‘The Afterlife of Holly Chase’ – Cynthia Hand

There’s very few people that will not be familiar with the story of Scrooge and his shot at redemption. With untold students having to study ‘A Christmas Carol for GCSE I can see this being an interesting companion piece.

Our focus is on seventeen year old Holly Chase, a fashion-obsessed teenager who’s been struggling to come to terms with the death of her mother from cancer. She is, quite frankly, an unpleasant character: rude, self-obsessed, selfish, mean…you get the idea. In true Dickensian style she is visited one Christmas Eve by three spirits, keen to give her a chance to change. Holly ignores the warnings, and dies on Christmas Day.

Only she isn’t actually dead.

Holly is, instead, taken to work on Project Scrooge – a secretive set-up where once a year the crew attempt to save the life of one Scrooge (or the modern equivalent). For the last five years we are told Holly has been acting as the Ghost of Christmas Past. Her afterlife is pretty dull. She goes to work, has no friends and does little in her spare time. This year, though, things are different.

This year the target is, for the first time since Holly, a young boy. From the off we can see Holly has a lot more invested in Ethan’s case than others she’s worked on. Though things aren’t done conventionally here, we root for Holly as she tries to change someone’s future.

As the book progresses there’s hints that things are not quite as we were led to believe. However, it all ties together nicely.

This must be the only book I’ve read where I’m actually happy that the romance I was hoping for all along didn’t quite go to plan. When you read it, you’ll know why. This is not a straightforward retelling, but it was instantly recognisable. Aside from the modern setting and the easily identifiable characters, I loved the way Hand updates the source for a modern reader. And the geeky English teacher in me loved all the Dickens references and quotes.

What’s not to love?

Thank you to edelweiss and publishers Harper Teen for allowing me to read this in advance.

‘Replica’ – Lauren Oliver

Replica

I was fortunate enough to receive an ARC of this from edelweiss and the publishers, but it languished on my iPad until the New Year as I was trying to catch up with some other reading. At least reading it now it is published means I can tell people about it and they don’t have to wait ages to get their hands on a copy.

Lauren Oliver has been one of those writers that I’ve found excellent when she gets it right. Here, she is pretty close to doing that.

Initially the ‘flip’ element of the story might seem like a gimmick. We are given two versions of the same event, though the differences in the narratives are just enough to not make it seem like we’re reading exactly the same story. In Lyra and Gemma we have two intriguing narrators. Each girl gets to experience something new in this novel as they go on a journey of self-discovery with a difference.

The key premise of the story focuses on the Haven institute, a mysterious place that is doing something with replicas (i.e. human clones) though nobody is entirely sure what. When the institute is blown up, Lyra and one of the male replicas escape. They meet Gemma and Jake, two teenagers who have more of a stake in this story than they realise. During our encounter with these teenagers we – as they do – learn more about what Haven was and just how it links to the girls’ stories.

I don’t want to give too much away, as this is definitely a book to go into knowing no more than you’re told at the outset. Suffice to say, though I wanted to know more about the background of the institute and would have liked to see what happened afterwards, this was a clever read that only revealed itself to be so as you draw near the end of the experience.

Personally, I’m looking forward to seeing what students I teach make of this – and I’m curious to know whether reading a physical copy of this so you can flick between the stories makes any difference to the experience.

‘Silver Stars’ -Michael Grant

Silver Stars

It is the summer of 1943 and our women soldiers, with the cries of battle fresh in their ears, are being shipped out – with the rest of the American army – to conquer the Italian island of Sicily.

With some time having passed since I read the first in the series, it did take a little time to get back in the heads of Frangie, Rainy and Rio though they remain fascinating characters. Once again Grant blends the historical detail with masterful storytelling to create the kind of book that you want to devour in one sitting, but also savour for what it tells us about war and our attitudes to fighting.

As Grant points out, he tones down the reality faced by those at war and that’s a sobering thought. The accounts of battle are vivid, and it is as if we are alongside the soldiers through their experiences. Too often, there were details I’d rather not have to think about, but I think that simply shows why books such as this are needed.

I felt mixed emotions while reading this. I felt frustration at the situations these men and women were placed in; I felt annoyed by the casual sexism and racism that was faced; I was dismayed at the seeming ineptness of some of those in charge, but my overwhelming feeling was of intense admiration for those who can face their worst fears as these characters do.

I received a copy from edelweiss in exchange for my honest thoughts, and I have to thank them – and Grant himself – for giving me the opportunity to read this.

 

September round-up

Apologies if this seems something of a cop-out, but work has rather got in the way of me posting reviews of late. I am still reading, but the time for updating my blog has been short. For this reason I have decided to give a round-up of the remainder of my September reading.

