‘The Best Laid Plans’ – Cameron Lund

The Best Laid Plans is packaged as a frothy feel-good read, and there are definitely elements of the novel that fulfil that label. However, one thing this book is definitely trying to show you is that labels can be deceptive, and that not everything is easy to define.

Our story focuses on a group of seniors in a relatively small town who seem to have been together as a class for years, feel they know everything about each other and have to come to terms with the fact they’re growing up and will move on. Our main character, Keely, is fixated with the fact that she is the only virgin left in their class. She is obsessed by the fact that everyone around her seems to be so adult and in control of their lives, and is convinced that if she can lose her virginity she’ll suddenly receive the magic key to knowing how adulthood works.

The main impetus for her being so fixated by her status is the attitude of those around her to sex. Her best friend, Andrew, has a reputation as a ‘player’ and her female friends all seem to use sex and their sexuality as the way to define who they are. When Andrew hosts the party for Keely at the start of the book – the party that causes so much of the problem – and someone leaves a condom wrapper by Andrew’s parents’ bed, they jump with glee at the thought their offspring have finally got together. Everything about the attitude to sex in this book seems a little weird to me, and I felt it gave rather mixed messages to the target audience.

That aside, the novel focuses on Keely having a huge crush on an older boy, Dean. In an attempt to look more experienced, she hides the fact she’s a virgin. However, this then means she becomes preoccupied with the physical aspect of their relationship. So far, perhaps so normal – but then someone comes up with the bright idea that Keely should ask her friend, Andrew, to help…what could be weirder, eh?

For me, the entire book is focused on Andrew and Keely coming to terms with who they are, what each means to them and and how this growing awareness might impact on their current relationship. Along the way there are casualties, and characters who are clearly just used to help illustrate the point the author is trying to make.

Reading back through my thoughts, it seems quite negative. That’s not the case. This was such a quick read, and there were some genuinely funny moments. I liked the majority of the characters, and even felt they were genuinely developing as we progressed through the story. I had a feeling which way this would go, and the author definitely didn’t make this quite as easy as it might have been. It’s only afterwards that I start to consider exactly what message is being presented that I feel this isn’t quite as good as it could have been.

 

‘All Your Twisted Secrets’ – Diana Urban

I’d been very much looking forward to this, and it did entertain me though I was left feeling a little underwhelmed by the end.

Amber is our narrator. A keen musician, she has tried hard to fall in with the popular group in school – even doing things that go against her ideals, and failing to stand up for her best friend. She – along with a group of her peers – is invited to a special dinner in a local hotel as a chance to win a scholarship. The door shuts behind them, then they’re told they have an hour to decide which of them should die (being injected with a lethal poison) in order to stop a bomb being detonated.

What follows is a rundown of how the group spend their last hour trying to decide what to do. They unpick their behaviours over the last year and we learn – through their conversation and flashbacks – some of the secrets each is hiding and why they might have someone who wants them dead.

The start of the book felt slow. It’s once they’re in the room that we come to know a little more about each character, but there’s little to make us feel particularly about any of them. I had an inkling of who was behind it, and it seemed odd to me that nobody put two and two together before we got to the big reveal. Things were, in part, resolved by the end but nobody really seemed to learn from this experience and it all seemed a little unnecessary.

 

‘The Guinevere Deception’ – Kiersten White

For as long as I can remember I have loved the stories of King Arthur and his knights. I was fascinated by studying Thomas Malory’s Works, and once again Kiersten White takes something familiar and much-loved and turns it into something new, a little darker and completely absorbing.

We begin our journey with Guinevere travelling to Camelot for the first time to meet her husband-to-be, Arthur. Her wonder at seeing this land and the way Arthur rules is interesting, but it’s clear from the beginning that this isn’t quite what we think. Guinevere is hiding a secret. She is not who people think she is, and her father Merlin has arranged this situation so that Guinevere can use her hidden magic to help protect Arthur.

A good part of the book focuses on Guinevere settling into Camelot. She picks up on things others don’t notice, and while it’s not particularly exciting it’s essential for us to understand how things develop later.

