‘The Bewitching of Aveline Jones’ – Phil Hickes

Summer holiday, and Aveline is with her mum in a remote cottage in a little village in the middle of nowhere. Boring…or at least it is until Aveline befriends one of the local girls who isn’t quite what she seems.

We can tell where this is going a mile off, but the story is engaging and offers some genuinely creepy moments. If you loved book one, this delivers another similarly engaging read.

Hazel and her desire to be friends with Aveline could have gone very differently, but we sense things will resolve themselves.

A quick read, giving just the right amount of creepy vibes. Thanks to NetGalley for letting me read this before publication.

 

‘The Taking of Jake Livingston’ – Ryan Douglass


Jake Livingston is one of the only black kids in his school. The other is his popular older brother. Jake is reserved, finds it hard to interact with others and when a lot of your time is spent seeing dead people I imagine it’s hard to deal with the real world. This alone would make Jake’s high school experience a challenge, but Jake is also having to come to terms with being gay, and when we later learn about how his now-absent father responded to this years earlier his reticence is understandable.
From the outset we were encouraged to get into Jake’s head and try to understand his experience. We watch the micro aggressions in school, and we see how these are affecting him. This seems quite familiar territory, but the book is very far from familiar.
With its focus on spirits and the main character being a medium, this was always going to be something a little different. Alongside Jake’s experiences, we are also given chapters by a character called Sawyer. This is a character who is receiving treatment for potential depression and who seems to have little support around him. We may be tempted to feel some sympathy for him, particularly later in the book when he experiences some deeply concerning events, but he was a character I found it hard to feel anything positive about as he is so skewed in his attitudes to others. As we also have Jake’s experience alongside we learn that Sawyer is – in the present – actually a ghost, a malevolent force who in life gunned down several of his peers, killed himself and now appears to be haunting those who survived.
Learning that Sawyer is determined to cause trouble, and Jake is going to be the vessel through which he achieves this, lent a much darker tone to the book than I expected. When we get into scenes of possession, I admit to being not only spooked by the events described but also very very confused. There were considerable sections where I really could not say with certainty what was happening.
I may be wholly off in my reading of this, but the spirit possession and the scenes towards the end seemed (at least they did at the time of reading) to be some form of symbolic representation of Jake’s struggle to come to terms with his self-identity. Perhaps this was not the case, but by the end I did feel Jake had found some clarity about himself and how he might be in the future.

 

‘Hexed: Don’t Get Mad, Get Powers’ – Julia Tuffs

Jessie Jones has got used to moving schools regularly, being the new face and trying to do enough not to get noticed. However, when her mum moves the family back to her hometown, things are not quite as straightforward as she might have hoped.
Trying to fly under the radar might work out okay for most…but when you find your darkest wishes suddenly manifesting in front of you it’s a sign something strange is going on. Jessie finds herself wondering how she’s managed to turn the face of popular bully boy Callum acne-ridden, and how her desire for a boy to get caught out in his lies can result in his nose suddenly growing. What she’s not expecting is the revelation that she’s a witch.
The stereotype of witches is definitely challenged here. Jessie and her family come from a long line of witches, and their powers can come in useful.
There’s a bit of silliness at first with talk of witchcraft being used to rectify awful cooking or to conjure up the perfect bath. But in Hexed we have a superficially funny tale – of a girl who learns she’s a witch coming into her powers – that is used to deliver a very important message about women in society.
From early on we can see things on the island are not quite right. Women are treated badly…and these misogynistic views are held under scrutiny with the focus on behaviour in Jessie’s school. From the casual scoring system of rating girls’ attractiveness to the leery comments and tales of poor behaviour. There’s a clear culture of sexism and this book shows one girl’s attempts to take on and challenge these views.
While it might not exactly be smashing the patriarchy Hexed shows sexism is still an issue and ought to be challenged, by everyone. Along the way, there’s some other useful life lessons challenging attitudes and pushing back bit by bit. A tale that should be shared every day…not just Wednesdays!
Thanks to NetGalley for allowing me to read this before publication.

