As I Descended – Robin Talley

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This is the third Robin Talley book that I have read now; I loved The Lies We Tell Ourselves but really wasn’t keen on What We Left Behind so I went into this with a bit of trepidation.

The premise of the book is thus: Maria and Lily are room mates and lovers at a creepy boarding school in America called Archeron Academy. The school is built on an old slave plantation and there are more than a few ghost stories attached. There is a big lake in the middle of the campus where, allegedly, three students  drowned and current students are now forbidden to swim in it. The lake is also supposed to be haunted by the students who died.

Maria is kind of the second best. They are in their senior year and students are competing to win the coveted Cawdor Kingsley Prize, which gives them a free pass to college. When the book opens, Lily and Maria, and Maria’s best friend Brandon are playing with an Ouija board in the old plantation dining room. They ask it a series of questions and open up a link to the spirit world. Before they can close it again, the ancient chandelier falls on the board and smashes it. Maria is haunted by her memories of Altagracia, her maid from when she was a child, who spoke to spirits and was interested in the occult.

The only thing standing in the way of Maria winning the prize, and being valedictorian (top student in the year) and football captain is a girl called Delilah. Lily wants Maria to win the prize so that they can go to the same college and be together forever. She encourages Maria to go out with Delilah ( a known drug user) the night before a random drugs test (Brandon gives her the info) and slip a drug that she uses into her drink. Then Delilah will be caught, she uses all the time anyway and the girls don’t think it’s fair that she always gets away with it; Maria will win the prize, get captain of the team and valedictorian and life will be perfect. Except something goes wrong.

After a tragic accident the situation spirals out of control and Maria and Lily get more and more paranoid. Shove in the ghosts as well and this book gets more exciting. I’m going to give you a final clue and tell you that the book ends on the sports field which was originally called Dunsanane and you will obviously guess that the book is based on the play Macbeth.

Very loosely based I might add! Maria and Lily are obviously meant to be the Macbeths and Lily does a good job of winding Maria up. Eventually though it’s a little unclear whether either did anything because they wanted to or because they were possessed by evil spirits.  Mateo is the hero, Brandon’s boyfriend becomes suspicious of the two girls and decides to do some investigating.

I enjoyed this book a lot more that What We Left behind, although I didn’t think the characters were as deeply constructed as they could have been. There wasn’t much of a back story on any of them and I felt I would have liked them more if there had been. I didn’t really care if Maria succeeded or not, or was consumed by the evil spirits and went mad! The other aspect to the  story was obviously the  ghosts and whether they were real or just the figment of the teenager’s troubled minds. You’ll have to read it to decide that one; I’m still not sure. I’ll tell you one thing though, I am so glad I never to went to boarding school!

All in all, a good read. I would recommend to anyone who is studying Shakespeare as it gives the story a modern twist and it will help you to see the psychological aspect of the story. Was Maria so blinded by what she felt she deserved that she would do anything to get it? Did Macbeth want to be King so badly that he was willing to kill or did Lady Macbeth talk him in to it with clever words and some magical trickery?

Beautiful Broken Things – Sara Barnard

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I read this just after reading WAAMOM and that was quite light. This one is not! In fact, it was so intense I read it quickly just to get it over with. If you are feeling in a dark mood try not to read this book, pick something a little more fluffy instead.

Caddy and Rosie are best friends. Best friends who have known each other for 10 years and speak every day. The kind of best friend that you can have when you’re a kid because nothing else gets in the way. They go to different schools, Caddy goes to a posh private school called Esthers while Rosie attends the local comp. They have friends at school but they see each other every weekend and know each other inside out. They are just entering their final year at school and both are working hard. Rosie mentions a new girl who has started at her school, Suzanne, and they quickly become friends. Caddy is a bit bothered by this but once she meets Suzanne they become friends too.

Caddy and Rosie live in Brighton and this is where the book is set. There is a lot of scenes on the beach and cold, pebbly conversations. Suzanne has grown up in Reading and moved to Brighton to live with her aunt, Sarah. Caddy is intensely curious about this and eventually pieces some stuff together to find out why she doesn’t live with her family. It’s quite serious stuff and Suzanne is one seriously damaged person. She seems to be on a bit of a destructive path and Caddy feels that she needs something to happen in her life.  Her three goals for the year are: to lose her virginity, get a boyfriend (not necessarily connected) and have a big life event happen to her.

