The Pearl Thief – Elizabeth Wein

I mentioned last week that I had every intention of reading The Pearl Thief before YALC starts – so I did. Running low on time to actually sit and read, I had the disjointed experience of alternating between audiobook and paperback, which was the first time I’ve done that. It was an interesting way to read the book, but it meant that I got through it much faster than I would have if I had stuck to only one or the other medium. I was predisposed to like this book before I started – I absolutely ADORED Code Name Verity, and have very much liked Rose Under Fire and Black Dove, White Raven. I knew this would be different to all of those, because it doesn’t have any pilots in it. It also covers Julia as a younger woman, on her summer holidays from her Swiss finishing school. But that doesn’t mean it’s not wonderful.

34593693From the internationally acclaimed bestselling author of Code Name Verity comes a stunning new story of pearls, love and murder – a mystery with all the suspense of an Agatha Christie and the intrigue of Downton Abbey.

Sixteen-year-old Julie Beaufort-Stuart is returning to her family’s ancestral home in Perthshire for one last summer. It is not an idyllic return to childhood. Her grandfather’s death has forced the sale of the house and estate and this will be a summer of goodbyes. Not least to the McEwen family – Highland travellers who have been part of the landscape for as long as anyone can remember – loved by the family, loathed by the authorities. Tensions are already high when a respected London archivist goes missing, presumed murdered. Suspicion quickly falls on the McEwens but Julie knows not one of them would do such a thing and is determined to prove everyone wrong. And then she notices the family’s treasure trove of pearls is missing.

This beautiful and evocative novel is the story of the irrepressible and unforgettable Julie, set in the year before the Second World War and the events of Code Name Verity. It is also a powerful portrayal of a community under pressure and one girl’s determination for justice.

There was so much to love in this book. A determined, aristocratic young girl who is saying goodbye to her ancestral home, and fighting against injustice for her newfound friends. A depiction of the Scottish Travelling community which is sympathetic but never schmaltzy. And a murder mystery which turns out to be nothing I would have ever expected it to be. This book had me gripped, as Julie wrestled with her feelings and began to discover her blossoming sexuality, and tried to solve the mystery of the missing pearls.

What was wonderful about this book was that none of the characters were black and white – from librarian Mary Kinnaird’s biased hatred of the McEwens to Julie’s own ignorance of her privileged background, every character is a rounded and believable human being, one that I could almost imagine stepping off the page to talk to me.

The Pearl Thief was excellent, with a gripping plot, wonderful characters, and a setting which oozed with the love the author clearly has for Perthshire Scotland.

The only reason this book doesn’t get a five-star rating from me is probably something of an unfair one – because CNV and RUF are so incredibly, touchingly, heartbreakingly wonderful, I felt like there was something – a tiny something – missing from this book, that it was missing the emotional resonance which made me sit for a few minutes after finishing the two sequels to this and just think for a while.

The Pearl Thief is excellent, there’s no doubt about it. But it’s not quite the wonder that Code Name Verity is.

Four Stars
****

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The Cows – Dawn O’Porter

An Audible choice which I saw a lot of on my twitter timeline as a seraingly funny, feminist, acerbic game-changer, I was quite excited to listen to this first adult book from Dawn O’Porter.
Boy, was I disappointed.

The Cows – Dawn O’Porter

32594947COW n. /ka?/

A piece of meat; born to breed; past its sell-by-date; one of the herd.

Women don’t have to fall into a stereotype.

The Cows is a powerful novel about three women. In all the noise of modern life, each needs to find their own voice.

It’s about friendship and being female.
It’s bold and brilliant.
It’s searingly perceptive.
It’s about never following the herd.
And everyone is going to be talking about it.

This book, at its most basic, follows the lives of three women, who are all connected by the loosest of circumstances. There’s Cam, a lifestyle blogger, and feminist, who is still struggling to convince her mother that her choice of being single and childless doesn’t make her a lesbian – or broken. Then there’s Stella, who’s still reeling from the loss of her mother and sister in less than a year, and the discovery that she has the BRCA gene, together with the attendant medical issues that brings. Finally we have Tara, a single mother of a six year old who’s trying to forge her way through the male-dominated world of documentary television.

The stories of these three women are loosely intertwined, although they become closer as the book progresses, and as three women in very different circumstances, many aspects of womanhood, femininity, and feminism are discussed – from pizza farts to periods, masturbation to mastectomies, nothing is off-limits in this no-holds-barred exposé of three very different women’s lives.

