Beyond the Bright Sea – Lauren Wolk

 

Beyond the Bright Sea is on the Carnegie 2018 shortlist and is a worthy contender. It begins with a baby, floating on the  sea in a skiff (small boat, people!) . The baby is found and taken in by a man called Osh. Osh lives in a house on a small island off the coast of Massachusetts. Osh is not his real name; he decides to call the baby Crow. It isn’t really clear why but as the novel progresses it seems to be because Crow is a different skin  colour, I’m still not sure which! She may be  Chinese but it’s not really explained.

So, Crow and Osh live in Osh’s house on a small island. The group of Islands is called the Elizabeth’s and is a real place, so some of the story, although fiction, has a real setting. I am the type of person that likes to google stuff so I watched a video about Penikese, a leper colony that the state of Massachusetts set up on one of the Elizabeth Islands in the 1920s. It took in local residents with the disease as well as foreign people who had it, including Chinese and African people.  Crow thinks  that she has some link to the leper colony, and the other residents of the Elizabeth’s seem to think so as well , they don’t touch her or speak to her. She isn’t allowed to go the local school in case she infects the other children. Even though she has never shown any signs of having the disease, she is treated as though she has.

The other character in the book is Miss Maggie. We had a discussion in book group about how old Miss Maggie is. The name conjures up an older lady, and she certainly behaves like an old lady sometimes, but I think she’s probably in a her 30s. She lives on a neighbouring island and has a farm. She teaches Crow her letters and some maths and generally looks after her as well.

When Crow reaches the age of 12 she decides that she wants to find out more about her real parents and where she came from. This leads to a chain of events that puts all three of them in danger. Penikese is now inhabited by a bird keeper, the inhabits and the doctor and nurse from the leper hospital have moved away and the hospital partially  burnt down. Crow writes to the doctor to ask for information about any baby’s born on the island. He writes back to tell her that two babies were born there, one was  taken to an orphanage on the main land and the other died. Crow decides to investigate anyway.

This book is delightful. It has history, adventure, thrills and spills and some really interesting facts about island life. There is definitely something strange about Osh which is never explained, he comes from a different land, speaks a different language and has given up everything to retreat to the island. Miss Maggie tells Crow that when he arrived, he smashed the  hull of his boat so that he couldn’t leave. He is also very shifty when the police arrive to question Crow about an incident on Pekinese. This is never explained however and it would have been more satisfying to finish the book with all the information about the characters; unless the author is planning to write another book!

I liked it, I haven’t read Wolf Hollow, which was on the Carnegie Shortlist last year and is by the same author, but would recommend this one if you are looking for something not too challenging but hugely interesting.

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Alice – Christina Henry

ALICE

The clue that this book may be a little creepy should surely be in the picture on the front cover! If you are hoping for a pleasant re telling of Alice in Wonderland I suggest that you close the book and back quietly away!

Alice by Christina Henry is the first in a series of books that venture in to a very dark and surreal world that you won’t forget in a hurry. We first meet Alice in a mental institution, her parents have placed her there after an episode which has left her scarred physically and mentally. She can’t remember what happened to her but she has flashbacks which include a sinister white  rabbit and blood running down her legs.

The man in the cell next door starts talking to her, it takes her a while to realise that he is a real person and not a figment of her imagination. He talks to her about escaping. He also has violent outbursts and is obviously locked up because he has murdered people. His name is Hatch. He is called Hatcher because he kills people with a hatchet.

One night the  hospital burns down and Alice and Hatch escape. They set out to look for the white rabbit, Alice’s downfall and, as it turns out, Hatch’s as well. They meet other characters whose names you will recognise from the original book but, they are really not the same!   The two of them go on a journey which Hatch seems to have created in his head, remembering things as he arrives at places and meets new people. They go to see the caterpillar (who runs a brothel) and this scene is one of the most disturbing. Magical creatures are created and Alice seems to be extremely powerful without knowing it. As she starts to get used to her power and control it, life gets hard for the bad guys.

This book explores drugs, rape and sexual abuse, control of people through drugs and mind control. The city is run by different gang lords and they kill people, violently.

