Book Reviews, Middle Grade, Young Adult

Clara Voyant – Rachelle Delaney Review

Clara Voyant by Rachelle Delaney

Rating: ★★★★★

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Clara Voyant is a fun, light hearted middle grade brook which I really enjoyed. It had an interesting, tightly written plot and fun characters which all brought something to the story.

Clara is new to her school, and as an aspiring journalist, she is keen to impress Wesley Ferris, the editor of the school newspaper. She joins the team, but is gutted to find that Wesley won’t assign her to any investigative pieces, instead relegating her to the horoscopes section. Clara is gutted, not least because she doesn’t believe in horoscopes. However, when Clara’s horoscopes begin to come true, she wonders whether she was wrong to dismiss them. When a crime is committed at her school, Clara decides to use her newfound mystical powers to solve the mystery and prove herself as a brilliant journalist.

The plot of this book keeps you interested from the beginning, with multiple storylines and mysteries unfolding at the same time. There is the mystery of the stolen school mascot, Clara’s potential new powers, her best friend Maeve’s audition for the school play, and many more smaller storylines unfolding in the background. It really was a perfect cosy crime novel.

Despite the book having a wide range of characters, it never felt convoluted or busy. Each character stood out and played a role, however small, and added something to the book and plot. Clara is clever and ambitious, her best friend Maeve is bold and driven and the pair’s friendship was very entertaining. I also enjoyed the adult characters in the book, such as Mrs Major, the school’s custodian, and Clara’s mother with all of her quirks.

Overall, this book was a really enjoyable read that would be perfect for children and young teenagers. I think that this book is a standalone, but Clara definitely has the potential to lead her own series and I would happily read along.

Book Reviews, YA Contemporary, Young Adult

Sadie – Courtney Summers Review

Sadie: Amazon.co.uk: Summers, Courtney: Books

Rating: ★★★★★

When Sadie’s younger sister Mattie is found dead, Sadie’s world falls apart, and after the police fail to find her killer, Sadie takes matters into her own hands. She hits the road to try to find the killer, determined to bring him to justice. Meanwhile, West McCray, a radio presenter working on a piece about small, forgotten towns in America, overhears Sadie’s story and becomes obsessed with finding the missing girl, starting a podcast to record his investigation.

As a true crime obsessive, this book was right up my street. I loved how it was presented as such, with the format of a podcast replicating so many of the podcasts I have listened to. Courtney Summers wrote both the normal prose of Sadie’s chapters and the podcast chapters in a way that felt so authentic you almost forget it isn’t a true story. In addition, I listened to this in the audiobook format, which the book lends itself to extremely well. The actors are excellent and you really feel yourself getting swept away by the story.

I loved Sadie’s character and was in her corner cheering for her throughout the book. Sadie has a compelling background: she is born to a drug addicted mother, becomes an almost mother to her younger sister and is a school drop Her sister is the centre of her universe, and Summers’ writing really makes you feel how Sadie’s love for her sister and how it can be so strong to drive her to do everything that she does over the course of the book. You can feel every ounce of Sadie’s pain and grief.

The plot was fast-paced, and the podcast format was a great way of intertwining the plot with background events in a way that felt real and not like a boring info-dump. It was a really clever way of structuring the story, and means that you slowly piece the story together with the rest of the podcast’s audience.

Overall, I have to give this piece 5 stars. I could find absolutely no faults with it, and demand someone make this into a miniseries.

Book Reviews, Contemporary, YA Contemporary, Young Adult

Anna K: A Love Story – Jenny Lee Review

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Rating: ★★★

This modern retelling of Anna Karenina has everything: glamour, romance, drama, tragedy. The Gossip Girl vibes make for fun reading at times, but sometimes I felt that the devotion to the original made this longer than it needed to be.