My problem with this book was that while lots of the discussion and themes in it were great – women being valued only for their ability to bear children, the nature of online criticism, the distinction between public and private lives, abortion, working women, and far more – they were all concealed under a horrendously slapstick storyline that was as cringeworthy as it was unbelievable.

Tara’s story especially was littered with the kind of humiliating episodes that I suspect would have been deemed by some as ‘screamingly funny’, but left me wincing (literally). If I had been reading, rather than listening, I think that many times during this book I would have closed one eye (or both) in horror, but that’s not so advisable when you’re driving, so I had to keep them open.

Then there was the sheer unbelievability of so many aspects of this story. There was Tara on the train, where she thought she was alone, but turned out not to be. It was never explained where the guy came from, or how Tara didn’t notice him. Infuriating. Jason, the male interest in the book, had an incident with a cyclist which was so unbelievable as to be eye-rolling. Cam’s staircase incident was not only awful, but also terribly written and thought through – apparently in fifteen hours none of her downstairs neighbours ventured outside their front doors, you see. Then there was the scene near the end with Jason, Stella, and Tara, which was timed something like those clichéd film scenes where the love interest storms down the aisle just as the officiant asks if anyone knows of any impediment to the marriage. God, the whole thing had me cringing so many times I didn’t know what to do with myself.

I really wanted to like this book. It was supposed to be funny, fierce, and feminist. But actually it ended up being a hot mess of three unlikeable characters who stumbled from unbelievable situation to horrendous overreaction to frankly ridiculous conclusions.

Finally, one major (I mean HUGE) plot point rested on Jason, the male lead, not having seen the news, read a paper, been online, or in fact spoken to anyone, for the three-week duration of the book. When the entire premise of the book is based on the pervasiveness of the media and the damaging impact viral videos can have on the lives of those in them, this was just a step way too far.

The Cows was an overblown, overhyped, overwritten, melodramatic mess, and I didn’t enjoy it at all, even though I really wanted to. I was so disappointed by something I thought would be so great.

Two Stars
**

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The Nearest Faraway Place

This was another Hot Key Books blogger find – published earlier this month, the story of two brothers trying to forge a new life after an unimaginable tragedy changes their lives irrevocably.

The Nearest Faraway Place – Hayley Long

34741490A powerfully told story of the love between two brothers in the aftermath of a family tragedyGriff and Dylan are driving into Manhattan with their parents when the worst happens. There is a terrible car accident and Dylan and Griff¹s parents are killed.

The boys are suddenly orphans with nowhere to go, until a kind aunt and uncle give them a new home in Wales. Now Dylan and Griff have everything they need ­ love, a happy home and a future. But Dylan is worried about Griff: whether he is OK, whether he is coping with his grief. He doesn¹t seem to want to speak about it or really acknowledge the loss of their parents.

But Dylan needs to be even braver than Griff, because there is something very important he needs to face up to before he can move on.

The heartbreaking new novel from award-winning author Hayley Long

Funnily enough, despite the narrator of this book being Dylan, Griff is most definitely the main character. Everything Dylan does is about helping his little brother get through this terrible event and the weeks and months that follow it. But the reason for this became clear to me relatively early on in the book. But I don’t think that actually really impacted on my enjoyment of the book all that much.

The first parts of this book take place in New York, and in Brooklyn, as the boys try to come to terms with what happened. It’s also told in flashbacks as Dylan retreats into his memories of travelling the world with his family, never putting down roots for too long, as they moved on to teach in different countries and on different continents. The second half, then, brings the boys more stability as they move to Aberystwyth in Wales, and begin to put down roots and deal with their past.

There were a lot of wonderful things in this book. Coping with grief, the love Dylan has for his younger brother, and musings on The Nearest Faraway Place – finding ordinary parts of life that are still magical and wondrous. I started this book one day, put it down, then picked it up the next morning and read until 3am, as I couldn’t bear to put it down. As I turned the final page, tears streaming down my face, I felt like a weight had been lifted off me, and that I had been on a hell of a journey with Griff and Dylan.  Hayley Long captured so perfectly the protectionist feelings that Dylan had for his little brother, pushing aside all of his own worries and issues so that he could step into his role as protector and guidance for Griff.

