‘As Far As You’ll Take Me’ – Phil Stamper

 

Thanks to NetGalley for letting me read this before publication, and it’s another story that takes you through some of the highs and lows faced by many teens finding their way in the world.

Marty is not yet eighteen, a keen oboe player and struggling to feel comfortable with announcing his identity as a gay man to his conservative parents. With the help of his cousin, Marty concocts a rather elaborate scheme to step out into the world in his own terms.

From the outset I feared for Marty. I felt awful that his situation might still be a common one, and yet he retained such optimism about how he might start to live his life in the way he chose to.

We follow Marty to London where he tells his parents he’s attending a summer school. He’s not, but he hopes to play music and do whatever he needs to in order to live happily. We see him forge new friendships, and summon the strength to call out some less positive older friends. There’s a tentative relationship, but the thing that really struck me was the strength of character shown by Marty in working through a challenge, persevering with something scary and the determination to live the life he wants.

‘The Girl Who…’ – Andreina Cordani

Thanks to NetGalley for allowing me to read this before publication. It didn’t go quite as I expected, but it is definitely one I’d recommend reading.

When I first started reading I couldn’t make my mind up about either Leah or Ellie. These two had more in common than was suggested at the start, but it was a rollercoaster ride to get them to realise it.

Leah and Ellie are both reluctant to let the other get close. They have their reasons, and the hints at the secrets they were keeping totally lead me up the garden path in my thoughts of what might happen.

Their respective parents have got together so the family are at the awkward stage of adjusting to life together. Ellie is the life and soul of her world, while Leah is more circumspect. However, the narrative from Leah’s view shows us she’s not quite what she makes out.

It was clear that Leah was somewhat fixated on the events surrounding her dead mother and sister. She wanted revenge on the gang member who stabbed them, but her interactions with her family keep this hidden. Only as we near the end do we see just how dangerous her fixation could be.

I liked the split narrative as it kept just enough unclear to prevent it all being obvious, but it also helped us develop a less negative view of each girl. The inclusion of narrative from a third character was, initially, confusing but it became interesting to see the developing role this character played. I wish we could have seen a little more on this.

Unfortunately, I’m not wholly convinced by the way things were resolved but I’m prepared to admit this was because I expected something so different.

 

‘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.

 

‘Influence’ – Sara Shepard and Lilia Buckingham

If you thought Pretty Little Liars was set in a far-fetched world, then you’ll love Influence. It’s a world so far removed from reality for many that it really is hard to comprehend people living like this. However, Shepard’s co-author in this is a real-life influencer, so I trust much of this is based on her reality.

The story focuses on four influencers – Delilah (relatively new to the scene), Scarlet (the original mean girl), Jasmine (a child star desperate to reveal who she really is) and Fiona (the funny girl hiding her own secret). We follow them as they live their picture-perfect lives and quickly realise that the reality of their existence is quite different from the image they present.

Much of the interest for me came from the insight into a way of life that is so alien to my experience. It struck me as crazy, a mental nightmare waiting to happen and yet something that holds a dangerous allure. When one of the group is found dead, there is a determination to uncover some of the secrets people have been hiding as they work out what’s happened.

Strangely, the actual murder and subsequent investigation really didn’t register much. There was an attempt to make it dramatic, but the truth was – if I’m honest – rather out of place and seemed more of a manipulation of events to prove a point about the potential pitfalls of this type of world.

I’m grateful to NetGalley for letting me read this prior to publication (expected January 2021), and though it wasn’t really my thing I can see this being a big hit with the target audience.

 

‘Anxious People’ – Fredrik Backman

Anxious People is a book that sneaks up on you somewhat…but it is one that I would urge people to read.

The narrative focuses on a hostage situation, taking place just before New Year, when a group of prospective buyers in an apartment are taken hostage by a bank robber needing to escape quickly after their planned raid goes wrong. Though the scenario around which this story revolves sounds dramatic, the story itself is gentle and far more emotional than I was expecting.

Backman shows us – through this scenario – the threads that bind us, though we may not realise them initially, and encourages us to explore our own interactions with others.

Piece by piece, we are shown what led to this most unusual situation. We gradually learn little details about the hostages within the apartment, see the thought process of the police responding to this crime and come to understand some of the decisions that lead our characters to the point in time at which we meet them.

I never thought I would find myself feeling sympathy for so many characters. From the bank robber doing the wrong thing for what could be argued are good reasons to all of the hostages, Backman reveals details about their lives that I could not help but react emotionally to. The hostage-taking scenario aside, there are no grand gestures here but this was a gentle – at times, very funny – look at loneliness and how we can, sometimes, lose control of things around us.

As always, Backman’s style draws you in. There’s a genuine warmth for the minutiae of people’s lives and the little details that can affect our choices. Interspersing the story with the transcriptions of the police interviews allowed us to learn little details to help our understanding, but which also allowed us to understand how we arrived at the final destination.

 

‘Little Creeping Things’ – Chelsea Ichaso

 

In spite of one of the creepiest covers I’ve seen in a while, Little Creeping Things was a pleasure to read.

Our story is that of Cassidy who, when she was little, was rescued from a fire in which her best friend died. Since that time, people in her small town have seen her as something to fear…her nickname Fire Girl ensures she’s not seen as a survivor of an awful event, but the perpetrator of a callous crime. She doesn’t recall many details of this accident, but it has shaped her life in the years since.

Cassidy’s elder brother, Asher, does his best to look out for her, and her best friend Gideon sees beyond the rumours. Unfortunately, when one of the girls who has tormented her most goes missing Cassidy knows things could get difficult…particularly since she was in the woods on the night Melody disappeared, and someone had taken her notebook in which she jokingly made comments about how she could carry out Melody’s murder. She wants to do the right thing, but can she bear the personal cost involved?