There are many familiar faces here. We see Lancelot and come to understand the bond shared between Arthur’s queen and favourite knight. We have, throughout, an unknown narrator who is clearly allied to dark magic. We don’t learn quite how this character links until very late on, but I loved the way White chooses to flesh out characters that it’s easy to see in a certain way. She shows us their courtly behaviours, but we gain insight into the people behind these public faces. We come to see them as people, and this development means we can’t help but feel very real fear at what might be in store.

 

‘Chain of Gold’ – Cassandra Clare

Cassandra Clare…you’ve done it again.

Another group of characters tightly bound by their bonds/expectations and desires…where things aren’t always quite what they seem, and where we end up in dangerous situations with nobody batting an eyelid.

There’s a lot of characters in this, and it was a bit confusing to start with. However, as we start to focus on the main group it became a lot easier to follow.
The story is one of those that seems to become more complex the more we learn. It focuses on our Shadowhunters trying to learn who might be responsible for conjuring demons that are killing Shadowhunters. There’s clearly some link with key Shadowhunter families – and we do get some answers.

Once I felt the characters we were focusing on were little more established, I got quite taken in by this. There were enough hints of action to come and suggestions of potential plot strands to make me curious to see what comes next, and I was definitely in turn amused and upset by/for Cordelia, James, Anna, Matthew and Alistair – amongst others.

 

‘The Boneless Mercies’ – April Genevieve Tuchoike

A fantasy that has echoes of Beowulf and set in a world that seemed familiar, yet also unnatural.

We follow a group of four called The Boneless Mercies. Frey, our narrator, is their leader and as they travel we learn how the four (Frey, Ovie, Juniper and Runa) come together. We watch their journey across a strange and troubled land, bringing death to those who pay for it. It is a harsh and brutal living, but there is compassion in these women as they fulfil their service to those that live”
Frey is determined to end their way of life, and she dreams of doing something heroic. Hoping to follow in the footsteps of the heroes of the old stories, Frey leads her group on a journey to kill an unstoppable monster.

Along the way she is part of a plot to restart a witch war. She is tasked with killing a young witch queen. She thus learns of a secret that might prove useful and then, as we’d hope, gets her battle with the monster.

While the story is described in one way I felt this led to rather unfair expectations. The women are brave and do fight, but they are not fearless. They have compassion in spite of the death they bring. They deliver what they promised, but it has the slightly unreal feeling of being simply part of a bigger story that we are not yet ready to be told.

 

‘The Last One’ – Alexandra Oliva

When I first agreed to buddy read this a while ago it sounded like a novel idea, experimenting with the concept of post-apocalyptic events and tying it in with the excitement surrounding social media. The idea of a group of reality TV contestants taking part in a survival show, and being unaware of the fact that the outside world they left was no more, sounded so extreme that I was imagining a thrilling read. However, recent world events and the issues surrounding the Covid-19 pandemic lent this read an eerie sense of foreboding. At times I had to steel myself to continue, gripped but not in a way I was necessarily enjoying.

At the beginning there were clues that things were going to change in ways we were not imagining. While we got to see all the characters and their interactions everything was tempered somewhat by the filter of our main character, Zoo.
I got rather frustrated by the presentation of the characters on occasion. The attempt to pigeon-hole people and force their actions to fit a preconceived notion of how they would be seen by others meant I felt a lot of events were written about in order to present a particular slant.

Where the story really picked up was once we followed Zoo through her time following her surviving whatever she had experienced. She emerges from the woods in a dazed state. She can’t see. When she meets young Brennan she is convinced he is merely part of the crew. All her experiences in her mind form part of the test she has agreed to.

Yes, a little more background to the scenario would have been good. Understanding how this occurred might have been helpful, but the isolation Zoo has experienced does mean the detachment and lack of information makes sense. A bleak ending may have been appropriate, but I actually felt heartened by the potentially hopeful resolution to this story.

