WWW Wednesday 23/1/19

WWW Wednesday is hosted by ‘Taking on a World of Words’ every Wednesday’:

What are you currently reading?

Kick the Moon by Muhammad Khan. Illustrated by Amrit Birdi.

I thought Khan’s debut I Am Thunder last year was brilliant – quite ground breaking in tackling radicalisation and very well written.

Im not too far into Kick The Moon yet, but I’m enjoying it, although it doesn’t feel like it’s breaking any moulds. We’ll see how it pans out…

What have you just finished reading?

On The Come Up by Angie Thomas. Cover design by Tim Marrs

I loved The Hate U Give last year, so I was really excited about this. I definitely preferred THUG (I think I just found its subject matter a bit grittier and more interesting) but I really enjoyed this too – there’s a lot of the same themes touched on but with new ones too, and all new characters – if you liked THUG’s Starr, you’ll love Bri too! Full review soon.

What are you planning on reading next?

I’m not sure! I’m trying to plan ahead a bit better with regards to what I read and release dates this year, but I’m already behind on my planning ahead so I’ll probably just choose one!

Possibly/probably/maybe A Pinch of Magic by Michelle Harrison or Little Bird Flies by Karen McCombie.

Have you read any of the books here? What are you reading at the moment?

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WWW Wednesday 9/1/19

Ooh, I’ve just noticed today is a palindrome date!

Anyway, on to WWW Wednesday, hosted by ‘Taking on a World of Words’ every Wednesday’:

What are you currently reading?

Swimming Against the Storm by Jess Butterworth and illustrated by Rob Biddulph.

My copy is an ARC (a rather bath-and-bag-eared one too!) If you want to see the gorgeous real cover, have a nosy at The Reader Teacher’s Cover Reveal post!

I have been so excited about this, as I loved Jess’ other two books, and Rob Biddulph always makes them look as beautiful as the stories themselves.

So far, this is no exception and I’m really enjoying it – full review will follow when I’m done!

What have you just finished reading?

There’s a Yeti in the Playground by Pamela Butchart and illustrated by Thomas Flintham.

My first full read of one of the stories about Izzy and her friends, but it won’t be my last – so funny! You can read my review of it here.

What are you planning on reading next?

I’m pretty sure it’ll be ‘On The Come Up’ by Angie Thomas – another one I’ve got very high hopes for!

Have you read any of the books here? What are you reading at the moment?

Storm-wake

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Moss has lived with Pa on a remote island for as long as she remembers. The Old World has disappeared beneath the waves – only Pa’s magic, harnessing the wondrous stormflowers on the island, can save the sunken continents. But a storm is brewing, promising cataclysmic changes.

I received a review copy of this from Chicken House and wasn’t sure what to expect. It’s taken me a while to get round to reading and I wish I’d read it sooner. It was wonderful.

Classed as YA, it is in one sense a classic ‘coming-of-age’ narrative. We see Moss as she grows from a ‘Small Thing’ into her teens, and watch as her relationships with both “wild-boy” Cal and Pa change as she does. However, there’s a lot more going on here, and in some ways I’m not sure where or how I’d categorise this, which is no bad thing.

Let’s start with the island and its stormflowers – described in Lucy Christopher’s beautiful and lyrical style, there is a dream-like feel to the place, the flowers and the magical qualities that surround them. But are things as idyllic as they seem, or is there a darker side to the flowers and their effects? There’s a heavy, heady link to poppies and their opioid connections made, but we’re left to draw our own conclusions as the book progresses.

Much of the book feels like this: the line between fantasy and reality is not so much blurred as changeable and shifting. There is a wonderful balance between the real and the fantastic: the real often seeming to be written between the lines of the magic on the page, which I thought was so cleverly done and only added to the sense of foreboding and doubt that gradually creeps in as Moss begins to realise that perhaps not everything is how she has grown up believing it to be.

While not a retelling as such, I loved the many parallels with The Tempest in the book. I want to say more, but am loath to give any spoilers away. Suffice to say – the influence is there with similarities carefully woven into the story. If you don’t know it, it won’t matter: it stands as a well-crafted story in its own right.

