Goodbye Stranger – Rebecca Stead

goodbye stranger

Bridge, Tab and Em have been friends for ever. They met in grade school (I think this is primary school English viewers!) and made a pact that they would never fight. This is probably quite easy when you are little but, as you get older this is a little harder to do. Bridge was out  rollerskating one day when she is hit by a car. She is off school for a year recovering and Tab and Em get on with life.

It's a new term, their last at middle school,when Bridge returns to school. Em is starting to pull away from the group, she has taken up various sports, filled out a bit and got interested in boys. One particular boy takes her interest and, encouraged by her new friend Julie Hopper from the year above, she engages in some flirting with him. The boy, Patrick, starts sending her pictures and she starts replying and then it all gets a bit complicated.

In the mean time, Bridge meets Sherm. Sherm is lovely, and Bridge wants to be his friend. They are all only 12 remember so she's not really sure what else she wants. She just knows that she looks forward to seeing Sherm and hanging out with him. Meanwhile, Tab has started spouting feminist ideology picked up from her  teacher, and their friendship is starting to become fractured. Sherm also has some stuff of his own going on and isn't really sure how to deal with it all.

This book is really interesting. It deals with some pretty big themes; friendship, first love, betrayal and heartache. There is also a bit of cyber bullying thrown in, along with a difficult moral conundrum for Sherm; in fact two moral conundrums! His relationship with Bridge gets more complicated and he makes a decision which has consequences for everyone.

I kept forgetting that they were so young while I was reading it. I don't know if that means I am getting old or kids just have to deal with more serious dilemmas at a younger age then I did. Bridge is a great character simply because she is a bit more innocent then the others and finds herself in situations that she isn't really ready to deal with yet. This is a clever device because that's pretty much how most kids feel at this age! Sherm is also the kind of boy you would want your daughter to be friends with. Em and Tab are a bit more complicated, and perhaps this is because they have a bit more experience of how the world works then Bridge does, this doesn't mean that they make the right decisions though!

I haven't read anything else by Rebecca Stead but will put some of her other books on my reading list – a nicely written book about growing up in America in the 2000s and how modern technology can make dating and flirting even more complicated. The cyber thing will also have you gnashing your teeth about how girls get treated differently to boys, even now. See if you think Em and Patrick get treated in the same way, by their peers and by the school, when everyone finds out what happened….

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Our Chemical Hearts – Krystal Sutherland

There is a wealth of books for teenagers about all kinds of things. Some of them worry me. They deal with illness, mental and physical, abuse, sexuality (loads of these!) bullying, relationships, strange illnesses that aren’t really illnesses and, like this one, grief. In this day and age when teenagers have access to so much online content, to then write books about how they should deal with these things, effectively taking the role of the parent, sometimes troubles me. I don’t want my daughter to find out how to deal with these things from a book, I want her to be able to talk to me about them,  but I know that this isn’t possible for some. I also know that there are lots of things going on in your heads that you  need to sort out and, if it helps to read about it then that can only be a good thing…. except bear in mind that  life isn’t all doom and gloom!

This book is a sensitive portrayal of a young woman who has lost her boyfriend/ best friend/ future husband in a car crash. The story isn’t told through her eyes though, but through the boy who falls in love with her afterwards. Henry is a bit geeky and aspires to be the editor of his high school newspaper in his senior year. He has schemed for the last two years with his friends Lola and Murray ( a quirky Australian!) to achieve this. When he is called in to the English teacher’s office (Mr Hink) at the beginning of the year he encounters Grace Town. Grace walks with a limp, wears musty boys clothes and, when offered the job of sharing the editorial job with Henry, turns it down. Henry chases after her (she is surprising nimble, even with a walking stick) and demands to know why. Grace has transferred from another local high school in the area called East High. Henry feels drawn to her but can’t explain why, even to himself. She is not the typical girl to fall in love with and, Henry isn’t the type of boy to fall for girls much anyway, he’s too interested in his writing.

