It doesn’t look as though there’s going to be another D.I. Ray Drake novel for a while, so I’ve decided to tell you my thoughts about the first two books in this series in this quick series review post. I’d like to say a huge …
Tag: book reviews
For today’s Blogtober post, I’ve decided to challenge myself to another round of #10in20. In this challenge, you write 10 books in 20 minutes, meaning you have only two minutes to write as much as you can about each book you review. This was a …
In September I did things a little bit differently because it was Bookoplathon (hosted by Becca and the Books). I pulled five books out of my TBR jar as normal, but ended up pulling another two books out of the jar throughout the month when I landed on the ‘randomize your TBR’ prompt.
Rather than giving those two books their own post, I thought I’d combine them all together in here (particularly because I failed to read both The Legend of the Light Keeper by Kelly Hall and The Words That Fly Between Us by Sarah Carroll, both of which I’m hoping to get read in October, so this post would have been quite short if it had only featured three book reviews!).
So, without further ado, here are my thoughts on the five books I pulled out of my TBR jar and actually managed to get read in September.
The Dark Light by Julia Bell – 1 star
I was planning on reading The Dark Light in a couple of months as part of a ‘reading the ten lowest books on my TBR’ challenge, but alas, I pulled it out of the jar and had no choice but to read it in September.
The Dark Light is a dual perspective story following Alex and Rebekah. Alex is a rebellious girl who is in trouble with the police after setting fire to the home of a girl who had been bullying her. Alex’s foster parents agree that she needs to be rehabilitated, so they send her to a religious community on an island, where Alex meets Rebekah, who has lived on the island for her entire life. Rebekah soon finds herself developing feelings for Alex, and she begins to wonder if there’s more to life than the little community she is a part of.
When the leader of the group starts claiming that the rapture is coming soon both girls become desperate to escape and to live their lives to the fullest before moving on to Heaven, but things don’t go smoothly.
I was apprehensive about reading The Dark Light after reading Julia Bell’s other novel, Massive. I ranted about it at length and pretty much decided I’d never read another one of her books, completely forgetting that I had The Dark Light on my NetGalley already. Oops.
Somehow, this book is even worse than Bell’s debut.
The main problem with it is its length. Coming in at under 300 pages, it’s impossible to emotionally connect to the characters because they are severely underdeveloped. If the story had only been told from one of their viewpoints it may have been more impactful, but the dual narrative was wholly unnecessary.
All of the events are rushed, even from the first page. Alex committing arson takes place in the space of a couple of paragraphs, and what could have been a really powerful opening is instead totally confusing (and not in an intriguing, unputdownable kind of way…). The same thing happens at the end of the novel: all of the dramatic, cataclysmic events happen in one or two chapters, and it leaves you feeling completely unsatisfied.
On top of the rushing, the character development is unrealistic. Rebekah has lived her entire life surrounded by this community, believing that the rapture is real and its coming will be the best day of her life, so for her to abandon all of her beliefs for a girl she has literally just met makes no sense.
The relationship between Rebekah and Alex is also very frustrating: they develop feelings for each other as soon as they meet, despite the fact that they’ve hardly spoken, and their feelings cause them both to morph into entirely different people which couldn’t happen that quickly. The events of The Dark Light only seemed to take a week at most, but opening your mind to religious ideas when you’ve always been an atheist – or turning your back on the beliefs that you’ve had ingrained in you since the day you were born – just would not happen that fast.
Don’t even get me started on the ending. Man, it had me raging. If I’d been reading a physical copy of the book I would have thrown it across the room, no question. I’d definitely recommend skipping this one.
Awake by Natasha Preston – 1 star
Awake was very similar to The Dark Light, in all the worst ways. Featuring a girl who is kidnapped and taken to a cult to be the sacrifice which will allow all of the other members to go to Heaven – the same cult she was stolen from to save her life when she was a child – it looks like September was the month for me to read awful books about unhinged religious communities.
I had so many problems with Awake that I can’t even be bothered to write a proper review, so here are some bullet points:
- the two perspectives are written identically, and it’s impossible to tell whether you’re reading from Scarlett or Noah’s viewpoint if you take a break halfway through a chapter
- how old is Scarlett? She’s been missing her memories for a decade, but she’s only forgotten everything before her 4th birthday, so she should be 14… But she’s referred to as both 15 and 16 as well. Huh???
- why didn’t Scarlett’s parents change their names when they escaped from the Eternal Light in the first place? It can’t be that hard to find two people called Jonathan and Marissa with their children, Scarlett and Jeremy. They’ve been moving around the country to escape the Eternal Light, so why the hell didn’t they change their names at least once?!
- who can actually remember anything before they were 4? I sure as hell can’t. Does that mean I was supposed to be a sacrifice for a cult and my parents aren’t actually my parents? The premise is just so painfully flimsy
- UGH THE INSTALOVE
- I mean it’s awful
- HONESTLY SO BAD
- Noah is new to the school and UTTERLY CREEPY and Scarlett falls head over heels in love with him, tells him her tragic backstory within a couple of hours of knowing him, starts fantasizing about what it’ll be like when they’re married and living together, all within the first couple of weeks of knowing him. Cringe.
- the writing is horrible. I can’t remember reading such a bland, boring book before. The main character is about to get sacrificed and I’m here yawning and just wanting it to be over. It’s impossible to emotionally connect to anything that’s going on. It’s also far too long – the events in the last half of the novel could have been far more interesting if they’d been compressed to 25%, and then the lead up to the kidnapping could have been properly fleshed out so that it was possible to care about the characters
To summarise: 1 star read and a strong contender for worst book I’ve read this year (which is impressive because I have read some corkers in 2020!).
The Boy From the Woods by Jen Minkman – 3 stars
When I pulled The Boy From the Woods out of my TBR jar, I thought it was going to be awful.
Let’s be honest, the cover is more than a little bit cringe, and the description did not do it for me at all.
So, imagine my surprise when I ended up thoroughly enjoying this book, so much so that I ended up reading it in one sitting!
Retelling a traditional Austrian folktale, The Boy From the Woods is perfect if you’re a huge fan of retellings but are getting tired by all of the new takes on Beauty and the Beast or the Arthurian tales.
In The Boy From the Woods we follow a girl called Julia who has finally bagged the boy of her dreams. Julia has been in love with Michael from a distance for years, but it isn’t until prom that he finally notices her. However, their romance is the definition of a ‘whirlwind’: Michael takes her out once, sleeps with her and then doesn’t call her when he says he will. Awks.
Things go from bad to worse for Julia when she stumbles across the scene of a motorbike crash in the woods, and the victim is none other than – you guessed it! – Michael himself. Instead of being able to avoid the boy who has humped and dumped her, Julia is instead forced to get him help, leaving her wondering why his amnesia was so strong that he couldn’t remember anything apart from her name. Did she mean more to him after all?
It’s always great to read a book set in a different country, and I found myself getting The Summer of Us vibes throughout The Boy From the Woods because the European setting is very well-crafted. It’s also helped by the fact that the characters take a trip to London towards the end of the novel and stay in a hostel, which is what the gang of friends get up to in The Summer of Us! I loved learning the fact that shops in Austria close for lunch! That’s certainly a fact about the country that I’ll never forget, because it’s so jarring compared to my experience living and working in the UK.
Being self-published, I wasn’t expecting the writing to be all that impressive (I’ve had some bad experiences with self-published novels in the past, okay?!) but I was thoroughly impressed throughout The Boy From the Woods. Jen Minkman writes some brilliant one liners, and her dialogue is very realistic, giving each of the characters a very strong voice and making me care about all of them.
