‘D.O.G.S’ – M.A. Bennett

This series doesn’t seem to have grabbed everyone, but I enjoyed the first part of the series (however ridiculous the scenario seemed) and this more than delivered.

Trying to come to terms with her role in Henry’s death, Greer is back at S.T.A.G.S and needing something to bolster her chances of getting into Oxford. She doesn’t question the timing of events, but we are very suspicious when the first Act of a lost Ben Jonson play is put under her door. Greer is intrigued by the idea of putting on something thought to be so dangerous that it closed the theatres.

Before we know it we are following the preparations for this play, and – of course – things are inextricably linked to Longcross and Henry’s family. We know someone has secrets, and we can’t help but wonder just how this play fits with our current story.

I loved the feeling of a story within a story, and yet we still have a sense of Greer’s story developing in ways that perfectly blend a sense of threat with excitement. It wasn’t clear just who was hiding what, and even at the end there’s a murkiness to this that suggests our understanding of the Order and the threat they pose has more layers to reveal.

I can’t wait to read the final part.

 

‘Girl A’ – Abigail Dean

Girl A is not an easy read, but it’s a fascinating one – and on e I will recommend people get their hands on when it’s published (due January 2021).

At the age of fifteen our main character, Lex, fled her home – dubbed the ‘House of Horrors’ by the press – and then people learn the shocking truth about her home life. Now a successful lawyer, Lex has some understandable issues and things she does to protect herself from the trauma she lived through. These become more apparent when she is asked to be the executor of her mother’s will.As Lex deals with the realities of managing an estate of someone who was complicit in her suffering years of neglect and abuse, we see her fracture.

Alongside the focus on Lex in her present, we also learn of the gradual decline in her family situation which, ultimately, resulted in the deaths of some of her siblings and their enduring mental and emotional scars. It’s hard to feel sympathy for the adults in this, but there is an attempt to help us to understand the way this situation developed and to get into the head of the main perpetrators.

I was pleased that the author chose to not dwell on the abuse hinted at. Seen through Lex’s eyes it seemed to be a way of trying to come to terms with her feelings for those she’s interacting with now. While I came to admire Alex’s resolve and courage, it was clear that she was a long way from okay. Her relationship with her older brother, Ethan, was a difficult one and only felt more fragile once we learned of his role in events.

I’m grateful to NetGalley for granting me access to this in advance of publication, and while it’s not a pleasant read it is definitely highly recommended.

‘The Cousins’ – Karen McManus

Scheduled for release in December 2020, I don’t have to stress how excited I was to get approval for this on NetGalley. McManus has quickly become one of those authors that seems a guaranteed winner for a story that draws you in and leaves you feeling more than satisfied with what you’ve read. Having just finished The Cousins earlier this morning, I can safely say that she’s onto what I think will be another hit.

Having raced through the previous books by McManus, I was struck by the relatively slow-paced start to this. We are in a very different world, but one in which characters are just as duplicitous and where we are waiting for the secrets to be unearthed from the moment we start reading.

Our main characters are Aubrey, Millie and Jonah – cousins who are not close, and who haven’t really seen each other in years. But when they each receive a letter asking them to go and work for their grandmother’s resort for the summer you can’t help but be curious. Even more so when we realise that the cousins have no relationship with their grandmother, and that she cut off her children years earlier (after the sudden death of their father) and has refused contact with them since.

Each of the characters has their own reasons for deciding to agree to this mysterious demand. Once they arrive at the resort, however, it is evident that their grandmother had no idea they were coming. Her best friend seems determined to keep the cousins away from her, and an old man in town – the family doctor – drops a hint that there is more to this story than anyone has been prepared to let on.

Once we get our teeth into the mystery things pick up. We have sections of the story from years earlier, giving details of the original children and their interactions, which offer little clues as to what might have happened and how it might be resolved in the present. As our main characters start to piece together the events leading to the family break-up, the pace really cranks up…until I found myself racing to finish and find out exactly what had happened.

By the time I got near the end I was already knowing this would be a read I’d heartily recommend to others. Rather unexpected, and it offers some resolution of a potential issue with the book, but it also offers a delightful hint that we might not be fully done with this world just yet.

 

‘Influence’ – Sara Shepard and Lilia Buckingham

If you thought Pretty Little Liars was set in a far-fetched world, then you’ll love Influence. It’s a world so far removed from reality for many that it really is hard to comprehend people living like this. However, Shepard’s co-author in this is a real-life influencer, so I trust much of this is based on her reality.

The story focuses on four influencers – Delilah (relatively new to the scene), Scarlet (the original mean girl), Jasmine (a child star desperate to reveal who she really is) and Fiona (the funny girl hiding her own secret). We follow them as they live their picture-perfect lives and quickly realise that the reality of their existence is quite different from the image they present.

