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The Last Days of Archie Maxwell by Annabel Pitcher - Review

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Where did I get it? I pre-ordered it, I've read a couple of other of Annabel's books and I tend to keep an eye on her new stuff, I've met her a couple of times and she's from where I'm from (broadly) and is only a couple of years older than I am. This arrived yesterday evening around 6pm, and I finished it this morning having read it in two bursts. It's one of those dyslexia friendly readable books, where it's printed on heavy paper in special colours. I'm not dyslexic but I do find these books easier to read! 

What's it about? It's a really short book, just 140 pages, so it doesn't encompass lots of happenings, but it's really good. Right at the beginning of the book we discover that Archie's mum and dad are splitting up, and then we find out that Dad is gay and has been hiding it for years. Mum and Archie's sisters Maisy and Amy are very accepting, but Archie is having trouble with it, especially because he fears what his so-called friends would say if they found out. He has been bullied in a previous school and sees bullying of a gay student at his new school. He really likes a girl called Tia, but she's caught up in grief. I don't want to say more or I'll give away the plot of the whole book! 

What age range is it for? Well, Archie is at least 13 (he talks about Dad taking him somewhere for his 13th birthday, although we don't know when that was) so while I would usually go for a couple of years younger than that for the ideal reader, I do think there is a lot here that may not be suitable for younger readers. So I'm going to say from 13 years old, since that's around how old Archie is. 

Are any main characters LGBTQ+? Yes, obviuously. There is some homophobic violence and a lot of homophobic language and imagery. If that is triggering, avoid the book. 

Are any main characters people of colour? If they are, it's not mentioned. It's something I would have liked to see, especially given that the book is set in Huddersfield which is very ethnically diverse. 

Are any main characters disabled either mentally or physically? Yes, there is some mental illness in the book. 

Is there any sex stuff? There's the violent imagery mentioned above and there's some discussion of it, but nothing really shown on the page. What there is from Archie's point of view is very normal teenage behaviour!

Are drugs mentioned or used? No 

Is there any talk of death? Yes, there's lots of talk of suicide so again take care of yourself. 

Are there swear words? Yes, tons. While I think it's very, very true to life even I was surprised how many words hadn't been edited out. 

What criticisms do I have? Almost literally nothing - I really loved the book and think Annabel has done a fantastic job writing in a very real way about difficult circumstances in the life of a teenager. If anything, I would have liked the book to be longer just so that we could have got more background on Archie and a more in-depth look! 

Would I recommend the book? Yes one hundred percent, especially to a reluctant reader. 

Why did I choose to read it at this point in life? I just basically couldn't resist it when it turned up at the door! 

What other books is it like? It does remind me of Ketchup Clouds by Annabel which I absolutely loved, I read it before I started this blog though. Annabel is very good at showing teenagers do really, really stupid things but in a way that totally makes sense for their character. 

How many stars? Five, it's not perfect but it is lovely and it made me feel a lot of things in such a short number of words. 

Where is the book going now? I'll keep it on my LGBTQ shelf, obviously! Firstly though I might lend it to my friend Laura - she's also a fan of Annabel! 

Little & Lion by Brandy Colbert - Review

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Where did I get it? I bought it on Kindle, it was £4.99 which is more than I generally like to spend on Kindle books, but I'd heard it was really good so I thought I'd give it a chance. 

What's it about? Suzette is coming back to LA at the beginning of the book. She has been at a boarding school in Massachussetts, sent away by her parents while they dealt with her brother Lionel's bipolar disorder the previous summer. Her brother's nickname is Lion, and he calls her Little, hence the title of the book. They are a blended family; Suzette and her mother are black, and while Saul and Lionel are white, they are Jewish. Suzette (and I think her mum too?) converted to Judaism and it's an important part of her identity too. 

While at school, Suzette had a relationship with her roommate Iris. The two were outed part way through the second semester, and broke up. Suzette likes girls and is coming to terms with that part of herself. Back in LA, Suzette starts to have a crush on her friend Emil, who she's known all their lives, but she also has a crush on Rafaela, a friend of a friend. Meanwhile, Lionel is getting iller and Suzette doesn't know how to cope. There's a lot going on in this book but it's an easy read. Suzette is very easy to like and I liked her family, I liked how each of them wasn't perfect but tried very hard to think of others. 