During the latter weeks of September I have finished Richelle Mead’s Vampire Academy series. In ‘Blood Promise’ we watch Rose travel to Russia in an attempt to track down Dimitri and keep her promise. Things don’t go to plan. Much as I’d enjoyed the series, this was not one of my favourite reads and it felt slow. Things picked up a little in ‘Spirit Bound’ and there was a definite sense of political intrigue in the world of the Academy. Dimitri remains at large, determined to make Rose pay, but I liked the fact that Lissa gets to play more of a role in events as the understanding of Strigoi evolves. Rose still comes across as rather immature, but she just about manages to keep a grip on her more extreme reactions. The final instalment in the series – ‘Last Sacrifice’ – is a fitting end to the series. Rose is accused of murdering the Queen, and we focus on her attempts to clear her name. Alongside this intrigue – which does, indeed, lead us up one or two garden paths – we have the rather slower story of the trial to find the new queen. There’s a lot in here…some parts of which are definitely more appealing than others. The breakout and Rose’s quest to clear her name is entertaining. The development of Lissa and her role was well-handled, though I felt the ambiguity of Lisa’s reaction to Jill wasn’t quite in keeping with her character. Of course, it wouldn’t have been right to not deal with the relationship between Rose and Dimitri. I’ve always liked Dimitri, and I got the feeling this was going to be a ‘Twilight’-style thing where, eventually, they end up together. Six books in – and after a lot of obstacles – they get their happy ending. Naturally, this makes me happy except for one thing…Adrian. There has to be fallout, I get it. But the way Adrian is treated is shabby. I don’t normally get so attached to a character, but I really felt he deserved more.

After something of a series glut, I knew it was time to get back onto the ARCs I’d received from Edelweiss and NetGalley. First up was ‘Pushing Perfect’ by Michelle Falkoff, which focuses on the story of Kara who ends up in a dangerous game due to the pressure she feels under to achieve perfection. While this suggested it would be an exploration of pressure and its effects, we soon got into a bizarre ‘Pretty Little Liars’-style story where everyone had something to hide. Unfortunately I felt this was going to be better than it was.

This was followed by Danielle Paige’s ‘Stealing Snow’ which was an intriguing idea, but not entirely successful. Snow is living in a psychiatric hospital and finds herself drawn into another world where she learns just what she is and what it is rumoured she will achieve. There were some interesting ideas here, but they were not particularly well-linked and I didn’t really feel I could engage with any of the characters. The mixed reviews of this on Goodreads suggests that it will have its fans; I wasn’t one.

My final read of the month was ‘The Beginning Woods’ by Malcolm McNeill, and it was a good way to end the month. It was not without its faults – random capitalization of dialogue and unconnected events – but this was a captivating read that will stay with me for some time. Max was abandoned in a bookshop and he seems to be an important part of the Vanishings taking place, though nobody is sure how. There was a haunting feel to the writing, and some beautifully evocative description. Originally published in German, this is a children’s novel that I feel will appeal more to adults due to its layering of ideas and the length.

‘Not Just Jane:Rediscovering Seven Amazing Women Writers Who Transformed British Literature’ – Shelley DeWees

Not Just Jane

Due for publication in October 2016, I have to thank the publishers and edelweiss for allowing me the opportunity to review this prior to publication.

Most of us are aware of the Bronte sisters and Jane Austen, but this meticulously researched piece of writing asks us to consider some of the other female writers of the same period. As an English graduate who had not heard of most of these writers it highlighted for me just how the Literary Canon is shaped by the politics and beliefs of others.

The writer’s passion for her subject is evident, and I found this an absorbing read. I don’t know how easy it will be to find some of these writings, but I am keen to try and find some of them.

 

‘Local Girl Swept Away – Ellen Wittlinger

Local Girl Swept Away

Thanks to Merit Press via edelweiss for the advance copy of this. I’d read mixed reviews, so I’m afraid this languished on my kindle for a while as I wanted to be in the right mood for this before I read it.

The story is set in a small village and focuses on a tight-knit group of friends. One of them, Lorna, is swept off the breakwater one night and her remains are not found. While life goes on, for those left behind – Jackie, Lucas and Finn – things are never quite the same.

Reminiscent of a lot of YA fiction I found myself wondering what the appeal of Lorna was for these teenagers – I never felt we got to see enough of her as a character to justify the way they reacted to her going missing. Though the three remaining teenagers evidently miss Lorna, the shift in their relationships makes for interesting reading.

I liked the way those left behind changed during the course of the novel, becoming that little more self-confident and less reliant on the figure of Lorna their leader to authorise their actions. I did feel that the focus on character meant what came towards the end was fairly obviously sign-posted.

