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‘Tunnel of Bones’ – Victoria Schwab

Having survived her trip into the veil last time, Cassidy’s parents are – understandably – concerned for her welfare. They urge her to take care, but this is Cassidy Blake so we know things aren’t going to remain settled.

This time round the family are visiting Paris for their show. Unfortunately, Cass disturbed the spirit of a young boy who starts to cause trouble for her. After her usual attempts to help the spirit move on fail, Cassidy realises she has to do more.

The quest to work out how to remove the poltergeist ensures Cassidy encounters some unexpected events and finds herself seeing a very different side to Paris.
We have the usual account of her parents’ show but I loved that we get to learn a little more about Jacob.

The story was well-paced and just the right side of scary. What I particularly enjoyed was the ending, with the mysterious figure causing a very unusual reaction in Cassidy which – I’m hoping – we’ll be told more about in book 3.

‘Maybe This Time’ – Kasie West

Nine events throughout the year. How much difference can a person make in that time? Is it enough to allow someone to fall in love? It’s a Kasie West romance, so you know it’s a pretty safe bet that the answer is yes.

One of our main characters in this is Sophie: a small-town girl with big dreams. Her hackles raise when she comes across Andrew, son of a celebrity chef signed up to help her best friend’s father turn his catering business around. They have quite an obvious attraction but wind each other up.

Throughout the year we spot their interactions at key moments in their town calendar. Sophie spends these occasions determined to avoid the inevitable, but also showing chinks in her defensive armour. Alongside watching her bumble through these at times humorous exchanges, we watch as Sophie has to learn a little about herself and her relationships with those around her.

This was a cute romance, which is rather obvious, but the interaction between the characters is amusingly relayed. Good cast of supporting characters and I liked the fact that not everything got resolved by the end.

‘Stepsister’ – Jennifer Donnolly

When I first started Stepsister I was hesitant, wondering quite where the story would go.

We begin with a well-known scenario, that of the prince trying to find the owner of the glass slipper. We watch a mother desperate to secure safety for her children force not just one but two of her daughters to mutilate themselves in an attempt to win the prince’s hand. Each time, their deception is uncovered. Yet in this story we see that the two sisters are unwilling partners in this deception. They succumb to their mother’s wishes because it’s what is expected of them. As in the fairytale, our forgotten put-upon stepsister gets her prince and leaves.
In this story, however, we remain with those left behind.

The characters of Tavi and Isabelle do not fit the conventional view of a woman. Tavi is obsessed with knowledge, and desires nothing more than to discover something. Isabelle has rather lost her way, knowing only that she wants something that society deems she cannot have. Bound by the expectations of others she subjugates her wishes in an attempt to do the right thing by her family.

I found myself amazed by the very sympathetic portrayal given to characters we’re encouraged to dislike. This feeling only grew as the story unravelled.
Though I was perplexed by this element initially, we have the characters of Fate and Chance playing their own game. Meddling with the lives of Isabelle and her family, each wants to leave their mark.

Without giving anything away, this was a story that showed us a girl full of character slowly learning to love herself and resolve to have confidence in her own desires. Dressed up as a fairytale retelling this was a dark feminist call-to-arms that I would strongly recommend.

A huge thank you to NetGalley for allowing me to read this prior to publication in exchange for my honest thoughts. I’m still gushing!

‘Impossible Causes’ – Julie Mayhew

This is a tricky one to review, and it is certainly a book that was difficult to really get into for some time. However, by the end I was gripped and can certainly see the parallels with something like The Crucible.

Our story takes place on the remote island of Lark. We focus on the narration by Leah, a teacher on the island, who is privy to many of the secrets of the island but who seems rather detached from everything. This sense of ‘otherness’ does become important later on, as it explains why Leah acts as she does.

The island of Lark is cut off from the mainland, physically unreachable for six months of the year. So it is of great interest when an outsider, Ben Hailey, comes to the island to teach.

He – and, as a result, we – comes to learn of the superstitions regarding what are referred to as the Eldest Girls. There are three girls aged 16 who, now, are given what seems like carte blanche to act as they like. There is talk of witchcraft and odd behaviour, but it is what has always been and people turn a blind eye. The inclusion of new girl Viola seems to act as a catalyst for the behaviour to escalate.
Before too long we get told of a dead body and people start to talk about what is happening. As things become more personal for Leah, the ‘new arrivals’ force the villagers to confront what is happening under their eyes.

