‘Lost in the Never Woods’ – Aiden Thomas

 

Lost in the Never Woods takes something we see as familiar and offers us a distorted version of that world.

It’s been years since Wendy Darling and her brothers went missing in the woods near their home. Wendy returned, with no memory of what happened in the time she was away, and since then she experiences crippling anxiety whenever she thinks of the woods.

A fairly regular teen, Wendy volunteers at the local hospital. She loves telling stories to the kids, and her stories often feature the irrepressible Peter Pan and tales of his daring. Recently she’s been obsessively drawing images of a young boy, Peter, and a tree.

On her way home one night Wendy almost runs over a boy. There’s an immediate attraction on her part…and when it’s clear that he knows her name, Wendy begins to think that perhaps Peter Pan is not the boy of her dreams. He exists, and he says he needs her help.

Children are going missing and Peter needs Wendy.

What follows is strange.

Slowly, Wendy and Peter risk everything in their quest to find the missing children and restore order to Peter’s Neverland.

This is a coming of age story with a pinch of magic. For those who dream…

‘The Mermaid of Black Conch’ – Monique Roffey

For such a slim volume this novel holds so much within its pages. A fascinating insight into the lives of those who make their home on the small Caribbean island of Black Conch, a heartfelt romance and a tender exploration of women and their relationships with one another.
The story focuses on the inhabitants of Black Conch in the summer of 1976 when some of them are involved in the capture of a mermaid. Naturally superstitious, the islanders have their reservations about interfering with such a powerful creature. For them the sea holds power and they are wary of what the capture of the mermaid could mean for them. For the white men who chartered the boat which captured the mermaid this is a money-making opportunity.
The opening scenes focus on the capture of the mermaid. Exhilarating in the power depicted, yet from the outset there is a sense of unease about what has taken place.
Daniel, a young man living on the island, determines to rescue the mermaid and return her to sea. Things don’t quite go to plan and she ends up in an old tub in his home. He watches over her, determined to help her escape. Over time he feeds her and watches, astounded, as she turns into a woman. He falls in love with her and is in awe of her. Enlisting the help of Arcadia Rain, a white woman who owns a lot of land on Black Conch, he starts to teach her language and try to assimilate her into island life.
Perhaps inevitably, things don’t end up quite as we might hope. People are disappointed and there are old scores settled with Aycayia placed at the heart of events.
Quite a different read from my usual fare but I was absorbed in this world and found myself desperate to see how things would be resolved.

 

‘Amari and the Night Brothers’ – B.B. Alston

Amari and the Night Brothers is a book I’ve seen a few reviews on in the last few weeks, and though it’s firmly marketed as middle grade it will appeal to older readers too.

Our main character is Amari Peters, a young girl all too used to being judged because she comes from the wrong side of town. Her brother went missing and nobody has any idea whether he is alive or not, but Amari firmly believes that he was part of a secret organisation.

With our character set up, it doesn’t take long before we’re learning – along with Amari – of the existence of a whole new world. In this world, the supernatural and human co-exist and nobody has to hide their special skills.

Thanks to her brother Amari is offered a place at the summer camp run by the Bureau. Amari sees this as an opportunity to finally learn the truth about her brother-but first she has to master the challenges set if she is going to succeed in her mission to become a junior agent.

Learning about the Bureau of Supernatural Affairs at the same time as Amari was great fun. There was – I have to say – a very definite sense of being able to predict the general setting and character details, but though there was a sense of familiarity to the general details, there was a freshness to the specifics that completely won me over.

Amari is a quietly courageous character, a good friend and determined to see the best in people. She makes mistakes, but learns from them. She wants to help others and she has some of the best experiences (though they are pretty terrifying when you read them).

Having bought this for myself, I’ve just bought a physical copy to share with students in school and it’s on the list of bedtime stories to share with my ten year old. Loved it!

 

‘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.

 

‘A Vow So Bold and Deadly’ – Brigid Kemmerer

When I first started reading Book One I had quite a strong view of how I imagined things might eventually be resolved. As the series continued it was clear that might not be an option, but starting this I was hopeful we’d get some answers.

As the book opens we are in a horribly fractured place. Rhen has – for many – committed an act of betrayal in his treatment of Grey. He vows to do the best for his people, but he seems to be struggling with himself as to exactly what this will entail. Grey is finding it hard to win over the army he is now expected to help lead. Lia Mara is determined to rule with compassion, but for those accustomed to her mother’s violence it is seen as a sign of weakness. Harper is somewhat relegated to the sidelines for much of this as everyone knows she’s no princess and yet her counsel seems to be the only thing that can get through to Rhen.

For much of the book we’re dealing with fractured relationships and people trying to do their best to lead without being fully aware of every eventuality. It’s a bit of a mess, and once we know Lillith has returned I started to doubt we’d get anything resolved.

Focusing on different viewpoints throughout did help to allow us time to understand the motivations of each character, but it does rather hide the fact that for a substantial part of the book nothing is actually happening…it’s all about what might happen or how things could be. Maybe this is a sign of lockdown fatigue, but when things are so uncertain how can you plan?

Once we shifted to the moments following Lillith’s bold move it was obvious we were going to have a big episode. It wasn’t quite what I expected, but I do think it fits within the series and nicely resolves some elements. Though this is released as the final part of the trilogy, the new elements that get introduced certainly don’t rule out the possibility for a return to this world at some point.

