One of Us is Lying by Karen M. McManus

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Published by Penguin, 1 June 2017, 368 pages, £5.99

4 stars

Penguin cleverly sent around press releases daring me NOT to like this book. They boldly claimed that there was not a single reader who disliked the book. So of course I had to accept the challenge, even though I knew it was a marketing bait. I knew that my weakness for high school murder mysteries (a la Pretty Little Liars) will guarantee a base interest. This novel has a bit of everything, intense sleuthing, teen drama and romance. Its attempts to handle darker elements like death and mental illness might be its one flaw.

This is one of the most exciting YA books I have read so far. Five different characters collide in one detention session, all with secrets. Like those who didn’t grow up in the American school system, I have a fondness for their (damaging) stereotypes: the brain, beauty queen, jock, drop-out and outcast. None of these students know why they had detention and at the end of it, Simon the outcast is dead. The rest of the group become suspects. With each day the police are increasingly determined to bring them down. And get this, Simon’s gossip blog continues to post, the topic being the famous four and their secrets. So who is determined to ruin their lives, some elusive stranger or one of them?

If I do say so myself, I had started to get an inkling of who the culprit was. But I do applaud the many twists and turns the plot leads you down. Despite their different worlds, the characters bond with motivating results. They shed their stereotype shells, help each other’s problems and embrace their real selves. There are transformations, society challenges and an additive unlikely romance. However, the story navigates shakily with the topic of depression. The illness was clumsily explained for the rage and revenge that fueled death. But I think the author means to highlight it as a condition partly caused by the school cliques and separations (ones that we in turn find so appealing) in which the main characters ultimately take apart.

Many thanks to Penguin for my review copy xxx

Pushing the Limits by Katie McGarry

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Published by Mira Ink 2012, 395 pages, £3.49

4.5 stars

It’s been a Katie McGarry week and I never want it to end. Thankfully, there are about five more (plus a novella) in this Pushing the Limits series. I have no idea why it has taken me so long to start it. The drama, passion and fiery energy the author brings to her characters warms me from each page. Unlike the Thunder Road series, there are no biker gangs, but focuses on domestic drama, bereavement and mental illness.

Echo and Noah are from two ends of the social spectrum (McGarry is at her best with opposite attraction). Echo was once popular girl, dance team member and on track for an art scholarship. But after the death of her older brother and a traumatic episode involving her mother, she becomes withdrawn and distant from everyone, hiding her inner and outer scars. She is also repressed by her controlling father and his new wife, who was embarrassingly her childhood babysitter.

Noah is the labeled ‘dodgy’ boy who sits at the back of class and lunch, involved with violence, drugs and hook-ups. After the death of his parents and the painful separation from his younger brothers, he has been through the mill of abusive foster care. He is someone who has given up on trust, especially from authority figures, and fights tooth and nail to get his brothers back. Both Echo and Noah’s days are filled with anger and silence. When a guidance councilor brings them together, their initial impression of each other- impressions created by gossip and stereotyping, gradually sift away to make room for their consuming attraction.

Their romance is so fierce, but the wounds from their problems are so raw, McGarry creates an exiting struggle of wanting and never wanting to be the characters. The plot is driven by the mystery of Echo’s memory, as she fails to remember the detail of her trauma. Echo’s mother suffers from bipolar disorder and she fears that she will also loose control and be accused of ‘craziness’. The story deals with the lack of understanding mental illnesses and how it is dealt with. As Echo’s memory comes back in fearful shards, she tries to loosen her father’s safety grips, while Noah does battle with society to reclaim his brothers. Everybody’s limits are tested as the characters challenge those that restrict them as well as pushing their inner scars to extremes. Long at times, the novel was an addictive whirlwind of fatal build-ups and made me look forward to my train journey after a trying day at work.

xxx

Long Way Home by Katie McGarry (Thunder Road #3) – and Red At Night (novella)

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Published by HQ, Feb 2017, 448 pages, £3.99

4.5 stars

Ever since Walk the EdgeI now seek Katie McGarry for addictive reads and fierce teen romances. This is the third book (hopefully not the last) in her Thunder Road series- think small town America, decaying diners and rival biker gangs. It’s necessary to read the earlier books as many events and characters are continued into this installment.

