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The Truth and Lies of Ella Black by Emily Barr - Review

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Where did I get it? Netgalley, thank you to Penguin for the opportunity to read it!

What's it about? Ella Black is seventeen, and lives in Kent with her over protective parents. She is doing okay at school, although she has few friends. She has a hidden side - a side of herself that she calls Bella, for Bad Ella, a side that encourages her to get angry and lash out. She fights with herself daily to control Bella.

Then one day she's at school and in trying to protect her friend she gets into trouble. She's called to the headmistress' office and her mum is there, so she thinks she's in real trouble. But her mum tells her they've got to leave straight away, and before Ella knows it she's at Heathrow airport, headed with her parents to Rio.

They lie to her and tell her it's about her dad's work, but once in Rio it becomes clear that they're not telling her the truth. Still, Ella is trying to make the best of it in Rio, a place she's always wanted to visit, and she meets Christian. She sneaks out one night to meet him and then the next day breaks into the safe in her hotel room in order to get her phone back. There she finds a letter that proves she's not who she thinks she is. Ella Black is adopted, and her birth mother will be looking for her. 

Ella takes off, angry with her adoptive parents, and into the back streets of Rio. Things keep happening and keep happening, which is par for the course in Emily Barr novels, and although at about the 20% point I wasn't sure if I liked the book, I found I couldn't put it down and I read it in a couple of days. I did like it by the end. Often, with YA novels especially, I think about how I would have written the same book, and with this I just know I couldn't write a book like this. The energy within it and everything that happens is so different to my own style, but that's not to its detriment at all, it's just how I like to look at books. 

Ella isn't altogether a likeable character, I found, but I still wanted her to succeed and was behind her all the way, and I thought Emily did an excellent job of portraying a difficult character. I'm sad it took me so long to read this, to be honest, even though all of Book Twitter kept saying how great it was!

What age range is it for? 16+

Are any main characters LGBTQ+? No 

Are any main characters people of colour? There's a few people of colour around, and I thought Emily did a great job of getting across the racial mix of Rio 

Are any main characters disabled either mentally or physically? I'm going to say yes, since Ella has the stuff with Bella going on inside her. 

Is there any sex stuff? No

Are drugs mentioned or used? No 

Is there any talk of death? Yes, some of it is quite explicit 

Are there swear words? Yes 

What criticisms do I have? Almost none. I did have to suspend belief a couple of times, but I always feel like that about Emily's books (whether Young Adult or her adult novels, of which I've read several), They gallop through the story and make you suspend belief and just go with it for the sake of a good book, and I like that. 

Would I recommend the book? Yes 

Why did I choose to read it at this point in life? Honestly, I'd earmarked it to read on holiday but never got round to it, so it was at the front of my Kindle carousel. 

What other books is it like? Emily's other books definitely. I like that she always has exotic locations and believable female characters. Look at my tag for more by her!

How many stars? Four out of five

The Exact Opposite of Okay by Laura Steven - Review

Saturday, October 13, 2018

Where did I get it? I bought it at the Northern YA Lit Festival in March, and got it signed by Laura who was there introducing a panel. 

What's it about? Izzy O'Neill is eighteen and in her final year of school. She's an aspiring scriptwriter who can't afford to go to college as she's being brought up by her grandmother after the death of her parents. She has two best friends, Ajita and Danny. Danny is starting to act weird around her, and it becomes clear that he has a crush on Izzy, but she definitely doesn't feel the same way.

Then Izzy goes to a party, where she gets talking to Vaughan, the son of a senator, and has sex with him on a garden bench. She goes inside and gets talking to dishy basketballer Carson, and she has sex with him too. She chats to Vaughan after the party and he sends her a dick pic. She sends him back a nude. 

Then a website appears, calling Izzy a World Class Whore. The details of her sexual encounters are given explicitly, and her phone has been hacked and the nude photos have been stolen. All of a sudden, she's a pariah at school, whispered about in the corridors and abandoned by her friends. Then the story goes global and everything goes from bad to worse.

The book is, in the main, extremely positive. There's lots of good messages given, like the fact that Izzy shouldn't feel ashamed for having sex or for sending a nude picture, and to do with Danny complaining about being "friend zoned" (as she's totally within her rights to not feel the same way about him as he feels about her). Izzy is funny and fiesty, and very irreverent. I think for a teenager, this would be a good book with overt feminist overtones; I like the messages that were given out, mostly. 

I didn't understand why the book was set in the US. Laura is British and a lot of the phrasing seemed more British English than American. The only reason I can think of is that so-called "revenge porn" (sharing of someone else's intimate photos) is now illegal in this country, but it isn't in most of the US. I get that setting it in the UK would have meant the story would have to change, because it would have had police involvement, but I found it quite jarring to have everything feel British but for it to be set in the States. 

What age range is it for? 16+

Are any main characters LGBTQ+? Yes, it's a subplot, one which I quite liked. 

Are any main characters people of colour? Ajita is Hindu and Carson is black. I felt like the Hindu family was portrayed in somewhat of a bad light and I didn't particularly like it.

