Book Review: The Wrong Train

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The Wrong Train by Jeremy de Quidt is a collection of creepy short stories joined together by a central plot. It’s the first book that I’ve read by Jeremy de Quidt and I really, really enjoyed it.

It’s late. Dark. A boy rushes to catch a train, leaping aboard just before it pulls away. Suddenly he realises that it’s the wrong train. He’s annoyed of course, but not scared…Yet. He gets off at the next station, but the platform’s empty, and it doesn’t look like any station he’s seen before. But he’s still not scared…Yet. Then a stranger arrives – someone with stories to help pass the time. Only these aren’t any old stories. These are nightmares, and they come with a price to pay…Scared yet? You will be.

I love the concept of The Wrong Train because the central storyline of a man telling unsettling stories to a boy who is lost gives purpose to the collection of stories and allows the stories to be read as 1 book. I’ve not read a YA short story collection before but I loved the intensity that a condensed story is able to achieve and I also really enjoyed being able to read a whole story in one go, much like the boy who is hearing these stories. It’s interesting to hear that Jeremy always planned for The Wrong Train to include a central plot (instead of writing a collection and then deciding to tie it all together) saying:

‘The central plot, rather than the stories, was there from outset. The plan was always for a character to be told a series of stories. I had to frame it so that the character had nowhere to go and no choice but to listen to the stories, which is how we end up alone on a railway halt in the middle of the night. I wrote the stories first, one by one, and in the same order that they appear in the book and only then wrote the linking narrative to join them together. It was very much the case that the central plot came before the stories.’

I also really enjoyed the variety of the stories that Jeremy tells in this book. Even though all of the stories are set in the present day and centre a teenager, each story feels completely unique and very different from the others in the book. What is most impressive about The Wrong Train is how the everyday is twisted to become so frightening. From babysitting 2 young children to being home alone, Jeremy is able to play with the reader’s mind in so few pages but make an impression that stays for days:

‘One of my favourite master ghost short story writers is M.R.James. He wanted his scary stories to be contemporary and able to convince people that but for a bit of good fortune the awful events of the tale could happen to them. But he was writing at the turn of the last century and his model of Edwardian English ghost stories has become so popular that everyone now misses the point that he wanted them, and the whole point of them was, to be modern and everyday.

So, I wanted to set my stories not in distant Edwardian school holidays but in the here and now, and fill them with the normal everyday things and technology that we all have – then make that normality frightening.’

The inclusion of technology is another aspect of The Wrong Train that I loved, and I think it really adds to the thrilling and exciting nature of the stories. Jeremy weaves everyday technology into the stories in such a clever way that the terror felt by the characters in the The Wrong Train feels very close to home and left me wondering how I would cope in the same situations.

The Wrong Train is the perfect autumnal read – it’s dark, exciting and the each story is the perfect length for reading before bed or in a spare half an hour. I will definitely be seeking out more short story collections and look forward to reading more from Jeremy in the future!

 

Thank you so much to Jeremy for answering my questions in so much detail, and to David Fickling Books for my proof copy.

Book Review: The Call

Last week I read The Call, a dark and gripping YA thriller set in a dystopian Ireland that has no contact with the rest of the world.

Years ago the people of Ireland banished the Aes Sídhe, the mythical ancient rulers of Ireland, to the Grey Land: a place where the air burns with the smell of bleach, where the grass slices the feet of those who walk on it, and where the red from the fiery lake is the only colour visible. Now the Sídhe (pronounced sheathe-uh) are taking revenge on Ireland by Calling every adolescent to fight.

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THREE MINUTES…
On her birthday, Nessa finds out the terrible truth about her home in Ireland – the truth that will change her future forever.

TWO MINUTES…
That she and her friends must train for the most dangerous three minutes of their lives: THE CALL.

ONE MINUTE…
That any day now, without warning, they will each wake in a terrifying land, alone and hunted, with a one in ten chance of returning alive. And it is Nessa, more than anyone, who is going to need every ounce of the guts, wit, and sheer spirit she was born with, if she – and the nation – are to survive.

I really enjoyed The Call and particularly loved the interweaving of a dystopian modern Ireland with Irish mythology and themes of folklore. In that sense, it’s completely different to anything I’ve ever read before, and far more interesting than just a dystopian thriller. Inspired by an image Peadar had of “people suddenly disappearing” he worked backwards to find out what was happening to them and the idea of being Called was born.

