‘All Boys Aren’t Blue’ – George M. Johnson

All Boys Aren’t Blue covers so many areas, but I would urge people to read it, even if you don’t see it as having direct relevance to you.

Part memoir, this series of reflections offer an insight into the author’s life as a child and growing up (as he calls himself) black and queer. We journey from an early memory of having his teeth kicked in at five years old to dealing with the death of a close friend at college and, along the way, get to hear about family members and the various events that he recalls shaping him as he grew up.

I was struck, more than anything, by the love and strength gained from family. Things may not have always been articulated, but there’s a clear sense that when it counted they would have your back. You might be held to account, but you would always be loved – and it strikes me that this may well be the best gift you can give someone.

So many of the memories were tinged with sadness and made me feel angry that they had to be experienced, but if all of us were to pinpoint moments that shaped us I’m sure that not all of them would be positive. As so eloquently written in the latter stages of the book, reading about the experiences of others can help us define ourselves and for this reason alone I would recommend this book. While so much was nothing like my own experiences, that search for yourself and the need to find your family will resonate with most readers.

I’m in awe of Nanny and the devotion she has so clearly inspired. I feel privileged to have been allowed to see inside our author’s head, and grateful to have been given this opportunity.

 

‘The Last Girl’ – Goldy Moldavsky

Thanks to the publishers for granting me access to this via NetGalley prior to its scheduled April 2021 release.

The Last Girl is a must-read for horror fans…a lovingly crafted homage to movies that revel in gore, jump-scares and violence. Even readers like myself (who can only read horror stories during the day and who can conjure up threats from the merest hint of shadows and strange noises) will find themselves sucked into this story.

Even knowing the rules doesn’t always help. Sometimes you are up against something for which it’s hard to be prepared.

Our story focuses on new girl Rachel who’s started at an exclusive school where her mum teaches. She is not naturally sociable, and the trauma of killing a masked invader to her old home is something Rachel does not want to share with anyone. She is befriended by Saundra who is desperate to fill her in on the school gossip, but then Rachel finds herself part of a secret club.

Like Fight Club, the rules around this club are tight. Members cannot associate with one another, and nobody should talk about it. The Mary Shelley Club has a seemingly innocent aim, to gather and share a love of horror movies. Another aspect of the Club is the challenge that each member faces…to scare someone.
Initially, like Rachel, we see the Club as harmless – but there are signs that’s not the case. Before long we have a decidedly more dangerous scenario, and the question is whether Rachel will survive this experience.

Not to be taken too seriously, and not something you’d ever want to experience in reality, but self-aware enough to feel the author was having just as much fun writing it as I did reading it.

 

‘People We Meet on Vacation’ – Emily Henry

Due for release in May 2021, I was thrilled to be invited by the publishers to read this prior to publication.

Without giving too much away, this is a book where everything seems as if it should go horribly horribly wrong but it works so well.

Our main characters are Poppy and Alex, two very different people, whose first meeting seems as if it will quickly become the kind of meeting that you talk about in years to come with a sense of having escaped something. They are unlike each other in so many ways, and everything one likes the other dislikes. They have little in common – their only shared ground discovered in their first meeting is that they both have an irrational hatred of anyone who calls boats ‘she’. Yet that first meeting sets in place a relationship like no other.

Poppy and Alex spend years on the outskirts of each other’s lives. A remnant of their college years, they spend time each summer on a vacation. Their only stipulation that it should give them the chance to experience something new.

Over the years they’ve had some memorable trips…and we get to catch up with a few of them, learning as we go just what a place these two have for each other.
Alongside learning about their past, we see them in their present. Poppy writing for a travel magazine and based in New York; Alex teaching at his former high school, in the town Poppy couldn’t wait to escape. Still very different, but with a history whose reach is hard to ignore.

It didn’t surprise me to see what happened by the end. That always seemed likely, but it was great to see how they got to this point in their lives.

 

‘Lore’ – Alexandra Bracken

I am grateful to NetGalley and the publishers for granting me access to this prior to publication.

I had to have two attempts to read this – first time round I wasn’t clicking with it at all. Second time round, I found the start equally frustrating but it did improve…only to end in a bit of a whimper.

