‘The Vanishing Stair’ – Maureen Johnson

So, last time round Stevie was investigating the Ellingham mysteries and getting herself into places/situations she ought not to have. In the interim we are led to believe her parents have pulled her from school, worried because one of the students has died and another has gone missing (fair point, I think).

Initially I felt the book was (sorry) a little slow to get going. Starting with Stevie moping round her home town pointing out all the things she missed about school and generally not doing much was too reminiscent of that awful scene with Bella in the chair, doing nothing as the seasons change around her.

Thankfully the mood becomes less maudlin before it gets too much to take. David’s dad steps in and, effectively, bribes her to return to school and keep an eye on his son. Stevie settles back into school but – as you’d hope – she cannot forget the elusive Ellingham case and continues her investigations.

The last thing you want is to know any of the details of this. Suffice to say, Stevie gets closer to unravelling some of these mysteries but also – as in many of the best mysteries – there are new strands woven in.

Towards the end I was really quite frantic with trying to work out what was going to happen. Johnson is toying with readers by leaving it where she does. I have so many questions…

‘Then She Was Gone’ – Lisa Jewell

Laurel Mack has a seemingly perfect life. Loving husband, three beautiful children and a sense of enjoyment. Then her youngest daughter, Ellie, doesn’t come home one day and the family are launched into a nightmare that has some considerable impact, even years later.

When we’re introduced to Laurel it’s ten years since her daughter went missing. The family have split and she has become a shadow of the woman she was. Then she meets Floyd in a cafe and things seem to be looking up.

Not surprisingly, things are not what they seem. When she’s introduced to Floyd’s younger daughter, Poppy, Laurel cannot get over the similarity between her and Ellie.

As a reader I felt I was a little ahead of the characters. The key plot details were signalled, and at times I wondered whether things really would take the turn I expected. Often, they did.

As we start to unearth details – not long after Ellie’s bones are discovered – we gain a new narrative voice and this helps delay the inevitable, creating tension that we expect but also welcome.

Some of the details surrounding the key players felt unnecessary. They often felt like an attempt to misdirect or divert our attention from what we really wanted to focus on.

‘Two Can Keep a Secret’ – Karen McManus

When their mother needs to be hospitalised to treat her mental health, twins Ellery and Ezra are forced to go and live with their grandmother in Echo Ridge, a small town near the Canadian border. They don’t know her, and their mother never talked about her time there. All the twins know is their aunt was killed and that some years later a young girl was murdered.

On their arrival their journey home is stopped when they discover the body of a teacher, victim of a hit and run. Strange messages then start to appear around Echo Ridge, suggesting someone is preparing another murder. Apart from the obvious questions about why anyone in their right mind would stay in a place like this, events unfold in front of us and we’re given plenty of twists to try and throw us off the scent. Suspects galore, disappearing prom queens, affairs and so on…

Reminiscent of Twin Peaks for me in that lots of people in this book have secrets. There’s so many people hiding things, but with a bit of luck and perseverance the truth comes out. Some of the red herrings were a little obvious, but that’s a minor gripe. You know you’re being manipulated but, for the most part, you don’t mind. I felt the closing moments were rather sprung on us a little quickly, but Ellery’s final revelation of the secret she’ll probably take with her to the grave was chilling. And the Mean Girls reference when Ezra first meets three of our cast – ‘something tells me on Wednesday they wear pink’ – will be one I remember fondly.

‘A Danger to Herself and Others’ – Alyssa B. Sheinmel

Only when she’s locked away does the truth begin to escape…

Hannah Gold is a top student, precocious and destined for great things. She insists on telling us this throughout the time we are with her. What Hannah doesn’t tell us is why she’s in an institute, meeting regularly with a doctor who makes notes on a sheet that states Hannah could be a danger to herself and others.

We learn that during her time at summer school, Hannah’s room-mate was hospitalised after falling from a window. Hannah is blamed for the accident, but is sent to the institute for a psychiatric evaluation.

As is the wont with unreliable narrators, we believe what Hannah tells us but slowly start to pick up on clues that perhaps all is not as she says.

During the course of the novel we learn that Hannah’s reality is not quite what she thinks. The friends she recalls don’t exist. Hannah is coming to terms with a previously undiagnosed mental illness, and it takes time for her to accept the fact she’ll need treatment for the rest of her life.

Hannah was not – at times – a likeable character. There’s more than one or two clear suggestions that she was, indeed, responsible for what happened to her room-mate. But to what extent can we hold her responsible for what happened when we understand that her reality is quite different to many?

I felt irritated by the parents of Hannah. Absent for much of the novel – with hints that this a theme of her life – their horror at learning their daughter was not ‘normal’ was palpable, and their answer seemed to be to throw money at the situation. While the situation would be a shock to them, I couldn’t help but think about all those people in this kind of situation who don’t get the help offered to Hannah, or who don’t get the treatment they need because they can’t afford it.

This is definitely a read to recommend and I’m grateful to NetGalley for providing me with access in exchange for my thoughts.

‘The Roanoke Girls’ – Amy Engel

A tricky book to review as so much about it is horrid – subject matter, characters and the environment described – but it is done in a way that draws you in.

Lane is a teenager when she first goes to Roanoke to live with her grandparents and cousin, Allegra. Upset from the suicide of her mother Lane struggles to feel comfortable in this new environment, but she seems to blossom under the care of her grandfather, the attention of her cousin and the excitement of her relationship with local bad boy, Cooper.

