‘The Beautiful’ – Renée Ahdieh

 

 

Thank you to NetGalley for granting me access to this prior to its publication in October 2019.

When we first meet Celine she is on her way to America having fled France. We learn she killed a man who tried to rape her, and she is desperate for a fresh start. Her journey is quite uneventful, but she befriends a couple of girls that go with her to live in a convent.

Upon their arrival in New Orleans Celine cannot help but feel she has come home. She loves the vibrancy of her new home, but there is a definite sense of threat – made worse by the murder of a young girl soon after their arrival.

There’s no doubt that Celine is not your stereotypical young lady. She’s happy to defy conventions, but this does lead her into rather difficult circumstances.

The majority of the story focuses on the mysterious Sebastian who has a group of very close friends that don’t seem quite human. Celine is in turn entranced and infuriated by Bastian – so it’s inevitable there’s a spin-out hint of a romance.

There’s some interesting ideas here, but there’s a lot that seems to work against the story. We’re never given enough information about the two groups to explain the dynamics between them. We know they’re vampires, yet there’s little detail about quite how this group works. Someone close commits a pretty awful act of betrayal, yet we don’t really get to know why. There’s also a hint of someone thought dead actually being part of this, but we know so little about them it would have been easy to ignore the significance.

This is not a book that I found hard to read or unexciting, but there were a lot of unanswered questions which I found infuriating.

‘Out of the Easy’ – Ruta Sepetys

Immersed in 1950s New Orleans, this was a great read.

Seventeen year old Josie Moraine is the daughter of a prostitute. For years she’s looked after herself, and is desperate to make something of her life.

Helped by Willie, the local brothel madam her mother works for, and a number of other characters Josie tries to break out of the chaos brought to her life by her mother.

There was a warmth to this that really shone through. Josie was a determined character who was dealt a pretty tough time, yet she tried her best to rise above it. Her mother was not a caricature villain, but her behaviour was appalling.
The main thrust of the story is Josie trying to do the right thing by the people she interacts with, while learning about herself. She dreams of a better life, and yet at every opportunity this seems to elude her.

While the ending might not be quite the one she planned for herself, it brought things full circle and really showed the relationships she invested in to be positive and beneficial.

Sepetys is fast becoming a go-to author for me.

 

‘Call It What You Want’ – Brigid Kemmerer

A tough lesson to learn here for so many characters.

Maegan was caught cheating on her SATs last year, and now spends her school day being ignored by people. Rob was the star lacrosse player, but is now ostracised because his father stole money from many people in the town.

Both teens are struggling to deal with their circumstances. They have to accept what others dole out to them. Rob can’t tell anyone about how his life has changed after his father tried to kill himself. Maegan has to keep the secret that her sister has left college as she’s pregnant with her tutor’s child.

When they’re paired for a calculus project, Rob and Maegan start a tentative friendship. Slowly, and falteringly, they break down some of their self-imposed barriers.

This was a thought-provoking and emotional read. Highly recommended.

 

‘The Third Twin’ – C.J. Omololu

This took a little while to get going then went haywire.

Lexi has always thought of herself as serious, focused and rather dull. She’s set on studying business at Stanford. So, when we learn that she and her twin sister, Ava, have an alter-ego they use when they want to cut loose it comes as a bit of a surprise. Alicia is someone who likes to party, and who does crazy things just for fun.

Though Lexi dislikes the way this often ends up, she recognises that playing at being someone else can free her to be a little more adventurous than normal. However, when a boy she meets up with one night is then killed things start to seem less fun.

Somehow, without really quite knowing how we got to this point, two more boys end up dead. The only link being their dates with Alicia. Lexi doesn’t want to believe it, but could her sister really be a killer?

From the moment of the third murder we are plunged into crazy territory. The sisters are on the run from the police, wanted for murder and nobody trusts the other. Then we get a true humdinger of a revelation that makes little sense, but definitely ties up a few loose ends.

A bit like Pretty Little Liars it’s implausible, highly exaggerated and yet quite good fun.

 

‘The Understudy’ – Sophie Hannah, Claire Mackintosh, B.A. Paris and Holly Brown

On paper this sounds like an idea that might work…four very different writers (all very good at what they do) each take a section of story and work it into a whole novel.

Our story focuses on a group of girls at the Orla Flynn Academy, a stage school where there are some definite divas…and not just among the students. A fairly tight-knit group of four friends. We’re given some backstory about one of them bullying another last year, but things are better. At least, until odd things start to happen to the girl who should have been expelled for bullying. Coinciding with this is the Head’s attempt to smooth things over, the arrival of a new student who might act as the gel the group needs to bond them.

From the outset we’re never quite sure of the truth. We get shifting views from the mothers, and as the weird events get progressively more dangerous we can see there’s something we’re not being told.

Though the style of telling worked well (with each chapter adding something else to the mix) the book just fell a little flat for me at times. The characters were all fairly unlikeable, and I didn’t feel we had enough invested in any of them to really care one way or another what happened.