 

‘The Fixes’ – Owen Matthews

The Fixes

 

Published at the end of August 2016, I was fortunate to receive a copy of this novel from Edelweiss and HarperTeen in exchange for an honest review. Described as Gossip Girl meets Heathers this novel is one that will definitely not appeal to everyone.

The Fixes tells the story of a group of high-school students determined to fix the things that they see as being wrong in their town. Unfortunately, their methods for fixing these issues are not always particularly acceptable – and some are highly illegal. Eric Connelly – destined for great things in his father’s eyes – is not used to going against expectations. However, when he meets spoiled rich kid Jordan Grant it is clear that Eric has been looking for the opportunity to break out of his pre-defined role.

My views on this varied as I was reading. Initially I liked the tone of voice that had Eric talking directly to us, and telling us what was coming (it reminded me of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off). During the novel I felt more than a little irritated watching spoiled rich kids swanning round town and doing silly things for entertainment, and then I found myself desperate to found out just how we were going to arrive at the point we’d been told to expect.

For me this was a novel where the writer was trying very hard to be clever – and had to forcibly remind us just how clever he was being. However, this did not detract too much from what was actually a refreshing idea and an interesting exploration of contemporary ideas.

‘The Muse’ – Jessie Burton

The Muse

This is a hard novel to review as I’m not entirely sure where to start. There’s a number of stories within this novel, and it’s only clear how they are linked as they pull together.

The main focus of the novel centres on the discovery of a painting by celebrated artist Isaac Robles. Edmund Reede, an art historian, is determined to authenticate the painting’s provenance, and ensure it is seen. As he attempts this, we learn the background of the painting.

The setting shifts from 1930s Spain to Britain in the 1960s. There’s a large number of characters that feature within this story: the Schloss family, Isaac Robles and his sister, Margot Quick and Odelle Bastien.

I feel it’s important not to give away any plot details since the appeal of the novel really does come with the gradual revelation of details and the manipulation of our understanding of events.

Throughout my reading I had a sense of some crucial detail being hidden, and I thoroughly enjoyed the discovery of this information, although there were a few heavy-handed signs to signal that to us that something along these lines was coming.

The characters were elusive, and this does make sense in light of the whole novel. I enjoyed the period details, particularly the sections focusing on Odelle’s experience in 1960s London, but it was also an interesting look at how we regard artists and the pressure that expectation can put on creativity. Though I haven’t yet read ‘The Miniaturist’ I understand that Burton has publicly talked of her own battles with this issue after the success of her debut novel, which suggests we’re also being given some insight into the writer’s fears and concerns.

A huge thank you to the author and publishers, via edelweiss, for the advance copy.

 

‘Georgia, Peaches and Other Forbidden Fruit’ – Jaye Robin Brown

Given the shooting that has just happened in Orlando, the need for this book is great. I can certainly see how it could act as support for any teenager exploring a crisis of faith that occurs as a result of their sexuality.

Jo, as a confident and proudly out lesbian, is put in a really difficult situation. At the start of her senior year she moves with her father and new step-mother to a less tolerant area. Her father, a preacher who says he accepts his daughter, then asks Jo to hide who she really is to help them integrate into the community.
The irony that Jo then befriends a boy with two mums, and the beautiful Mary who is coming to terms with her own sexuality, will not be lost on readers.

Suddenly Jo is struggling with her own crisis of faith. Should she show love and respect for her father and his new wife, or should she be true to herself?
The question of faith and what it means to us is at the heart of the novel. There are some interesting questions raised, and we see a range of views considered.

Ultimately, this has a feel-good factor in the way key issues are resolved though I did find it hard to accept some of the things asked of individuals and the scenarios that lead us to these results. An absorbing read, which I will have no hesitation to recommend.

Thanks to the publishers, via edelweiss, for the advance copy in exchange for an honest review.

‘The Perfect Girl’ – Gilly Macmillan

The Perfect Girl

 

I wanted to read this, in spite of the comments likening it to ‘Girl on a Train’ etc. Setting up such an expectation can sometimes backfire; thankfully, this time it didn’t.

The novel focuses on Zoe Maisey, a talented young musician with a genius intellect, and how actions from earlier in her life continue to haunt her.

Zoe and her mother have started a new life, far away from her past. Zoe has served her time for causing the deaths of three of her peers, but some things never go away. Knowing this about Zoe, and never being completely certain about the reliability of her evidence, means there’s an element of suspicion as we later see Zoe caught up in truly horrific events.

The story is told from constantly shifting viewpoints, and this makes it difficult to ever get a clear picture of what is happening until the author chooses to make her big reveal. There’s a lot to dislike about a number of characters, and although I understood why certain people acted as they did – and even felt some sympathy for them – the moral ambiguity is hard to take.