As their relationship develops La and Murray, and Henry’s sister Sadie, who is also going through a divorce, try to warn him against trying to start something with someone who is so broken. The metaphor here is that Henry likes to collect broken things, in particular Japanese pots that have been fixed with gold wires. Grace is profoundly broken and blames herself for the accident that took her boyfriend and future, Dom. The idea that when someone you love is killed, you are also robbed of that future that you would have had with them is a deeply upsetting concept.

There is also a little side thing going on with Henry’s parents which I found quite interesting. This all became clear at the end of the book but it was the relationship between Henry and his parents and then their relationship with his sister Sadie that made me think a bit. The age gap between Sadie and Henry is big and Sadie was the naughty one who did everything, so when Henry is her opposite they aren’t sure how to deal with this. I can’t quite decide whether they intended to make him feel guilty or were relieved that he wasn’t as rebellious as his big sister, interesting though.

The writing is beautiful and the texts and emails that intersperse the book are good at breaking things up and a realistic portrayal of how young people would communicate, no one is ever off limits anymore.   I wanted to feel sorry for Grace, but I ended up just feeling a lot of frustration with her. She doesn’t ask Henry to feel the way that he does but she doesn’t do anything to help make the situation better. The way in which grief is portrayed  as a real, visceral thing that eats away at you is awesome (in the proper sense of the word!) This is a debut novel by this author and I wasn’t expecting it to move me as much as it did, be prepared for some raw emotion and hard hitting dialogue that will leave you reaching for your tissues. Murray is also great as the comedy factor and, although he is portrayed as a stereotypical Australian, it’s kind of ironic!

Enjoy this one, I’m sure you will!

Ink and Bone (The Great Library Series #1) – Rachel Caine

I haven’t read anything by Rachel Caine before; the whole Morganville thing didn’t really appeal to me even though they were really popular in the library. This one kind of grabbed me because of the library  connection and I thought I’d give it a go.

The book is based on the premise that The Royal Library of Alexandria in Egypt was not destroyed and is still standing at the time the book is set, which is in 2025. The Royal Library was built in the 3rd century BC and was a centre of cultural learning and knowledge. It housed thousands of papyrus scrolls and other scholarly works which were destroyed by a big fire in 30 BC. The library then moved to a daughter library or Serapeum and this was destroyed in the Muslim wars in about 642 AD. This background knowledge would have helped when reading the book but is not essential!

The Library is controlled by the Librarians (!) a sinister group that basically rule the world and all the knowledge in it. Any printed books are banned and any that exist are housed in the original library in Alexandria. There is a black market trade in printed books but this a dangerous game and, if discovered will lead to execution. All citizens of the world are allowed to read from tablets, or blanks, and these are controlled by the Library. There is also some wars going on, particularly between the Welsh and the English and these are brutal, almost medieval, warfare. There is also a group of people who live in the Iron Tower in Alexandria called Obscurists. They can preform some sort of magic that controls the blanks and other things. If you are an Obscurist you cannot leave the Iron Tower, ever. They are super powerful and rare. There is also a group of people called Burners who destroy books in a public way to draw attention to the fact that all books should be free to be read without being controlled by the library.

Jess Brightwell lives in London with his family. They are book smugglers and he is a runner. He has to deliver the books to the clients. Some are extremely rare and worth lots of money. He had an older brother called Liam who was executed at 17 for smuggling and a twin called Brendan, who is a mystery ( he makes fleeting appearances in this book!) The Brightwell family are large and have relatives all over. Although Jess is part of the business his heart isn’t really it so when he turns 17  his father buys him an opportunity. Every year students from all around the world are chosen to go to Alexandria to study. They have to sit a series of exams and if they pass, go to Alexandria and study with a Scholar, who chooses six of them to be taken in to the library. The others are sent back.

On the train to Alexandria he meets his fellow students; Thomas, Khalila, Danton and Glain. When he arrives he meets his room mate, Dario who isn’t very nice and later another mysterious girl arrives called Morgan. Their scholar is a chap called Wolfe who may or may not be dodgy, and they are also trained by the Garda, a man called Santi. These are all the main players in the book and you will get to know them as you go.