Anna K. lives at the pinnacle of Manhattan and Greenwich society. She is beautiful, wealthy, and sensible, always making her Korean-American father proud. To top it all off, she has been with Alexander, her equally perfect boyfriend, for years. However, when she meets and falls head over heels in love with Alexia ‘the Count’ Vronsky, everything that she risks it all. Meanwhile, her brother Steven is trying to convince his girlfriend Lolly to trust him again after being caught sexting another girl, whilst Steven’s friend Dustin struggles with his unrequited love for Lolly’s younger sister, Kimmie. Throughout the book, we watch these storylines unfold in tandem against a backdrop of luxury and opulence in Manhattan.

There are certain elements of a retelling that I always enjoy, and that is seeing how details of the original are ‘upgraded’ for the retelling. In particular, I enjoyed the New York setting and the use of ‘New York’s elite’ instead of Russian royalty, which gave the entire tale a Gossip Girl vibe. Initially, I found the constant mention of characters’ expensive items and clothing to be funny, a form of satire showing how superficial some of them were. However, as the book went on and each character kept describing their designer purses and expensive coats, it began to feel a bit overdone and heavy on irrelevant details.

The book also included lots of examples of characters’ drug and alcohol use (and abuse). From what I understand of the original, this isn’t new, however, I felt like the book missed out on an opportunity to comment on this lifestyle. Instead, these things were simply a part of the story, never commented or criticised, with no characters engaging in any reflection of their bad habits. I feel like the book simply transposed the events of Anna Karenina into a modern setting, without transposing Tolstoy’s social commentary into a modern setting also.

This also meant that the characters felt two dimensional and bland, and eventually the book started to feel like it was just one event after another. Jenny Lee simply created modern versions of Tolstoy’s characters, but didn’t really explore their personalities on a deeper level. Anna K is nothing but beautiful and kind, Vronsky is a bad boy on the surface who is transformed by love into the dream boyfriend, Dustin is the tortured soul; they all felt like caricatures. I feel like a retelling requires more engagement with the text than just ‘modernising’ it for it to work, especially as parts of the book will not simply transpose as well into a modern setting. A prime example was the ‘instalove’ between Anna and Vronsky – this might work in an older piece of literature, but in a contemporary romance, it just isn’t going to fly.

Overall, Anna K was enjoyable but I felt like it was too superficial to really impress. The tone of the work was too basic, simply telling us events without engaging with anything under the surface, making it feel too long and drawn out. After reading Anna K, however, I would like to read the original text and see which parts have been left out, and see whether I enjoy the original more than the retelling.

Book Reviews, Historical, Young Adult

Devil’s Ballast – Meg Caddy Review

Devil's Ballast by Meg Caddy

Rating: ★★★★★

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

I had a serious pirate phase as a child. I remember searching and searching for a book featuring a female pirate, and failing. That’s why I was so excited to read Devil’s Caddy, and it delivered. This is exactly the book that my younger self wanted, as well as being a book that grown-up me could sit back and enjoy.

Anne Bonny is eighteen when she feels her abusive husband and runs away with Calico Jack, the famed pirate. She disguises herself as a boy and joins his crew aboard the Ranger, which wreaks havoc on the ships of the Caribbean. However, this is not a happy ending for Anne, and she is on the run from both her husband, James Bonny, who is determined to get her back, and the pirate-hunter Captain Barnet, whose personal goal is to bring as many pirates to justice as possible. When she is captured and separated from Calico Jack, she must fight to get him back, whilst struggling with the consequences of her relationship with the pirate.

Devil’s Caddy is a really enjoyable book to read and I got through it in a weekend thanks to the fast-paced and constantly moving plot. Meg Caddy has done a really great job at writing an exciting story, with a series of exciting individual adventures for the characters whilst also maintaining an overarching story that keeps you entertained for the duration of the book. Caddy manages to ramp up the tension and surprise you with plot twists the whole way through, whilst still keeping the book feeling fun.

I also really enjoyed the cast of characters in this book. Anne Bonny is a great historical character, and Meg Caddy manages to bring her to life in the form of a kick-ass heroine, without crossing over into cliche female protagonist territory. Anne Bonny is rebellious, feisty, and clever, but she’s can also be reckless, stubborn, and selfish. She’s also kind, loyal, and a great friend.  Overall, she is a brilliant character to follow, and I would definitely want to read more of her story.

