‘The Blue Book of Nebo’ – Manon Steffan Ross

Told from the viewpoints of Dylan and his mother, we see how they live their lives. Each takes it in turns to write in the little blue book they found in someone’s home, offering their views on the experiences they have.

There was a certain charm to this, and the emphasis on the need for a sense of culture was clear, though little actually happens in terms of plot.

What we are told relatively early on is that there was some kind of nuclear attack some years earlier that appears to have wiped out most of the population. Referred to as The End, Dylan and his mother have had to turn to past knowledge and trial and error to survive. They grow their own food, have learned essential skills and have communication with nobody else since their next-door neighbours left.

The alternating viewpoints offers both a new pair of eyes to reflect on their present and a more adult voice to fill in the gaps and offer insight into what happened/how it impacted. It felt rather sanitised, and though some unpleasant things have evidently happened the level of detail offered is not quite as I expected.

I wonder how different this would have been to read in the original Welsh. It was interesting to have some focus on the Welsh language, but I’m not really sure what we’re meant to take from this.

Thanks to NetGalley for allowing me the opportunity to read this before publication (though I’m sorry not to have got to it sooner).


‘All of Us Villains’ – Amanda Foody and Christine Lynn Herman

It’s thirteen years since The Hunger Games published, and I think there may be a new contender for the dystopian YA crown coming in November 2021.

All of Us Villains is set in the fictional world of Ilvernath, a place ruled by high magick and dark ambition. Every generation one of the seven families has to name a champion…someone who will step into The Blood Veil and fight to the death. The eventual winner will be awarded control of the supply of high magick and this is a powerful resource. To be a winner, you have to be prepared to be a villain.

The book began quite slowly, introducing us to each of the seven contenders and their families. We were given time to see the furore in Ilvernath after the publication of the salacious book – purportedly written by one of the families – telling all about the Blood Veil and the secrets of the contest. This book has caused an unprecedented interest in the competition, but nobody is willing to try and stop what has always happened.

It was, initially, a little confusing to keep track of who was who, but seeing events from each character’s viewpoint actually lent a depth to the book that was welcome. It felt as if we as readers were being given little clues as to the bigger picture throughout (even if we couldn’t always work out the relevance of what we were being told).

Once the tournament is about to start things picked up quite quickly. We had double-crosses, curses, alliances tested and a desperate attempt from each contestant to find a way to make themselves victorious. The increase in magic and the focus on the history of the Veil/contest stopped this from getting dull because not much happens for the first week of the trial.

People die, and there’s some scenes that may well have you taking a moment to recover from reading about them. As soon as it looks as if things are going well in terms of the competition we get something of a spanner in the works. The only way to win this is to be a villain. But what if you don’t want to be a villain?

Each of the characters is given time to reflect on the individual demands of this trial for them. Naturally, some characters are given more time than others. Our core cast of Briony, Isobel, Gavin and Alistair were very interesting. Each of them had their strengths, and I certainly felt like they were put through some tough situations in order to help us see the wider benefits of their choices.

We see there’s potential for upset here. Nothing ends in a way that makes it easy to call for the next book. Someone within the pages is shown to be more invested in the outcome than we might have believed, and I am excited to see exactly where this goes next.

Huge thanks to NetGalley and the publishers for allowing me to read this before publication. It was a joy!


‘Five Minds’ – Guy Morpuss

From the moment I’d seen the teasers about Five Minds appearing on Twitter, I was eagerly awaiting my opportunity to read this. I’d trawled Morpuss’s website and played the games (I struggled to even think about which option I’d go for). Eventually I struck lucky and was granted access by NetGalley to read this before publication. All I had to do was write my honest thoughts. That sounds straightforward, but having just finished Five Minds my mind seems incapable of coherent thought!

So, let’s look at what we are told beforehand…

Five Minds is set in an alternate future. In an attempt to control the Earth’s growing population lifespans are carefully monitored, and people are made to choose their life at seventeen. Some become workers…they are educated for the next five years and then take their chance as to what comes next. Some become andis…their minds are uploaded into a body requiring little physical maintenance. They are granted a lifespan of eighty years. A few become hedonists. This group have wealth and are granted free choice…but they die at forty-two. The last group are, perhaps, the hardest to understand. The schizos. Five minds are merged in one body, each having control of it for a four hour period in the day. Each mind is granted a lifespan of twenty-five years, and the host can be updated regularly. Their life ends after the fifth mind has had their twenty-five years.

Our focus is on one schizo group, or commune. Alex, Dan, Kate, Sierra and Mike have been together for some time. They regularly compete in the Death Parks, underground competitions allowing people to try and win additional time. When Kate is offered the chance to win an obscene amount of life, she takes it. Unfortunately, it results in one of their group disappearing. No one seems to know what’s happened, but all too quickly it becomes apparent that someone does…and until this person is caught, the commune is at risk.

The concept of a group under threat isn’t new. But the idea that the murderer could well be one of the minds within the commune lends it a chilling feel. As soon as the murder element comes to the fore it becomes a very different style of book to read. I was gripped, and found myself wholly immersed in the story as I tried to work out who was behind it and how – or if – they would succeed.