Now, as Boris Johnson has just announced a lockdown in Britain with immediate effect this seems like an apt time to find something a little cheerier to dip into…

 

‘Dandelion Wine’ – Ray Bradbury

Summer 1928 and young Douglas Spaulding is our main focus. For those who like a clear character arc, or well-defined events this will probably feel frustrating. The book seems to be made up of a series of vignettes, with some characters traced throughout but each capturing a moment or a significant experience.

While it’s not without its frustrations, there is much to love about this.
Douglas himself – and his brother, Tom – are certainly characters to be intrigued by. I suppose they are quite typical of the time/small-town mentality, but the joy they find in the simple things and the pleasure they take from their experiences was so positive. I loved the story of 95 year old Helen Loomis and the ice-cream, the happiness machine and the tarot witch. I don’t recall why I’ll have read it but the piece with Lavinia and the Lonely One (I recall a story called The Whole Town’s Sleeping) still sent shivers up my spine.

Not necessarily a story that will keep you gripped from the outset, rather a series of quite charming occurrences that each tell us something about ourselves and our common experience.

 

‘The Virgin Suicides’ – Jeffrey Eugenides

The Virgin Suicides was one of those reads that had me fully engaged throughout, though now I’ve finished it I feel none the wiser about what I’ve read.

My first impression stems from the fact that the narrator is very hard to fathom. At times one voice; at others, a voice speaking as representative of many. It’s evident that the narrator is a male, someone on the periphery of these events and watching in fascination as the story unfolds – even involved to a small degree – but never really coming to any awareness of the story they are watching.

Our narrator, like so many of those around him, is obsessed with the Lisbon family. We begin with the story of Cecilia, the youngest sister, who after a failed attempt to kill herself leaves a rather macabre party and throws herself onto their fence. We don’t know why, and we get very little sense of how this event impacts those left behind.

Following the narrator through their recollections of the neighbourhood memories of the family meant I always felt quite detached from the events described. The description of the decline in the family home and their personal appearance, as well as the behaviours exhibited, all indicate extreme reactions to a traumatic event. I felt saddened that a family in such turmoil were, effectively, abandoned as nobody knew how to break through the barriers they’d imposed on themselves.

It came as little surprise to see the gradual unfolding of the lives of the remaining family members. There was a grim resignation to this, but it all felt avoidable.
While this confused me and has left me rather uncomfortable, I am curious to read more by this author.

 

‘Stardust’ – Neil Gaiman

A lovely fairytale about a young man claiming his birthright and a journey into the land of Faerie.

I feel I must have watched the movie of this at some time because it all felt so familiar, but I thoroughly enjoyed this sojourn into an unusual land.

The town of Wall is on the boundary of the land of Faerie. Each year a market is held and people can purchase things they have never seen before. Our story begins with a young man being sold a beautiful glass snowdrop, ending up under a spell and having sex with an enchanted young lady who spends half her life as a bird. We then see him left with the child.

Years later the child, Tristan, is almost an adult and in love with a young lady called Victoria. He promised to catch her a falling star in exchange for her hand in marriage. And so begins an unusual quest.

Along the way Tristan comes to realise he’s not quite what he thought. He learns to trust his own judgment and ends up saving the star from others who pursue her for their own ends.

A truly magical story that ends exactly as you want it to. It put a smile on my face.

 

‘Rituals’ – Kelley Armstrong

A fitting finale to the series, which merges crime and the paranormal, but it keeps us hanging on right until the end to get some of our answers.

With Ricky stepping aside at the end of the previous book, there is a part of Liv that misses him though she remains focused on the work she has to do for Gabe. These two edge round each other, seeming destined to be together but reluctant to take that step. Getting insight into both characters’ views though, it is a rather inevitable moment that we’re waiting for.

This time round the trio realise they’re dealing with a darkness much bigger than that they feared. When Gabe’s mum reappears we know there’s something odd going on. So many characters seem to have made deals that bind them to another, and there is a clear sense that we are waiting to see how all these moments link.

There’s more fae stuff, a lot of relationship stuff, a few dangerous moments…and, just when it all starts to seem too much, a rather sneaky resolution. It wasn’t quite what I was hoping for, but it fits with the way the characters have approached everything through the series.