‘Kingdom of the Wicked’ – Kerri Maniscalco

 

From the moment Emilia and her twin sister, Vittoria, are introduced to us at eight years old we know the amulets they wear are significant. These are girls whose family are part of a hidden group, witches who work in secret and who are well-versed in prophecies. However, no matter what knowledge they have they could not be prepared for what transpires here.

Early on, Vittoria is murdered, her heart ripped out and her body left for Emilia to discover. Understandably, Emilia wants to find out what happened and for whoever is responsible to pay. But nothing comes easily here and Emilia ends up in a situation that heralds great danger.

To cut a long story short, Emilia decides to take matters into her own hands, and to summon a demon. The one she ends up summoning is Wrath, one of the seven Princes of Hell. Determined to get answers and avenge her sister’s murder, Emilia ignores much of what she has heard and enters a bargain – the possibilities of which are only hinted at here.

Maniscalco creates an interesting character in Wrath. Obviously intent on a higher purpose it is blindingly obvious that he is not to be trusted. Yet there is something hinted at under the surface, something that definitely suggests Emilia has got under his skin and offers something he wasn’t quite prepared for. While I’d have been quite content if we’d seen this side through to its conclusion, I actually liked the fact that Wrath kept his eye on the main goal and set up a much more intriguing scenario (which I imagine we’ll see in the sequel). I can’t wait to see what happens now Emilia has her own endgame in sight.

Huge thanks to NetGalley for allowing me to read this prior to publication.

‘The Cousins’ – Karen McManus

Scheduled for release in December 2020, I don’t have to stress how excited I was to get approval for this on NetGalley. McManus has quickly become one of those authors that seems a guaranteed winner for a story that draws you in and leaves you feeling more than satisfied with what you’ve read. Having just finished The Cousins earlier this morning, I can safely say that she’s onto what I think will be another hit.

Having raced through the previous books by McManus, I was struck by the relatively slow-paced start to this. We are in a very different world, but one in which characters are just as duplicitous and where we are waiting for the secrets to be unearthed from the moment we start reading.

Our main characters are Aubrey, Millie and Jonah – cousins who are not close, and who haven’t really seen each other in years. But when they each receive a letter asking them to go and work for their grandmother’s resort for the summer you can’t help but be curious. Even more so when we realise that the cousins have no relationship with their grandmother, and that she cut off her children years earlier (after the sudden death of their father) and has refused contact with them since.

Each of the characters has their own reasons for deciding to agree to this mysterious demand. Once they arrive at the resort, however, it is evident that their grandmother had no idea they were coming. Her best friend seems determined to keep the cousins away from her, and an old man in town – the family doctor – drops a hint that there is more to this story than anyone has been prepared to let on.

Once we get our teeth into the mystery things pick up. We have sections of the story from years earlier, giving details of the original children and their interactions, which offer little clues as to what might have happened and how it might be resolved in the present. As our main characters start to piece together the events leading to the family break-up, the pace really cranks up…until I found myself racing to finish and find out exactly what had happened.

By the time I got near the end I was already knowing this would be a read I’d heartily recommend to others. Rather unexpected, and it offers some resolution of a potential issue with the book, but it also offers a delightful hint that we might not be fully done with this world just yet.

 

‘A Deadly Education’ – Naomi Novik

 

A Deadly Education had me hooked from the moment it mentioned a school where strategy was all…where you graduate or die. I was expecting something dark, and wasn’t wholly disappointed.

This was a school like no other, where danger lurks round every corner (and on the ceiling and behind doors) and if you make it through the year you either have power of the magnitude others should be scared of or you have friends in high places. Our main character is El, daughter of a renowned healer, who is not particularly sociable or likeable, who has skills she wants to keep hidden and who is sick to death of being rescued by the school hero Orion.

From the opening I liked El. Rather abrasive but well-meaning, she is easy to empathise with. Watching so much from the sidelines, she is a rather reluctant main character who realises that sometimes you have to adopt a different strategy to win the long game.

In their final year the power being shown by the dark creatures attacking them is of concern. Orion is doing what he can to keep people safe, but our unlikely alliance offers a different approach. It felt strange to have a book set in a school where there is little adult presence, and where we can see the stakes are so high.

The story itself built as expected. Slowly we see the rising threat and watch as they work out how to tackle it. I was more intrigued by the message from her mum at the end warning her to stay away from Orion – a little late, and of course I want to know what is in store for them in what I imagine will be a dangerous senior year.

‘The Magpie Society: One for Sorrow’ – Zoe Sugg and Amy McCulloch

 

One for Sorrow is the first in a series set in an exclusive boarding school, where secrets are kept and nobody can be sure who to trust.

