‘Turtles all the Way Down’ – John Green

I started this book a number of times and just wasn’t ‘clicking’…but I’m glad I got in the right place for this eventually. It’s a slow-burner, definitely, and I think I’d gone into it with a certain expectation. When this wasn’t there, I was a little non-plussed.
Basic story revolves around sixteen year old Aza and her best friend, Daisy. Aza has quite debilitating mental health issues. We watch these two girls go about their daily lives and there’s a side story involving a boy from Aza’s past, Davis, their fledgling relationship and the disappearance of his father.
At moments this felt very much like things I’d read before. The story about Davis’s father felt like a framework, and there was a real sense of episodes that we were bearing witness to rather than a cohesive story.
Those comments make it sound really negative, but that’s not the feeling I got from this read. The plot itself was fairly so-so; I wasn’t unduly bothered what happened. However, what I found absorbing was the inner workings of Aza’s mind.
This is a girl suffering. She’s very absorbed in herself, and constantly questions her actions. She is the kind of person who might be utterly draining to actually be around, but the attempt to get into her mind was fascinating. This will strike a chord with so many because of the way it explores mental health, and for that reason alone it’s a book I’d be happy to recommend. I cannot get the image of the spiral out of my mind, and I think the way the book ended offered hope without being saccharine-sweet and incredible. This doesn’t have quite the appeal of The Fault in our Stars, but I found it more satisfying as it forces you to confront your own misconceptions/views on mental health.

‘Kill the Boy Band’ – Goldy Moldavsky

Just know from the start that it wasn’t supposed to go like this. All we wanted was to get near them. That’s why we got a room in the hotel where they were staying. 

We were not planning to kidnap one of them. Especially not the most useless one. But we had him—his room key, his cell phone, and his secrets.

We were not planning on what happened next.

We swear.

How could you resist a premise like that? It sounds dark, full of black humour and a satire on the modern pop industry. Sadly, it doesn’t quite work.

Boy bands are an entity that inspire a particular kind of frenzied behaviour in their fans. Girls, specifically, have always been keen to show their love…but with the advent of social media, and the ability to pay closer attention to schedules etc I think things have become a little more frantic.

This story focuses on a group of four ‘friends’, bonded by their love of the group known as The Ruperts. They follow the band to their hotel and thus begins a strange turn of events. One of the band members is inadvertently imprisoned in the girls’ room…and so begins a dangerous game, which ends in shocking ways that you can’t even begin to imagine.

While this has moments that are entertaining, there wasn’t enough distinction between the voices of the author and the girls. I was never entirely certain whether we were applauding the girls, judging them or sympathising with them. The treatment of the boys themselves was scathing, but without really offering anything to explain this view. I really disliked the attitudes expressed towards Apple-such negative body images really don’t have their place without more care to put them in context.

So, all in all, a book that had its moments but which, ultimately, felt rather missing in something. A bit like the thing it’s focusing on?

‘Fix Me’ – Lisa M. Cronkhite

Pen is, to put it bluntly, a mess. Since her sister committed suicide a year ago, Pen has done everything she can to avoid dealing with her feelings about it. She and her friend Rose have spent the last year experimenting with Fix, a once legal anti-depressant that has become the go-to drug since it produces intense hallucinations.

When we first meet Pen she is high. She spends most of her time high, getting into more dangerous situations. While she recognises that she is playing a dangerous game, Pen is addicted to Nate – the ‘imaginary’ guy she sees during her highs.

Initially this seemed like an odd read. Pen is not a likeable character, but as we start to get hints of odd things happening around her she becomes a little more intriguing. At one point I wondered if she was doing something while under the influence, but her unreliability keeps us uncertain.

As one girl after another disappears it becomes clear that something very dangerous is going on. We question everyone, and there were moments when it seemed that Pen’s life was in danger for reasons other than the drug-taking.

I did feel that there were elements of the ending that were less satisfactory, but it was definitely an engaging story that will get under your skin. Thanks to publishers and NetGalley for allowing me to read this in advance of publication in exchange for my review.

‘Before I Let Go’ – Marieke Nijkamp

I’d really enjoyed This is Where it Ends, so was excited to be authorised to read an ARC of this by NetGalley and the publishers. Unfortunately, it didn’t hold quite the same appeal.

While the story focuses on some interesting topics – mental health, sexuality, suicide – it’s not the kind of book I think I’ll remember much about later. A bit like The Smell of Other People’s Houses there was something that jarred with me.

