‘The Summer She Vanished’ – Jessica Irena Smith

Our main character is Maggie, a student, who has returned to Boweridge (a small town in America) to see her mother for the first time in years. They’ve had a tempestuous relationship since Maggie chose to go to the UK to live with her father…and things take a downward turn when Maggie learns that she had an aunt, Minna, that nobody has talked about. Maggie takes it upon herself to learn more.

What Maggie discovers is that forty years ago a young nun, Sister Fran, was found murdered outside a diner on the outskirts of Boweridge. A week after this seventeen year old Minna disappeared. Everyone at the time assumed she ran away, but Maggie finds hints that the two cases might be connected as Minna told people she knew who had murdered Sister Fran.

We follow Maggie as she sets about trying to uncover the truth.

The town of Boweridge is full of characters with something to hide…a lot of which links to the convent where the name of one charismatic priest, Father Tom Brennan (the brother of the Chief of Police), keeps cropping up. Rumours have circulated for years, and Maggie finds plenty of evidence of a large-scale cover-up.

This was an absorbing read. The intricacy of the deception involved angered me, and the fact that so many innocent people got caught up in this web of lies was hard to comprehend. Not all our questions are answered – the slimy Simon definitely had something to answer to – but Maggie’s investigation makes for a compelling read.

Thanks to the publishers and NetGalley for giving me the opportunity to read and review this before publication.

‘Confessions of a Dangerous Girl’ – Dan Birk

Emma Garthright is a fascinating character. Diagnosed as a psychopath after trying to kill her younger brother when she was six, Emma lives at the Early Institute where she – along with other teens like her – is trained to be an assassin.

When we meet Emma she is struggling to complete the missions she has been given, and her attempt to atone is to go undercover. She is to be enrolled as a student at the school local to her family and is tasked with getting onto the school Model UN group.
Watching Emma try to work out the situation she was in was absorbing. She doesn’t react like you might expect people to, but is highly skilled in ways that go beyond what you’d expect from a sixteen year old.

Naturally, those Emma is working for are not quite what they claim to be. We follow Emma through her mission and see her developing sense of conscience.

Quirky, far more entertaining than you might expect given the subject matter and it ended with a suggestion that things might just work out okay.

Thanks to NetGalley for giving me the opportunity to read and review this in advance of publication.

‘Their Vicious Games’ – Joelle Wellington

Their Vicious Games is a strange tale, cautionary yet taking a grim delight in the awfulness of the characters/their situation.

Our main character is Adina Walker, daughter of two teachers, who has been allowed to attend a prestigious Academy. Due to an incident in her recent past which involved her ‘forgetting her place’ her offers to attend Yale and any other university have been rescinded, and Adina is struggling to work out what her future holds. She feels that she is owed something, desperately wanting to get back her opportunities…but for that to happen she will need the help of the very people who seek to ostracise her because of the colour of her skin/her lack of wealth.

The majority of the action takes place during what is called The Finish – an event held annually by the Reamington family, giving selected young girls the opportunity to win a prize. What Adina doesn’t realise is that The Finish is actually a competition where there can only be one winner.

As soon as Adina, and we, realise what’s going on it’s hard not to be struck by the brutality of the games.

Nobody is safe. Everyone is playing a part. It becomes a question of how far people are willing to go, and the extent to which people are prepared to challenge the status quo.

Thanks to NetGalley for giving me the opportunity to read and review this before publication.

‘How to Die Famous’ – Benjamin Dean

How to Die Famous is a book that examines the dark underbelly of Hollywood, showing just how seriously people in power take the desire to come out on top.

A gripping page-turner that I can see being made into a movie before long. It ticks every box, and I’m grateful to NetGalley for giving me the chance to read and review it before publication.

Abel Miller is the new face in an upcoming blockbuster. As a Brit joining a celebrated American teen show he could be forgiven for being nervous, but Abel has more reason than most to fear discovery. As an undercover journalist, Abel is trying to track down exactly what happened to his brother years earlier. Of course we’re desperate to find out what happened, and whether Abel will evade discovery.

