‘On the Come Up’ – Angie Thomas

Firstly, thank you Angie Thomas for introducing us to another wonderful character in Bri. Secondly, thank you for not writing another THUG. Some crossover issues, but there’s never a moment when you feel this has already been done. Thirdly, thank you for writing about something I don’t have any experience of (rapping) and making me actually care about it.

Focusing on sixteen year old Bri, daughter of a much-loved rapper shot by gang members, On the Come Up places music at its very heart. Showing us the power of words and the way music can, literally, save us also means Thomas has to confront some of the less appealing elements associated with this genre.

At the outset Bri is rather brash, quick to rile and say what she thinks. This means she’s labelled as ‘aggressive’ and people expect trouble. Immediately confronting attitudes to race when Bri is thrown to the floor by school security there’s a lot happening here.

Alongside the school issues/general social exploration, there’s a real focus on the family and how our relationships affect us. Bri’s mum and brother leave her out of things – perhaps out of a desire to protect her – but this leaves a Bri open to suggestions she may not have considered in a misguided attempt to help ease her family’s experiences.

Friendships are tested as Bri sets out to get her ‘come up’ – her chance to change things. She battles with words, she is set-up to play a role but ultimately she has to figure out who she is and whether she’s important enough to look to do things her way.

Again, I’m sure all too soon we’ll see this adapted into a movie. Vibrant, thought-provoking and powerful.

‘The Giver’ – Lois Lowry

For many this is regarded as the original YA dystopian novel. It’s cropped up on my recommendations time and time again, but I had never heard much about it.
In this world, everything is strictly regulated. It’s all done for people’s safety and well-being, but it’s so safe and constricted. Nobody knows this, because they’re indoctrinated into the lifestyle. From early on they’re trained to be precise in their language use (abstract nouns such as love don’t have any place here); they’re unfailingly polite; they don’t ask questions and every detail of their life is regulated. This way, people can’t make wrong choices. They can’t be upset.
They are also, it seems, not really living.

Jonas is almost twelve when we meet him, and he’s eagerly awaiting the details of his work training. On the day of the ceremony he’s left out. However, this is because those in charge have decreed he should become a Receiver. This is the highest honour that can be bestowed in the community, but nobody really knows what it entails.

When Jonas starts his training it is with a mix of eagerness and worry. He is told his new job will be to receive the memories – not just of the community, but of those that came before, and those from even earlier. He will be granted access to books, and he will – eventually – be able to see the world in colour rather than the black and white sameness that everyone else experiences.

Initially, the training focuses on pleasurable experiences. He is shown the exhilarating memory of sledging down a hill, feeling the sun on his skin and happiness at a birthday party. Soon, however, he is also given less pleasant memories. He sees war, he feels the pain of a broken limb and the loss of death.Jonas can talk to no one about his training, only the person giving him the memories (the man he will replace). In their conversations we are encouraged to consider for ourselves our own thoughts on these topics.

The ending was a curious one. I know this is part of a quartet, though it seems each story focuses on a different character. It’s hard to work out what we’re meant to feel at the end of this. While it was hopeful, there was also a melancholy to it that unsettled me.

‘The Vanishing Stair’ – Maureen Johnson

So, last time round Stevie was investigating the Ellingham mysteries and getting herself into places/situations she ought not to have. In the interim we are led to believe her parents have pulled her from school, worried because one of the students has died and another has gone missing (fair point, I think).

Initially I felt the book was (sorry) a little slow to get going. Starting with Stevie moping round her home town pointing out all the things she missed about school and generally not doing much was too reminiscent of that awful scene with Bella in the chair, doing nothing as the seasons change around her.

Thankfully the mood becomes less maudlin before it gets too much to take. David’s dad steps in and, effectively, bribes her to return to school and keep an eye on his son. Stevie settles back into school but – as you’d hope – she cannot forget the elusive Ellingham case and continues her investigations.

The last thing you want is to know any of the details of this. Suffice to say, Stevie gets closer to unravelling some of these mysteries but also – as in many of the best mysteries – there are new strands woven in.

