‘Jinxed’ – Amy McCulloch

Lacey Chu is a fantastic engineer. She harbours dreams of working for MONCHA, a leading firm behind the concept of the baku – robotic companions that also act as phones. Unfortunately, it looks like her dream will fall at the first hurdle when she’s not accepted at the special school linked to the company.

With her dreams seemingly in tatters Lacey is not thinking straight when she tries to rescue her best friend’s baku and ends up finding something that many people are looking for. A heap of scrap metal, she thinks, but when she gets back to her workshop Lacey realises it’s a baku like no other.

Over the summer she does her utmost to get it working. In a kind of fantasy fulfilment, things work just fine and suddenly Lacey finds herself heading to the school and getting caught up in stuff she only dreamt of.

While this was set in North America, the whole concept and the battling felt like Pokemon had been brought to life and given personalities. That in itself was great fun, and the dynamics between Lacey and her new-found friends was entertaining. However, not everything is as it seems and there are definitely people suspicious of the skills Lacey and her baku exhibit.

I enjoyed this so much I’ve already pre-ordered Unleashed as I cannot leave this not knowing who on earth is behind what happened at the end. I also wonder whether we’ll learn a little more about the mysterious Mr Chu.
Huge thanks to NetGalley for putting me onto this one.

‘Fated’ – Teri Terry

In this chilling prequel to the Slated trilogy, we are shown an all-too-believable scenario.

Sam Gregory is the daughter of the Deputy Prime Minister. She loves her father but can’t help but feel some concern at his increasingly hard-line political standpoint. Without really knowing the details we watch as Sam’s world is plunged into chaos.

People protest at the changes made. Increasing violence and a climate of fear leads to increasingly draconian measures taken to preserve law and order. It is – scarily – not too far off some of the things happening around us now. Naturally the measures taken to control people may seem unlikely, but it is feasible, and that makes it all the more scary.

Sam is a rather blank character initially, but she does develop over the course of the story. Her friendship with Ava is an interesting side-story and I was absorbed in the details given about the changes to daily life and how people tried to challenge these.

‘Nerve’ – Jeanne Ryan

Whatever your personal views of the characters, there’s no denying this is a tense read.

NERVE is a game that seems perfect for these media-obsessed times. People can pay to watch, or you can dare to play – taking part in challenges that test your resolve in the hope of winning big.

Vee is one of those characters used to hiding in the background. She does, however, have a steeliness to her character that stands her in good stead for what’s coming. Fed up with being on the sidelines she decides to try something different. Unfortunately, this gets her caught up in a very dangerous game.

I’m curious to see how this transferred to screen, but I’m uneasy about what it reveals of human nature. While Vee and Ian come out of this pretty well, others don’t.

‘The New Boy’ – Paula Rawsthorne

The cover gives us some clues as to what’s going on, but I had a niggling feeling throughout that something wasn’t quite right. Once the pieces slotted into place, it was rather worrying.

Preying on our concerns makes for scary stories, and this certainly had the potential to do just that.

When our main character starts college she is excited to be with her closest friends. On the very first day they notice the new boy, Jack Cartwright. Model looks, impeccable behaviour, interested in a range of activities…he sounds too good to be true. Having started the book with Jack and our narrator on top of a tower block we know that, yes, he is not quite what he seems. The question is, just what is going on?

Against her first thoughts, Zoe ends up in a relationship with Jack. He’s full-on, and I wondered if he was going to turn out to be an emotional abuser. The truth is far stranger. Nobody escapes the fall-out from this relationship.

There were, for me, some pacing issues and I can’t quite bring myself to totally believe the premise. That aside, an interesting read.

‘Flowers for Algernon’ – Daniel Keyes

There’s a horrible inevitability to this, that even though I knew it was coming left me with a sinking feeling.

Flowers for Algernon is the story of Charlie Gordon, a man with profound learning difficulties, and an IQ of 70. He becomes part of an unusual experiment into intellect, and ends up with a genius IQ. We follow him through the experiment and after, as the significance of this event becomes clear.

Initially Charlie can’t read or write particularly well. He is given a job by an old family friend and seems content in his experience. The information he recounts in his reports makes it painfully clear that he is bullied and humiliated on a daily basis. Yet he is unaware of it.

After the experiment, nothing seems to change. Then it does. Suddenly he can read in numerous languages and understand concepts way beyond the level of those he previously looked up to. With this astonishing intellectual development comes the growing self-awareness of how he was viewed by others, and how his family abandoned him.

There’s no easy answers in this novel, but as an exploration of psyche and social interactions it was fascinating.

I’m surprised such an experiment could have been undertaken on a human, and that those around Charlie didn’t try harder to help him adjust mentally/emotionally to his world.

As he grows aware of the temporary nature of this change, it became painful to watch him change and regress to his previous state. This time round he knew what it would mean, and his inability to change things was difficult to read.
I’m quite surprised this is a staple in American schools, but I’d be interested to see what students thought of it.

‘Underdogs’ – Chris Bonnello

A fast-paced action-packed read with some very real characters.

Though we’re never told exactly how this scenario came into play, we’ve got a world where one person has used clones to take over the country. However, there’s a small group who have not fallen…a group of teenagers from a special needs school. Though they’ve spent their lives being made to feel they’re not normal, in this scenario their ability to think outside the normal parameters is what’s helped them survive.

The writer’s knowledge of his subject means the characters are presented sympathetically, and the story is paced in such a way as to keep things moving.
Some questions are answered, but it’s nicely set-up for the second in the series to show more of what’s planned.