We follow the journey of Violet and Chevy, integral characters since the first book. They were childhood friends turned sweethearts, turned tense exes. After the death of her father, who was a member of ‘The Terror’ biker gang, Violet has had enough of the club who had been her home and family. Despite their vow to protect her, she wants nothing to do with them, their rules and way of life. The only problem is Chevy, her first love. He is devoted to the club, they mean family to him. A place where he belongs. And to prevent him from choosing between her and The Terror, Violet breaks it off with him, severing both their hearts.

The book opens with a chance meeting on an open road, which quickly turns into chaos when they are kidnapped by rival gang ‘The Riot’ and a plunged into a dangerous war between the two clubs. Mysteries of the past, secrets and betrayal spill out like heavy streams. Violet and Chevy try to navigate between these troubles whilst trying to control the flood of their own feelings for each other, which the author conveys so powerfully.

Violet and Chevy were not initially my favourite characters in the series, but McGarry encouraged my deep attachment to them. Her writing is punchy, honest and to the point. When a couple is confused about each other, it usually becomes tiring. This didn’t happen here. Passion pulsated out of each character’s thoughts and dialogue whether they were arguing or otherwise… Their relationship was continuous building, rather than a back-and-forth game.

This is the most dramatic book of the series, with a measured dose of danger and violence. The book also covers the sexist foundations of the club, which Violet challenges fiercely. Despite the club’s best intentions, Violet opens their eyes to double standards and unequal treatment. It is suggested that with her influence, Razor, Oz and Chevy are encouraged to become the new generation of the club, with a new set of rules. I think more could have been explored in this area as it transformed the book from a simple trouble-rescue plot to one about progression and change.

I need more Thunder Road books xxx

 

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Published by MIRA INK 2014, 83 pages, FREE

5 stars

As a free novella this is an amazing read. It had all the depth of a full length novel. Stella and Jonah are from different worlds. Stella is poor and has no choices in life than to drop out of school and take on a full-time job. Jonah is popular and college bound. He was part of a group of bullies who would torment her since she was young. Sometimes he laughed, sometimes he didn’t- still classified him as a bully. When a sudden accident and loss consumes him, he finds Stella as the only person who can help him. The two are drawn together with consequences and uplifting moments.

This novella is for charity and showcases The Goodie Two Shoes Foundation, which provides under-privileged children their own shoes of choice. It’s an inspiring cause that proves that something most people take for granted makes a huge difference to a child’s life and their future.

Caraval by Stephanie Garber

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A gem

Published by Hodder & Stoughton, 31st Jan 2017, 416 pages, £6.99

4.5 stars

Remember it’s only a game

I was very impressed with this absolute star of a debut. It’s juicy, mind-twiddling plot made me feel like I had entered one of my dreams. This is a story about Scarlett and Tella, two oppressed young sisters living in fear of their abusive father.  Ever since she was a child, Scarlett had wanted to join the spectacular show called ‘Caraval’. This is a once in a year mystery game where the audience take part, gathering clues and interacting with actors to solve it. This game is so popular that participants have to be invited to play by the elusive game-maker ‘Legend’, who is surrounded by a smog of rumours and scandals. The show also has a reputation of danger and excess when players become too involved and forget that it is all fake. There is also a connection with ‘Legend’ and Scarlett’s family and a secret involving the mother that left them-another reason why Scarlett longs to be closer to Caraval.

Scarlett’s long awaited invitation finally arrives, at a time when her father’s tyranny is on full steam. With the help of a dashing but strange sailor Tella befriended, they both manage to escape. But as soon as they arrive at ‘Caraval’, Tella goes missing. Scarlett soon discovers that her sister is the mystery of this season’s game, with Scarlett desperately wading through an unreal world to find her. As she becomes more involved in the game, she too believes in its reality. She begins to piece together links to her family history and fears for her sister’s life. As stabs of danger begin to threaten her, I also started to take the game seriously.

Julian, the mysterious sailor, is not only heroic, charming and kind. He is unpredictable, untrustworthy, which means he is undoubtedly exciting. He has an intensity and sensitiveness that irrevocably attracts Scarlett, despite her base instincts. He alone stays by her side throughout the game and becomes a pillar of support through the madness. However, the more Scarlett opens her heart to him, the stranger his character becomes and the more involved he is with the game.