Our story focuses on the aftermath of the discovery of Melody’s body and the hunt for who did it. We watch Cassidy under extreme duress, and though we have a number of twists/deceptions we do, eventually, get answers.
Huge thanks to the publishers, Sourcebooks Fire, and NetGalley for letting me read this prior to publication.

‘Made You Up’ – Francesca Zappia

Our first encounter with Alex is her recollection of trying to free the lobsters from a supermarket tank. I admit to being unsure what to make of the start, but then she tells us that this event never happened and I was thrown. How could someone have a memory that wasn’t of a real event?

It’s at this point that we learn Alex has schizophrenia, and that her obsessive photo-taking is a way of trying to keep a grip on reality – looking at the pictures later helps her work out what she’s hallucinated and what was really there. When she first starts at her new school she is determined to do whatever she can to stay under the radar…only she finds herself drawn to loner Miles who scares everyone else. This might seem nothing, until we learn that she believes Miles to be the boy who helped her to free the lobsters (which she thinks didn’t happen).

The book seemed a sensitive attempt to show how something like schizophrenia can affect a person. Most of the time I felt real sympathy for how exhausting life must be for Alex, though there were some laugh-out-loud moments which really kept us on our toes.

While the main focus is Alex and how she finds herself living with her condition, there was also the focus on the mystery surrounding Miles and his family and the downright odd things happening in the school.
Quirky, but very interesting read.

 

‘Faking Normal’ – Courtney C. Stevens

To a certain extent we all fake normal, but for those living with extreme situations it can become ingrained. From the moment we meet Lexi we know she’s struggling with something, something she can’t yet put a name to, but the signs are there and from the things she reveals it’s clear it’s serious. But nobody around her sees it…or, if they are picking up on the clues, they’re not pushing to learn the truth.

As Lexi manoeuvres her way through school she’s maintaining good grades and things seem, superficially, fine. But nobody knows that she can’t sleep at night, hides in her closet and self-harms as a way of trying to get through the pain of her experience.

This could have been a book like countless others, but alongside Lexi’s story we have Bodee. He starts as a rather nondescript character, given the nickname the Kool Aid kid, and all we know is he’s coming to live with Lexi after an incident involving his parents. Over time we learn more, and he quickly becomes the more interesting of the two – though because it’s Lexi’s story we never go quite as deep into the character as we could have.

What was at the heart of this book though was the developing friendship between these two, and the way they supported each other to begin to take the steps needed to begin their healing process.

Little clues were dropped initially about the identity of Lexi’s attacker. I had my suspicions, and once this was confirmed then it does make a lot more sense of some of the stuff we’ve seen. As in reality, we don’t see the full resolution but it was nice to know she was on her way.

‘Last Lesson’ – James Goodhand

Ollie Moorcombe, pianist and star student, about to take his GCSEs and seemingly on the brink of great things. Yet Ollie seems to be hanging on by a thread. On his last day of school he arrives with a home-made pipe bomb in his bag…how did it ever get to this stage?

We cut between past and present as we learn a little more about Ollie. We learn about the bullying he has endured at the hands of his classmates. We learn about the relationship he has with his grandpa, who he lives with as his mum is receiving treatment for schizophrenia. We learn that he fears for his life as he receives daily threats from some of his more sadistic classmates. And we learn something of the catalyst for some of these events – the death of his Aunt Kaye in a car crash, which Ollie was also part of.

There’s no getting away from the fact that this is a tough read. Graphic accounts of sexual violence, the flashbacks to the car accident and the details about Ollie’s treatment do not make for a comfortable read. The subject matter of a planned school bombing is scary – and getting into the mindset of the person planning it doesn’t make it any easier.

While it was easy to see some of the signs surrounding Ollie’s behaviour as potential triggers, it doesn’t go anywhere near explaining fully why he plans what he does. The author ensures we feel some sympathy for Ollie, which makes what he’s planning even more chilling. Seeing the decline in his mindset/behaviour was worrying, and not least because someone should have seen things were not right and done more. I got cross at all the missed signs that could have minimised the damage caused, and it certainly examines the toxic culture surrounding boys and mental health issues. I also found myself increasingly unnerved by the voice of Ollie, which was – perhaps – the first indication that this seemingly straightforward story was a little more complex than we might have been led to believe.

This will not be a book for everyone, but I do feel it raises important questions. Thanks to NetGalley for allowing me to read this and offer my honest thoughts prior to publication.

 

‘Wonderland’ – Juno Dawson

Wonderland is a riot of hedonism, mental health issues and privileged people trying to keep their positions of power. It’s bonkers, and at times reads like we’re following someone on a bad trip. I felt myself pausing for breath at times to gauge whether people could ever be as awful as they are here…and I think they probably can.

In Wonderland Juno Dawson takes us on a journey with Alice, a transgender girl who becomes worried when a friend of hers (Bunny, no less) goes missing. At her exclusive school, nobody seems concerned. So when Alice finds an invitation to an exclusive weekend party she decides to attend in the hope that she can learn the truth of Bunny’s disappearance.

As we follow Alice through her Wonderland experience we have so many of the characters you’d expect – transported to their contemporary rich clique. Alice finds herself having a number of exciting new experiences, but there’s a clear dark undercurrent that threatens to consume her. The very real threat she is under is presented in an almost cruelly casual way. Someone wants Alice out of the way…but how far are they prepared to go?

When we learn of Alice’s mental health issues, knowing she is without her medication means I was never quite sure what was happening and what Alice was imagining. The ending brought a number of strands to a head, but didn’t really resolve much for Alice.

Thanks to NetGalley for allowing me to read this before publication.