‘Queenie’ – Candice Carty-Williams

Queenie was a book I’d heard a lot about, though nobody I know seems to have read it. It’s being touted as Bridget Jones meets Americanah. I disliked Bridget Jones intensely, and have never heard of Americanah so it was with some trepidation that I picked this up.

Initially I found it quite hard to warm to Queenie. She’s loud, brash at times, would be incredibly frustrating to work with and is definitely used to using sex to gloss over potential issues. I found myself virtually screaming at the page at her inability to seem to talk to her boyfriend or manage to present herself in a focused way at work. It was like watching an overgrown teenager wandering round, complaining that nobody understood them, putting themselves in stupid situations and then being surprised when someone took advantage of them.

Quite early on we learn that Queenie is dumped by her boyfriend. As she recounts some of her ‘fond’ memories of him I found myself thinking he came from a fairly prejudiced background, was spineless beyond belief and thinking that the pair of them should never have got together in the first place. Once she’s moved into shared accommodation Queenie seems to hit the rapid self-destruct button.

She lurches from one abusive sexual encounter to another. Most of her experiences – whether it’s the sex itself or the people who mop up afterwards – show what could best be described as a complicit attitude to the racism and prejudice that is referenced.

At a point quite early on I considered not reading on. Then we got some snippets of information about Queenie’s past experiences. We are given indicators that she is manipulated in certain situations. And we meet her grandparents…this was enough to make me stick with it.

As we see Queenie get to a pretty low point and then watch her start to confront some of her demons I came to almost like her. Intensely frustrating, very high-maintenance but disarmingly candid and very warm-hearted. Queenie’s past with her mother and Roy went some way to explaining some of her attitudes/behaviours. The exploration of her mental health and steps she takes to move forward were important. She’s not going to be a character many would admire from the outset, but her grit makes her quite unforgettable.

 

‘One of Us is Next’ – Karen McManus

Much as I’d enjoyed One of Is is Lying I was a little unsure of the idea of a sequel. What else was there to tell us? When the book opened with an introduction to our new characters I started to think this was just going to be a derivative of its predecessor, and prepared to be less than keen. It’s testimony to McManus’s writing skill that what I feared would be a hurdle didn’t end up an issue at all.

The story opens by introducing our key characters: Maeve, her friend Knox and Phoebe. While we got to know a little more about our cast this time round, I liked the fact that McManus also filled us in on what had happened to the original Bayview Four and shown us some of the effects of Simon’s scheme.

Very early on we get told of a new game…Truth or Dare. For a school so rocked by the events described in book one I was surprised at how easily this caught the imagination. Our first date is a seemingly innocuous prank involving adding something extra to the roof decoration of a local diner. Relatively good-humoured, not seeming to hurt anyone and offering a chance for people to gossip. When our next ‘victim’, Phoebe, refuses to play it’s like Simon has returned…scurrilous gossip starts to do the rounds and people desperate to keep their secrets take on the dare. The dares become increasingly humiliating and, all too soon, we’re left with a dead student.

The game served as a handy backdrop to show a little more of the social background of Bayview. It was the mystery of who was behind it and their motives for starting things in the first place that formed the real focus…and this is where Maeve came into her own.

While the scenario itself might, ultimately, be more than implausible I was keen to read on and find out the truth of what was going on. Unearthing the secrets and establishing the links between odd snippets of information was definitely the high point of the novel for me. It quickly built up to a suspenseful sequence of events with a rather explosive conclusion, and I was left with the feeling that we haven’t heard the last of some of these characters.

 

‘The Familiar Dark’ – Amy Engel

 

Eve is no stranger to a tough life. Brought up by a mother renowned for her hard words and tough love, Eve has tried hard to move on. However, sometimes – as Eve points out – you need to pick your poison and when misfortune strikes Eve has to decide whether to let her mum back in.

When she fell pregnant at school Eve was determined to do a better job for her child. She couldn’t give Junie a room of her own, but she had love and the knowledge that her mum was on her side. Was it enough?

Quite early on in the story Eve is horrified to learn that her twelve year old daughter, along with her best friend Izzy, has been murdered.

Nobody seems to have any idea who was responsible. But it’s apparent that it’s someone known to those in the area. Eve can not wait for the law to take its course so she does her own digging. She tries every contact, past and present, and along the way uncovers a lot of unpleasant secrets.

A brief story that packs a lot in. There were some wholly unexpected revelations, and I may not like what Eve did but it’s completely understandable.

