Book Reviews, YA Contemporary, Young Adult

There’s Someone Inside Your House – Stephanie Perkins Review

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Rating:★★★

I mentioned this book in my End of the Year Book Tag post a few months ago as the book I was looking forward to reading this autumn, and I finally got around to it! There’s Someone Inside Your House was great, and even if some aspects fell a little flat, the story was fun enough for this to not bother me.  There’s Someone Inside Your House is a blend of teen fun and gruesome slasher fiction, with thrills and suspense to keep you hooked until the end.

Makani Young has been living in Osborne, a small town in the middle of nowhere, for a year since she ran away from a haunting past in Hawaii. Life with her grandmother has been quiet, normal, but that all ends now, because someone is murdering teenagers in Osborne in gruesome attacks, and it seems that there is nothing anybody can do to protect themselves. As the attacks draw nearer and nearer to home, Makani not only has to try to protect herself and the ones she loves, but also has to ask herself if the killer’s identity could be someone she knows.

First of all, I’ll start by saying that Stephanie Perkins is great at writing really tense scenes. The parts of the book that walk us through the attacks had so much suspense that I could not bear to put the book down during them. She drops nuggets of information throughout the text to tease you, and you feel yourself getting more and more anxious even though the characters often have no idea what is going on. These scenes were by far my favourite parts of the book, and the tension in them was high enough that, even though other parts of the book were not, I could ride on the coattails of that tension in the quieter parts of the book.

That being said, one weakness in the plot of this slasher/horror story was that, without spoiling the story, for much fo the book, the actual serial killer plot at the heart of the novel felt too detached from the main characters. At various points in the novel, Makani and her friends try to decipher the identity of the killer, or his motive for choosing particular victims, but it is difficult to try and take part in this activity yourself as a reader because we never meet the victims before they are killed. I knew nothing about the people in Osborne outside of Makani and her friends, I didn’t understand the different high school cliques and friendships, so how was I supposed to try and come up with my own theory?

This links into a more overriding weakness which is that of the characters being a bit too flat for my liking. Makani and Ollie are the main characters, and they aren’t boring to read, but there isn’t much to them. They have already hooked up before the novel begins, and they start dating more seriously. They’re a cute couple, but that’s about it. Makani and Ollie both have their own tragic backstories, but that does not make a vivid character. Similarly, I could not tell apart Makani’s two best friends Darby and Alex, which is lucky because they served no other purpose than to show that Makani had friends. All of the characters in There’s Someone Inside Your House are entirely two-dimensional; the victims are just there to die, the murderer is just there to kill, the cop character just drives around answering phone calls, Makani’s grandmother is just there to be a parental figure.

If it weren’t for Stephanie Perkins’s ability to build tension in the few scenes were action does happen, the whole novel would have been completely flat, because I wouldn’t have cared at all. I didn’t read because I cared particularly about the characters, but rather because it was exciting and got my adrenaline pumping a little bit to read the scenes where the attacker made his appearance.

Overall, There’s Someone Inside Your House isn’t a fantastic book, but it is good fun. I enjoyed it while I was reading it thanks to Stephanie Perkins’s writing, but the substance of the book, when you take a second, deeper look at it, isn’t really there.

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Book Reviews, YA Contemporary, Young Adult

S.T.A.G.S – M.A. Bennett Review

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Rating: ★★★★★

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

WOW! I am still reeling from this book even though I finished it hours ago, and if I didn't have a serious need to get through some books on my reading list before school starts, I would delve right back into S.T.A.G.S again from the beginning to see how many more little details I missed. I've already tweeted and told friends that this book is like Hogwarts meets How to Get Away With Murder, but there is honestly so much in this book to get excited about, and I hope I can control my excitement enough to write a coherent review.

S.T.A.G.S stands for St Aidan the Great School. It is the prestigious boarding school that Greer, the protagonist, has won a scholarship to attend for sixth form. Intimidated and lonely, surrounded by children who are wealthier than her and know all the rules better than she does, she is intrigued and excited when she receives The Invitation. She has been invited to spend a weekend 'huntin, shootin, fishin,' at Longcross, the manor house belonging to the school's golden boy, Henry de Warlencourt, along with his gang, called the Medievals, and two other misfits. However, Greer's belief that she might have finally been welcomed into S.T.A.G.S begins to waver. As each of the bloodsports ends in a well-timed 'accident', the three guests begin to wonder whether they are the predators, or the prey.