I did enjoy the story a lot, although I could see where it was going from a mile away so the dramatic ending didn’t have a huge impact on me. However, if you can’t predict what’s going to happen I have a feeling some tears could be shed at the end of this one, because it’s a bittersweet ending. I applaud Jen Minkman’s bravery for taking the story in the direction she did, and for not leaving the story open-ended or writing a sequel; sometimes it’s nice to have a book with a sad ending, because not all stories have happy endings in real life.
I’m really interested in reading more of Jen Minkman’s work in the future, as her writing hugely impressed me, and I’m so glad that I gave The Boy From the Woods a chance.
Brightly Burning by Alexa Donne – 3 stars
The more time passes since I finished Brightly Burning the less kindly I feel towards it, so I thought I’d better get this review written sooner rather than later.
Brightly Burning was marketed as a Jane Eyre-retelling in space, and it does what it says on the tin.
Stella is a governess who is hired to work on the private ship the Rochester, and she is dismayed when she arrives and there are some freaky things going on. Instead of staying with the rest of the fleet – who are orbiting the Earth in the hopes that it will one day become inhabitable again, á la The 100 by Kass Morgan – the Rochester has decided to strike out from the pack and orbit the Moon instead, meaning Stella is far from home, all alone and desperate to get to the bottom of why strange things keep happening on this allegedly haunted ship…
If you know anything about Jane Eyre you’ll be able to guess what’s going on, but Alexa Donne does add a YA twist to things by making Hugo Fairfax a younger captain with a slightly less scandalous hidden past. I was a bit peeved that she didn’t manage to shoehorn in the famous “Reader, I married him” line – what’s more quintessential Jane Eyre than that?! – but I did enjoy the world that she crafted… I just didn’t enjoy Jane Eyre at all, so of course I wasn’t going to love a Jane Eyre retelling! If I had read Jane Eyre before I requested this on NetGalley I never would have requested it, so it’s just fortuitous that I didn’t dislike it as much as Charlotte Bronte’s classic novel.
The Names They Gave Us by Emery Lord – 4 stars
The Names They Gave Us is a conflicting book to review, because up until the last couple of chapters I was fully prepared to give it five stars and declare it a new favourite.
Lucy’s life is flipped upside down when she discovers that her mum’s cancer has returned. Lucy – a devoutly religious pastor’s daughter – begins to question her faith, crossing boundaries she’s never even considered approaching and acting wholly out of character as she comes to terms with her mum’s diagnosis. Her change in behaviour causes her boyfriend, Lucas, to put their relationship on pause, which makes Lucy feel even more grateful that it’s only a couple of weeks until she gets to go off to church summer camp to work the days away.
However, Lucy’s mum discovers a job opportunity at Daybreak, a neighbouring camp for teens who have difficulties in their lives. Whether they’ve lost relatives, experienced bullying about their gender identity or have gotten pregnant at an early age, Daybreak has seen it all, and their supportive program is just what the doctor ordered for Lucy. She’s apprehensive – and certainly not looking for love – but her summer at Daybreak ends up changing her life for the better.
Well, until those last couple of chapters that I mentioned…
If this had focused solely on the story of Lucy working at Daybreak and falling in love with fellow camp counselor Henry, it would have been a five star read. Lucy’s inner turmoil – can I still believe in a God who would allow my mother to get cancer twice? – is very realistic, and her anguish is palpable from the first page. She is a very ordinary character which may cause some people to call her boring, but because of how plain she is I enjoyed the story that much more. It’s easy to put yourself in Lucy’s shoes and empathise with her, as I’m sure not many people would react to being in this situation in a positive way.
However, Emery Lord takes the last few chapters and tries to make the story bigger, and it does not pay off. The majority of The Names They Gave Us is intimately focused on the goings on at Daybreak, and that works brilliantly – all of the campers are given strong personalities, and I loved the weekly bonfire hangouts where the counselors gather to drink and share their best and worst moments from the week – but the sudden shift in focus comes out of nowhere. Lord suddenly begins telling an entirely different story mere pages before the book ends, and it left me feeling disappointed and frustrated. At least write a sequel or an epilogue (one of my least favourite things, so you can tell how annoyed I was by the ending if I was actually crying out for one!). I can kind of see why she made that choice – life is messy, and things don’t wrap up neatly with a bow on top – but it was very unnecessary and it took the focus off of the topics that the story had been tackling earlier on.
I’m rounding my rating for The Names They Gave Us from a 3.5 star up to a 4 because of how impressed I was by 90% of the book, but if the last few chapters didn’t exist it would have been one of the easiest 5 stars I’ve given this year which is so annoying. I’m definitely going to give Emery Lord’s other work a go, though; this is my first Lord book and I enjoyed it a lot, so I’m glad I already own a couple of her others!
That’s it for this set of TBR jar reviews. As you can see, this was a pretty mixed bag – nobody wants to read two 1 star novels in a month, let alone two which were so similar! – but at least these were all very quick reads.
Have you read any of these books? If so, do you agree or disagree with my ratings?
See you tomorrow,
First things first, I just wanted to post a link to the Black Lives Matter carrd. Please take some time today to sign petitions or make a donation to the BLM movement.
It doesn’t seem right to carry on blogging as normal when there are so many more important things going on in the world at the moment, but hopefully this post will give you a bit of a distraction and entertainment before you jump back into the activist fray.
Another month, another set of book reviews for my TBR jar picks. As soon as I drew the titles for this round I was extremely apprehensive about one book, knew hardly anything about another but was really excited for the other three – were my instincts correct?
Like Other Girls by Claire Hennessy – 2 stars
The first thing I need to say is that my exact rating for Like Other Girls is 2.5 stars. Originally I rounded that rating up to 3 stars, but on reflection I just couldn’t justify rating it that highly because I have some very serious issues with this one.
I think the majority of the problems come from the fact that Claire Hennessy is trying to tackle too much in a book which is less than 300 pages. Whereas one of the issues might have been able to be dealt with effectively in such a short book, the majority of the topics she is trying to address overlap are handled poorly.
If this had been a book focused on abortion and the eighth amendment it would have been pushing five stars, because that aspect of this novel is handled very well. If this had been a book focused on sexuality and gender it would have been a one star, because it’s transphobic to say the least. However, this means that the first half of the novel is a one star and the second half is almost a five star and that doesn’t make for an enjoyable reading experience in the slightest. I was angry at myself for appreciating the way Claire Hennessy used her platform to fight the eighth amendment, because I was angry at the way that she had written about trans people (which made me even angrier about that, because without that this could have been a new favourite book).
This is where I get spoilery, so as always if you haven’t read Like Other Girls yet it’s time to move on to the next review…
Like Other Girls starts with each chapter counting up: week zero, day zero; week one, day four etc. At first the reader isn’t aware of what this is pointing towards – is it tracking the weeks at school? the time that the girls have been rehearsing for their musical? – but around halfway through the book we discover that despite using condoms Lauren is pregnant with the child of her recent ex-boyfriend, Justin, and that is what is being tracked.
Lauren wants an abortion, but because she lives in Ireland she has no choice but to fly to Liverpool to get treatment. Telling her parents she’s going on a trip to Cork with Q Club – a group of LGBTQ+ friends she meets regularly – she makes the journey by herself, as thousands of Irish women have in the past.