From the moment we’re introduced to the cast of characters at the heart of the show, it’s clear that there’s a lot riding on this. We have the history of the show’s cursed predecessor and there’s clearly a story to be learnt. What we quickly see is that there’s more than one story to be uncovered, and there are no depths to which those who have most to lose will stoop to in order to stay on top.

A great cast of characters, a wonderfully exaggerated villain and sidekick, a number of secondary characters who offered something more than you might expect…and an absolutely audacious ending that hints we might see more of this cast.

Fantastic read, and I can’t wait to get this in the hands of some readers at school.

‘One of Us is Back’ – Karen McManus

Rather unexpectedly perhaps – but if you’re onto a good thing then let it run – we return for our third visit to Bayview. Our murder crew has grown a little, but the repercussions of Simon’s game are still being felt. Nobody quite feels comfortable…and we soon see things are going to get a whole lot worse.

If you’ve followed the others in the series then this is a sure-fire hit. In fact, I’d go so far as to say it’s more appealing than its predecessors and fans of Karen McManus are going to be so excited when this releases in July 2023. Thanks to NetGalley for giving me the chance to read and review it before publication, and I think – having just finished – I’ll have to get my hands on a physical copy (even though the paperback isn’t due until March 2024).

In One of Us is Back our story is mainly narrated by Phoebe, though we get views from all the characters and even get to see what was happening six years earlier with Simon and Jake. Bayview has always had its fair share of secrets but in this instalment we see just who is hiding what.

Things begin rather innocuously with a hacked billboard promising a new game. This puts people on edge but doesn’t seem too serious. However, as people start to go missing and the injuries become more serious, we soon realise that someone has returned to Bayview with their heart set on revenge. The book follows our crew as they try to work out who’s behind this, and why.

I genuinely did not see some of these revelations coming, and the story offering light on earlier events helped make sense of so many things. Perhaps it’s a little unlikely, bi it makes for a cracking read and there are definite signs that our trips to Bayview may not yet be over.

‘Fourth Wing’ – Rebecca Yarros

A 4.5 rating, and while there are elements that I’d have liked to see developed this definitely did live up to the hype.

The story is fairly straightforward. Violet is the daughter of General Sorrengail. The family are riders, and though Violet has trained to be a Scribe – definitely influenced by her father – her mother is determined that her third child will also learn to ride dragons. Violet is not a likely candidate, and from the reaction every one she meets has it is painfully clear that nobody expects her to survive the experience.

Naturally, Violet surprises them all.

From the opening pages, as we see Violet start her trial, I found myself desperate to see how this would pan out. It reads like a lot of books of the genre and relies heavily on the elements you often expect. There’s the old friend/love interest who’s not quite what we think, the brooding lust interest, the plucky friends and the relentless need to show our main character has reserves hitherto untapped. While this felt like an opportunity missed, it keeps you turning the pages and definitely doesn’t hurt in terms of delivering a cracking story.

With it clearly being the opening of a series we know there’s more going on. There were twists here aplenty, some of which you could predict and others that were more subtle. I don’t mind admitting that I was left stunned by the closing section.
YA or New Adult…it’s categorised as both, and this does seem to suffer from trying to appeal to a very broad range of readers. Some of the dialogue had me cringing, but it didn’t stop me enjoying what was taking place. I loved the dragons and want more of them! The closing twist definitely sets up a very intriguing premise and I’m keen to see exactly how Violet’s father features in this tale.

I’ve already pre-ordered book two and think there’ll be more than one or two recommendations of this book taking place!

‘You’re Not Supposed to Die Tonight – Kalynn Bayron

Pure pulp, and I loved it! 