There were a couple of things I didn’t like about this book, though. The typesetting was bizarre, with whispered words being set in a smaller case and loud things being set in a larger case. Each break into the nearest faraway place, a flashback to earlier times, was indicated by the four or five preceding words being set on their own lines, so
Dylan
was
in
a
memory of a place that he had loved. It just felt unnecessary. I think possibly because it was infrequent, the different text sizes were jarring, rather than being part of the structure of the book, as might have been the case with a book like Identical, by Ellen Hopkins, which was set entirely in unusual ways.

In any case, despite having pegged the conclusion of the book early on (it was hinted heavily, in fairness), and disliking aspects of the typesetting, that was still not enough to stop me thoroughly enjoying this book, reading it without pause, and sobbing my eyes out in bed at 3am. Therefore it comes with quite high recommendations from me – it is a beautiful, lyrical story of love and brotherhood and loss and moving on.

Four Stars
****

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YALC – one week to go!

It’s Friday afternoon and I’m sitting at my desk. I’m supposed to be writing a module guide, ready for students for next academic year. But instead, it’s just occurred to me that there is only *one* week until YALC. Because I had other things in my diary (notably a graduation yesterday, which was really fun – I love being  a lecturer!), I hadn’t really paid attention to just how close YALC is, and that I need to start planning my attendance. There are so many awesome authors and talks and panels going to be on and there that I need to really crack down and decide which books I want to bring and which I want to get signed and which I really need to read before next week. Can I take the entire week off work just to read? Probably not, sadly…

In any case, there are *so many* authors on the list attending that I’ve read and liked books from – I need to decide whether or not I’m going to get copies signed!

The one author on here that I absolutely intend to buy/read before YALC is Elizabeth Wein, because I really, really loved Code Name Verity and Rose Under Fire. The others I’m going to have to really think about before I go, so that I can decide what’s important to me and what I can let slide. And also what I have a hard copy of, and what was a kindle version!

But then I have the other issue, of all the authors who’ll be there that I’m excited for their books, and I own them, or I want to buy them, but I haven’t gotten around to reading them yet. And THOSE authors will be there and I want to fangirl over their books with them, but I can’t, because I just don’t have the time to read them yet! I reckon I could manage The Pearl Thief and at least one book from this list, but decisions are tough, so I’m looking for suggestions on which of these I absolutely should try to read this week. Your help much appreciated!

Lastly, if any of you are going to be at YALC, do let me know! I’d love to meet up and chat bookishly!

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The Border – Steve Schafer

I knew almost nothing about this book when I saw it was recommended for me on NetGalley. I downloaded it on a whim and started reading it when I was too lazy to pick up an actual book from my bookcase. But boy, this was really excellent, so I’m glad I did pick it up.

29542264One moment changed their lives forever.

A band plays, glasses clink, and four teens sneak into the Mexican desert, the hum of celebration receding behind them.

Crack. Crack. Crack.

Not fireworks―gunshots. The music stops. And Pato, Arbo, Marcos, and Gladys are powerless as the lives they once knew are taken from them.

Then they are seen by the gunmen. They run. Except they have nowhere to go. The narcos responsible for their families’ murders have put out a reward for the teens’ capture. Staying in Mexico is certain death, but attempting to cross the border through an unforgiving desert may be as deadly as the secrets they are trying to escape…

The border between Mexico and the US is something I know next to nothing about. I have little to no knowledge of what life is like for those that live on the Mexican border, the drug gangs, or what life is like for Mexicans, and this book really opened my eyes. A week-long trek across a harrowing desert, fleeing gunmen who’ve put a price on their heads, and and trying to survive in the searing heat is something I can barely conceive. But Schafer does an excellent job of putting the reader in the desert with these scared kids.
Gladys and Marcos and Pato and Arbo are two mismatched pairs who don’t even really like each other, but are thrown together by unfortunate (understatement) circumstance and forced to work together, or risk that none of them will survive.
Tense, taut, high-stakes, and always sympathetic, the contrast between these kids fleeing death and destruction and the casual holidaymakers they meet from the US is stark in highlighting the difference a few hundred kilometres of birthplace can make to your life.

The Border was an excellent book – I could practically feel the heat of the desert emanating from it, and I was entirely caught up in Pato, Arbo, Glady, and Marcos’s struggle to survive. Not knowing who to trust (trusting nobody) and struggling across the desert in search of a better world, I was utterly captivated by this chilling (ironically) and still somewhat heart-warming pilgrimage.