I felt like there were a lot of strands in the book that didn't get resolved, and they stopped it from being a perfect book for me. For instance, why was Catie so rude? How did Suzette and Iris get outed at school? How did they leave it between them? There were also tons of characters and at some points, like at parties, I had to concentrate really hard to remember who was who. I feel like some storylines and characters could have been cut without affecting the story. I know that life is messy and imperfect, so it could be that all these storylines were a conscious decision, but I would have liked the whole thing to be a bit tighter than it was. 

What age range is it for? 14+, for a discerning reader 

Are any main characters LGBTQ+? Yes, Suzette herself, and she has a couple of queer friends too. 

Are any main characters people of colour? Yes again, Suzette herself and her mum. Emil is mixed race, black and Korean. Rafaela is Hispanic too I think. There's a great bit when Suzette and Emil are swimming and get a racist comment from someone also there, and immediately call her out (although I wish she had apologised to their faces). 

Are any main characters disabled either mentally or physically? Yes, Lionel. The depiction of his bipolar disorder isn't too graphic, but may be too much for some readers. I felt like some bits were skated over, but I appreciate that this is a book for teens. 

Is there any sex stuff? Yes, and it is a great example of sex in YA literature. It's not graphic, it's very lovely, and they use protection. Wonderful! There's also descriptions of sexual assault, so be careful if that is a trigger for you. 

Are drugs mentioned or used? Yes, there's a couple of mentions of using weed, and there's obviously stuff about Lionel's prescription drugs too.  

Is there any talk of death? Yes, a little. 

Are there swear words? Yes, I thought the dialogue was really natural and lovely in a lot of places. 

What criticisms do I have? As I said, I think there were too many strands which never had a good resolution which I would have liked to see. 

Would I recommend the book? Yes, a hundred percent. It's really sweet and has a lot going on but it's done in a really good way. I would definitely read something else by this author. 

Why did I choose to read it at this point in life? I was scrolling through my Kindle and it was quite close to the top. 

What other books is it like? It reminded me in parts of As I Descended by Robin Talley, not just for the boarding school parts but for the best parts of being a teenager

How many stars? Four out of five. Not perfect, but really good!

The Betrayals by Fiona Neill - Review

Thursday, November 2, 2017

This a a really odd book and I was compelled to keep reading it, but I'm not sure if my review will totally do it justice. Firstly though this is definitely an adult book and contains sexual scenes, scenes of violence, and quite a bit of bad language, so be warned for those. There's also a lot of talk of death, self harm, and suicide.

The novel is about two families. Eight years ago they were separate families - Rosie and Nick were married, and had children Daisy and Max. Rosie's childhood friend Lisa was married to Barney, and they had children Rex and Ava. Lisa and Barney were having marital problems because of Barney's drinking, and the whole eight of them were on holiday in Norfolk, in Rosie's childhood home, an event that clearly happens every year. Soon after, Nick leaves Rosie for Lisa, an event that triggers the illness OCD in Daisy - or, at least, makes her much worse. We are told all this in flashback, because right at the beginning of the book it is the present time. Nick and Lisa are still together, Rosie is still working as an oncology doctor specialising in breast cancer, Daisy is "cured" of OCD and is at university, and Max is at university studying to be a doctor.

Then Rosie receives a letter from Lisa, where Lisa says that she is dying of cancer and wants to tell Rosie something. Daisy intercepts the letter and at first hides it from her mother. She is pretty sure she knows what Lisa wants to tell Rosie - what happened on the beach in Norfolk on the last day of their holiday.

Except, Daisy's recollections are, it becomes clear, flawed. The novel is told from her point of view as well as those of her parents and her brother. All four of them have different memories of the day, from the trivial to the significant. Nick is a memory research doctor and the book is kind of a concept novel around that. There's a lot about memory and its unreliability and about how trauma can stop us from making new memories or accurate ones. That's one reason why I found it such a compelling read. I kept picking up on inconsistencies, like Lisa's fringe, for example, and wasn't sure who to trust. In one way, they are all unreliable narrators. Daisy because of her illness, Max because of his guilt... and so on. I think Rosie actually comes across as the most reliable, and that's partly because of her profession - she's very cool, calm, and calming. This book is almost a concept novel but I don't think it quite worked.

