‘The Once and Future Witches’ – Alix E. Harrow

Once upon a time there were three sisters. They shared a bond like no other, but their father was wicked and turned them against one another. The elder sisters left, each feeling they had been wronged, leaving the younger alone with their father until she could take no more of his dominance. She runs, and finds her way to a new town.

The three Eastwood sisters – James juniper, Agnes Araminta and Beatrice Belladonna –  reunite very early on. They are very different characters, but they are united in their determination to have a world where they can be in control of their destiny. They want everything they are denied on account of their gender. So, how do they propose to get it? Through witchcraft.

This story explores attitudes to female emancipation and developing gender roles, mixed in with a fascinating account of practising witchcraft and magic.

Nobody in this is quite what they seem. Some of the elements of the book are fantastical to say the least, but I loved the three sisters and their respective struggles to live the life they choose.

 

‘Concrete Rose’ – Angie Thomas

In the latest (I think, inevitable, bestseller) novel from Angie Thomas we focus on the early life of Star’s father, Maverick.

Set seventeen years before the events focusing on Star’s story we get to see Maverick Carter as a seventeen year old. From the outset we see glimpses of the man Maverick becomes, but we also get an insight into just how hard he had to fight to get to that stage.

The story feels familiar, knowing some of the details that are referenced in The Hate U Give. We watch Maverick dealing with the reality of becoming a father; the issues he faces each day with a father in prison; the expectations placed upon by him by others; his relationship with Lisa; school and work.

While I can’t begin to claim to understand his experiences, Thomas writes about them in a way that encourages you to empathise with him and the many like him. There’s some great characters ‘behind the scenes’ in his mum and Mr Wyatt, the mentor-like figure who helps him see his own worth. Of course there are some characters that it might be nice to hear a little more about but we see enough.

I did feel that some of the incidents/events were quite easy to predict, but I’m not sure how much of that is because they’re referenced in the later book or because these events are the fairly obvious ones for certain characters. Regardless, I liked the way we see Maverick grapple with his own shortcomings and prejudices as he starts his journey to where we’ve first seen him.

 

‘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).

‘Plain Bad Heroines’ – Emily Danforth

I had seen reviews of this on NetGalley, and could not believe the UK release was so long after the US one…so I requested the audiobook on NetGalley, and when I was sent an ARC I jumped straight in.

I listened to the opening with such a sense of anticipation, and found myself captivated but also repulsed by the opening. Our story begins in 1902, with Flo and Clara – two young students of Brookhants School for Girls who have a shared fascination with a scandalous book. Unfortunately, their story ends abruptly, and in ways too horrific to dwell on. I dislike intensely the thought of being stung, so this was a particularly macabre scene with which to open the novel…though the story definitely intrigued me.

I soon found my tendency to read a couple of books at the same time, and my relative unfamiliarity with audiobooks, meant that I soon found myself totally lost by this. The shifting perspectives and chronology is one of the strengths of the story – having now finished it, I am in awe at how cleverly constructed this is – but trying to listen to it in short bursts with gaps in-between was not working out. It got set aside until I knew I could do it justice.

Finding myself with the arduous task of stripping a bathroom, what more excuse could I find but to try and use the time wisely? Back to it…

Second time round – and actually listening to it for hours at a time over two days – meant I found myself immersed in the story from the outset. Listening to/reading the stories surrounding Brookhants School for Girls and its mysterious ‘curse’ was a joy.

In the publicity material we are told that this is a story of parts – queer love story, Gothic horror and Hollywood satire. The focus is on a number of stories tied to Brookhants over time: that of Libby Brookhants and her lover, Alex; poor Flora and Cara and, lastly, Harper Harper and Audrey. The one thing that unites these three stories is the mysterious Brrokhants School for Girls and the scandalous memoir that seems to hold the key to the purported curse.

I don’t want to say too much because Danforth reveals all, and the way she chooses to do this gave me physical chills. I never felt as if I could tell exactly what was happening, and the events unfolding – in whichever timeline we were focused on – were beautifully described. The narrator on the audiobook gave a different perspective on the experience, and this is certainly a book I will have to physically read too.

A huge thank you to the publishers Harper Collins and NetGalley for granting me access to this prior to its release.

 

‘You’re Next’ – Kylie Schachte

Flora is a character who does not make things easy for herself. Headstrong and incredibly stubborn, she has a tendency to pursue her own ideas without really thinking about how her actions might impact on others.

When we’re first introduced to Flora her character is established quite quickly. She is bisexual, fancies herself as a detective and seems to have a tendency to get herself into hot water. She has not been the same since she went for a run and came across the dead body of a fellow student. Now, some time later, she gets caught up in a potentially dangerous case.

It begins when an ex calls her asking for help. Upon arriving at the place she is supposed to meet Ava, Flora discovers her almost dead on the floor. The police want to write it off as a mugging but Flora is convinced there’s more to it.

What follows is totally unrealistic, quite entertaining and happens at breakneck speed. We’re taken to underground fight clubs, risky encounters and someone who’s determined to keep their secrets at whatever cost. Full of good intentions, Flora puts her life – and the health of those closest to her – at risk.

Good fun, but definitely not to be taken too seriously.

 

‘Whisper Island’ – Carissa Ann Lynch

From the outset – and the references to her suggest this was intentional – Whisper Island reminded me of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None. The remote island setting, a group thrown together, mysterious deaths and secrets. While it might not have quite lived up to that book, it was definitely a good read.

Our focus is a group of fairly unlikeable friends. We can see immediately that they each have secrets and are using this trip to Whisper Island to escape something. The lack of detail here was necessary, and though it was frustrating to not really get beneath the surface of these characters it was important for the story that we didn’t know too much too soon.