The setting of ‘Caraval’ felt like a recurring sub-conscious about being lost or trying to find something that’s always out of reach. The author was spot on with the irrational trickling of time- sometimes speedy, sometimes painful, like walking through honey. Tella was always frustratingly in the distance but never fully seen. Events unfolded like a slow moving kaleidoscope with strange characters popping up and then melting away. This is by no means a chaotic sequence of plot. The author controls and contains the game enough to lure the reader with keyholes of revelation. But just when Scarlett gets close to unmasking a clue, it changes. It keeps morphing right to the ending sentence, just when we think the game is over, a new one has begun.

Can. not. wait. for. sequel.

Many thanks to Hodder for my review copy!

xxx

A Quiet Kind of Thunder by Sara Barnard

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Published by Macmillan, 12 Jan 2017, 320 pages, £4.00

4 stars

This was a very sweet story which I will remember for a while. A few months ago I read The Problem With Forever by Jennifer L. Armentrout, which was about a girl who had trouble speaking caused by trauma during an abusive childhood. That was when I realised the explosive power that rested in a story covering the topic of speech and the deep hold it had for me as a reader. As a naturally quiet person, as I am sure many readers are, I engaged with some of the mania and the injustice that shakes a character who is unable to express themselves through speech. Sara Barnard’s heroine, Steffi, is diagnosed as a selective mute with social anxiety. She begins the novel in silent but courageous agony against the mean girls, which was when I knew I was going immerse myself in her world.

The author’s writing flows very easily, her characters blossoming effortlessly that I had trouble switching off the kindle. You know you have a winner when you’re reaching for the book with just 5 empty minutes to fill. In fact, this book stole my attention from another, one that I was anticipating for a few months.

The MCs clicked well. Steffi is introduced to Rhys, a new student who is also deaf. She has been asked to look after him as she had some basic knowledge of sign language. They are immediately drawn to each other. Their romance isn’t as powerful as many of the current YAs out there, and especially if I am comparing it to The Problem with Forever. It was sweet and sensitive.

He thinks you’re sunshine.

Rhys is certainly an appealing, mature and witty love interest. The story focuses on happens after they share their first kiss and how they navigate themselves through a world that is clearly against their condition. When things get tough Steffi finds herself being pulled back into a internal wormhole that she suffers during the darker days of her uncontrollable silence. This book is about her being able to find light to pull herself out and the power of love certainly contributed.

Steffi and Rhys’ relationship wasn’t about finding a cure for Steffi, but more about two young hearts against the world as it would be for any pair strong willed teenagers whether they are deaf, mute or not.

Many thanks to Macmillan for a review copy xxx

Heartless by Marissa Meyer

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Published by Macmillan Children’s, 9th February 2017, 464 pages, £5.59

3 Stars

I was so excited when I got my ARC of this, but unfortunately I did not enjoy it as much as hoped. I read the entire Lunar Chronicles this summer and it blew me away, bumping Marissa Meyer up as one of my favourite authors. The premise of Heartless seemed interesting enough- an origin story of the Queen of Hearts from Alice in Wonderland. I’m not a huge Lewis Caroll fan. I love the Jabberwock poem, but I haven’t read Alice in Wonderland in years and I vaguely remember the Disney movie. So I haven’t been interested in reading Caroll adaptations in the past. I was only reading this because of the author. I thought it was going to be like Fairest, the origin story of the evil Queen Levana in the Lunar Chronicles, tragic and fascinating.

Before she became a blood thirsty loon, Catherine Pinkerton was once a young vivacious woman who dreamed of opening her own bakery. But being the daughter of nobility, she was forced into a marriage with the tiny air-headed King of Hearts who was unfortunately besotted with her. She meets Jest, the King’s new mysterious court entertainer, who introduces her to new ideas, worlds, and most importantly, freedom. They enter a secret romance despite the inevitable danger. Meanwhile the Kingdom is being terrorised by vicious monsters with no hope of being vanquished.