This is a book for being swallowed up in – immersed in stories, stormy seas, stormflower smoke and the tingle-fizz of petals on tongues, scales on skin and whispers of another world. You could easily find yourself going as mad as Pa if you try to wrap your head round what’s really real, what’s magic, what’s illusion, what’s lies, what’s truth, what’s a version of all of these… and that’s partly why I loved this book as much as I did. It’ll definitely be a book to come back to and one that will withstand multiple readings.

I’ve not read any of Lucy Christopher’s other books, but will be looking out for them: have you read any? Which would you recommend?

 

The 57 Bus

When I was sent a copy of this by Hachette/Wren and Rook in exchange for review (ages ago! I’m sorry – it’s taken me forever!) I had no idea it was non-fiction. I’m not normally a non-fiction reader, but I decided after a friend gave me a non-fiction book to read that I really should read more non-fiction, so it ended up being a bonus that when I did pick this up I discovered it was a true story.

That said – how sad on so many levels that it is. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves or give anything away.

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One teenager in a skirt. One teenager with a lighter. One moment that changes both their lives forever.

If it weren’t for the 57 bus, Richard and Sasha would never have met. Although they live in the same city, they are from radically different worlds. But one single reckless act changes both of their lives forever.

Richard and Sasha don’t know each other. The only contact they have is a few minutes each day on the 57 bus. They are not even aware of the others existence. Until the day Richard sets fire to Sasha’s skirt.  This book charts the events leading up to, surrounding and following that day for both of them.

Sasha identifies as agender, and one of the things I really liked was the inclusion of a chapter detailing and explaining different phrases and terms which may be used in conversations around gender and sexuality. It explains that it by no means covers all bases and that language changes, evolves and differs from person to person, but it’s an excellent starting point.

Because of the way the whole book is written, it didn’t feel at all out of place – some chapters are in list form, some more narrative, some take the form of letters or text messages, so it didn’t feel jarring or ‘stuck in’. It was informative without being either condescending or feeling too in depth and out of reach, and I felt this was true of the writing style throughout the book: it was incredibly easy to read, despite tackling some meaty subjects.

When Richard sets Sasha’s skirt on fire, the questions begin to build up for the reader as well as for those involved: was it intentional? Was it a hate crime or an act of stupidity? Was it peer pressure (there’s an excellent chapter on the way teen brains are wired and the very specific responses they have to taking risk, high pressure situations and decision making)?

When he is charged, they continue: would that have happened if he were white/well-off/from a different neighbourhood (some of the statistics about the way the justice system was set up/used/manipulated made my head hurt)? Should a teenager ever be tried as an adult and how should that be decided? And what of forgiveness?

While, on the surface, this is a book about Sasha and Richard, the incident on the 57 bus that throws them together and the impact this has on them in the years to come, it’s really about so much more than that. Covering gender, race, class and the so-called ‘rich/poor divide’, prejudice, equality and the US justice system, this is a book that will make you think. It left me feeling frustrated, impotent and angry (that’s a good thing by the way!), as while it is based in America and therefore centred on American systems, laws and culture, much of it is all too applicable here as well.

Meticulously researched and compiled, Dashka Slater has used a great range of sources (interviews, letters, social media, videos etc.) from a variety of people (those involved on both ‘sides’ and their wider family, friends and communities) alongside relevant national data, statistics and trends to highlight the complexities of not just this specific case, but the wider issues surrounding it.

Clearly and concisely written, here is a book for exploring grey areas, questioning the norm, challenging the status quo and opening up debate. A compelling and important read and an excellent addition to any YA library/bookshelf.

White Rabbit, Red Wolf

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I received an ARC of this AAAGGGES ago from Walker Books (thank you/sorry it’s taken me forever to read!) and it’s been one of those that has, unfairly, kept finding its way to the bottom of my TBR pile ever since. Partly because despite the fact that my ‘resolution’ to read more YA books this year HAS happened, they’re still very rarely the books at the top of the pile and are quite often the ones I put off in favour of others, and partly because I read thrillers even less often (ie almost never). “Why on earth ask for an ARC of this YA thriller then?” I hear you cry – well, curiosity and mental illness mainly…it intrigued me:

A taut thriller about murder, maths and the mind.

