‘Run, Rebel’ – Manjeet Mann

A fascinating exploration of some affecting issues. Though tackling highly charged subjects, there is a sense of hope radiating through the core of Run, Rebel that fills the reader with confidence.

Told in verse, it was no surprise to see Mann referencing Elizabeth Acevedo and Poet X, amongst others. Every word of this felt special, and I really hope it is a book that those shadowing the 2021 Carnegie Awards take to their hearts.

Our main character is Amber. A teenager on the cusp of adulthood she is a talented runner, amongst the best in the country at her distance, and the world should be full of possibilities. But she is trapped, and in real danger of losing herself.

Amber’s biggest issue is her alcoholic father, and the grip of terror he holds on her family. She has already lost her older sister to an arranged marriage. He beats her mother, and as a young woman she is expected to conform to her father’s expectations in order to maintain her family’s honour.

Following Amber’s train of thought we are privileged to see her reaction to the demands placed on her. We come to understand her desires, and we travel with her on the journey to gain the freedom so many of us take for granted.

While her father was a deeply unsympathetic character, it was interesting that Amber’s complex feelings towards him were explored fully. The characters of best friend Tara, the PE teacher who quietly has Amber’s back and her mother were interesting – they each played their role in Amber’s story and offered a wider context to Amber’s situation.

I really liked the structure to the story too – focusing on the different stages of rebellion offered a clear framework to the stages of Amber’s journey, but allowed us to recognise the vital steps that make up such a seemingly minor step.

‘Lost in the Never Woods’ – Aiden Thomas

 

Lost in the Never Woods takes something we see as familiar and offers us a distorted version of that world.

It’s been years since Wendy Darling and her brothers went missing in the woods near their home. Wendy returned, with no memory of what happened in the time she was away, and since then she experiences crippling anxiety whenever she thinks of the woods.

A fairly regular teen, Wendy volunteers at the local hospital. She loves telling stories to the kids, and her stories often feature the irrepressible Peter Pan and tales of his daring. Recently she’s been obsessively drawing images of a young boy, Peter, and a tree.

On her way home one night Wendy almost runs over a boy. There’s an immediate attraction on her part…and when it’s clear that he knows her name, Wendy begins to think that perhaps Peter Pan is not the boy of her dreams. He exists, and he says he needs her help.

Children are going missing and Peter needs Wendy.

What follows is strange.

Slowly, Wendy and Peter risk everything in their quest to find the missing children and restore order to Peter’s Neverland.

This is a coming of age story with a pinch of magic. For those who dream…

‘Kate in Waiting’ – Becky Albertalli

A huge presence and the kind of book you’ll read with a big grin on your face, even when things aren’t going well.

Our main characters are Kate Garfield and her best friend Anderson Walker. Friends for years they are known for their strange rituals, and their shared crushes. During their recent summer camp they’ve both developed a crush on the same boy, Matt.

From the off we’re plunged into their little world and their shared fondness for drama. There’s the expected cute friend moments, a bit of drama and a general sense of expectation.

As they wait to audition for their annual theatre production, a proverbial spanner is thrown into the works…crush Matt has transferred to their school.

Cue problems.

Kate and Anderson vow not to let a crush derail their friendship. Sometimes the reality is quite different. Of course, though we see this from Kate’s view it is evident from fairly early on that she’s not the most observant of people and I was desperate to see if/when she’d open her eyes and see what was in front of her.

This is another Albertalli hit in the making, I’m sure, and I’m grateful I got the chance to read this before its scheduled April publication thanks to NetGalley. I’m not even that into theatre but still found myself captivated by this.

 

‘All Boys Aren’t Blue’ – George M. Johnson

All Boys Aren’t Blue covers so many areas, but I would urge people to read it, even if you don’t see it as having direct relevance to you.

Part memoir, this series of reflections offer an insight into the author’s life as a child and growing up (as he calls himself) black and queer. We journey from an early memory of having his teeth kicked in at five years old to dealing with the death of a close friend at college and, along the way, get to hear about family members and the various events that he recalls shaping him as he grew up.

