Holding – Graham Norton

“Someone had robbed her of her happiness, and now that they had found his body, she knew exactly who to blame.”

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Blurb: “The remote Irish village of Duneen has known little drama; and yet its inhabitants are troubled. Sergeant PJ Collins hasn’t always been this overweight; mother of­ two Brid Riordan hasn’t always been an alcoholic; and elegant Evelyn Ross hasn’t always felt that her life was a total waste. So when human remains are discovered on an old farm, suspected to be that of Tommy Burke – a former­ love of both Brid and Evelyn – the village’s dark past begins to unravel. As the frustrated PJ struggles to solve a genuine case for the first time in his life, he unearths a community’s worth of anger and resentments, secrets and regret.”

I am always unsure when I hear that a celebrity, not from a literature field, announces that they are writing a book; especially when it’s a piece of fiction. I guess it’s just the sceptical side of me thinking that the person in question is more likely to succeed because they have a ready-made audience there. But that could be said of any kind of art.

Holding is set in the remote village of Duneen in Ireland where not much exciting happens. When a body is dug up by builders at an old farm, the residents come to life with questions of who it might be and who did it. Old memories are brought to the surface and tensions start to rise.

As to be expected this is a slow read at times but that reflects the setting; living in a small village myself I know just how uneventful things can be. The sluggish pace does leave room for Norton to sprinkle back story over the pages and help build up a better picture of the residents from policeman PJ Collins to Brid and Evelyn who have quite a bitter history together. The narrative doesn’t stick solely to one character like I originally thought it might which works really well in giving the reader a movie-montage style view of the lives of these people. While the discovered body is the crux of the snowballing plot, the story is about much more than that. It shows the power of secrets and just what happens if we keep them for too long, as well as if we let them slip free.

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Awful Auntie – David Walliams

“Aunt Alberta is the most awful aunt who ever lived. Would you like to meet her?”

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Blurb: “From larger than life, tiddlywinks obsessed Awful Aunt Alberta to her pet owl, Wagner – this is an adventure with a difference. Aunt Alberta is on a mission to cheat the young Lady Stella Saxby out of her inheritance – Saxby Hall. But with mischievous and irrepressible Soot, the cockney ghost of a chimney sweep, alongside her Stella is determined to fight back… And sometimes a special friend, however different, is all you need to win through.”

The story follows Lady Stella Saxby who wakes up from a coma to find that her wealthy parents are dead and she is left in the care of her horrid Aunt Alberta and an owl called Wagner. As Stella starts to adjust to a world without her parents, she soon learns that maybe everything isn’t how it first seemed and soon plots an escape with the help of her ghost friend Soot.

All I can say is that I finally understand why David Walliams is constantly topping the charts and making himself comfortable there. Awful Auntie is an injection of fun and downright goodness. It reminded me a lot of Roald Dahl’s The Twits and was a fantastic mix of humour and mystery.

The characters are well-fleshed out and the forgetful butler, Gibbon, had me rolling in my seat at times. I just loved how he wandered around completely unaware of the situation going on around him.

If you’re looking to get into David Walliams’ work and unsure of where to start with his incredible catalogue, Awful Auntie is a sure winner.

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Wing Jones – Katherine Webber

“But when I’m running, I don’t feel like an idiot. I feel free, like anything is possible. Like I’m not running from something, but for something.”

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Blurb: “With a grandmother from China and another from Ghana, fifteen-year-old Wing Jones is often caught between worlds. But when tragedy strikes, Wing discovers a talent for running she never knew she had. Wing’s speed could bring her family everything it needs. It could also stop Wing getting the one thing she wants.”

Wing Jones was a book that initially didn’t interest me despite the incredibly hype surrounding it and it wasn’t until streams of positive reviews flooded in that I decided to put aside my preconceived notions about YA Contemporaries aside and give it a chance to change my mind.

The story follows a bi-racial teen called Wing Jones who struggles with fitting in, and nobody at her school tries to make it easier for her. When her brother is involved in a car accident leaving many dead, Wing finds herself being blamed for the actions of her brother all while having to deal with the negative coverage in the media. Looking for a way to cope with her feelings, she ends up running only to discover she’s actually very talented at it.