At Illumen Hall students are used to behaving in a certain way, and making the most of the privileges they are afforded. New girl Audrey is harbouring her own reasons for moving from America to attend the school, but she’s in no hurry to share her secrets. She’s required to share a room with one of the students who seems to be on the inside, Ivy.

The summer before our story starts one of the students is found dead. People suspect there’s more to the story, though the police claim the death of Lola was an accident. Someone is determined to push this, and a podcast is set up aiming to investigate the crime. A clear aura of mistrust springs up, and of course Audrey and Ivy end up teaming up to try and get some answers about what’s going on.

As the investigation continued, elements of the story were a little rushed. Some definite suspicious elements got overlooked because it didn’t suit the narrative the students were wanting to put forward. One or two elements were clearly on the way, and then not developed in any way to show why they’d been set up.
By the end we had some clues, but not a lot of answers as to what happened. Everything hinges on the mysterious Magpie Society…and I’m pretty sure the next book will start to look more at Clover and her significance.

Thanks to NetGalley for granting me access to this prior to publication.

‘The Island’ – C.L. Taylor

As a teen I can recall an annual skiing holiday taken by my parents and their group of friends. Every year we’d spend a week abroad, the families, and be forced together. The parents would relish their time to unwind but for the kids tagging along it was a strange thing. We had little in common, but a shared experience. Each year brought the same thing, but with little differences in our interactions that reflected the fact we weren’t really friends.
Reflecting on this immediately made me empathise with the group in this story. They seemed to have closer bonds, but it is evident that they harbour secrets and that not everything is as rosy as it seems on the surface.
Our setting is a remote holiday resort…and then our group of almost-adults is packed off together to a deserted island. Unfortunately, their guide has a stroke and dies. Then they discover the starter cord to the boat has been cut and they are trapped. Their immediate plan is to hunker down on the island and wait for their parents to be alerted to their non-return before being rescued.
Unfortunately, things aren’t quite so predictable. Strange things start happening. The groups’ fears start to become reality…and they’re soon in a nightmare scenario, fighting for their lives.
Throughout, it was clear things were being manipulated but it was good fun trying to guess who was behind it. Clues were there, but the revelation – when it came- was a little odd. We knew enough to realise different behaviour in the build-up could have led to a different story. It was plausible, but not quite the tension-packed thing I was expecting.
Thanks to NetGalley for giving me the opportunity to read this before publication.

 

‘Influence’ – Sara Shepard and Lilia Buckingham

If you thought Pretty Little Liars was set in a far-fetched world, then you’ll love Influence. It’s a world so far removed from reality for many that it really is hard to comprehend people living like this. However, Shepard’s co-author in this is a real-life influencer, so I trust much of this is based on her reality.

The story focuses on four influencers – Delilah (relatively new to the scene), Scarlet (the original mean girl), Jasmine (a child star desperate to reveal who she really is) and Fiona (the funny girl hiding her own secret). We follow them as they live their picture-perfect lives and quickly realise that the reality of their existence is quite different from the image they present.

Much of the interest for me came from the insight into a way of life that is so alien to my experience. It struck me as crazy, a mental nightmare waiting to happen and yet something that holds a dangerous allure. When one of the group is found dead, there is a determination to uncover some of the secrets people have been hiding as they work out what’s happened.

Strangely, the actual murder and subsequent investigation really didn’t register much. There was an attempt to make it dramatic, but the truth was – if I’m honest – rather out of place and seemed more of a manipulation of events to prove a point about the potential pitfalls of this type of world.

I’m grateful to NetGalley for letting me read this prior to publication (expected January 2021), and though it wasn’t really my thing I can see this being a big hit with the target audience.

 

‘Cemetery Boys’ – Aiden Thomas

This is a review I had to return to as when I finished the book I had tears in my eyes and couldn’t think straight. Emotional with some great comic moments, and characters that jump off the page with their vibrancy. A tale of love, acceptance and a healthy dose of sass with some magic thrown in…will be recommending this to so many!

Update

Yadriel is part of a family who can see the dead. Their talents have been nurtured over many years, and Yadriel is desperate to be part of the Brujx community. What we quickly learn is that Yadriel’s family are reluctant to accept him into the rituals because he is trans, and it goes against their traditions. A conflict that, for me, came to represent the challenge that seems to be common to many…that need to be accepted for who you are, and perhaps validated by those you love (even if they don’t seem wholly supportive of you).

Yadriel and his best friend, Maritza, definitely forge their own way. Determined to find a way to prove their skills, Yadriel carries out his own ritual when his cousin Miguel goes missing. There’s no sign of a body – but when Yadriel brings back another dead boy, Julian, he gets more than he bargained for!

From their first meeting Julian and Yadriel are great together. They have an instinctive need to support one another and they can’t always articulate what they’re feeling, but it’a a bond to treasure. It’s hardly surprising that Yadriel is not wholly pleased at the prospect of having to send Julian’s body to the afterlife.