Four Stars
****

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Neverwhere – Neil Gaiman

My latest audiobook adventure (and it really was an adventure) was to delve into the world of London Below as I followed Richard Mayhew on his journey into the mysterious, murky underworld that coexists with his normal, everyday existence in London above. This was my fifth Gaiman book, and I think it’s jumped straight to the top of my ranking – it was really excellent.

51Z4sNF1E0L._SX324_BO1,204,203,200_Under the streets of London there’s a place most people could never even dream of. A city of monsters and saints, murderers and angels, knights in armour and pale girls in black velvet. This is the city of the people who have fallen between the cracks.

Richard Mayhew, a young businessman, is going to find out more than enough about this other London. A single act of kindness catapults him out of his workday existence and into a world that is at once eerily familiar and utterly bizarre. And a strange destiny awaits him down here, beneath his native city: Neverwhere.

 

Although this is the fifth Neil Gaiman book I’ve read, I actually don’t really tend to hold him in particularly high regard. While I thought that Stardust was good, I wasn’t really grabbed by Coraline, The Graveyard Book, or The Ocean At The End Of The Lane. But my sister’s boyfriend, Mark, really likes Gaiman, and I found this on Audible, so I decided I’d give it a go. My expectations weren’t particularly high, as I haven’t really loved any of his other books, but I was actually really surprised by this – in a very good way!

Richard is your typical average guy, with a job in an office in Central London, a girlfriend who drags him to cultural things he doesn’t really like, and a small but perfectly fine flat. That is, until he helps a bleeding young girl he finds on the pavement, and is plunged into a world where rats speak, a Door is a person, and it turns out there are actually Shepherds in Shepherds Bush.

Packed with tongue in cheek humour and a pair of frankly terrifying yet still somehow hilarious thugs for hire, Neverwhere had me laughing out loud at several points in my week of car journeys to and fro. As we explore the nooks and crannies of Under London, Richard’s bewilderment at the world he has found himself in is matched in entertainment only by the frequent references to areas of London which are warped an hilarious at the same time. The Serpentine, no longer a body of water in Hyde Park, is now one of the Seven Sisters who absolutely terrifies Door for reasons which are never really explained.

The Audible version I listened to was narrated by Neil Gaiman himself, and somewhat unusually, he did an excellent job. The majority of times I’ve heard authors reading their own work, they lack some expression, but Gaiman put just the right amount of enthusiasm and variety into his delivery. I really, really loved his deadpan delivery of Mr Vandemar – he’s quite possibly my favourite character in the entire book.

I enjoyed this so much that I will almost certainly be seeking out more of Gaiman’s work – American Gods, or Anansi Boys will make it onto my list in some way, shape or form.

Five Stars
*****

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Lord of Shadows – Cassandra Clare

Although I have reviewed The Mortal Instruments and The Infernal Devices,
and quite enjoyed both series, I forgot to review Lady Midnight, the first book in Clare’s newest Shadowhunters trilogy, which is known as The Dark Artifices. I read Lady Midnight last year some time (I think) and while it was fine, it wasn’t mind-blowing, or even really as compelling as the original TMI trilogy, and TID. The one good thing it had going for it was that it had moved away slightly from the three characters which pervaded the first nine Shadowhunters books. I know that, actually, Tessa and Clary aren’t the same person, but they seemed that way, and the Herondales weren’t the same, but they sure seemed that way. In any case, Lord of Shadows has some original points, but also a few points that really feel like they’ve been done before.

Lord of Shadows – Cassandra Clare

30312891

Would you trade your soul mate for your soul?

A Shadowhunter’s life is bound by duty. Constrained by honor. The word of a Shadowhunter is a solemn pledge, and no vow is more sacred than the vow that binds parabatai, warrior partners—sworn to fight together, die together, but never to fall in love.

Emma Carstairs has learned that the love she shares with her parabatai, Julian Blackthorn, isn’t just forbidden—it could destroy them both. She knows she should run from Julian. But how can she when the Blackthorns are threatened by enemies on all sides?