This aspect of the plot is handled with aplomb. Lauren seeks advice in Ireland and accidentally walks into a pro-life clinic masquerading as a pregnancy support clinic, but she knows enough about her situation to realise that she’s being lied to. Lauren anonymously goes to the press with her experience, desperate to help other girls in the same situation as her, and the controversy that the article stirs up begins discussions about the eighth amendment and the way that abortion is viewed in Ireland.
When Lauren does have her abortion, she isn’t filled with guilt or regret, which is realistic. The only times I’ve seen abortion addressed in YA, the characters are either extremely remorseful or the entire situation is completely glossed over, so it was brilliant to see the other side of the story represented. As I said earlier, if Like Other Girls had focused entirely on Lauren’s accidental pregnancy, it would probably have ended up being a five star for me. In fact, the only criticism I can find for this aspect of the plot is that it seems unrealistic that Lauren’s brother wouldn’t ask which concerts she was planning on getting tickets for, as she gets the money for her flight to Liverpool by asking for £300 in ticket money for Christmas.
However, then we get to the ‘problematic’ aspects of the novel. (I’m putting problematic in air quotes there, because Lauren mocks the use of the term at various points throughout the book. Possibly Hennessy knew this was going to be a big criticism of Like Other Girls and was trying to invalidate that criticism internally?).
Lauren is a horrible person. Normally, that wouldn’t bother me too much – I’m not opposed to reading about horrible characters – but it is taken too far throughout this novel. Lauren’s sense of humour is infuriating (I literally updated my Goodreads status asking whether this was supposed to be funny, because all of the so-called ‘jokes’ fell completely flat) and most of her comedy is directed towards the gender and sexuality of her friends in Q Club.
These ‘jokes’ included:
‘Marc with a c. If you’re going to go to all the trouble of picking a new name after you come out as trans, at least pick Mark with a k. For fuck’s sake. The world of manly, masculine, macho names open to you and you pick Marc with a c.
And, like, if you’re deliberately going for something not super-macho then why the need to take testosterone and to talk about it all the time?’
“Half the pop stars out there are now bi, apparently.”
‘There has to be something clever and amusing to be said about how wanting a dick makes you act like one’
The sad thing is, I have more examples and I could go on.
All of those make me extremely uncomfortable. Lauren is bisexual, and her attitude to other bisexual people irritates me: she believes in the worst kind of stereotypes, claiming that she hates the word bisexual because it sounds as though you can only ever be sexually satisfied by having two lovers at once: wtf?!
She is very judgmental towards her pansexual friends too, derogatorily referring to them as the Posh Pansexuals and assuming that they are just straight girls wanting to fit in with the Q Club (when she herself is a bisexual girl with a boyfriend: double wtf?!).
She complains constantly about the fact that her boyfriend is a white, cis, straight guy, yet when he tries to break up with her she begs him to stay… Only for them to break up a couple of chapters later and for her to act like it’s no big deal, like she didn’t care about him anyway and had been trying to get rid of him. Riiiiight.
But the worst thing of all about Like Other Girls is Lauren’s attitude towards her transgender friends. She has a crush on her best friend Steph, but after they have sex – an intimately described f/f sex scene the likes of which I’ve never seen in YA before – Steph freaks out. A few weeks later she messages Lauren and explains that the reason she was uncomfortable is because she is trans, and soon starts going by the name Evan and using he/him pronouns.
Lauren begins hating Marc from Q Club because she believes he’s brainwashed Evan into feeling this way, and that he wouldn’t be transgender if it wasn’t for Marc’s influence. She also accuses Evan of only coming out because they had sex: it’s obvious that Lauren thinks the world revolves around her and that Evan’s decision is solely for her benefit, and that’s a terrible attitude.
It wouldn’t be so bad if Lauren went through some kind of redemption arc, but because of the short length of this novel there just isn’t time for that. She feels some empathy towards Marc after bumping into him at the therapist’s office after he attempts suicide – she has to get counselling because of alcohol abuse, another plot point which is somehow crammed into this story – but that’s the only thing that makes her attitude begin to change. Then she sabotages the school play to make some statements about gender and abortion and we’re expected to believe she’s a better person and her views have changed? Sure, sure.
I am not trans but I have seen this review from a trans readers on Goodreads, so I don’t believe I’m being overly sensitive with my criticisms of this novel. I’m not aware if the views of her character actually reflect the views of Claire Hennessy herself, but a topic like this should have been dealt with with far more sensitivity.
This could so easily have been split into two books, and then perhaps all of the topics might have been dealt with in a satisfactory manner, but as it is this is not a story I would recommend. I hate saying that, because Nothing Tastes as Good was a five star read and is one of the best books I’ve ever read regarding anorexia, but this just wasn’t the book for me. I wasn’t looking forward to reading Like Other Girls because I thought that might be the case: unfortunately I was right, but for so many more reasons that I first assumed.
Now that rant’s over, let’s move on to the other titles!
Internment by Samira Ahmed – 2 stars
Internment is another 2.5 star book. Although I liked it more than Like Other Girls, I still can’t justify rounding it up to 3 stars.
Set in America in the near-future, Internment follows Layla Amin as she and her family are placed into an internment camp for being Muslims. Considering that anti-Muslim rhetoric has been on the rise in America during Trump’s presidency, this is a horrifying ‘what-if’ novel which explores an important and timely subject, showing a snapshot of what life could have become for hundreds of thousands of American citizens… I just think that it could have been done better.
Layla is supposed to be 17, but she reads as much younger (I kept thinking she was either 14 or 15). She is separated from her boyfriend, David, and she befriends a guard called Jake solely so that she can contact David and let him know that she is okay. This eventually sparks a bit of revolution – Layla manages to smuggle articles to David with Jake’s help, so he can send the inside story to the media and show just how horrifying life is inside the internment camp – but to start with Layla comes across as quite self-absorbed, risking her family’s safety just so that she can contact her boyfriend. This might have made sense if she was a little bit younger, but most 17-year-olds don’t seem to be quite that impulsive.
I was also frustrated by David’s parents. David is Jewish and members of his family lost their lives in the German concentration camps during World War II, but his parents don’t want to get involved in the plight of the Muslims and David makes it sound as though they don’t really care that Layla has been abducted in the middle of the night. If you had lost family members to an atrocity like this in the past, I don’t think you would be ambivalent! Your voice would be one of the loudest, denouncing the entire scheme.
I did knock an entire star off for the way that Samira Ahmed describes the Director of the internment camp. If I’d taken a shot every time his ‘purple lips’ were mentioned, I wouldn’t have been able to finish the book because I wouldn’t have been able to see straight. He’s a caricature, and it’s hard to take him seriously because of that: despite the fact that he’s a violent, bigoted man, you know that he’s going to get his comeuppance because men like that always do. Ahmed attempts to make him suave and charismatic in front of the media but his anger fuels him and his facade shatters: he would have been far more terrifying if he’d been able to keep his cool.
Meanwhile, the idea of the internment camp being constructed using mobile homes on blocks seems a bit too sanitary: if you see the horrifying pictures from the detention centres that the Trump administration have opened on the Mexican border, it seems far more likely that the internment camps might have looked more like that.
This could have been more effective as an adult novel, because some of the older characters would have made really interesting protagonists. I think it’s brilliant that this novel was aimed at younger people, because it is important to educate them to the reality of internment camps, but I just think it might have worked better with an older audience in mind. If this had been aimed at adults Ahmed might have had a no holds barred approach, but this is the best-worst case scenario. It is infuriating and enraging to think that people could be controlled like this because of their religion, but I think the reality of internment camps is far more heart-wrenching and devastating.