When we meet Lane she is an adult, and has not been to Roanoke for some years. We don’t know why, but over time we get some answers. They’re hard to read, particularly as we unearth some of the mysteries surrounding the infamous Roanoke girls. Alongside this we have the mystery of Lane’s disappearance.

I don’t want to reveal too much of the book as it’s definitely more impactful if you don’t know what’s coming. The characters – even our main character – are not likeable and yet I came to like Lane more as I realised what she’d loved with/the background to her story.

‘Broken Things’ – Lauren Oliver

 

Lauren Oliver always manages to grip me with whatever she’s writing, but I found myself increasingly frustrated by this.

Brynn, Mia and Owen have spent the last five years of their lives being regarded with suspicion by everyone in their small town. They are regarded as suspects in the death of their best friend, Summer, who was found, stabbed, in a field in circumstances very similar to a story they wrote together. The facts have been told so many times that everyone thinks they know what happened. But we’re told to assume these facts are not the truth.

In varying states of upheaval, the three teens find themselves back in their small town as people prepare to commemorate Summer’s death. They are determined to uncover the truth – for themselves, as much as for their friend.

Initially, this made for a tense read as each has reason to doubt the other and we can see they’re all keeping secrets. Unfortunately I felt we suffered from just too many ‘red herrings’ and attempts to misdirect us. I can’t believe such crimes would go unnoticed or unpunished…and yet Oliver glosses over all the issues we might have with how such an event is handled. There’s some details that other reviewers have alluded to that are put in place to shock but a lack of preparation/background made me feel they offer little extra to aiding us in understanding the characters.

I really wanted this to keep the hold on me that it had at the beginning. Sadly, it didn’t and I found this very frustrating.

‘Sadie’ – Courtney Summers

It starts with a dead girl. Mattie, aged 11. Found in a field after being missing for days. Her sister, Sadie, then goes missing.

This felt quite different to the other books by Summers that I’ve read. There was an unusual style of writing, with excerpts from a radio podcast interspersed with the story of Sadie. The podcast lent an air of interest to the story – watching someone else uncover the events that we were already familiar with, but also piecing together the strands just that little bit after we had been told certain details. 

We follow Sadie as she tries to find the man she blames for her sister’s death. Along the way Sadie makes some deeply unpleasant discoveries, and it makes us think a little more about how easy it is for people to hide their true feelings/behaviours if they choose to.

Throughout, there was an ominous tone to the story. The threads surrounding Sadie pulled tighter and tighter, and it felt like the resolution was not quite what we hoped for.

Personally I found the ending to be frustrating as Sadie’s story was not clearly resolved. I liked the way this was left open to a positive possibility, but with what we know I can’t help but feel it wasn’t on the cards.

‘It Ends With You’ – S.K. Wright

YA thriller that really packs a punch.

Told from multiple perspectives it could be a mess, but these different voices keep us waiting for information and all shed new light on what happened.
Eve is one of the popular crowd. Beautiful, wealthy and destined for great things people are surprised when she falls for bad boy Luke. Luke is not from a wealthy family, and he has a temper – so he’s the perfect suspect when Eve’s body is discovered in the woods.

It seems from the beginning that Luke is innocent, but there are hints that keep us guessing throughout. We learn Eve is not quite as innocent as people thought, and the details of what she’s been up to were pretty shocking.

When Luke is imprisoned and put on trial for Eve’s murder there’s hints that we might not have everything as neatly wrapped up as we thought. However, the end was chilling and really made me rethink some of my earlier ideas.

This is certainly one I’ll recommend, and I must thank NetGalley for providing me with the opportunity to read this prior to publication.

‘The Tall Man’ – Phoebe Locke

Thank you NetGalley for letting me read my oddest of 2018 so far.

There were issues with my ARC – parts of text missing or disordered – and this meant there was some inevitable confusion as I tried to keep fixed who was the focus/what was happening. Those issues fixed, I think this will be the kind of read you’ll either fall hook, line and sinker for or you’ll be ambivalent about. I, sadly, was somewhere in between.

For me, the start of the story was not quite there. We’re expected to fall for The Tall Man story but without really being given enough detail to justify such a reaction. Throughout, the supposedly creepy references to this mythical figure felt forced. I never felt I had enough to substantiate this, feeling it was always something of a smokescreen for another story.

Some reviewers have commented on the fragmented nature of the setting. This is disconcerting on occasion, but it does make sense as we learn more about Sophie, Miles and their daughter, Amber, as she is being followed by a film crew for a documentary about a murder. Certain details hint at there being more to certain characters and the events unfolding, but it’s not until later that we get to piece everything together.

‘All of this is True’ – Lygia Day Peñaflor

A group of teens go to a book signing and end up being befriended by the author. They are given unlimited access to her home and time, and she seems genuinely interested in getting to know them. Except, then her latest book is published and it is – in fact – the story of their lives.

The book idea itself was fascinating. I liked the inclusion of excerpts from the fictional book. Unfortunately, the group of teens were not particularly interesting characters. They had potential to be, but they were focused on in relation to the fictional book so we don’t see much beyond the surface.

Stylistically it feels choppy. We cut from interview to interview, to messages, to novel excerpts and it’s difficult to get a sense of quite where it’s going. It always felt like we were second guessing events/characters and those I’d really like to have heard from were not given a voice.

An intriguing idea, but one which didn’t quite come together for me.