Their only hope is the Black Volume of the Dead, a spell book of terrible power. Everyone wants it. Only the Blackthorns can find it. Spurred on by a dark bargain with the Seelie Queen, Emma; her best friend, Cristina; and Mark and Julian Blackthorn journey into the Courts of Faerie, where glittering revels hide bloody danger and no promise can be trusted. Meanwhile, rising tension between Shadowhunters and Downworlders has produced the Cohort, an extremist group of Shadowhunters dedicated to registering Downworlders and “unsuitable” Nephilim. They’ll do anything in their power to expose Julian’s secrets and take the Los Angeles Institute for their own.

When Downworlders turn against the Clave, a new threat rises in the form of the Lord of Shadows—the Unseelie King, who sends his greatest warriors to slaughter those with Blackthorn blood and seize the Black Volume. As dangers close in, Julian devises a risky scheme that depends on the cooperation of an unpredictable enemy. But success may come with a price he and Emma cannot even imagine, one that will bring with it a reckoning of blood that could have repercussions for everyone and everything they hold dear.

As Shadowhunters, the main characters of this book are expected to be special perfect snowflakes. They’re stronger, faster, cleverer than mundane humans, and these specific Shadowhunters are set up to be the next great thing (the next Jace Herondale, in fact), so they can grate a little bit.

While the main story arc in this book is Emma and Julian trying to find a way for their fobidden love to succeed (and believe me, that’s been done. Jace and Clary thought they were siblings for at least a book and a half in TMI), and it’s not that interesting, the others are a bit more compelling.

There’s a whole lot of stories going on in this book – more than I could really fit into a blog post. But what really comes out in this book, and God it can be annoying at times, are the relationships and the fake relationships. Jules and Emma, Emma and Mark, Mark and Kieran, Mark and Cristina, Cristina and Diego, Diego and whatsherface, Kit and BOTH of the twins. There’s a lot of will they/won’t they, is this relationship real, is it fake? There are a LOT of fake relationships going on here, and to be honest, it’s really quite disturbing how okay everyone seems to be with faking them. But I guess all the demon hunting and undead people running around and wild grabs for power aren’t enough – you’ve gotta have some shipping wars to keep people interested.

There were a lot of interesting threads in here. The Faerie bargains were interesting. The blight in Faerie was interesting. Annabel was interesting. But it was all concealed under a patina of relationship drama which was somehow shoehorned in to be essential to the plot.

Also, all these people who aren’t supposed to be together seem to spend a lot of time kissing. Like, a LOT of time kissing.

Maybe if there were less kissing, this book wouldn’t be such a behemoth. There’s the potential for a great story here, it’s just lost in hundreds of pages of relationship drama. This book is really much longer than it needs to be.

Still, despite all my moans, I do still enjoy a foray into the Shadowhunter world. There’s only one installment left in this trilogy, although it’s not out for another two years, as The Wicked Powers will start in the mean time. I’ll probably read them both. I’m some kind of sucker for punishment. And relationship drama. Did I mention the relationship drama?

Three Stars
***

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The Gift – Alison Croggan

873613A recommendation from Sally, this fantasy series is one which seems in line with lots of those I read when I was younger. Pitched as MG fantasy, it follows Maerad, a slave who discovers her previously unknown heritage and skill, and embarks upon a quest with mentor Cadvan.

I listened to this on Audible, and it took forever. For a book that’s quite unassuming on the shelf, it took me an absolute age to listen to it all – three weeks, according to GoodReads, and I have to admit that I’m not always the most timely at adding a book as reading in the first place, so I could well have started it a few days earlier. Generally, though, this is a pretty solid fantasy epic, with several more installments yet to come. Also marketed as The Naming, the Pellinor series has been around since the early 2000s, but I seem to have missed it at the time, so I’m visiting it now.

Maerad is a slave in a desperate and unforgiving settlement, taken there as a child when her family is destroyed in war. She is unaware that she possesses a powerful gift, a gift that marks her as a member of the School of Pellinor. It is only when she is discovered by Cadvan, one of the great Bards of Lirigon, that her true heritage and extraordinary destiny unfolds. Now she and her teacher, Cadvan, must survive a punishing and uncertain journey through a time and place where the dark forces they battle with stem from the deepest recesses of other-worldly terror.

This book has a fair amount in common with other series that I’ve read, including the Old Kingdom Trilogy, which I adored, and the Song of the Lioness series, which I hated, meaning that I could have swung either way on this one. It’s also reminiscent of The Wind on Fire, which I don’t think I’ve ever mentioned on here, but I’m a big fan of, and the Guardians of Time, which I adore. In terms of star ratings, it’s got the same number of stars as Alanna: The First Adventure, but stars aren’t a particularly nuanced method of ratings. Alanna is a very low three, whereas The Gift is a very high three.

