‘The Beautiful’ – Renée Ahdieh

 

 

Thank you to NetGalley for granting me access to this prior to its publication in October 2019.

When we first meet Celine she is on her way to America having fled France. We learn she killed a man who tried to rape her, and she is desperate for a fresh start. Her journey is quite uneventful, but she befriends a couple of girls that go with her to live in a convent.

Upon their arrival in New Orleans Celine cannot help but feel she has come home. She loves the vibrancy of her new home, but there is a definite sense of threat – made worse by the murder of a young girl soon after their arrival.

There’s no doubt that Celine is not your stereotypical young lady. She’s happy to defy conventions, but this does lead her into rather difficult circumstances.

The majority of the story focuses on the mysterious Sebastian who has a group of very close friends that don’t seem quite human. Celine is in turn entranced and infuriated by Bastian – so it’s inevitable there’s a spin-out hint of a romance.

There’s some interesting ideas here, but there’s a lot that seems to work against the story. We’re never given enough information about the two groups to explain the dynamics between them. We know they’re vampires, yet there’s little detail about quite how this group works. Someone close commits a pretty awful act of betrayal, yet we don’t really get to know why. There’s also a hint of someone thought dead actually being part of this, but we know so little about them it would have been easy to ignore the significance.

This is not a book that I found hard to read or unexciting, but there were a lot of unanswered questions which I found infuriating.

‘Out of the Easy’ – Ruta Sepetys

Immersed in 1950s New Orleans, this was a great read.

Seventeen year old Josie Moraine is the daughter of a prostitute. For years she’s looked after herself, and is desperate to make something of her life.

Helped by Willie, the local brothel madam her mother works for, and a number of other characters Josie tries to break out of the chaos brought to her life by her mother.

There was a warmth to this that really shone through. Josie was a determined character who was dealt a pretty tough time, yet she tried her best to rise above it. Her mother was not a caricature villain, but her behaviour was appalling.
The main thrust of the story is Josie trying to do the right thing by the people she interacts with, while learning about herself. She dreams of a better life, and yet at every opportunity this seems to elude her.

While the ending might not be quite the one she planned for herself, it brought things full circle and really showed the relationships she invested in to be positive and beneficial.

Sepetys is fast becoming a go-to author for me.

 

‘The Liars of Mariposa Island’ – Jennifer Mathieu

A very different book from Jennifer Mathieu, but I’m grateful to NetGalley for giving me the opportunity to read this prior to publication (scheduled for September 2019).

The ARC I received has the simple title ‘The Liars’ and this definitely indicates more characters could be given this title than the family of three we predominantly focus on.

The majority of the story focuses on 17 year old Elena, and her desperate attempts to force a life for herself in spite of her mother’s controlling behaviour. Her older brother, Jouqain, is allowed to work and go out at night but he recognises their mother’s behaviour is abusive. With nobody else to support him though, Jouqain doesn’t know what to do to improve their situation, although he does what he can to improve the situation for Elena.

Alongside the story of these two and the summer that starts to signal change, we get the background to their mother’s life. It is jarring at first, but the details about her wealthy home in Cuba and the change in lifestyle when she’s sent alone to America do explain – at least in part – some of her actions.

Nothing is really resolved by the end of the book for Elena, but the circumstances around Jouqain do give some hope that things might change in time.

‘Top Marks for Murder’ – Robin Stevens

A welcome return to Deepdean. A murder witnessed from afar becomes the focal point for the Detective Agency this time around, but they are up against it as nothing is quite what it seems.

Daisy and Hazel are changing (as you’d expect) and the setting echoes the sense of growing turmoil. They have a rather predictable response to returning to school and finding things have changed a little in their absence, but quickly things settle into their usual routine.

Their friend witnesses a murder so the girls decide to investigate. Nobody is found, so as parents descend on Deepdean for the anniversary celebrations the girls decide to monitor things carefully. It’s not long before they have witnessed an actual murder, so the race is on to learn exactly who is behind this crime.