 

‘All Our Hidden Gifts’ – Caroline O’Donoghue

 

Maeve Chambers, the youngest of five children, is a fairly ordinary sixteen year old girl in many ways. She feels acutely conscious that she’s not as clever as her siblings, not as interesting as her peers and has no idea what she wants to do. She is fizzing with a desire to do something but doesn’t know what that something could be.

When she gets into trouble in school she is given a detention which involves clearing out an abandoned storeroom. While there she finds an old Walkman and a pack of tarot cards. So begins her new interest…

Maeve teaches herself to read the tarot cards and finds herself to have something of a knack for it. She likes the feeling she gets when she does readings for her schoolmates. Unfortunately, after she does a reading for Lily – the girl who used to be her best friend until Maeve abandoned her in an attempt to garner popularity – things go horribly wrong. Lily disappears, and Maeve is convinced (because of the presence of a mysterious card known as the Housekeeper) that she is responsible.

The mystery of what happened to Lily is at the heart of the book but never really examined, and glossed over later. It is inextricably linked to the rise of an ultra-conservative Christian group sowing discord and hatred amongst the community. No one escapes this.

There was a lot going on here, and it wasn’t always clear which strand was driving the book. Interesting idea, and certainly topical, but I didn’t really feel engaged enough by Maeve to care too much what happened to her and the characters I was intrigued by were often sidelined just when things could have been interesting.

‘Our Last Echoes’ – Kate Alice Marshall

 

Our Last Echoes was always going to have to be a book I tried as soon as I saw the Twin Peaks mention…and it definitely has its surreal, downright creepy, moments where you’re never quite sure what is actually going on. I also started reading The Girl Who Died by Ragnar Jonasson at the same time, and there was a similar oppressive quality to the description of the place where much of the story takes place.

Our main character Sophia recalls nearly drowning as a young child, and she has always been plagued by memories that she can’t explain. Passed from one foster home to another, she has always felt the need to learn more about the disappearance of her mother and to learn of the significance of Bitter Rock to her life.

After pestering Dr Kapoor – the woman who is in charge of those who are allowed to work on the island – Sophia is allowed to visit. Given what we later learn about her link to Bitter Rock I still think this is rather unlikely, but it’s a necessary device to get her to the heart of where these strange things keep happening.

Many people have heard of this place. Throughout time, people who have visited the island mysteriously disappear. Nobody can explain what happens to them. As we learn more about these unusual events, I can fully understand why.

From the outset it is highly suggested that we are in the grip of something that is hard to explain. After finishing the book I can still think of no rational explanation for what happens, and if you were to get caught up in events such as this in reality you would be terrified.

This is certainly a book to go into with little warning of what is to come. It doesn’t shy away from some very dark moments, and this will not be to everyone’s tastes. However, the inclusion of interview transcripts and the details from different times lends a fascinating element to a most unusual story.

‘Amari and the Night Brothers’ – B.B. Alston

Amari and the Night Brothers is a book I’ve seen a few reviews on in the last few weeks, and though it’s firmly marketed as middle grade it will appeal to older readers too.

Our main character is Amari Peters, a young girl all too used to being judged because she comes from the wrong side of town. Her brother went missing and nobody has any idea whether he is alive or not, but Amari firmly believes that he was part of a secret organisation.

With our character set up, it doesn’t take long before we’re learning – along with Amari – of the existence of a whole new world. In this world, the supernatural and human co-exist and nobody has to hide their special skills.

Thanks to her brother Amari is offered a place at the summer camp run by the Bureau. Amari sees this as an opportunity to finally learn the truth about her brother-but first she has to master the challenges set if she is going to succeed in her mission to become a junior agent.

Learning about the Bureau of Supernatural Affairs at the same time as Amari was great fun. There was – I have to say – a very definite sense of being able to predict the general setting and character details, but though there was a sense of familiarity to the general details, there was a freshness to the specifics that completely won me over.

Amari is a quietly courageous character, a good friend and determined to see the best in people. She makes mistakes, but learns from them. She wants to help others and she has some of the best experiences (though they are pretty terrifying when you read them).

Having bought this for myself, I’ve just bought a physical copy to share with students in school and it’s on the list of bedtime stories to share with my ten year old. Loved it!

