‘White Rabbit, Red Wolf’ – Tom Pollock

Touted as the new Curious Incident this is a very different book, and I think if you go into it expecting a lovable main character trying to make sense of the world around him you may be disappointed.

Peter is a mathematical genius. He uses maths to manage his extreme anxiety, and is convinced that maths has the answer to everything. Being that bit older than Haddon’s protagonist, he’s also got a slightly different take on the world.
From the moment we first meet Pete crouched in his kitchen having eaten a salt cellar in an attempt to stem his overwhelming anxiety, it’s clear that this is going to be an unsettling read. I truly wasn’t expecting it to be as dark as it was.

It was fascinating to get under the skin of Pete, but the actual story was more focused on the thriller element and it had to be this way in order for the plot to work.

When Pete’s mother is stabbed as she goes to receive an award for her work, his sister is missing and he quickly learns that no one around him was who they claimed to be. We’re plunged into a nightmare world of spies, scientific manipulation and some gruesome deaths.

I don’t want to reveal too much more. Suffice to say, nothing was quite as it seemed and every time I thought we were getting somewhere there was another detail given that turned things on their head. This would have been an all-out recommendation, but for the sense of everything feeling rather rushed by the end and being left rather uncertain about a few key details. Still one I’d heartily recommend.

‘The 57 Bus: A True Story of Two Teenagers and the Crime that Changed Their World’ – Dashka Slater

One teenager in a skirt.
One teenager with a lighter.
One moment that changes both of their lives forever.

If it weren’t for the 57 bus, Sasha and Richard never would have met. Both were high school students from Oakland, California, one of the most diverse cities in the country, but they inhabited different worlds. Sasha, a white teen, lived in the middle-class foothills and attended a small private school. Richard, a black teen, lived in the crime-plagued flatlands and attended a large public one. Each day, their paths overlapped for a mere eight minutes. But one afternoon on the bus ride home from school, a single reckless act left Sasha severely burned, and Richard charged with two hate crimes and facing life imprisonment. The case garnered international attention, thrusting both teenagers into the spotlight.

A seemingly innocuous action, done with little thought of the potential consequences, and I’m fairly certain that many teenagers could identify – to some degree – with this scenario. What will be quite different is that for most of us who carry out a ‘dumb/risky’ action there will be no further impact. Richard was not quite so lucky.

From the outset we are told exactly what happened to the two students involved – Richard and Sasha. Sasha fell asleep on a bus travelling home from school, Richard put a lighter to their skirt and then watched as they were seriously burned. The consequences for both could have been so much more severe, but what we are privy to here is enough.

We begin by focusing on Sasha. Born as Luke this section outlines how they came to view themselves as agender and what that meant for them and their family. There’s a lot of info packed into this section, but it gives a clear insight into some of the issues facing teens exploring their identity.

Next we’re introduced to Richard, a cheeky young boy who wants to achieve. Circumstances seem to play a huge part in his life and the options open to him, but each person has to take responsibility for their actions and live with the consequences of their actions.

As we watch the bus journey unfold, the moment Richard sets Sasha’s skirt on fire is fleeting. However, the repercussions of this moment are enormous.
The story takes us through court appearances, how both families reacted and some of the wider issues involved. It poses a number of questions about hate crime, how teens are treated in the justice system and how we can accommodate difference.

I felt quite humbled reading this, and very fortunate to not be faced with so many of the issues touched on within the pages. While the writing style had an inevitable journalistic tone, the story was engaging and one that needs to be shared. Thank you to NetGalley for granting me access to this book.

‘We Are Young’ by Cat Clarke

Another Cat Clarke success, but at a heavy cost. It’ll put you through the full range of emotions, but the messages are so important to be heard.

When Evan’s mum marries new partner Tim it should be a happy moment. But on the same night his son, Lewis, is involved in a car accident.

Three teens die and Lewis is in a coma. Rumours about the crash are rife, and people are curious about why four people who don’t know each other were together.

With the help of friends, her father and a bit of luck, Evan decides to pursue the truth behind the rumours and find out what really happened. Along the way she has some issues of her own to deal with, and gets to expose her new step-father’s controlling behaviour before things get too bad.

There’s a lot going on, and there were times everything felt rather too easily resolved. That aside, there’s definitely plenty to think about here.

Thanks to NetGalley for allowing me to read this in exchange for my thoughts.

‘All of this is True’ – Lygia Day Peñaflor

A group of teens go to a book signing and end up being befriended by the author. They are given unlimited access to her home and time, and she seems genuinely interested in getting to know them. Except, then her latest book is published and it is – in fact – the story of their lives.

The book idea itself was fascinating. I liked the inclusion of excerpts from the fictional book. Unfortunately, the group of teens were not particularly interesting characters. They had potential to be, but they were focused on in relation to the fictional book so we don’t see much beyond the surface.

Stylistically it feels choppy. We cut from interview to interview, to messages, to novel excerpts and it’s difficult to get a sense of quite where it’s going. It always felt like we were second guessing events/characters and those I’d really like to have heard from were not given a voice.

An intriguing idea, but one which didn’t quite come together for me.