We have the usual red herrings and a bit of sidetracking with other events. All too soon, though, the girls piece things together and end up solving the crime.
The usual great fun, and it’s lovely to see the characters growing and developing. I love this series!

‘The Nickel Boys’ – Colson Whitehead

There’s no doubting that this is a story some would prefer not told, and though it’s a story that won’t take long to read it is one that will remain with you for a long time.
Our story is about Elwood, a young black boy who grows up conscious of his differences but determined to try to hang onto the things that he has in common with others. From an early age, Elwood showed a fierce determination to better himself and to do the right thing. His desire to learn finds him accepting a lift from someone, and because it’s a stolen car Elwood is sent to the Nickel Centre.
It’s meant to be a juvenile facility but the boys are segregated and, from early on, we see that beatings and abuse are prevalent. Nobody challenges this established order, and it becomes ever harder for Elwood to maintain belief in the words of Dr King.
When he is hospitalised after his first beating (so severe he passes out and is unsure how many times he was hit), Elwood is befriended by Turner. They develop as close a friendship as possible in such an environment, and Turner goes against everything he believes in when Elwood is threatened with being taken ‘out back’.
The two boys run.
What happens next is hard to believe, but this is a story that has to be heard. How such behaviour could be condoned for so long is appalling, and I can understand why Whitehead felt this story needed to be told.

‘The Raven’s Tale’ – Cat Winters

Cat Winters is one of those authors who seems to delight in the macabre and unusual…I’ve enjoyed every one of the novels by her that I’ve written, and this is another hit in my mind.

Seventeen-year-old Edgar Poe counts down the days until he can escape his foster family—the wealthy Allans of Richmond, Virginia. He hungers for his upcoming life as a student at the prestigious new university, almost as much as he longs to marry his beloved Elmira Royster. However, on the brink of his departure, all his plans go awry when a macabre Muse named Lenore appears to him. Muses are frightful creatures that lead Artists down a path of ruin and disgrace, and no respectable person could possibly understand or accept them. But Lenore steps out of the shadows with one request: “Let them see me!”

Following the life of Edgar Allan Poe, this is clearly based on meticulous research but with a wonderfully macabre style that pays homage to Poe’s writing.

Poe at seventeen is about to head to university. He wants to write, but is discouraged by his foster father. Poe tries to ignore his dark muse, Lenore, but we see him struggle with his passions and interests as he adjusts to life as a student. Spiralling debts burden him and Poe cannot bear to abandon the one thing that gives him pleasure though it leaves him open to criticism.

For those familiar with his writing/life I imagine this will add another rich layer, but it’s a fascinating story regardless.

Thanks to NetGalley for allowing me access prior to publication and to Cat Winters for her quirky imaginative style being let loose on such a rich topic.

‘Monsters’ – Sharon Dogar

1814: Mary Godwin, the sixteen-year-old daughter of radical socialist and feminist writers, runs away with a dangerously charming young poet – Percy Bysshe Shelley. From there, the two young lovers travel a Europe in the throes of revolutionary change, through high and low society, tragedy and passion, where they will be drawn into the orbit of the mad and bad Lord Byron.
But Mary and Percy are not alone: they bring Jane, Mary’s young step-sister. And she knows the biggest secrets of them all . . .
Told from Mary and Jane’s perspectives, Monsters is a novel about radical ideas, rule-breaking love, dangerous Romantics, and the creation of the greatest Gothic novel of them all: Frankenstein

Thank you to NetGalley for providing me access to such a complex and fascinating read.

Some of the stories surrounding Frankenstein are well-known, and I admit to finding the book at its most absorbing when it focused on the events of this time. However, in this we have an imagined account of the life of Mary Goodwin, her lover Percy Bysshe Shelley and a character I’d never heard of – half-sister Jane/Claire.

Initially the book felt slow in approach. A meticulous and, at times, off-putting focus on the build-up to the relationship between these evidently fascinating characters. There’s a clear sense of the time and beliefs around these characters being brought to life. It was definitely interesting to see how their lives may have intertwined and linked.