I don’t want to elaborate too much on the story because it will give you too many spoilers, but this is a series opener so it needs to set everything up. Which it does! The story is fast paced and gritty and there is a hint of magic but it’s not too overwhelming for people who aren’t too into magical books. Jess is a great character and there is a developing love story as well but, the main plot is; who to trust? Should we agree that one organisation can control all the power and knowledge in the world just because they can? The other characters are really good as well and I’m sure that the ones that survive will make an appearance in the next book (which is already in my kindle!)

This is a great summer read and you will become immersed in their world, I am looking forward to reading the next one and the third one is out in July so that’s going on the kindle as well! There are also some spin off novellas which will keep you busy. If you love a series with some magical twists and turns then this is the one for you!

 

 

One of Us is Lying – Karen M McManus

Hands up if you have seen the awesome 80s classic The Breakfast Club? High school kids stuck in detention, all different types, don’t really know or like each other and then they are all stuck in the same room and end up having this amazing experience? WHY NOT??? This film is fab and I demand you go and watch it this evening….

Well, this book is unashamedly similar, except one of the students who goes into detention doesn’t make it out again. Bronwyn, Cooper, Nate, Addy and Simon are all in detention on a Monday afternoon for being caught with their mobile phones. Except all the phones they were caught weren’t their own, but were found in their bags. Weird coincidence number one. While they are all there, the teacher leaves for a second and there is a car crash in  the car park which they all go and look at out of the window. The next thing you know, Simon falls down and starts  gasping for breath. It is well known that he has a peanut allergy and quick thinking Nate tries to find his epipen. It’s not in his bag and one of the others runs to the medical room to get a spare; there aren’t any.  Simon doesn’t make it  (this isn’t a spoiler, it tells you this in the blurb)

The other four narrate the story and all have something to hide. Simon is the author of an online gossip website called About That and has been writing nasty things about other students, he isn’t exactly Mr Popular. So when it’s discovered that he has been deliberately killed they are all under suspicion. Bronwyn is the clever type who is just trying to get though high school and into Yale. Cooper is the star baseball player who is just about the get a full scholarship and possibly play in the majors (this is important if you play baseball apparently) Nate is the school drug dealer and lives with his alcoholic dad, his mum has disappeared. Addy is dating Jake, a thoroughly nasty jock who is a total control freak. That basically sums up Addy’s personality at the beginning of the book.

As things play out and the students all fall under suspicion they start to get together to figure out what really happened. As they start to trust each other more, and spend more time together, there is a lingering suspicion that one of them may have committed the murder. So who did the crime?

I liked the way that, as the reader you experience all the main suspects in their own words, which makes it more difficult to figure out which one (if any) of them might have done it.  As  the groups secrets are exposed and some of them get a bit closer the suspicion heightens. Although I never really believed that any of them were guilty, the lies came out quite slowly so it was exciting to go along not knowing who the murderer was. I also started to really like the characters and really hoped that none of them were responsible!

This is another YA book that references classic stuff but also is trying to encourage you to be an individual. Addy in particular is in an abusive relationship but doesn’t even realise it. Cooper’s secret also exposes the fact that, although American is a first world country, it still has some backward thinking going on!

The twists and turns made me want to finish quickly and I  really enjoyed the ride. A good thriller that will make you go ‘oh!’ when you find out the truth! One to read over the summer I think.

Now go and get The Breakfast club on Netflicks, if you love Pitch Perfect hopefully you have seen it already!

The Bone Sparrow – Zana Fraillon

This was an interesting read after reading Between Shades of Gray. Both are set in detention centres, one during the second world war and the other, The Bone Sparrow, set in the present day. Present day Australia to be precise.

The characters in this book are from Myanmar/ Burma and are part of the Rohingya people, one of the most persecuted groups of people on earth. They have been expelled from Myanmar as the government there have classified them as illegal immigrants as a result of the ongoing civil war. In 2015 all Rohingya people were expelled from Myanmar and it caused a humanitarian crisis with thousands living on boats as they were effectively stateless. Many ended up washing up on the coast of Australia where they are still being held in detention centres. If you are in a detention centre in Australia you will never qualify as an Australian citizen according to the afterword in this book. Ever. What will happen to the people who are in there is anyone’s guess.