This novel has a mystery feel to it from the beginning. I loved how Bennett uses foreboding so well, instantly telling us from the start that a 'murder' takes place, and that there is something ominous going on in S.T.A.G.S, and yet, like Greer herself, we can't quite figure out what it is. Just as she does, we're suspicious of characters, and then we see them in a slightly more flattering light and we wonder whether they're really the bad guys at all, or whether they're just misunderstood. I liked how she alternated tense scenes, like the hunting scenes, with Downton Abbey-esque dinners, more romantic scenes, or slightly friendlier chats with the Medievals. It meant that your idea of the characters was never set in stone, and they changed with every scene. Until the very last page, you can't quite put your finger down on the problem, you can't figure out who the real bad guy is, where the 'bad guys' end and the 'good guys' begin, and how Greer and her friends will ever be able to escape.

The plot moves forward constantly, and even where the pace of the story is slower, there is always tension bubbling away beneath the surface. Every conversation that the characters have, every room that we enter, every little detail means something, and you are kept on your toes throughout. I loved the way that the three guests at Longcross, Greer, Nel, and Shafeen, come together to try and figure out what is really going on at Longcross, and discover that the seemingly harmless traditions of not using technology hide something far darker underneath. I never felt that Bennett's writing dragged the story down, even though she often described things like buildings and dresses, because she did so in a way that felt natural to Greer's voice and fit in with the story, and always picked up details that she had mentioned and made them important later in the story. She has an excellent skill at weaving details and storylines together in a way that you suspect they will add up to something more significant, but can't quite figure it out. In fact, right up until the last page, she is pulling tricks out of her sleeve and shocking you.

Underneath all of this excitement, mystery, and suspense, there are deeper themes of class, race, and tradition. Even if the setting of S.T.A.G.S and Longcross is as establishment as it comes, and as alien to you as it was to Greer and me, this book is not Downton Abbey or Hogwarts-esque. It isn't even, as Greer jokes, Mean Girls-esque. It is dark, thrilling, and thought-provoking. It makes you question establishment and traditions, and also wonder what deep, dark secrets could be lurking in plain sight.

I've said this in a few reviews recently, but this is definitely one of my books of the year, and even after writing this review, I'm still reeling. I just know that I'll read anything that M.A. Bennett writes after this.

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Book Reviews, Historical, Young Adult, Young Adult Historical

Following Ophelia – Sophia Bennett Review

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Rating: ★★★★★

I always enjoy books about art, artists, painting. The descriptions are always more vivid, drawing your attention to details that are sometimes taken for granted – the way light shines on fabric, the shade of sky in the morning. Following Ophelia did just that, as well as delivering an exciting story, an amazing protagonist, and an insight into both Victorian London and pre-Raphaelite society.

Mary Adams is new to London, having left her home in Kent to work as a scullery maid. Amongst the tiresome and endless work however, she catches the eye of London’s artistic circles, with her striking red hair and green eyes, that mark her out as the next ‘stunner’. She begins to model in secret for Felix Dawson, a promising but as yet unknown painter, who makes her feel seen and important, and is ferried about by her new friends under the fake name ‘Persephone Lavelle’. However, as big as London may be, society is small, and should her secret be found out, she could lose everything. When it comes under threat, Sophia has some startling decisions to make.

I took to Mary instantly. The book opens as she leans precariously over the edge of the ship transporting her through London, and she is instantly marked out as adventurous and slightly rebellious. She is clumsy but clever, and I admired her brain and wit. As she started modelling, I wondered when she would begin to do things for herself, however. It seemed like everything was happening to Mary, instead of because of her, and she was happy being pampered and adored by artists and their friends. Nevertheless, she proved me wrong, and my love for her doubled when Mary herself began to notice the shallow nature of the society she was keeping. She began to wish for something more than being stolen away from her life as a maid in secret to live as a lady in disguise, and realised that life as a lady and a model gave her little more freedom than life as a friend. It is only towards the later half of the book that Mary really begins to make her own choices, but this character growth was my favourite part of the novel, as we really see her grow and take ownership for her choices and her life.