I also really enjoyed Martin Read’s character, who, without spoiling any of the story, is also inspired by a historical pirate, and whose friendship with Anne was one of my favourite parts of the story. I was also surprised to have enjoyed the chapters which were narrated by Captain Barnet, as Meg Caddy managed to craft the villain of the story as a fully three-dimensional figure.

Devil’s Ballast, by virtue of being a pirate novel, features lots of different characters and locations: multiple ships, their crews, a well as a number of Caribbean cities. Nevertheless, it never felt too dense or convoluted and the characters all stood out as individuals and had a purpose in the story. I thought that this was especially impressive as the book wasn’t very long.

Overall, this was an easy 5 stars. This book is a page-turner kept me entertained the whole way through. I’m not sure if Meg Caddy has planned this to be a series, but I would definitely read more stories of Anne Bonny and her pirate friends.

Book Reviews, Contemporary, YA Contemporary, Young Adult

The Book of Unknown Americans – Cristina Henriquez Review

The Book of Unknown Americans: Amazon.co.uk: Cristina Henriquez ...

Rating: ★★★★★

This is a beautiful story of Latin American immigrants in America, learning to live in and love a country that doesn’t love them back. If you are looking for a new #ownvoices book to add to your TBR, add this one straight away!

After their daughter Maribel suffers a traumatic brain injury, the Riveras leave their native Mexico to move to America, where the offer of specialist education gives them hope that their daughter will one day be how she was before. In the same apartment block, Mayor, a Panamanian boy who struggles to live up to the high standards set by his older brother, the golden boy. Mayor is instantly taken with Maribel, and is one of the few people able to get through to her. However, when violence reaches the families and threatens everything they have fought so hard for, will Maribel and Mayor make it through? And will the Riveras’ move to America be worth it?

This book was so well written and some of the passages fully took my breath away and were so beautiful I had to re-read. I could relate to the stories in the book, which were so expertly crafted and realistic that they felt like true reflections of the stories of my family members and friends. You can really feel the benefit of an #ownvoices author in a book like this, that does not use immigration simply as a topic for discussion but understands the real lives behind the story.

Although Mayor and Mirabel are presented as main characters, I loved the whole cast. In particular, I really liked reading Maribel’s mum’s chapters, and her journey of struggling with motherhood, a new language, and grieving for the daughter she had before Mirabel’s injury. My favourite part of the book was the snapshots into the lives of the background characters, each of which was given a short chapter where you learn about where they’ve come from, why they left, and what they hoped to find in America. I couldn’t help but cry at some of the stories and it added a really moving and human touch to the book.

Overall, I could not recommend this book more. I am surprised that it has not received more attention, as it is honestly one of the most emotional books I’ve read.

Book Reviews, Contemporary, YA Contemporary, Young Adult

Dear Edward – Ann Napolitano Review

Dear Edward by Ann Napolitano
Rating: ★★★★

Dear Edward is a touching story about a young boy finding his world in a world that has fallen apart.

Edward is 12 years old when his family decide to move from New York to California. The family are ready for a new start, but their plane crashes and Edward is the sole survivor. Suddenly, his life has changed completely. He is living with his aunt and uncle in New Jersey and he is broken in more ways than he can count. However, when he finds bags full of letters from the loved ones of the other 191 passengers who didn’t make it, these slowly stir him back into action and help him to find purpose.

Much of the book deals with very difficult and emotional topics such as Edward’s grief and his aunt and uncle’s relationship struggles. However, Ann Napolitano’s writing was really beautiful and meant that the passages were touching and not too heavy to bear. Similarly, much of the book deals with Edward getting used to his new daily routine – a new school, new friends. Napolitano manages to really explore what is going on in Edward’s brain in these moments without detracting from the story. This meant that the inward journey that Edward goes on is always balanced perfectly with the plot of the book, the two work alongside each other perfectly.