As their friendship develops things start to make more sense. Suzanne has been through a few terrible things and her aunt has saved her and brought her home with her. Suzanne, although grateful, doesn’t really want to tow  the line though. She is constantly getting in to trouble at school and through Rosie, Caddy discovers that she is seeing a boy called Dylan, and sleeping with him. Caddy is a kind hearted, naïve girl and thinks that she can save Suzanne. Suzanne needs professional help and leads Caddy on a path of destruction. Rosie sees the truth of what’s going on and tries to warn Caddy but, Caddy is hell bent on fixing Suzanne.

The dynamic between the three girls was a bit off to me. Rosie and Caddy were best friends but both seemed content to let the other one spend loads of time with Suzanne. Rosie must have known that things were not good with Suzanne but doesn’t really discuss it with Caddy, who goes off on this path with Suzanne which ultimately leads to disaster.

I met the author of this book the other day and she said that Suzanne is her favourite fictional character. I can see why because she could write some crazy stuff about her but, I was a  teenage girl once and know how intense friendships can be. I was in a friendship group where another girl was introduced and it wasn’t good. I just felt that Rosie and Caddy may not have been as close as they should have been and that  coloured the other characters for me. I liked Rosie  but Caddy was a total wet weekend to me….. In Brighton! Her friendships with her school mates wasn’t really explored either, which made me feel a bit sad for her because she poured all her efforts into her friendship with Rosie and then didn’t feel very comfortable about socializing with Rosie’s other friends. Even though she eventually was the reason that Suzanne  got the help she needed, she didn’t get the support that she needed to have a better life. I wanted her to enjoy life a bit more, but she didn’t seem to.

A good book, really thought provoking and made me remember how intense those friendships and feelings were. I just felt it needed something more. I am looking forward to reading her next book  though, A Quiet Kind of Thunder which has just been published.

We Are All Made of Molecules – Susan Nielsen

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We Are All Made of Molecules  was one of the books available as part of the Booktrust box of books, another great selection this year and I read it as part of my book club with year 8.

Stewart and his dad live together in their house which, until recently, also contained Stewart’s mum. A year before the book is set, she died. Stewart is a highly intelligent 13 year old and attends the Little Genius School for gifted children. He is very clever.

Ashley lives with her mum, her dad lives in a little house in the garden (apparently it’s called a laneway house) because he has  decided that he is gay. Ashley is not the brightest button in the box and is mortified by this. She is, as she describes it, at the top of the social ladder and is always worrying about her position on it. She is desperate to keep the fact that her dad is gay a secret.

Their worlds collide when Stewart’s dad starts dating Ashley’s mum and they decide  to move in together. Stewart and his dad move in with Ashely and her mum and Ashley is super not happy about it. To make things worse (for her) Stewart decides to move from Little Gifted to the same high school as Ashley.

Stewart is not the most popular kid in school, but Ashley is the queen bee. She resents everything he says and does and doesn’t really want anyone to know that they know each other. Stewart starts to get bullied by the new boy, Jared, and Ashley fancies him. Stewart overhears a conversation about Ashley and decides to help get them together. This will also help with Jared trying to pull Stewart’s shorts down in PE (it must be a boy thing!). Jared is almost as unpleasant as Ashley so they deserve each other.

I loved the split narrative of this book. Stewart’s voice was warm and funny, Ashley was horrible and really made me dislike her. I could understand that they both had issues but I felt that Stewart was far more willing to compromise. Ashley was a bit of a spoilt brat. She does get her comeuppance in the end but it still left me thinking that she was horrible.

This is a fun short read and it will help you appreciate the finer points of families coming together in these situations. It is also a good book club choice as there are a few things to discuss here. Most notably, Ashley and her relationship with her dad and Stewart and his obsession with molecules! You will like Stewart though, he’s one of the good guys.

The Girl in the Blue Coat – Monica Hesse

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I have just finished reading a book about old people’s homes in Holland (for a book group before you ask!)  and decided to pick  this one up because it is about the German occupation of Holland during WW11. I didn’t know much about so it was an interesting read.