Much of the interest for me came from the insight into a way of life that is so alien to my experience. It struck me as crazy, a mental nightmare waiting to happen and yet something that holds a dangerous allure. When one of the group is found dead, there is a determination to uncover some of the secrets people have been hiding as they work out what’s happened.

Strangely, the actual murder and subsequent investigation really didn’t register much. There was an attempt to make it dramatic, but the truth was – if I’m honest – rather out of place and seemed more of a manipulation of events to prove a point about the potential pitfalls of this type of world.

I’m grateful to NetGalley for letting me read this prior to publication (expected January 2021), and though it wasn’t really my thing I can see this being a big hit with the target audience.

 

‘Cemetery Boys’ – Aiden Thomas

This is a review I had to return to as when I finished the book I had tears in my eyes and couldn’t think straight. Emotional with some great comic moments, and characters that jump off the page with their vibrancy. A tale of love, acceptance and a healthy dose of sass with some magic thrown in…will be recommending this to so many!

Update

Yadriel is part of a family who can see the dead. Their talents have been nurtured over many years, and Yadriel is desperate to be part of the Brujx community. What we quickly learn is that Yadriel’s family are reluctant to accept him into the rituals because he is trans, and it goes against their traditions. A conflict that, for me, came to represent the challenge that seems to be common to many…that need to be accepted for who you are, and perhaps validated by those you love (even if they don’t seem wholly supportive of you).

Yadriel and his best friend, Maritza, definitely forge their own way. Determined to find a way to prove their skills, Yadriel carries out his own ritual when his cousin Miguel goes missing. There’s no sign of a body – but when Yadriel brings back another dead boy, Julian, he gets more than he bargained for!

From their first meeting Julian and Yadriel are great together. They have an instinctive need to support one another and they can’t always articulate what they’re feeling, but it’a a bond to treasure. It’s hardly surprising that Yadriel is not wholly pleased at the prospect of having to send Julian’s body to the afterlife.

The book follows Yadriel and Maritza in their journey to learn what has happened to Miguel and Julien. Eventually they get answers, though they’re not what they would have wanted. This culminated in a dramatic moment that had me crying, but the aftermath mopped things up nicely and left me with good feelings (albeit with tears in my eyes).

I can’t wait to recommend this to people and discuss it.

‘Heart Bones’ – Colleen Hoover

Hearts don’t have bones so they can’t hurt…proving people who think this wrong is, I think, the reason for writers like Hoover, who seem determined to show us the many ways in which loving someone can both heal and hurt in equal measure.

Our main character in this is Beyah Grim. When we first met her she’s living in a trailer park with her mother, a meth addict, and is faced with the pretty unpleasant scene of her mother having overdosed in their living space. Seeing how badly Beyah’s home life has impacted on her is made startlingly clear when she says that dying was probably the one good thing her mother did for her. Only hours after this shocking discovery, Beyah is told she is being evicted from the only home she’s known because her mother didn’t pay rent for the last few months. Her only choice is to phone the father she doesn’t really know.

So Beyah finds herself on a plane headed for Texas, where she is going to stay until she can take up her place in college. As soon as she meets her father at the airport it’s clear that her mother’s addiction has robbed her of the chance to have a relationship with her father, and though he has to take some blame for not pushing for a relationship it’s hard not to feel sorry for people like this who fall through the cracks.

Spending the summer surrounded by money and opportunities is a tough thing for Beyah to accept. She is the proverbial fish out of water, and resists her stepsister Sara’s attempts to fix her up with a friend. What we quickly come to realise is that Beyah has already made quite an impression on this friend…and so starts a summer fling that we predict will end in tears – but I definitely didn’t predict just how emotionally I’d react to it.

This is probably a book that’s good to go into without knowing too much. I feared it would be bleak and yet found myself laughing and enjoying this far more than I predicted. Of course it has moments that will upset you, but at its heart it’s a story about having the courage to stick with those you trust.

‘The Search Party’ – Simon Lelic

I love it when a book surprises you with something that you just don’t see coming…

In The Search Party we have, essentially, a mystery to solve. But, as one of the detectives in the book says, there’s more than one thing going on and Simon Lelic definitely keeps us guessing on more than one occasion.

What we know at the start is that a young girl, Sadie, has gone missing. Many people in the town assume her boyfriend killed her while others think she’s run away. The police have found her bag near the local river but no sign of a body. The pressure is on. Bizarrely, Sadie’s friends decided to head out into the local woodland to search for Sadie and it would seem another of their group has been killed. It seems someone has something to hide, and Detective Fleet – who has his own history with the town – is under pressure to work out what happened.