Our main character, Corey, has been at boarding school for a few months, and she’s desperate to get back to Lost Creek (her remote Alaskan village of 247 residents). Unfortunately, just before her scheduled return she gets the news that her best friend is dead.

Corey returns home, but she is treated as an outsider. People don’t talk to her, she is convinced she hears strange things outside her room and she can’t reconcile what she remembers of the place with what is in front of her months later. Nothing is as she left it, and though she has questions about what happened to her friend, nobody seems willing to give her answers. Corey is determined to find out what happened, but she isn’t aware of what price she may have to pay.

The depiction of the Alaskan village was atmospheric, but we got very little about the other characters which made it hard to understand their motivation. The timeframe jumped all over the place, and this gave everything a disjointed feel that I found off-putting.

 

‘Eliza and her Monsters’ – Francesca Zappia

On the surface, this is a clever book packed full of graphics and interesting text to support the main narrative. But, beneath the surface, it’s a story about finding yourself, coming to accept your strengths/limitations and – in part – addressing mental health issues and thoughts about the role the internet has in our lives.

Eliza has always been introverted. She feels she doesn’t fit in with her sporty competitive family, preferring to spend her time online. Here she is not the oddball she feels in real life; here, she’s Lady Constellation, creator of Monstrous Seas…a webcomic like no other.

When new boy Wallace joins her school, she finds an unlikely ally. The growing friendship between these two was well-handled, and I liked that Zappia showed us suffering can come in numerous ways and it’s all about how we deal with it.

Of course, not everything goes as smoothly as we’d like. There are bumps along the way, but Eliza comes through a pretty tough time…smiling. For those who like their reading a little different, this will be right up their street.

‘Good Me Bad Me’ – Ali Land

A tense, deeply troubling but utterly fascinating read.

Our narrator is fifteen year old Annie, the daughter of a serial killer. Details of Annie’s life are drip-fed to us, and they make for a tough read. We learn, bit by bit, of the awful abuse meted out to Annie by the very person who is meant to care for her. Alongside this we are given some details of the murders her mother carried out.

When Annie makes the decision to go to the police it sets in motion a court case, and Annie being taken into foster care. Her shiny new identity is as Milly. This is a chance for a new start, but throughout the book we are urged to consider the extent to which you can move on from your past, particularly when faced with new challenges such as the  ‘Mean Girls’-style group in her new school led by her foster sister, Phoebe.

Watching Milly’s attempts to settle into her new home always felt rather strained. We put it down to the strain of preparing to testify against your own mother, but there’s a point where Milly questions whether good me or bad me will win out – and we’re launched into a murky psychological area. Watching events unfold there was a grim inevitability to them, where I hoped the author wouldn’t go down this route but couldn’t resist seeing just where we’d be taken.

This book references Lord of the Flies throughout, and there’s a lurking menace behind most interactions.

While I can’t say I enjoyed this book – some taboos feel like they don’t need to be broken – it was one I found myself mesmerised by, and I am pretty certain this will be all over the bestseller lists in months to come.

Thanks to publishers and NetGalley for allowing me to read this prior to publication.

‘Hour of the Bees’ – Lindsay Eagar

A charming story about growing up, changing and coming to terms with shifting family relationships.

Carolina (who likes to be known as Carol) is twelve and she’s worried about moving to junior high at the end of the summer. However, she has a more pressing issue to deal with – the fact that her family are upping sticks for the summer to move to her grandfather’s ranch to prepare it for sale as his developing dementia leaves him unable to care for himself safely.

Initially this felt like it would be a rather earnest read, with a lot of effort going into talking about dementia and the impact it has on Serge. There was a lot of time spent talking about the family’s Mexican roots, that they seemed to abandon until their return to the ranch.

My first impressions of Serge and the ranch were wholly negative. The drought meant everything was on its last legs-perhaps in a symbiotic relationship with the grandfather.

Anyway, Carol is reminiscent of her grandmother Rosa, so she strikes up a bond with her grandfather. He tells her stories about bees taking the water from the lake after the townspeople chopped down a tree that grew by its shores. Carol can’t tell what is story, what is a product of her grandfather’s dementia and what might be based in fact.

As the story progresses we see Carol grow as a person. Her summer was nothing like she envisaged it, but it’s a moving story with a happy ending (of sorts).