Towards the end I was really quite frantic with trying to work out what was going to happen. Johnson is toying with readers by leaving it where she does. I have so many questions…

‘Internment’ – Samira Ahmed

One to introduce important ideas to younger readers, and it explores timeless concepts, though its blunt approach feels unnecessarily heavy-handed.

Set in a not-too-distant future America we are put in the situation where we watch Layla and her parents taken to a camp specially set up to house Muslims. There they are subject to appalling racism and inhumane treatment simply because of their religion.

We read open-mouthed as people are separated by skin colour, beaten for refusing to follow camp rules and ‘disappeared’ for daring to challenge the Director. We hear of external disagreement with what’s happening, but nobody seems keen to challenge orders from up high.

Layla is a rather immature teen at the start. She becomes a rather more interesting character as she’s forced to confront her new reality and consider the extent to which she’ll challenge it. She decides to (risking) place her trust in one of the guards and there’s hints of romance that get subsumed by the need to advance the plot.

I’d love to say the Director was a caricature; that nobody would believe someone so blatantly racist, sexist and generally unpleasant would ever exist. Sadly, that’s not the case.

And it is the parallels we might draw between contemporary events and those of the book that show just why this is a necessary thing. Personally I’d have liked a more nuanced read, with some focus on the build-up to these events and the reactions of those on the outside. However, for what it is the story is paced well and delivers its message with force.

Thanks to NetGalley for providing me with a copy to read in exchange for my review.

‘Slayer’ – Kiersten White

A Slayer is born into every generation…for people of a certain age, you know what’s coming next…and this is the start of what can best be described as a Buffy spin-off series.

Athena and Artemis are twins. When we first meet them they are young girls, caught up in a fire and only one of them is saved. We only see this event through the eyes of the mysterious Hunter figure. Someone who we know is close to the girls, someone who wants to carve out their place in history by destroying a prophecy and someone that we only hear from periodically throughout the book.

Much of the book focuses on Nina (as Athena prefers to be called) learning that she has – after the hellmouth was closed – been given the power of a Slayer. She’s not happy about this as it goes against everything she believes in as a healer. She takes it upon herself to start investigating the appearance of demons, kill the odd hellhound and generally get caught up in all manner of strange events. All while suffering angst over her crush on old friend Leo, now returned as her watcher.

There’s no escaping the obvious love and respect for her source material that White has. There’s numerous references to events fans of the show will remember, and some wonderful characters/dynamics. I was struck by the action of the novel, and couldn’t help but laugh out loud at some of the moments.
There were also moments of exquisite sadness. You’ll know them when you come to them, and the ending certainly had me cheering for our Slayer. Not quite Buffy…but something new, and something exciting.

Thanks to NetGalley for letting me read this in exchange for my thoughts.

‘Pretty in Punxsutawney’ – Laurie Boyle Crompton

Thank you NetGalley for giving me a good old-fashioned belly-laugh.
Before I give my thoughts on this, I have to confess to disliking Groundhog Day with a passion. I’m also fairly ambivalent about John Hughes’ movies…though I know them well enough to get the references here.

When Andie’s parents move her to Punxsutawney she spends the summer hanging out at the local movie theatre. Convinced she will find a boyfriend in one of the staff there (whose name has escaped me as he’s not particularly memorable, other than for being totally the wrong person for her) she is understandably nervous about her first day at a new school.

Her first day is a humdinger of awfulness. What’s worse is that she wakes the next day…and she’s back on her first day. This cycle is destined to repeat over and over.

Andie slowly starts to use her rather unusual situation to find out more about the students around her. She acquires new skills and plays some blinders worthy of their own place in an 80s teen movie.

Eventually, the cycle breaks and unless you’re VERY hard-hearted, you’ll applaud Andie all the way.

‘The Similars’ – Rebecca Hanover

Emma is reluctant to return to Darkwood Academy as her best friend, Oliver, recently died. Emma feels his loss acutely – and this is made worse when it’s announced that six clones will get a place at school. One of the clones is of her dead best friend.

The first part of the book focuses on setting up the group and trying to establish the idea that there’s something weird about this set-up. We spend a fair bit of time learning about the world of Darkwood and the group known as the Ten. Then Emma’s roommate is attacked and she has to work with the Similars to work out what’s going on.

