‘Splintered’ – A.G. Howard

Wonderland and Alice’s adventures are very appealing, but what would you do if these things were real? For Alyssa Gardner, that is not something she has to worry about.

Ever since she was younger she’s been aware of the fact that she has a bond with Wonderland. She’s been teased throughout school for the rumours that she’s a descendant of Alice Liddell…but what would her peers do if they ever learned the truth about why her mother doesn’t live with them?

There’s all sorts going on here, and initially it felt a bit of a struggle to get into. Alyssa hears voices from bugs etc talking to her, and seems totally paranoid that she may be going mad (like her mother). What is clear early on is that strange things are afoot for her.

Alyssa ends up going down the rabbit hole and finds herself part of a twisted plan to end the curse on her family/sort out who should be Queen. She recognises Morpheus, the friend from her childhood who certainly appeals to her passionate inner self. But Alyssa also has to consider the love of her life, Jeb, who ends up journeying with her.

A rather surreal experience. We recognise characters from the story but there’s a ghoulish element to them…I imagine this could be turned into a great movie.

‘Eliza and her Monsters’ – Francesca Zappia

On the surface, this is a clever book packed full of graphics and interesting text to support the main narrative. But, beneath the surface, it’s a story about finding yourself, coming to accept your strengths/limitations and – in part – addressing mental health issues and thoughts about the role the internet has in our lives.

Eliza has always been introverted. She feels she doesn’t fit in with her sporty competitive family, preferring to spend her time online. Here she is not the oddball she feels in real life; here, she’s Lady Constellation, creator of Monstrous Seas…a webcomic like no other.

When new boy Wallace joins her school, she finds an unlikely ally. The growing friendship between these two was well-handled, and I liked that Zappia showed us suffering can come in numerous ways and it’s all about how we deal with it.

Of course, not everything goes as smoothly as we’d like. There are bumps along the way, but Eliza comes through a pretty tough time…smiling. For those who like their reading a little different, this will be right up their street.

Relentless trilogy – Karen Lynch

Sometimes, when looking for books to fulfil an online group reading challenge, you come across something that you wouldn’t normally think of picking up. This trilogy is one of those reads.

‘Relentless’ was a book that I wasn’t convinced by initially. It introduces us to Sara Grey who found her father, murdered, and has always been determined to find out what happened to him. She hasn’t got far in her quest, but since his murder she has established she can do things nobody else can and there’s a few odd things going on around her. Everything is thrown at us in this book and, initially, it all seemed a bit formulaic. There’s vampires, Mohiri, trolls, dangerous humans, werewolves, fae…a snarky main character who finds it hard to trust people and a brooding male who you just know is going to be more than we expect. However, as things unwind it became a whole lot better than I was expecting. Elements of the story were interesting, but I felt there were some plot-holes and something of a lack of control over the environment which just stopped this from being a really good read.

In ‘Refuge’ we kick off with Sara in her Mohiri stronghold, undergoing training to try ad keep her safe from the Master vampire who’s determined to find her. She gets to learn a little more of her skills-and find new allies. We didn’t, thankfully, have to wait too long for Nikolas to return and the heat between these two was ramped up – while all being very chaste. Our key focus here is the developing power Sara has, and the realisation that a certain someone will stop at nothing to get what he wants. I got a new favourite character of Desmund, and I really liked how we start to learn a little more of Sara’s potential. I’m certainly pleased to say this left me keen to read the final book in the trilogy.

‘The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue’ – Mackenzi Lee

Is this worth reading? To quote one of the main characters, “Abso-bloody-lutely!”

From its opening pages to the climax, this is a rip-roaring read that I loved for many reasons:
1. The evident love of her subject the author shows. Following our characters on their Grand Tour was an experience, with little nuggets of historical information salted away throughout.
2. Felicity. A wonderfully strong female character with a droll sense of humour, intelligence, compassion and utter fearlessness in the way she transgresses the expectations of society.
3. The humour that was evident throughout. From the acerbic wit of Monty to the scenes involving the most hapless pirates ever, I couldn’t help but laugh aloud at many points in the book.
4. The positive depiction of Monty and Percy’s relationship. Whether this would have actually been credible at the time simply doesn’t matter. It was a privilege to watch their relationship unfold, and I was rooting for them.
5. The fact that it hooked me at the start, but just got better and better as the story unfolded.
6. The unexpected tender moments. Scipio recognising a kindred spirit in Monty, and teaching him to stand up for himself brought a tear to my eye.