I was struck, more than anything, by the love and strength gained from family. Things may not have always been articulated, but there’s a clear sense that when it counted they would have your back. You might be held to account, but you would always be loved – and it strikes me that this may well be the best gift you can give someone.

So many of the memories were tinged with sadness and made me feel angry that they had to be experienced, but if all of us were to pinpoint moments that shaped us I’m sure that not all of them would be positive. As so eloquently written in the latter stages of the book, reading about the experiences of others can help us define ourselves and for this reason alone I would recommend this book. While so much was nothing like my own experiences, that search for yourself and the need to find your family will resonate with most readers.

I’m in awe of Nanny and the devotion she has so clearly inspired. I feel privileged to have been allowed to see inside our author’s head, and grateful to have been given this opportunity.

 

‘The Girl in Red’ – Christina Henry

The Girl in Red was a book I picked up to read as part of the PopSugar 2021 Challenge. I didn’t know anything about the author and I wasn’t sure quite how you could set up a reimagining of a tale as well-known as that of Little Red Riding Hood. Having finished the book today, I can safely say this was a surprise hit.

The story behind this really does feel as if it could be written for our times. We don’t know how or why, but the world within this book has been hit by something known colloquially as the Cough. Those who become infected may show no symptoms, but this airborne virus spreads quickly and can leave people dead within days. They cough up copious amounts of blood, and there appears to be no vaccine available to cure them.

Cordelia, or Red as she prefers to be known, is something of a heroine to admire. She lives with her brother and parents in a rural town. Fascinated by science she has been worried about the things she has heard, and has been making plans for how to survive should the worst happen. Determined not to be forced into a camp (where many seem to think they will be safe) Red has been tramping the woods for days, carrying everything she thinks she will need to keep alive. Admirable for anyone, but given that Red has a prosthetic leg I could not help but admire the fact she was determined to do what was needed to keep alive.

We follow Red as she travels across country, determined to avoid roads and potential threats, in her journey to get to her grandma’s cottage.As she travels we are given flashbacks to explain how she comes to be travelling alone.

There’s no denying this has its gruesome moments. The details of the mutation and how it impacts on people was scary. The things she has obviously gone through to get to this point are not for the faint-hearted. However, there are moments that show how even in the darkest moments we can be hopeful, and there will always be the potential to create a better future.

 

‘Last One to Die’ – Cynthia Murphy

When Niamh heads to London for a summer drama programme she could not have imagined the events that she’d get caught up in.

Upon her arrival at the rather grotty hostel she’s due to stay in, a young woman asks if she’ll swap rooms. Niamh does. Later that night the girl in her original room is killed. On her first day, a student tries to befriend her. That night, she’s attacked. And so begins a pattern of accidents/attacks…their one common strand is that the girls all look like Niamh.

Naturally, this is a creepy situation. Unlike most, Niamh doesn’t head home the moment these weird things happen – instead, she tries to get on with her course and the work placement at a Victorian museum.

Without giving anything away, what Niamh uncovers is a story that started a long time ago. In the cold light of day, it’s all preposterous…but you can (with a little will) overlook this as you’re reading.

Focusing on Niamh’s perspective means we don’t get to join all the dots quite in time. Some elements really do stretch the bounds of credibility, and our resolution felt like a bit of a damp squib after a bold start.

 

‘The Last Girl’ – Goldy Moldavsky

Thanks to the publishers for granting me access to this via NetGalley prior to its scheduled April 2021 release.

The Last Girl is a must-read for horror fans…a lovingly crafted homage to movies that revel in gore, jump-scares and violence. Even readers like myself (who can only read horror stories during the day and who can conjure up threats from the merest hint of shadows and strange noises) will find themselves sucked into this story.

Even knowing the rules doesn’t always help. Sometimes you are up against something for which it’s hard to be prepared.

Our story focuses on new girl Rachel who’s started at an exclusive school where her mum teaches. She is not naturally sociable, and the trauma of killing a masked invader to her old home is something Rachel does not want to share with anyone. She is befriended by Saundra who is desperate to fill her in on the school gossip, but then Rachel finds herself part of a secret club.