There are, for example, parts of the novel which are supposedly set in the past but which contain anachronistic detail, like for instance eight years in the past 13 year old Daisy has a Facebook account, which I just don't believe was true in 2008/2009. Even further in the past has the two women drinking prosecco when their children were tiny, which I also don't believe actually happened. It just seemed like a little bit more editing would have caught errors like this. (And I guess, since this is a proof copy, that may have happened). There are questions that are left unanswered when they shouldn't have been, and I felt like the last twenty percent of the book was a bit rushed and not entirely satisfying. I also wouldn't really categorise this book as a thriller - it doesn't have that same adrenaline rush for me.

However, I'm giving it a solid three out of five because it is interesting, the characters are interesting, and it did keep me wanting to read. I felt like the portrayal of Daisy's OCD was extremely true to life and showed the way the illness devastated her life and those of the people who love her. Thank you very much to Penguin Michael Joseph for the proof copy - I liked it!

S.T.A.G.S. by M A Bennett - Review

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Where did I get it? I read the first chapter a few weeks ago in the Maximum Pop samplers and immediately ordered the book for myself. I was so intrigued so I knew I had to pick it up soon. 

What's it about? Greer is in her first year of the sixth form, known as Six One, at an exclusive school called St Aidan the Great School (hence the title of the book). She has won a scholarship to get there and feels like she doesn't fit in. For her first half term, no one speaks to her and she's quite lonely.

Then she's invited to spend the first weekend of October half term with Henry de Warlencourt and his friends. Henry and his five friends, Cookson, Piers, Charlotte, Esme, and Lara, are prefects known as 'Medievals' who rule the school. Everyone wants to be one of them and in with their crowd, so everyone at the school follows their whims and trends to try to get in with them. 

Greer is invited to spend the weekend 'huntin', shootin', and fishin''. She isn't certain about it, but her rooommate encourages her to go. Greer is driven across from Northumberland to Henry's house, Longcross. With her and the Medievals are two others who don't fit in - Chanel, who's dad invented a smartphone and who is therefore considered 'new money', and Shafeen, who is as rich as the Medievals but who will never fit in because he is Indian. The weekend begins with dinner, as the 9 teenagers get themselves organised for the weekend. 

I thought it was pretty obvious where this book was going to go, and I thought the ending was quite obvious too, but I appreciate that I'm an adult reading a book meant for teenagers. This isn't to say that I thought the book was bad - far from it! I thought there were plenty of twists and turns that kept me intrigued. There's also a few genuinely terrifying parts. The whole book has a really sticky and claustrophobic feel to it that really ups the ante. I liked the closed setting of the creepy old house in the middle of the countryside and felt it was perfect for a book like this.

I liked Chanel and Shafeen and was happy to know more about thier families and situations. In contrast, I felt like Greer was a bit on an unknown quantity. There is some stuff about her own family but not enough for my liking; it felt a bit like she existed in a vacuum. The Medievals are given just enough background to make them sinister. 

I think there is going to be a sequel - the ending certainly lends itself to one. I really enjoyed the book and would definitely buy the next one if it happens!

What age range is it for? 14+, probably. 

Are any main characters LGBTQ+? No 

Are any main characters people of colour? Yes, Shafeen. It's an integral part of why he doesn't fit in to the school. 

Are any main characters disabled either mentally or physically? No 

Is there any sex stuff? No 

Are drugs mentioned or used? No, there's a lot of alcohol though 

Is there any talk of death? Yes and it is quite gruesome in parts so be careful 

Are there swear words? No 

What criticisms do I have? As above, I'd like more insight into Greer's life before she was at STAGS. I felt like things were wrapped up a bit too quickly at the end, it felt a bit rushed. It does feel very much like there'll be a sequel and that did mean some things for left open. I did also feel like some of the anti-technology sentiments in the book were a bit overdone. Oh, also, from a writing point of view I kept getting confused between Chanel and Charlotte, their names were too similar for me. I'd have called Charlotte something else! Overall though I've very few criticisms as I really liked it. 

Would I recommend the book? Yes absolutely. 

What other books is it like? I really can't think of anything similar!

How many stars? Five out of five - not perfect but really excellent 

Where is the book going now? I think my friend Janet might appreciate a borrow of it! 

Freshers by Tom Ellen and Lucy Ivison - Review

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Where did I get it? I bought it on Kindle a few weeks ago, it was cheap.

What's it about? The story is told from two people's points of view. Phoebe and Luke have just arrived at the fictional York Met University, having been to the same school in London. For the past seven years Phoebe has had a huge crush on Luke. Luke has been with Abbey for three years and has basically never noticed Phoebe. 