I really love how Sophia Bennett has brought Victorian London and the art of the pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood into YA literature, and she did an excellent job at crafting this world. Her writing was beautiful and she described everything from dresses to houses and streets so well that you can imagine everything in your mind as you read, but it never felt convoluted and was never at the expense of plot. It all simply wove together perfectly. Further, I liked that significant figures in Victorian art kept popping up throughout the novel, such as Effie Gray, Rossetti and Lizzie Siddal popped up throughout the novel, sometimes as speaking characters and sometimes in the background, but there was never an info-dump or a feeling that I didn’t understand who the person was. Instead, Bennett feeds us tidbits of information about the artists and their lives throughout the story.

Overall, I really enjoyed Following Ophelia and would class it as one of my favourite reads of 2017. I rarely read historical novels as I become wary of having to learn too many facts to enjoy the story, and I rarely see Historical works in the Young Adult section, but Bennett managed to take an area of Victorian history and make it accessible and fun, creating her own story for the setting and a strong character that keeps us hooked with her adventures and her personal growth. I was surprised to see at the end of the book an advert for a sequel, and although I am usually apprehensive about YA series that are not fantasy or sci-fi, I can’t wait to follow Mary/Persephone in her story.

Book Reviews, YA Contemporary, Young Adult

My Heart and Other Black Holes – Jasmine Warga Review

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Rating:★★★★

I was concerned starting this book that it would fall into a lot of cliches, and to be fair, it did – a lot of cliches. However, I still enjoyed this book. The writing and the characters meant that the cliche plot didn’t stop me appreciating the book.

My Heart and Other Black Holes revolves around sixteen year old Aysel and Roman, who meet via a Suicide Partners website. Both want to die, and they agree to do it together, a month from their first meeting. They’re both running away from something, but as they spend more and more time together, Aysel starts to wonder if running away is really necessary, or if all you need is someone who understands you. Eventually, Aysel realises that there is more to live for than there is to run away from, but the clock is ticking, and Roman is much more committed to the plan than she is.

The first cliche that I was apprehensive of in this novel was the suicidal teen story. Obviously, suicide and depression are very important issues to address in fiction, but sometimes I worry that teen novels romanticise mental illness as characteristics and quirks. Warga addressed the feelings of both Aysel and Roman well enough that their problems didn’t feel like they were just being used to advance a plot. Aysel’s father committed a horrific crime a few years before, and she is running away from the fear that she is just as bad as he is. Roman is running away from guilt that he could have stopped a tragedy in his family. Warga wrote this after the death of a close friend and you can see clearly that her writing is influenced by real experiences. This novel is dark, because it honestly addresses the characters’ experiences, and while it is heart-wrenching at times, this means that overall, mental illness doesn’t feel like a prop.

Further, the characters both feel real and less like quirky caricatures than they sometimes feel in other teen novels that address characters with health problems. Instead of being one-dimensional and cookie-cutter characters that serve the author’s purpose of writing about their mental health problems, Aysel and Roman were multi-faceted and fun to read. Personally, I loved Aysel’s interest in physics and how it influences her narration of the story. She also talks us through some of her memories, and we see how these affect her, without an annoying info-dump or cringe-y flashback. Both Aysel and Roman have their own sense of humour and wit, and overall, they were just a lot of fun to read and very likeable characters.

All of these little cliches, however, developed into what felt like one big cliche. I don’t want to ruin the ending, but my feelings around the ending made me feel unsure about the  novel as a whole. On the one hand, all of the little cliches developed into a bigger cliche ending that wouldn’t feel out of place in a Lifetime movie. While this felt refreshing compared to other teen novels about mental health that sometimes feel like they romanticise huge tragedies, the ending isn’t objectively super happy. Rather, it is an open-ended and hopeful conclusion. However, the ending did feel a little rushed, and so the cliche aspect of the ending was emphasised until it was much stronger than it actually might have been.

Overall, it’s just my ambiguous feeling to the ending of My Heart and Other Black Holes that dampened my feelings to the novel overall. The characters were well-crafted and multi-faceted, and Jasmine Warga’s writing is excellent. While it was a really good read, I don’t feel like it made an impact in the same way that other novels on this topic has, but at the same time, I didn’t think that any aspects of her exposition of mental health and suicide was problematic or unresolved.