I really liked the cast of characters in this book. Edward’s friend Shay was fun and I felt like you saw her grow up from a precocious 12 year old into a bold and brash teenager. I felt personally invested in the relationship between Edward’s aunt and uncle, and I absolutely loved Edward’s school principal with his wisdom and love of plants. the characters all served a clear purpose, and were never overdone but simply felt like real people that you would want to know.

My only issue with Dear Edward was the pacing. The blurb of the book really emphasises the role that the letters play in the story, but Edward doesn’t discover these letters until more than halfway through the book. It’s not that the book was boring until this point was reached, in fact I still loved reading the lead up to this moment, but I felt a bit misled and like I spent most of the book waiting for something that happened quite near to the end. Perhaps if the blurb were more honest or the book had better pacing, I would have been able to really give myself over to the book without expectations.

Book Reviews, YA Contemporary, Young Adult

The Opposite of You – Lou Morgan Review

The Opposite of You by Lou Morgan

Rating: ★★

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

I love books about sisters and their relationships, and so I was intrigued in The Opposite of You from the start. However, this book simply did not go deep enough when exploring the characters, and the plot was too cliched for me.

Bex and Naomi are identical twins who used to be best friends. They used to know everything the other was thinking and feeling, they used to finish each other’s sentences and communicate without words. However, for the last few years they have drifted apart, and the connection that they used to have seems to be firmly closed. When Naomi goes missing, Bex must find a way to reopen that connection to find her sister.

Bex and Naomi are cookie cutter characters, with little dimension to them. Bex is the ‘good’ twin, and Naomi is the ‘bad’ twin. Bex is perfect, does well at school, is responsible and sensible with a group of close, equally sensible friends. Naomi, the bad twin, sneaks out at night, drinks, and generally disappoints her parents in every way. The pair’s relationship has essentially disintegrated so that Bex has no idea what her sister is up to. Despite their characters being a bit two dimensional, I did find the portrayal of their relationship interesting at times and simply wish it could have been explored more. I was particularly intrigued by the sisters’ desire to be individual and distinct from the other, and if their characters had been more fleshed out this could have been explored more.

In terms of plot, I think the book was lacking in depth and rushed to tick off the boxes of what the author felt should be addressed in a young adult mystery without actually devoting the time to develop any aspect of the book. The ‘mystery’ of where Naomi was was dampened by the fact that Naomi was a narrator, so although Bex has no idea where her sister is, we always do. I think it would have been much better if we stuck to Bex’s perspective, and perhaps only heard Naomi’s side of the story in the form of the flashbacks to when the sisters were younger. The use of dual narrators also felt repetitive and boring at times, as sometimes we were shown the same scene from the two perspectives. I also found the use of the twins’ mental connection to be a bit of a cop out, as it simply meant that Bex could solve everything by ‘connecting’ to her sister’s mind. I also didn’t like the ‘romance’ sub-plot, which felt out of place and unrealistic – I simply couldn’t relate at all to Bex going for coffee with a guy she has just met the day that her twin sister goes missing.

Overall, this book had potential and could have been really interesting. It reminded me a bit of Goodbye, Perfectly by Sara Barnard (see my review here), but it simply did not go far enough.

Book Reviews, YA Contemporary, Young Adult

Fangirl – Rainbow Rowell Review

Fangirl: Amazon.co.uk: Rowell, Rainbow: Books

Rating: ★★

Cath is a Simon Snow fangirl, and not just any fan, the biggest. She’s basically an internet celebrity, with her fanfiction story Carry On garnering thousands of views everyday. When she and her sister Wren head off to university, Cath struggles to adapt to the world around her and buries herself in what she knows, Carry On. However, soon the outside world starts to creep in. Her creative writing class excites her, her roommate Reagan becomes a firm friend, and Levi, Reagan’s best friend, more than catches her eye. Will she have to choose between the real world and Simon Snow’s world, or will she be able to balance the two?