Hanneke Bakker is an 18 year old girl living in Amsterdam during the Second World War. When we first meet her she is on her way to make a delivery of black market goods for her employer, the local undertaker. She  goes around delivering hard-to-get items to the wealthy people of  Amsterdam. She is also mourning the loss of her boyfriend, Bas, who was killed in the short lived resistance of the Dutch Army before the they succumbed to the German invasion. This was two years previously and Hanneke feels a lot of guilt. She thinks that Bas, who joined up early, did so  because he wanted to impress her.

Hanneke is stopped by a young German soldier and flirts her way out of trouble. She then calls on her next customer, Mrs Janssen, who has several sons. One has  been killed and the others have fled to America and England. Her husband has also not been seen for a while. She asks Hanneke to do her a favour. She has been harbouring a  young Jewish girl who was a friend of the family. Her husband had  been hiding the family at his factory but they had been betrayed and all been killed, including her husband, except for the girl. The girl has since gone missing and Mrs Janssen wants Hanneke to find her, as she is the only family she has left.

Coincidently, the same day her dead boyfriends brother Ollie appears at her door and, although Hanneke does not want to become involved, she agrees to meet with a friend of Ollie and realizes that he is involved with the Dutch resistance movement. He knows someone that can help her find Mirjam (the Jewish girl in the blue coat) and bring her back to Mrs Janssen and safety. Judith is a member of Ollie’s supper club and is Jewish. She works at the local centre where Jews go after they have been rounded up by the Germans. Her sister Mina works in the crèche looking after the very young and both girls are active members of the resistance. We also meet Willem, who is Ollie’s roommate.

What follows is a roller coaster of missed connections and double dealing. Hanneke is unwittingly drawn in to helping the resistance and is nearly caught on a few occasions. All the time she is carrying this guilt about Bas and we learn some of their back story. Hanneke  is a strong character that makes you feel that, if you were in the same situation as her you would  hopefully be as brave. The people of all occupied countries suffered such fear and hardship during the years that the Germans invaded their countries and people must have been constantly afraid of doing anything wrong. The rounding up of the Jews is poignantly portrayed, a boy cries because two girls in his class have been deported to concentration camps because they are Jewish. Hanneke has no hope of a future because she cannot see past her grief. Her relationship with her parents also changes significantly during the course of the book.

Every time I read a book like this, and there are so many out there that I have read a few, it astonishes me. How can ordinary people cope with such an extraordinary situation? Would I be able to cope with it? Would you? People do all sorts of amazing things when they have to, and so many people fought the Germans in their own way, small items of resistance that showed the enemy that they won’t give up fighting for their country. Hanneke is an ordinary girl trying to get by in a world that she no longer recognizes, and this book is so well written that you feel sorry for her but, at the same time, you will wish that you were like her.

The book has also  been compared to the Boy in the Striped Pyjamas. I didn’t really see the connection, or rather I did but didn’t agree.  This book will make you sad, but it will also make you glad that you live in a society where this will never happen again. It’s a study of human endurance and bravery and it made me tingle.

Further Reading: The Boy in the Stripped Pyjamas and The Boy at the Top of the mountain by John Boyne.

Highly Illogical Behaviour – John Corey Whaley

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This book revolves around three characters; Solomon, Lisa and Clark. Solomon is a reclusive agoraphobic with severe anxiety disorder and, at seventeen, has not left his house for over three years. Lisa is a girl from his middle school who remembers him having a breakdown in the school fountain on his last day of school. Clark is Lisa’s boyfriend. There are other incidentals; Solomon’s grandma is my favourite character in the book, when you read it you’ll see why.

Lisa wants out of Upland, California. She thinks it’s a dead end place and her future is brighter than that. Her plan is to get into the second best psychology course in the country with a full scholarship. In order to do this she needs to write an essay about her personal experience with mental illness. She decides that her essay will be about Solomon, primarily her saving Solomon and making him ‘normal’ again. The snag is, she’s not going to tell Solomon she’s doing it.

She does tell Clark though, and he agrees to go along with it. She discovers that Solomon is warm and intelligent and fun to be with – and gay. As they become closer she realizes that Solomon has a lot in common with Clark and asks him if Clark can come over too. A strong friendship develops between the three of them and they spend most of their time together. Lisa starts to have doubts about the paper but thinks it all a means to an end so she continues with it. Clark meanwhile, is not happy at all.

