referenced in The Hate U Give. We watch Maverick dealing with the reality of becoming a father; the issues he faces each day with a father in prison; the expectations placed upon by him by others; his relationship with Lisa; school and work.

While I can’t begin to claim to understand his experiences, Thomas writes about them in a way that encourages you to empathise with him and the many like him. There’s some great characters ‘behind the scenes’ in his mum and Mr Wyatt, the mentor-like figure who helps him see his own worth. Of course there are some characters that it might be nice to hear a little more about but we see enough.

I did feel that some of the incidents/events were quite easy to predict, but I’m not sure how much of that is because they’re referenced in the later book or because these events are the fairly obvious ones for certain characters. Regardless, I liked the way we see Maverick grapple with his own shortcomings and prejudices as he starts his journey to where we’ve first seen him.

 

‘The Girl Who…’ – Andreina Cordani

Thanks to NetGalley for allowing me to read this before publication. It didn’t go quite as I expected, but it is definitely one I’d recommend reading.

When I first started reading I couldn’t make my mind up about either Leah or Ellie. These two had more in common than was suggested at the start, but it was a rollercoaster ride to get them to realise it.

Leah and Ellie are both reluctant to let the other get close. They have their reasons, and the hints at the secrets they were keeping totally lead me up the garden path in my thoughts of what might happen.

Their respective parents have got together so the family are at the awkward stage of adjusting to life together. Ellie is the life and soul of her world, while Leah is more circumspect. However, the narrative from Leah’s view shows us she’s not quite what she makes out.

It was clear that Leah was somewhat fixated on the events surrounding her dead mother and sister. She wanted revenge on the gang member who stabbed them, but her interactions with her family keep this hidden. Only as we near the end do we see just how dangerous her fixation could be.

I liked the split narrative as it kept just enough unclear to prevent it all being obvious, but it also helped us develop a less negative view of each girl. The inclusion of narrative from a third character was, initially, confusing but it became interesting to see the developing role this character played. I wish we could have seen a little more on this.

Unfortunately, I’m not wholly convinced by the way things were resolved but I’m prepared to admit this was because I expected something so different.