While the story was fascinating, I found myself intensely irritated by Shelley and the selfishness with which he acted. The attempt to show his appeal and positive traits is clear, but it didn’t quite succeed.

‘Bone Talk’ – Candy Gourlay

More than a hundred years ago, a boy named Samkad thinks he knows everything about the world. He knows the mountains he lives in. He knows his people. He knows his blood enemy, the Mangili. And he wants to become a man, to be given his own shield, spear and axe to fight with. His best friend, Luki, wants all the same things – but she is a girl, and no girl has ever become a warrior.
But everything changes when a new boy arrives in the village. He calls himself Samkad’s brother, yet he knows nothing of the ways of the mountain. And he brings news of a people called ‘Americans’, who are bringing war and destruction right to his home . . .

Another book that I picked up with little knowledge, other than it’s on the long-list for the Carnegie 2019 Award.

Gourlay talks of trying to bring to life her own Philippine history, and it is certainly a story that encourages us to walk in someone else’s shoes awhile and to consider the impact our presence might have on others.

A brief yet compelling read, which will certainly generate discussion about some of the issues covered.

‘The Binding’ – Bridget Collins

The Binding will be one of those divisive books that will have both fans and haters alike, but whichever camp you fall into I think there’ll be similar comments made about it.

For me this was the story of Emmett Farmer, a young man drawn to books but reluctant to take on the apprenticeship he’s offered for reasons he can’t explain. He comes to learn about himself and how he might challenge the expectations of his time.

When I requested this from NetGalley it was because of the lure of a story about books. In this world books are currency, used by fraudulent men to bind people to them. Books in this form are not stories – works of fiction are sneered at here as being less worthy – but they are used to draw memories from people who desire to forget things. Sometimes this is an unpleasant memory, but sometimes these bindings are used as a form of covering abuse or controlling others.

Intriguing though this was, we don’t focus on the books as much as I expected.
There’s no denying the fact that the first part of the story feels slow as you read. It drifts and it’s not clear why certain events are happening as they do, and the recurring allusions to secrets to be told did get a little wearing. However, as we started to uncover some of these details I became more invested in the story. Unfortunately I can see many readers being bored by the midway point where things really started to move forward, and simply not bothering to read on. That would be a shame.

As we come to understand Emmett’s actions and unearth some of the details that have led him to this point I couldn’t help but feel the story had shifted into a place that wasn’t expected.

Thank you to NetGalley for the opportunity to read this prior to publication.

‘Ghost Boys’ – Jewell Parker Rhodes

Our narrator, twelve year old Jerome, is another voice to add to the list of young black boys killed because of their race.

Bullied in school, Jerome is a good kid who tries to do the right thing. He befriends new boy Carlos, even though it looks like it will bring him problems. He could never predict just how serious these will get.

When the school bullies start picking on Carlos one lunchtime he pulls out a gun. It’s a toy, but realistic enough to scare them off. Wanting to give his new friend thanks for the support, Carlos offers Jerome the toy to play with. Jerome’s decision to take it, and go out on the street to play with it, costs him his life.
The killing of Jerome at the hands of a white police officer happens early on. We’re spared the worst details, but the subsequent preliminary hearings tell us enough to know this was an unjustified action, probably an act brought about by prejudice and totally avoidable.

Jerome’s story is told in two timeframes. The flashbacks to record the last moments of his life and what led to that point, and the present now he is dead.
He can be seen by the daughter of the man who shot him. This allows the author to examine attitudes to race and to raise some of the pertinent issues linked to cases such as this throughout history. Rhodes introduces her readers to names that will, sadly, be all too familiar to many.

A quick read that should resonate with readers, though the sense of injustice and anger you’re likely to feel as you read the book – and the knowledge that it’s not likely to change – is infuriating. Nobody should live their life like this. Nobody should have to experience this horror. Nobody should let such attitudes continue unchallenged.

Given to me by our school librarian this is a great book for younger readers who are, perhaps, not quite ready for the more developed political stance of books such as The Hate You Give.