I read this book with an open mind. My memory of the original story was a bit hazy (although I’m pretty sure it was nothing like this!) and I kept trying to connect characters. Don’t bother, it doesn’t really help. I like the darkness of it, the other world that is created made my skin crawl, and although Alice was a bit of a dope, she does come good in the end. She also has magical powers then she needs to learn how to control, hopefully this will be explored in the next book.

I would recommend though, if you are of a delicate nature or don’t want to read and explore dark and violent themes, that you don’t read this. What ever happened to Alice, it wasn’t nice and, although she does seem to have some recollection of it by the end of the book, your imagination will fill in some gaps, and none of it is good.

Release – Patrick Ness

I have read and reviewed a few Patrick Ness books now, and there is no doubt that he is an incredibly talented and engaging author. I really loved More Than This, enjoyed The Knife of Never Letting Go (which is being made in to a film with an amazing cast) and was intrigued by The Rest of Us Just Live Here (amazing concept and an alternative view on superheroes!) This book is no different, but I am feeling a little uncomfortable about recommending it to you and I will explain the reasons why as we go along.

The main story centres around a day in the life of Adam Thorn. He is 17 and lives in a small town in middle America. His father Bob Thorn, is a local pastor for a church called The House Upon the Rock. For English readers I imagine him as one of those evangelical priests who walks up and down at the pulpit and shouts a lot about Jesus loving you, I think that these are a more regular occurrence in America then they are here. His mother is in denial that they are poor and his brother Marty is the prodigal son who has gone off to Christian college to learn how to be a preacher like his dad. Adam is the black sheep in the family because he is gay. Not that this is ever discussed in the Thorn household, ever. Marty has all the commitment but none of the personality and Adam has all the personality but, according to Big Bob Thorn, is morally corrupt.

Adam’s best friend is called Angela Darlington and she is the adopted daughter of a Dutch lady and her American husband. She is originally from Korea I think and has a sharp wit and an open heart. She loves Adam and worries for him and has decided that she is bi or gay or not, it doesn’t matter. She supports Adam and is more family to him then his own crazy lot. He also has a boyfriend called Linus but is still in love with his ex, Enzo who is moving out of town. Today is his leaving party (or get-together as they keep calling it) and the book is leading up to this event. Adam also likes cross country running but isn’t very fast, which is incidental to the book but shows a little of his  personality.

The other  section of the book centres around the drug fuelled murder of another local girl, Katherine van Leuwen. She is murdered by her boyfriend while they are both high and her body is dumped in the local lake – where the get together is taking place later on. Her spirit inhabits some kind of Queen of the Lake who is now wandering the town looking for her murderer to exact revenge. Or rather the queen has reanimated Katherine’s body and when people see her, they are shocked to see the dead Katherine wandering about. She is followed by her faithful servant who is a fawn. She visits Katherine’s mother and friend and the murder scene trying to figure out why she is there. If the Queen cannot reconnect with her body by the end of the day then the world (hers and ours) will be destroyed. No pressure there then – the poor fawn is working overtime to erase everyone’s memories of his Queen in Katherine’s body. You all still with me?

There are several things that I really loved about this book. The writing style for one always makes me marvel at how people  can be so clever. I almost doubt my own cleverness because there is no way I could come up with a concept so clever. Ness writes with passion and depth. His descriptions, the scene where Adam is sexually assaulted by his boss, is so good you feel like you are sitting in that cramped office with them. I felt the shame of both of them, and the anger. The story is engaging, I liked Adam and Angela and Linus, wasn’t too keen on Enzo and Marty but I can understand them. Adam’s parents are struggling with their faith versus the love for their son and I can see, as a parent, how this would be difficult. I wanted it all to work out in the end but I guess life isn’t as neat as all that. I also love the concept of all the action taking place on one day, so many changes occur in Adam’s life that the supernatural element could be the only explanation.

Here is my problem. According my goodreads profile I have read nearly 1000 books. I have been reading for 40 years (give or take my childhood years!) and I have travelled all over the world, time travelled and gone in to the future in fiction. I have experienced things  through many fictional characters and have loved and laughed,  hated and felt angry, violent and heart broken. All of these emotions are brought on by the written word. I love reading and it is my job and my passion to make as many people as possible feel the same way that I do about it. I have never told a student not to read a book when they have asked me. I have recommended books that are controversial, touch subjects they may not understand or agree with but, they all make you think about what it might be like to live in another person’s skin.