Initially this seemed to be going in one direction and it was a little hard to follow. Details were vague, but as we learn the truth of Lark it seems there is a reason for this vagueness. By the end, when the true horror of Lark’s dark secret was revealed, I really wasn’t sure what to make of it. Chilling, and definitely worth a look. Thanks to NetGalley for allowing me the opportunity to read this prior to its scheduled November publication.

‘Little Darlings’ – Melanie Goulding

Little Darlings is a curious read, and I don’t know whether to describe it as a psychological thriller or a paranormal mystery. It’s ambiguity leaves the reader rather nonplussed at the end, but it’s a read that forces you to keep going to try and puzzle it out.

Lauren Tranter has just given birth to twins. Sleep deprived, without a support network and full of doubt, she is struggling. While in hospital she thinks she hears a woman singing to twins. However, her children are the only twins in the hospital. Another night she believes the same woman has tried to abduct her twins. She locks herself in a hospital toilet and calls the police. There’s no evidence of anyone else having been in the hospital.

Eventually let home Lauren retreats into herself. She stays at home, full of doubt about her capabilities. Her husband is beyond rubbish – insisting on catching up on sleep during the day as the twins have kept him awake, and begrudging Lauren asking for a drink – and complains that she’s not taking control of stuff. Concerned for her welfare, or sulking because he actually isn’t the most important thing in her life? We’re not sure.

After a week or so, Lauren decides to try and get out for a walk. Things seem to be going well. Then she sits at a bench, falls asleep and wakes to find her babies missing. After a frantic police hunt the twins are found, by a woman who seems to have been having a relationship with Lauren’s husband, and Lauren is convinced her twins have been exchanged.

Interspersed with this narrative we have Harper, a member of the police who goes above and beyond to work out what’s happening. Her approach was unlikely, and yet it offers credence to the paranormal element of this story.

By the end there were signs that there was nothing mysterious about this at all. Lauren simply had a deeply immature and unpleasant husband, and she was mentally ill. The resolution of the narrative didn’t offer much hope, and left me feeling rather short-changed.

Thanks to NetGalley for letting me read this and offer my thoughts in exchange for an ARC.

‘Crossfire’ – Malorie Blackman

I still recall the excitement I felt when I first picked up Noughts and Crosses. Five books in, some familiar faces, and it still had me gripped. Thank you to NetGalley for allowing me to read this before publication.

Crossfire focuses on some pretty hard-hitting events while also allowing us to get a little closer to our characters.

We have Callie, now 30, a lawyer preparing to be a judge. She still regrets her behaviour as a teenager when she let jealousy get the better of her. Her feelings for her boyfriend Tobey were complicated, but even more so now. Tobey is about to become the first Nought Prime Minister, but he is accused of murdering a well-known businessman thought to have underground links. He wants Callie to represent him.

Tied into this story are the characters of Libby and Troy. Libby has lived her life surrounded by hatred and contempt. She gets some rather unexpected news, but isn’t prepared for what that brings. Troy is Callie’s much younger brother. His family links also place him in danger. When the two students are kidnapped we can’t help but wonder how much family ties will bind people to a decision.
Set against a background of rising racist behaviour, we get a stark reflection of contemporary society. As always, this series tells some unpalatable truths.

‘SLAY’ – Brittney Morris

Thank you NetGalley for giving me the opportunity to read something way out of my comfort zone, which I can see having a pretty big impact when it’s released towards the end of September 2019.

Kiera is an honours student and seems pretty certain where things are going. She and her boyfriend have plans for college and the future. But she has a secret that she doesn’t feel comfortable sharing. She has designed and co-created a digital world where members can form a community…a game called SLAY.

Fed up with the abuse she suffered playing other on-line games, Kiera has taught herself what’s needed to create a whole new world. In this world, black game players don’t have to worry about online trolling and racist abuse. The moves they can use are part of black culture, and Kiera sees this as her safe space. Somewhere she can explore who she is, without being worried she is being judged.