If you know horror, you know the rules. For Charity, her role as the final girl in a simulation based on a well-known slasher movie has clearly defined elements. Playing her part well keeps the money rolling in, and prevents her having to spend time at home. It helps that she keeps finding ways to refine her craft to give the guests the terrifying thrill they seek.

Unfortunately, this season things don’t go quite to plan.

Charity is struggling to keep the act going as three of the staff have left without warning. There’s threats from a woman who lives in the woods and the local sheriff is unconcerned by their reports. It’s down to Charity and her friends to try to survive the night when they realise they really are playing the game.

From start to finish this was pacy, full of knowing nods to the genre and included a lot of gore. The whole story behind it was even more creepy, and I found myself surprisingly fond of Charity’s final opportunity to resolve matters.

Thanks to NetGalley for giving me the chance to read and review this before publication.

‘Thin Air’ – Michelle Paver

Grimly atmospheric, haunting and deeply unsettling.

Thin Air is told through the eyes of Stephen Pearce, the late addition to an expedition to try and be the first party to climb Kangchenjunga in 1935. Following in the ill-fated footsteps of an earlier party, we journey with the group as they travel to the foothills of the mountain and then attempt their challenge.

I’ve never been anywhere this high or remote, but Paver brings the experience to vivid life for us. She captures the beauty and menace of the mountains, showing us how easy it can be for someone to succumb to fears in the face of their own humanity.

The superstitions held by the local climbers play a large part in this book, and we are never certain whether the group are indeed haunted by something lurking in this dangerous wilderness or whether we are watching the gradual deterioration of men pushed to their physical limits. 

It’s hard not to be captivated by the exhilaration of the climb and the descriptions of the journey. Of its time, the attitudes shown by the English travellers were nothing to be proud of. The climax occurred quite unexpectedly and didn’t focus on the character I thought was most affected by the journey.

‘The House in the Cerulean Sea’ -T.J. Klune

I’ve heard so much about this book over the last few years, but never quite felt like picking it up. What a fool! There may be an element of preaching to the converted, but this was such a beautiful story about finding your place and learning to accept difference.

Linus Barker is a rather uninspiring character. He lives alone with his cat, spends his days working for the Department in Charge of Magical Youth reviewing cases and monitoring the work of orphanages under their remit, and he has started eating salads in an attempt to shift his growing spare tire. When he is called to the upper floor by Extremely Upper Management nobody knows what to expect, but it begins a new chapter in Linus’s life.

He is charged with visiting Marsyas Island and reviewing the work taking place under the tutelage of Arthur Parnassus. Linus is taken aback by his first meeting with the six dangerous children, but comes to see them as individuals with their own redeeming qualities. 

While I found myself taken in by the messages about acceptance and desperately wanting everyone to read this so they can see the dangers of prejudice, I was completely entranced by the six children – all highly entertaining – and the adults surrounding them. A love story, a reminder to be strong and fight for those who need our protection and a plea to have the courage to love those who accept you for who you are and to enjoy family where you find it.

‘Chaos Theory’ – Nic Stone

Chaos Theory is the story of two very different young people who randomly meet, and who find themselves irrevocably changed by the encounter.

Andy has a drink problem. As a top student and son of a woman running for Congress, image is everything. But what people don’t know is what is hidden behind closed doors. As the story progresses we learn about Andy and what has led him to be driving drunk and crashing into a tree.

Shelbi knows of Andy but has few friends in school and keeps herself to herself, for good reason. When she lets people close, she gets hurt.

In spite of the barriers between these two, Andy and Shelbi get to know one another. Their friendship is something of a lifeline for each of them, and it was touching to see the way they tried to control things that were hard to control.

I don’t want to say more, as learning about these two and their situations as we progress through the story was instrumental in my enjoyment of the book. There were strands of the story that felt rather limited, though I can see how they filled their purpose. The insight into what both these teens experience is important, and it certainly encourages you to consider your own stance on how we treat people who are having issues with their mental health.

Thanks to NetGalley for giving me the chance to read and review this before publication.