‘You’ll Be the Death of Me’ – Karen McManus

For readers of an age to have actually been around for Ferris Bueller in his original incarnation that’s something of a lure. A vibrant character playing on their luck and exploiting everyone they interact with in order to have a fun-filled day…of course, that’s going to appeal. Unfortunately, for the target audience of this book the reference may be rather meaningless…

Our main characters are Ivy, Cal and Mateo. Three students who used to be great friends, who’ve barely spoken to each other in years and who are all – for reasons we don’t learn entirely – having a tough time. They turn up at school one day, decide to ditch and have an attempt to recreate their magical moment.

Even before they set off it’s clear this isn’t going to go well. They end up following another student from their school who is also truanting…and when he is found dead in a room they decide that they should run away and try to investigate this crime themselves, rather than let the police know what they’ve seen and sort things out.

The start of the book requires that we suspend our disbelief and follow them as they make up their minds what to do next. There’s a bit of wandering round, some unnecessary faffing about to establish that each of them has things they’re trying to hide and that others around them may be more than a little keen to keep things quiet. Eventually we get some details about what might be behind this death.

Once we learn a little more about the death, we are taken to a realm of quite ridiculous scenarios. These three behave in ways I can’t imagine, but I still found myself sucked in and desperate to piece it together.

We do, eventually, get our answers. Some were less obvious than others, and some of the predicted curveballs never got thrown in. It was quite preposterous, but entertaining and will definitely have its share of fans.

Thanks to NetGalley for giving me the chance to read this before publication.

 

‘Chloe Cates is Missing’ – Mandy McHugh

Chloe Cates is Missing has all the ingredients for a perfect thriller: dysfunctional family; a death; an abduction; secrets from the past and an alarming focus on social media and the extent to which it influences our lives. From start to finish it was a book I couldn’t put down, and the ending was delightfully ambiguous in a way that will torment readers long after the story ends.

The book focuses on Chloe Cates, the teen sensation of an internet blog. Thirteen year old Abby Scarborough has known no life other than a life played out on screen. Her every move is crafted and filtered, and the whole family depend on the revenue the blog created around her on-screen persona brings in. When she was a child Abby complied with her mother’s demands, but as she matures she becomes increasingly reluctant to have her key life moments played out for the entertainment of others.

One seemingly normal weekend morning, the Scarborough family have their lives turned upside down when they realise Abby is missing. Detectives are called in and, conscious of this girl’s online presence, they take this threat seriously. Detective Emelina Stone is heading up the investigation, but she soon realises she has a closer link to the family than she’s comfortable with. The secret Emelina is keeping had me on tenterhooks, and I was desperate to see how it would be relevant. This secret isn’t given up easily, but it is VERY relevant to the events in the present.

As the investigation progresses, a body is found. Suddenly, there seems to be a link between the disappearance of Abby and the murder of this missing girl. Trying to work out exactly what had happened drove me crazy, but I loved reading the way this unfolded in front of me.

Without giving away important details, this was such a clever thriller. You could never be sure who was hiding what, and though my reading of the ending may not be accurate I like to think that the apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree on this. Nobody comes out of it well, but it made for such an entertaining read.

I’m grateful to the publishers for allowing me the opportunity to read this before its scheduled January 2022 publication.

 

‘The Missing Hours’ – Julia Dahl

The Missing Hours is a book that will infuriate many readers. Though it is a book focused on a deeply triggering topic, our character takes action and this could seem a positive step. However, by the end it’s fairly evident that little has changed for our main character and such an incident could easily reoccur.

The book opens with a graphic account of our main character, Chloe Castro, waking up the night after an evening out. From the description of her it’s clear she’s been attacked, but we’re not given the full horror until later. Chloe is a girl who, on the surface, seems to have it made. She’s from a wealthy background, is friendly and doesn’t have to worry about much. But, the Chloe we meet at the start of the book is one who is very far from okay and who you cannot help but feel sorry for.

The attack that took place on Chloe was perpetrated by people she knows, a guy she dated in the past and a new acquaintance from college. One raped her, the other forced her to perform oral sex and they filmed it. This sickening act is described a number of times as one of them sends the video to Chloe and a couple of her friends.

I found the way this incident was treated fascinating. Chloe’s initial reaction is to hide away and though she deals with some of the practical issues arising from such an incident, the emotional impact is ignored. Once the video is released, family members try to step in and prevent anyone learning of it…and the focus is very much on damage-limitation. I struggle to understand how anyone could see such a film, know a criminal act had been committed and not do anything to challenge it.

Certain people within the book blame Chloe and there are some distressing moments that clearly indicate why so many victims never bother to report such events. Chloe is in the position that many might envy…she has the money and means to do something about her attackers.

