Book review: Hate List by Jennifer Brown

The book:

Hate List by Jennifer Brown
Originally published in 2009
Pages: 432

My copy: Paperback

The blurb:

5 months ago Valerie Leftman’s boyfriend opened fire on their school cafeteria, killing five students and one teacher before turning the gun on himself. Valerie, who was shot trying to stop him, is initially implicated in the shootings because of the hate list she helped create. The hate list her boyfriend used to pick his targets.

As Valerie integrates back into school, more of an outsider than she ever thought she was before, she is forced to confront her feelings of guilt and loneliness. Exploring the gray area between hero and villain, she navigates the rocky relationships with her family, her former friends, with the memory of the boyfriend she still loves, and with the girl whose life she saved five months ago. As she moves toward graduation and the year anniversary of the shooting, Valerie must come to grips with the tragedy that took place and her role in it all in order to make amends and move on with her life.

My thoughts…

Five months after a fatal school shooting, the girlfriend of the now dead shooter has to return to school and face the music. Will everyone blame her for the shooting? After all, she did write a hate list which included the names of some of Nick’s victims – but she never really wished anyone dead.

I thought this was such an intriguing premise for a book, and I whizzed through the first half. The flashbacks to the day of the shooting were particularly interesting, and there was a lot of tension as you piece together what has happened on that awful day. But although the events are tragic, and we get another dimension by hearing more about the victims via newspaper accounts, the novel makes us really think about other issues such as bullying and its impact on the victims.

Where the book fell down for me was the focus on Valerie, mainly around her recovery from the incident – physically and mentally. I really wanted to find out more about Nick and what made him carry out the shooting. Early in the novel we find out he had a new friend called Julian, a bit of a loser by all accounts, and there are hints that Nick might have been influenced by Julian, and was dabbling in drugs. I would have loved more from Nick’s perspective or more insight into his family life and so on, as the small hints we get suggest he was a kind boyfriend to Valerie with a loving mother – not the typical villain at all. But these themes are never explored and Julian also disappears completely early on in the book, which felt like a really missed opportunity.

Also Valerie’s parents are just utterly horrendous, and seem to blame and – at times – almost despise Valerie for what has happened. I really wanted Valerie or someone else in the book to confront these horrible parents, but it never happened.

I think this book held a lot of promise but it didn’t all quite click for me. The novel felt too long, and by the second half my interest started to wane as all the attention was on Valerie. I wanted more about Nick and what made him tick, and why he finally flipped and carried out the shooting, but sadly this ever came. 

My rating: 6 out of 10

Book review: A Quiet Kind of Thunder by Sara Barnard

The book:

A Quiet Kind of Thunder by Sara Barnard
Originally published in 2017 by Macmillan Children’s Books
Pages: 320

My copy: Paperback

The blurb:

Steffi doesn’t talk.
Rhys can’t hear.
They understand each other perfectly.
Love isn’t always a lightning strike. Sometimes it’s the rumbling roll of thunder…

Steffi has been a selective mute for most of her life – she’s been silent for so long that she feels completely invisible. But Rhys, the new boy at school, sees her. He’s deaf, and her knowledge of basic sign language means that she’s assigned to look after him. To Rhys it doesn’t matter that Steffi doesn’t talk and, as they find ways to communicate, Steffi finds that she does have a voice, and that she’s falling in love with the one person who makes her feel brave enough to use it.

My thoughts…

Last year I read Beautiful Broken Things by Sara Barnard, and thoroughly enjoyed it. I was really looking forward to reading this, her new book, but sadly, overall, this book didn’t quite live up to her first for me personally.

Stefi is a selective mute. Rhys is deaf. They are able to communicate with each other using sign language, which works for both of them, and they find themselves forming a strong bond with each other almost immediately. I found the different ways the two found to communicate with each other to be really interesting, and I also felt for Rhys, who had decided to attend a normal sixth form but wasn’t well provided for. Despite this, he’s a strong and determined character. Stefi, meanwhile, battles her own demons, but finds that having someone to communicate with in sign language helps her to regain some confidence.

It was also interesting reading about Rhys and Stefi’s families, and I felt that I could definitely see where Stefi’s parents were coming from when they worried about her so much – even when this worry was sometimes unjustified. 