There are elements of magical realism in the form of the lioness and a dragon that seem to accompany Wing throughout this traumatic period of time like a sort of Mary Poppins “I’ll be there until you no longer need me” way. I found this addition to be really interesting.

Despite all the glowing reviews, this book fell flat for me. It didn’t feel like much happened or that the story ever really got going and the ending just left me feeling incredibly underwhelmed, almost as if I’d wasted time reading it. And sadly this is becoming a theme with a lot of the new releases I’ve delved into so far this year.

I will say that I loved how the events of this story led to Wing finding a positive outlook for her to focus on and work out her emotions through, rather than it falling to something easily more negative. It really shows that we may all have some secret hidden talent that we haven’t unlocked yet.

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See You In The Cosmos – Jack Cheng

“My name is Alex Petroski and my house is in Rockview, Colorado, United States of America, Planet Earth. I am eleven years and eight months old and the United States is two hundred forty-two years old and Earth is 4.5 billion years old. I’m not sure how old my house is.”

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Blurb: “11-year-old Alex Petroski loves space and rockets, his mom, his brother, and his dog Carl Sagan—named for his hero, the real-life astronomer. All he wants is to launch his golden iPod into space the way Carl Sagan (the man, not the dog) launched his Golden Record on the Voyager spacecraft in 1977. From Colorado to New Mexico, Las Vegas to L.A., Alex records a journey on his iPod to show other lifeforms what life on earth, his earth, is like. But his destination keeps changing. And the funny, lost, remarkable people he meets along the way can only partially prepare him for the secrets he’ll uncover—from the truth about his long-dead dad to the fact that, for a kid with a troubled mom and a mostly not-around brother, he has way more family than he ever knew.”

*This book was sent to me by the publisher in exchange for an honest review*

See You In The Cosmos follows Alex Petroski who is making recordings on his ipod which he plans to send into space via SHARF (Southwest High-Altitude Rocket Festival). He shares stories from his life along with “in the moment” narratives, accompanied by his dog Carl Sagan, named after “one of the greatest astronomers of our time.”

The narrative is told as if the reader is the one listening to the recordings – with each chapter indicated by “new recording” and the time length of the recording – and that is an aspect that really works to this novel’s advantage. From the outset it instantly feels like you’re connected to Alex as he shares stories from his life and the build up to this festival where he plans to end his collection of recordings. It feels, in a way, as if you’ve stumbled upon someone’s secrets and you’d been entrusted with them and that’s a feeling I haven’t experienced in fiction for a very long time.

It was nice to see the online community for space lovers transfer into the reality when Alex arrives at the festival and notes which people he recognises online because it’s always been wonderful when that’s happened in my personal life and just shows how much you can build up relationships online with people who share the same interests.

Given how much the importance of the rocket festival was stressed, it threw me off when that event took place a quarter of the way into the story. The main bulk is more of a road trip where Alex starts to have new, exciting experiences, make new friends and find ways to glue together the pieces of his broken family.

Fundamentally See You In The Cosmos is an example of just how quickly life can change but that doesn’t mean you should be afraid to step outside of your comfort zone because you never know what you might find… and it’s pretty cool to have a dog companion join you for the ride.

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History Is All You Left Me -Adam Silvera

“If bringing up the past annoys you now – as I know it did when you left New York for California – know that I’m sorry, but please don’t be mad at me for reliving all of it. History is all you left me.”

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Blurb: “When Griffin’s first love and ex-boyfriend, Theo, dies in a drowning accident, his universe implodes. Even though Theo had moved to California for college and started seeing Jackson, Griffin never doubted Theo would come back to him when the time was right. But now, the future he’s been imagining for himself has gone far off course.”

Adam Silvera is another author who’s quite popular within the book community but I’d never read before. The reason for that is, in part, due to the fact that his  debut More Happy Than Not is actually available in the UK. I started to hear about History Is All You Left Me frequently as the hype for his new book started to bubble. However, I wasn’t really sold on it until he posted a video on his YouTube channel where he read the first chapter of the book. After that, the book sat patiently on my “to read” list as the release date drew closer.

The story follows a boy called Griffin who is about to attend the funeral of his ex-boyfriend Theo and the narrative flits between the past and present, building up a picture of their lives together from friendship to their relationship,  what happened after they split up and then, inevitably, how Theo died. Griffin speaks directly to Theo throughout the book almost like a long letter that he will never get to read and that aspect added extra emotion and heartbreak to the story, especially when Griffin comes face to face with Jackson; Theo’s current boyfriend.

