‘The Vanishing Stair’ – Maureen Johnson

So, last time round Stevie was investigating the Ellingham mysteries and getting herself into places/situations she ought not to have. In the interim we are led to believe her parents have pulled her from school, worried because one of the students has died and another has gone missing (fair point, I think).

Initially I felt the book was (sorry) a little slow to get going. Starting with Stevie moping round her home town pointing out all the things she missed about school and generally not doing much was too reminiscent of that awful scene with Bella in the chair, doing nothing as the seasons change around her.

Thankfully the mood becomes less maudlin before it gets too much to take. David’s dad steps in and, effectively, bribes her to return to school and keep an eye on his son. Stevie settles back into school but – as you’d hope – she cannot forget the elusive Ellingham case and continues her investigations.

The last thing you want is to know any of the details of this. Suffice to say, Stevie gets closer to unravelling some of these mysteries but also – as in many of the best mysteries – there are new strands woven in.

Towards the end I was really quite frantic with trying to work out what was going to happen. Johnson is toying with readers by leaving it where she does. I have so many questions…

‘Then She Was Gone’ – Lisa Jewell

Laurel Mack has a seemingly perfect life. Loving husband, three beautiful children and a sense of enjoyment. Then her youngest daughter, Ellie, doesn’t come home one day and the family are launched into a nightmare that has some considerable impact, even years later.

When we’re introduced to Laurel it’s ten years since her daughter went missing. The family have split and she has become a shadow of the woman she was. Then she meets Floyd in a cafe and things seem to be looking up.

Not surprisingly, things are not what they seem. When she’s introduced to Floyd’s younger daughter, Poppy, Laurel cannot get over the similarity between her and Ellie.

As a reader I felt I was a little ahead of the characters. The key plot details were signalled, and at times I wondered whether things really would take the turn I expected. Often, they did.

As we start to unearth details – not long after Ellie’s bones are discovered – we gain a new narrative voice and this helps delay the inevitable, creating tension that we expect but also welcome.

Some of the details surrounding the key players felt unnecessary. They often felt like an attempt to misdirect or divert our attention from what we really wanted to focus on.

‘Two Can Keep a Secret’ – Karen McManus

When their mother needs to be hospitalised to treat her mental health, twins Ellery and Ezra are forced to go and live with their grandmother in Echo Ridge, a small town near the Canadian border. They don’t know her, and their mother never talked about her time there. All the twins know is their aunt was killed and that some years later a young girl was murdered.

On their arrival their journey home is stopped when they discover the body of a teacher, victim of a hit and run. Strange messages then start to appear around Echo Ridge, suggesting someone is preparing another murder. Apart from the obvious questions about why anyone in their right mind would stay in a place like this, events unfold in front of us and we’re given plenty of twists to try and throw us off the scent. Suspects galore, disappearing prom queens, affairs and so on…

Reminiscent of Twin Peaks for me in that lots of people in this book have secrets. There’s so many people hiding things, but with a bit of luck and perseverance the truth comes out. Some of the red herrings were a little obvious, but that’s a minor gripe. You know you’re being manipulated but, for the most part, you don’t mind. I felt the closing moments were rather sprung on us a little quickly, but Ellery’s final revelation of the secret she’ll probably take with her to the grave was chilling. And the Mean Girls reference when Ezra first meets three of our cast – ‘something tells me on Wednesday they wear pink’ – will be one I remember fondly.

‘The Roanoke Girls’ – Amy Engel

A tricky book to review as so much about it is horrid – subject matter, characters and the environment described – but it is done in a way that draws you in.

Lane is a teenager when she first goes to Roanoke to live with her grandparents and cousin, Allegra. Upset from the suicide of her mother Lane struggles to feel comfortable in this new environment, but she seems to blossom under the care of her grandfather, the attention of her cousin and the excitement of her relationship with local bad boy, Cooper.

When we meet Lane she is an adult, and has not been to Roanoke for some years. We don’t know why, but over time we get some answers. They’re hard to read, particularly as we unearth some of the mysteries surrounding the infamous Roanoke girls. Alongside this we have the mystery of Lane’s disappearance.

I don’t want to reveal too much of the book as it’s definitely more impactful if you don’t know what’s coming. The characters – even our main character – are not likeable and yet I came to like Lane more as I realised what she’d loved with/the background to her story.

‘Murder Trending’ – Gretchen McNeil

A book that will have you gripped, but groaning in places. Graphic violence aplenty, but it’s done in the Scary Movie-style which makes it seem slightly more readable.

In this near future we’re asked to imagine that an ex-reality star has become President of the US and that his attempt to sort crime is to link it to entertainment. Those found guilty of serious crimes are sent to Alcatraz 2.0 where criminals are killed off in grotesque and macabre ways by a team of executioners and their murders are televised for entertainment.