Thanks to NetGalley for granting me access to read this prior to publication in exchange for my honest thoughts.

‘Are You Watching?’ – Vincent Ralph

A fast-paced thriller for the social media age. Like Nerve, it has its flaws but it hooks you in, draws you in, twists and turns until spitting you out at the end.

Jess has lived for years defined by the events that happened when she was seven. Her mother was brutally murdered in an alleyway less than a minute from her home. She was the first victim of the killer who has been dubbed The Magpie Man. A solitary magpie has always been seen as bad luck, but this moniker stemmed from her father’s attempts to protect his daughter and make sense of something brutal – he told Jess his mum was taken because she was beautiful and magpies like to collect shiny things.

Now, Jess is determined to step out from the shadows. She wants to find the killer…he has thirteen victims to his name so far, and Jess believes it’s only a matter of months until he tries to find another victim.

So Jess signs up to take part in a reality TV show streamed on You Tube. Each person chosen is filmed one day a week for a month. Whoever gets the highest views will then be watched for a further three months. Jess is determined to take her chance to catch her mother’s killer.

What follows is highly improbable. Jess does some very stupid things. People who should know better allow stupid things to happen. But it all adds up to a jumpy tension-filled story. Highly enjoyable.

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

 

‘That Asian Kid’ – Savita Kalhan

 

I felt slightly uncomfortable reading this in public, because I felt the title was definitely contentious, though it makes perfect sense in light of the story. This wasn’t a book that I would probably have picked up, but it’s made its way onto the long-list for the 2020 Carnegie Awards and I always try to read as many of these as I can in advance.

Our main character is fifteen-year-old Jeevan, a third-generation Asian boy who is predicted to perform well in his upcoming GCSEs – apart from in English Literature. No matter what he does, he doesn’t seem to do more than scrape by in this subject – and Jeevan is convinced that it is because his teacher is prejudiced against him because of his ethnicity.

We follow Jeevan one day as he takes a shortcut home through the woods. He is indulging in his one act of rebellion – a sneaky cigarette – when he hears noises. Most people would make their presence known, or leave, but Jeevan hides and what he sees then puts things in a very different position. What he sees is his much-disliked English teacher having sex with his History teacher. I’m not sure how credible this is, but Jeevan records the illicit encounter, then spends days feeling worried about what to do with it.

While Jeevan is sitting on this time-bomb, things go from bad to worse in school. This particular English teacher seems to look for opportunities to get Jeevan into trouble. She criticises him and punishes him but not others; she ‘loses’ his mock-exam paper and claims he threatens her. Jeevan ends up feeling increasingly alienated in school, and when he records the same teacher clearly making racist comments about him and other students he decides it’s time to get his own back. Jeevan is excluded, and reluctantly gets his parents involved in the battle to clear his name.

I’d love to think that behaviours described in this book don’t happen, and it’s very obvious that there is a breakdown in the relationship between these two that quickly escalates into something more serious.

What I found most infuriating in this book is that Jeevan and his friends are described as clever students, but they get themselves into an easily avoidable situation. While Jeevan’s behaviour is, at times, reprehensible we never really see him do anything other than find ways to try and justify his actions. Few of his friends try to do anything other than a token attempt to offer alternative actions, and the behaviour of the teacher herself was so unpleasant that it was difficult to find much sympathy for her.

Perhaps this won’t make it onto the short-list for Carnegie, but it’s certainly a book I’d encourage students to read and ask them to consider the portrayal of not just Jeevan but the issues raised.

‘Regretting You’ – Colleen Hoover

One of those books in which you can pretty accurately predict what’s going to happen, but it’s still quite good fun to read.

We first meet Morgan at seventeen, when she is essentially acting as mum to her younger sister, Jenny. She has dreams for the future, but when she learns she’s pregnant things head in a slightly different direction.

Sixteen years later we see Morgan still with her teenage boyfriend, now her husband, and their daughter is almost an adult. Everything seems pretty cosy. Her younger sister is back together with her boyfriend, Jonah, and they have a young son together. All seems great…which is why it’s no surprise to have a tragic accident that uncovers some very dark secrets.

What follows is a bit of a car-crash and all completely avoidable if people had just spoken to each other. There’s a number of episodes that could go into a ‘how not to deal with grief’ book and the rather inevitable issues that arise from Megan trying not to hurt her daughter are uncomfortable.

Naturally, there’s a series of issues but, deep down, it’s obvious that things are going to be resolved. They are, exactly as we expect. While this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, there was a part of me that was hoping for something less obvious.

