Review: Goodbye Days – Jeff Zentner

goodbye daysCan a text message destroy your life?

Carver Briggs never thought a simple text would cause a fatal crash, killing his three best friends, Mars, Eli, and Blake. Now Carver can’t stop blaming himself for the accident and even worse, there could be a criminal investigation into the deaths.

Then Blake’s grandmother asks Carver to remember her grandson with a ‘goodbye day’ together. Carver has his misgivings, but he starts to help the families of his lost friends grieve with their own memorial days, along with Eli’s bereaved girlfriend Jesmyn. But not everyone is willing to forgive. Carver’s own despair and guilt threatens to pull him under into panic and anxiety as he faces punishment for his terrible mistake. Can the goodbye days really help?

Rating: 5/5

There’s that feeling that you’ll never be lonely again. That every time you speak, someone you love and who loves you back will be listening. Even then I knew what I had.

A brilliant novel, and one that will leave you utterly shattered – but it is a somewhat cathartic experience, as you accompany the protagonist along his raw journey of grief, fear and guilt. Everyone processes grief differently, and no experiences are quite the same, but I really have to say that the feelings evoked here by the author were a punch to the gut – he managed to capture it so absolutely perfectly.

Funny how people move through this world leaving little pieces of their story with the people they meet, for them to carry. Makes you wonder what’d happen if all those people put their puzzle pieces together.

It’s hard for me to understand how Carver could ever be on the hook for what happens to his friends – in my opinion, it is always, always the driver’s fault if they choose to text and drive. (Zentner does explain the law that could be used to charge him, with regards to negligence – it’s just so unfathomable to me!)

As we sit in the dark and watch, I reflect on the mundane rituals, laid end to end, that form a life. We work to make money and then hopefully use that money to buy ourselves memories with the people we love.

I think I had tears streaming down my face, non-stop, from around halfway through the book all the way to the end. But like I said, it was a cathartic experience. I felt pleasantly drained afterwards. And I bookmarked so many passages that I wanted to quote, that were ultimately profound, or hopeful, or in some cases, just so damn funny.

I guess there’s no manual for coming out of the closet on behalf of your deceased best friend.

While many of the flashbacks with the group of friends were humorous and slightly nonsensical in that teenage boy way, it rings true to life – so many of the in-jokes and hilarious moments that happen in our friendships don’t make sense to anyone else – it’s a “you had to be there” kind of thing.

The goodbye-day with Blake’s grandmother was probably the scene that broke me the most. Holy shit. That’s all.

I also very much appreciated the positive depiction of therapy and medication in the book. Yay for good therapists! Yay for therapy not being seen as something ‘weird’! Yay for a combination of medical treatment and therapy to help someone through their very real trauma! And it sounds pretty minor, but I also liked that extreme nausea was mentioned as part of Carver’s panic attacks, because that was the symptom I experienced the most and most depictions seem to focus on the breathing aspect (or lack thereof). It’s the small things.

Our minds seek causality because it suggests an order to the universe that may not actually exist, even if you believe in some higher power. Many people would prefer to accept an undue share of blame for a tragic event than concede that there’s no order to things. Chaos is frightening. A capricious existence where bad things happen to good people for no discernible reason is frightening.

There is a scene that really struck me, featuring the father of one of the dead boys and our protagonist, which is gutting in its discussion of racism and potential consequences of a court case. I won’t spoil it here, because I think it’s something for the reader to encounter for themselves, but the dialogue, which only ran for a page, was a punch to the stomach.

And that isn’t the only time race is dealt with – I think the author does a good job in pointing out the micro-aggresions in the way Carver interacts with Jesmyn, his friend (and dead friend’s ex girlfriend) who is Filipino.

Speaking of Jesmyn, I wasn’t particularly impressed with the way Carver ended up treating her,, but I accept that 1) grief makes us do stupid things and 2) teenage boys do stupid things. The important thing is he learnt and apologised, so there is that.