History Is All You Left Me is an incredibly bittersweet story. The reader gets the joys of seeing the relationship between these two characters form, the duo coming out to each other, first dates, first time having sex (which is very realistic and positive might I add) and there’s even an incredibly awkward scene where they buy condoms together only to bump into someone they know in the store. There are segments where Griffin discusses his OCD and how Theo helps him and discussions of Theo’s bisexuality (I really feel like 2017 is finally going to be the year for more bisexual characters) and relationship issues are really dealt with rather than being left to fester. It’s all truly wonderful and heart-warming to read until you’re hit in the face with a present day chapter and you, along with Griffin, remember that Theo is no longer alive.

Something I found rather unexpected was Griffin and Jackson finding solace in each other, despite having been previous quite averse to each other. They both share that loss of love even though they have different memories of Theo and Griffin even expresses that he feels Jackson is the only one who truly knows what he’s going through; how big of an imprint Theo has left on their lives.

I couldn’t work out whether I liked Griffin or not. Through his narrative you can really feel how much he cared for this other person, even after Theo had moved on to someone else. Griffin made a lot of sacrifices for Theo and that loss ran so deep and it’s really gut-wrenching to read in the present chapters. However, he made some choices out of spite and ignorance to sort of “get back” at Theo which I didn’t like and he treated a lot of other characters badly, but maybe that was just part of his healing process.

I did find the book to be very slow moving at points but that’s to be expected as this is a story not just about reliving memories, but the process of moving on and adapting to a part of life where there won’t be new memories created with the person no longer alive.

This week I’m going to end on a heart-breaking quote from the book:

“I don’t know what will be left of me if love and grief can’t bring you back.”

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Doing It – Hannah Witton

“I want this book to educate you, I want this book to feel like your friend gossiping with you. I want this book to make you feel normal, comfortable, empowered and in control of your body.”

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Blurb: “Figuring out how to build and maintain healthy relationships – with your family, friends, romantically and with yourself – is a crucial part of being a teen. It’s not easy though, particularly in a digital age where information and advice are so forthcoming it can be hard to know who or what to believe or trust. Porn is everywhere, sexting is the norm and messages about body image are highly mixed. Hannah combats this by tackling subjects ranging from masturbation and puberty to slut shaming and consent in an accessible, relatable and extremely honest way.”

*This book was sent to me by the publisher in exchange for an honest review*

When I first saw the announcement for this book I have to admit I was disheartened. There’s an endless stream of “YouTuber books” dominating the shelves and most of them feel unwarranted when they’re autobiographies from people who are the same age as me. It felt like Hannah was the newest addition to this money train but when she started to explain what her book was going to be about, it couldn’t have been a more perfect fit.

I have been subscribed to Hannah Witton on YouTube for a very long time and one thing I’ve always loved about her content is that she’s honest. Whether it’s her “drunk advice” or – more recently – the “hormone diaries” videos, Hannah is not afraid to bare all (pardon the pun) when talking about situations that are still seen as a taboo in our society. Even though I’m a twenty-three year old woman, I still find myself learning things about sex (mainly from Hannah) that I had never learnt in a classroom. This book is, as Hannah states in the introduction, something the reader should “dip in and out of for advice” rather than read cover to cover, but for the sake of this review, I read every single page.

Doing It covers everything from…well… “doing it” to the difference between healthy and unhealthy relationships, the time she lost her virginity, birth control, puberty and periods, porn and masturbation, the importance of consent and why it’s okay to wait; anything you can think of regarding sex and relationships is most likely in this book. But another thing I really admired about this book is that Hannah leaves it to certain experiences she hasn’t had to other contributors for whom they are a reality. For example, Riley Dennis has written a chapter about what it’s like dating when you’re trans, Amelia Morris has written about being asexual, Riki Poynter talks about what it’s like to have a sexual relationship when you’re deaf.

I was really educated on what is and isn’t true when it comes to the human body and sex (again even at my age) when Hannah would present a myth and then proceed to explain if it was true or not. For example: the hymen breaking during your first time having sex.