Vengeance is a key element of the book. While Chloe’s actions cannot be condoned, they are understandable and those impacted are such unpleasant characters that you almost feel like turning a blind eye.

This is a murky read, nothing is clear cut and I liked the way we are presented with the facts and left to judge for ourselves. However, it still felt as if the victim was to blame for things and I found it hard to deal with the lack of closure by the end.

I’m grateful to NetGalley for giving me the opportunity to read this prior to publication and it’s one I would, with caution, recommend.

 

‘It’s Behind You’ – Katherine Foxfield

A reality TV show that is losing viewers is about to start filming what could be its last series. The producers want to ensure it packs a punch so they plan to send the five contestants into a series of caves that are rumoured to be haunted by The Puckered Maiden, a supernatural entity who eats the hearts of her victims. All they have to do is survive the night, and whoever lasts until morning wins £10,000.

Our five contestants are – naturally – not all they claim to be. From the outset we know that some of those involved are hiding things…the question is, how relevant are these secrets to what is happening in the caves during the course of the show?

While the characters themselves are irritating on occasion, things get wrapped up far more quickly than I felt made sense and I HATED the fact that the epilogue was left so open-ended, I can’t deny that this was the kind of pacy YA thriller that cannot fail to entertain. From the first ‘accident’ we know there is more to this show than seems to be the case. Like Lex, we can tell these events have their foundation in something that happened in the caves years earlier. The book manages to walk the fine line of horror and thriller well – awful things are happening around them but the characters’ sense of knowing produces what are often amusing responses.

 

‘This Poison Heart’ – Kalynn Bayron

This Poison Heart is the first in what promises to be a most exciting series. I’m grateful to NetGalley for allowing me to read this prior to publication, and am genuinely wondering what will happen next.
Our focus for this story is Briseis, a character with a most unusual talent. She has an affinity with plants and is able to bring anything back to life and help it bloom. This skill comes in very handy in the florists her mums run, but the fact she has seemingly no reaction to poisonous plants suggests there’s more to this than Bri realises.
Introducing us to Bri’s talents early on is a great way to get our attention, but her lack of knowledge about what she can do means many of our questions are not answered. We are given time to get to know Bri and her mums. Their relationship and interactions are warm and caring, and spending time with them means we genuinely care when we learn of the financial pressures they are under.
Bri is adopted, and when she is told that an aunt has bequeathed her an estate just outside New York we – like Bri – have questions. They travel to what can only be described as a spooky mansion, to find over-run vegetation, mysterious people hanging round their property and a run-down apothecary filled with strange ingredients. People turn up requesting help, and it is soon obvious there is more to this arrangement than we might expect.
Naturally curious, Bri wants to find out more about her family. She unearths letters from her aunt and learns that she appears to have immunity to deadly poisons. There is talk of her lineage being traced back to the ancient Greeks, and though this would be exciting enough…there’s more.
Bri meets all manner of people in her new town. Her position lends her some respect, but it also brings great danger. For what is clear is Bri’s natural family have been guarding a great secret…something that some will stop at nothing to learn.
From the beginning I found myself really caught up in this. I loved Bri and her characterisation. The introduction to mythology lent an interesting element to the story, and there are a few characters that definitely pique your interest as you try to figure out their link to Bri and the repercussions for any friendship developing.
My only criticism of the book was how the pace picked up in the last quarter and was then relentless. We had a lot of info thrown at us, and – on occasion – it didn’t feel as if it made sense. The dramatic end to this book was, naturally, not an end at all and that is highly frustrating…but a very good incentive to have me racing to pick up book two when I can.

‘The Book of Stolen Dreams’ – David Farr

 

When things are tough, you want those around you to be people you can trust. In the world we encounter at the start of this wondrous story, that is not necessarily the case. Under the rule of Charles Malstain life is dreary, and anyone who does not do as he requests is made to disappear. This is a time of dark secrets, where family are suspicious of each other and where things are about to get worse.

We don’t know why this has happened, but Farr immediately sets up a tense and unsettling atmosphere. We are introduced to our protagonists, Robert and Rachel Klein, when they accompany their father to the lending library where he works. This journey is done at night, and nobody is told about it so we know it is dangerous. All we know is that it has something to do with The Book of Stolen Dreams that Felix Klein steals – rumours are that it is scheduled to be destroyed – and charges his children with protecting until they can hand it over to a man called Solomon.

The children escape, but have to watch their father beaten by Malstain’s forces. They are subject to intimidation in their home as those under Malstain search desperately for the Book that the children vow to protect, though they don’t really know why.

As we follow Rachel and Robert in their task, they are placed in extreme peril. They suffer in the way that only young children in stories can. The odds are against them. They are pitched into a battle they might not win…but their determination to do the right thing and their bravery makes for a gripping story.