‘Second Chance Summer’ – Morgan Matson

Having lost a relative to this illness only a few months ago, there was always going to be an emotional investment in this for me.
Taylor is having to spend the summer with her family after they learn her father has pancreatic cancer. Setting aside the inevitable turmoil she feels at coping with such an event, Taylor also has unfinished business at the resort and this bothers her.
To cut a long story short, the novel is set in summer and nearly every interaction between Taylor and other characters links to the idea of second chances in some way.
The story allows us to take pleasure in the small moments, those moments it’s too easy to take for granted until you no longer have them. Matson explores the physical impact of illness with sensitivity and there were some genuinely moving moments (even if you’ve not been in a similar situation).
Alongside this we have Taylor learning to deal with her emotions and friendships. The romance is not overdone, and the growth Taylor experiences as a character felt realistic in its portrayal.
All in all, one of those books that got me far more emotionally invested than I was expecting.

‘As I Descended’ – Robin Talley

“Something wicked this way comes.”

Maria Lyon and Lily Boiten are their school’s ultimate power couple—even if no one knows it but them.
Only one thing stands between them and their perfect future: campus superstar Delilah Dufrey.
Golden child Delilah is a legend at the exclusive Acheron Academy, and the presumptive winner of the distinguished Cawdor Kingsley Prize. She runs the school, and if she chose, she could blow up Maria and Lily’s whole world with a pointed look, or a carefully placed word.
But what Delilah doesn’t know is that Lily and Maria are willing to do anything—absolutely anything—to make their dreams come true. And the first step is unseating Delilah for the Kingsley Prize. The full scholarship, awarded to Maria, will lock in her attendance at Stanford―and four more years in a shared dorm room with Lily.
Maria and Lily will stop at nothing to ensure their victory—including harnessing the dark power long rumored to be present on the former plantation that houses their school.
But when feuds turn to fatalities, and madness begins to blur the distinction between what’s real and what is imagined, the girls must decide where they draw the line.

‘Macbeth’ for so many contemporary readers is linked to painful study for English GCSE with heads hurting from trying to work out what is in front of you. Here, Talley takes the essence of the story but gives it a contemporary twist.

Lily and Maria are students/roommates/lovers and our story begins with a ouija board experiment that immediately sets the scene for some dark and unsettling events.

Plotting to bring about the downfall of the main competitor for a scholarship prize, the two girls begin their murderous journey full of hope and quickly descend into ‘madness’ caused by their guilt.

This blended the Macbeth story and modern concerns well. Some characters, naturally, were more appealing than others but it revealed the characters and also encouraged some thoughts about the concerns raised in the contemporary setting.

‘All We Can Do Is Wait’ -Richard Lawson

Sometimes a book just comes along at the right time. Perhaps on another occasion I’d have been irritated by the pacing of this or the endings for some of the strands, but at this point it felt like a rather cathartic experience.

Five teenagers end up in hospital in Boston after a major disaster. Nobody can do anything but wait. And as they wait, they talk and share stories about their lives. Each is caught up in their own story – with their own suffering – but there is a commonality to their experience that bonds them as the hours tick by.

The most obviously interesting characters were Alexa and Jason because of their shared past. Their story really examined loss and how we each deal with tragedy. Yet it was Megan who I was most intrigued by, and there was something fitting about her story ending.

In all, a raw and strangely uplifting book about loss in its many forms.

‘Seed’ – Lisa Heathfield

A deeply upsetting story.

Pearl has known no place other than Seed, the place she lives with her family. The cult is terrifying in the way it operates, and I found it highly effective that Heathfield chose to write about events from Pearl’s perspective. Her naïveté is concerning, but it offers a compelling insight into some of the methods used to keep people within such an environment.

It’s tempting to think nothing would have changed were it not for the arrival of Ellis and his family, but there are signs that Pearl was beginning to question what happened around her home.

I was pleased that we were not given graphic descriptions of what we assume was happening at this place. What we were told was enough. Much of my time reading this was spent feeling anger at the people who perpetuate such regimes.
While the ending did not resolve everything, it gave us opportunity to digest the events and dream about what might come next.

‘The Last to Let Go’ – Amber Smith

 

The Way I Used To Be was a book recommended to me that I read in equal parts horror and amazement. The Last To Let Go takes a similarly tough topic – though less talked about – and is equally challenging to read.

The explosive first chapter introduces us to our main character, Brooke, returning home to find police swarming her neighbourhood. Her mother has stabbed her father, with her little sister the only witness.

Suddenly everything Brooke thought she knew has been turned upside down. Nobody wants to acknowledge the hidden abusive side to her father, and the impact his behaviour had on the rest of the family. Her mother is in prison, and the three children are all struggling to live with what has happened.

What I found intriguing about this was Smith’s focus on Brooke and her life after this event. We see her coming to terms with her sexuality, developing her relationship with her siblings and taking tentative steps to develop her sense of identity.

‘Boy Meets Hamster’ – Birdie Milano

A quirky story, that will have you laughing out loud and (probably) falling in love with a giant orange hamster.

Dylan is used to being dragged on rubbish holidays with his parents and younger brother. This summer he’s taken to a caravan park in Cornwall, and the only consolation is he can take his best friend Kayla. Nothing much happens at this park, but in his quest to have the holiday of a lifetime Dylan ends up causing chaos.

Upon arriving at their holiday home, Dylan develops an enormous crush on the boy in the van next-door. Unfortunately, this crush causes him untold pain…not helped by the fact that everywhere he goes he’s accosted by the park mascot, hamster Nibbles.

Of course, things don’t quite go to plan. There’s enough awful things happen to Dylan to leave him traumatised for life, but he bounces back from them all. He even ends up finding the boy of his dreams-though not where he was expecting!

Thanks to publishers and NetGalley for allowing me to read this in advance of publication.