‘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.

 

‘The Upside of Falling’ – Alex Light

This was an unbelievably quick read, and though it was good fun for the most part I can’t help but feel that some elements of the story were a little rushed.

Becca Hart has got used to living alone with her mum. When her dad left them Becca lost faith in the power of love. She closed off a little, and vowed never to fall in love because it would only mean getting hurt. Of course, that makes her ripe for the situation that develops in the book.

Within the early stages we see Becca being criticised for her rather unspoken opinions on love. She is rescued by popular guy, Brett, the boy who seems to have the perfect life and for whom love is something to believe in.

So begins a rather unlikely scenario – the fake dating where both Becca and Brett decide they have something to gain from convincing their peers that they are in a relationship. Naturally, they spend time together and it soon becomes clear that the boundaries are getting blurred and things aren’t quite as fake as they first thought.

The whole story rattles along at some pace. It’s hard not to like Becca and Bret, but I was struck throughout by their naivety and the speed with which they went from disinterested in a relationship to confessing their love for one another.
There’s a little blip on the way, but we know exactly how it’s going to end up.

 

‘Dear Emma Blue’ – Lia Louis

Dear Emmie Blue, you smashed my heart but made me smile, laugh and cry (sometimes at the same time) and I would have to be heartless to not award five stars to this even though some elements REALLY irritated me.
Emmie is a woman who definitely has not had it easy. An emotionally closed-off mother, an absent father who she has no contact with, a friend who refused to stick by her when she was abused by a teacher…thankfully these details don’t come out at once or I think I’d have stopped reading! What Emmie has had as a constant in her life is Lucas, born on the same day and living in France, he has known Emmie since they were both 16 and he found a balloon she released and they started to write to each other.
This kind of friendship over time means lots of memories and recollections. The importance Emmie places on Lucas is evident…and when he asks her to take on the role of ‘best woman’ at his wedding she accepts, even though she’s in love with him and thinks this act will physically kill her.
What we see is Emmie throw herself into this role, determined to do her bit. She smiles at his family, jokes with the fiancé and launches herself into every linked activity as she tries to do the right thing.
For the first quarter of the book I doubted I’d be able to read this. What she was doing wasn’t selfless, it was masochism at its worst. I also found myself intensely irritated by Lucas and how demanding he was of Emmie without ever really giving the same back.
Then things shifted a little. Emmie started to open up to some of the other characters this features, and we see that perhaps her feelings for Lucas stem not from love but a need to feel loved. Big difference.
Once we’d seen this shift I started to get little indications that the love story I expected might be on its way, though not necessarily in the place I expected.
Things don’t always go smoothly. There’s one or two bumps along the way, but I felt privileged to follow Emmie on her journey.

 

‘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.

‘You Have a Match’ – Emma Lord

Emma Lord will, I’m sure, have another hit on her hands with this cute romance/contemporary about finding your interests and learning to accept yourself.

Abby is our main character. She’s a difficult person to get to know initially – even though we are seeing things from her point of view – because I always got a sense of her holding something back and not wanting to reveal her true thoughts about some key issues.

From early on we learn that she has two best friends, one of whom she has a serious crush on, and since the death of her beloved grandfather she is not coping in school. Her parents hover and try to help her, but we definitely get the impression of a family that is getting by rather than flourishing.

Our big twist comes early on when Abby helps her friend Leo (the one she has the not so secret crush on) by signing up to a DNA registry site. She is stunned to learn through the site that she has a sister. One that she knew nothing about.
Abby meets Savannah, her adopted sister, and learns that they appear to be nothing alike. The girls want to know what happened…so concoct a ridiculous scheme to allow them both to attend summer camp.

During this summer, Abby develops as a person. She finds her voice, starts to move on from the things holding her back and – eventually – finds romance. Things don’t go smoothly, and there’s a lot of people learning things because they happen to be in the right place at the wrong time that sometimes seems all too convenient.

The minor gripes aside, this was good fun and offered an entertaining story that also gave a fairly positive message to readers.

 

‘The Duke and I’ – Julia Quinn

It’s always a strange experience to read a book after watching an adaptation, but once I’d accustomed myself to hearing the Lady Whistledown sections in Julie Andrews’ voice I didn’t find it too distracting.
Unless you’ve been living under a rock since Christmas 2020 it’s highly unlikely that you won’t have heard of/seen the Netflix adaptation of The Duke and I. You’ll probably have an idea about the story, some of the more controversial elements of the book and maybe even watched it (and perhaps have developed a rather unhealthy fascination with a certain actor). I shan’t spend too long recounting the plot.
From the outset we were plunged into life with the Bridgerton family, and it was clear that they were rather progressive for their time in some ways. Yet in others, they were very much of their time and this causes more than one or two problems.
Though her relationship with Simon is at the front of the Netflix adaptation, the book allows more opportunity to get into the mindset of Daphne and to gain some understanding of her as a character. Astute at times, yet painfully naive, but it seems Quinn wants us to favour this character so even when she is committing an act of betrayal that’s hard to read we’re given to understand she’s acting out of love for Simon. Sounds like an attempt to justify abusive behaviour to me, which doesn’t sit well, but Simon is more than capable of dishing out equally painful things. Again, he does this from a position that we are given to understand is due to his damaged persona. I found myself going round in circles rather as regards how to view these two and their relationship, and I don’t think Quinn makes it easy for readers.
I certainly found myself missing the ideas and attitudes of some of the characters who are clearly introduced to liven up the screen version – though Lady Danbury is mentioned here, she is reduced to a minor role that doesn’t seem fitting, and I was desperate to learn more about Eloise. It was certainly enough to have me keen to read the rest of the series to see how elements have been integrated.