So, there’s your background, taken from Wikipedia so who knows how accurate it is! The point is that these people have no hope. The main character is a small boy called Subhi. He is probably about 10 years old and was born in the detention centre. He lives  there with his mum and his sister Queeny. She isn’t really called Queeny but that is what everyone calls her. He lives in the family section of the detention centre known as family 3. Also living there is his best friend Eli, who is a little older then him. Eli is a bit of a ducker and diver and manages to acquire things that other people need. The conditions in the camp sound pretty horrendous and, although Subhi doesn’t really know any different, he knows that they should not have to live like this. There are other sections of the camp, mostly all men sections and one for people who try and hurt themselves. Subhi’s Maa is very depressed and seems to spend all day in bed starring at the wall. His dad, or Ba is not with them and it’s  not very clear where he is.

The other narrator in the book is an Australian girl called Jimmie. She lives with her brother, Jonah who is older than her, and her dad. Her mum has recently died and  they all a bit of a mess. Jimmie’s sections aren’t very long but they are interesting. They are not really an antidote to Subhi’s situation and she is suffering from neglect by her dad, who seems to be suffering from depression as well. She rarely goes to school and as a result cannot read. She carries with her a book of stories that her mum has given her about her family history. One day she decides to explore down the road by the camp and manages to hop the fence. That’s where she meets Subhi. Subhi can read her stories and she discovers things about her family and where they came from. She also wears a sparrow necklace and the stories explain to her the origin of it.

Things in the camp in the meantime are hotting up. Eli is transferred to the male wing, even though he is clearly not an adult and the men decide to go on hunger strike. Things start to get nasty for Jimmie as well when she picks up an infection.

The relationship between Subhi and Jimmie is lovely. The plight of the people suffering in the camps is horrendous and little known. The bigger question is what can we do with all the displaced people in the world who cannot go back to where they were born, but cannot live in the country they have ended up in. The refugee crisis in Europe is much closer to home but no less disturbing.

A thought provoking read, like much of the Carnegie shortlist this year. I enjoyed it more than I expected to.

Further reading: The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas by John Boyne

PS> my favourite character is the plastic duck… he has a great sense of humour.

Between Shades of Gray – Ruta Sepetys

This book has been my shelf to read for a long time. After I read Salt to the Sea and found out there was a connection with the characters, I decided to read it next. They don’t need to be read in an order but they have a link with Joana and her cousin, Lina. Lina is the cousin that Joana is constantly feeling guilty about so it was interesting to see what her story was.

Lina lives in Lithuania with her mum and dad and her brother, Jonah. Her father is a lecturer at the local university. He is anti soviet and may have been seen as a bit of a trouble maker. In June 1941 Lina, her mother and Jonah are arrested by the Russians and deported. A few days later Lithuania was occupied by the Germans but by this time, up to 34,000 Lithuanians were put on trains to Siberia where they were killed or taken to forced labour camps. There is a particularly harrowing account of them waiting at the hospital for a woman to give birth before taking her and her newborn baby on the trains.

Lina is a gifted artist and had applied to go to art school. At this time she is 15 years old and her brother Jonah is 11. They have grown up in a liberal, comfortable household and they have had a nice life. Their life after their arrest and deportation cannot be more different. This is the start of a long journey for them; From Lithuania they are taken by train to a beet farm in Siberia and then eventually on to the Arctic Circle. On the train are some of their neighbours along with other members of their community. Among them is Andrius and his mother. Andrius is the son of a Lithuanian soldier who has been killed. His mother has told the Russians that he is simple so that he can stay with her; Andrius is anything but simple and can acquire things that other people can’t. When they arrive at the beet farm they are put to work and live in brutal conditions, starved and beaten by the Russians and bullied by the local people who are also working at the farm.

Andrius and his mother take a different path which means that they acquire more things, which they then share out amongst the others. Jonah and Andrius develop a strong friendship but Lina is suspicious and cannot like him.