If you take anything from this essay of a review, let it be this: Goodbye Days is an exquisite exploration of friendship, grief, and of things lost and found. Highly recommended.

We trade stories of Mars. Some are funny. Some are not. Some uplifting. Some not. Some important. Some ordinary. We build him a monument of words we’ve written on the walls of our hearts. We make the air vibrate with life.

***

ARC received from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. Quotes taken from uncorrected proof and may differ from final publication.

Review: The Dry (Aaron Falk #1) – Jane Harper

the dryLuke Hadler turns a gun on his wife and child, then himself. The farming community of Kiewarra is facing life and death choices daily. If one of their own broke under the strain, well…

When Federal Police investigator Aaron Falk returns to Kiewarra for the funerals, he is loath to confront the people who rejected him twenty years earlier. But when his investigative skills are called on, the facts of the Hadler case start to make him doubt this murder-suicide charge.

And as Falk probes deeper into the killings, old wounds start bleeding into fresh ones. For Falk and his childhood friend Luke shared a secret… A secret Falk thought long-buried… A secret which Luke’s death starts to bring to the surface…

Rating: 4.5/5

My rating is perhaps more generous than it would usually be, but I was in the mood for a good mystery, and The Dry delivered just that. Isn’t it great when you encounter the right book at the right time?

If it wasn’t for that pesky thing called employment, I would have finished this novel in one sitting. As it was, the moment I got home I was huddled on my bed, picking up where I left off.

It’s an incredibly atmospheric novel – the lethargy and the heat just ooze off the page. And while you could categorise the book as a slow mystery – i.e. it’s not a buzzing police procedural with bodies and blood appearing left, right and centre, each chapter contributes a little more to the investigation and leaves you hankering for more. And it’s not too slow that you’re stuck with paragraphs of boozy introspection by the protagonist. In short, the author gets it just right.

I usually can’t resist spoiling myself and seeing whodunnit, but somehow managed to restrain myself this time. There’s a classic element of misdirection, and I didn’t suspect the culprit – which is always great in a murder mystery.

The characters are quite memorable, and the fear and hatred permeating the small town are palpable. It’s a stifling atmosphere, where everyone knows everyone else’s business and town gossip reigns supreme. I particularly enjoyed the alliance between our protagonist Falk and the town police officer – in so many crime novels there’s a sort of alpha-male one-upmanship, but these two work together exceedingly well, united by their status as ‘outsiders’.

It did feel like things happened a little too quickly at the end, and there are a couple of things left open-ended, but despite these complaints, it was a well-written, well-crafted book with an engaging writing style, and I am looking forward to the next book in the series.

Free copy received from Jonathan Ball Publishers in exchange for an honest review.

Review: The Upside of Unrequited – Becky Albertalli

the upside of unrequitedSeventeen-year-old Molly Peskin-Suso knows all about unrequited love. No matter how many times her twin sister, Cassie, tells her to woman up, Molly can’t stomach the idea of rejection. So she’s careful. Fat girls always have to be careful.

Then a cute new girl enters Cassie’s orbit, and for the first time ever, Molly’s cynical twin is a lovesick mess. Meanwhile, Molly’s totally not dying of loneliness—except for the part where she is. Luckily, Cassie’s new girlfriend comes with a cute hipster-boy sidekick. If Molly can win him over, she’ll get her first kiss and she’ll get her twin back.

There’s only one problem: Molly’s coworker, Reid. He’s a chubby Tolkien superfan with a season pass to the Ren Faire, and there’s absolutely no way Molly could fall for him.

Right?

Rating: 3/5

Disclaimer: I am not the target audience for this book, being in mid-twenties. So I think that’s largely the reason why, although it’s a sweet book with fantastic representation, I just didn’t connect with it.

Albertalli writes with the customary charm that we came to know and love in Simon vs The Homo Sapiens Agenda. (Although we do encounter the wonderfully horrifying phrase ‘vag-blocked’.) It took me a while to get into the book, but I do think it got stronger towards the end.