Let’s be honest, there will be many who will dislike this book for the very reasons I loved it. More’s the pity!

For sheer exuberance this novel will be hard to beat, and it shared something of the spirit of some of the 18th-century novels I studied for my degree. Coupled with its modern sensibilities I think it’s a potent combination.

‘Indigo Donut’ – Patrice Lawrence

Indigo and Bailey…very different, with totally different backgrounds, but this story focuses on what they have in common.

Indigo is fed up of everyone thinking they know her. Sent from foster carer to foster carer, Indigo knows most people who meet her will immediately google her and discover she was found as a toddler by her mother’s dead body and her father was imprisoned for the murder.

When the mean girls at yet another new school pick up on this and start giving her grief, Indigo expects to go it alone. But then we have Bailey. A mixed-race kid known for his ginger Afro and his ‘cool’ social worker dad, Bailey can’t stand by and say nothing. After sticking up for Indigo on the bus one day Bailey starts to draw closer to her, and we’re left wondering about the identity of the mysterious homeless man who seems to be following her (and who knows more about her than he probably should) .

A moving tale that explores family and identity. I haven’t yet got round to reading  Lawrence’s debut Orangeboy, but after this it’s a definite addition to the TBR pile.

Thoroughly recommended, and a huge thank you to Hodder Childrens’ Books and NetGalley for the ARC.

‘The Chemist’ – Stephanie Meyer

This is one of those books that is not badly written, and there are some cracking scenes, but it seems to have attracted its fair share of hate from online reviewers.

We begin in very different territory to Twilight (thank goodness) with an adult main character who is very good at what she does, even if she is socially inept. She has come under threat on a number of occasions and her paranoia is justified when we learn more of her life.

The story focuses on the attempts by her ex bosses to get Julia (known for most of the novel as Alex) to find a suspect and torture him for information. The target, Daniel, is a teacher who seems to know nothing about the situations Alex wants information about. Okay, so no prizes for originality in how this scenario came about, but Meyer does deliver a pretty well-paced story. At least, initially.

There’s a patch during the novel where not much happens. While Alex and Daniel are left in the dark, we sit and wait…and wait some more…and then get another attempt at something action-packed.

You’ll spot the clunky moments, and the romance is just verging on cheesy, but I still found myself carried along by this. I also admit to being quite satisfied by the peek into their lives after these events (though it was not remotely necessary).

Thanks to NetGalley for the advance copy in exchange for my review.

‘All in Pieces’ – Suzanne Young

A story that will pluck at your heart-strings, even as you realise you’re being shamelessly manipulated.

I’ve only read The Program by Suzanne Young, and this strikes me as something of a departure in subject matter – though the need to get you rooting for a character who’s struggling is there in spades.

In this story we focus on Savannah, a young girl dealing with things anybody would find tough. Her younger brother – who she has a strong bond with – has some kind of developmental disorder which causes untold difficulties. Her mother has left them, and her father blames Evan for this. He has descended into alcoholism, neglecting his children and basically acting like someone who has given up. It is up to Savannah to deal with the day-to-day things, and to try to prevent her younger brother being sent to live with their aunt.

The background to the story would be tough for anyone, but Savannah has been sent to a special school for troubled teens after stabbing her boyfriend with a pencil when he mocked Evan. Here she’s judged on her previous actions and nobody is prepared to look beyond the label she is given.

Savannah and her friends are the kind of kids who are labelled as trouble, and who slip through the cracks because nobody cares. Yet they all exhibit amazing qualities, and a resilience that is admirable. Of course, it also means that when things reach their inevitable conclusion we feel it is all desperately unfair and are hoping for someone to come in and save the day. If only…

After finishing this I did feel as if I was in pieces. This was brutal. Suzanne Young introduces us to these messed-up teenagers, makes us see beyond the judgement…and then throws everything at them. No matter what they have to endure they get up, and keep going.

