‘The Next Together’ Lauren James

This is a tough one to comment on.  I’ve just finished ‘The Next Together’ and still not quite sure what I think!

We meet Katherine and Matthew, and after a few chapters it’s clear we are meeting the same people in very different periods through time, some historical and some in the future.  It seems they are destined to meet, fall in love, but then tragedy always seems to interfere.  At each point they return, they become embroiled in a major event that has the power to change the course of history, and it seems that this must be the purpose of their returns.  But, finally, the simple truth is revealed.

Each different time slot is written in a different font, but even with this, for me it did feel confusing at times, and I didn’t feel it was always pulled off successfully.  Some of the dialogue felt a bit forced, as if almost too much effort was being made to show the different historical periods.

I’ve read quite a few reviews of this book, which are very split between those who loved it & those, like me I’m afraid, who didn’t feel it was pulled off entirely successfully.  I suspect students who read will tell me they found it confusing.


‘Love, Lies & Lemon Pies’ Katy Cannon

This came recommended by colleagues, so I thought I’d give ‘Love, Lies & Lemon Pies’ a try.  When the book arrived I wasn’t especially impressed by the cover – for me it really does look rather twee.  But, because colleagues had been praising it so highly I was happy to give it a go although I must confess I had pretty low expectations.  I really should trust others’ judgments next time!

We meet Lottie.  She’s in year 11, but in the previous year has lost her Dad, and her Mum has suffered a mental health crisis, and is filling their house with old charity shop items.  Lottie has distanced herself from friends and her grades are starting to slip, and she is terrified someone will insist on a home visit and find out, so goes to great lengths to put on an ‘everything is fine’ front.  She is persuaded to join the newly formed bake club (something she hasn’t done since her Dad died, as it was something they used to do together).  The group starts with relatively straightforward recipes, and Lottie finds herself relaxing and even enjoying it, especially as ‘bad boy’ Mac also joins.  The members of the group get to know each other gradually over the course of time, and as Lottie is often partnered with Mac she realises there’s much more to him than his image, and begins to fall for him.

The group decides to enter a schools baking competition, and also have the help of a local baker who offers the lure of an apprenticeship to one student.  Together, Lottie & Mac turn out to be pretty good, and they both really want to win both the competition and the chance of the apprenticeship.

This is a pretty light read, and includes a new recipe for each chapter.  I had originally labelled it as a young adult read, but in all honesty there’s nothing in it that would justify that label I think.  Instead, it’s an honest portrayal of the complexity of teenage life – the mix of possible romance, with friendship and home issues rings very true.  The book is pretty well written I felt – it has a good pace and satisfying conclusion.  The relationships between the students especially develops well, showing us that, however perfect lives may appear from the outside, there is always more going on than we realise.

I thoroughly enjoyed this read!


‘The Serpent King’ Jeff Zentner

Since it’s only a very few days since my last post, that really should tell you everything you need to know of my opinion of ‘The Serpent King’!  It’s been quite a while since I read a YA title that had me staying up far later than I should at night, as I simply could not put this down.

Told from the viewpoints of 3 friends, this is such a powerful story.  Simply told, but all the more effective for that.  We first hear from Dill.  His father, a former preacher with a penchant for using deadly snakes in his services, is in prison, leaving Dill and his mother with huge debts & living in terrible poverty.  Dill has a great talent as a musician, but feels doomed to be stuck in his small, southern town.  Lydia loves fashion, and writes her own pretty successful blog.  Her life has always been more privileged, her father is a dentist, her mother an estate agent. Lydia is smart and sharp, but has few friends in her home town, as she dreams of leaving its confines to spread her wings.  Travis is described as a big lad with a gentle soul, and something of an obsession for a series of fantasy novels.  He uses these as a way to escape from his home life which is dominated by his often drunk and violent father.  These three characters are firm friends, and we follow them over the course of their final year in school as they make those momentous decisions that will determine the paths of the rest of their lives.

Told from all three viewpoints, we often hear the same incident from alternative characters.  This might sound as if it would slow the book down, but in fact it does the exact opposite.  I felt so invested in the lives of these three, that I wanted to know how each of them reacted.  As the story unfolds, Dill is convinced that staying in town and working all hours (like his mother) is his only option, perhaps not realising quite how gifted a musician he is.  He is denying his feelings for Lydia, which may extend beyond just friendship, as well as denying himself the opportunity to explore the wider world.  One of my favourite parts of the story is the surprise that Lydia arranges for Travis.  It felt just a little contrived, but was touching at the same time.  The reader, I think, cannot fail to feel that they would love to be that good friend who judges perfectly a gift of a situation for another.  Denying his true desire to leave the town, combined with the stress of his home life leaves Dill spiralling into a deep depression.  But tragedy strikes (I cried) and leaves him utterly bereft.  Finding a way to get through this terrible, life-changing, time sees the friends change in ways they could not foresee.

The role of fathers features very strongly in this book.  Dill’s is in prison for having child pornography on his computer,  Dill’s relationship with him is pretty complicated, as his father’s faith is so extreme, it leaves Dill feeling uncomfortable and unconvinced, even though at points he tries really hard to hold on to his faith.  Travis’s father is a bullying, violent alcoholic, who makes his disappointment in his son entirely plain.  Lydia’s father, bu contrast is shown as generous, kind and understanding.  The mothers in the book, however, aren’t shown in such detail I don’t think – more 2-d than the 3-d fathers.  This is not a criticism as such, more an observation.  It’s my feeling that mothers often feature more sympathetically in YA novels, with fathers often just being a supporting act if they are there.

This is a fantastic read.  We really do get right inside the three main wonderful characters.  It’s emotional, and we really feel the genuine angst of these vital, life-changing events.  This is a stunning debut – can’t wait to read more by this author. Read it!!