I have found it so hard to review this novel. This is such an important subject and I’m so glad than an own voices author decided to tackle it, but the execution is very poor. I’d recommend checking out this own voices review to help you make up your own mind: they are far more eloquent than I am!
The Million Pieces of Neena Gill by Emma Smith-Barton – 5 stars
The Million Pieces of Neena Gill absolutely blew me away. Telling the story of a girl called Neena who suffers a psychotic break after her brother Akash leaves her, this is a powerful novel tackling mental health in a very sensitive way.
Due to the fact that Neena is suffering from psychosis, she is an unreliable narrator. You’ll find yourself questioning what you’re reading as Neena begins to doubt her own sanity, living scenes which are later revealed to have taken place in her imagination, and almost everything you think you know will be flipped on its head at one point or another.
There are so many things I absolutely loved about this novel. When the story begins Neena is taking prescribed anti-depressants, but she stops taking them because she believes that her mother is ashamed of her. Eventually Neena is medicated, taught CBT and undergoes therapy, showing that often a combination of treatments is often needed to have the biggest impact. That’s utterly realistic, and I loved the fact that there was no ‘one size fits all’ miracle cure in this story.
Cultural pressures are a huge part of this novel, but Emma Smith-Barton makes a concerted effort to tackle the presumption that all of the pressures faced are cultural. There’s a very eye-opening scene in which Neena is talking to a therapist, who suggests she may be interpreting her parents’ actions through a cultural lens when they might just be reacting the same way that any worried parents would. I’ve seen a lot of novels which have tackled the overbearing Asian parent stereotype (specifically British-Pakistani in this book) but none of which have actually posited the question as to whether it’s just a parent stereotype regardless of background, and that made me look at a few other books I’ve read recently in a completely different way.
Neena’s parents are three-dimensional characters with their own plot, which is a novelty in itself! So often the parents in YA are only there to react to their child’s actions, and I loved the fact that Neena’s parents felt so realistic. They are also struggling to accept life without Akash, and although they take their frustrations out on Neena at the beginning – believing that she’s following the same path as her brother and is going to end up leaving them as well – they undergo their own character development and are far more sympathetic towards her mental state by the end of the novel.
This book isn’t perfect – there are a few instances in the first half of the novel where Neena fat-shames her mother – so this is more of a 4.5 star novel, but I feel as though the good thoroughly outweighs the bad in this instance.
The Million Pieces of Neena Gill is Emma Smith-Barton’s debut novel, and I am very excited to see what she writes next.
How To Stop Time by Matt Haig – 4 stars
I don’t think I’m smart enough to review How To Stop Time. I finished it last week and I’m still finding it pretty impossible to form my thoughts on it into coherent sentences, because this is the kind of epic, literary novel which is beautifully written but almost went over my head and then smacked me in the forehead and gave me a little bit of a headache.
Following Tom Hazard, How To Stop Time focuses on the concept of albas – short for albatrosses – which is a code word for people who age extremely slowly. Tom only looks in his late-twenties, but he’s actually been alive for over 400 years (he said his ratio is 1:15; for every 15 years he lives, he looks like he ages one).
Tom is a member of the Albatross Society, which means every eight years he gets a new name and moves to a new place to avoid people getting suspicious about his lack of aging. When we join Tom he decides he wants to move back to London – the place where he fell in love and lost his love hundreds of years ago – so he can start teaching and try to track down his long (long!) lost daughter.
This book certainly wasn’t what I expected, as it was marketed as ‘a love story across the ages’ and I had expected romantic love rather than familial love. I actually think I enjoyed this more because of the fact that it focused so heavily on Tom’s desperation to find his daughter: she is like him, but she runs away before he can learn that about her and he has always sworn that he’ll make it up to her someday.
I really enjoyed this book, despite the fact that my brain had to work extremely hard to keep on top of everything. Tom’s memory begins overwhelming him, so he suffers with flashbacks intruding into his lessons and debilitating migraines. The intrusive nature of the flashbacks is written brilliantly – Tom will be halfway through talking and his words will spark some long forgotten scene from his past into flooding back – and it effectively shows the major downsides to living to be 400. I also feel as though I learnt a lot about what Britain (and London in particular) has been like throughout the ages.
The only thing that stopped me giving this book five stars was the ending. It’s extremely abrupt and doesn’t feel that satisfying compared to the rest of the novel. There’s not really a good way to finish a story like this, but something about it wasn’t exactly to my taste. That being said, there’s apparently going to be an adaptation starring Benedict Cumberbatch, and I can’t wait to see how they translate a novel like this to the big screen.
Eragon by Christopher Paolini – 5 stars
I should have read Eragon ten years ago at least. One of my friends in primary school kept recommending it to me, but because of its length – over 500 pages! – I found myself too intimidated, so I avoided it like the plague.
When I picked this one out of the TBR jar, I will admit that I was apprehensive. I didn’t know much about the story except for the fact that there’s a farm boy who finds a dragon egg in the forest, and that doesn’t sound like the kind of thing which can really fill 500 pages. I also thought the dragon’s name was Eragon, not the boy… So that was a bit of a surprise when I first started reading!
However, this is a non-stop action from cover to cover and a very strong series starter. It’s got everything you want in fantasy: mysterious creatures, adventuring and exploring, a few heartbreaking deaths and some very badass fight scenes.
Eragon hatches his dragon egg but soon mysterious men known as the Ra’zac appear in his village asking questions. They end up burning down his family home in the search for him, killing his uncle in the process.
Eragon goes on the run with a mysterious man called Bram (who knows far more about dragons than should be possible), trying to track down the Ra’zac so he can avenge his uncle’s death. While journeying across Alagaësia, Bram begins training Eragon to be a dragon rider – the first in the land outside of King Galbatorix’s control since he began his reign and killed any dragon riders who stood against him.
With monsters called the Urgal and the Shade chasing Eragon down, he begins having mysterious dreams about a woman locked in a prison cell. That, combined with some pretty dark prophecies divined by a local fortune teller named Agatha, means Eragon has a heck of a lot on his plate.
Honestly, I enjoyed this book so much. Despite its length it honestly flew past, and I couldn’t believe it when we got to the end and it had been such a painless experience.
The majority of the negative comments I’ve seen regarding Eragon focuses on the fact that it’s quite similar to Lord of the Rings, but I read The Fellowship of the Ring in April and struggled to get through it. The pace was interminable, the action didn’t really start until the second half of the book, and the large cast of characters made it pretty hard to keep track of anyone. In contrast, Eragon is nonstop. The cast of characters is much smaller which means you get to know them better and care an awful lot more for them, and although the world isn’t as richly described as Tolkien’s it also means you don’t get bogged down by information about the setting and scenery.
Perhaps if I’d enjoyed The Fellowship of the Ring more I would have enjoyed Eragon less, but as it is I think this is one of the best fantasy novels – particularly fantasy novels aimed at younger readers – which I’ve ever read. I’m looking forward to carrying on with the series, because the ending to this one is rather satisfying but leaves quite a few things up in the air and I just want to know what’s going to happen next!
I hope you enjoyed these reviews! Sorry for ranting a bit too much about Like Other Girls and Internment… I’m going to have to start giving myself a word count limit on these posts.
Please remember to visit the Black Lives Matter carrd which I linked at the top of this post. Signing petitions doesn’t take a lot of time but it can make a huge difference, and if you don’t feel comfortable going to physical protests for any reason then it means you can still make sure that your voice is heard.