Book Reviews, YA Sci-Fi & Fantasy, Young Adult

Flame in the Mist – Renee Ahdieh Review

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Rating: ★★★

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

I knew absolutely nothing about this book when I went into it. The only thing I knew was that I really, really wanted to read Renee Ahdieh’s previous series The Wrath and the Dawn, and so I hoped Flame in the Mist would grab my attention in the same way. Renee’s writing is really wonderful, and I liked the characters and the setting of this novel, but some aspects of the story and the fantasy system fell flat to me and didn’t feel properly brought to life.

Flame in the Mist is about Mariko, the daughter of a prominent samurai, who is attacked by the mysterious bandits the Black Clan as she travels to marry a man she has never met in the imperial city. Furious and determined to prove her worth to her family as more than a pawn to be sold in marriage, Mariko sets out on a mission to find the Black Clan, infiltrate them, and find out who paid them to kill her. She dons the disguise of a boy and does just that, and delves into a world of secrets, lies, intrigue and war.

I enjoyed Mariko’s character and the Black Clan as a group. At first, I thought that Mariko might be a typical feisty strong female lead, but she is more than that. I appreciated that her strength lay more in her mind than in her physical abilities – she is not a fighter, although she tries. I also liked that we see her grapple with doubts and questions, as well as with a desire to be brave even though she cannot escape the fact that she is terrified. Okami and Ranmaru are the other two central characters in the Black Clan, and Mariko’s brother, who we follow as he tries to track his missing sister. I enjoyed reading about the connections between these characters, and especially that there were different types of relationships. The romance does not overpower the story at all, but instead there is just the right amount of love for me, and there are also great friendships in the novel. My main issue was that the book swaps perspectives between these characters quite a bit, as well as some other minor characters, and sometimes the way this was done felt disjointed and confusing, and I felt like Renee Ahdieh spread the narration too thinly among too many characters.

I have tried to pick apart exactly why I couldn’t connect to this story fully, and I couldn’t find a single reason. The opening half of the story felt very flat to me, principally because I couldn’t really understand why Mariko was doing what she was doing. I understood that she resented being married off, and I understood that she wanted to prove that she was more than just a weak girl, but I couldn’t understand how she made the link from that to infiltrating the Black Clan to discover why they had tried to kill her. After the initial section of Mariko trying to find the Clan, we then have to sit through a large chunk which consists of her being treated as a sort of servant, and read as Okami and Ranmaru question whether they trust her. I think that because I was bored in this first section, I missed some vital details about the characters Okami and Ranmaru that made the second part harder to understand and get excited about, even though I felt like the story was picking up. I couldn’t remember the details about the pair’s history, and I’m still not sure I understand it.

The fantasy was also a bit vague. I found it so intriguing – there were trees that suck the blood out of people, and foxes made of smoke, and characters that could fly. But I had no idea where any of this came from and how it worked. I felt like the magical aspects of the book were quite randomly dropped into the book and for quite a large chunk of the book I wasn’t sure if this was a fantasy novel or a sort of historical novel. When magic did turn up, it was merely shown for a passage, then it vanished again. It felt so random that I felt like it could have been taken out of the novel altogether and the story would have still functioned equally well without it.

Overall, there were parts of this book that I liked a lot and others that, although I didn’t dislike, I just didn’t really get. I would have loved for the story to have picked up quicker and for aspects of the novel to have been a bit clearer, specifically the magic system and the characters’ pasts and goals. Although I didn’t love this book, I think that I will read the second instalment of this duology when it is released just to see where the characters end up and where the story goes.

Book Reviews, YA Contemporary, Young Adult

Everything, Everything – Nicola Yoon Review

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Taken from: @inkdropsbooks (Instagram)

Rating: ★★★★

This book caught my eye because, well, because I’m pretty sure you can’t be into YA at the moment without having caught wind of Nicola Yoon’s novels. Both of them have been huge hits, and this novel Everything, Everything has even been made into a movie starring Amandla Sandberg. I just had to read this book and see what the fuss was about, and I get it. I really do. I read this book in less than a day, and if I hadn’t had things to do, I would have read it in one sitting. Madeline is captivating, and the story, and Nicola Yoon’s writing, swallowed me whole.