As with her other book, the author develops the main characters while also giving us enough information about the other characters to make us feel that we know them too. The bald man is a good example of this. The other thing that the author does is make us feel how awful this experience must have been. These poor people are beaten and bullied and the Russians want them to sign a piece of paper confining them to 25 years hard labour as traitors to the state. Lina and her family refuse to sign and therefore do not get all the privileges that the people who signed do.

Eventually they are moved again and the relentlessness of the journey and the pointlessness of why they are being punished makes you ache for them.

Another great book by this author who is obviously specialising in war stories from the child’s POV. In the afterword she talks about her family and there is obviously a connection there, which would explain why she is so interested in presenting what happened in Lithuania. Even though the Russians were our allies during WW2, some of the atrocities that they committed were horrendous and the people who were taken to Siberia were there for many years. Their homes and lands were taken over and never returned. It is interesting to hear the stories of the Baltic states, they are not well publicised and that’s a shame when so many people were made to suffer.

Salt to the Sea – Ruta Sepetys

In the notes for the Carnegie (this book is on the shortlist) the first question is: Have you heard the story of the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff before reading this book?

I have a history degree and an interest in history and historical fiction. My A Level dealt with the Second World War and I have never heard of it.

On the 30th January 1945 Germany were just about to lose the war. They were evacuating civilians, wounded men, Nazi officials, nurses and various military personnel from East Prussia before the Russians arrived and killed everyone. The ship was built before the war for German workers to enjoy a cruise on. As a result it was kitted out for pleasure and not as a military carrier. It was also built to carry approx. 1500 people (remember this figure, it will be significant later).

Salt to the Sea follows the story of four young people who are all connected to the Wilhelm Gustloff. Joana is from Lithuania and has some nursing experience. She has met up with some refugees who are heading for the coast and hoping to get a ship to Germany. As she has medical experience she has become a naturalised German citizen. She is helping the group, including an old man who is a shoemaker, a young boy who has lost his family, and a blind girl. The shoemaker knows the countryside and is helping them to reach the port and safety. Florian is a German boy escaping from the Nazi art thieves. He is also an expert forger and is carrying a big secret. Emilia meets up with Florian who saves her from being raped by a Russian soldier. She is grateful to him and attaches herself to him as her protector. He isn’t too pleased about this. They meet up with Joana and the larger group and, when they realise they are all heading in the same direction they link up. Not that Florian is very pleased about this either. Then there is Alfred. He is a German sailor who is already on the ship, preparing it for evacuation. He is also a bit crazy. He composes letters to his sweetheart in his head, except it turns out he never writes them, and she isn’t his sweetheart. And he isn’t very nice. I liked his segments though, they were amusing!

If you are looking for a light-hearted read then this is not it.  The war was brutal, especially during the final few months when the Russians were invading German held territory. Many children, old people and woman were in vulnerable and dangerous positions. Most of the Polish civilian population were drifting after the German occupation in September 1939 and the Polish people had endured terrible hardship. Emilia is from Poland but had been left with a German family. Her story is maybe the most shocking of them all.

It is no spoiler to tell you that the Wilhelm Gustloff was hit by three Russian torpedoes in the Baltic Sea in January 1945. The ship had no hospital markings as it had anti aircraft guns fitted and so was seen as a target. It was also in deep water with its lights on to avoid mines. A sitting target. The death toll for the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff was 9400. Mostly wounded men, women and children. It was the biggest maritime disaster in WW2 and is not spoken about, even today.

What I won’t tell you is what happens to the characters. The way they interlink is good and the various narrators works well. I also enjoyed the way that the author fleshes out the other characters so that we care about what happens to them, the shoemaker and the little boy for example. It is a well written, exciting and life affirming book. The subject matter is obviously disturbing and tragic but it is handled in a sensitive and interesting way.

It did also make me go off and do some research about the ship and what happened afterwards. Another terrible disaster in an already terrible war. A good choice for the Carnegie though, and definitely one that I may not have picked up.