‘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).

‘Cemetery Boys’ – Aiden Thomas

This is a review I had to return to as when I finished the book I had tears in my eyes and couldn’t think straight. Emotional with some great comic moments, and characters that jump off the page with their vibrancy. A tale of love, acceptance and a healthy dose of sass with some magic thrown in…will be recommending this to so many!

Update

Yadriel is part of a family who can see the dead. Their talents have been nurtured over many years, and Yadriel is desperate to be part of the Brujx community. What we quickly learn is that Yadriel’s family are reluctant to accept him into the rituals because he is trans, and it goes against their traditions. A conflict that, for me, came to represent the challenge that seems to be common to many…that need to be accepted for who you are, and perhaps validated by those you love (even if they don’t seem wholly supportive of you).

Yadriel and his best friend, Maritza, definitely forge their own way. Determined to find a way to prove their skills, Yadriel carries out his own ritual when his cousin Miguel goes missing. There’s no sign of a body – but when Yadriel brings back another dead boy, Julian, he gets more than he bargained for!

From their first meeting Julian and Yadriel are great together. They have an instinctive need to support one another and they can’t always articulate what they’re feeling, but it’a a bond to treasure. It’s hardly surprising that Yadriel is not wholly pleased at the prospect of having to send Julian’s body to the afterlife.

The book follows Yadriel and Maritza in their journey to learn what has happened to Miguel and Julien. Eventually they get answers, though they’re not what they would have wanted. This culminated in a dramatic moment that had me crying, but the aftermath mopped things up nicely and left me with good feelings (albeit with tears in my eyes).

I can’t wait to recommend this to people and discuss it.

‘Heart Bones’ – Colleen Hoover

Hearts don’t have bones so they can’t hurt…proving people who think this wrong is, I think, the reason for writers like Hoover, who seem determined to show us the many ways in which loving someone can both heal and hurt in equal measure.

Our main character in this is Beyah Grim. When we first met her she’s living in a trailer park with her mother, a meth addict, and is faced with the pretty unpleasant scene of her mother having overdosed in their living space. Seeing how badly Beyah’s home life has impacted on her is made startlingly clear when she says that dying was probably the one good thing her mother did for her. Only hours after this shocking discovery, Beyah is told she is being evicted from the only home she’s known because her mother didn’t pay rent for the last few months. Her only choice is to phone the father she doesn’t really know.

So Beyah finds herself on a plane headed for Texas, where she is going to stay until she can take up her place in college. As soon as she meets her father at the airport it’s clear that her mother’s addiction has robbed her of the chance to have a relationship with her father, and though he has to take some blame for not pushing for a relationship it’s hard not to feel sorry for people like this who fall through the cracks.

Spending the summer surrounded by money and opportunities is a tough thing for Beyah to accept. She is the proverbial fish out of water, and resists her stepsister Sara’s attempts to fix her up with a friend. What we quickly come to realise is that Beyah has already made quite an impression on this friend…and so starts a summer fling that we predict will end in tears – but I definitely didn’t predict just how emotionally I’d react to it.

This is probably a book that’s good to go into without knowing too much. I feared it would be bleak and yet found myself laughing and enjoying this far more than I predicted. Of course it has moments that will upset you, but at its heart it’s a story about having the courage to stick with those you trust.

‘The Unexpected Everything’ – Morgan Matson

Our main character, Andie, is used to being organised. With a father involved in politics she’s used to watching what she says and does, and having things planned keeps her in control when she’s not really. Her close group of friends do pretty much everything together and she’s looking forward to her summer on her organised program.

Unfortunately, when we see Andie her father is having to step away from his job because of some issues with his team. As a result of this her letter of recommendation is withdrawn, she loses her summer program place and is set up for a summer where she is not in control of anything.

Of course, this is the summer that Andie gets to work a lot of stuff out. She gets a job walking dogs, and one of those on her round is Bertie…who happens to be linked to a young man called Clark that Andie finds very interesting.

No surprises, it’s a contemporary romance so we know we’re going to see Clark and Andie get together. What we’re not told initially is that Clark is actually a famous fantasy writer and his presence here is to allow him the summer to get over his writer’s block and sort out his final book of the trilogy. Andie finds herself trusting him, and learning to dial back on the organisation thing. She learns a lot about herself, her family and her friends.

There’s the inevitable bumps along the way – some of which we can see coming very early on – but everything works out okay in the end. At times it felt the story could have been cut a little, but for anyone who loves this kind of thing you won’t be disappointed.