Madeline is 18 years old, but she spends every day cooped up in her completely clean, safe, cocoon of a house. Why? She has a condition called SCID, which means that she is effectively allergic to the world. One step outside, and something could trigger all sorts of horrible reactions. The world is literally out to kill her. Madeline is content with her life, which consists solely of her mother, her nurse Carla, her Skype tutors, and her books – that is, until a family move in next door. Olly is energetic, running up walls and jumping onto the roof; he is kind, protecting his mother from his abusive father; he is funny, communicating with Madeline by mimed conversations through the window and then through online messages. However, the more Madeline gets to interact with the outside world, the more she wants to be in it, and she has to decide whether life is better lived safely, or fully.

Madeline is such a wonderful main character and her voice is so strong that you feel like you know her. I love the way that Nicola Yoon has various different types of chapter in the book, so that you get a sense for different sides of Madeline. Some of the chapters were simple retellings of what is happening, while others were computer screenshots, or  diagrams, maps or IM conversations. These broke up the structure of the novel in a really fun way, because events that were perhaps more ordinary, like Madeline buying an entirely new wardrobe, could be put across to the reader quickly with a drawing. Others really got across the emotion that Madeline is feeling, whether it is the dream that is described in writing in the form of a spiral, or a map of her broken heart. They also bring you closer to Madeline in that you feel like you are reading her personal journal, seeing the doodles that she makes for her eyes only.

I also really enjoyed the relationship between Madeline and Olly. I loved the contrast between Olly and Madeline, and the fact that he in a way, symbolises everything that Madeline is missing outside. He wears all black to her all white, and while she is trapped inside her house, he is running around and practicing parkour. At the same time, he didn’t feel like a YA love interest cliche. He wasn’t a bad boy, he wasn’t cruel, he wasn’t a John Green quirky nerd. He felt as real as she did, and I never found myself wondering what was so special about Olly. He was genuinely nice. I also liked that although both of the characters come from very different family backgrounds, they both have to face the same challenge of finding a way to be free of their family’s control, and the idea that love can trap you as well as free you. This might seem a little vague, but I promise you, if you read this book you will see what I mean. This novel doesn’t portray love as being simple, and for such a short book, I think Nicola Yoon really explores the nature of love in all its forms really well, from Madeline’s controlling mother, acting out of love and trying to protect her daughter, to Olly’s mother who can’t find it in her to take herself out of a dangerous situation.

My only issue with this book was that I felt like the plot twist – without revealing anything spoiler-y – was a cop-out. All of the problems facing Madeline were solved with a flick of Yoon’s wrist, and the consequences of this plot twist didn’t felt properly dealt with enough. To be honest though, this was annoying, but it didn’t ruin the book for me. My favourite parts of the novel were the characters and their relationship, and this wasn’t really dampened by the weak plot. If Nicola Yoon had explored the various revelations made in a more nuanced way, this book would have been a 5-star read.

Overall, this book had so many wonderful aspects. I really recommend this if you are looking for a short and sweet read, whether you typically read YA or not, this is a brilliant and entertaining novel, and I can’t wait to read more of Nicola Yoon’s work.

Book Reviews, YA Contemporary, Young Adult

My Life As A Bench – Jaq Hazell Review

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Expected publication: May 2nd 2017
Rating: ★★★★★

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

This book was such a pleasant surprise. I was intrigued by the description, but to be honest, I was more curious than optimistic about it. It seemed like it would be weirdly executed and feel disjointed, rather than what it was, which was so much fun to read!

My Life As A Bench is about a seventeen year old girl called Lauren, or ‘Ren’, who is dead. That isn’t a spoiler, by the way, it’s just how the story begins. Ren has died, but she lives on in the bench that her father has had made in memory of her. Day in, day out, she looks out at the view of the River Thames from her bench, and relives her life. Although she has some companionship in the form of Leonard, the bench beside hers that houses the soul of an elderly man who died over twenty years before, she is completely alone, stuck watching as passersby walk past, sit on her, let their dogs urinate on her. Her family visit her regularly, but really it is her boyfriend Gabe that she is waiting for. When she finds out why Gabe hasn’t visited her, she is devastated, and must find a way to communicate with the living to help him.