This made me so sad in many ways. The adults, and some of the kids, were awful. Then you get a good one.

I was blinking away tears by the end. Very emotional.

‘White Hot Kiss (The Dark Elements #1)’ – Jennifer L. Armentrout

Originally published in 2014, this is the first in a trilogy which is something of a must for paranormal/fantasy fans (though it seems hard to get your hands on a physical copy in the UK in the usual outlets).

Layla is our main character-a seventeen year old who has the ability to steal people’s souls with a kiss. She lives with Watchers (gargoyles who kill demons), is half Watcher but is also half demon, so we immediately guess there’s a bit more to this story.

The beginning sets up the paranormal elements fairly well, but covering up any anomalies with the idea that the Watchers are keeping these ideas from humans. When Layla’s presence starts to attract all manner of demons, things become rather frantic.

There’s no denying Armentrout gives you exactly what you expect (and want) and does it well. We have Layla, who has potential (though she’s a bit whiny for my liking); a cute best friend who cares for Layla but doesn’t show it until there’s a rival for her affections; her trusty human sidekicks (thinking Buffy) and a very very attractive but snarky rebel who should be the bad boy but who shows himself to be pretty decent.

The story carried me along at breakneck pace. I think I fell slightly in love with Roth, Bambi and the cats. My big bug was Abbott and the Watchers who were clearly hiding a lot of things, and whose rigidity caused some real issues. A blistering climax, which has ensured I will get book two because I can’t leave it hanging there!

 

‘The Names They Gave Us’ – Emery Lord

This was one of those books that I was in two minds about before reading. I’d loved ‘When We Collided’ but I wasn’t sure whether this would be little earnest for me.

Seventeen year old Lucy is a fairly typical teenager. Her father is a pastor, so religion is a major part of her life; she has had a steady boyfriend for two years, but their religious beliefs mean they have chosen not to be physically intimate and she is close to her mother. However, when she learns that her mother’s cancer has returned Lucy’s perfect world is thrown into chaos.

Though Lucy has been a counsellor at their Christian camp for years, this summer her mother convinces her to take on the role at Daybreak – a camp for children experiencing trauma. Here Lucy makes friends, learns about herself and her beliefs and – rather obviously – develops her own sense of self.

The setting for this did bother me a little – but Lucy is quick to acknowledge her own potential to stereotype and she tackles head-on the qualms she has about her faith. I liked the way Lucy develops friendships with people that are focused on her as a person, rather than who she is or who she knows. As we watch the summer unfold we come to see the significance of the camp and people within it.

This was a genuinely moving read which, thankfully, doesn’t shy away from some pretty heavy issues. I did feel that everything was being thrown at Lucy (us) thick and fast by the end so I was less convinced by this part of it. However, Lord sends a really positive message with people dealing with things in the best way they can.

Thanks to NetGalley for the advance copy.

‘Daughter of Smoke and Bone’ – Laini Taylor

This, to me, seems like one of those books that will either infuriate or inspire.

We open in Prague, focusing on a young art student. All seems very ordinary – but then we’re told about mysterious handprints appearing on doorways and people dealing in teeth. From early on it is evident that we are in the realms of fantasy, but it is heavily mixed with a more contemporary feel.

The opening descriptions of Prague are evocative and starting with the focus on Karou and her rather interesting secret life definitely piques your interest.

The opening chapters seemed like a contemporary romance in places, but there were enough links to a fantasy world to keep me intrigued. However, the time-frame of this novel was rather disorientating.

We are, essentially, getting the love story of Madrigal and Akiva – a kind of fantasy Romeo and Juliet. They live in a world of seraphim and chimaera, where magic brings danger and few are to be trusted. Only this isn’t clear until about halfway through the book when we start to see how Karou is linked to their story.

I don’t want to give away how the two elements combine, but it works – for the most part.