I was quickly enchanted by Meyer’s world building which was beautifully and cleverly written. Magic, wonder and intrigue filled each description, from lemon trees that grow from dreams to dancing lobsters. There are so many allusions to Caroll’s creation, which was a nice unearthing of my childhood memories. Familiar and new characters slip in together naturally. Catherine is a very passionate and warm character. Her struggle for independence, which evokes Victorian female oppression, is very endearing.

However, I’m afraid this is where my interest ends. My reading of this book took two months, way longer than I anticipated. Instead of racing through to the end as I did the Lunar Chronicles, I kept getting distracted by other books. I had to ask myself why it almost went into a slump pile, despite having so much promise? I think at the end of the day, when you take away all the beautiful (and sometimes heavy) descriptions, which is primarily adapted from other works, you are left with a singular story line: a young girl with a dream who is forced to abandon it. I’m not saying this story is too simple, but in this case it doesn’t survive. The romance between Catherine and Jest developed too slowly and just wasn’t strong enough. This resulted in the shift in Catherine’s character at the dreaded ending being quite displaced.

Perhaps it belongs to more devoted Caroll fans. The only reason I am not giving it 2.5 stars is because of the beautiful writing which is undeniably impressive. I will, of course, still look forward to more of Marissa Meyer’s work.

 

 

 

Holding up the Universe by Jennifer Niven

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Season Greetings

Published by Penguin, April 2016, 391 pages, £3.99

3.5 stars

This is another precious story from Jennifer Niven. I was a little apprehensive, because I saw some mixed reviews. If you were an avid worshipper of All the Bright Places (who wouldn’t be), you would also enjoy this, but it isn’t of the same calibre. We can all agree All the Bright Places is an incredibly special and powerful story. Holding up the Universe is just as endearing, but lighter. It will touch you, but won’t knock you out.

Again, Niven hands to us two stellar characters with moving problems. Libby is a girl who used to be ‘America’s Fattest Teen’ and had to be cut out of her house and hospitalized. After years of isolation and recovery, she returns to high school and tries to get her life back on track. When I say ‘recovery’, I don’t mean that she becomes sparkly thin and all is well. She has reached a size where most still call over-weight, but she is comfortable, has climbed over her eating disorder and doesn’t plan on losing anymore. She continued to surprise me. Her rock hard integrity and courage, the way she stands up for herself when the trolls inevitably descend, demands respect. She is a natural friend to the reader and at times I found myself laughing with her. Niven addresses all the dimensions of weight-shaming and bullying with clarity and taste. This is obviously someone who understands that moment when you are confronted with a dark irrational force of hate, or people who are just plain shitty.

Jack is a boy who seems to cruising through high school smoother than most. He’s popular, has the on-off girlfriend others fear, and is friends with the loud guys. He is fairly fetching, as fictional boys go. His fierce determination and confidence switching to tenderness at perfect moments echo Finch, but unfortunately doesn’t outshine him nor exist solidly on its own.

His story begins with trouble for making out with his girlfriend’s cousin. It was dark, he was drunk, he wasn’t ‘technically’ attached and ‘boys will be boys’ right? The problem is, he really could not recognise whether it was his girlfriend or not. Jack has face-blindness, a condition I never knew existed and feel so enlightened that Niven has introduced me to it. Realising what he had when he was younger, Jack has tried to live with it and put up a fake bravado. I wondered why he never wanted to share his problem, but then realised it came from a scarier, deeper rooted issue of mistrust and fear in his society:

Better to be the hunter than hunted.

Soon, Jack’s walls of survival begin to crumble, and a secret of his father’s threatens to shake the bonds even more. It is clear he is entirely alone until he runs into Libby. A cruel joke brings them crashing together, and finally he begins to let down his guard. The two connect in a satisfying way. Their relationship developed very quickly for those who hate frustrating teases, but I wish there was more of a crackling tension. Unfortunately, their romance falls a little flat at the end where the plot was in need of harsher conflict and a swoonier reunion.

But the way Niven writes is amazing – her prose is scattered with pockets of soul-affirming dreams and hopes, but also whirl-pools of endless darkness. This isn’t just a story about weight and cognitive disorder, it’s about alienation, trust and acceptance. We dance with the characters, struggle with them, and strive with them to achieve wholeness and enough strength to hold up a universe.