The obvious comparison to make is to The Hunger Games as both books are pacy and exciting stories of children fighting for their lives in awful circumstances, but the adventurous characters in The Call also reminded me of The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness. I love The Call for many reasons, but especially because it’s introduced me to Nessa who is now one of my all-time favourite YA main characters. At only 14 she’s physically and emotionally strong despite her polio damaged legs and is a fantastic and interesting role model to read about. She’s also ballsy and determined whilst still being caring and gentle which is so lovely to read as it’s not a combination that’s often written in YA.

I also love the way that The Call is structured. Told in 3rd person narrative, each character had their own uninterrupted chapter describing their Calling, transporting me into the Grey Land with them. Chapters of the Callings are mostly short but hugely thrilling and always surprising. When reading about a mystical world there’s always more to find out and I really liked that each Calling presented a different experience. In parts The Call was quite an emotional read which is reflected by how Peadar felt when writing it: “At times it was [emotional]. I really liked some of the characters and wasn’t always happy to see them die. Nor did I always plan who was going to survive, so I was agonising over the visits to the Grey Land.

The Call is a powerful and action-packed YA novel filled with the perfect balance of gruesome and gory descriptions and sensitive moments. I loved it and honestly couldn’t put it down! I’m so pleased that there’s going to be a sequel (though I’m sure not for a while) as I can’t wait to fall back into the magical world that Peadar has created.

Massive thanks to Peadar for answering my questions (and helping me pronounce Sídhe) and to Caro at David Fickling for giving me a copy of The Call and telling me to read it immediately.

Book review: Junk

41W95d4oqlL._SX325_BO1,204,203,200_“It was a love story. Me, Gemma and junk. I thought it was going to last forever.”

Tar loves Gemma, but Gemma doesn’t want to be tied down. She wants to fly. But no one can fly forever. One day, finally, you have to come down. Melvin Burgess’ most ambitious and complex novel is a vivid depiction of a group of teenagers in the grip of addiction. Told from multiple viewpoints, Junk is a powerful, unflinching novel about heroin. Once you take a hit, you will never be the same again.

Written in 1996 but set in the early and mid 80s, Junk is a fictional yet completely honest story about heroin addiction in teenagers. The main characters are Tar and Gemma who leave home and start their lives again in Bristol aged 14. Tar is running away from his abusive parents: his mum is an alcoholic and his dad hits him, while Gemma wants to lead a life of freedom that her parents won’t let her have. Their reasons for leaving home are completely different, and yet they both find comfort in heroin.

Junk is told through the voices of Gemma and Tar, as well as the people that they meet along the way. I really love the varying viewpoints and I think that as well as giving depth and balance to the story, it makes reading Junk such an important experience. Nothing is told as fact but every bit of this book is told as truth. As a result I felt so connected to each character’s story and felt understanding of their experiences. I finished Junk feeling more empowered and more educated about an addict’s life than I ever have before.

I was really surprised by how strongly I felt for the characters because I’ve never known anyone who’s in a situation similar those described in Junk. When Gemma and Tar run away from home they literally have nothing and consequently haven’t anything to lose by stealing or squatting. As the story progresses and their situation becomes much darker I really did feel for them when they were making incredibly difficult sacrifices to sustain their addictions. I think it’s so important that neither the characters nor the reader are judged by Junk, and Melvin gives every reader the chance to build their own opinions about what they’ve read.

I mentioned earlier about how I was surprised to have felt for the characters but really I shouldn’t have been because whether you’re an addict or homeless or a dealer or a prostitute, you’re still a person like everyone else, and human characteristics like love or empathy don’t stop because of the situation that you’re in. Melvin never once suggests that you should view a particular character a certain way and because of that every character is presented as a perfectly flawed human being just like the reader.

Another aspect of Junk that I think is so important is that the teenage characters are treated the same as the adults. For a lot of the characters their age is never mentioned and for those whose ages we do know, it’s often not revealed until many chapters after they’ve been introduced. It’s unsurprising that Junk is considered one of (if not THE) first YA novel as the younger characters aren’t patronised or spoken down and are instead listened to and have their issues and problems validated.

Junk is powerful, engaging, upsetting, and comforting all at once, and is honestly one of the most fantastic books that I’ve ever read. Along with Asking For It by Louise O’Neill I think this is a book that every teenager and adult should read. It’s an uncomfortable thought, but situations like those in Junk happen every day and I think it’s crucial that we allow ourselves to step into that world and challenge our preconceptions. Junk feels as relevant today as any contemporary YA novel that I’ve read recently, and I’m sure it will continue to be praised in years to come.
Thank you so much to Anderson Press for giving me a copy of Junk at the Federation of Children’s Book Groups conference.

Book Review: Eden Summer

Eden SummerEden Summer is Liz Flanagan’s debut novel and is a pacy and exciting contemporary YA!