Are any main characters disabled either mentally or physically? No 

Is there any sex stuff? Yes, obviously. It's quite explicit but as I said, very sex positive. 

Are drugs mentioned or used? I don't think so? Only alcohol. 

Is there any talk of death? Yes, and it is somewhat explicit. 

Are there swear words? Yes, lots

What criticisms do I have? I found the setting a bit jarring, as above. I also thought that a couple of times Izzy's jokes were really off colour and I didn't like that. I get that she was really irreverent and jokey and that she did that to mask the trauma that she'd been through, but I felt it went a little too far. I do think that for a teenager it is a great introduction to sex positivity, body positivity, the myth of the Nice Guy, and basically how to be a kickass teenaged girl, so I'm trying to review this book from that point of view rather than from my own, older, perspective. I like Laura as a person and I know I'll follow her career, but I didn't love this book as much as I hoped to. 

I also wish that Izzy had told her grandma what was happening much earlier than she did. I understand the reasons given why she didn't, that she didn't want to worry her grandma who is in somewhat ill health and working all hours to keep a roof over their heads, but I really wish she had asked for an adult's help. I also thought the school behaved abysmally and didn't protect Izzy the way I wished!

Would I recommend the book? Yes, if you are a teenager. 

Why did I choose to read it at this point in life? I was just idling my shelves as usual!

What other books is it like? Izzy reminded me of Billie in Dress Codes for Small Towns as she had the same feeling of being watched and judged. I think Billie and Izzy could be friends for sure!

How many stars? Three out of five. For myself, I didn't love it, but I think a lot of teenagers would. I'd definitely read something else by Laura though. 

Where is the book going now? I'll keep it - it's signed to me after all!

The Last by Hanna Jameson - Review

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

This is genuinely one of the most unsettling books I've ever read in my life - and I loved it.

I got it off Netgalley, so thank you to Penguin for granting it to me. I had actually got an email fron Netgalley about the book, and although I usually ignore those things, the blurb about this book got me so intrigued that I immediately requested the book and then, unusually for me, immediately read it.

So the basic premise is that the world has ended. Our protagonist is Jon, an American, who's at a conference in Switzerland when nuclear war breaks out. Washington is taken out, and then more and more of the big cities. People flee the hotel he's staying at. Clouds of radiation start to form everywhere; the sun never breaks through anymore. Jon ends up in the hotel with around twenty other survivors. Several are members of staff, and between the twenty of them are a couple of Americans, some Germans, some French, some Japanese people. They're not sure how many other survivors there are around and they decide the best thing to do is to hunker down and survive.

Jon volunteers for a bunch of things around the hotel, mostly to keep himself busy and to stop himself thinking about his family. He doesn't know whether his wife and daughters survived in San Francisco or not, and he's driving himself a bit mad with all his regrets.

The story of the end of the world would be interesting enough by itself, and indeed, it made me think a lot about the type of person I would be in that kind of crisis. Honestly, I don't think I have much of a survival instinct so hunkering down in a hotel is probably what I'd do. One of my other favourite books about the apocalypse is Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel, where a flu epidemic wipes out most of the population. Here it's nuclear war, and I liked to read the things that were similar and things that the authors had imagined differently. I think one of the main things would be medical issues, which are highlighted in The Last. We're so lucky to just be able to buy painkillers over the counter and access antibiotics when needed, and those things run out fast.

But The Last doesn't just concentrate on the apocalypse. Jon volunteers to look in the water tanks on the roof with Dylan and Nathan who are both members of staff, and while they're up there they find a body in one of the tanks. Jon starts to look into the murder, but strange things start to happen and Jon starts to doubt his own sanity. The hotel itself has a strange pull, and threats from outside are looming all the time...

Jon is an unreliable narrator for sure, and he's not always the most likeable of people either. I felt like the ending was a tiny bit unresolved for me, but I also think that it was how a book of this nature had to end, because the world itself was ending. How hopeful could it be?

I really recommend the book, I thought it was really well done and compulsive reading, I couldn't stop reading! It's out in January 2019. I'd definitely read something else by Hanna now!

The Last Summer of Us by Maggie Harcourt - Review

Sunday, October 7, 2018

Where did I get it? I can't quite remember... I thought I'd got it at YALC one year but it's not in the photos, and I can't find it in my emails... so I'm not sure! But it's been on my shelves for ages. 

What's it about? Limpet (a nickname) has just lost her mum. At the beginning of the book it's the day of the funeral. Limpet is kind of in a mess (obviously), but she has her best friends Steffan and Jared around. 

Both rugby players, they've been friends since they were really little and they riff off each other. Steffan and Limpet - it was he who gave her the nickname - have been friends sinxe Year 8 when Steffan saved her from bullies, and although she is friends with Jared she doesn't know him that well. 

Steffan suggests that the three of them take off for a few days after the funeral, on a bit of a road trip at the end of the summer, in his rusty old car. The book is set in Wales, so there's lots of gorgeous countryside to roam around in. 

Throughout the book lots of secrets come out. Life is changing and Limpet has to come to terms with the past in order to look to the future. 

