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.

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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.

Spoilery Paper Butterflies Q&A with Lisa Heathfield

I had quite a few questions after reading Paper Butterflies by Lisa Heathfield so here’s a VERY spoiler-filled Q&A. If you want to read my review of Paper Butterflies first, you can find it here: https://jassyfizzle.wordpress.com/2016/09/04/book-review-paper-butterflies/

1. What inspired you to write Paper Butterflies?
I watched a documentary by Trevor McDonald a couple of years ago from a prison in America – the longest serving female prisoner had a story very similar to June’s and it really stuck with me.

2. Is it set in America and if so, why?
It had to be set in America rather then England because they still have the death penalty – so yes, it’s set in Texas.

3. Did you find it hard to write about June’s abuse so convincingly?
I found the whole story difficult to write as June was so real to me and it was awful seeing her treated like that. The most heartbreaking bit for me to write, though, was when she said goodbye to Blister. I was a bit inconsolable then!

4. Did you have to research the type of abuse that June received?
Much of June’s abuse finds its roots in things I’ve heard, or seen on tele over the years. Kathleen forcing June to drink and not letting her use the loo comes from a friend of mine who was bullied at school for supposedly smelling of wee. The cruelty of those friends has stayed with her forever. I think the dog food came from when a friend of mine bit someone in primary school and the teacher made her sit under the table because she was behaving like a dog. In the first few drafts, the ice cubes forced down June’s throat was a frozen spoon – this was lifted from a horrific tale of abuse I’d read about in the papers a few years ago.

5. Did you always plan to write in a before and after style?
Yes, the ‘before’ and ‘after’ was there from the beginning – the big difference being that initially the ‘twist’ was out in the open, so the ‘after’ sections made it very clear what had happened. It was challenging to re-write them so that they gave nothing away.

6. Was it an emotionally challenging book to write?
Yes, it was a very emotionally draining book to write – it really took it out of me! Not only because I was so wrapped up in June’s story, but also because of the research I had to do for the latter part of the book. I wrote the first draft in just under a month – it totally took me over.

7. Was the ending in the book always the ending you had in mind or did you play around with any alternatives?
The ending changed many times! In the first draft, June died. But my agent phoned me one day and said she was losing sleep with worry that we just couldn’t make that happen. Then I re-wrote it with June getting free, but it was too ‘Hollywood’. The ending as it is now is the right option, I think. And it really does happen – people can get a stay of execution right up until the last second. It’s also true that people with less money really don’t get the representation needed to help clear their name. Innocent people have been put to death – some of them very young.

Blister’s note took me AGES to write. It was so difficult to get right!

 

Huge thanks to Lisa for answering my questions!

Book review: Paper Butterflies

Months and months ago I was kindly given a proof copy of Paper Butterflies by the lovely people manning the Egmont stall at the Federation of Children’s Book Groups conference but I’ve only just read it after seeing Emily Thomas and Emily Finn from Egmont who told me I must read it IMMEDIATELY. It’s brilliant and you must read it ASAP.

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Paper Butterflies is Lisa Heathfield’s second novel (I read and reviewed her debut Seed earlier this year) and is dark, gripping and completely terrifying. I loved it.

June’s life at home with her stepmother and stepsister is a dark one – and a secret one. Not even her father knows about it. She’s trapped like a butterfly in a net.

But then she meets Blister, a boy in the woods. And in him, June recognises the tiniest glimmer of hope that perhaps she can find a way to fly far, far away from home and be free.

Because every creature in this world deserves their freedom . . . but at what price?

Paper Butterflies follows June, a young black girl who lives with her dad, stepmother Kathleen and stepsister Megan, all of whom are white. Since June’s mother died she has lived with her dad’s new wife who physically, verbally and emotionally abuses her for looking different and for not having a mum. This abuse continues at school where she is tormented and bullied by other students, including her stepsister. The story starts when June is 10 and each chapter dives into a significant moment in her life. From being force fed chocolate cake on her birthday until she’s sick to meeting Blister, a friend who gives her hope and comfort, every moment in this book is powerful and important.