Seventeen-year-old Peter Blankman suffers from severe panic attacks. Afraid of everything, he finds solace in the orderly and logical world of mathematics and in the love of his family: his scientist mum and his tough twin sister Bel, as well as Ingrid, his only friend.

However, when his mother is found stabbed before an award ceremony and his sister is nowhere to be found, Pete is dragged into a world of espionage and violence where state and family secrets intertwine. Armed only with his extraordinary analytical skills, Peter may just discover that his biggest weakness is his greatest strength.

 

So, “murder, maths and the mind” then. Let’s start with the mind:

Books, especially YA books, with mental health themes seem to be having something of ‘a moment’. This is no bad thing. But how well mental health issues are represented in them is very much a mixed bag (as much down to personal experience, taste and circumstance as it is down to the writing itself) so I still approach them with as much caution as interest.

Luckily, this one – for me – got it just right. While it touches on several issues, OCD and anxiety are the main culprits here and the book opens in the midst of one of several severe panic attacks mentioned in the book. Pollock is unflinching in his descriptions of both the actions, feelings and thoughts whirling through these, without them feeling gratuitous, over the top or unrealistic. The post-attack moments in particular felt very well-written and familiar, and it was refreshing to see Peter struggling BUT MANAGING to overcome his anxiety in order to do things, which is far more often the case than the other way round. It’s one of those silent/invisible illnesses for a reason: most of the battles with it go on simultaneously with everyday life; it’s happening while you carry on doing the things that cause it, and this book shows that so well.

The way Peter’s anxiety/paranoia plays into the plot is truly brilliant and, again – for me, is what lifts this book out of the hundreds of YA-books-about-mental-health and into the few YA-books-with-great-plots-that-involve-a-character-with-mental-health-issues (catchy, right?) Because first and foremost, this is a fast-paced thriller with more twists and turns than a drunken game of twister.

Which leads us to the murder:

And on this, I will say very little! It comes out of the blue and just as Peter is left shocked and second-guessing what’s happened, so are we. Peter doubts everything he is being told, using maths to analyse, rationalise and ‘logic’ his way through it all, and I quickly joined him (not on the maths front!) in not knowing what to believe, who could be trusted or what was truth and what was lies. It’s brilliantly unpredictable: leading you one way, convinced you’ve got it this time…only to throw up a dead end, a fork in the road or a u-turn again when you least expect it.

The characters are as complex as the plot (there’s nothing clear cut about this book!) which is a welcome change from some of the stereotypes and rather 2D personalities often encountered. They all have clear back-stories and a real sense of depth, and benefit from being a relatively small cast with few bit players.

And, as it suggests in the ‘blurb’, there is also a fairly large dollop of maths in the book. I am most emphatically not mathematically minded, but personally I didn’t find this an issue. Yes, there were references that went a bit over my head. Yes, there were times when I had to re-read to follow a particular mathematical train of thought. And, yes, there were mentions of mathematical figures and theories that I’d never heard of. Did it matter? No. Or yes, but only in a good way. They were worth the effort when it was needed, making me stop and think, and could be taken at face value as an added detail or interesting detail when not essential to the plot.

This has clearly been a very thoroughly researched book, which shows great attention to detail and a sensitive but honest approach to mental health, while remaining at it’s heart an entirely original, cleverly constructed, quick-moving thriller.

I’ve even passed it on to my other half, who has never read YA, as I’m convinced he’ll love it too – I’ll edit this post with the verdict once it’s in!

 

On A Scale of One to Ten/Whistle in the Dark

These books, and consequently this review, contain references to: mental health, depression, self-harm and suicide.

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In the last week, I’ve read both ‘On a Scale of One to Ten’ by Ceylan Scott (thanks to Chicken House for the arc) and ‘Whistle in the Dark’ by Emma Healy (thanks to Penguin Random House for that arc). The first is aimed at YA, the second adult fiction.

When I started this blog, my plan was to only review/blog about books I’d especially enjoyed – those I’d rate as 4 or 5*. I rated both of these 3*, but both resonated with me in various ways and got me thinking for various reasons. So, I’ve decided to post about them anyway, and as it’s Mental Health Awareness week too, it seems pretty fitting.