 

‘The Truth Commission’ – Susan Juby

Quirky is definitely the best word I can use about this.

Normandy Pale is our narrator, and she is the younger sister of a celebrated graphic novelist. Her whole life has been laid bare in print, and Normandy doesn’t challenge this.

We meet Normandy as she’s starting a creative project – a piece of non-fiction exploring the outcomes of something she and her best friends set up. Finding out truths starts small, but very quickly Normandy is having to deal with truths that were previously hidden.

The style (with its endless footnotes) could have been irritating, but I found Normandy’s attempts to make sense of the things she learns quite entertaining. I liked her friendship group and the way they interacted.

Ultimately, I was quite appalled by her family. Her sister was, to put it bluntly, unscrupulous and her parents were bordering on negligent in their handling of this scenario. Part of me wants to say I was surprised by this, but I’m also wondering how much was set-up for an artistic attempt to manipulate the truth.

 

‘A Shiver of Snow and Sky’ – Lisa Lueddecke

Having finished this, I’m surprised not to have heard more of a buzz about this.

The book is set on the remote island of Skane, a place of superstition and folklore. Osa, our main character, has always felt alienated by her family. She feels blamed for her mother’s death, and knows that she doesn’t have the support she should expect. However, she does have close friend Ivar who believes in her.
Our story begins with an evocative description of a land filled with lights. Red lights. Everyone knows that the last time this happened, plague came to their village and many died. Also facing invasion from a group of vicious fighters, the villagers have to decide whether to flee or fight.

Osa struggles to accept the sentiments of many. She vows to do whatever is possible to protect her people and sets out on a dangerous quest to speak to the goddess.

Switching between what happens to Osa and the villagers left behind, this was a fairly standard fantasy quest. There were trials faced throughout, and there’s a plethora of new and unusual characters. However, the writing style was evocative and the description given to key moments was not standard stuff. I enjoyed some of the more magical elements, and this certainly looks like one to continue with.

 

‘Frankly in Love’ – David Yoon

Frank Li…Korean American…what does that mean?

In Frankly in Love we have the sideline story of Frank planning to fake-date his friend, Joy, so he can get to take out a girl in his class. He knows his parents would not appreciate him dating a white girl (after all, they disowned his sister for her choice of partner) so he and Joy cook up an elaborate plan.

Things set in motion often pick up their own momentum. That’s exactly what happens here and, before we know it, there’s a pretty big relationship mess. However, the novel seemed to be more about a young boy trying to work out his place in society. It explored his feelings of identity and showed the sense of a developing relationship with his parents.

There was something about the voice here that I found really hard to feel much for. Frank was quite self-obsessed and there were some events that had huge glowing signs pointing them out, yet they were ignored because they didn’t register on Frank’s radar. Perhaps if I’d felt more about the main character I’d have been more engaged with this.

 

‘The Year I Didn’t Eat’ – Samuel Pollen

Max is a character you’ll feel for, but simply because his experiences sound exhausting.

When we first meet Max he’s struggling to deal with his illness. He gives it a name, Ana, and is acutely aware of the impact it has on his family. Max can’t pinpoint what started it, but he recognises that his constant calorie counting and obsessive attempts to control his food intake are destructive. He tries to go along with his counselling sessions, but that voice becomes stronger.

This was a sensitively told story, looking at some aspects of living with anorexia while also showing a teenage boy learning to develop friendships and live with some of the family issues that arise.

It’s hard to know how successful this is in conveying an experience which will, probably, be different for everyone but I did like the hopeful tone to it.

 

‘We Used to Be Friends’ – Amy Spalding

The title pulls no punches. This is all about the break-up of all break-ups, and though it’s upsetting on occasion I couldn’t help but warm to both James and Kat.
James and Kat were paired together in kindergarten and have been best friends since. Our story opens with them about to go to college, and things are no longer looking as rosy as they were.

The premise itself is quite straightforward. Two friends are developing and their relationship is shifting. They’re dealing with family issues, evolving relationships and the movement into adulthood. So, what’s special about this?

For me, it comes down to the innovative structure of the novel. We get alternating viewpoints, which allow us to see both perspectives, and then there’s the construction of those views. James’s story begins with her about to start college, reflecting on the last year and examining just how her relationship with her best friend came to such a place. Kate’s story opens at the beginning of senior year, full of promise and excitement as she begins a new relationship and slowly comes to learn some of her flaws.

Both characters were flawed. Kat was highly dramatic and self-obsessed, while James was reticent to discuss emotions never mind deal with them. Cutting between time/situation lent a fascinating air to this. We could see how it would end up, and the signs were obvious but both seemed unable to do anything to salvage it.

Though I enjoyed the style of telling, and grew to feel some compassion for both characters, I’m not entirely sure what the message of this book is. Relationships change. Sometimes people aren’t what you thought. Too much introspection is a bad thing. Too much self-obsession is a bad thing.

I’m grateful to NetGalley for granting me access to this in exchange for my thoughts. This might be one to return to upon publication (scheduled for January 2020).