Along the way we meet a host of characters – at both ends of the spectrum. Malstain is a shadowy villain, orchestrating terrible deeds for his own selfish reasons. Opposing him are a motley crew, and not all are guaranteed to do the right thing when asked.

From the outset this was a book that delighted. Due for release in September 2021 I can’t wait to see the buzz it generates, and I’m grateful to NetGalley for giving me the opportunity to read it early.

‘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.

 

‘Ski Weekend’ – Rektor Ross

Ski Weekend takes what could be a very ordinary event and, through a combination of bad luck and poor judgment, turns it into a thrilling adventure where you know not everyone is going to survive but hope it won’t be as bad as you fear.

The book opens with six teens heading on a ski weekend. Sam and her younger brother, Stuart, and his best friend, Gavin, along with three other classmates and Gavin’s dog. The mood at the start is fairly typical – lighthearted joking with a bit of sniping – but when they learn the road is closed their decision to take a little-known shortcut brings about a horrifying set of circumstances.

Nine times out of ten, their actions would have ended just fine. This time, there’s a crash and they are stranded in the wilderness with a storm approaching and no way of contacting anyone. They settle down to sit out the time until someone comes to save them, but all too soon they realise that nobody knows they’re lost and they cannot guarantee anyone coming to rescue them.

After an initial attempt to scout for potential help, Stuart is injured. He gets sick, and as the storm draws in it is clear they are not all going to make it out alive.
While the characters involved are not all bound to survive, the way they are presented means we get to know them pretty well and find ourselves caring about them more than you might expect. The creeping sense of unease is ramped up until, finally, we know a difficult decision has to be made. Some of the details are a little more graphic than I’d have liked, but I was pleased that some of my fears about what could have happened to them did not come to pass.

Overall, this was a story that I found myself far more caught up in than I expected. I could certainly see this making a great movie, and I enjoyed the fact the characters were more fleshed out than is often the case in this kind of thriller/horror survival story.

Thanks to NetGalley for giving me the chance to read this in advance of publication (expected October 2021).

‘The Upper World’ – Femi Fadugba

An epic read, VERY difficult to put down and I cannot wait to see how this transfers to the screen in its upcoming adaptation for Netflix. Thanks to NetGalley for allowing me the chance to read this debut novel before publication in exchange for my thoughts.

The Upper World is a place alluded to by a number of people. Nobody is convinced of its existence, and those who talk of it are not of the best mental health. The Upper World is a place that seems to exist outside our reality, where time effectively stops and where there is always the chance to affect events in the real world.

Set in Peckham, this story is mind-bending in the best possible way. It unashamedly revels in its nerd-factor, delights in the depiction of its teen characters and their lives, and yet the thing I found more challenging to read and understand was the language used between some of the characters. With the help of my own teenage sons, the finer points were explained and I could focus on working out – as best I could – the details of the story.

The main focus is Esso in the present, and then Rhia sixteen years in the future (who ends up meeting an adult Esso). These two characters are linked in a way that means they need each other for their stories to play out.

Our first meeting with Esso sets up a story like no other. After being involved in a car crash, Esso is convinced he has experienced a world where he starts to see snatches of the future. On the brink of expulsion, caught in a dangerous situation with someone he has known since childhood, he is desperate to do what he has to in order to protect someone close to him. To do this he needs Rhia…a young girl in care (in 2035) who has her own questions about her past…and who is similarly desperate to protect those close to her.

That is as much detail as I can give. Trust me, this is a cleverly-plotted and engaging story that picks you up and spits you out once it’s all over.

‘At the End of Everything’ – Marieke Nijkamp

Thanks to NetGalley for allowing me to read this prior to its January 2022 publication. Finding yourself caught up in an event of such magnitude is not something you could, generally, prepare for…but the events of recent years have, I think understandably, made people reflect on what they might do in such a situation and what is important to them.

Our story is set principally in the Hope Juvenile Treatment Centre, a place where those teens people don’t know what to do with are dumped. Nobody really notices them, nobody cares about them…and they are abandoned when the guards receive notice of an infectious disease spreading outside.

The book opens with establishing the hierarchy within the Centre, and introducing us to some of the key characters. Once the teens discover they have been left alone, the book focuses on their immediate reaction, the challenge to establish some sense of normalcy within the group and their ongoing attempts to survive in the face of something they have no idea how to beat.

After an attempted break-out results in the death of one of their party, and the realisation that they have been abandoned, those that remain in Hope are shown working out how to survive. There is the very real fear of catching the disease, there’s the reality of coping with an unknown situation and there’s the ongoing issues that come with having to trust people you don’t necessarily feel able to trust.

The book shows teens coping in adverse circumstances – and doing a much better job of it than many adults. We also get to see some of our core group learning about themselves and how to cope with some of their own issues that may impact on their lives outside. Not everything ends well, but there is a sense of resolve and optimism that remains throughout.