Huge thanks to NetGalley and Viper books for letting me read this early, and thank you to Guy Morpuss for a fascinating debut that makes me wonder what on earth could come next.


‘The Outrage’ – William Hussey

Imagine a world where to be gay or trans is a crime. You’re a degenerate and treated as sub-human by members of The Protectorate, the leaders of this new world charged with keeping order and keeping everyone safe. This is the awful world in which Gabe lives.

Our main character is forthright, angry and prone to making some really stupid choices. But he’s also loyal and loving, and determined to stick up for what he believes is right – no matter the cost.

Gabe and his friends – who charmingly call themselves The Rebels – know they are different, and that people are threatened by them. They want nothing more than to be themselves, to be proud of who they are and to live their lives.

Unfortunately, Gabe is also in love with Eric Dufresne, the son of someone high in the ranks of The Protectorate. When they are caught trying to remove a banned disc, showing that dangerous movie ‘Love, Simon’, things quickly escalate and what became an idealistic aim becomes a fight for survival.

Hussey creates a truly shocking environment-strangely not at all incredible given some of the situations and events we see happening around us. While the representation may not please everyone, it’s an evolving process to encourage people to consider their place, their personal beliefs and their role in history.

I’m looking forward to seeing what people make of this, and I’m so grateful to NetGalley for granting me early access.



‘The Girl in Red’ – Christina Henry

The Girl in Red was a book I picked up to read as part of the PopSugar 2021 Challenge. I didn’t know anything about the author and I wasn’t sure quite how you could set up a reimagining of a tale as well-known as that of Little Red Riding Hood. Having finished the book today, I can safely say this was a surprise hit.

The story behind this really does feel as if it could be written for our times. We don’t know how or why, but the world within this book has been hit by something known colloquially as the Cough. Those who become infected may show no symptoms, but this airborne virus spreads quickly and can leave people dead within days. They cough up copious amounts of blood, and there appears to be no vaccine available to cure them.

Cordelia, or Red as she prefers to be known, is something of a heroine to admire. She lives with her brother and parents in a rural town. Fascinated by science she has been worried about the things she has heard, and has been making plans for how to survive should the worst happen. Determined not to be forced into a camp (where many seem to think they will be safe) Red has been tramping the woods for days, carrying everything she thinks she will need to keep alive. Admirable for anyone, but given that Red has a prosthetic leg I could not help but admire the fact she was determined to do what was needed to keep alive.

We follow Red as she travels across country, determined to avoid roads and potential threats, in her journey to get to her grandma’s cottage.As she travels we are given flashbacks to explain how she comes to be travelling alone.

There’s no denying this has its gruesome moments. The details of the mutation and how it impacts on people was scary. The things she has obviously gone through to get to this point are not for the faint-hearted. However, there are moments that show how even in the darkest moments we can be hopeful, and there will always be the potential to create a better future.


‘The Boy I Am’ – K.L. Kettle


Thanks to NetGalley for granting me access to this prior to publication. It’s an explosive read, forcing us to question the extent to which we would allow power to go unquestioned.

In this world boys are seen as dangerous and it is essential they are kept apart, given no power and kept subdued. They are not allowed to view the faces of the women who pay for their time, and if they are not bought at auction before the age of seventeen they are sent to the mines.

Our main character is Jude Grant, facing his last auction and desperate to escape the destiny laid in front of him.

Without giving too much away, Jude is enlisted in a daring attempt to overthrow the Chancellor, to topple her from power and bring about change.

Things don’t go to plan. Jude is a determined young man, but we see he is a cog in a much larger machine. That aside, it only takes that one cog to be slightly out of alignment to cause problems.

I found the pacing of this problematic at times and definitely felt I wanted to know more about the mysterious Vor women and how this environment came to be. Very minor niggles, but enough to stop me awarding five stars, which is a shame as this is a book I can see raising a storm amongst readers.’The Bo

‘Game Changer’ – Neal Shusterman

Game Changer will, I think, be one of those books that will polarise opinion. I’m grateful to NetGalley for granting me access to it prior to its scheduled February 2021 publication, and I think I would recommend it to people, but there are issues that make me wonder if this was quite the right way to get the intended result.

Our story focuses on Ash, a fairly typical privileged white American boy. He plays football. He has relatively open relationships with his friends and family, but there’s a sense of things being held back. This doesn’t cause undue concern, but then Ash is involved in a play that has far-reaching consequences. We journey with Ash as he experiences these strange events, the result of being knocked into another dimension.

Initially, until we have an explanation for what has happened, I was quite disengaged with this. Ash is not a particularly interesting character and I found his processing of events and the implications for him just a little patronising. There seemed to be just a little too much focus on him articulating his reasoning for behaving in the way he did, and trying to justify some of the choices he makes. He seems to comment lots on everyone around him, but to be quite unaware of his own shortcomings and this annoyed me on occasion.

Thankfully, quite early on we get some answers that what has happened to Ash is out of the realms of the ordinary. He has shifted reality and each time he does this he is able to change things. Sometimes this works well; sometimes not. Each time it happens, Ash learns something new about himself and the world around him. His only guides through this are twins (who are added to each time he changes things) keen to see if this time round the thing placed at the centre of the universe can make things better.