I finished this book last week and have really struggled with how to review it. This book is written for the teen market or YA audience. This is classified as 11 to 18 years old. This market has blown up over the last few years and is amazing. The wealth of subjects that it writes about make it easier for young people to experience and accept things that they have not experienced yet, and I think this is a great thing.  There may be things that they cannot talk about with anyone else but they can read about and not feel so alone in the world. Which is why I think that YA authors have an obligation to educate as well as produce great fiction – no mean feat. The sex scenes in this book are some of the most graphic I have ever read. The description of Linus and Adam in bed together are both unnecessary and so descriptive that it made me uncomfortable, and I am no prude. I have never read another YA book where any sexual descriptions, straight, gay or bi are so intimate. I’m not sure why Ness decided to make them so, or why his publisher then decided to go ahead with them. There is a fine line between educating and shocking and I think this one crosses it.

That’s just a personal opinion and you may go on and love it and think I’m a silly old lady but, I want you to know what to expect and, as an educator (!) I need to do that. I loved this book but I struggled with it. You decide what you think.

 

This Careless Life – Rachel McIntyre

If you  saw an advert asking if you wanted to be famous, would you do it? This is the premise of this interesting book about four friends who sign up for a reality type TV show over their summer holidays before they go off to university. The main driver of the project is Olivia Dawson-Hill, or Liv to her friends Hetty, Jez and Duffy. Well I say friends, they don’t seem very friendly to me, except Liv and Hetty  and even they don’t seem too keen on each other!

They have all just left their posh boarding school and are waiting for their A level results before heading off to separate lives. Liv is not confident about hers but its ok because a. her parents are mega rich and b. she has her own blog Miss Olivia Loves and she is going to be famous anyway. This programme will just make that happen a bit quicker. She lives in a big house in an annex that her parents have built for her which is super swanky and which she has designed herself. This is where all the action takes place.

Cass arrives to make some audition tapes of the four from the production company Pretty Vacant Productions. The reality programme they are auditioning for is called This Careless Life. I love the cleverness of these two names, and the fact that none of the kids get it! Liv is not expecting Cass, she is expecting a guy called Tony but, she has a business card and it all seems legit so they get started. All of them have to sign a disclaimer saying that they are allowed to take part and that none of the footage used in the audition tapes will be used on TV (if they make it that far). They also have to turn their phones off and make sure that none of the auditions are recorded. This is important for later. Liv goes first. They all watch her audition tape and then Cass starts asking some uncomfortable questions. She seems to have knowledge about each one of them which no one else seems to be know. All of the kids are connected to their local country club and all have a big secret to hide.

Hetty is obsessed with her boyfriend Duncan (control freak!) who works for her mum, a local far right councillor. Jez is trying to get publicity for a charity that he has set up, Duffy is a bit of a playboy who seems to think that all women should fall at his feet. All of them have done something that they think  no one else knows about. All of them are wrong.

The clever thing about this book is that you are never quite sure whether these things happened or not and what the connection is. It all becomes clear at the end but, although you get to know the characters, you don’t really invest too much in them. They are all a bit shallow and a little bit morally dodgy but, can you agree that they made the decisions they make for the right reasons or to protect themselves?

There a little bit of supernaturalness going on as well (is that even a word? it is now!) and I’m not sure it’s strictly necessary, although it does add to the mystery and explain a couple of twists at the end. I would have liked Cass’ character to have been explored a bit more but I can see that that could turn into another book on it’s own so maybe the author has kept that story in reserve.  Quite a short read but a good plot and a page turner that will keep you guessing until the end. Can they all redeem themselves and come out the other side as better people, or they all just living a careless life, exploiting people along the way? You’ll have to read it to find out!

The Thousandth Floor – Katharine McGee

thousandth

This is the first in a series. The book is set in New York in 2118. Not sure what has happened to the world but the main characters all live in a tower block that is, you’ve guessed it, 1000 floors high! The richer you are, the higher up the block you live. The character that we first meet, Avery Fuller, lives with her parents and her adopted brother, Atlas, who has disappeared. The family are obviously mega rich and super powerful. Avery and her family live in a penthouse on the 1000th floor.