Chasing the Stars by Malorie Blackman

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Published by Penguin, April 21st 2016, 496 pages, £5.99

3.5 Stars

Ever since I read a positive review in Guardian Books a few months ago, I had wanted to get my hands on a copy.  A teen spin on Othello set in space really it hit the right note. It had a tall order, so I was curious to see if it lived up to the challenge.

Unfortunately, the beginning almost put me off. Why oh why does the Asian friend have to be a plant geek?? And the dated slang made me cringe- ‘fit’, ‘out of order’. To the non-Brits, I had heard these words when I was in high-school, ten years ago. And the universal post-apocalyptic greeting was ‘Nihao’ which I found unoriginal and slightly offensive. I know it was meant to be profound but we get it the Chinese might be taking over... But thankfully there wasn’t too much of this and the cliche character didn’t feature very often, so I was able to ignore him. I concentrated on the rest of the book which I turned out to be quite thrilling and thought-provoking.

Olivia and her twin brother Aidan have lost their family from a deadly virus and are travelling alone back to Earth. They spot some people in a zone controlled by the Mazon, a cruel and violent species who are determined to destroy anything foreign, especially humans. This is the first time Olivia has had any contact with other people for three lonely years. She is determined to help them, despite Aidan’s caution. But when they join her ship, things get uncontrollably sticky. For one thing they were running away from Earth and ‘The Authority’ which is its supreme ruler and refuse to explain anything. This suggests that there all may not be as it seems for the home Olivia is returning to. Despite Olivia’s help, a few members fail to recognise her as captain because of her being a teenage girl. As they are still within Mazon territory, they have to work together until the threat passes. But throughout the journey, members mysteriously die. Blackman kept me guessing the whole time who the murderer was. I love a good whodunnit.

Olivia instantly develops a bond with Nathan, the son of their leader. Their relationship may have happened a little fast, but I found it convincing and warming. I was quite surprised at how steamy the scenes were, so it is only suited for older teens and above. Aidan becomes naturally jealous of them, but there is something odd about him as well- something else I wanted to get to the bottom of. I really admired Olivia’s character. She is someone who places integrity as a priority, reacts quickly to disaster and is strong in resisting discrimination. Nathan is more of a standard love interest who is handsome, athletic and passionate.

There are many compelling conflicts all leading to the issue of prejudice and equality: the Mazon and their racial hatred, the Authority and its class system, the ageism and sexism towards Olivia. Blackman cleverly plots these topics into a slightly cheesy teen romance, transforming it into a novel essentially about what it means to be human.

This worked as a stand alone novel, but I really hope there is a sequel.

The Secret Letters by Catherine Law

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Published by Zaffre, Oct 2016, 377 pages, £3.99

”A heart-breaking tale of love and loss”- heart-breaking indeed.

Elderly Rose Pepper finds a few unopened letters by her long lost love hidden between the floorboards. She is forced to relive her past and confront the secrets she has kept from her two adult daughters. What we know from the start is that she had lived in Prague straight after the war but had to leave her beloved Krystof behind once communist forces began to take control. We also know that her two daughters have different fathers. Her youngest belongs to Krystof, but her eldest is from Will, a man they all agree to hate. If this is not the great secret then what is? And whatever happened to Krystof?

The rest of the book tells the story from the start, we meet a young Rose heading off to work as a land girl in Cornwall. She is engaged to Will, an older man who her parents adore. He is controlling, tempestuous and she struggles to break off the engagement. The only thing giving her hope is the chance to move away from them all and immerse herself into the countryside. The work is harsh and the people she lives with are also rough but good-natured deep down. Rose is someone you can feel slowly growing in strength and confidence. However, I did find her inability to leave Will, not just in their relationship but as a figure who dominates her life, very frustrating. This insecurity carries on throughout the rest of the novel with great consequences.

Will was a piece of work. I do admire authors who can create characters you loathe as much as ones you love. I cannot imagine any reader not hating him with a passion. So when Krystof arrives, he was like a ray of soft sunlight. Gentlemanly, sensitive and witty, Rose falls deeply for him. But dark shadows were constantly threatening their short-lived passion. The plot becomes more gripping and there was a nervous point where I thought everything was going to crumble. As the story moves to Prague, we get a temporary spell of happiness as the couple reunites, but punctuated by increasingly dark events from the communist army. As we knew from the start, Rose had to leave and then we return to her elderly self. When she finally opens the letters it was more of a confirmation than a revelation. I felt overwhelmingly sad and wished for something a little more uplifting. If you want a tear-jerker this is the one.