Stuff happens that I can’t tell you about but needless to say, the ending is kind of predictable. The book deals with some big issues. Mental health and sexuality are the two big ones but there are other sub themes as well. The relationships with the young people and God are explored too. Lisa’s best friend Janis is religious and goes to a religious summer camp; Clark and Lisa don’t have sex and his mum is also religious so that may be the cause, not that they have discussed it all!  Lisa assumes that her relationship with Clark is a. normal and b. strong enough to withstand anything but really it’s a relationship based on non information and assumptions; the consequences of which will hurt Solomon as well as them. Solomon, on the other hand, almost makes  you want to just stay at home and never leave; his life is definitely pretty easy. With the inclusion of friends though, it starts to make him question why he has made the decision to leave the outside world behind.

Essentially Solomon won’t change and, although Lisa does make some breakthroughs, his problems are bigger than she can solve. She comes to realize that Solomon needs a lot of help to change and, most importantly, he must want to change his life – and he really doesn’t want to!

This is a quick and thought-provoking read which will introduce you some nice characters that will stay with you for a while. Everyone would probably like a break from the madness of life, but where’s the fun in that?!

Further Reading: Noggin by John Corey Whaley

What Light – Jay Asher

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This is a good book to read at Christmas time. Sierra and her family live on a Christmas tree farm in Oregon. Once a year for a month they go to California where they have a tree lot where they sell the trees. This has happened every year since Sierra was born. She has two sets of friends, Liz and Rachel in Oregon who she spends most of the year with, and Heather in California who she only gets to spend a month with. Liz and Rachel are a bit clingy and the first couple of chapters see them prepare gifts for Sierra and tell her how sad they are that she is going. She will miss them too but she also misses Heather and her family and can’t wait  to see them. The tree lot has also  been in her family for two generations and is under threat because they don’t make enough money from it. Sierra doesn’t want this to happen.

You don’t get much background on Sierra, just what’s going on at the time; you do find out that she has had boyfriends before but the only mention of it is that she only does worthy relationships and doesn’t see the point of just dating.

When she arrives in California we meet Andrew, a guy who works on the tree lot and asked her out last year. He is a bit of a nasty piece of work; don’t like Andrew! Sierra’s dad doesn’t let her go out with any of the boys that work on the lot, even though she must be about 17, and makes them do horrible chores if they so much as look at her. Heather also has a new boyfriend called Devon who she is planning on dumping after Christmas, he’s boring apparently.

After a couple of days of setting up, a cute boy with dimples appears and buys a tree. She describes the boy to Heather who immediately tells her that this is Caleb, and he’s bad news. When he appears the next day and they start talking Sierra decides she wants to give him a chance and find out more.  Sierra and Caleb start to see more of each other and she slowly teases out of him what’s  going on. I won’t spoil it for you but it’s a bit random. She also discovers that he is buying Christmas trees out of his own pocket and delivering them to people who can’t afford to buy their own. As  they slowly fall for each other (given that she is only in town for a month it took them ages to kiss!) she needs to decide whether the Caleb she knows now can make up for the rumours she has heard about the old Caleb.

This is a quick read at just under 250 pages and it was nice enough to keep me interested until the end. I didn’t really feel any emotional attachment to any of the characters although, the end did make me a bit teary! If you like a bit of cheesy romance at Christmas  time  then this is the perfect book for you – and a very different feel to 13 Reasons Why which was quite depressing!

PS> the only thing that really blew my mind was that afterwards, when looking for a picture of the cover photo, I discovered that Jay Asher is a man! I really wasn’t expecting that given that the main character in this  book is a girl and it’s written so well. It did explain why Sierra was a little emotionless though, and the description of feelings wasn’t really there. Still, it was well written and enjoyable.

What We Left Behind – Robin Talley

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Morning all; before I write my review of this book I am going to get all technical and give you some terms which are frequently used.  This would have helped me out a lot when I was reading so…. you’re welcome.

Genderqueer: A person who does not identify with either gender but with both or neither or a combination.

Transgender: A person who is ‘presenting’ themselves as the opposite gender to what they were assigned to at birth.

Cisgender: A person who is ‘presenting’ themselves as the same gender as they were assigned at birth.

We  first meet Toni at her high school dance. She has arrived with her girlfriend Renee and is dressed as a man, the whole place is clapping and shouting her name. We then learn that she goes to an all girls school and has been battling away against the school for some time to be allowed the right to wear trousers instead of a skirt as she feels more comfortable that way. She claps eyes on a new girl, Gretchen, and bam… it’s love at first sight. The book is written as a split narrative  so we get both of their perspectives on this, and it really is love at first sight for both of them.