Books like this are bittersweet because Doing It is a book I really could have used when I was a teenager. Even though I didn’t lose my virginity until I was twenty. But it’s such a great thing that books like this and This book Is Gay by Juno Dawson exist to help any struggles that teenagers are going through where they may want to avoid talking to a family member.

“Just remember that whatever your gender, or sexuality, you are wonderful and deserve as much as the next person.”

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Fever Dream – Samanta Schweblin

“But it’s true, right? That I’m going to die.”

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Blurb: “A young woman named Amanda lies dying in a rural hospital clinic. A boy named David sits beside her. She’s not his mother. He’s not her child. Together, they tell a haunting story of broken souls, toxins, and the power and desperation of family.

*This book was sent to me by the publisher in exchange for an honest review*

I first heard about Fever Dream because author and booktuber Jen Campbell mentioned it in one of her videos and even read out one of her favourite passages. Then I was sent the book myself and while it is a type of story I don’t normally read, I tried to remain open-minded as I want to push myself to read new, exciting things.

Fever Dream follows a woman named Amanda who is dying in a hospital and the boy called David sitting at her bedside is not her son. In fact he is a stranger she only met a few days ago. Through a creepy narrative, the reader learns about David’s mother who became terrified of her own son, Amanda’s “rescue distance” with her daughter and just how Amanda ended up in the hospital in the first place.

From the outset something feels off. As I progressed through the story I was hit more and more with this feeling of tension and unease. I had an increasing number of unanswered questions but I found it remarkable how the writer created that initial feeling of unfamiliarity and was able to keep that going throughout the story. I found myself waiting for the horrible moment when the pieces would fit into place and I’d have to look at the dark picture reflected in the puzzle. I felt very much like the character of Amanda who is in a state of delirium and doesn’t really know where she is or what’s happening, except that David is there.

The format is the use of italics of David’s interruptions and comments but for the most part it reads like a stream of consciousness.

I took a leap of faith with this book and didn’t enjoy it and it’s strange because I can’t place my finger on exactly what it is. I think I just expected more than I was given but that doesn’t discredit the craft and work in this story which I can very much appreciate.

Fever Dream is unsettling and dark with a well-written protagonist and bound to be a good read for those that enjoy stories where all is not what it seems.

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Golden – K.M.Robinson

“Betrayal is always bad, but betrayal by someone close is so much worse.”

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Blurb: “The stories say that Goldilocks was a naïve girl who wandered into a house one day. Those stories were wrong. She was never naïve. It was all a perfectly executed plan to get her into the Baers’ group to destroy them.
Trained by her cousin, Lowell, and handler, Shadoe, Auluria’s mission is to destroy the Baers by getting close to the youngest brother, Dov, his brother and sister-in-law and the leaders of the Baers’ group. When she realizes Dov isn’t as evil as her cousin led her to believe, she must figure out how to play both sides or her deception will cause everyone in her world to burn.”

This is an extra special blog post this week as the book in question, Golden, has been written by a dear, dear friend of mine. (Though I feel obligated to add that this doesn’t change my review)

The story is a goldilocks retelling and follows a girl called Auluria who wakes up in the home of the Baer family with no memory of how she got there. Thanks to help of Dov, she slowly starts to fill in the gaps. She was running from someone but she still can’t remember who. As her memories continue to surface she remembers her purpose of being in this house: to make Dov Baer fall in love with her, then destroy his family.

I am an absolute sucker for political elements of books, especially in a medieval/fairytale sort of setting and Golden really delivers that. On one side you have the government ruling with an iron fist and on the other you have The Society with the Baer family in the middle. All these aspects were explained so well and alongside with the world building there was the perfect framework for a story. It didn’t fall into “info dump” territory and instead felt like the process of learning and discovering this world was authentic.

Auluria proves to be a great but equally frustrating character at times as she doesn’t feel she should just sick back in a safe space when she’s more than capable of going out and fighting.

I only have a few issues and the main one is pace: it feels like Auluria’s memory returns too quickly and it would have been nice to spend more time with Auluria exploring her surroundings and forming an even more natural relationship with Dov; the love itself once her memory comes back feels too rushed as well. This is the first book in a trilogy and it felt like it was trying to get enough groundwork in that we can speed into the next one.

But that didn’t take away from my enjoyment. I find the complexities of this world so fascinating and can only wait with bated breath until I can get my hands on the next one.