The book is written from five different POVs. Avery, Lena, Eris, Watt and Rylin. One of these is a boy…. Rylin lives down on the lower levels with her sister. Her mum is dead and she is  trying to make ends meet. She goes to work at a party hosted by another rich kid with a trust fund and she ends up involved in a murky world involving her current boyfriend and the rich boy she is falling in love with. Avery and Atlas have a secret that will blow all their world’s apart and there is a lot of unrequited love and drug usage going on. Watt is a super hacker and has created a computer that he has placed inside his head. This is highly illegal but he uses it to make money by spying on people and selling information. In a world where everyone does everything online this is a powerful tool, but could land him in prison for the rest of his life. He lives quite far  down the block as well.

At the beginning of the book we learn that one of the main characters will fall from the top of the tower to their death. The build up and who it might be will keep you guessing all the way through and this is a clever plot device. It makes you want to read on. All of the characters are pretty shallow and the only one who seems to value their life (eventually) is Eris. Leda is hiding an addiction and a spell in rehab, Rylin is trying to protect a boy she realises she n longer knows and Watt gets in way too deep when he discovers that he is falling for the very person he shouldn’t. Even though there is much made of the fact that Leda, Avery and Eris are all such great friends, when it all comes down to it, they leave each other to save themselves. It is also an interesting exploration of friendship amongst kids who think they have everything, but at the end of the day having everything doesn’t always make you happy.

All of them have secrets and some of them are more desperate to hide them then others. I liked the twist with Eris and Lena and it’s all nicely set up for a sequel. A good futuristic book that will make you want to go and read the next one, but if you like a fantasy book with a bit more action and adventure then this probably won’t float your boat.

There are also a few bits in there which are morally questionable and may make you think which of the main characters (if any) you actually like by the end of the  book! I will go on and read the next one, but it might take me a while to get to it. I didn’t invest too emotionally with any of them as they all have dislikable traits. Maybe we aren’t meant to…. Am interested to see where the author takes them all next though.

Paper Butterflies – Lisa Heathfield

paper butterflies

I haven’t read anything by Lisa Heathfield before but I discovered after I read this that my daughter has a copy of another one of her books, Seed and I cannot wait to dive in to that one! I also discovered that I have a copy of The Flight of the Starling on my kindle courtesy of Netgalley so, lucky me!
This book made me cry – now if you have read any of my other posts then you will see that this isn’t too difficult, I am a bit of a softy but, this book made me alternate between being really sad and really angry! Angry that the world can let people live in such awful situations and not be fair, and really sad because I wanted June’s life to get better. And I guess in a way it does, because she meets Blister. But I’m getting ahead of myself….
June lives with her dad and her stepmom and her step sister Megan. Kathleen is the stepmom from hell. June’s mum has died in a drowning accident and her dad has remarried. June misses her mum and as the book progresses we see that this is more than just normal grief. She is living in hell. Kathleen is overfeeding her, bullying her mentally and physically and encouraging her daughter to do the same. Her dad is so busy he is oblivious to what’s going on and June doesn’t feel able to tell him. He’s pretty much never there anyway.
June is also having a hard time at school. Kathleen doesn’t allow her to go to the toilet at home and she wets herself, she is accused of bullying even though she is the victim and her stepsister winds her up at school and she is being bullied by a boy there. She is out one day when she finds a strange  collection of huts and meets a boy there  called Blister. Blister lives with his large family and is home schooled. Blister and his family are June’s salvation. She  becomes part of something good and loving and, it helps her to accept the situation that she is in. Sometimes it was frustrating because I wanted her to open up to someone, anyone about what was going on at home, mainly because of what happens later. But she doesn’t.
The book is written in before and after snap shots so we know something awful happens to June. It also leaps forward by a year in most chapters so when we first meet June, and then Blister, they are quite young and we follow them right through to their teen years.
I don’t want to tell you much more of the plot because it will spoil it for you but, this book will make you feel lots of emotions that will keep making you come back and revisit it. June is a character that I wanted to pick up and take care of, Blister is such a lovely, compassionate boy that I wanted to sit and have a chat with him. Primarily I wanted to punch Kathleen really hard in the face for most of the book! Megan I felt a bit ambivalent about because she was also a child and I think some things that she did were a reaction to her mother and her situation, she also needs a good talking to though!
I loved this book, not in the conventional really want to read it again way, but in a way that a book can touch your soul and make you want to be a better person. I cannot wait to read the rest of Lisa Heathfield’s books to explore what else she can offer.