Ultimately, in each reality Ash experiences there are unpleasant things to address: racism, sexism, homophobia. You name the issue, we get it. Ash gets to live in different realities, each experience opening his eyes to the issues faced by many and the ignorance that many of us live in without even realising it. There was a clear sense of him growing as a person, albeit sometimes this feeling seeming forced on him.

After a rather slow start, the book became more engaging. I got quite caught up with Ash’s experiences and found the interactions between Ash and the other characters quite interesting. Unfortunately, though there were lessons to be learned – and Ash clearly set out his growing self-awareness in a way that often felt unnecessary – the fact that he ended up in the situation he did suggested that in a world of possibilities we will often settle for what is familiar enough to not be overly threatening. For me, this was not so much a Game Changer as a way of highlighting that change can be necessary and we should look for opportunities to improve things.


‘The End of Men’ – Christina Sweeney-Baird

Invited to read this by the publishers Harper Collins, and I was really excited to be asked to participate in a group discussion of this upcoming release. The book arrived, I read the letter from the author and then I found myself reluctant to get started.

Being brutally honest the thought of reading a book about a fast-spreading virus that had such an extreme impact on the world felt all a little too close for comfort. How could I expect myself to have a rational reading experience, not bringing my own current experience to bear? Two days before the discussion I wondered whether I’d have to ‘fess up’ and admit to not reading it.

The day before the discussion I picked it up, felt my heart sink as we watch our doctor deal with the first case and then found myself immersed in it. While the discussion of the pandemic and its impact is bound to resonate with our current situation, I was genuinely surprised by how absorbed I became in these stories.

The description of the virus was fast, but the emotional impact on people was evident. There were some scenes I read with my heart in my mouth, holding back a dreadful sense of emptiness. The anthropologist reflecting on the experience was fascinating and it was a bold choice to focus on such a large timescale and such a broad scope of characters.

Perhaps to be expected, some elements of the story were more easy to read than others. Initially I found it hard to keep track of who was speaking and though it would have been bleak to gain little sense of resolution, some parts felt rushed because of the need to take us through to the end.

I can’t wait to see what others make of this.


‘Bearmouth’ – Liz Hyder

Bearmouth was one of the books recommended to my students by our 2020 Book PenPal, Holly Race, so I couldn’t resist reading it before I passed my copy round to those interested.

When I began reading I, like a number of other readers, took time to adjust to the phonetic style of writing used to mimic our main character’s voice. Initially this meant the reading felt slower than I’d like, but it certainly became one of the features of the book that I really enjoyed. The voice of Newt changed as they developed in confidence, and I enjoyed seeing the shifting patterns of language as they grew in awareness of the world around them.

Our first encounter with Newt was intriguing. We are told, very early on, that Newt is ‘not a boy nor yet a wimmin’ and though this becomes important later, it is their life in the Bearmouth mine that grips us. Newt has worked in the mine for many years, and is looked after by his team. There’s a grim sense of camaraderie to the team as they risk their lives on a daily basis to dig for coal, and to earn a living for others.

From the outset Newt points out the harshness of their life underground. We quickly come to realise the superstitions that bind these men and boys, and the injustice that they face on a daily basis as someone else controls their every move.

As the story progressed we learn more about Newt and their unease surrounding the appearance of a new boy, Devlin. With the arrival of the new face comes a sense of growing awareness of the injustice of their existence, and a slow-burning plan to change things.

While most of the reviews I’ve read of this focus on the writing style, I was also struck by the brutality of their lives underground and the grudging acceptance of death in its many guises. There are a couple of scenes that I think I will need to advise some of my students of and give them the decision as to whether or not to read, but I feel the situation that prompts Newt to develop a social conscience is sympathetically presented and Hyder should be applauded for not shying away from the less salubrious elements of their lives.

Throughout the book I was rooting for some form of happy ending and though this is rather more ambiguous than you might like in a stand-alone read, I felt our ending offered enough to leave me satisfied with Newt’s choices and their consequences.


‘Contagious’ – Emily Goodwin

At first, I thought this was pretty standard zombie stuff and as the book progressed I found myself getting bored. Nothing really seemed to happen and our characters were stuck in a repetitive cycle (true to form perhaps for life in a pandemic).

Part two shifted our focus and hinted at a bigger picture – though the potential romance love triangle was not appealing – and as we shifted to the end I was starting to get a little more invested in the story/where this might go. Sadly this came right at the end when we had the most frustrating ending ever…I guess it’s meant to make us desperate to read part two but it left me feeling cheated.

The whole zombie thing is not really my interest anyway, and yet there have been great books exploring the idea. This felt, at times, unnecessarily repetitive – there’s only so many zombie attacks you can describe without it getting a bit dull. I wanted to get a little more background to some of the characters, and I’m probably more interested in the bigger picture than their day-to-day survival.

I think this book and your reaction to it will come down to personal taste, and I’d certainly suggest people tried it…though I wouldn’t be shocked if they didn’t bother with the rest of the series.