Once the group arrive on this run-down island it’s obvious that this isn’t quite the luxury idyll they had been expecting. The discovery of a skull and then some gruesome deaths had this teetering close to the edge of credible (though this may have been more because of the pacing of the story). The behaviour of the group once they start to get picked off is meant to show their rising fear, but it was rather more reminiscent of every over-the-top horror movie known.

While I didn’t feel that concerned by the events of the book, it was clear that those involved were more affected by things than they initially let on. As with most of these scenarios, things may have been different if people took responsibility for their actions. The story wouldn’t have been as much fun though!

Thanks to NetGalley for allowing me to read this prior to its scheduled February publication. I’m looking forward to recommending this to some of my students.

‘Game Changer’ – Neal Shusterman

Game Changer will, I think, be one of those books that will polarise opinion. I’m grateful to NetGalley for granting me access to it prior to its scheduled February 2021 publication, and I think I would recommend it to people, but there are issues that make me wonder if this was quite the right way to get the intended result.

Our story focuses on Ash, a fairly typical privileged white American boy. He plays football. He has relatively open relationships with his friends and family, but there’s a sense of things being held back. This doesn’t cause undue concern, but then Ash is involved in a play that has far-reaching consequences. We journey with Ash as he experiences these strange events, the result of being knocked into another dimension.

Initially, until we have an explanation for what has happened, I was quite disengaged with this. Ash is not a particularly interesting character and I found his processing of events and the implications for him just a little patronising. There seemed to be just a little too much focus on him articulating his reasoning for behaving in the way he did, and trying to justify some of the choices he makes. He seems to comment lots on everyone around him, but to be quite unaware of his own shortcomings and this annoyed me on occasion.

Thankfully, quite early on we get some answers that what has happened to Ash is out of the realms of the ordinary. He has shifted reality and each time he does this he is able to change things. Sometimes this works well; sometimes not. Each time it happens, Ash learns something new about himself and the world around him. His only guides through this are twins (who are added to each time he changes things) keen to see if this time round the thing placed at the centre of the universe can make things better.

Ultimately, in each reality Ash experiences there are unpleasant things to address: racism, sexism, homophobia. You name the issue, we get it. Ash gets to live in different realities, each experience opening his eyes to the issues faced by many and the ignorance that many of us live in without even realising it. There was a clear sense of him growing as a person, albeit sometimes this feeling seeming forced on him.

After a rather slow start, the book became more engaging. I got quite caught up with Ash’s experiences and found the interactions between Ash and the other characters quite interesting. Unfortunately, though there were lessons to be learned – and Ash clearly set out his growing self-awareness in a way that often felt unnecessary – the fact that he ended up in the situation he did suggested that in a world of possibilities we will often settle for what is familiar enough to not be overly threatening. For me, this was not so much a Game Changer as a way of highlighting that change can be necessary and we should look for opportunities to improve things.

 

‘The Silent Stars Go By’ – Sally Nichols

 

Margot has been in love with Harry ever since his family moved to their village. As a vicar’s daughter Margot knows certain expectations are held for her, so it is something of a shock to learn that nineteen year old Margot is actually the mother of a toddler. The father, Harry, went missing in action and doesn’t know he has a child.

Worried about the social implications of having a child when unmarried, Margot’s parents engineer events so that they adopt the child and he is raised as their own. Now nineteen, Margot wonders how she can reconcile her thoughts and feelings with her sense of duty.

The story is quite a familiar one, so I’m assuming this is a foray into the context for younger readers.

We see things through Margot’s eyes and, in the main, it’s all a little superficial. I would have liked to know a little more of Harry’s thoughts upon learning the truth, and for a family so worried about what others would think of them there was little to indicate this was necessary. The elder brother suffering was also somewhat glossed over.

I felt sympathy for the experience of all those involved, but it never really developed in a way that made me feel overly engaged. I’m sure, however, that younger readers of those who don’t know much about this period in history will fall under the spell of Margot and her family and wonder how things were ever like this.

 

‘F.O.X.E.S.’ – M.A. Bennett

Though her production of the lost Ben Jonson play went well, Greer is focused on the trial by the order of the Great Stag that she was forced to endure. She remains convinced Henry is alive but nobody believes her. So, what to do?

Returning to school Greer knows she cannot let Ty deal with her fears alone. She will, once more, have to go into the proverbial lion’s den and work out how all these elements fit.

It’s not particularly pacy at the start but I loved the mystery to this as Greer tries to work out the significance of the fox and how it fits with the plans others have.

The characters of Henry’s parents were privileged and quite unaware of their behaviour, but we can see so many endorse this set-up through their own unwillingness to act.

The blending of historical fact and storytelling worked so well in this. Informative and entertaining. While we can see things moving on, there’s signs that it’s not over yet.

 

‘D.O.G.S’ – M.A. Bennett

This series doesn’t seem to have grabbed everyone, but I enjoyed the first part of the series (however ridiculous the scenario seemed) and this more than delivered.

Trying to come to terms with her role in Henry’s death, Greer is back at S.T.A.G.S and needing something to bolster her chances of getting into Oxford. She doesn’t question the timing of events, but we are very suspicious when the first Act of a lost Ben Jonson play is put under her door. Greer is intrigued by the idea of putting on something thought to be so dangerous that it closed the theatres.

Before we know it we are following the preparations for this play, and – of course – things are inextricably linked to Longcross and Henry’s family. We know someone has secrets, and we can’t help but wonder just how this play fits with our current story.

I loved the feeling of a story within a story, and yet we still have a sense of Greer’s story developing in ways that perfectly blend a sense of threat with excitement. It wasn’t clear just who was hiding what, and even at the end there’s a murkiness to this that suggests our understanding of the Order and the threat they pose has more layers to reveal.

I can’t wait to read the final part.