We are introduced to Molly, our principle character. She’s plus size, a pinterest queen, an anxiety-sufferer, and someone who has perpetual crushes but somehow never becomes the girlfriend. You may end up shaking your head at her constant stress re: her love life or lack thereof, but it’s a realistic thing so many teens experience. Furthermore, Molly comes across as such a genuine character – she’s flawed but you cannot help rooting for her. Her self-deprecating humour also had me grinning like a loon.

Molly has a twin, Cassie, who is lesbian, and two moms of different races. There’s also a cute lil baby brother and a racist awkward grandmother, because there’s always one of those relatives. One of the love interests is Jewish. We really get the full spectrum of different human experiences here.

I particularly appreciated the depiction of medication for mental health issues in this book, which is taken as completely normal and not something which is made into a big deal. So is Molly’s size – she mentions the awkwardness that sometimes surrounds her being a bigger clothing size than her friends, but weight is not the focus of the story – it’s just one aspect of Molly.

And the romance, while it is present, isn’t the main focus of the story. The narrative also deals with Molly’s jealousy and fear as her and Cassie seem to be drifting apart, as well as the general perils of family life, friends and growing up.

I can see why the book is getting a lot of love, and it is deserved – it just didn’t work for me.

Free copy received from Edelweiss in exchange for an honest review.

Mini reviews: The Perfect Stranger – Megan Miranda, Dusk or Dark or Dawn or Day – Seanan McGuire

the perfect strangerIn the masterful follow-up to the runaway hit All the Missing Girls, a journalist sets out to find a missing friend, a friend who may never have existed at all.

Confronted by a restraining order and the threat of a lawsuit, failed journalist Leah Stevens needs to get out of Boston when she runs into an old friend, Emmy Grey, who has just left a troubled relationship. Emmy proposes they move to rural Pennsylvania, where Leah can get a teaching position and both women can start again. But their new start is threatened when a woman with an eerie resemblance to Leah is assaulted by the lake, and Emmy disappears days later.

Determined to find Emmy, Leah cooperates with Kyle Donovan, a handsome young police officer on the case. As they investigate her friend’s life for clues, Leah begins to wonder: did she ever really know Emmy at all? With no friends, family, or a digital footprint, the police begin to suspect that there is no Emmy Grey. Soon Leah’s credibility is at stake, and she is forced to revisit her past: the article that ruined her career. To save herself, Leah must uncover the truth about Emmy Grey—and along the way, confront her old demons, find out who she can really trust, and clear her own name.

Everyone in this rural Pennsylvanian town has something to hide—including Leah herself. How do you uncover the truth when you are busy hiding your own?

Rating: 3/5

But suicide season is the spring. My theory: The world sheds its layers, life springs anew- but you do not. Or you do, and you don’t like what you find.

Unremarkable. Which is unfortunate, since this is the first book of the author’s that I’ve read and I was expecting great things based on the praise for All the Missing Girls, but alas, it left me fairly unmoved. That isn’t to say I didn’t enjoy it, but it’s two weeks after I read it and it barely left an impression on me.

While I can appreciate books that aren’t all murderous action and take a more subtle approach, I felt that The Perfect Stranger went too far in the other direction – it was a little too underwhelming and understated.

I will say, however, that the author has a talent for evoking an extremely insidious, unsettling atmosphere in this novel, and showcases an extremely plausible case of just how easily an identity can be constructed.

Amazing how something that happened so long ago can feel so fresh. How it could come back to haunt you from nowhere – the innocuous ring of a telephone, the past come to call from the other end.

**

ARC received from Edelweiss in exchange for an honest review. Quotes taken from uncorrected proof and may differ from final publication.

**

Dusk or Dark or Dawn or DayWhen her sister Patty died, Jenna blamed herself. When Jenna died, she blamed herself for that, too. Unfortunately Jenna died too soon. Living or dead, every soul is promised a certain amount of time, and when Jenna passed she found a heavy debt of time in her record. Unwilling to simply steal that time from the living, Jenna earns every day she leeches with volunteer work at a suicide prevention hotline.