Though the game seems to have come from a well-intentioned place, events somewhat take over and it’s suggested that Kiera has been a little naive. A young boy who plays her game is killed in real life and at the heart of his killing is an in-game dispute. Kiera feels responsible, and so many voices start to point the finger.

When someone hiding behind the handle ‘DRED’ finds their way into the game, Kiera has to come up with something special to show her intent. An interesting way to explore race and attitudes to race. I didn’t really get all the gaming talk, but the issues it examined were definitely compelling.

There’s no easy answers to some of the questions posed in the book, but it serves as another attempt to initiate discussion and certainly a different way into it.

‘Confessions’ – Kanae Minato

How far would you go to get revenge? In this, we see the depths someone is prepared to plunge to in their quest to avenge something done to them.

The opening chapter sets up a terrible situation. A teacher stands in front of her class to explain why she is retiring, to explain how the death of her daughter earlier in the school year has affected her and to make the revelation that the death was not – as found – accidental, but murder and committed by two students in the class. Having outlined what seems to be a truly horrifying scenario, the teacher calmly outlines the way she has set about getting her revenge.

At this point we move into shorter chapters, each told from a different perspective, that provide us with further information about what happened/what led to it and the after-effects. I was still reeling from the opening and yet found myself compelled to try to work out what was going on.

Throughout, I was struck by the restrained narrative style and the attempts to justify certain actions were certainly interesting. However, the final moments turned everything on their head and made me reevaluate certain characters/ their actions.

An unusual read, and one I wouldn’t have picked up were it not for a recommendation from an online group. Definitely worth reading.

‘What’s A Girl Gotta Do? – Holly Bourne

The third in The Spinster Club series so you know what to expect…and Bourne doesn’t disappoint.
The word ‘feminism’ has, too often, come to seem like an insult. Even with the things that have changed since this book was published, some of the attitudes explored within are deeply ingrained. What is wrong with wanting to call out people if their attitudes/views challenge the way we think about gender?
The book focuses on Lottie, still determined to get her place in Cambridge and still more than a little intimidating. When she is sexually harassed on her way to college it sparks a new project. Fed up with the little things – and when we read them it’s terrifying just how common some of these still are – Lottie decides to spend a month calling out examples of sexism.
It’s a project that garners support and vitriol in equal measure. It highlights how awful people can be, but it also asks us to examine just how far we’ll be pushed before we decide to make a stand for what we think is right.
This series deserves to be pushed into the hands of all. It might do nothing more than get people talking. But you have to start somewhere…

‘Scars Like Wings’ – Erin Stewart

It’s not often I thank people for reducing me to tears. In this case, it’s thoroughly deserved. So, thank you to Erin Stewart via NetGalley for making me sniffle in public in a way I wasn’t expecting to.

I went into this story expecting it to be a very earnest read about how we treat survivors, expecting to find it all too much. What I got was a brutally honest exploration coming-of-age story that just happened to have a burns survivor as its main character.

Ava has not had it easy. Caught in a house fire a year before the book opens, she has had countless surgeries and has endured numerous grafts to help her recovery. She can just about bear to look in the mirror, but misses the fact that all anyone sees when they look at her is her scars. Having lost her parents and cousin in the fire, Ava now lives with her aunt and uncle. All of them are struggling to adjust to their new reality.

There’s a line quite late on in the book that is used on the cover. It reminds us that everyone has scars, some are just easier to see and that really sums up the message of this book for me. As teenagers the characters in this book are finding out who they are, feeling their way in life and trying to work out how to move on from their own individual shortcomings. Just some of them have more obvious barriers to this process.

I’m not a particular fan of musicals but the part these play in Ava’s development make perfect sense. It’s only a small thing, but having the courage to get up on stage and reclaim something she loved so much shows how much she’s moved on during the story.

The friendships in the book are crucial to its success. Ava and Ashad develop a bond that hints at more, but he sees her for who she is. Her friendship with fellow burns survivor Piper isn’t always positive, but its honesty was really encouraging. On occasion I was concerned it was rather mentally and emotionally unhealthy, but I don’t know how much of this was down to the situation these characters were in. There were plenty of ups and downs in their friendship, but they are good together.