The book follows Yadriel and Maritza in their journey to learn what has happened to Miguel and Julien. Eventually they get answers, though they’re not what they would have wanted. This culminated in a dramatic moment that had me crying, but the aftermath mopped things up nicely and left me with good feelings (albeit with tears in my eyes).

I can’t wait to recommend this to people and discuss it.

‘Sweet Harmony’ – Claire North

In Sweet Harmony North has created a monster, a monster I initially felt some empathy for but who – ultimately – learns nothing from her situation.

A succinct yet damning indictment of our obsession with youth, physical health and the ‘quick fix’ solution. Sweet Harmony tells the story of one very normal woman living in a world where everything can be fixed…at a price.

Harmony has upgrade after upgrade to keep her body looking its best. Nothing needs to be worked at in the traditional sense and all is good, if you can pay for it. Our only clue that something is not right is that Harmony has a spot…and before we know it we see the full truth of her situation exposed.

Faced with spiralling debt we see Harmony slowly shutting down. Around her, difficult choices have to be made. The reaction to her plight when she shares it shows the casual callousness that we seem to take for granted in so many circumstances.

Until the closing stages part of me felt Harmony was a victim, and I felt sympathy of sorts for her predicament. However, the decision she makes at the end made me feel that she was rather more complicit in her demise than I’d been prepared to accept. I closed the story feeling somewhat tainted, angry that such a situation could come about but also miserable to recognise so much of the mindset prevalent in the book as being all around us now.

Thanks to NetGalley for giving me the opportunity to read this prior to publication.

‘Some Laneys Died’ – Brooke Skipstone

Thank you to NetGalley and publishers, Skipstone, for granting me access to a most puzzling read that had me scratching my head in equal confusion and wonder.

Having finished, I’m still not entirely sure I’ve grasped some of the finer points of the concept. I found myself reading, then having to pause to actually digest what I’d read and try to work it out/link to what I already knew. I would liken reading this to me trying to solve a Rubik’s cube…I know there’s a knack to it whereby everything flows seamlessly, but I work in fits and starts without really getting anywhere, then by a freak occurrence something will slot into place and it’s done.

When I started reading I wondered what was true and what was in our character Laney’s imagination. She writes stories about alternate universes where different characters sharing her name experience different things. She interacts with people who reference events she thought were dreams which seem to have really taken place. Piece by piece she starts to realise some of these events are merging. This idea of alternate universes and time frames may make more sense to students of maths or physics.

The story as such is not a pleasant one. Laney reads a story about two skeletons found in the woods, dated to a time that she recalls finding her father having sex with an old girlfriend. She is fascinated by what she recalls of that incident and is convinced that the skeletons are the bodies of her and her twin sister (a twin who doesn’t exist in the story we start) who were killed by a sadistic pair of brothers – one of whom is friends with her now. The Laney we follow is switching experiences/times in order to hunt the person who in another time/place killed her and tortured then killed her sister.

For every choice there’s a range of possibilities. Watching Laney try to manipulate her experiences was intriguing. I confess to not always following Laney’s thought process, and the book seemed to give some conflicting messages about addiction and sexuality, but as a whole it was a read I’d recommend.

‘They Wish They Were Us’ – Jessica Goodman

 

Fairly standard fare here, which is a shame as this had potential to be so much more.

Jill Newman is about to start her Senior year at the exclusive prep school she has a scholarship to. She is one of the group known as the Players, a hand-picked group of eight that are chosen each year to carry on the tradition. Weekly tasks and challenges to prove your group spirit…and, in exchange, a free pass to tests and advice/shortcuts for life. These are privileged kids for no reason other than someone chose them.

It would be too easy to despise Jill and the group for getting everything handed to them on a plate while those around them work. So the author takes great pains to emphasise Jill is clever, a grafter, and needing her scholarship to set her big plans in motion. She also happens to have been best friends with Shaila, a student who was killed a few years ago. Sympathy vote checked, but that isn’t really enough to overcome the easy pass she and her friends have.

The book focuses on Jill’s internal struggle with what this life offers her. She feels pressure to act a certain way but, deep down, hates everything she represents. How can she move forward if she’s held captive by her present?

The dilemma is solved by Jill’s decision to help an old classmate. Rachel is the sister of the young man who got put away for Shaila’s murder. She is convinced her brother’s innocent and so Jill decides to do the right thing and help try to uncover the truth.

There’s an attempt at a red herring straight out of Pretty Little Liars territory. Fairly early on I had my suspicions as to who might be responsible. Sadly I was proven right and after the ease with which the girls got the confession I can only hang my head at the pitiful job the police did at the time.

This will have its fans. I liked the message it tries to give about working for your successes, but there was just too much that didn’t work for me to really fall under the spell of this one.