On their first night on Freshers they end up sitting on a bridge by the lake together having rescued a fellow drunken fresher, and start a friendship. Luke has sort of broken up with Abbey, and he and Phoebe have a nice conversation and agree to go to Freshers' Fair together the next day. 

Phoebe makes friends with two girls in her flat, Negin and Becky, and a girl called Frankie who is the most hilarious part of the book. Luke tries out for the football team and has to undergo their initiation rites to get on to the first team. The two of them are doing the same degree and end up in seminars together. There are tons of twists and turns along the way in Luke and Phoebe's relationships and there are lots of important messages throughout the book as well as it just being really funny and intriguing. 

This book took me right back to being a Fresher myself way back in 2002. I went to York St John university, which isn't the main university but a smaller one, but obviously I know York well so it was lovely to read a book set there. I had friends at York university and the fictionalisation of it here seems pretty true to life. York Uni does have lakes and ducks and is campus based, so the novel was really believable from that point of view.

I was a pretty miserable Fresher myself; I didn't make many friends and felt very alone. I did eventually make friends but I could understand Luke's loneliness all too well. I love my dorm room at uni - I lived in a little house rather than a flat but I had an upstairs room and it was really cosy and 'mine'. I spent a lot of time there and really missed it when I had to move out - I loved the bed especially! I think that there's a lot of pressure on 18 year olds who are mostly away from home for the first time to have an amazing time as a Fresher and in the first term and maybe even the first year of uni, when actually it can be pretty daunting and scary, and I felt like Lucy and Tom did a really good job of showing that. 

Phoebe is a great character and I loved her friends. I liked a lot of the incidental characters like Ed, and yes, I even fell a bit for Luke. He is a bit of an idiot at times and most of his problems would be cured by just talking about something instead of assuming, but I did fall for his charm in the same way Phoebe did. 

This book is also really, really funny. I'm not someone who laughs out loud a lot at books, but I did for this many times. As I said, Frankie is especially hilarious but I think they all were at points. The authors have a real gift for comedy and I really liked that. I'd like to read their other books now.

I'm interested in how they co-write. I saw Lucy and Tom on a panel at YALC in 2015 but it was about sex in YA I think, so I'd be interested in hearing about how they co-write. It must be so difficult but maybe really rewarding? They probably bounce off each other a lot. It must also take a lot of pre-planning too! I would like to know more. 

Lastly, I think the sex scenes represented in the book are really realistic and show both the good sides and the bad sides of sex. I love it when sex is written so realistically like this. Especially when there are condoms and frank conversations involved! 

What age range is it for? 16+, I think. There are quite a lot of mature themes. 

Are any main characters LGBTQ+? No, I wish there had been if I'm honest. 

Are any main characters people of colour? I think Negin is a person of colour but I'm not entirely sure. 

Are any main characters disabled either mentally or physically? No. 

Is there any sex stuff? Yes, lots. It is portrayed, as I've said, very realistically, and also for the most part very positively. No one is shamed for having sex, and when people try to shame others, it's shut down. It's a pretty big part of the novel and one which I felt was done really well. 

Are drugs mentioned or used? There are a couple of characters who smoke weed but that's literally it. 

Is there any talk of death? No 

Are there swear words? Yes, lots. I think it's really realistic of how teenagers speak, but your mileage may vary. 

What criticisms do I have? Okay, first of all I did like the book and I hope that comes across in this review. However, I wanted to edit some of the dialogue because it bothered me, and I also think that the word 'said' will do most of the time. In one part, someone screams, someone shouts, and someone bellows, all within about two minutes of each other and it was just too much. You can just say said! It's fine! Said is good! You can show that someone is speaking loudly without using a word like 'scream'. Do people generally scream a lot? It bothered me. 

Secondly, I felt like there were a couple of plot lines that just got forgotten. For example Phoebe signs up for Quidditch and there's supposed to be a match against a different university, but it never happens in favour of other plot lines. It happened a couple of times and the completist in me just wanted to know what happened!

I also didn't entirely feel like the book was set in the late 2010s, eg 2016 or 2017. It felt earlier than that to me, and the use of social media wasn't shown as much as it would be for teenagers starting uni today.

These were seriously just niggles against the whole of the book though.

Would I recommend the book? Yes absolutely. If you've ever been a Fresher, read it now. 

Why did I choose to read it at this point in life? I knew I wanted to get to it soon after buying it. 

What other books is it like? You know, I really don't know. I don't think I've read too many YA novels set at university and I'd really like to read more. 