I sometimes find in young adult novels that diverse characters are shoehorned in, and it can often feel contrived. But I think this book really nails the diversity aspect incredibly well, and what made this work for me was that the characters were a natural part of the story, instead of it being obvious.

However despite the positives, this novel didn’t seem to me to be as complex or interesting as Beautiful Broken Things, and it did feel like a fluffy romance a lot of the time. Beyond the issues faced by the two protagonists, there just wasn’t enough here to keep me interested, and although the book was perfectly nice and easy to read, there really was nothing that made me want to pick it up each time I stopped reading. Rhys and his family are all just a bit too sweet and perfect, and there just didn’t seem to be a meaty enough plot here to keep me going, and it definitely lacked something for me overall.

But there is still enough here for me to think this is a good, worthwhile book with very positive representations of a range of characters. I wish there had been a bit more plot-wise, but I think many readers of young adult novels will still enjoy this. 

My rating: 6.5 out of 10

Book review: We Come Apart by Sarah Crossan and Brian Conaghan

The book:

We Come Apart by Sarah Crossan and Brian Conaghan
Published in 2017 by Bloomsbury Children
Pages: 366

My copy: Library

The blurb:

Jess would never have looked twice at Nicu if her friends hadn’t left her in the lurch. Nicu is all big eyes and ill-fitting clothes, eager as a puppy, even when they’re picking up litter in the park for community service. He’s so not her type. Appearances matter to Jess. She’s got a lot to hide.

Nicu thinks Jess is beautiful. His dad brought Nicu and his mum here for a better life, but now all they talk about is going back home to find Nicu a wife. The last thing Nicu wants is to get married. He wants to get educated, do better, stay here in England. But his dad’s fists are the most powerful force in Nicu’s life, and in the end, he’ll have to do what his dad wants.

As Nicu and Jess get closer, their secrets come to the surface like bruises. The only safe place they have is with each other. But they can’t be together, forever, and stay safe – can they?

My thoughts…

I have enjoyed Crossan’s other novels – particularly Apple and Rain – so I was looking forward to reading this one when I found it in the library.

Jess comes from a troubled home, and has to complete a course of community service clearing up a local park when she is caught shoplifting. Also on the course is Nicu – recently arrived from Romania and desperate to escape an arranged marriage. The two very slowly and cautiously become friends – with devastating consequences.

Like Crossan’s other books, this book is written in verse, and told in alternate chapters from each of the two main characters’ points of view. The style of writing creates an extremely quick read (you can easily get through this in an hour or two), and it also means that we get straight to the point – there is no superfluous description or rambling. Instead the action is very immediate. However, on the downside, this does sometimes make you feel like everything happens too quickly and you have little time to really get to know the characters or relate to any of them – and you definitely don’t get to know anything about the peripheral characters at all.

The friendship that develops between Jess and Nicu is very sweet, and it’s hard not to fall a bit for Nicu, who is kind and sensitive. Jess, on the other hand, isn’t so easy to like, and this contrast works well. And as we find out a bit more about her, it is easy to see why she is more cautious and suspicious than Nicu. 

I have quite mixed feelings about this book overall. Although I liked the two main characters and the relationship between them, the style of the novel makes it a bit too short for me to have invested anything in them – although I appreciate I am not the intended audience and that young adult readers may well like this shorter style. But I did finish the book feeling a bit indifferent – and considering what the characters went through I probably should have cared a bit more!

I also found some of the descriptions of north London life unconvincing . The novel is set in the present day (Brexit crops up several times), yet it felt like the residents of Wood Green, and the students in Jess and Nicu’s school, had never seen an eastern European before. It didn’t feel like the realities of living in a hugely diverse and mixed city were well portrayed at all. Also, I haven’t seen anyone selling travelcards outside tube stations, as the characters in the book do, for about ten years – again this small detail bugged me as it made me question how well the authors actually know the city where the novel is set.

But overall this was a very easy read and I liked that the ending left some questions unanswered and wasn’t a typically happy conclusion. I also liked the two main characters and their friendship. I definitely think this is a thought-provoking book for 13-14 year olds. 