 

‘Last One to Die’ – Cynthia Murphy

When Niamh heads to London for a summer drama programme she could not have imagined the events that she’d get caught up in.

Upon her arrival at the rather grotty hostel she’s due to stay in, a young woman asks if she’ll swap rooms. Niamh does. Later that night the girl in her original room is killed. On her first day, a student tries to befriend her. That night, she’s attacked. And so begins a pattern of accidents/attacks…their one common strand is that the girls all look like Niamh.

Naturally, this is a creepy situation. Unlike most, Niamh doesn’t head home the moment these weird things happen – instead, she tries to get on with her course and the work placement at a Victorian museum.

Without giving anything away, what Niamh uncovers is a story that started a long time ago. In the cold light of day, it’s all preposterous…but you can (with a little will) overlook this as you’re reading.

Focusing on Niamh’s perspective means we don’t get to join all the dots quite in time. Some elements really do stretch the bounds of credibility, and our resolution felt like a bit of a damp squib after a bold start.

 

‘The Once and Future Witches’ – Alix E. Harrow

Once upon a time there were three sisters. They shared a bond like no other, but their father was wicked and turned them against one another. The elder sisters left, each feeling they had been wronged, leaving the younger alone with their father until she could take no more of his dominance. She runs, and finds her way to a new town.

The three Eastwood sisters – James juniper, Agnes Araminta and Beatrice Belladonna –  reunite very early on. They are very different characters, but they are united in their determination to have a world where they can be in control of their destiny. They want everything they are denied on account of their gender. So, how do they propose to get it? Through witchcraft.

This story explores attitudes to female emancipation and developing gender roles, mixed in with a fascinating account of practising witchcraft and magic.

Nobody in this is quite what they seem. Some of the elements of the book are fantastical to say the least, but I loved the three sisters and their respective struggles to live the life they choose.

 

‘The Ravens’ – Kass Morgan and Danielle Paige

 

The first in what promises to be an exciting series, exploring witches in the modern era and chucking in a strong dose of college-based life too.

Vivi has always felt different. Used to moving regularly she is fed up of living with her mother and her fascination with tarot cards and predicting the future. Vivi is set to go to college where she can finally be who she wants to be. But what if the things her mother talks about aren’t complete nonsense?

Vivi arrives at her new college and immediately feels out of her depth. Yet she ends up invited to a party at the most exclusive sorority group…and is invited to join them. The girls are known across campus for their poise and strong bond…but what if there were more to this?

What Vivi quickly learns is that the group she has joined are witches. They have power the likes of which you can only imagine-and, of course, Vivi has strength she was unaware of. She has to come to terms with the responsibility this new power brings, and with learning her mother isn’t quite what she thought.

During a tense time it’s clear that someone is desperate to get their hands on a powerful talisman. They’ll stop at nothing to get it, and the girls are all at risk unless they can trust themselves to do the right thing.

Thanks to NetGalley for providing me with an ARC of this, and I think this sets up for an intriguing series.

‘The Graveyard Book’ – Neil Gaiman

 

The Graveyard Book opens by plunging us into the horror surrounding a young toddler. His family are murdered by a sinister man known only as Jack, but he is saved by his curiosity because earlier in the night he escaped his cot and made his way outside and to the graveyard at the top of the hill near his house. Marked from the very start as a rather unusual character, our young toddler is saved by the Owenses…who just happen to be dead.

From his unlikely beginning our young toddler – Nobody Owens – is granted the right to live in the graveyard and to learn their ways. He is very much alive, but is given these magical skills to enable him to escape detection. His guardian, Silas, protects him and ensures someone is always available to look after him.

We watch Bod grow. He makes a tentative friendship, examines the world around him and is privy to many of the mysteries surrounding the dead. His curiosity develops as he learns about the world around him – and all too soon he shows a dangerous (yet very understandable) desire to learn how to navigate the land of the living.

Going to school causes problems. Bod can’t help but draw attention to himself, and so we watch the noose tighten as those who started by trying to kill him return and attempt to finish their task.

There was a wistful tone to this as we know Bod has to live his life, but his life with the dead was so positive it felt awful that he had to make this step.