‘Beautiful Broken Things’ Sara Barnard

One of the featured books in the 2016 Zoella book club list, ‘Beautiful Broken Things’ is a powerful read.  It has so many strong themes, that they could end up tripping over themselves – the nature of friendship, mental illness, dealing with stress, rejection, drugs, suicide spring immediately to mind.

Rosie and Cadnam have been close friends forever, despite being in different schools.  They are now in year 11, with all the stresses that brings.  I see students going through this every day, and the scenes described feel all too realistic.  New girl, Suzanne, becomes friends initially with Rosie, and is inevitably introduced to Cadnam.  Suzanne at first seems strong, in control and confident, as well as having striking looks.  But after a while it becomes clear that this is a brittle front, and as Suzanne gradually unravels through the book we see inside her illness.  At first Caddie is jealous of Rosie’s new friend, but Suzanne draws both girls in, and becomes close with Caddie too.  Caddie has always been sensible and safe, and being with Suzanne begins to see Caddie taking risks she would not have dreamt  of just a few weeks before.  I have a very strong feeling that this will really reach many students reading this, who will identify with Caddie quite particularly.  However, and it feels with some inevitability, the risk taking goes way too far and leads to a dramatic conclusion.  Rosie and Caddie’s lives won’t be the same since their friendship with Suzanne, and in many ways they have both grown up a huge amount.

There are adults in the book, trying to guide all the girls.  As a parent, their actions for the most part felt pretty realistic, although I like to think if my daughter had been sneaking out of the house in the middle of the night I would have noticed!

Ultimately. yes, it is an ‘issues’ book, but for me the most powerful aspect was the nature of friendship, with all its fragilities and strengths.  This is aimed at a YA audience, and will develop a strong following.

‘Deception’ Teri Terry

Second in the Dark Matter trilogy ‘Deception’ continues the story as the deadly epidemic continues to spread despite quarantine zones being put in place.  Kai is devastated to find that Shay has tricked him using her new powers (a legacy of surviving the illness), and has left him so she can turn herself in to the authorities.  She believes she may be unwittingly spreading the illness to new areas – but she can’t be absolutely sure.  We follow the story again from both Kai & Shay’s points of view, but a third voice is added now – can she be trusted?  Ultimately, everyone is searching for the origins of the epidemic, and hopefully a way to stop the spread, but with growing suspicion of those survivors who have developed extraordinary powers, the world is becoming an increasingly dangerous place.

Moving the story along reasonably well, some key questions are answered, setting up well for the final volume.  These books are detailed (as we expect from Terry), and will be a good recommendation for your good readers.

‘Turtles all the Way Down’ John Green

Despite the shrinking budget I had decided to buy 2 copies of this in hardback, which I almost never do.  I thought the students would be fighting over the copies, but not so far.  I have had a mixed response myself to John Green’s writing – loved ‘Paper Towns’ ‘The fault in our Stars’ less so, but ‘Turtles all the way down’ was a very thoughtful read.

Our narrator is Aza.  She has many of the teen traits you’d expect from any self-respecting teen novel.  She has lost a parent under sudden and tragic circumstances, she finds being at school tricky and has only one close friend, and she suffers from a complex mental health issue.  At the start of the book, Aza and her friend discover the news that a local, super-wealthy businessman has gone missing.  He is father to two teen children, who are now left in the care of their paid staff.  Aza had spent some summer camps years before with the oldest son, and with Daisy they make contact again and do a little investigating – partly for the huge reward, but also because of the connection Aza and Davis have.  It does feel, for much of the book, that Aza and Davis have a real chance of a blossoming romance, and the scenes together I think will really appeal to teen readers as feeling true and real.  However, for Aza, many of the simple, day to day activities most take for granted are fraught with danger because of her mental health issues.  This for me was a real strength of the book.  There is a lot of ‘issues’ based fiction around.  Aza’s condition is complex, but through the way it is written I certainly felt I had a much greater understanding of what might be going on in the head of someone suffering from something similar.  There is a scene towards the end where she tries to describe what it’s like and how it affects her to Davis, which I thought was rather wonderfully drawn.  I gather that in this novel Green wanted to try to chronicle the kind of mental illness he suffers from himself, which may well go far in explaining that, for me, these were the most powerful passages.  I suspect it will just be a matter of time before this title really takes off in my school

‘Letters to the Lost’ Brigid Kemmerer

Told in alternating voices, ‘Letters to the Lost’ has all the elements of ‘the usual’ teen story, but the writing takes it, in my opinion, above the average for this genre.  Juliet’s mother has died, and she finds some kind of consolation in continuing to write letters to her, leaving them by her gravestone.  Declan is the local ‘bad boy’, serving a time of community service mowing the grass in the cemetery.  Without realising that they actually know each other, they start to communicate, first in notes, and then online.  Both have suffered huge loss, and find some comfort in the understanding of someone feeling a similar pain.

Their connection grows steadily and is at the same time painful and cathartic.  Declan is very much the misunderstood, still waters run deep character.  With only one close friend, the fantastically drawn Rev, he plays the role of a hard nut to the point where most people are scared of him, but keeping his confusion and sensitivity very close.  His terribly difficult relationship with his mother & stepfather is developed well, and the reader really does feel deeply for both characters.  However, just like real people, both Juliet and Declan are flawed.  Their uncertainties and sensitivities threaten to destroy the connection they have forged – portrayed so realistically.  With a thread of burgeoning romance, the book has a satisfying conclusion.

The pace is really well-judged – detail enough to develop some great characters and situations, yet pacy enough to keep it moving and keep the reader interested.  This is sure to go down well with our students!