Lisa’s writing is so completely emotive and her descriptions are like nothing that I’ve read before which was helped by the research that was involved in the writing process:
I found the whole story difficult to write as June was so real to me and it was awful seeing her treated like that. Much of June’s abuse finds its roots in things I’ve heard, or seen on tele over the years. Kathleen forcing June to drink and not letting her use the loo comes from a friend of mine who was bullied at school for supposedly smelling of wee. The cruelty of those friends has stayed with her forever. In the first few drafts, the ice cubes forced down June’s throat was a frozen spoon – this was lifted from a horrific tale of abuse I’d read about in the papers a few years ago.” 

I think the reason that I found Paper Butterflies so readable is that I never lost hope for June. Even at the darkest moments in the novel I never felt that her chance of freedom was out of reach and it’s that hope that kept me hooked. No one wants to read a book detailing a child’s physical and emotional abuse and yet I couldn’t stop reading. I also loved that the chapters flipped between ‘Before’ and ‘After’ because without knowing what ‘After’ was, I was intrigued and desperate to read on and find out.

Despite being a compelling read, Paper Butterflies is certainly not an easy read. It’s pacy and exhilarating but so often my heart was pounding with fear. Lisa manages to write in a style that so closely mimics the way that Kathleen abuses June: I never saw the abuse coming and I felt silly for believing Kathleen’s kindness. I also felt suffocated and like I couldn’t breathe when I was reading which really helped to immerse me in June’s story. I’d compare Paper Butterflies to Asking For It by Louise O’Neill because both stories explore abuse in a dark and realistic way.

I loved Paper Butterflies and think it’s an important book that all YA fans should read. There aren’t many stories that talk as openly and powerfully about abuse as Paper Butterflies does and yet it doesn’t strike me as an ‘issues’ book. The story is exciting and interesting and you don’t have to know anything about abuse to become completely engrossed in it. I really hope this is nominated for The YA Book Prize as it’s amazing and I would love to see it get huge recognition.

 

A massive thank you to Lisa for answering my question about the book. Mostly the questions that I had called for very spoilery answers so I’ll be posting the Q&A in a separate blog post linked here: https://jassyfizzle.wordpress.com/2016/09/04/spoilery-paper-butterflies-qa-with-lisa-heathfield/

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.

Mini Review: Counting Stars

Counting Stars

Counting Stars is the first of Keris Stainton’s books that I’ve read and I really, really, REALLY enjoyed it!

Anna’s finally ready to be a ‘proper’ grown-up. She couldn’t be more excited about her big move to Liverpool, and she’s determined to bring more of her super-confident online alter-ego, Anna Sparks, with her. 

But her new life is also a little overwhelming.  Anna’s job quickly falls through, and then she realises that although her new friends are great, they’re also a little mixed-up…and it’s not long before Anna starts using her blog to talk about her experiences, from the hilarious to the ridiculous to the little-bit-scary. But when Anna spills a bigger secret than she can handle, suddenly the consequences are all too real.

Counting Stars is the perfect example of fabulous contemporary YA: it’s rude, funny, heartwarming, heartbreaking, captivating, and completely embracing of late-teens/early twenties culture. Anna is the main character – although this isn’t told in first-person – and her friends make up a full and interesting cast of secondary characters. I really enjoyed that all of the characters feel rounded and as a result this is such an easy read.

Despite there being a main character, there are multiple storylines touching upon issues from all of the characters perspectives. Keris has done a marvellous job of interweaving all of these narratives into an exciting story that feels very real and true to life. The use of third person narrative makes this book really quirky – the only book I can think to compare this to is the Confessions of Georgia Nicolson series, although these are aimed at a slightly older audience.

Something that I really love about Counting Stars is the variety of characters and that each of their sexualities and attitudes towards sex is celebrated. Gay relationships, casual sex and being a virgin are all issues explored sensitively and in a manner that, rightfully, suggests that all of these are normal. I especially liked that Anna isn’t shamed for being a virgin because so often YA focusses on normalising teens who have sex, sometimes to the point of suggesting that all teenagers are and should be having sex.

It’s unusual to find a YA novel that covers family, friends, secrets, university, money, moving out, growing-up, independence, relationships and sex, death and careers as sensitively and brilliantly as Counting Stars does. I really, really recommend this book to anyone looking for something super-duper to read!

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.