 

‘Piranesi’ – Susanna Clarke

Piranesi was a shifting, mercurial delight of a story.
I was lucky enough to be granted access to an ARC of the audiobook narrated by Chiwetel Ejiofor, and I found myself carried along by it. There were moments where I found meaning elusive, and we’d be given hints of what was happening but could never be quite certain. Normally this would frustrate me beyond belief but in this story it is a very necessary part of the experience.
Piranesi, our narrator, journals avidly and spends his days curating the house in which he lives. Twice a week he meets with The Other and discusses the things he observes within the many rooms he journeys to. There are allusions to a sixteenth person, and the perceived threat from an unwelcome visitor.
Suffice to say, nothing is quite as it seems.
Once I came to the end I found myself full of longing to return. This is a world that you will fall in love with.

 

‘Lore’ – Alexandra Bracken

I am grateful to NetGalley and the publishers for granting me access to this prior to publication.

I had to have two attempts to read this – first time round I wasn’t clicking with it at all. Second time round, I found the start equally frustrating but it did improve…only to end in a bit of a whimper.

Lore was a character who both intrigued and irritated me. The relentless flashbacks helped us to gain an understanding of her past, but until we were some way in they just seemed intensely annoying. She was descended from gods, but was mortal…yet she was needed by the gods as they appeared for their regular seven day fight.

The whole book felt a bit like being at a party when everyone around you is having fun and you’re not quite feeling it. Nothing was actually wrong with what I was reading, but I regularly found myself having to push through to keep reading and find out what happened.

Once we developed a little more understanding of Lore’s past and started to piece together the relationship between the characters it became more engaging. There were a few dramatic moments that took me rather by surprise, but I didn’t feel they were enough. Throughout, I had a sense of waiting for a big reveal and wanting to learn exactly what Lore was hiding…but the moment when it came was all a little sudden.

This, sadly, wasn’t really for me.

 

‘The Once and Future Witches’ – Alix E. Harrow

Once upon a time there were three sisters. They shared a bond like no other, but their father was wicked and turned them against one another. The elder sisters left, each feeling they had been wronged, leaving the younger alone with their father until she could take no more of his dominance. She runs, and finds her way to a new town.

The three Eastwood sisters – James juniper, Agnes Araminta and Beatrice Belladonna –  reunite very early on. They are very different characters, but they are united in their determination to have a world where they can be in control of their destiny. They want everything they are denied on account of their gender. So, how do they propose to get it? Through witchcraft.

This story explores attitudes to female emancipation and developing gender roles, mixed in with a fascinating account of practising witchcraft and magic.

Nobody in this is quite what they seem. Some of the elements of the book are fantastical to say the least, but I loved the three sisters and their respective struggles to live the life they choose.

 

‘Fable’ – Adrienne Young

 

Fable took me somewhat by surprise, and though it was an incredibly frustrating ending and my irritation at having to wait for book two before I find out what I need to know is high, I can’t rate this highly enough.

Our main character is hardy and spirited, not necessarily through choice, and I couldn’t help but hope for the best for her from the outset. Clearly talented, the skills Fable has around gems suggests there’s more info to come.

We are encouraged to jump into her adventures immediately, watching as she ekes out a living dredging what she finds at the bottom of the ocean. We quickly learn that one of the merchants who is feared by many has more of an interest in Fable than she is able to reveal, and she has to decide who to trust in order to get what she wants.

Full of adventure and more than enough hints at an intriguing backstory. I am desperate to know exactly how Fable’s mother fits into this, what West is hiding and exactly why Zola is so keen to have done what he has.

I got caught up in this immediately, couldn’t wait to learn more and am desperate to be approved for book two on NetGalley (strong hint).

‘The Midnight Library’ – Matt Haig

“It is quite a revelation to discover that the place you wanted to escape to is the exact same place you escaped from. That the prison wasn’t the place, but the perspective”

The above quote, for me, sums up my experience of reading The Midnight Library. I’m kicking myself for not listening to this on BBC Radio before Christmas, and reading it on New Year’s Day after a pretty miserable year by any standards lent it a certain poignancy that cannot be underestimated. We might all think about what might have been, and there are – undoubtedly – times when we might feel less than enamoured with what’s going on around us. At times this felt like A Christmas Carol for the modern reader – with the concept of the library and its alternate lives replacing the spirit guides. Whatever our response to the message, the reminder that how we perceive things can make a huge difference to our existence is an important one.

Our main character, Nora Seed, is a fairly ordinary character. Nothing particularly significant happens to her, but a series of unfortunate events in her life build up to her feeling that life is not worth living. She wants out. She chooses to die.

What she gets is the Midnight Library, a sort of magical portal capably overseen by the wonderful Mrs Elm, the librarian she recalls from school. Under Mrs Elm’s tutelage she learns that the library offers her the chance to try a new life. She can get to experience all the possibilities her life offered her.

We follow Nora as she becomes an Olympic swimmer, a rock star, a wife and mother, a drop-out, a pub owner. Each life offers something different. Each life was a possibility for Nora, had she made different choices. She tries many lives, but none feel quite right.

At a crucial moment, Nora comes to a startling realisation. There’s a chance things may not be quite right but she wants to live. She wants her life.

Quasi-scientific, magical in parts…and definitely the kind of thing I could see making a wonderful movie. This book will mean different things to each person who encounters it. For me, it offered escapism with a timely reminder to take the time to recognise the joy in the choices we have made and the lives we are leading. While things aren’t great, this might be tough. But it’s a sentiment I want very much to uphold.