‘One of Us is Lying’ – Karen M. McManus

Due for publication at the end of May 2017, I am really grateful to the author and publishers Delacorte Press (via NetGalley) for allowing me to read this early.

For readers of the target group, the John Hughes movie The Breakfast Club will probably not mean anything. But, throughout, I could see the influence of this movie – and one or two hit teen dramas of recent years – on the way this was written. Yet I never felt I was simply rehashing old ground.

The basic plot is simple. Five students of Bayview High – the “walking teen stereotypes” – are put in detention one night. One of the five, Simon, runs a hit app on which his peers depend for their gossip. Unfortunately Simon was planning to reveal a little secret belonging to each of the four students with him in detention. This provides each of the four with a reason to be a suspicious character in the investigation that ensues after Simon (who suffers with a peanut allergy) ends up dead.

A high-impact start, and we are taken on something of a rollercoaster ride as we learn a little more about Bronwen, Nate, Addy, Cooper and the young man who seemed to hold the key to their high school happiness in his hands.

Don’t worry, there’s no big reveal here. What I will tell you is that I was second-guessing everyone and everything I was told. I trusted nobody and, though I suspected the final revelation, I still wasn’t certain until very close to the end.

A greta debut, and one I will be heartily recommending to my students.

‘Thirteen Reasons Why’ – Jay Asher

Strangely, this is one of those ‘classic’ reads that has passed me by. I had heard students talking about the Netflix version of it recently, and was curious to see to what extent this show had altered the text. Before I go any further, I must point out I’ve not watched the series yet-but it’s come in for some criticism.

Before I started reading I was wondering why Asher decided to have Hannah, his main character, tell her story through tapes. It was a dated mode in 2007, and I can’t see it coming close to making sense to today’s teenagers. That aside, I think most will read this for the idea behind it – and the exploration of character.

The opening part of the book introduces us to Clay. He’s just received a mysterious package with thirteen tapes inside. When he starts listening to the tapes he learns they’re from Hannah, a girl in his school, who recently killed herself. On the tapes she pledges to reveal how thirteen individuals played their part in her decision.

Clay himself was a good guy. He obviously felt deeply affected by what he was hearing, and we were left with the view of him as a boy who tried to do right but who, on the main event, didn’t quite push far enough.

Other characters were far less appealing. Whether it’s one-time friend who puts her down; the boy who objectifies her; the first kiss who laughs with his mates and exaggerates just what they got up to; the peeping tom who pretends to be her friend or the teacher who doesn’t quite get it, there’s an awful lot of characters who play their part in helping feed Hannah’s low self-esteem.

Reading the transcript of the tapes puts us in Clay’s shoes. There’s a morbid curiosity about just what circumstances created the feeling in Hannah (who seems quite a strong character on the surface) that this was her only option. What stuck with me was a comment from the start of the book where Hannah says ‘it’s not about what you did…it’s about the repercussions of what you did’. Given the pressures on teenagers now, I think this message is more pertinent than ever-and if readers take nothing else from it than to consider how their action/inaction might affect someone else, then it’s a good thing.

I found it hard that Hannah reaches out on a couple of occasions (but not in a way that really indicates she’s feeling anything beyond frustration with her peers) and we do get given a number of ‘check-list’ features that more vulnerable teenagers might be tempted by. I can’t imagine how desperate someone must be feeling to actually go through with suicide, but I think there may have been other characters closer to Hannah that could have offered a different perspective on the events they hear.

‘My Ladybird Story’ – Magus Tor

 

My Ladybird Story

In this novel Tor focuses on the story of John, a young teenage boy who feels different but can’t identify why. We follow him through school as he becomes friends with the new girl, Aureus, a force to be reckoned with.

As soon as these two become friends it’s clear they have found their own support network. Together, John and Aureus find ways to cope with the demands and stresses of high school. Yet John remains quiet, prone to periods of intense depression and nobody can work out why.

The novel takes us on John’s journey as he comes to terms with his identity, eventually recognizing that he has gender dysphoria and undergoing therapy/counseling as part of his gender reassignment.

Novels exploring identity and transgenderism do seem to be becoming rather popular at the moment. That’s no bad thing – certainly for those who are living the experience and need all the support they can get. However, though this novel was positive in its affirmation I couldn’t help but feel there was a sense of earnestness about this that made it feel a little less effective.

Thanks to NetGalley for the opportunity to read this in advance.