Like Fight Club, the rules around this club are tight. Members cannot associate with one another, and nobody should talk about it. The Mary Shelley Club has a seemingly innocent aim, to gather and share a love of horror movies. Another aspect of the Club is the challenge that each member faces…to scare someone.
Initially, like Rachel, we see the Club as harmless – but there are signs that’s not the case. Before long we have a decidedly more dangerous scenario, and the question is whether Rachel will survive this experience.

Not to be taken too seriously, and not something you’d ever want to experience in reality, but self-aware enough to feel the author was having just as much fun writing it as I did reading it.

 

‘A Vow So Bold and Deadly’ – Brigid Kemmerer

When I first started reading Book One I had quite a strong view of how I imagined things might eventually be resolved. As the series continued it was clear that might not be an option, but starting this I was hopeful we’d get some answers.

As the book opens we are in a horribly fractured place. Rhen has – for many – committed an act of betrayal in his treatment of Grey. He vows to do the best for his people, but he seems to be struggling with himself as to exactly what this will entail. Grey is finding it hard to win over the army he is now expected to help lead. Lia Mara is determined to rule with compassion, but for those accustomed to her mother’s violence it is seen as a sign of weakness. Harper is somewhat relegated to the sidelines for much of this as everyone knows she’s no princess and yet her counsel seems to be the only thing that can get through to Rhen.

For much of the book we’re dealing with fractured relationships and people trying to do their best to lead without being fully aware of every eventuality. It’s a bit of a mess, and once we know Lillith has returned I started to doubt we’d get anything resolved.

Focusing on different viewpoints throughout did help to allow us time to understand the motivations of each character, but it does rather hide the fact that for a substantial part of the book nothing is actually happening…it’s all about what might happen or how things could be. Maybe this is a sign of lockdown fatigue, but when things are so uncertain how can you plan?

Once we shifted to the moments following Lillith’s bold move it was obvious we were going to have a big episode. It wasn’t quite what I expected, but I do think it fits within the series and nicely resolves some elements. Though this is released as the final part of the trilogy, the new elements that get introduced certainly don’t rule out the possibility for a return to this world at some point.

 

‘Lore’ – Alexandra Bracken

I am grateful to NetGalley and the publishers for granting me access to this prior to publication.

I had to have two attempts to read this – first time round I wasn’t clicking with it at all. Second time round, I found the start equally frustrating but it did improve…only to end in a bit of a whimper.

Lore was a character who both intrigued and irritated me. The relentless flashbacks helped us to gain an understanding of her past, but until we were some way in they just seemed intensely annoying. She was descended from gods, but was mortal…yet she was needed by the gods as they appeared for their regular seven day fight.

The whole book felt a bit like being at a party when everyone around you is having fun and you’re not quite feeling it. Nothing was actually wrong with what I was reading, but I regularly found myself having to push through to keep reading and find out what happened.

Once we developed a little more understanding of Lore’s past and started to piece together the relationship between the characters it became more engaging. There were a few dramatic moments that took me rather by surprise, but I didn’t feel they were enough. Throughout, I had a sense of waiting for a big reveal and wanting to learn exactly what Lore was hiding…but the moment when it came was all a little sudden.

This, sadly, wasn’t really for me.

 

‘The Upside of Falling’ – Alex Light

This was an unbelievably quick read, and though it was good fun for the most part I can’t help but feel that some elements of the story were a little rushed.

Becca Hart has got used to living alone with her mum. When her dad left them Becca lost faith in the power of love. She closed off a little, and vowed never to fall in love because it would only mean getting hurt. Of course, that makes her ripe for the situation that develops in the book.

Within the early stages we see Becca being criticised for her rather unspoken opinions on love. She is rescued by popular guy, Brett, the boy who seems to have the perfect life and for whom love is something to believe in.

So begins a rather unlikely scenario – the fake dating where both Becca and Brett decide they have something to gain from convincing their peers that they are in a relationship. Naturally, they spend time together and it soon becomes clear that the boundaries are getting blurred and things aren’t quite as fake as they first thought.

The whole story rattles along at some pace. It’s hard not to like Becca and Bret, but I was struck throughout by their naivety and the speed with which they went from disinterested in a relationship to confessing their love for one another.
There’s a little blip on the way, but we know exactly how it’s going to end up.