On the surface comparisons, there are of course the following: Girl begins to train as a magician/warrior, and comes to realise that she is the holder of a great power, and destined for great things.

But The Gift is much more nuanced and developed than the Song of the Lioness. While I can appreciate that the Chosen One trope is a little tired, sometimes it’s necessary for story building, and Maerad does a good job of not being entirely wonderful as soon as she’s told who and what she is. Instead, she hates the idea that she might be the chosen one, and tries to avoid it wherever possible. She’s also slow to develop necessary barding skills which she should have come into years previously.

Also in parallel to Alanna is a scene where Maerad gets her period for the first time, and thinks she might be dying. Which, actually, was quite fun.

There were certainly plenty of weaknesses in The Gift – Maerad is kind of a special snowflake, and there are plenty of infodumps which ignore the storytelling maxim of ‘show, don’t tell’. There were lots of scenes of florid descriptions of landscapes where if I had been reading an actual book I probably would have skimmed lightly over the pages (much more difficult to do in an audiobook). Finally, a few of the twists were more than predictable. However, others took me by surprise, which I like. A mix of things I saw coming and little surprises keeps the story interesting.

This wasn’t an instant ‘I love it!’ the way other female-led fantasies have been (Tribute and Sabriel, for example) but it was certainly intriguing enough to keep me going. I have The Riddle, book 2 of Pellinor, lined up for after Neverwhere, and I’m looking forward to more butt-kicking magical discoveries. And I’m also shipping Maerad and Cadvan. I don’t care how big an age gap there is between them.

Three Stars
***

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Once And For All – Sarah Dessen

Queen of YA Sarah Dessen’s books have appeared regularly on this blog, as I find they’re easy to read and thoroughly enjoyable. (See here, here, here and here)

Her thirteenth novel, Once and For All, is set in Lakeview once more (with flashes of Colby), and follows Louna’s last summer before college, working with her mother in her wedding planning business, and struggling with irritating new employee Ambrose.

33297389As bubbly as champagne and delectable as wedding cake, Once and for All, Sarah Dessen’s thirteenth novel, is set in the world of wedding planning, where crises are routine.

Louna, daughter of famed wedding planner Natalie Barrett, has seen every sort of wedding: on the beach, at historic mansions, in fancy hotels and clubs. Perhaps that’s why she’s cynical about happily-ever-after endings, especially since her own first love ended tragically. When Louna meets charming, happy-go-lucky serial dater Ambrose, she holds him at arm’s length. But Ambrose isn’t about to be discouraged, now that he’s met the one girl he really wants.

Sarah Dessen’s many, many fans will adore her latest, a richly satisfying, enormously entertaining story that has everything—humor, romance, and an ending both happy and imperfect, just like life itself.

While this probably wasn’t my favourite Sarah Dessen book, it was certainly far from my least favourite. Louna, still reeling from the end of her epic first love, is a fun and cynical narrator, far too young to be so set that nothing lasts too long, especially since she’s in the business of planning happily ever afters.

Ambrose, the irritating, impulsive, serial dating, clear love interest who’s introduced near the start of the book, could easily be a character that I could hate – and indeed lots of reviews I’ve seen have him pegged as far from an interesting character, more like a headwrecker. But actually I found him quite enjoyable, as he’s not a bad character – he’s just more impulsive than many of the love interests in Sarah Dessen books. Still, this departure from the norm was fun, as Ambrose was kind of more exciting than some other love interests in YA contemporaries I’ve read.

I think I was biased towards this book because it’s set mostly around weddings, and I really love weddings, so I was predisposed to like this. But as well as that, it had all of the Dessen hallmarks of a summer, a romance, a friendship, family ties, and a degree of self-discovery which lets the protagonist discover things about herself that she might not have known before.

I was left with a few questions at the end of this book, though. Mostly about Jilly. What was the deal with her having to look after her four siblings all the time? I understand that there’s a bit of give and take in families, and being one of the younger siblings in my own family, I’ve never had to do this, but Jilly seems to spend her entire summer being a nanny to four children who she obviously loves, but gets no benefit out of?