 

‘Amelia Westlake Was Never Here’ – Erin Gough

 

It seems this book was simply published as ‘Amelia Westlake’ everywhere but the US, but I have to say that I love my bright pink cover…it’s the kind of cover that jumps out at you and immediately screams ‘pick me up’…so when I read the summary I was so excited to try this.

Our story centres around two very different students at Rosemead School, Harriet Price (top grade student and all-rounder) and Will Everhart (trouble-causer), and the way they find themselves colluding in a potentially life-changing scheme. I was rather surprised to see this had an Australian setting as the depiction of the characters was quite generic.

The girls find themselves in trouble for making comments about the sexist behaviour of the swimming coach. Together they come up with a plan to raise awareness of this issue, without putting their names to it, by inventing a student who voices the views that many share but nobody has the courage to articulate.

Before they know it the mystery student – Amelia Westlake – has got herself involved in a number of incidents. The staff are desperate to out our erstwhile student, and the other girls are desperate to see what she’ll do next.

Harriet and Will were totally unprepared for the effects Amelia’s presence has on them. How far will they go to maintain this deception? How far can they push their attempts to change the status quo? And, perhaps the one thing readers will be most keen to find out, how long until they realise their feelings for each other are not quite as simple as they each believe?

‘Full Disclosure’ – Camryn Garrett

Simone is, in so many ways, your typical teen. And in others, she’s not. In ‘Full Disclosure’ we get what is best describe as a ‘warts-and-all’ insight into her life.

Early on we’re told Simone has HIV. We get a lot of information about the practicalities of living with this, but we also get to look at the emotional support offered to teens in this situation. Simone is also a black girl, adopted by two gay men, who is exploring her sexuality. There’s a lot to take in.

Although raising awareness of our attitudes to HIV seems to be high on the agenda, the main story focuses us on Simone trying to work out how she feels about Miles and her directing a school production.

There’s a lot going on in this story. Simone and her friends are refreshingly frank in their discussions about sex and relationships, and the focus on her growing feelings for Miles is probably what many readers will empathise with. I felt the way the narrator showed Simone getting on with her life was such a positive message, and yet the prejudice shown by many of the characters highlights just how necessary this story is.

Thanks to NetGalley for granting me access to this in exchange for my thoughts.

 

‘What Kind of Girl’ – Alyssa B. Sheinmel

Scheduled for publication in February 2020, this is a book to shout about and encourage people to read.

The action of the book takes place over just one week, and it is a pivotal week in the lives of the characters we encounter. It’s the kind of week that changes lives.

Initially I was unsure about the way this book started. Each chapter was titled something different – the girlfriend, the dropout etc – and I was under the impression there were a number of characters. The reality was quite different, but these different voices melded together well and learning how they all connected actually made the message more powerful.

The story is quite simple. Maya goes to school one Monday morning with a black eye. She tells her Principal that her boyfriend, school golden boy Mike, did it. For the remainder of that week she negotiates school as people talk about her admission and what it might mean.

Along the way she and her best friend, Junie, do a fair amount of soul-searching. We learn a little more of their backgrounds and the various issues they are trying to navigate. We learn about some of the pressures they – and many like them – will face. Both girls are portrayed honestly, and with sympathy. Readers may have nothing in common with them, or they may nod knowingly…however, they won’t be able to ignore them or the topics this book explores.

Thanks to NetGalley for allowing me to read this prior to publication. I really look forward to seeing how this fares.

 

‘The Sight of You’ – Holly Miller

I was given access to this via Secret Readers…and I’m so pleased I chose this title. I’m pretty sure that upon its release (scheduled for June 2020) this will become a much talked-about read, and I’m pretty convinced it will be turned into a film before long.

The Sight of You is a romance of epic proportions, but not quite in the way you might expect.

Joel has always had startlingly accurate dreams about people he loves. As a result he has vowed never to fall in love, because the pressure of seeing something you cannot change is too much. Yet when he meets Callie, it seems inevitable they’ll end up together.

The initial stages of the book had me entranced, but in a mildly curious way as I wondered just where this would go. Their fledgling relationship is cute, and having both perspectives definitely took this out of the standard romance vein I was expecting.

However, once we see how things pan out and see the depth of Joel’s love for Callie I am not afraid to admit to being totally emotionally overcome by this. Much as it didn’t follow the path you might have thought you wanted it to, it ended on such a positively life-affirming tone.

A testimony to love, in its truest form.