My rating: 6 out of 10

Book review: Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs

The book:

Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs
Published by Quirk Books in 2011
Pages: 368

My copy: Library

The blurb:

A mysterious island. An abandoned orphanage. A strange collection of very curious photographs. As our story opens, a horrific family tragedy sets sixteen-year-old Jacob journeying to a remote island off the coast of Wales, where he discovers the crumbling ruins of Miss Peregrine s Home for Peculiar Children. As Jacob explores its abandoned bedrooms and hallways, it becomes clear that the children were more than just peculiar. They may have been dangerous. They may have been quarantined on a deserted island for good reason. And somehow impossible though it seems they may still be alive.

My thoughts…

This novel has been on my wishlist for absolute ages, and when I spotted it in the library near work I decided it was high time to give it a go. Our narrator is Jacob, a young boy who adores his grandfather and the stories of his childhood. Jacob’s grandfather grew up in a children’s home full of magical characters – a point he proves by showing Jacob photographic evidence, which is also reproduced throughout the novel.

I found the start of this novel compelling, and I liked the way in which Jacob became increasingly cynical about his grandfather’s fantastical stories as he grew older. In general I took to the character a lot. He is a bit of a loner, and a geek, but really quite funny and endearing in many ways too. 

Around a third of the way into the book, Jacob’s grandfather dies in mysterious circumstances and the action moves to Wales as a devastated Jacob travels with his father and goes to find out more about the children’s home his grandfather has told him so much about. This is when things start to get increasingly strange…

There is definitely something really unique about this book, and the use of photos throughout gave it a different dimension. I was interested to read that these are all real photos that the author had dug up and that the story was built around them, rather than the other way round. I did feel that sometimes the story felt a little contrived as the author tries to fit a photo into the narrative, and this did distract me a little, but overall I thought their use added an interesting edge to the novel.

I have to be honest at this stage and say that I don’t think this novel was really for me. I do enjoy YA literature in the main, but this went too far into the realm of magic and fantasy for me and although I did enjoy many aspects of the book, it was definitely too far out of my personal comfort zone! While this can often be a good thing, in this case it was definitely all the confirmation I need that the fantasy genre is not my thing!

So although my rating reflects my own personal enjoyment of the book, I do have to stress that I think it is probably a fantastic book of its genre. The characters are well developed and it is often funny as well as dark, and the balance of these factors seemed perfect. The added element of the photos gave the book a creepy edge and I really enjoyed looking at this quirky old images alongside the story.

My rating: 6 out of 10

Book review: For One More Day by Mitch Albom

The book:

For One More Day by Mitch Albom
Published 2007 by Sphere
Pages: 208

My copy: Secondhand copy

The blurb:

As a child, Charley Benetto was told by his father, ‘You can be a mama’s boy or a daddy’s boy, but you can’t be both.’ So he chooses his father, only to see him disappear when Charley is on the verge of adolescence. Decades later, Charley is a broken man. His life has been destroyed by alcohol and regret. He loses his job. He leaves his family. He hits rock bottom after discovering he won’t be invited to his only daughter’s wedding. And he decides to take his own life. Charley makes a midnight ride to his small hometown: his final journey. But as he staggers into his old house, he makes an astonishing discovery. His mother – who died eight years earlier – is there, and welcomes Charley home as if nothing had ever happened. What follows is the one seemingly ordinary day so many of us yearn for: a chance to make good with a lost parent, to explain the family secrets and to seek forgiveness.

My thoughts…

I have read and enjoyed several of Albom’s novels – although I wasn’t taken with perhaps his most famous Tuesdays with Morrie. But I loved Five People You Meet in Heaven, and The Time Keeper.

At the start of the novel, our narrator comes across Chick, an ex-baseball player. They get to talking and the narrator finds out about his life. We are then told the whole story from Chick’s point of view, as we hear how he was at his lowest ebb when the truly unexpected happened…

This is a lovely and touching book, and what really makes it for me is that it is so cleverly written. It isn’t highly stylised or wordy, it doesn’t try to be clever, it just tells you a really good story in a very readable and relatable way.  I read this book in just a few hours, so you could call it a novella really – and although it’s very sad it does make you think, which I feel is often the point of Albom’s novels.

Despite the simplicity of the story, there are a few small and clever twists at the end, which served to wrap the novel up perfectly.

I really liked this novel, and if you want a very quick and moving read, then I recommend this.