See you next time,
Hey everyone! In case you’re new here, I am obsessed with the YA Book Prize. Every year I challenge myself to read the ten book shortlist in its entirety before the winner of the prize is announced so that I can choose my own winner, and this year I’ve decided to collate my EXTREMELY SPOILERY thoughts on each of the ten titles into this post before I announce my winner at the end.
If you haven’t read all ten of these books yet, please look away now and come back later, because I’m not holding anything back today…
A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder by Holly Jackson – 5 stars
A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder has been described as the UK’s answer to One of Us is Lying, but having read both of them this month I am here to tell you that A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder is BETTER than Karen M. McManus’s debut.
When Pip begins her extended project, she decides to use it as an opportunity to re-investigate the murder of Andie Bell, which happened five years ago in her sleepy little town. Andie’s boyfriend Sal was blamed – he committed suicide a couple of days after she disappeared, and despite the fact that her body was never found his suicide seemed like evidence of his guilt – and the police confidently closed the case. But Sal was always nice to Pip, and she doesn’t believe the lovely boy who stood up for her when she was being bullied could have been responsible for such a heinous crime.
When Pip starts getting threatening notes warning her to leave her investigation alone, she knows for a fact she’s on to something. If Sal was guilty, why would someone be trying to stop her quest for the truth?
This book is bloody brilliant. Incorporating Pip’s extended project entry logs and interviews alongside the narrative makes it such a quick read, and you really do get to figure the case out alongside Pip. The project entry logs are quite similar to Hazel’s casebooks in the Murder Most Unladylike series – where she writes down all of the potential murders and their potential motives and works to cross them off – so if you’re a fan of that series but wish it was young adult rather than middle grade then I highly recommend this story.
I’m notoriously good at guessing who the murderer is, and I was completely blindsided by the reveal at the end. I had my eye on one person in particular who ended up not being involved in the case at all, so I’m hoping that they will end up being investigated in one of the later books in the series because they are a shifty motherhecker! (I know I said I was going to be spoilery, but I just can’t bring myself to give the identity of the culprit away…)
Another aspect of this book which I absolutely loved was the romance between Pip and Sal’s brother, Ravi. They work together on the case, trying to prove Sal’s innocence, and despite the fact that there is serious chemistry between them the only thing that happens romantically in this novel is a quick kiss in the epilogue. I ADORED this choice. If you’re trying to prove that your dead brother is not a murderer you aren’t exactly going to prioritise smooching the cute detective you’re working with, and I’m so glad that for once hormones didn’t come out on top. The case is prioritised until it is solved, and only then do they have time to take their friendship to the next level. That being said, I’m seriously hoping their relationship is developed further in future installments in the series, because I love the dynamics between the two of them: give me a solid friendship that slowly develops into more any day of the week.
A warning for you: this book does include the death of a dog. It is an accidental death and not a murder, but it does occur after the dog is kidnapped, so if you’re one of those people who will not read a book if the dog dies then this one is 100% not for you. I did not anticipate the dog’s death. My heart broke.
The sequel, Good Girl, Bad Blood, came out at the end of April, and I’m definitely going to be picking it up ASAP.
The Black Flamingo by Dean Atta – 5 stars
Before we even start talking about how much I loved The Black Flamingo, can we just take a moment to worship this gorgeous cover?! This is honestly one of the most beautiful YA covers I think I’ve ever seen.
I’m so glad I bought a physical copy of The Black Flamingo, not only because the cover is gorgeous but because the presentation of the verse is so important to the way that the story is told. With illustrations throughout including the Red Arrows, a hatching egg and more feathers than you can count, this is a book which you really need to hold to be able to get the most from it.
Following a young boy called Michael from birth to university, The Black Flamingo is a coming out story like no other. Open about his sexuality from a young age, Michael hardly experiences any discrimination because of his sexuality which is very refreshing to see in YA (and something which I hope accurately represents the shifting attitudes in young people towards people of different backgrounds, as people were not this accepting when I was a chick!). Instead, the real coming out story told in The Black Flamingo is that of Michael’s decision to become a drag artist. As someone who has been writing poetry in secret his whole life, Michael’s decision to bite the bullet and step out onto the stage as The Black Flamingo is an inspiring transformation which encourages young people to be who they are without apologising to anyone.
My only issue with this book is the way that it’s been marketed, as Michael’s life as The Black Flamingo takes up less than a third of the story, with the majority of the events taking place during secondary school. His decision to become The Black Flamingo is the destination rather than the journey, so if you’re reading this hoping that the entire book will be following the day to day life of a drag artist then you will be disappointed, but I think I enjoyed it even more because it was so different to what I was expecting.
I’m not a huge fan of novels told in verse, as I think it only works if the story needs to be told in that style, but there was no other way that The Black Flamingo could have been told. I thoroughly enjoyed this from the first page, and it’s a story I’m definitely going to revisit in the future.
Crossfire by Malorie Blackman – 4 stars
It is very difficult to review Crossfire, not only because it is the fifth book in a series but because it also feels like it only tells half of a story.
Crossfire follows Troy and Libby, who are the children of characters we meet earlier in the series, as they are kidnapped and trapped in a basement. It also has some chapters from Callie Rose and Tobey’s perspectives (the protagonists of Double Cross) dotted throughout, filling us in on everything which happened between the end of the last novel and the start of this one.
As is often the case with Malorie Blackman’s writing, this book has a non-linear narrative, skipping between Before and After the kidnapping, as well as jumping all the way back to when Callie Rose and Tobey were younger. It makes for a very intense read. The kidnapping happens right at the beginning and the blanks of who and why are filled in quite rapidly, making it easy to read this book in one sitting.
Personally, I feel as though this book is the strongest in the Noughts & Crosses series. Both plots are equally compelling. I couldn’t wait to see what happened between Tobey and Callie Rose, but I also wanted to get straight back to Libby and Troy. In the past I have found myself strongly preferring one viewpoint over the other (I loved Callum’s chapters more in Noughts & Crosses but found myself favouring Sephy’s viewpoint in Knife Edge, which meant the chapters following other characters ended up dragging a little bit) so it was a pleasant surprise that the new characters were just as interesting as the ones I already knew and loved.
However, this doesn’t feel like a complete story. It leaves off on one hell of a cliffhanger and, considering Crossfire has been out for almost a year and the next book doesn’t have a release date, title or a cover yet, it’s wholly unsatisfying. If I had been aware that the story stopped so abruptly I probably would have held off on reading this (well, if it hadn’t been on this shortlist…) because I feel as though I’m going to have to reread it to be able to appreciate the next installment fully. This was so close to being a five star (the other four books in the series have all been four stars, so it’s frustrating that I enjoyed this one the most and still couldn’t justify rating it any higher!).
I am finding myself a bit confused on how this has been nominated for the YA Book Prize, though. In their own words ‘Books published as part of a series are eligible but must work as a standalone title’, and I don’t think that’s the case with Crossfire. Not only is the story quite clearly unresolved, but it also seems impossible to read without previous knowledge of the series. Tobey and Callie Rose fill in the blanks between the events of Double Cross and Crossfire but don’t really recap things that actually happened in the previous book, and I think I would have had too many question marks floating around my head if I had read this without the context of the series so far.
I’m planning on doing a full series review of Noughts & Crosses at some point, as I reread all four previous books before reading Crossfire, but I will probably be waiting until the sixth and final book is released (whenever that may be!). However, I am so grateful that I’ve finally had the excuse to rediscover these books. I loved them so much when I was younger, and I love them so much now: I definitely won’t be leaving it as long before I reread them again.