What I really loved about this book is that although it is supernatural in a sense, it doesn’t feel like it. This book feels firmly like a YA coming of age story, even though the protagonist isn’t dead, and she isn’t going anywhere. Ren still goes on a journey over the course of the book, and she experiences vivid emotions like joy, love, sadness, anger, frustration. Even better, she is such a brilliant character and Hazell, in my opinion, captured the voice of an English teenager today so well that Ren jumps right off  the page. I felt like I knew her, like she was talking to me directly. Ren’s voice felt so real and personal that I didn’t even mind the way that the love story dominating the novel. Although I would have liked to have seen more of her life and relationships, it felt normal and fitting for her character; Ren was a selfish, and perhaps naive, teenager, and so even though I might not relate to the head-over-heels love for Gabe, it makes sense that after death, she would also be worried about the same things that she was worried about in life – her boyfriend.

Ren’s lively character contrasted so much with the fact that she is literally trapped in a bench, unable to communicate with the people that she wants to communicate with, that this book was often quite sad. It was interesting to read a book that felt so happy at times, but at other times made me feel so sorry for the main character. Every night, Ren relives her life, the friends that she made at her new school, her relationship with Gabe, and we are waiting for her to relive her ‘death day’ so we can find out what happened. These passages, where she is reliving falling in love and hanging out with her friends feel like any other YA contemporary drama, like a Jenny Han novel, but then Ren is brought back to reality by someone’s dog urinating on her bench, or kids making out on her. You really feel for her and her situation, and you want her to figure out whatever it is that she needs to figure out.

My only issue with this novel was that, in hindsight, there didn’t seem to be a clear plot progression. Yes, Ren was trying to find out how she died, and she did so,  and there was closure, but the problem wasn’t really solved. Although this was explained and in a way that is quite realistic, I just found myself being genuinely concerned for Ren. Was she going to be stuck in the bench for decades just like Lionel was? It was implied by Lionel’s character that the dead can ‘pass over’ in a sense and no longer live in their bench, and I thought that this would probably apply to Ren, but at the end, she is still in the bench, and I don’t want her to be stuck in the bench! She doesn’t deserve to be stuck in a bench, even if the people she loves do visit her all the time.

Overall, this book was great fun and a really unique and original concept. I was so impressed by the way Jaq Hazell captured Ren’s voice and character so well and made her feel so read, and the way that the concept itself didn’t feel weird or out of place. The whole story flowed and the two storylines, Ren in the bench and Ren’s memories, gelled together really well.

Book Reviews, YA Contemporary, Young Adult

All The Bright Places – Jennifer Niven Review

 

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Taken from: @inkdropsbooks (Instagram)

 

Rating:  ★ ★ ★ ★ ★

“You are all the colors in one, at full brightness.” 

This is the best YA contemporary novel I have read since I read Jandy Nelson’s books last year. Jennifer Niven’s writing is brilliant, and there is a great balance between the endearing relationship that is at the centre of the novel, and the far more weighty issues that it discusses.

all-the-bright-places-jktThe tagline of this book is “the story of a girl who learns to live from a boy who wants to die” and there isn’t really much more to say without going into spoilers. Violet Markey has just suffered a great loss, and during one of her lowest moments, she meets Theodore Finch, who spends his days assessing different methods of committing suicide. Their story starts when Finch saves  Violet, who was wandered up onto a roof, and is standing on the edge, and from there, the story begins.

Both Violet and Finch were so well written that they felt like real people. I loved reading their conversations, especially Finch, who is so lively and funny. Niven adds another layer to the story in the form of a school project, where Finch and Violet have to explore Indiana and write about the hidden locations that they have found. This means that we get to see them going on a series of adventures, which was a lot nicer than reading about two teenagers falling in love in a ‘normal’ setting like at school.

This book is obviously quite ‘deep’. It deals with very sensitive issues like grief, mental illness and depression, but I feel like Jennifer Niven dealt with these issues very sensitively, but also with sincerity and honesty. She captures the characters and their emotions so well that you really relate to their emotions, which helps you to understand a little of what they are feeling, and you feel captivated by the story, even though a voice in the back of your mind tells you where it’s going to end.