But something has come for the ghosts of New York, something beyond reason, beyond death, beyond hope; something that can bind ghosts to mirrors and make them do its bidding. Only Jenna stands in its way.

Rating: 3.5/5

This was a rather haunting book, no pun intended. It’s a poignant and sensitively done tale with a focus on the theme of suicide – the ones left behind, and the ones who follow.

As usual, McGuire’s creative worldbuilding is on full display; a world of ghosts who can turn themselves tangible at will, and work their way to the other side by ‘stealing’ the time from humans until they reach their death-due date, as it were.

It’s certainly one of the more unique ghost stories that I’ve ever read, but with an emphasis on the very real ideas of community, penance and basic human kindness. And there’s an undercurrent of sadness, but it ends on a hopeful note, and Jenna is someone who you can’t help but root for.

People aren’t so good at being good to one another. We try hard enough, but something essential was left out in the making of us, some hard little patch of stone in the fertile soil that’s supposed to be our hearts. We get hung up on the bad, and we focus on it until it grows, and the whole crop is lost.

**

ARC received from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. Quotes taken from uncorrected proof and may differ from final publication.

Review: Radio Silence – Alice Oseman

On the subject of Radio Silence, the reason for mine (pardon the pun!) is that I fractured my ankle on a hike two weeks ago, pursuing my New Year’s resolutions of doing more hikes.  Hear that? It’s the sound of the universe laughing at me. Anyway, apparently life on crutches is more tiring than I anticipated, so it’s basically been a routing of work-come home-collapse in bed-repeat.

radio silenceWhat if everything you set yourself up to be was wrong?

Frances has always been a study machine with one goal, elite university. Nothing will stand in her way; not friends, not a guilty secret – not even the person she is on the inside.

But when Frances meets Aled, the shy genius behind her favourite podcast, she discovers a new freedom. He unlocks the door to Real Frances and for the first time she experiences true friendship, unafraid to be herself. Then the podcast goes viral and the fragile trust between them is broken.

Caught between who she was and who she longs to be, Frances’ dreams come crashing down. Suffocating with guilt, she knows that she has to confront her past…
She has to confess why Carys disappeared…

Meanwhile at uni, Aled is alone, fighting even darker secrets.

It’s only by facing up to your fears that you can overcome them. And it’s only by being your true self that you can find happiness.

Frances is going to need every bit of courage she has.

Rating: 4/5

This book really spoke to me with regards to the subject matter. I so wish I’d had it to read when I needed it the most.

Academics were my strength when I was at high school, and it essentially became a crucial part of my identity, preparing for the next step of some kind of impressive, difficult university degree. Rocket science or the like. I ended up burning out because I gave too much when it really didn’t matter, and instead pursued a humanities degree.

But it was a long process to figure out what I was good at and what my strengths were outside the realm of school, where I was no longer the smartest person in the room. And while that sounds vain, academics were all that anybody, including myself, associated with me. It was dispiriting and disconcerting and I loathe the pressure and expectations put on high-performing students in the modern school system. (By far not the only thing wrong with the modern school system, and I fully realise that I had it better than the struggling kids for whom academic life was torture.)

Being clever was, after all, my primary source of self-esteem. I’m a very sad person, in all senses of the word, but at least I was going to get into university. 

For Frances, the protagonist, the closer the end of school approaches, the more she is in doubt about her future path. She too is mired in the expectations of being a top student, and everything she’s done this far in her life has been to prepare her for entrance to a good university so she can get that prized degree. Unlike me, Frances already knows what else she enjoys and is good at – so dubbed ‘Real Francis’ – art, funky clothing, geek culture, a mysterious podcast.

“Do you eat the same thing for lunch every day?”
“I’m very unimaginative,” I said, “and I don’t like change.”

I adored the relationships in the novel.

You probably think that Aled Last and I are going to fall in love or something. Since he is a boy and I am a girl. I just wanted to say – we don’t.