While I did enjoy Fangirl, at times it just felt way too long. I think that this was exacerbated by the fact that Fangirl is a very character-driven novel, and so at times the plot not only takes a back seat, but disappears altogether. There were plenty of smaller storylines, such as Cath and Levi’s relationship, Cath’s writing assignments, and her father’ mental health crisis, but there were periods in between these events that meant that we’re simply reading Cath, sitting in her dorm room in front of her laptop, worrying about various other events. Personally, even though I love character-driven novels, I did get bored of Cath thinking about doing stuff and not actually doing anything. Luckily, Fangirl has a cast of fun and lively characters, and they were entertaining enough to keep me reading. If it had been more concise, I would have loved the book completely.

One of my favourite aspects of Fangirl was the exploration of fanfiction in a way that presented it as real literature, and not an embarrassing online subculture. The fact that Cath has so many online fans that she is even approached by one in the real world, and that her fans insist she finish publishing her story before the actual final book in the series is published. However, there were parts about it that I found annoying. I couldn’t really relate to Cath’s trouble when she submits fanfiction for her creative writing assignment, because I didn’t believe that someone as intelligent and creative as her wouldn’t know the rules regarding what she is allowed to submit. Personally, whenever I submitted work in my studies, I would pore over the rules and ensure that I hadn’t broken a single rule, and so it seemed unrealistic and just a little dumb of her to submit a Simon Snow story.

In addition, I hated the excerpts from the fictional Simon Snow novels and her own fanfiction stories and actually ended up skipping them altogether very early into the novel. I just did not care at all about Simon Snow’s story, and it did not contribute at all to the main story. It was enough to know that Simon Snow was a Harry-Potter-esque series of novels, without having it forced down my throat. Put simply, I had chosen to read Fangirl, and not Simon Snow, so the fact that it was interrupting the main story started to piss me off.

Overall, I liked Fangirl, but I didn’t love it. There were major issues in pacing for me that ruined what would otherwise have been a great reading experience, and these were so significant that they overpowered what was otherwise a really interesting concept and fun characters.

Book Reviews, YA Contemporary, Young Adult

Goodbye Days – Jeff Zentner Review

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Rating: ★★★★

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Goodbye Days follows Carver Briggs, who sent his friends, Mars, Eli and Blake, a simple text message one night asking where they were. It was as Mars tapped out his reply that the three friends were crashed into a truck and died, and Carver can’t shirk the feeling that it was his fault. To top it all off, his friends’ parents are asking him to help them say goodbye to their sons with ‘goodbye day’ ceremonies, all while he tries to figure out his feelings towards Eli’s girlfriend, Jesmyn. Goodbye Days was a really moving book and I loved the writing style, which was simple but emotional at the same time. I only had some problems with the characters and dialogue.

I think that Zentner did a really good job of exploring the emotional struggles of Carver following his friends’ death. After the funerals of his friends, Carver struggles with panic attacks and still sees his friends around him. He takes his sister’s advice and enlists the help of Dr. Mendez, a therapist, to help him recover, and this aspect of the story was my favourite. It was while I read this book that I realised I had not read many books showing male characters struggling with trauma and mental health problems, and so this was really refreshing to read.

The book also shows how other people are dealing with loss as Carver helps his friends’ families with ‘Goodbye Days’, where they spend one final day doing things that their loved one enjoyed doing, and sharing memories of them. I liked that each of the three families were dealing with their loss in different ways and I feel like Zentner did a really good job at allocating each of these families an appropriate amount of time to explore their stories.

Another aspect of the book is Carver’s friendship with Jesmyn, Eli’s girlfriend, as they pull together after Eli’s funeral. On the one hand, I liked how Zentner toed the line between friendship and romance so that the relationship never became too corny for the context of the overall story. On the other hand, Jesmyn quickly started to get on my nerves when it became clear that she was a bit of a manic pixie dream girl character, and aspect of her character became very repetitive. For example, the fact that she had ‘Filipino genes’ came up multiple times in random conversations, and the scene where she gets childishly excited at a thunder storm felt too childish for a teenage character to be believable. It simply felt like Zentner was shoving in some ‘different’ characteristics to make her stand out, but it felt jarring.