The Deathless Girls by Kiran Millwood Hargrave – 3 stars
The Deathless Girls is Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s first YA novel, and unfortunately it makes me wish that she’d stuck to writing middle grade.
Marketed as the story behind the brides of Dracula, I didn’t think there was any possible way for this book to disappoint me, which makes this review even more painful to write. The Dragon doesn’t even appear until the last quarter of the novel, making the vampire content minimal, something which I’ve noticed in reviews that people either love or hate. If you go into this book knowing that it’s supposed to be focused on the brides of Dracula then you end up disappointed, but if you’re reading this expecting a tale of a young traveller girl fighting for her freedom then you get a wonderful twist when sudden vampires appear!
The first few chapters of The Deathless Girls are gripping. The day before Lil and Kizzy’s seventeeth birthday their traveller community is raided, their mother and all of the adults murdered while the children and teenagers are taken into slavery. It’s heart-wrenching stuff and makes for a very difficult read, but the rest of the novel is uneventful in comparison. I had expected The Deathless Girls to be a difficult read, but considering how long Lil and Kizzy are in slavery – and how dreadful the slaves seem to be treated prior to their arrival – they get off very lightly, which doesn’t seem authentic.
The relationship between Kizzy and Lil is well-crafted, but at times it verges on annoying. Lil constantly wishes she were more like Kizzy and could stand up to the people who are oppressing them, but although she repeats this sentiment multiple times she doesn’t really act upon it until she has no other choice. Her character development is realistic, as she is forced to murder a guard who attempts to sexually assault her and she finds it hard to accept the choice that she made, but from the beginning to the end of The Deathless Girls Lil hardly changes at all. By the time the book finishes she is an avenger, determined to kill as many of the wrong-doers of Romania as she can, but she still lets Kizzy make the choices and follows in her footsteps.
This is a f/f story, as Lil falls in love with a Settled girl called Mira, another slave in the Boyar Valcar’s castle. However, their relationship is only very lightly explored, going from longing glances to stolen kisses without any real discussion between them. Considering the relationship between Lil and Kizzy is so fleshed out, it’s a shame that Millwood Hargrave didn’t dedicate more time to making us care about the romance aspect of this novel.
The ‘Aftermath’ is where the focus of the story should have been, as in the last couple of pages Lil is turned into a vampyr and quickly sums up centuries of her life with a few brief chapters. If the story told in The Deathless Girls had been part one of a duology, or had been trimmed down so it was the first half of this story, it would have been better: as it was it felt as though the story had finally started and was over as quickly as it begun.
I’ve seen a few reviews which have mentioned that the Romani representation in this is not up to scratch, but as I don’t have a Romani background this is something I don’t feel qualified to comment on. If you are Romani and want to read a review discussing this aspect of the novel before reading it, I would recommend this one.
Deeplight by Frances Hardinge – 3 stars
Deeplight is only the second Frances Hardinge book I’ve read, the first being The Lie Tree (which was nominated for the YA Book Prize back in 2016).
Being described as a cross between Twenty Thousands Leagues Under the Sea and Frankenstein, I automatically had very high hopes for this novel.
Things started off well. In this world the people worshipped massive gods of the sea, but they mysteriously tore each other apart decades ago. People now desperately dive and scavenge for pieces of the gods, which sell for a fortune.
Hark’s friend Jelt gets them caught up in some shady business and Hark gets arrested. Luckily a scientist from one of the other islands takes pity on him when he’s auctioned off – there isn’t enough room in prison, causing convicts to be sold as slaves to work off their sentence – so Hark gets a fresh start away from Jelt, working in an ex-monastery caring for the people who used to dedicate their lives to the gods and assisting the scientist who saved him on the side.
Everything seems to be coming up roses for Hark, until Jelt rocks up again. He’s found a bathysphere – an old submarine-esque machine with which the priests used to visit the gods – and he’s decided that they’re going to go scavenging for pieces of the gods. However, things then take a dark turn: Jelt is killed in an accident involving the bathysphere. Hark feels pulsing in the water – the heart of one of the gods – which revives Jelt, but he doesn’t come back quite the same as he was…
When I reviewed The Lie Tree I said that it was perfect for “older and more mature readers of the middle grade genre”, and I stand by that in relation to Deeplight. However, where The Lie Tree also appealed to adult readers despite the fact that it had a young protagonist, Deeplight was a struggle for me to read for the exact same reason.
15-year-old Hark is very naive and reads as very young for his age. In all honesty I didn’t realise that he was 15 until just looking the book up on Goodreads – if that fact is mentioned in the novel, it is only mentioned very briefly – and he reads as either 12 or 13 at the very most. Jelt seems a lot older, and if we were following him I’d be more inclined to believe that this is a YA novel, but as he manipulates Hark and gets him into all of these situations he makes Hark seem like a child.
The only reason I can think that Deeplight is being marketed as YA is because of its length. This beast is over 400 pages and, I’ll be honest, I felt every single one of them. It is an absolute DRAG to read. I hate saying that, because I have been so excited about reading more of Frances Hardinge’s work, but I really did have to force myself to get through Deeplight. If I hadn’t been reading it for the YA Book Prize shortlist I probably would have ended up DNFing it.
A huge part of the plot is Hark coming to terms that Jelt is a bit of a monster – figuratively, and then literally – and realising that their friendship has been toxic since the beginning. However, the reader can see that very clearly within the first couple of chapters as Jelt bullies Hark into doing things he really isn’t comfortable with, making Hark’s slow realisation rather frustrating.
Sadly the gods seem to be the least important part of the plot, and they were the only thing that I was really interested in. After finishing Deeplight I read the short story Dolor’s Legs (which was available as Read Now on NetGalley for the month of April to celebrate the release of the paperback), and I ended up giving that four stars. I think it was only about fifteen pages, but it was much more interesting because it was wholly focused on one of the gods!
I’m definitely in the minority here – the Goodreads ratings for Deeplight are overwhelmingly high – so I might reread this in the future now that my expectations for it have shifted to see whether I appreciate it more second time around. I think I would have appreciated this far more if it had been marketed as middle grade, because it definitely doesn’t feel like a YA story, but that’s the way the cookie crumbles.
Furious Thing by Jenny Downham – 4 stars
When the YA Book Prize shortlist was announced, I had only read two books on the list. Out of those two Furious Thing was not my favourite, so unfortunately this was the first book out of the running for my personal winner, but upon rereading it I’ve also dropped it from a five star read down to a four star read – eek!
Furious Thing tells the story of Lex, a girl who constantly loses her temper and acts out. Her stepfather-to-be believes she has ADHD and needs to be diagnosed and medicated, while her mother is too meek to stand up to him. Lex tries her hardest to be a good girl like her little sister Iris, but she just can’t help herself: every time John and her mum argue she explodes, taking the heat away from her mum and getting John’s anger directly aimed at her instead.
The relationship between Lex and Iris is one of the best sibling relationships I’ve read in YA, and it’s definitely the thing that I’m going to remember most about Furious Thing in the future. I loved the psychology behind Lex’s anger, as both her and Iris are aware that she only really does ‘her monster’ when her parents are arguing (with the exception of one incident at school which is pretty much unexplained). It’s not necessarily the best lesson to teach people – if your parents fight just throw a laptop out of the window to distract them and make them angry at you instead! – but it certainly seems true to life, particularly if you’re trying to protect your younger sibling from parental drama.
That being said, although I love the main plot of Furious Thing and think it does such a good job of showing young people that it is okay to be angry, I have a few issues with the subplots which are more apparent second time around.
