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‘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.

‘Normal People’ – Sally Rooney

When Connell and Marianne first meet they are in school, and their lives are worlds apart. There is, however, an attraction between them and though nothing is ever shared with classmates they start a relationship (of sorts).

Each is messed up in their own way. They’re lost and wanting something. Neither really knows what, but we watch them go through time in this on/off relationship.

At varying times each finds someone else. Through university the pair maintain this relationship, but as we learn more about their backgrounds some of their quirks become a little more understandable.

Perhaps this will resonate with some, but I found the self-consciousness of the writing a little off-putting and it was, at heart, quite a miserable read. I can see how the soul-searching might appeal to some, but life is too short to waste on such a miserable situation.

‘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.

‘Ghost Boys’ – Jewell Parker Rhodes

Our narrator, twelve year old Jerome, is another voice to add to the list of young black boys killed because of their race.

Bullied in school, Jerome is a good kid who tries to do the right thing. He befriends new boy Carlos, even though it looks like it will bring him problems. He could never predict just how serious these will get.

When the school bullies start picking on Carlos one lunchtime he pulls out a gun. It’s a toy, but realistic enough to scare them off. Wanting to give his new friend thanks for the support, Carlos offers Jerome the toy to play with. Jerome’s decision to take it, and go out on the street to play with it, costs him his life.
The killing of Jerome at the hands of a white police officer happens early on. We’re spared the worst details, but the subsequent preliminary hearings tell us enough to know this was an unjustified action, probably an act brought about by prejudice and totally avoidable.

Jerome’s story is told in two timeframes. The flashbacks to record the last moments of his life and what led to that point, and the present now he is dead.
He can be seen by the daughter of the man who shot him. This allows the author to examine attitudes to race and to raise some of the pertinent issues linked to cases such as this throughout history. Rhodes introduces her readers to names that will, sadly, be all too familiar to many.

A quick read that should resonate with readers, though the sense of injustice and anger you’re likely to feel as you read the book – and the knowledge that it’s not likely to change – is infuriating. Nobody should live their life like this. Nobody should have to experience this horror. Nobody should let such attitudes continue unchallenged.

Given to me by our school librarian this is a great book for younger readers who are, perhaps, not quite ready for the more developed political stance of books such as The Hate You Give.

‘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.

‘A Very Large Expanse of Sea’ – Tahereh Mafi

It’s 2002, a year after 9/11, and Shirin has just started at yet another new high school. It’s an extremely turbulent time politically, but especially so for a sixteen-year-old Muslim girl who’s tired of being stereotyped. Shirin is never surprised by how horrible people can be. She’s tired of the rude stares, the degrading comments – even the physical violence she endures as a result of her race, her religion, and the hijab she wears every day.

Shirin drowns her frustrations in music and spends her afternoons break-dancing with her brother. But then she meets Ocean James. He’s the first person in forever who really seems to want to get to know her. It terrifies her -they seem to come from two irreconcilable worlds – and Shirin has had her guard up against the world for so long that she’s not sure she’ll ever be able to let it down.

A book that makes you laugh, cry, rail against prejudice and many other emotions besides.

Shirin is used to moving around. She does her best not to be noticed, but as a Muslim teenager who wears the hijab she’s used to being seen and judged. Given that this novel is set not long after the 09/11 attacks, it’s inevitable that we’ll be forced to confront some pretty unpleasant behaviour and attitudes.

While the novel focuses on Shirin’s religion and how people treat her because of their assumptions about her, it is predominantly a love story.

Accustomed to being ignored or asked insulting questions, Shirin is bemused when her lab partner Ocean takes an interest in her. The pair of them together were awkward at times, but I was rooting for them from the off. Even more so when Shirin realises the one boy she gets a crush on is the high school basketball golden boy, and their relationship will bring all sorts of issues.

I think it’s safe to say this is a book I would highly recommend, and would be surprised if someone didn’t end up captivated by it. I’m particularly keen to see how those who enjoyed ‘The Hate U Give’ by Angie Thomas find it.

‘This Child of Ours’ – Sadie Pearse

Thank you to NetGalley for providing me with a topical and thought-provoking read.

Riley is seven and a strong character. At the start of the book a long time is spent showing us how cosy and (dare I say it) comfortably middle-class her parents are. They were even a little irritating. However, when she announces that she wants to be a boy, so many things are questioned and the parents veer into unknown territory.

Do they support Riley in what is expressed, or, at seven, should they keep things ‘normal’ until their child is older and better able to understand the consequences of their actions?

There’s no escaping that this has no answers. Who’s to say what you do for the best in such a situation? I’m sure some readers will be outraged that the parents take the actions they do and others will be horrified by the bigoted response of certain characters.

I don’t think this is something anyone expects to deal with, but it was certainly something that encouraged me to look at a range of views and consider why each felt as they did. I felt that Riley’s behaviour at the end made it all rather easy and I don’t think some of these experiences would go as they do in the novel. Still, a timely look at a subject that many will have strong views on.

‘The Roanoke Girls’ – Amy Engel

A tricky book to review as so much about it is horrid – subject matter, characters and the environment described – but it is done in a way that draws you in.

Lane is a teenager when she first goes to Roanoke to live with her grandparents and cousin, Allegra. Upset from the suicide of her mother Lane struggles to feel comfortable in this new environment, but she seems to blossom under the care of her grandfather, the attention of her cousin and the excitement of her relationship with local bad boy, Cooper.

When we meet Lane she is an adult, and has not been to Roanoke for some years. We don’t know why, but over time we get some answers. They’re hard to read, particularly as we unearth some of the mysteries surrounding the infamous Roanoke girls. Alongside this we have the mystery of Lane’s disappearance.

I don’t want to reveal too much of the book as it’s definitely more impactful if you don’t know what’s coming. The characters – even our main character – are not likeable and yet I came to like Lane more as I realised what she’d loved with/the background to her story.