Cutting between the stories from the teenagers involved as they’re talking to the police and the view of Detective Fleet, this is really cleverly constructed. We slowly piece together some of the mysteries surrounding the missing girl and subsequent events. We have a character in Fleet that we can’t help but empathise with, and a resolution that nobody would have desired but which shows certain characters in a very different light to the one we’ve seen them in.

Huge thanks to NetGalley and the publishers, Penguin, for brightening up my day with this read.

‘Some Laneys Died’ – Brooke Skipstone

Thank you to NetGalley and publishers, Skipstone, for granting me access to a most puzzling read that had me scratching my head in equal confusion and wonder.

Having finished, I’m still not entirely sure I’ve grasped some of the finer points of the concept. I found myself reading, then having to pause to actually digest what I’d read and try to work it out/link to what I already knew. I would liken reading this to me trying to solve a Rubik’s cube…I know there’s a knack to it whereby everything flows seamlessly, but I work in fits and starts without really getting anywhere, then by a freak occurrence something will slot into place and it’s done.

When I started reading I wondered what was true and what was in our character Laney’s imagination. She writes stories about alternate universes where different characters sharing her name experience different things. She interacts with people who reference events she thought were dreams which seem to have really taken place. Piece by piece she starts to realise some of these events are merging. This idea of alternate universes and time frames may make more sense to students of maths or physics.

The story as such is not a pleasant one. Laney reads a story about two skeletons found in the woods, dated to a time that she recalls finding her father having sex with an old girlfriend. She is fascinated by what she recalls of that incident and is convinced that the skeletons are the bodies of her and her twin sister (a twin who doesn’t exist in the story we start) who were killed by a sadistic pair of brothers – one of whom is friends with her now. The Laney we follow is switching experiences/times in order to hunt the person who in another time/place killed her and tortured then killed her sister.

For every choice there’s a range of possibilities. Watching Laney try to manipulate her experiences was intriguing. I confess to not always following Laney’s thought process, and the book seemed to give some conflicting messages about addiction and sexuality, but as a whole it was a read I’d recommend.

‘They Wish They Were Us’ – Jessica Goodman

 

Fairly standard fare here, which is a shame as this had potential to be so much more.

Jill Newman is about to start her Senior year at the exclusive prep school she has a scholarship to. She is one of the group known as the Players, a hand-picked group of eight that are chosen each year to carry on the tradition. Weekly tasks and challenges to prove your group spirit…and, in exchange, a free pass to tests and advice/shortcuts for life. These are privileged kids for no reason other than someone chose them.

It would be too easy to despise Jill and the group for getting everything handed to them on a plate while those around them work. So the author takes great pains to emphasise Jill is clever, a grafter, and needing her scholarship to set her big plans in motion. She also happens to have been best friends with Shaila, a student who was killed a few years ago. Sympathy vote checked, but that isn’t really enough to overcome the easy pass she and her friends have.

The book focuses on Jill’s internal struggle with what this life offers her. She feels pressure to act a certain way but, deep down, hates everything she represents. How can she move forward if she’s held captive by her present?

The dilemma is solved by Jill’s decision to help an old classmate. Rachel is the sister of the young man who got put away for Shaila’s murder. She is convinced her brother’s innocent and so Jill decides to do the right thing and help try to uncover the truth.

There’s an attempt at a red herring straight out of Pretty Little Liars territory. Fairly early on I had my suspicions as to who might be responsible. Sadly I was proven right and after the ease with which the girls got the confession I can only hang my head at the pitiful job the police did at the time.

This will have its fans. I liked the message it tries to give about working for your successes, but there was just too much that didn’t work for me to really fall under the spell of this one.

‘The Unexpected Everything’ – Morgan Matson

Our main character, Andie, is used to being organised. With a father involved in politics she’s used to watching what she says and does, and having things planned keeps her in control when she’s not really. Her close group of friends do pretty much everything together and she’s looking forward to her summer on her organised program.

Unfortunately, when we see Andie her father is having to step away from his job because of some issues with his team. As a result of this her letter of recommendation is withdrawn, she loses her summer program place and is set up for a summer where she is not in control of anything.

Of course, this is the summer that Andie gets to work a lot of stuff out. She gets a job walking dogs, and one of those on her round is Bertie…who happens to be linked to a young man called Clark that Andie finds very interesting.

No surprises, it’s a contemporary romance so we know we’re going to see Clark and Andie get together. What we’re not told initially is that Clark is actually a famous fantasy writer and his presence here is to allow him the summer to get over his writer’s block and sort out his final book of the trilogy. Andie finds herself trusting him, and learning to dial back on the organisation thing. She learns a lot about herself, her family and her friends.

There’s the inevitable bumps along the way – some of which we can see coming very early on – but everything works out okay in the end. At times it felt the story could have been cut a little, but for anyone who loves this kind of thing you won’t be disappointed.