As the story progresses it’s increasingly obvious that those in power know more about the situation than they’re letting on. The ‘evil genius’ behind the scheme has spent a long time planning this, but it’s never going to work when the kids are rather adept at finding out stuff they’re not meant to know.

Emma is a pretty determined character, though some of the scenarios she ends up in don’t really work. The developing relationship between Emma and Levi was intriguing, but the revelations at the end certainly hint at something exciting to come and go some way to explaining the responses Emma has.

‘Two Can Keep a Secret’ – Karen McManus

When their mother needs to be hospitalised to treat her mental health, twins Ellery and Ezra are forced to go and live with their grandmother in Echo Ridge, a small town near the Canadian border. They don’t know her, and their mother never talked about her time there. All the twins know is their aunt was killed and that some years later a young girl was murdered.

On their arrival their journey home is stopped when they discover the body of a teacher, victim of a hit and run. Strange messages then start to appear around Echo Ridge, suggesting someone is preparing another murder. Apart from the obvious questions about why anyone in their right mind would stay in a place like this, events unfold in front of us and we’re given plenty of twists to try and throw us off the scent. Suspects galore, disappearing prom queens, affairs and so on…

Reminiscent of Twin Peaks for me in that lots of people in this book have secrets. There’s so many people hiding things, but with a bit of luck and perseverance the truth comes out. Some of the red herrings were a little obvious, but that’s a minor gripe. You know you’re being manipulated but, for the most part, you don’t mind. I felt the closing moments were rather sprung on us a little quickly, but Ellery’s final revelation of the secret she’ll probably take with her to the grave was chilling. And the Mean Girls reference when Ezra first meets three of our cast – ‘something tells me on Wednesday they wear pink’ – will be one I remember fondly.

‘A Danger to Herself and Others’ – Alyssa B. Sheinmel

Only when she’s locked away does the truth begin to escape…

Hannah Gold is a top student, precocious and destined for great things. She insists on telling us this throughout the time we are with her. What Hannah doesn’t tell us is why she’s in an institute, meeting regularly with a doctor who makes notes on a sheet that states Hannah could be a danger to herself and others.

We learn that during her time at summer school, Hannah’s room-mate was hospitalised after falling from a window. Hannah is blamed for the accident, but is sent to the institute for a psychiatric evaluation.

As is the wont with unreliable narrators, we believe what Hannah tells us but slowly start to pick up on clues that perhaps all is not as she says.

During the course of the novel we learn that Hannah’s reality is not quite what she thinks. The friends she recalls don’t exist. Hannah is coming to terms with a previously undiagnosed mental illness, and it takes time for her to accept the fact she’ll need treatment for the rest of her life.

Hannah was not – at times – a likeable character. There’s more than one or two clear suggestions that she was, indeed, responsible for what happened to her room-mate. But to what extent can we hold her responsible for what happened when we understand that her reality is quite different to many?

I felt irritated by the parents of Hannah. Absent for much of the novel – with hints that this a theme of her life – their horror at learning their daughter was not ‘normal’ was palpable, and their answer seemed to be to throw money at the situation. While the situation would be a shock to them, I couldn’t help but think about all those people in this kind of situation who don’t get the help offered to Hannah, or who don’t get the treatment they need because they can’t afford it.

This is definitely a read to recommend and I’m grateful to NetGalley for providing me with access in exchange for my thoughts.

‘The Wicked King’ – Holly Black

Picking up after the events of book one, we are in a difficult situation for Jude. She has power over Cardan as she waits for the appropriate time to put her brother Oak on the throne. However, she realises that her action will put her in conflict with many people, including Madoc.

Throughout this book the focus is on power and what people will do to attain/retain it. There’s no escaping the fact that everyone’s plotting, and nobody seems to be telling the truth about their plans.

As we watch Jude try to keep a grip on events it was clear that she’s quite enjoying the power she has acquired. It’s never totally clear whether she’s got her end-goal in sight or if the boundaries are changing.

There’s many dramatic moments here: unexpected betrayals, fighting, secrets revealed and even passionate moments. What is definitely the case is that the closing moments of this were of the definite jaw-dropping in their audacity type, and it all looks very exciting for part three.