Fast forward two years and they are preparing to go to college. Toni is determined to go to Harvard and has been accepted. She thinks that Gretchen is going to Boston University so that they can meet up every weekend and still stay together. Gretchen isn’t sure she wants to go to BU and applies to NYU (New York) as well (without telling Toni). This will give you an inkling of what their relationship is like. Toni is a bit selfish.

Toni throws a wobbly but they still vow to stay together. Off they both go with plans to meet up the first weekend of term. Toni really wants to join the LGBTQA+ group at Harvard and meets Derek. Derek used to be a woman but is in the middle of transitioning. Toni is immediately drawn in to a group of people who are all at various stages of this process and makes friends. Gretchen meanwhile, makes friends with a gay guy called Caroll and they hit it off. Then it all starts to get a bit annoying. even though Carroll is gay he makes some fairly derogatory remarks about lesbians and gay people and admits that he has never had a boyfriend or even kissed a man. He is almost like a caricature of a gay man and this is a little annoying. That’s ok though because by the end you won’t care anyway!

Toni is genderqueer and does not identify with either sex. Toni does not use male or female personal pronouns so instead of using he or she Toni uses peoples names or ‘they’ or ‘them’. This gets a bit annoying and confusing. Gretchen struggles to describe this to her new friends so she doesn’t bother – I know how Gretchen feels.

Toni gets more and more involved with her trans group and just becomes more and more irritating. She is obviously in some turmoil and doesn’t think that this is appropriate to speak to her girlfriend about it, instead she leans on Derek and ‘the guys’ and immerses in their world.  Gretchen is lovely and just wants to get on with things – Toni is selfish and doesn’t give her any leeway. Toni refuses to see Gretchen for weeks because she is too busy (she is punishing her for going to NYU) and they don’t meet again until Halloween. Toni wants to ‘show her beautiful girlfriend off’ to all her new mates. You couldn’t get more rugby club machismo then that.

Gretchen just wants to be with Toni but struggles with all the changes that Toni wants to make. Toni thinks Gretchen is a bit thick and can’t understand what’s going on, so just doesn’t tell her. Unfortunately, Gretchen starts to believe she is a bit thick too. Her biggest problem is that because Toni isn’t telling her what’s going on, she is totally in the dark about what to do. If Toni transitions and becomes a man, will she still find her attractive? Does she want a boyfriend even though she’s a lesbian because it’s Toni and she loves Toni. See why she’s confused?

The blurb says that these two are made for each other. I disagree. It makes me angry when people are prejudiced, and Toni is a prejudice of the worst kind. Toni (you see even I’m not using personal pronouns!) thinks that people who aren’t trans won’t understand what she’s going through. Well, maybe that is the case to a certain extent but give us straight people (or cisgender) some credit!

I love Lies we Tell Ourselves. I thought it was an outstanding book, the sexuality in the book was almost incidental to the racial tension but it was so well written I identified with them all in many different ways. I liked Gretchen. I’d want to be friends with Gretchen. She’d have to dump Toni though!

The book does highlight the problems of going to university with a partner in tow. Will you stay together even though you meet new people and your horizons broaden? Are  they holding you back or holding you together? This is an age old problem and not confined to LGBTQA+ people. It also highlighted the problem of trans people when they are mid change, what bathroom do they use when out in public? If they are identifying with a particular  gender but don’t look like it then it must be hard – there is a scene when Toni’s gang go out for dinner and are having a lovely time until the waitress says “anything else ladies?”: half the group are mid trans and identify as men. That must be hard and I felt that. But don’t think that because we aren’t the same as you we can’t sympathise and understand, because that’s labelling us as idiots and that’s not true. Nance, one of Toni’s friends, says that Toni labels everyone as soon as Toni meets them, can you get more prejudiced then that?

Well written and thoughtful book but sometimes I think that the LGBTQA+ community are so desperate to be heard that forget that most people are tolerant and kind and just want to get on with life. It’s  not a fight for most us, it’s just a confusion that needs explaining. I did some research on it though and am much more clued up so, I guess that’s good for me!

PS> Count how many times Toni says ‘the guys’ but doesn’t like using male and female pronouns to describe people – oh the irony!