How many stars? I gave it four out of five on Goodreads, but it's really more of a four and a half. Very close to being a five. Delightful book and so funny. 

Did Not Finish - This Beats Perfect by Rebecca Denton

Thursday, October 26, 2017

It is so rare that I don't finish a book so when I don't, I feel really bad about it. But I've not been reading like a smart reader recently, for one reason and another, so I decided to fall back on a rule I read once. The rule said that if you're under 50 years old, you should read fifty pages of a book before deciding whether to give up on it or not. If you're over 50 years old, you can deduct every year over 50 off the pages you should read. So my mum, who is about to turn sixty, should read forty pages of a book before giving up on it, and my grandma, who is 91, should read just nine pages of a book before being allowed to toss it. It makes sense, right, no one who is 91 has time to spend on a book that just isn't grabbing them!

I'm 33, so a fair way under the fifty years old, so I'm stuck with fifty pages. So I picked up This Beats Perfect as I've heard loads of good things about it, and I also knew I was about to start editing my own novel, which is about a band. As This Beats Perfect is also about the music scene, I thought it might be good to read.

However, I just couldn't get into it. At the beginning of the book, it's Amelie's birthday and she's going backstage at a gig that her dad is doing the sound for - he's pretty famous at doing that. The band on stage is The Keep, a boy band that Amelie feels she is far too good for. She gets photogrpahed with one of the band and wakes up to a million Twitter notifications, all wondering who she is.

I was a bit unsure about this beginning to the novel, because it just didn't grab me. It seemed to be existing in nothingness. We saw Amelie and the band and her dad and a couple of other people, but we didn't care about them enough to get emotionall invested. The second part of the book (around 60 pages in, I actually went over the 50 pages before I gave up because I really did want to give it a chance) has Amelie celebrate her birthday with her mum the next day, but it seemed to flash forwards and backwards in time with no warning, and I couldn't centre Amelie very well in that world either.

So, I gave up. Do I feel bad about it? Yes. Do I think this author is a bad author? Of course not. I would give her another chance, for sure. I just didn't click with this book - and that's okay.

Reading the beginning of this combined with reading my own novel brought one thing very clear to me - writing about music is hard. Music is such a sensory experience, but it's auditory, and auditory traits don't tend to translate well on to the page, which we read and don't always otherwise interact with. There's a couple of bits in my own novel where I hope I get across the idea that playing a gig is scary and exhilarating and thrilling and sometimes painful and often amazing. I probably need to work on them more, but it's definitely something I want to pay attention to.

There are a couple of books about music that I really do love, like Songs About A Girl by Chris Russell and My Secret Rockstar Boyfriend by Eleanor Wood. You can check out all my posts with the label 'music' here.

The Blood Card by Elly Griffiths - Review

Monday, October 23, 2017

It's no secret that Elly Griffiths is one of my favourite novelists. I really like her Ruth Galloway novels, which are set in modern times and focus on Ruth, an archaelogist, who is asked to help the police on a number of investigations. I love them, so when I first heard that Elly was writing a new series set in the 50s I was excited to read them. This is the third one in the series and I've read all three. I think this is the best one, actually!

The series focusses on Edgar and Max. Edgar is a policeman in Brighton, but in the war he was part of the Magic Men, an elite group trying to fool the Nazis in Norway. Also part of the group was Max, who is a magician. In the first novel we see the two of them reunite after several years not seeing each other, and Max helps Edgar solve a crime relating to someone else who was in the Magic Men.

In this novel, a Roma fortune teller has been killed and her death has been put down as an accident, but Edgar isn't sure that it was. It's the eve of the queen's coronation in 1953 and there's some concern that there is a threat there. Then a general comes to ask Edgar and Max for their help looking at the death of a colonel that he thinks might be linked, and there's still the mystery of the fortune teller's death to deal with.

I like Edgar, he's pretty reliable and down to earth, and I like him as a narrator. Max's points of view can sometimes irritate, especially when it comes to his daughter, Ruby, who is Edgar's fiancee but who is in show business like Max, but he's basically a good person and I like him. In this book we also got the point of view of Edgar's sergeant, Emma, who is a really good egg, I like her a lot.

I figured out some of the twists in this but there was a really good one that I thought was brilliant and which I didn't see coming. It's all about magic and sleight of hand and I really liked it. It's not a perfect book by any means, but I did like it. I can't wait to read the next one!


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