First of all there’s the relationship between Lex and John’s son, Kass. Lex is in love with Kass and believes that they’re destined to end up together, not caring about the fact that he has a girlfriend or that their parents are going to be married very soon. I don’t mind the feelings she has for him – they aren’t actually related, haven’t grown up too closely and are only a few years apart in age – but I’m not a huge fan of the hypocrisy in relation to the cheating. When John cheats on her mum Lex is angry, but she isn’t ashamed of the fact that she’s trying to steal Kass from Cerys because she believes that they’re meant to be together.
As Lex herself says, it’s easy to blame the woman when it comes to cheating, so I know that Jenny Downham includes this aspect to further solidify the similarities between Kass and his dad… But something about it just doesn’t feel realistic. When Lex sees how painful John’s affairs are she should experience some sort of remorse or guilt, but although she doesn’t want Cerys to find out because she doesn’t want to hurt her she also doesn’t seem to regret her actions in the slightest. It’s definitely not entirely Lex’s fault – Kass should have more respect for her and for Cerys – but I think this would have been a more effective comparison if Kass had been flirting with Lex and she had been fighting him off in the name of female solidarity, rather than running straight into his arms.
The other reason I’ve dropped my rating down to four stars is because of the ending. Lex laughs at John at their wedding reception, and soon enough all of the guests are giggling. This causes John to have a panic attack, but he believes he’s having a heart attack, and this is his comeuppance. It’s a very unsatisfying conclusion and, although I kind of liked it first time around because it was very unexpected, on a second read it comes across as absurd and unrealistic.
The fact that John and Lex’s mum stay together despite everything is logical, but I’m not quite sure why John would lose his job because of his behaviour and I don’t know why his panic attack would suddenly cause Lex’s mum to feel confident standing up to him. A happy ending like this, with the bad guy losing his power and becoming weak, just seems too neat and tidy to actually happen.
Furious Thing is still a very quick read – despite the fact that it’s nearly 400 pages it’s easy to read in one sitting – and I still very much like Lex’s character and the growth that she goes through, but unfortunately some of the subplots just don’t seem to hold up to close scrutiny.
I am glad I reread this one because I enjoyed it almost as much second time around, and I highly recommend it if you’re looking for a book which explores many different aspects of family, particularly sibling relationship. However, it’s just not one of my absolute favourites.
In all honesty I was torn between a four and a five star when I finished reading it the first time around, so I shouldn’t be too surprised that it dropped down after a reread!
The Gifted, the Talented and Me by William Sutcliffe – 2 stars
I was unconvinced by The Gifted, the Talented and Me appearing on this shortlist, but I tried to go into it with an open mind. I read and reviewed Concentr8 by William Sutcliffe four years ago and I really didn’t like it, so I was sure I wouldn’t fall in love with this one either.
Following a boy called Sam who is transferred to the North London Academy for the Gifted and Talented after his dad gets rich, the synopsis of The Gifted, the Talented and Me makes Sam sound like a spoiled brat. “Oh woe is me, my family have money and now I have to go to private school? My life could not be worse!”. In reality he’s not all that bad – he struggles to adjust to the change, as he’s not allowed to play football and that’s the one thing he really cares about – and my issues ended up being with much deeper than just irritation at a privileged main character.
Sam’s older brother Ethan makes a band, and he decides that their ‘thing’ is going to be that they are a “gay band”. Ethan comes out – very unconvincingly – and proceeds to fall in love with the lead singer of his band, who is in an f/f relationship with their drummer. Next thing the lead singer is cheating on her girlfriend with Ethan, in itself problematic because bisexual women are always portrayed as promiscuous and unable to remain faithful and that is a ridiculous stereotype to feature, but made worse is the fact that Ethan starts bemoaning the fact that he’s going to have to come out as straight to their mother. Just… No. No. No! You don’t have to be gay or straight, bisexuality is an option (although it’s just seems to be the punchline to a joke throughout this book).
Then there’s William Sutcliffe’s representation of feminism. Sam reads his mum’s blog, and she comes across as preachy and anti-men, complaining about being a wage slave (when her husband has just sold the business he made for a quite a lot of money, so it doesn’t seem as though she was ever the sole source of income for their family). Considering that this book is quite clearly aimed at teenage boys, Sutcliffe had a priceless opportunity to educate young boys about the importance of feminism and get them behind the cause, rather than making Sam’s mum a figure to be mocked and laughed at. This infuriated me, because young boys are constantly told that feminism isn’t important or relevant anymore and that women are hysterical for still being so passionate about it, and it would have been nice to see a male author changing the paradigm on the way that feminism is presented to young men.
Of course, as this is being recommended for fans of The Inbetweeners there are a ton of masturbation and erection jokes, so if you’re a fan of stereotypical laddish humour then you’ll probably enjoy it, but I knew this wasn’t going to be the book for me and I was right. In fact I only laughed once, when a stool that Sam’s mum made collapsed: who can resist chuckling at something as silly as that?
The only thing I personally liked about this is that it’s very quick – I managed to read it in just a couple of hours, so it wasn’t a huge time investment. It is also great to see a YA book which is so obviously aimed towards getting boys to read, as the majority of YA is still female-centric, and that’s the reason I ended up giving this two stars instead of just one. I wish Sutcliffe had used his voice to say something a bit more positive, but it was great to see a book like this on the shortlist. I hope that we’ll see more authors tackling the hard task of getting teenage boys to engage with reading in the future.
Meat Market by Juno Dawson – 3 stars
When the YA Book Prize shortlist was announced, I was certain that Meat Market was going to be a strong contender for my winner. Juno Dawson’s previous release, Clean, was absolutely ASTOUNDING, and it was my personal winner for the 2019 YA Book Prize (although Sara Barnard won with Goodbye, Perfect and I absolutely love her, so I couldn’t be too mad with that outcome).
Following Jana Novak, a tall, androgynous girl who has always been bullied for her looks, into the world of modelling after she is scouted at a theme park, Juno Dawson isn’t afraid to tell it like it is and shine a light on the darkest aspects of the modelling industry. From subtly bullying girls into eating less while pretending to be body positive, to getting young women into dangerous situations with known predators, Meat Market is not a book for the faint of heart and is definitely one that you should avoid if you are triggered by situations like either of those.
Sadly, this book didn’t quite live up to my expectations. I thought there were a lot of thing which were done brilliantly – in particular Jana’s dialect, which was so authentically young that there were some turns of phrase which I wasn’t even familiar with – but it just wasn’t quite what I was hoping for.
One aspect in particular which I wasn’t a fan of was the cheating subplot. Jana sleeps with a popular male model despite the fact that she has a boyfriend back home called Ferdy, and although he forgives her I found myself unable to. Ferdy justifies her mistake, empathising with the fact that he will never know what she was going through but the male model also knows what the industry is like. Although this is a realistic reaction, I just felt as though Ferdy deserved better. He tried to be there for Jana as much as possible, but instead of trying to talk to him she consoles herself by running into another man’s arms. It didn’t seem like a genuine response considering the sexual assault she had recently experienced, but I’m also aware that people deal with trauma in many different ways so I didn’t let this impact my rating too greatly.
I also thought the ending of the book was a bit too much of a happily ever after. The photographer who assaults Jana is found guilty and gets sentenced, while Jana signs with a new modelling agency called Honest Models who are committed to treating their girls ethically and overhauling the modelling industry. I LOVED the ending, but it just seemed a little too idealistic: in reality these things are sadly brushed under the carpet quicker than you could possibly imagine, and the likelihood of the Lucas Blo case actually having a lasting impact on the industry would be sadly quite low. I wish that wasn’t the case, but I just couldn’t quite buy into the cheeriness of the conclusion.