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A Monster Calls – Patrick Ness

“You be as angry as you need to be,” she said. “Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Not your Grandma, not your Dad, no one. And if you need to break things, then by God, you break them good and hard.”

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Blurb: “The monster showed up after midnight. As they do.
But it isn’t the monster Conor’s been expecting. He’s been expecting the one from his nightmare, the one he’s had nearly every night since his mother started her treatments, the one with the darkness and the wind and the screaming…
This monster is something different, though. Something ancient, something wild. And it wants the most dangerous thing of all from Conor.
It wants the truth.”

A Monster Calls is an original idea from author Siobhan Dowd who sadly died before she got the chance to write it. Leaving behind some of the framework and a beginning, Patrick Ness took the project on board as a tribute to her, adding his own flare in the process. Accompanied by illustrations from Jim Kay (illustrator for the illustrated Harry Potter editions) any reader who picks up this book is in for an emotional rollercoaster.

The story follows a thirteen-year-old boy called Conor who is struggling to cope with his mother’s illness. One night, a monster shows up at his house and says that he will tell Conor three stories and, once he is finished, Conor must reveal a story of truth in return.

At its core, this is a story about grief, sorrow and denial. Conor floats through the story, isolated from his peers at school and having to endure constant sympathy from his teachers, all while having to deal with one fundamental fact that he can’t admit to himself: his mother isn’t getting better.

The contents of this novel will resonate with anyone who’s experienced losing a loved one and while some of the writing can feel simplistic at times given the subject matter, it really does pack a punch and the addition of the illustration feels like someone has reached into your chest and began twisting your heart. It’s impossible not to sympathise with, and understand, Conor’s intentions and his actions, especially when the only friend he has to turn to is a monster disguised as a tree in his garden.

A Monster Calls is a fundamentally heart-breaking, tender and complex book and by gosh it’s one you should read.

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Optimists Die First -Susin Nielsen

“Optimists believe things will always work out for the best. Optimists live in a rainbow-coloured, sugar-coated land of denial. Optimists miss warning signs.”

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Blurb: “Sixteen-year-old Petula de Wilde is anything but wild. A former crafting fiend with a happy life, Petula shut herself off from the world after a family tragedy. She sees danger in all the ordinary things, like crossing the street, a bug bite, or a germy handshake. She knows: life is out to get you.”

*This book was sent to me by the publisher in exchange for an honest review*

Optimists Die First centres on Petula who is struggling to cope with family tension and the death of her younger sister; of which she feels personally responsible for. Petula is terrified of doing anything that may result in a negative outcome, mainly death, and keeps a scrapbook of freak accidents to prove her point. She suffers from panic attacks, attends counselling, and a weekly Youth Art Class with other teens needing support.

Through this class she meets a variety of people, each with their own struggles, one of which is a new boy called Jacob who lost his arm in a car accident. Jacob and Petula are paired together to work on a class assignment in which they have to adapt a scene from Wuthering Heights into another format.  As is to be expected, they bond over their time together and learn about each other and what problems they’re trying to work through and they become quite close.

Oddly enough, it’s rare that I read books where the actual protagonist really sticks with me after finishing but Petula really surprised me. I’m not a big fan of YA contemporary as they always steer to romance (and this had its fair share) but Petula felt so real. The reasons for how she was, while unhealthy, felt justified given her backstory and the book being from her perspective really helped gain an understanding of trying to fit in and learn to live, even within the tight restrictions she’d placed on herself. Several times I found myself wanting nothing more than to climb into the book and give her a hug. As her relationship with Jacob develops she starts to take more risks, doing some things even though she’s analysed the dangerous outcomes several times and then there comes a point when she doesn’t even think about them anymore. And if that isn’t a beautiful progression of a character then I don’t know what is!

Another seemingly minor aspect I really enjoyed was the mention of birth control. When it comes to that stage of a relationship, especially in a novel about teenagers, I don’t think birth control is mentioned that much so it was wonderful to have a character like Petula who, not only decides to go on birth control but actually involves a parent in her decision. There’s even a segment where Petula recalls going to the doctors and getting the implant.

The Youth Art Class teens starting to talk to each other and spend time together reminded me of The Breakfast Club gang and it was just really nice to see these characters start to open up a little to each other.

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