Yes! A novel centered on an entirely platonic boy-girl friendship. A glorious friendship where they support each other and have shared common interests! It was beautiful to witness.

“And I’m platonically in love with you.”
“That was literally the boy-girl version of ‘no homo’, but I appreciate the sentiment.” 

Frances’ mom was a gem. Supportive, wonderful, lenient when it matters, aware of the fact no one can put more pressure on Frances than Frances herself. A plus parenting, Mom!

“Don’t let him escape!”, said Mum. “This could be your only chance at securing a spouse!”

The supporting cast – Daniel, Raine and Carys. All of whom come together in their own way.

And there were so many other wonderful aspects:

  • I loved the Night Vale-inspired podcast with a terrible punny name – Universe City. Haunting, poignant, mysterious.
  • The humour was light but wry and I’m young enough to enjoy it.

They were playing indie rock on this floor, and it was a lot quieter too, which I was glad of, because the dubstep was starting to make me feel a bit panicked, like it was the theme music for an action film and I had ten seconds to save myself from an explosion. 

  • It also perfectly captures online fan-culture. I had to smile at some of the Tumblr references – Oseman gets it down to a T. Indeed, what impressed me was that while she has a distinctly teenaged voice in her narrator, it’s not bogged down in text speak, for example, and is accessible while still remaining authentic.

An all-round excellent YA novel with great representation, characters you can root for, and an internet mystery.

I couldn’t quite believe how much I seriously loved Aled Last, even if it wasn’t in the ideal way that would make it socially acceptable for us to live together until we die. 

***

ARC received from Edelweiss in exchange for an honest review. Quotes taken from uncorrected proof and may differ from final publication.

Review: Sleeping Giants (Themis Files #1) – Sylvain Neuvel

sleeping giantsA girl named Rose is riding her new bike near her home in Deadwood, South Dakota, when she falls through the earth. She wakes up at the bottom of a square hole, its walls glowing with intricate carvings. But the firemen who come to save her peer down upon something even stranger: a little girl in the palm of a giant metal hand.

Seventeen years later, the mystery of the bizarre artifact remains unsolved—its origins, architects, and purpose unknown. Its carbon dating defies belief; military reports are redacted; theories are floated, then rejected.

But some can never stop searching for answers.

Rose Franklin is now a highly trained physicist leading a top secret team to crack the hand’s code. And along with her colleagues, she is being interviewed by a nameless interrogator whose power and purview are as enigmatic as the provenance of the relic. What’s clear is that Rose and her compatriots are on the edge of unraveling history’s most perplexing discovery—and figuring out what it portends for humanity. But once the pieces of the puzzle are in place, will the result prove to be an instrument of lasting peace or a weapon of mass destruction?

Rating: 4/5

I think I had a completely different impression of what this book would be like, so while it popped up on my radar, I didn’t actually take much notice. But I saw it in the bookstore one day, recalled a couple of good reviews, and thought I’d take a chance. Don’t you love it when a hesitant decision pays off?

I was expecting something really dense, for some reason, but I found it easy to follow the flow of the story. The book follows an epistolary format, consisting of interview transcripts and diary entries. And while there is certainly a lot of technical information included, it didn’t feel overwhelming. I suppose it’s a difficult balance, between providing the neccessary technical info but risk hurting the brains of your readers, or just being hand-wavey with the details and have us questioning ‘but how would that work?’.

But this thing…it’s different. It challenges us. It spits in the face of physics, anthropology, religion. It rewrites history. It dares us to question everything we know about ourselves…about everything.

The premise of the tale really fascinated me. Firstly, finding a random statue of a body part in the field. Where do you possibly go to from there? And then the real crux of the matter – other species out there, waiting to make contact with us, but only when we’re reached a certain point in evolution and aren’t still living in caves waving sticks at each other. Humanity is really young, in comparison to the planet, and indeed, everything else contained in the universe.

I won’t go into any further detail, but it certainly had me hooked, and there is an ending that will have you anxiously counting down the days until the sequel is released.

