‘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.

 

‘And the Stars Were Burning Brightly’ – Danielle Jawando

 

Beautiful.

Set against a backdrop that many find less than pleasant, this story covers so many emotional highs and lows…and forces us to confront some pretty unpalatable truths about people.

Our main focus is Nathan, the younger brother of Al. Al was a straight A-grade student who killed himself. Nathan found him. Nathan is also having to come to terms with the guilt he feels over ignoring a call from his brother on the night he hung himself.

Alongside Nathan we have Megan, a friend of Al that few people knew about. They shared an Art class. They were close, but Megan didn’t feel able to go against her ‘cool’ friends and show Al that their friendship was important to her.

There’s no doubt this story just as I’ve recounted it would have made for a tough read. However, as Megan and Nathan become friends and start to unravel some of the mysteries surrounding Al’s last moments things move up a gear.

This book made me sad, so sad. It made me angry, unbelievably angry. But it also filled me with hope.

Thank you so much to Danielle Jawando for using her own personal situation to bring to life such a compelling read, and to NetGalley for letting me read it prior to publication (expected in March 2020).

 

‘We Are Not Okay’ – Natália Gomes

This story by Nataliá Gomes is of the moment, and it certainly delivers a clear message to teen readers.

We focus on four teenage girls: Lucy, Ulana, Trina and Sophia. Though they are all the same age, they have very different experiences and lives. However, each has a secret that they want nobody to know about, and they’ll do anything to ensure it stays secret.

Of the four girls I felt a lot of sympathy for Trina. She has a lot of people talking about her, and ends up in a situation over which she has no control. As a result she makes some difficult decisions which have pretty extreme consequences. Ulana faced a very real fear, but a lot of it seemed to be about her doubting herself and her family. Ultimately, things worked out okay (or at least looked as if they would). Sophia gets caught up in something that, increasingly, seems to be felt to be a normalised experience – and we see her just how damaging it can be. Lucy was the character I found it hardest to empathise with because so much of her story revolved around situations she had instigated. You don’t wish harm on anyone, and the way the others interacted with her did give a positive message eventually.

There was a lot happening here. It seemed as if most topical scenarios were explored here, and not all were given quite as much detail/exploration as they might have been. I felt one such incident (concerning Sophie) seemed to come out of nowhere and I had to reread a section wondering if I’d missed something.

Ultimately this was a book that made me very very relieved to not be a teenager of the social media generation, and determined to try to encourage people of this age to be as open as possible about their experiences. Everyone plays their part in this bullying culture, and the sooner we take responsibility for it the better.

Thanks to NetGalley and HQ Young Adult for allowing me access to this prior to publication.

 

‘How Not to Disappear’ – Claire Furniss

Our memories make us who we are. So, what does this mean when we start to lose our memories?

This story focuses on two characters-Hattie and Gloria. They have never met, but find each other at just the moment that each needs the other. Worlds apart in many ways, yet there are striking similarities between them.

This is a great coming-of-age story that also encourages its readers to empathise with the other characters encountered (even if from a distance).

Hattie is pregnant by her best friend, Reuben. He’s disappeared to France while her other friend, Kat, has gone to Scotland with a new girlfriend. When Hattie is contacted about an elderly relative in the grip of early onset dementia she decides to visit her.

What follows is a road trip with a difference as Hattie takes Gloria on a trip back through time.

Told with unflinching honesty this is a moving exploration of family, memories and learning to accept the decisions you make.

 

‘The Year I Didn’t Eat’ – Samuel Pollen

Max is a character you’ll feel for, but simply because his experiences sound exhausting.

When we first meet Max he’s struggling to deal with his illness. He gives it a name, Ana, and is acutely aware of the impact it has on his family. Max can’t pinpoint what started it, but he recognises that his constant calorie counting and obsessive attempts to control his food intake are destructive. He tries to go along with his counselling sessions, but that voice becomes stronger.

This was a sensitively told story, looking at some aspects of living with anorexia while also showing a teenage boy learning to develop friendships and live with some of the family issues that arise.

It’s hard to know how successful this is in conveying an experience which will, probably, be different for everyone but I did like the hopeful tone to it.