It starts like any other day for Jess – get up, draw on eyeliner, cover up tattoos and head to school. But soon it’s clear this is no ordinary day, because Jess’s best friend, Eden, isn’t at school . . . she’s gone missing.

Jess knows she must do everything in her power to find Eden before the unthinkable happens.

So Jess decides to retrace the summer she and Eden have just spent together. But looking back means digging up all their buried secrets, and she starts to question everything she thought Eden’s summer had been about …

There are so many aspects of this book that Liz deserves praise for but what stood out most for me is the main character. Jess is a goth and I am so pleased that Liz wrote her as such. Growing up, goths were always seen as being weird and at school would often sit in small groups along with anyone else who was a bit different as they were targets of abuse.

On TV and in books that unpleasantness towards goths always continued, with the strange girl at school being obvious by her black eyeliner and red hair. I’ve never read anything where the goth stereotype is addressed and I think Liz does an amazing job of showing that Jess is just like anyone else, that she shares the same ambitions and fears as any other teenage girl. She’s not defined or governed by her appearance and I think that’s really, really important.

Eden Summer is quite unusual in that it’s both character and plot driven, and both aspects are fantastic. In the first couple of chapters we’re introduced to a handful characters that could all be suspects in the case of Eden’s disappearance and Liz so cleverly makes the reader believe that everyone is guilty. The small details that are given about each character made my mind race thinking up motives and alibis before I’d even reached chapter two and I sped through the book in no time at all – if I had enough time this would have been a one-sit read.

The plot is really mysterious and thrilling which is definitely helped by the back and forth style that it’s written in. The search for Eden takes place over the course of one day but the story is broken up with flashbacks to key moments from the past year of Eden’s life helping to unravel the reasons behind her disappearance. ‘I decided that the day-long structure interspersed with flashbacks might work for this story, again for drama and drive. I visualised it like a clock face in the end!

Much of Jess’ time spent searching for Eden takes place with her running on rocky and uneven hills which left me almost breathless so I really like the clock face analogy as a way of describing the race against time to find Eden. Also as time begins to run out for Jess, you’ll find yourself inching closer towards the edge of your seat with a dry mouth and pounding heart – honestly, it’s the most fearful I’ve ever felt whilst reading a book!

Eden Summer is an incredibly powerful book that deals with awful issues in the most honest and sincere manner. So much of the story is heartbreaking and yet I never lost hope in the characters because the overwhelming theme throughout is love. Liz has clearly written this from the heart and I think it’s important that she cites her inspiration for the writing about a missing teenager as, ‘partly because, as a parent, it’s my worst nightmare. Partly because in narrative terms it creates instant drive and drama. Partly for personal reasons – because I was missing my best friend who’d recently died, and so that atmosphere of loss felt like somewhere I wanted to go.

The sincerity of Eden Sumer continues beyond the subject matter into the detailed descriptions throughout, ‘I felt I owed it to the story to go as far as I could with it, to be as emotionally faithful to the difficult parts as possible, and I really believe that the heart of this book comes from the fact that it’s set in Hebden Bridge in Yorkshire. ‘It’s based on a version of my home town, somewhere I love very deeply, somewhere I grew up and where I live now. I like that I have overlapping memories of the town, as a child, a teenager, as an adult.

I cannot recommend Eden Summer highly enough to everyone- it is truly fantastic. There are few books that keep me thinking about them for days after finishing but this is definitely going to stay with me for a very long time. I hope that Liz continues to write more YA fiction in the future, but until then, I hope that Eden Summer is nominated for as many awards as possible!


Eden Summer will be published on July 7th by David Fickling Books.
A HUGE thank you to David Fickling Books for sending me a proof copy and to Liz Flanagan for answering my questions.

Book Review: Under Rose-Tainted Skies

Under-Rose-Tainted-Skies-Under Rose-Tainted Skies is Louise Gornall’s debut novel and tells the story of 17 year old Norah and her life with agoraphobia.

Agoraphobia confines Norah to the house she shares with her mother.

For her, the outside is sky glimpsed through glass, or a gauntlet to run between home and car. But a chance encounter on the doorstep changes everything: Luke, her new neighbour. Norah is determined to be the girl she thinks Luke deserves: a ‘normal’ girl, her skies unfiltered by the lens of mental illness. Instead, her love and bravery opens a window to unexpected truths…

 

I’ve only read one other book with an agoraphobic character and even though it was really good, it doesn’t compare at all to this. Under Rose-Tainted Skies is the most fantastic and honest book about mental health that I’ve read, and I can’t thank Louise enough for writing something so truthful.