Thanks to NetGalley for giving me the opportunity read this prior to publication.

 

‘The Grace Year’ – Kim Liggett

‘The things we do to girls. Whether we put them on pedestals only to tear them down, or use them for parts and holes, we’re all complicit in this. But everything touches everything else, and I have to believe that some good will come out of all this destruction. The men will never end the grace year. But maybe we can.’

At its heart, the above excerpt sums up the message of this book for me.

A brutal story, chilling in its execution, but utterly compelling. A must-read, and I’m so thankful to NetGalley for allowing me to read this prior to its expected September publication.

From an early age girls in this dystopian world know that they are feared. It’s a commonly-held belief that they have the power to turn men mad with desire and to manipulate other women, driving them mad with jealousy. As a result, upon reaching sixteen the girls are forced to live apart from their community for a year in an attempt to rid themselves of their powerful magic, and prepare them to return and take up their places in the community.

We follow Tierney and her fellows Graces as they make their journey to the encampment. It’s a journey fraught with danger, but sometimes the greatest danger comes from within.

Watching the girls settle into their lives there was a sense of optimism. Under Tierney’s guidance, people started to make plans for the future and to prepare for the changing seasons. Unfortunately, not everyone is happy with this scenario and things start to go badly wrong.

The harrowing account of the girls’ camp experience was akin to Lord of the Flies. Nothing more brutal than a girl scorned, and the desire the girls show to punish one another was discomforting. This is not a read you want to ignore, but there are so many moments I wanted to weep at the senseless cruelty that pervaded every action.

In spite of the horrors that seem to be at every turning, there are glimpses of hope. Watching Tierney slowly realise just what some of her past encounters truly signified, and fighting for her deep belief in what was right was stirring. Seeing her reassess everything she thought she knew about the poachers and her home world, gave a brief glimpse of what might be…if people were brave enough. Though some of our expectations were cruelly cut down, the turns taken in this story offer hope where it’s most needed.

‘Beauty Sleep’ – Kathryn Evans

Laura and her brother are suffering with a particularly rare form of cancer, and they are given the opportunity to trial an experimental treatment. Her last memory is of sticking a picture of Prince Andrew and Sarah Ferguson into a scrapbook. When she next wakes, having been successfully ‘frozen’ until her cancer can be treated, it’s forty years in the future.

The initial focus on Laura waking up was done really well. Her confusion about interacting with the world around her was fascinating to read. As she learns about how the world has moved on since the 1980s it highlights just what rapid changes there have been, taking them to a quite logical future position that – if I’m being honest – is quite scary.

We spend a lot of time with Laura in the clinic where she was treated. The clinic’s founder, Miss Lily, has built her wealth on the back of a society obsessed with appearance, and there are hints that there may be more to this from early on.

Laura becomes something of a phenomenon – this real-life Sleeping Beauty – but the focus is on her settling into life at school as she begins to make contact with her best friend (now middle aged) and try to determine who is telling her the truth about the events that led to her being in this position.

As Laura pushed for answers I couldn’t help but feel some of her behaviours became unlikely. I found it hard to believe that people in possession of the kind of technology they had would not have realised sooner what was going on. And the actual revelation of what had been happening and the role Laura played in it didn’t quite feel as seamless as it might have.

A bold story which raises some very interesting questions about our contemporary attitudes to so many things. I can’t wait to see what some of those of the age intended for readership make of it.

‘The Kingdom’ – Jess Rothenberg

Welcome to the Kingdom, a dazzling fantasy theme park where ‘happily ever after’ is not just a promise, but a rule . . .

The Kingdom is a place where technology helps dreams come to life. Formerly extinct species roam the park, and seven beautiful ‘Fantasists’ – half-human, half-android princesses – entertain visitors and make wishes come true. But this fairytale ends in murder, and now Ana, one of the seven Fantasists, is in the dock after finding herself experiencing emotions and romantic feelings against all her programming . . .

I wasn’t sure what to expect of this. Having completed it, I can say it was definitely one that got my attention and I’m grateful to NetGalley for allowing me access to this prior to publication. Ultimately, there were elements of the backstory and the world-building that didn’t quite answer all my questions.

Ana is a Fantasist. Essentially a machine, she is programmed to bring happiness to those she interacts with. She lives, along with her sisters, in the Disney-style theme park known as The Kingdom and she is programmed to behave within a strict set of parameters. Her focus is to provide happiness to the guests she interacts with, though she can’t feel emotions…or so we’re led to believe.

Early on, we are given details of a transcript of a trial. Through this we learn that Ana has been accused of the murder of a park worker. She maintains she didn’t do anything, and that she cannot lie.

I was fascinated by the concept, though I also found myself wanting to dig deeper into the park and its set-up. Frustrating, perhaps, but there was plenty here to get the reader’s attention.

‘My Side of the Diamond’ – Sally Gardner

I picked this up as it’s on the 2019 Carnegie Longlist. It features aliens and mysterious events so isn’t typically the kind of book I’d go for.

Jazmine is trying to come to terms with the disappearance of her best friend, Becky. There’s no trace of her, but we learn she jumped off a tower and disappeared.

We dip into the past and present to try to learn the circumstances of what’s going on. We’re introduced to the friends, learn about their relationships and their keen interest in two other characters who seemingly disappeared after jumping from a tower.

This is not a particularly taxing read, and the story is not necessarily credible. However, it explores some interesting questions about humanity and what makes us as we are.

I’ll be interested to see if this makes the shortlisted titles.