Lore was a character who both intrigued and irritated me. The relentless flashbacks helped us to gain an understanding of her past, but until we were some way in they just seemed intensely annoying. She was descended from gods, but was mortal…yet she was needed by the gods as they appeared for their regular seven day fight.

The whole book felt a bit like being at a party when everyone around you is having fun and you’re not quite feeling it. Nothing was actually wrong with what I was reading, but I regularly found myself having to push through to keep reading and find out what happened.

Once we developed a little more understanding of Lore’s past and started to piece together the relationship between the characters it became more engaging. There were a few dramatic moments that took me rather by surprise, but I didn’t feel they were enough. Throughout, I had a sense of waiting for a big reveal and wanting to learn exactly what Lore was hiding…but the moment when it came was all a little sudden.

This, sadly, wasn’t really for me.

 

‘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 Boy I Am’ – K.L. Kettle

 

Thanks to NetGalley for granting me access to this prior to publication. It’s an explosive read, forcing us to question the extent to which we would allow power to go unquestioned.

In this world boys are seen as dangerous and it is essential they are kept apart, given no power and kept subdued. They are not allowed to view the faces of the women who pay for their time, and if they are not bought at auction before the age of seventeen they are sent to the mines.

Our main character is Jude Grant, facing his last auction and desperate to escape the destiny laid in front of him.

Without giving too much away, Jude is enlisted in a daring attempt to overthrow the Chancellor, to topple her from power and bring about change.

Things don’t go to plan. Jude is a determined young man, but we see he is a cog in a much larger machine. That aside, it only takes that one cog to be slightly out of alignment to cause problems.

I found the pacing of this problematic at times and definitely felt I wanted to know more about the mysterious Vor women and how this environment came to be. Very minor niggles, but enough to stop me awarding five stars, which is a shame as this is a book I can see raising a storm amongst readers.’The Bo

‘The Lost Village’ – Camilla Sten

Finishing this with the wind whistling in the woods outside my home, I confess to feeling more than a little jittery at the thought of this story.

The Lost Village focuses on a mystery that has puzzled people for years…a village where all 900 inhabitants mysteriously disappeared, leaving no trace of their presence. The only person found when someone later entered the village was a young baby. A grisly scene met the people who rescued the baby – the body of a woman who had been stoned to death in the village square. Of course, people want to know what happened.

In the present day we have filmmaker Alice whose grandmother used to live in the village. She received letters from her family when she first moved, but had no idea what happened to them. She shared stories about village life with Alice, so this is very much a personal journey.

This personal involvement leads to what can best be described as a blinkered passion. Alice has spent years dreaming of making a film about the village and documenting what happened. She manages to track down the daughter of the baby found in the village (this isn’t a spoiler, though this fact isn’t shared with all the cast who journey to the village to shoot material to secure backing for their film).

From the moment they arrive in the village, Alice and her crew sense something eerie about the place. Of course, their unease starts to grow and we’re never quite sure whether the mysterious noises and sightings are products of unsettled minds or something more threatening.

As the story progresses the growing unease is well-captured. When it becomes clear they are trapped in the village it doesn’t bode well. This claustrophobic sensation is increased as Sten cuts into our present story with the narrative of incidents in the village leading up to the disappearance. The threat is real…and once this is clearly established it became (for me) scarier but also enabled me to develop some empathy for the characters who I wasn’t unduly concerned about initially.

Thanks to the publishers and NetGalley for giving me access to this prior to publication.

 

‘The Sanatorium’ – Sarah Pearse

A remote setting in the Swiss Alps sounds idyllic, but the trip Elin Warner takes to the luxury hotel sited there turns out to be anything but.

Elin is a detective. After a traumatic incident in the course of duty, Elin has been experiencing flashbacks to an incident in her childhood that resulted in the death of her much loved younger brother, Sam. She is struggling to function, and has taken time out of work. This has been the perfect opportunity to confront some of her demons…the visit to Switzerland is to celebrate the engagement of her older brother.

Upon arrival we sense conflict. Elin and her brother clearly have unresolved issues, and from other narrative accounts interspersed with Elin’s story we know that this hotel is not as pleasant as it seems.