When Dee is accused of murdering her step-sister (who was obsessed with the program) she is immediately thrown to the wolves. Yet, somehow, she survives and kills her supposed-to-be executioner. As a result she tops the list of inmates betted upon to be top of the kill list. However, Dee finds increasingly bizarre ways to survive.

We quickly learn Dee has secrets, and it soon becomes clear that her current situation is linked to these secrets. The actual links weren’t immediately obvious.
No real message here, but it was an interesting idea to see how the characters acted under pressure, and the style was likeable (even though the content was not).

‘Broken Things’ – Lauren Oliver

 

Lauren Oliver always manages to grip me with whatever she’s writing, but I found myself increasingly frustrated by this.

Brynn, Mia and Owen have spent the last five years of their lives being regarded with suspicion by everyone in their small town. They are regarded as suspects in the death of their best friend, Summer, who was found, stabbed, in a field in circumstances very similar to a story they wrote together. The facts have been told so many times that everyone thinks they know what happened. But we’re told to assume these facts are not the truth.

In varying states of upheaval, the three teens find themselves back in their small town as people prepare to commemorate Summer’s death. They are determined to uncover the truth – for themselves, as much as for their friend.

Initially, this made for a tense read as each has reason to doubt the other and we can see they’re all keeping secrets. Unfortunately I felt we suffered from just too many ‘red herrings’ and attempts to misdirect us. I can’t believe such crimes would go unnoticed or unpunished…and yet Oliver glosses over all the issues we might have with how such an event is handled. There’s some details that other reviewers have alluded to that are put in place to shock but a lack of preparation/background made me feel they offer little extra to aiding us in understanding the characters.

I really wanted this to keep the hold on me that it had at the beginning. Sadly, it didn’t and I found this very frustrating.

‘It Ends With You’ – S.K. Wright

YA thriller that really packs a punch.

Told from multiple perspectives it could be a mess, but these different voices keep us waiting for information and all shed new light on what happened.
Eve is one of the popular crowd. Beautiful, wealthy and destined for great things people are surprised when she falls for bad boy Luke. Luke is not from a wealthy family, and he has a temper – so he’s the perfect suspect when Eve’s body is discovered in the woods.

It seems from the beginning that Luke is innocent, but there are hints that keep us guessing throughout. We learn Eve is not quite as innocent as people thought, and the details of what she’s been up to were pretty shocking.

When Luke is imprisoned and put on trial for Eve’s murder there’s hints that we might not have everything as neatly wrapped up as we thought. However, the end was chilling and really made me rethink some of my earlier ideas.

This is certainly one I’ll recommend, and I must thank NetGalley for providing me with the opportunity to read this prior to publication.

Summer Highlights part 1

Justyce McAllister is a young boy with a bright future. Captain of his debate team, a great scholar and well-liked by his peers Justyce is the kind of character you’d probably want your child to be. Sensitive and thoughtful, considerate of others and trying to be the best he can be it’s hard not to like him. So when we see things start to go wrong for him it’s a pretty bleak message.

When the book opens Justyce has gone out late one night because his ex-girlfriend has been drinking and is trying to drive home. He is in the process of trying to get her home safely, when a policeman cuffs him and arrests him. Why? Simple answer…he’s black.

This incident alone had me outraged, and it certainly gets Justyce and those around him to talk frankly about some of the issues they’re facing surrounding race and how it impacts their lives. But it doesn’t change anything.

Justyce is surrounded by privileged white people, and he lives in a more stereotypical black neighbourhood. Inevitably, there are clashes in ideology and what people expect of him. Justyce turns to Martin Luther King whom he imagines writing to in order to ask questions he has.

The book could have continued in this vein for some time. Sadly I imagine there’s many stories that could have been used to illustrate the seemingly inherent racism in modern society.

Just as things seem to be settling into a bleak but known place, Stone places Justyce and his best friend, Manny, in an all-too-common situation. What follows is harrowing.

This should have been a 5 star read for its message and desire to encourage dialogue. However, unlike The Hate U Give the use of third-person narrative results in a rather detached reading experience. It meant I felt rather less engaged in Justyce’s life than I felt I needed to be. Still, definitely a read that should be shared.

A small town. One year five cheerleaders are killed within a short space of time. Seemingly unconnected incidents…but some people are convinced there was more to these deaths.

Monica is still coming to terms without her sister, one of those who died. She is convinced Jen wouldn’t have killed herself but nobody is prepared to talk to her.
Monica takes it upon herself to try to find out what happened. Her digging uncovers a lot of secrets, and it isn’t until the end of the book that we realise the significance of some of these secrets.