I was somewhat less impressed with the characters – the worldbuilding, mystery and plot are the strengths of the novel. Rose comes across as deified by the other characters, the two males on the project were fairly one dimensional, and Kara, the fiery pilot, has a lot of personal issues that obviously are pushed to the background in favour of the science-ing. (Yeah, I’m making up words left, right and centre today.)

Something that really struck me was the sheer amount of wry humour that the author incorporated. It had me smirking and shaking my head at the audaciousness of the narrator. Indeed, the central figure of the novel, and the one conducting all the documented interviews, is a mysterious one.

-North Korean troops gathering…inside North Korea. That is unheard of.

-They were massing very close to the border.

-North Korea is the size of Ohio. It would be geographically challenging for them to gather very far from the border.

Overall, the tone of the novel is slightly menacing. We know exactly what humanity and governments are like in the face of a potential threat and powerful weapon, and there is some astute commentary on the way we tend to doom ourselves, without any help from outside influences.

Bluffing doesn’t mean what it used to. No one wants an all-out war, and everyone knows it. Both sides know the other doesn’t want a fight, so we push each other against the wall, a tiny bit further every time. It’s all about saving face but, basically, we’re playing chicken, and both sides think they can do whatever they want because the other guy will never use its nuclear arsenal. It probably won’t be today, but someday…someday one of us is gonna be terribly wrong.

Review: Girl in Pieces – Kathleen Glasgow

girl in piecesCharlotte Davis is in pieces. At seventeen she’s already lost more than most people lose in a lifetime. But she’s learned how to forget. The broken glass washes away the sorrow until there is nothing but calm. You don’t have to think about your father and the river. Your best friend, who is gone forever. Or your mother, who has nothing left to give you.

Every new scar hardens Charlie’s heart just a little more, yet it still hurts so much. It hurts enough to not care anymore, which is sometimes what has to happen before you can find your way back from the edge.

Rating: 4/5

TW: self-harm, abuse

Girl in Pieces is a harrowing but sensitively told portrayal of a girl who self-harms and finds herself at rock bottom, ending up in a rehabilitation centre, and having to claw her way back to being a functioning human being, putting her life back together – piece by slow piece.

It’s not easy to read, from the state of mind that urges Charlie to cut, to the horrors of her life on the street. But for me, the portrayal never felt gratuitous. The author really captured that overwhelming need for release, when the thoughts and the feelings need an avenue to escape.

“There’s nothing wrong with you, Charlie. Not one thing. Can’t you see that?”

But that’s a lie, isn’t it? Because there are so many things wrong with me, obviously and actually. What I want Mikey to say is: There are so many things wrong with you and it doesn’t matter.

Some people have mentioned the slow pace of the book. For me, there were two mitigating factors – the chapters are very short, and secondly, I appreciate the detail of everyday minutiae when it’s relevant to the situation. For instance, as an underage girl fending for herself, I actually do want to know the practicalities of how she’s looking after herself, and her daily routines.

It should be noticed that there is also a relationship depicted between our underage protagonist and a late-twenties guy. It can come across as a bit romanticised at points, even though they both acknowledge that they are completely destructive and wrong for each other. The love interest’s sister does very clearly call him out on it, however, and places the blame firmly where it belongs.

I would have liked to have found out more about the girls in Charlie’s therapy group, as there were some fascinating characters there. However, the focus of the book was more on Charlie’s life as she tries to attain some sense of normalcy. She screws up plenty and often on her way to recovery, but she doggedly picks herself up time and time again. There are also unlikely supportive figures, all of whom are rooting for her to make it.

I appreciated the positive depiction of therapy, at least the focus on vital it is and how it can help, with Charlie continuing to rely on her therapist even after she leaves the facility. All too often treatment is demonised in these kinds of novels. And while it certainly isn’t depicted as a pleasant experience, it is shown that there are people who truly want to help.

Free copy received from Jonathan Ball Publishers in exchange for an honest review.