My only other issue with the book was that sometimes the dialogue felt unrealistic. For example, the writing style of the book was largely simplistic, but sometimes characters would dive into long speeches about their emotions, with complex imagery that did not seem real for teenage characters. It was a minor issue, because it wasn’t that  any of the writing was bad, it just sometimes felt inconsistent in style and tone.

Overall, Goodbye Days was a really good book and I loved the exploration of Carver’s mental health. It was great to read a male character dealing with their emotions, and especially via a therapist, a method which is not often portrayed positively in books. I liked the stories of grief of the different families, but Jesmyn fell flat for me and so this aspect of the book was not quite my cup of tea.

Book Reviews, YA Contemporary, Young Adult

Freshers – Tom Ellen and Lucy Ivison Review

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Rating: ★★★★

Freshers is a YA contemporary novel that follows Phoebe and Luke in their first term at university. I absolutely loved this novel, because it not only showed the highs and lows of the ‘freshers’ experience, and the relationships that the pair create, but it did it so well that I laughed out loud and couldn’t put the book down.

Phoebe and Luke went to school together, but never spoke, however, that doesn’t mean that Phoebe hasn’t noticed him. She is hopelessly head over heels with him, and when the chaos of freshers brings them together, she can’t believe her luck. As if that wasn’t good enough, her new friends in halls could not be any better, and university is everything she could have asked for. On the other hand, Luke is struggling to adapt. He broke up with his girlfriend of three years on his first night, and without his friends and school football team, he can’t seem to figure out who he wants to be in this new world. He thinks he has struck gold when he lands a spot on the university football team, but it’s not the environment he’s used to, and if he can’t fit in with the lads in his team, will he ever find his place?

My favourite thing in this book was that I felt like it accurately represented the struggles of starting university, or beginning afresh in any situation. I loved how even though Phoebe was having a great time, at times she was hit with intense homesickness, and in Luke’s story, he was confused that the reality of university wasn’t as exciting and positive as he had been told it was. Even though they do all of the things they’re ‘supposed’ to be doing at university, going out every night, getting drunk, at times they simply feel like they are going through the motions and not seeing the point. Even if you can’t relate to the specifics – for example, I didn’t drink at university, or go to ‘freshers’ nights, but I could relate to the fear of not being sure if you’re having as much fun as others around you, if you’re making enough friends, if you’re doing the right things, and I think most people could also relate to these fears.

There were so many fun characters to read in this novel, which made the story a much more interesting experience. I really enjoyed reading the scenes between Phoebe and her friends Liberty and Negin, and how they would come together in trying times, and their voices were so lifelike that I could almost hear them chattering next to me. I even liked the reference to people that they spotted around the campus but don’t know, which I found hilarious and so realistic – those miniature crushes that you develop on the attractive stranger that sits on the opposite side of the lecture hall and that you bond over with your friends. The only place where it fell flat was when these secondary characters became a part of the plot, because sometimes those characters weren’t well developed enough for me to recognise the significance of their role. For example, at one point, a character called Becky becomes a major part of the story, but I couldn’t actually remember who she was.

Also, although I liked how Phoebe and Lucy’s friends from before university made some small appearances, I would have really liked for their parents to make an appearance. We only saw a handful of text messages from Phoebe’s parents and nothing but a missed call from Luke’s. I realised after finishing the book that I didn’t know anything about either of their home lives or families and I think this could have been easily dealt with.

Overall, I really, really enjoyed Freshers and I think it is probably one of my favourite YA contemporary novels. I also really appreciated a novel that looks at the late teenage years and the university experience, as I feel like these years are often left out of fiction and forgotten. I enjoyed the different characters and relationships, but at times, it did feel like there were slightly too many and I couldn’t remember exactly who they were.