My rating: 9 out of 10

Book review: Bridge Daughter by Jim Nelson

The book:

Bridge Daughter by Jim Nelson
Published June 2016 by CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform
Pages: 218

My copy: Review copy

*** A big thank you to the author for sending me a review copy of this novel ***

514dwausgzl-_sx331_bo1204203200_The blurb:

Young Hanna thinks her thirteenth birthday will be no different than the one before—until her mother explains the facts of life. Hanna is a “bridge daughter,” born pregnant with her parents’ child. In a few months she will give birth and die, leaving her parents with their true daughter. A mature bookworm who dreams of college and career, Hanna is determined to overcome her biological fate. Navigating through a world eerily like our own, she confronts unyielding attitudes and instinctive fears as old as humankind itself. Then Hanna learns of an illegal procedure that will allow her to live to adulthood…at the cost of the child’s life.

My thoughts…

I was quite intrigued by the synopsis of this book, and although it didn’t sound like my usual sort of read, I was looking forward to trying something a bit different.

The concept – that certain girls are born pregnant with their parents’ ‘real’ child – is an odd one and I did wonder how the author would tackle this. But actually it’s done really well – the idea is dealt with in a simple way, without too much scientific explanation or description – the situation was just presented as how things are, so it is easier for the reader to accept it.

Hanna is a great character. She is so conflicted it is hard not to feel sorry for her and the situation she has found herself in. And adding another interesting dimension to the novel was the introduction of several other ‘bridge’ families, who dealt with the realities of their situation in contrasting ways. I think for young adult readers this is a really good way of giving them different perspectives and allow them to form an opinion on what is happening.

This was an interesting, easy read – I got through it in just a day – and I think it is definitely suitable for the target young adult audience and will really get them thinking. The ending didn’t go how I was expecting at all, but I say this as a positive as I think it worked really well in the context of the book.

My rating: 7 out of 10

Book review: How Not To Disappear by Clare Furniss

The book:

How Not To Disappear by Clare Furniss
Published 2016 by Simon & Schuster Children’s
Pages: 416

My copy: Library

51hou04g79l-_ac_us160_The blurb:

Hattie’s summer isn’t going as planned. Her two best friends have abandoned her and Hattie is stuck babysitting her twin siblings and dealing with endless drama around her mum’s wedding. Oh, and she’s also just discovered that she’s pregnant…Then Gloria, Hattie’s great-aunt who no one even knew existed, comes crashing into her life. Gloria’s fiercely independent, rather too fond of a gin sling and is in the early stages of dementia. Together the two of them set out on a road trip of self-discovery – Gloria to finally confront the secrets of her past and Hattie to face the hard choices that will determine her future…

My thoughts…

I loved The Year of the Rat when I read it last year, so was really pleased to find Furniss’s second novel in the library. I hoped it would be as good as her first – but in actual fact it was even better!

Hattie is 17, fed up as her friends have gone off travelling, and also – annoyingly – pregnant by a boy that everyone warned her was trouble. Then, to make matters worse, her mum goes off on holiday with her fiancée and Hattie’s twin siblings. So now she’s really on her own.

What she really needs is a new friend – and she gets one, in the most unlikely shape of her alcoholic great-aunt Gloria, who is not only eccentric and usually smashed, but was also shunned by her family (or did she shun them?), oh – and is also suffering from the early stages of dementia. Do any of these things stop Hattie setting of on a road trip across England with her? Nope!

This book manages to combine humour, sadness, teen pregnancy, dementia, racism, a bit of romance and family drama into one package, which could have gone horribly wrong, but instead works beautifully well. Firstly, we have Hattie who is witty and has quite an adult voice at times, but is also still obviously young and naïve in many ways. I loved her sister Alice with her pretensions to become a spy, and Alice’s twin brother Ollie who is sweet and sensitive. I also liked the fact that for once, the step-father really was the book’s good guy!

But it is Gloria who really makes the book shine. She is grumpy, rude and – usually – drunk, but she is also wise and utterly hilarious. Throughout the book we have shorter chapters telling us Gloria’s story and these worked brilliantly for me. They were short enough not to take away from the main story, but they also gave an insight into another world, which I think is quite rare in a lot of YA fiction, which tends to focus all its attentions on the younger generation.

I absolutely loved this novel and really can’t find fault with it. It made me laugh and cry, and the characters will stay with me for a long time. Just perfect!

My rating: 10 out of 10