Whilst they approach it from very different perspectives and are otherwise nothing alike story-wise, both books deal with teenage mental health, and contain references to self harm and suicide (although, interestingly, only the YA one mentions this explicitly on the cover). As someone who has suffered with depression and anxiety on and off over the years, but starting during my teens, I’m always interested in novels that deal with this, so was intrigued by both of these.

It was the title that first made me want to read ‘On a Scale of One to Ten’ – 7 words that I hate. I don’t remember much about the various assessments and appointments I had as a teen when I was first diagnosed and rotated through a variety of tablets, but I do remember my most recent bout of anxiety and how frustrated/annoyed/angry I felt at this oft-used ‘assessment tool’ which didn’t come close to finding out anything about what was actually going on in my head, let alone helping with it.

So, when I saw the title I thought ‘here’s someone who gets it’ and delved a bit deeper. Written when Ceylan Scott was 16 and in a psychiatric hospital, it tells the tale of Tamar, who “is admitted to a psychiatric hospital for teenagers, where she is asked endless questions…But there’s one question Tamar can’t – won’t – answer: what happened to her friend Iris, who died at the weir?”

This really sums up both what I did and didn’t about the book. First the good:

Judging by the goodreads reviews so far, it’s struck a chord with many others too – being hailed as a realistic take on what life as a young person with a mental illness/in a psychiatric hospital is like, and I have to agree with much of this; I’m lucky to have never needed to be admitted to hospital, but there were certainly plenty of parts of the book that described so well my feelings or actions or thoughts at various times, especially (but by no means exclusively) when I was younger

And, while much of the book focuses on Tamar cutting to self-harm, I was pleased (I’m not sure that’s the right word) to see her write about Tamar banging her head against the wall repeatedly too – doors and walls and fists and heads and scratches and nails and pinches etc. that play a big part in my own experiences and it was refreshing to see this represented. I suspect that, through the variety of characters and their many and varied illnesses in the book, there will be moments like this for many readers who’ve been through similar.

However, there were also things I didn’t like as much: mainly the Iris at the weir plotline. I get that there had to be some sort of ‘other’ plot, but the ‘her friend died and she won’t say/we don’t know what happened’ thing just felt a bit tired (to me, personally), and I would have so much preferred this to be a book where there was no ‘major event’ triggering the illness – a representation of someone who has a mental illness just because they’re ill and not one triggered/worsened by – an external factor. Similarly, the Toby storyline, which I won’t go into in detail as I don’t want to slip into spoiler territory, but this storyline also left me unsatisfied and feeling like maybe opportunities were missed for this book to do something different.

I suspect though, this is very much my take on it as an adult; who knows how I’d have felt if I’d read it as a teen?

Which brings us to ‘Whistle in the Dark’. Although this also deals with teenage depression, in the form of 15-year-old Lana, it is written from an adult perspective, namely that of Lana’s mum Jen. Lana has suffered from depression for a long time and part of what I loved about this book was how well it showed the effects of this not just on Lana, but also on those around her, especially her mum and sister. It certainly took me back to my relationship with my mum during my younger years, and led to a fair bit of reflection. As much as ‘On A Scale of One to Ten’ felt like a wonderful insight into teenage mental health as it’s experienced, this felt like a window onto the world of those who live with/love someone who’s unwell and how upsetting/exhausting/frustrating it can be for them too.

I loved the relationships in this, if it had been focused solely on that, I’d have probably rated it much higher. The relationships between Jen and Lana took me back, while her relationship with older daughter Meg felt so relatable now, and the relationship between Meg and Lana was also incredibly easy to relate to.

However, the book focuses on the period shortly after Lana is found after having been missing for four days. Lana refuses to say what happened, and Jen becomes increasingly concerned about it. Some of this, I thought was brilliantly written, especially Jen’s worries about it. However, there were also elements that just felt unbelievable and the ending and resolution of this were ultimately what brought this down to 3 stars for me.

So, two mixed reviews on two similar and yet completely different books. The one thing I stand by for both of them is their portrayal of various aspects of mental illness, which I think – in very different ways and for very different audiences – they each captured and depicted incredibly well.

More information and support of mental illness can be found via the Mental Health Awareness website.