That being said, this is still one of the better Juno Dawson novels I’ve read. Those are two very small aspects of the plot, but the majority of it is very strong: the interactions between the cast of characters feel authentic, I loved the interviews sections spliced between each of the chapters and the way that it all linked together at the end to show Ferdy and Jana making a documentary regarding her experiences, and I thought the research and time that Juno Dawson put into writing this novel shows her commitment to exposing the darker aspects of an industry which is – quite literally – put on a pedestal as something girls should aspire towards from a very young age.
If you’re addicted to America’s Next Top Model but you’re also interested in the #MeToo movement, this is the perfect read.
The Places I’ve Cried in Public by Holly Bourne – 5 stars
The Places I’ve Cried in Public was the only other book on the shortlist which I’d read before the list was announced, and I was overjoyed to see it on the list.
This book tells the story of Amelie, who is going through a horrific break-up. To help her come to terms with losing her boyfriend, she decides to revisit all of the places where he made her cry, reliving their relationship from the night that they met up until the night when everything fell apart.
I decided to reread The Places I’ve Cried in Public before reviewing it, and I still can’t fault it.
Holly Bourne is an absolute pro at putting you in her character’s shoes. If you haven’t experienced a heartbreak you are a rare human, so it’s impossible not to empathise with Amelie as she goes through the stages of getting over her relationship with Reese. You experience her utter devastation, her loneliness, her frustration, and you feel it so deeply in your heart that it’s as though you are losing your first love all over again.
I think the thing I love the most about The Places I’ve Cried in Public is that it shows the different ways that relationships can be abusive. Reese is very manipulative, using gaslighting to make Amelie doubt her own sanity and blaming her behaviour every time he is in a bit of a mood.
This novel does feature a couple of scenes with sexual coercion and one rape scene, so if you do find yourself triggered by those things you might want to avoid this book. However, Holly Bourne has done her best to make it as softened as possible so as to trigger as few people as she can: when the rape occurs, the book simply features a page covered in raindrops. It’s so effective, and it brought a tear to my eye the first time I read this book.
I honestly believe this book should become required reading. Not only will it help a lot of people to evaluate their partner’s behaviour and realise whether they are in a damaging situation, but it will also help them realise that not all abuse is physical – something which I don’t think I realised when I was younger.
The Quiet at the End of the World by Lauren James – 3 stars
The Quiet at the End of the World started off being a really difficult read. Set in 2109, this story takes place in a world where a mysterious flu-like illness (sound familiar?!) has caused an incurable sterility in humans. We follow Lowrie and Shen, the two youngest people on the planet, as they begin to come to terms with the fact that they’re going to be the last of their kind.
Honestly, I found that aspect of this story the most compelling thing about it. Some of the quotes were so timely that I had chills, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Lauren James won the YA Book Prize purely because she has put into words the feelings of helplessness and despair that so many of us are feeling during this unprecedented time.
However, things then take a turn for the bizarre. Turns out, Shen and Lowrie aren’t just the youngest people on the planet, they’re actually the only people on the planet. All of the adults around them are realistic dolls called BabyGrows, which were developed to fill the void caused by the sterility. This is discovered after all of the adults begin having unexplained fits, and our two main characters have a race against time to try to save their parents before their software resets. We also discover that Shen and Lowrie are actually clones created by the BabyGrows in their never-ending quest to cure the sterility which plagued their ‘parents’, a fact which is hidden for the majority of the book.
It’s also set in the year 2509, not the year 2109: a fact which at first glance appears to be a typo, and one which I’m not sure every reader would pick up on. I’m far too much of a picky perfectionist when it comes to reading, so this sent up an automatic red flag when I spotted the discrepancy in a medical file which we are shown: if I hadn’t been so particular, or if that discrepancy hadn’t been explicitly shown on the page, it might have been a more shocking reveal rather than a satisfied resolution of a minor irritation.
I’m conflicted about how I feel towards The Quiet at the End of the World. While I was reading it I had so many questions – how are Lowrie and Shen expected to repopulate the Earth if they are the last two people alive? How are their parents so sprightly when they’ve got to be in their 80s at least? – and I assumed that if all of my questions were answered then I’d be satisfied and would give the book a higher rating… But even though all of my questions were resolved I still didn’t feel satisfied.
In fact I’m pretty sure I’m going to forget all about this book within the next couple of months because, other than the fact that it’s creepily appropriate to the current situation, it doesn’t have much of an impact. The only dramatic tension comes from whether Shen and Lowrie are going to be able to find a solution to the problem with their parents – the problem which allows them to learn that their parents are BabyGrows in the first place. There isn’t a bad guy, all of the people get on and seem to be really good friends, and Shen and Lowrie don’t even rage against the truth: they calmly accept the fact that their parents hid it from them for good reason, and then they move on with their lives. I don’t think I’ve ever read a dystopian with less drama!
I did like the fact that we learn about the original illness through the social media posts of a girl called Maya, whose purse Lowrie finds on an abandoned tube train. However, that aspect requires a suspension of disbelief that I couldn’t quite manage. Lowrie reads Maya’s page religiously, devouring knowledge of how the original sterility came to pass, learning about the creation of the BabyGrows and following Maya up until she dies from old age. It’s thanks to Maya that they learn how to fix their parents, as she had a similar problem with her own BabyGrow daughter. That being said… What form of social media can you think of that doesn’t start with the most recent post and go back to older entries? I just can’t fathom a way that Lowrie could have learned about this all chronologically: Maya’s story and Lowrie’s story run parallel, but really the end of Maya’s story should have been discovered at the beginning of the book, with the start of the sterility coming to light at the end. I know I’m being nitpicky, but I just couldn’t stop thinking it! I would have believed it more if Lowrie had found Maya’s diary in her purse, because that’s something you would read from beginning to end… But a diary that spanned over forty years also wouldn’t hold up under any kind of scrutiny. Argh!
This frustrates me so much, because I’ve heard so many amazing things about Lauren James’ writing, but this wasn’t anywhere close to the standard that I was expecting. I did end up giving it three stars because I loved the characters of Shen and Lowrie and found myself really rooting for them (even though it’s obvious they’re going to end up together, I still squealed when they kissed for the first time!) and I also loved the descriptions of London almost 500 years in the future. Unfortunately the unsatisfying aspects just completely outweighed the good, and I was unable to look past that.
That being said, I’m still planning on reading Lauren James’ other books, particularly The Loneliest Girl in the Universe (which focuses on a girl inadvertently self-isolating on a spacecraft… So possibly not one I’ll be picking up for a good long while!).
After careful consideration, I’m pleased to announce that my winner of the YA Book Prize 2020 is…
The Places I’ve Cried in Public by Holly Bourne!
As you can tell by the fact that they all got five stars, this ended up being extremely close between The Places I’ve Cried in Public, The Black Flamingo and A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder. I might be slightly biased as this was a reread and not a first read, but something about Places just hits a little harder.
That being said, I think The Black Flamingo has easily shot straight to the top of the best verse novels I’ve read, and A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder is so good that I’ve already bought the sequel, Good Girl, Bad Blood, so I have definitely managed to find some new favourites by reading this shortlist!
If you’ve also read the YA Book Prize shortlist, let me know your winner down in the comments. I’m eagerly awaiting the official announcement to see whether the judges agree with me or not, but I’ve had so much fun reading each of the books and deciding for myself – I’m definitely going to be doing the same thing again next year.