The site of an old sanitorium, the history of the place is tinged with darkness. When an employee of the hotel goes missing it becomes worrying. When an avalanche occurs, leaving the staff and odd guests stranded, things take a more sinister turn. Then a second body is discovered and it’s fair to say all hell breaks loose.

Someone is playing a very dangerous game, determined to take their vengeance on someone for something they resent. We are given a number of options for possible suspects, but Elin throws herself into this investigation with reckless abandonment. All around her, people are injured or killed…but still she determines to play the hero and sort this out (because she has to make up for something she wishes she’d done a long time ago).

We do eventually see Elin get the satisfaction of solving this, but at what cost? The revelation seemed to be a jump just a little too far to feel fully plausible, and my lack of engagement with Elin herself made this hard to really feel overly happy about. Things seemed to be over, but then came that weird tagged-on ending suggesting that perhaps we shouldn’t be so quick to accept everything the author had presented us with. I have my suspicions of the identity of the mysterious watcher in the carriage, but it seemed so at odds with everything else that I’m not sure what to make of it.

Thanks to NetGalley for allowing me to read this prior to publication. It had some high points, but felt just a little too jumbled to work effectively.

 

‘Fable’ – Adrienne Young

 

Fable took me somewhat by surprise, and though it was an incredibly frustrating ending and my irritation at having to wait for book two before I find out what I need to know is high, I can’t rate this highly enough.

Our main character is hardy and spirited, not necessarily through choice, and I couldn’t help but hope for the best for her from the outset. Clearly talented, the skills Fable has around gems suggests there’s more info to come.

We are encouraged to jump into her adventures immediately, watching as she ekes out a living dredging what she finds at the bottom of the ocean. We quickly learn that one of the merchants who is feared by many has more of an interest in Fable than she is able to reveal, and she has to decide who to trust in order to get what she wants.

Full of adventure and more than enough hints at an intriguing backstory. I am desperate to know exactly how Fable’s mother fits into this, what West is hiding and exactly why Zola is so keen to have done what he has.

I got caught up in this immediately, couldn’t wait to learn more and am desperate to be approved for book two on NetGalley (strong hint).

‘When the World Was Ours’ – Liz Kessler

While this story will seem familiar in some ways, it offers an approach to the topic of the Second World War that will not fail to impact on readers.
At its heart this is a story about faith, love and having the courage to stay hopeful even in our darkest moments. It covers a period in history that cannot fail to shock, but what struck me in this was the emotional impact the book held.
Our story focuses on three children – Max, Leo and Elsa. Best friends, their story begins with a memory of a wonderful birthday celebration where they rode on a fairground ride, shared cake with one another, smiled and laughed. They each have a picture of that day. That picture becomes significant.
Told through their alternating perspectives, we start to see the fracturing of their idyllic childhood. Living at a time when fascism is on the rise, we know things are going to get tense. When we learn that Elsa and Leo are Jewish, we sense the personal conflict to come. Once we learn that Max’s father is becoming a much respected member of the Nazi party we get an inkling of how this might go.
Ambitious in its scope, we focus on a substantial period of history. We are given facts about the experiences the children have, while learning about the reality of the period. Disturbing, yes, but necessary if we are to ensure people do not forget what happened. There are details that will shock and upset readers – but I think this is inevitable when grappling with this historical experience. Told from the views of the children there is a simplicity to their accounts that, perhaps, renders events a little less upsetting.
Each of the children has a very different war-time experience. Leo manages to flee to England with his mother, desperate for news of his father who was sent to Dachau. Elsa remains with her family through many of the indignities bestowed on her simply because of her faith, but she is separated from them when they are taken to Auschwitz. Max has always been desperate for his father’s approval, and his need to belong and gain admiration makes him susceptible to the indoctrination of the Nazi party. As his father rises in power, Max follows. He too ends up in Auschwitz.
As we drew to the close of the book I had to face the stark reality that these three characters were not all going to get their happy ending. Some might not even survive the experience. By the end, that picture had come back to haunt us. Such a simple image, but it came to mean so much.
I’m grateful to NetGalley for allowing me to read this in advance of its late January publication, and will have no qualms about recommending it to readers.