The main character in this book is seventeen year old Norah who lives in California with her mum. Norah has suffered from agoraphobia for 3 years and consequently has had to leave her school and friends behind, leaving her feeling incredibly lonely and isolated from the world outside of her house.

In 2013 I became agoraphobic after being unwell and I cannot tell you how comforting Under Rose-Tainted Skies was to read. Reading my own experience told so truthfully was reassuring and also quite freeing. I’ve actually never spoken to someone else is person who has also suffered from agoraphobia but after reading this it felt like I had. “Rose actually started off as a sort of diary entry. Some illegible ramblings on a page. I suffer from agoraphobia myself, and was getting frustrated with my stagnant situation.

I think what I like most about Under Rose-Tainted Skies is how realistically Norah’s condition is depicted within the storyline. This so easily could have ended up a bit fantastical with Norah suddenly waking up one day and deciding that she can do anything for love and that the last 3 years of isolation were all worth it because now she’s in LOVE! But in reality people don’t fall in love overnight and even if they did, love isn’t a magical healer that can rid a person of a serious illness. Under Rose-Tainted Skies has been written responsibly and as a result will challenge every person who reads this to think about how they perceive mental illness.

There are many scenes in Under Rose-Tainted Skies that I think will be really revealing for people who have very little knowledge of agoraphobia. Often you hear it described as something where people don’t want to go outside but it’s so much bigger, so much more complex than that and Louise does an AMAZING job of including every bit of the condition without losing the distinction between Norah and her illness. Louise is the perfect author for this book because she didn’t start writing to shock or change the YA playing field, it was simply an outlet for her pain.

Norah is also a really strong character which I think is important because mental illness is too often seen as being synonymous with weakness. The descriptions of Norah’s treatment are fantastic too as they really do justice to the lengthy and exhausting efforts that are needed to begin to reverse the effects of mental health conditions. “I was getting super down at seeing the same four or five Mental Health behaviours explained away with fresh air and a better diet. Like mental health isn’t complex and multifaceted, like I (and thousands of people just like me) hadn’t been working our butts off to feel better. Pretty soon this story started unfolding and I included everything, I wanted it to be like, “Here! Read this and then tell us we’ll feel better after swapping out Mac&Cheese for a salad.”

Under Rose-Tainted Skies is a brilliant story filled with so much heart, truth and love. Whether you’ve suffered from agoraphobia or not this is an important story that I really, truly recommend to everyone.

Under Rose-Tainted Skies will be published on July 7th by Chicken House.
Thank you so much to Chicken House for sending me a proof copy.

Huge thank yous to Louise for answering my questions ❤
Louise’s blog: https://bookishblurb.com

Book Review: Unbecoming

UnbecomingI won my copy of Unbecoming in a Twitter giveaway back in August and I can’t believe I waited so long to read it because it’s truly one of the most wonderful books that I’ve ever read.

Three women – three secrets – one heart-stopping story. Funny, sad, honest and wise, Unbecoming is a celebration of life, and learning to honour your own stories.

Unbecoming is Jenny Downham’s third book, and is quite different to the books that I’ve been reading recently. Compared with the first-person narrative stories that I’m usually drawn to, Unbecoming is told entirely in third person.

Katie is 17 and is struggling to come to terms with her sexuality – she thinks she might be gay, but is passing off all of her feelings as one offs, as completely within the normal range of heterosexuality. Her mum, Caroline, has lived an incredibly hard life having been brought up thinking her aunty was her mum, and since having children has had to cope with divorce and caring for a son with an undiagnosed condition. She’s tightly wound and heavily protective, keeping her children safe by planning every aspect of their lives even if it’s not at all what they want.

Caroline has been estranged from her mother for years but when Mary’s husband suddenly dies, Caroline is forced to look after her. Now suffering from dementia Mary is confused by Caroline’s reluctance to be close to her and has trouble remembering any of the circumstances behind her daughter’s anger. The secrets that all three of these women are holding on to are gradually revealed when Mary moves in.

Unbecoming is a love story hidden within a family mystery. 3 generations of women whose reluctance to communicate is holding them back from connecting must dig into the past to discover what they’re missing out on in the present. Everything about this book felt real, and subsequently it was an incredibly emotional and powerful read.

Jenny has such a talent for writing multi-dimentional characters that you believe and care about and I completely fell in love with all 3 of them. At the beginning, each character is defined by their flaw – Katie’s secret, Caroline’s anger towards her elderly mother, Mary’s absence from Caroline’s life – but as the story unfolds we, like the characters themselves, learn that these negative aspects are just a small part of what makes each character unique. I think it’s so important and uplifting that each of the 3 women, all at completely different stages in their life, has room for self discovery.