 

After the Fire – Will Hill

after the fire

Hold on to your hats kids, I love this book and so may be a bit gushy!

Moonbeam has grown up living in a cult in the desert in America. The cult, or God’s Legion live in a commune and are led by the charismatic and scary Father John. Moonbeam has lived there for most of her life after her father saw the previous leader, Father Patrick, speak. He moved Moon and her mum there and became one of the top leaders . He then died.

Moonbeam is left there with her mum, who she has quite a fractious relationship with and the rest of the commune. We first meet Moonbeam when she is locked in a secure facility with some other kids from the commune. We slowly learn that there has been a massive fire after the commune is attacked by government agencies and something has happened which Moonbeam feels she is responsible for. The book is written in the present with flashbacks to events that took place before the fire. Moonbeam is being interviewed by a Doctor, Doctor Hernandez and an FBI agent called Agent Carlyle. They are both interested in how the Legion worked and particularly about its leader.

We learn through the flashbacks that the commune is run by Father John with a rod of iron. Any misdemeanour means time in the box, a metal box in the middle of the desert. Father John lives in the ‘big house’ with his wives and there are mysterious visits by other men to the girls rooms unless you are promised to Father John as a future wife. Moonbeam is one of these and, when she turns 18 she will have to marry him. There is also extensive weapons training for when the day comes that the Legion is attacked by the Outsiders and they will need to protect themselves. Everyone needs to take part in this and combat training, including young children, of which there are quite a few.

We soon realise that Moonbeam has no experience of the outside world, once Father John takes over the leadership no one is allowed to leave the compound except Amos, one of the Legionaires. He goes once a week to collect supplies and packages addressed to a James Carmel. Father John takes these and no one else knows what they contain.

A new member called Nate arrives and Moonbeam likes him. She follows him around and he starts to make her realise that there are things going on that are not right. He eventually jeopardises his position within the group and needs to leave, this prompts Moonbeam to start thinking about getting out.

This book is frightening and hard hitting and violent. It is also about how religion can be used to twist people’s beliefs and used as a weapon of  control. The people who live in the commune give up their lives  for something that they believe is true. They think that when you die, you will ascend to Heaven and sit with God, this is the ultimate reward. This is most disturbing when we meet Luke, another teenager living in the commune who was the first child to be born and brought up  there. He has no knowledge of the real world except for what he is told by the leaders. He is a fanatical believer.

Father John is also terrifying. He controls  everyone and everything within the commune. He does this through fear and retribution, not something that you should associate with a peaceful, loving community.

The author wrote this book after a memory of the Waco massacre was awakened after a trip to America. I remember this because I was a teenager when it happened. This was a religious commune who lived Texas and was run by another charismatic leader, David Koresh. The Branch Davidians were a break off group of the Seventh Day Adventists and set up a commune where they stashed weapons for defense against the ‘end times’. The siege in the early nineties lasted for 51 days and was all over the news, eventually 76 people died. This is kind of an exploration of what it would have been like to be a teenager living though that. There are lots of adult stuff going on that Moonbeam cannot understand but, as an outsider we can see that what is going on is wrong and she cannot be blamed for what happens.

I loved Department 19 and I also loved this. Will Hill is a fantastic writer who really gets in to the mind of the characters and takes us there too. Moonbeam is a strong girl despite her upbringing and we are rooting for her to be ok. As a woman and a mother it was frustrating to see how the women were portrayed though, would they really put their children in such danger or did they really believe that this was a safe environment for them to grow up in? It is a dark novel though, and explores some really complex and disturbing themes. Make sure you are in a happy place when you read it!

Further reading: Whit by Ian Banks (this is one of my all time favourite books and is a humorous take on living in a cult) and The Girls by Emma Cline (this is definitely for older readers though so be careful – it is a very disturbing book!)