What age range is it for? 14+, there's nothing salacious

Are any main characters LGBTQ+? No 

Are any main characters people of colour? No 

Are any main characters disabled either mentally or physically? There's some discussion of difficult topics, yep, so be careful 

Is there any sex stuff? No 

Are drugs mentioned or used? Yes, pot, and alcohol 

Is there any talk of death? Yes, obviously. It's not graphic but again be careful 

Are there swear words? Not many 

What criticisms do I have? I just thought the plot was a bit thin. I felt like the book took a lot of time to say not very much. Not much happens, and I felt like Limpet's emotions were explained a bit too much rather than shown to us. I would have liked parts from the others' points of view, because I think that would have added to the understanding of the boys. as it is, they come off quite one dimensional and full of in jokes that fall a bit flat. I just felt like things were over explained, and I didn't like it very much.

I also think that a lot of what Limpet goes through in regards to her mum just wasn't realistic. The grieving process is a lot longer than what's portrayed and I found that a bit distasteful, especially as someone who lost my dad when I wasn't very old. I didn't like it. 

Would I recommend the book? Honestly, no. I didn't love it, and I liked the concept. I thought it had a good setting, and I'm definitely in favour of Welsh speakers in books, but I didn't think it lived up to expectation. 

Why did I choose to read it at this point in life? I was browsing the shelves and it was near the end. 

What other books is it like? Hmmm... No I'm drawing a blank. 

How many stars? Two out of five

Where is the book going now? I'll probably donate it at some point!

Bitter Orange by Claire Fuller - Review

Friday, October 5, 2018

While wandering round the library last week I picked this up. It's new, I was only the second borrower, and the cover appealed to me. I've previously read Our Endless Numbered Days by Claire Fuller, and I know I've got Swimming Lessons to read from Netgalley, so I thought I'd pick this up. I loved it, I'm really glad I caught sight of it on the shelf!

It's set in 1969, our protagonist is Frances, who is 39 in 1969. She has recently lost her mother and gets the opportunity to leave London. She is offered a job at Lyntons, a crumbling stately home in the countryside, and tasked with cataloguing the gardens and the follies and so forth in it. At Lyntons she meets Peter and Cara, an odd couple with strange backgrounds. Peter has been given the job of cataloguing everything inside the house. Conditions are austere - all three must sleep on army beds and sit on packing cases. Frances has been given rooms upstairs in the attic, and when she loses an earring she realises that one floorboard is loose. Upon inspection she finds a hole into Peter and Cara's bathroom and is unable to resist watching them.

The three become somewhat unlikely friends and Frances starts to hear Cara's story about how she and Peter met. The summer wears on, oppressively, while Frances hears strange noises at night and sees faces at windows.

Meanwhile, twenty years later, Frances is dying, and suffering from confusion in her surroundings. She is visited by Victor, the vicar from the church near Lyntons, who wants to tease out of her what really happened that summer.

The book has more than a bit of the gothic about it, a definite feel of a writer like Daphne du Maurier. I couldn't put it down, it kept me turning the pages. I liked Our Endless Numbered Days a lot but I feel like this is lots better. I liked Frances and really understood her as a character, even while I didn't agree with everything she did. I'm giving it five out of five for being so good!

A Cool Head by Ian Rankin - Review

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

I got this book at the library, it was one of a bunch of Quick Reads all in similar covers propped on top of a shelf, and I looked through quite a few of them. There were some classics like Animal Farm and some other crime stuff like this, I thought it was a good way of getting casual readers into reading and getting people to feel the accomplishment of finishing a whole book. I like Ian Rankin's Rebus novels, and I loved the ones he wrote under the name Jack Harvey, which are all really good thrillers, so I thought I'd give this a go.

It's a good short story about an underworld boss and a couple of people who get involved in something without meaning to. I liked it, it was funny in parts and delightfully Rankin the whole way through. I came back off holiday and ended up battling a horrible dental abscess, so something short and easy to read like this was perfect for me.

Do you like Rankin's books?

Race to the Frozen North by Catherine Johnson - Review

Sunday, September 30, 2018

When I read about Cat's latest books, both historical books with black male protagonists, I ordered both. I read Freedom back in August, but this was still on pre-order and arrived just before I went on holiday, so I decided to take it on holiday as I had space in the suitcase. I read it in just an hour or so, and really liked it. 

It's one of the Barrington Stoke books with thick pages that are ideal for uncertain or dyslexic readers, and it also has the most gorgeous illustrations in it that I felt really added to the story. 

The story is the true story of Matthew Henson, a black American who went on expeditions to the Arctic Circle for years and years of his life, in search of making it to the North Pole. His endeavours weren't recognised at the time because of his colour, although he has been recognised in more recent years. We learn a bit about his childhood and his early life, and a little bit of his life at sea, and then more about his life in the Arctic and the people he met. My only criticism of this book is that it wasn't long enough! I could have read much more about Matthew's life and I think Cat has such a way of getting across the harsh realities of the lives of people of colour to the younger reader. More of these, please!



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