Plenty of twists and dark undercurrents to this. It wasn’t a book that felt like a long read but there were a number of details that I only recognised their importance once other issues had been resolved. It made more sense of some of the actions and events that took place, but it was frustrating to be left without really seeing all the dots joined.

 

A small town. One year five cheerleaders are killed within a short space of time. Seemingly unconnected incidents…but some people are convinced there was more to these deaths.

Monica is still coming to terms without her sister, one of those who died. She is convinced Jen wouldn’t have killed herself but nobody is prepared to talk to her.
Monica takes it upon herself to try to find out what happened. Her digging uncovers a lot of secrets, and it isn’t until the end of the book that we realise the significance of some of these secrets.

Plenty of twists and dark undercurrents to this. It wasn’t a book that felt like a long read but there were a number of details that I only recognised their importance once other issues had been resolved. It made more sense of some of the actions and events that took place, but it was frustrating to be left without really seeing all the dots joined.

 

This is definitely one of those books that I’d recommend with caution, but I enjoyed this far more than I thought I would initially.

Nita is not your normal teenager. Living with her mother, Nita has always had an affinity for cutting things. She turns a blind eye to some of the jobs her mother does, but she will dissect bodies and help with the sale of parts on the black market. However, when her mother brings a live boy back and asks Nita to cut him Nita cannot bring herself to do so.

Nita’s help in the boy’s escape sets in place an awful chain of events that results in Nita being kidnapped and put in a cage. People are intrigued by her ability to cut off pain and heal herself. They are prepared to pay serious money for her, and so we watch Nita in her desperate attempts to escape.

I don’t want to give the details away, but things are not what we’re led to believe. There seems to be clear hints of some kind of plot that Nita is unaware of. A lot of violence, and some sinister characters/events but there was an attempt to portray the humanity of characters who, in many eyes, would be seen as monsters.

A huge thank you to NetGalley for letting me read this.

 

If you’d have told me I’d read a book about basketball I’d have laughed at you. Until I realised this book must have something going for it because so many of my reluctant readers picked it up, enjoyed it and went on to try other things. So, I decided to give it a whirl. Not at all what I expected.

While basketball forms the backdrop to this story, it’s also about growing up, accepting change, family relationships and dealing with disappointment. Told in varying verse styles it picks you up and carries you along at a pretty brisk pace.
The brothers were crazy to prolong their feud in the way they did, but through their shared love/bond things were getting back on track. I sensed where this might go, but it still comes as a shock.

Now to go and dig out my copy of House Arrest.

‘White Rabbit, Red Wolf’ – Tom Pollock

Touted as the new Curious Incident this is a very different book, and I think if you go into it expecting a lovable main character trying to make sense of the world around him you may be disappointed.

Peter is a mathematical genius. He uses maths to manage his extreme anxiety, and is convinced that maths has the answer to everything. Being that bit older than Haddon’s protagonist, he’s also got a slightly different take on the world.
From the moment we first meet Pete crouched in his kitchen having eaten a salt cellar in an attempt to stem his overwhelming anxiety, it’s clear that this is going to be an unsettling read. I truly wasn’t expecting it to be as dark as it was.

It was fascinating to get under the skin of Pete, but the actual story was more focused on the thriller element and it had to be this way in order for the plot to work.

When Pete’s mother is stabbed as she goes to receive an award for her work, his sister is missing and he quickly learns that no one around him was who they claimed to be. We’re plunged into a nightmare world of spies, scientific manipulation and some gruesome deaths.

I don’t want to reveal too much more. Suffice to say, nothing was quite as it seemed and every time I thought we were getting somewhere there was another detail given that turned things on their head. This would have been an all-out recommendation, but for the sense of everything feeling rather rushed by the end and being left rather uncertain about a few key details. Still one I’d heartily recommend.

‘The Tall Man’ – Phoebe Locke

Thank you NetGalley for letting me read my oddest of 2018 so far.

There were issues with my ARC – parts of text missing or disordered – and this meant there was some inevitable confusion as I tried to keep fixed who was the focus/what was happening. Those issues fixed, I think this will be the kind of read you’ll either fall hook, line and sinker for or you’ll be ambivalent about. I, sadly, was somewhere in between.

For me, the start of the story was not quite there. We’re expected to fall for The Tall Man story but without really being given enough detail to justify such a reaction. Throughout, the supposedly creepy references to this mythical figure felt forced. I never felt I had enough to substantiate this, feeling it was always something of a smokescreen for another story.

Some reviewers have commented on the fragmented nature of the setting. This is disconcerting on occasion, but it does make sense as we learn more about Sophie, Miles and their daughter, Amber, as she is being followed by a film crew for a documentary about a murder. Certain details hint at there being more to certain characters and the events unfolding, but it’s not until later that we get to piece everything together.