For more on Catherine Law check out her tips on beating writer’s block!

Many thanks to Zaffre for my review copy

XXX

How To Beat Writer’s Block by Catherine Law

 

Catherine Law is the bestselling author of Map of Starsa tear-jerking wartime romance for fans of Kathryn Hughes and Leah Fleming. Her latest novel The Secret Letters was just published last week by Zaffre (review to follow). Set in WW2 England and Communist Prague, it promises another heart-breaking story of love, hope, lies and buried secrets.

She’s here to give her tips on how to conquer the formidable beast that is writer’s block…

 

When the writing stops…

All writers have been there at some time or another. But what do I do when inspiration fails, when I’m wading through the frustrating and scary depths of dreaded writer’s block? I find that half the battle is recognising that I have it. A fog of general dissatisfaction seems to creep up on me. Symptoms include lack of confidence, very lazy writing, and a tendency to find other things to do, such as cleaning the leaves of a houseplant with a wet wipe and checking in to Buzzfeed to divert a few more of my brain cells away from the path that they are supposed to be taking. Hands up, who feels that the pesky distractions of the internet have become such an annoying and common phenomenon?

When I was writing my first novel, A Season of Leaves back in 2008 (to be re-issued as an e-book on 6 October 2016 with the new title The Secret Letters), I did not have to struggle against these disruptions. I’d never heard of Facebook, WhatsApp, Twitter or Instagram. I got about one email a day. And I did not have all these icons right there on my computer desktop alongside my Word document – I still had dial-up, for goodness sake!

Was my head clearer then? Was writing easier? Did inspiration strike more often? When I think back, I was at a different, much earlier place on my learning curve, my long journey as a writer. And I hope that, over the years, the more I have written, the better I have become, developing my skills all the time. So, despite the interference of the modern digital-age, my creative process remains the same.

But if I realise that I’m plunging into a well of non-creativity, while trying not to panic, I do something else creative, something else that will feed my imagination, often in an unlikely way. Here’s a mini check list that works for me:

  • Read books outside of your genre.
  • Listen to music – comforting favourites or something fresh and new.
  • Watch films, really good stirring modern classics, such as The English Patient or Atonement, or something fun like Bridesmaids or Bridget Jones and laugh that block away.
  • Do a practical – and quite mindless – task, such as clearing out cupboards or something more creative like the decorating.
  • Go for long walks and if you can, reconnect with nature. Stand in a wood or on a beach and just listen.
  • Stay away from your lap top and try to let your mind drift to allow your imagination to click back in to gear.
  • And, still avoiding the lap top, sit down with pen and paper and force yourself to work through the problem, whether it is that there is something wrong with the plot or the characters.
  • Finally, treat yourself. Sometimes all it needs is a nice cup of tea and a bar of chocolate.

It goes without saying that social media is the killer of creativity, so I do try to resist the urge to constantly check it. My best time for writing is very early in the morning, so I set aside a portion of the end of the day for all the emails, posts and tweets that demand my attention, and help to get my work out there.

By the way, I recently downloaded an app that was supposed to block the internet from my computer as and when I wanted it to. But I found it too tricky and time-consuming to use, which was not part of the plan at all. I got so annoyed with it for constantly sending me emails, that it had to go! I’ll just have to stick with good old-fashioned discipline and self-control.

 

CATHERINE LAW  was born in Harrow, Middlesex in 1965 and has been a journalist for twenty-two years, having trained first as a secretary at the BBC and then attending the London College of Printing. She now works on a glossy interiors magazine and lives in Buckinghamshire.

 

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A truth buried for over forty years.
A love that lasted a lifetime.

Rose Pepper has kept her wartime past a secret for decades. Forty years ago, she fled communist Prague and left behind the love of her life.

Now in her sixties and with two daughters, Rose discovers a bundle of unopened letters sent to her by her lost love, hidden beneath her home. Confronted with the possibility of facing up to her past, she decides it’s finally time to go back to where her story began and uncover the truth buried for so long in Prague . . .