Well, I guess she gets the benefit of her parents making enough money to house and clothe her, but I have to wonder exactly what her parents are intending on doing right after the book ends, when Jilly goes away to college and they suddenly have serious childcare issues.

Also, I felt like the end of the book was quite rushed. There were two time skips in the last twenty pages, and I thought they interrupted the flow of the book – unfortunately, this was the point where the book resolved itself, and I was left very, very slightly dissatisfied with how quickly it was handled. Although it was obvious which way it was going to go, it could have had a bit more exposition behind it.

Also, I felt pretty bad for Ben. Sucks to be him.

 

All in all, though, I did very much enjoy this. I am very much a fan of Dessen’s work, and will continue to read whatever she produces, but this one doesn’t make the top five of Dessen books, for sure. I wavered between three and four stars, and eventually settled on four, because weddings (seriously, I love weddings) but it was a close-run thing.

Four Stars
****

 

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Dear Amy – Helen Callaghan

A good few years ago now (maybe 2014?), Dear Amy was advertised on train station platforms as being a first class psychological thriller, and I will admit the premise intrigued me. As ever, of course, some books escape my net, as I simply don’t have enough hours to read them all (curse my needing to work to support myself), so Dear Amy fell to the back of my mind. A few weeks ago, when I saw that it was on Audible, I decided I may as well give it a go, so spent a week immersed in this thriller of missing girls set in Cambridge.

Dear Amy – Helen Callaghan

31277756First Class Psychological Suspense From a Major New Voice in Fiction

Margot Lewis is the agony aunt for The Cambridge Examiner. Her advice column, Dear Amy, gets all kinds of letters – but none like the one she’s just received: Dear Amy,
I don’t know where I am. I’ve been kidnapped and am being held prisoner by a strange man. I’m afraid he’ll kill me.
Please help me soon,
Bethan Avery

Bethan Avery has been missing for years. This is surely some cruel hoax. But, as more letters arrive, they contain information that was never made public. How is this happening? Answering this question will cost Margot everything . . .

Funnily enough, this is the second psychological thriller that I’ve read in the last few weeks which is set in Cambridge (UK, not Massachusetts). I’ve never been to Cambridge, but I’ve built up a ridiculous mental picture in my head now which is part old college buildings and mostly made up of the River Cam. That’s all I’ve got. My mental image isn’t very good.

Generally, this was quite an enjoyable thriller. A missing girl (two missing girls), an investigative teacher, a sinister shadowy man, and dual narratives of Margot as she assists in the search for Bethan, and of Katie as she suffers through her captivity. Lots of twists and turns in the story, and a high-octane race to save the missing girl before it’s too late…

So yes, there was lots that was admirable in this story. I was caught up in it at times, sitting in the car waiting for a chapter to end before I got out. And, given how swelteringly hot it’s been this week, that was quite the commitment!

But I had several issues with this book, some with the story itself, and others with the Audible version of it.

My main issue was that I had pegged the twist quite early on, and the smaller twist before the reveal as well. That meant, for me, a lot of the mystery and tension was gone out of the book before it should have been.

I also had a major issue with a specific scene in which Margot drives from Cambridge to Essex. No indication is given of how far this is, or whether it’s an unusual distance to drive. Or, in fact, why she drove to Essex at all. It was never explained (although I did google map it, and it’s 55 miles) and it niggled at me for the entire rest of the book.

There are three narrators in the book, but one doesn’t show up until about 80% of the way through, and then has one chunk, then vanishes again. I didn’t really understand this narrative choice. It might have been easier to understand if I had been reading a physical book, but because I had an Audible version, I knew that the third narrator was coming, and spent a long time waiting and wondering what was happening.

My main issue with the narration, which Helen Baxendale delivered in a very dramatic way, was that it varied wildly in volume. During tense, quiet scenes, it was delivered in a whisper, and fast-paced, violent scenes were delivered at speed. Very good for atmosphere, but terrible for when you’re driving, and need to turn the volume up to hear the stressful parts. Especially since the return to normal volume delivery would then blast the ears out of me while I scrambled to turn the dial back down. Not sure if there’s a way to counteract that, though. More monotone delivery! Not actually what I want – for the most part, the delivery in this was very good, full of emotion, and I think it bolstered what actually might otherwise have been large chunks of pretty dull monologue. However, the variation in volume made it frustrating to listen to while driving. Maybe one for headphones.

Three Stars
***

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