I also love the style that Jenny uses to tell the 3 stories. In some chapters we zoom in to Katie, hearing the story told with her in the centre, and in others Mary’s story is at the forefront. Through Katie and Mary we’re able to piece together Caroline’s story and I think it’s a really special idea that as the middle generation Caroline has impacted both Mary and Katie’s lives enough that we never have to tap into her thoughts to obtain any of the story.

As well as the present day story, occasional chapters transport us back to key moments in the women’s lives, helping to fill in the blanks where memories have been forgotten. With no individual character narrating, the reader has access to an honest version of the truth making each character feel more real and their stories more raw.

Another unusual aspect of Unbecoming is that it’s split into 3 parts which Jenny says is for a few different reasons. Firstly, as a nod to 3 act play scripts (Jenny began storytelling when she worked with an improv. group); secondly to signify time periods (Unbecoming is set in the summer holidays with each part loosely covering 1 week); and thirdly, Jenny says that the parts (getting smaller each time) represent Mary’s deterioration.

I was bookselling this weekend at the Federation of Children’s Book Groups conference and Jenny was the speaker at the Gala Dinner on the Saturday evening. During her speech she spoke about growing up thinking that because her mum never read a book, she couldn’t ever enjoy stories. It wasn’t until her mum was suffering from dementia and would tell stories to make sense of the world around her that Jenny realised that stories are a part of everyone. This experience is portrayed in Unbecoming through Mary, who shares stories from her life with her granddaughter Katie. The relationship that they develop as a result is really beautiful and is one of my favourite aspects of the book.

I really, really loved Unbecoming and it’s a book that I will definitely revisit. The characters and stories are so beautiful that your heart will burst with love with every page that you read. I honestly can’t recommend this book highly enough – it’s just so completely amazing!

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Michelle and Jasmine read: The Curious Incident of The Dog in The Night-Time

The Curious Incident of The Dog in The Night-TimeThe Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is a murder mystery novel like no other. The detective, and narrator, is Christopher Boone. Christopher is fifteen and has Asperger’s Syndrome. He knows a very great deal about maths and very little about human beings. He loves lists, patterns and the truth. He hates the colours yellow and brown and being touched. He has never gone further than the end of the road on his own, but when he finds a neighbour’s dog murdered he sets out on a terrifying journey which will turn his whole world upside down.

Find Mark Haddon: twitter | facebook

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This is part 2 – read part 1 on Michelle’s blog.

J: It’s interesting that you mention diversity because I’ve never considered this to be a novel with a ‘diverse’ protagonist but I suppose that’s exactly what it is. Curious Incident shows just what an exceptional author Mark Haddon is because despite this very obviously being a story about a teenage boy with Asperger’s, it’s also, in a way, not at all about that.

M: Definitely! That really only occurred to me on reading it the second time. It’s really just an incredibly gripping story. Once again, I think the format has a lot to do with this. Short, sharp chapters keep the pace really swift. While we learn a lot about Christopher’s life, it’s incorporated so well and so succinctly into the storyline that the background never bogs the reader down. I also loved the combination of letters, diagrams, maps and drawings.

J: I did too! I love books that feel like scrapbooks and I think that you really get the sense that this is not just Christopher’s story but also his book that he has put together. I think that perhaps this book is the reason that I’m a huge fan of quirky chapter names because this will have been the first book that I read which wasn’t numbered normally. Every detail of this book has been thought of from Christopher’s point of view, and I think the prime numbered chapters are completely brill and so much fun!

M: You’re so right – every element of this book feels as if it’s from Christopher. That’s definitely another reason I think this book is fab. It doesn’t feel like someone telling the reader about life with Asperger’s, it feels like you’re living and that, to me, is what good fiction should be.

Final thoughts:

J: Mark Haddon really is a genius – this book has stuck with me for so long and is no doubt a book that I will continue to come back to whenever I need to delve into something familiar. I always finish this book with a smile on my face and it’s for that reason that it’s my all time favourite book!

M: It feels like so long ago I first read this, but it’s always been in the back of my mind. It’s a book I definitely plan to keep re-visiting because I feel I’ll always find some new perspective to it. On top of all that, it’s just a genuinely enjoyable, fast-paced read. Definitely one I’d highly recommend.

More Michelle! Blogger Q&A: Michelle Gately | blog | twitter | goodreads

More Michelle and Jasmine read: The A to Z of You and Me | Lobsters | I’ll Tell You Mine