The Visitors by Caroline Scott

I was kindly gifted a copy of ‘The Visitors’ by Caroline Scott as part of a Tandem Collective UK readalong. Before I even talk about the book, I have to talk about the amazing gift box we were all kindly sent, containing one of the greatest treats of all time – a cream tea, which was delicious. And, before anyone asks, my answer is cream before jam because then it acts like the butter. (Sorry not sorry – it is the Devon method for me, which is only fair as that is where some of my family have lived.)

Now, let us get back to the important stuff, the lovely read that is ‘The Visitors’. This is a beautiful book, set in Cornwall (sorry Cornwall, I know I make the incorrect Cream Tea choice) after World War One. We literally travel there with Esme as she visits Cornwall, as it was the childhood home of her late husband – and maybe it will make her feel close to him after all this time. However, she finds out far more than she would ever have imagined about Alec.

One of the best things about this book is the characters and how well they are brought to life: Esme spends her time in Cornwall staying with Gilbert (the brother of a former employer) and the men he had spent his time with in World War One. They are quite an eccentric and fascinating bunch, each dealing with the aftermath of war and their experiences on the Western Front. But each of these men are beautifully brought to life and the terrible consequences of war are treated so sensitively that you feel for every one of these men and what they, and so many others, will have been through. The friendships created between Esme and these men probably helps them all more than they realised.

I enjoyed this book and can imagine reading it on a holiday to the south of England. It does have a slightly slow start, scene-setting, which I was a little unsure about to begin with, and is usually the concern I have with historical fiction. However, once the pace picks up, you really feel that you are on the same journey as Esme and her new friends.

And, like all good books, the title ‘The Visitors’ has so many different meanings throughout the story that you will find yourself reflecting on as you progress through the story.

So, thank you Tandem Collective UK and Caroline Scott for sending me to Cornwall for a few days on the pages of this book – it was a lovely trip.

October October by Katya Balen

So, spoiler alert: the winner of the Carnegie Prize was ‘October, October’ by Katya Balen. Now, unfortunately, I did not complete the shortlist before the winner was announced, so I have not yet picked my own winner, but I have read ‘October, October’, so can share some of my thoughts.

I did enjoy ‘October, October’, although, I have to admit that it is not my favourite so far, with one left to read. However, it is a beautiful book – with an even more beautiful cover – that really makes you think about the importance of our relationship with nature and how we need to work to protect the world around us. Not just taking from the natural world, but also making sure we give back, in whatever small way we can.

However, this is also a story about change and the impact that change can have on a young person. October loves her life with her father; they live in the woods, looking after and understanding the natural world. Just her and her father. Until her father has an accident and she is forced to stay with someone ‘new’ – although that someone is not ‘new’, she is her mother and October has to learn to adjust to change: life in a city, making new friends and building a relationship with her mother from the beginning. We follow October as she has to embark on this new adventure and, like many, she is resistant to change and this is not the world that she is used to – but she starts to make friends and discovers mudlarking, which allows her to find even more beauty in the natural world, even in a city. It is fair to say that October learns some important lessons as her life changes, but never loses her unique and special take on the world.

This would be a lovely novel for anyone to read who is having to experience a change that is out of their control. It is beautifully written and engaging, and is definitely one that I can see appealing to Middle Grade readers – but, like all books, it can be enjoyed by so many.

The Secret Sunshine Project by Benjamin Dean

Me, My Dad and the End of the Rainbow‘ was such a fabulous book that I could not wait to read ‘The Secret Sunshine Project’ by Benjamin Dean. And, well, June seemed like the most perfect time to do it, with it being Pride month – although, of course, we can enjoy these books all year round.

This middle-grade book is such a joyful read – for readers of all ages. Bea and her family have to move to the countryside; something that her, her sister and her mother never thought that they would have to do, but after tragedy strikes when their Dad dies, they have no choice. However, this means that they will not be able to attend London Pride as they hoped, especially as that was a perfect day that they had shared all together just before their lives changed. Bea’s sister takes this news especially hard, as Pride held a very special place in her heart as she was able to celebrate her true self. So, Bea has a great idea: how can she bring the sunshine to her sister again?

There is so much fun amongst the pages of this book, and so many lessons that so many could take away with them. The celebration of being proud of who you are and never hiding your sunshine. Accepting everyone for exactly who they are. Family and friends coming in lots of different forms but always being centred around love and making memories. And, how everything can be a wonderful adventure, when you look for the sunshine.

So, please pick up the books of Benjamin Dean if you are looking for an uplifting read with a heart.

Everyone Dies Famous in a Small Town by Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock

I can not tell you why, but this was the book I was least excited about on the Carnegie Shortlist, I think possibly because I was judging the book by its cover (a bookworm’s crime, I know) and it did not seem to appeal to me in quite the same way as the others.

However, I was again wrong and had made an error of judgement; this book was a great read. I am not (as I have mentioned before) a fan of short stories as a rule, but I am always willing to give them a chance. And this collection of short stories was excellent, as to me it read just like the regular chapters of a book, as each of these stories linked together to give us the bigger narrative.

‘Everyone Dies Famous in a Small Town’ tells the story of a group of young people in the aforementioned small town in America’s west. A town that holds secrets and was once hit by the tragedy of a young girl going missing, which appears to make no sense to the community, as everybody knows everybody and nobody ever seems to visit. However, as we read about each of the characters, the mystery is slowly solved and the community is shaken to the core.

Although some of the secrets make for uncomfortable reading, this is a story that needs telling. Especially thinking about the ease of abuse of power, and the blind respect that many have for those who are supposed to be pillars of the community. Also, alternatively, how easy it can be sometimes to misunderstand a situation without all of the information.

This is such a well-crafted novel that I think will stay with readers a long time after the final page has been read.

The Outrage by William Hussey

This has been on the TBR pile for a while, for no other reason other than that there are so many books and so little time. ‘Hideous Beauty‘ is one of the best LGBTQ+ books I have read and, although ‘The Outrage’ is very different, I was sure it would not disappoint…

…and I was correct.

Set in a future England where the far-right have taken control and it is a crime to be gay, we meet Gabriel, a rule-breaker, with his biggest crime being his sexuality – something that he must keep hidden if he is to survive. However, when Eric joins the school, Gabriel falls in love. But there is an even bigger obstacle in the way, as Eric’s father is a chief inspector of Degenerate Investigations. Gabriel and his friends create their own groups of rebels, who watch banned films and understand that there is a much better world out there than the one in which they live. Until the secret is discovered.

This is a story of bravery; of relationships and the fight for what is right. I found it an incredibly emotional read as, sometimes, it was clear where fiction and, sadly, fact for some blurred. Nobody should be told that who they are is a crime and that they can only live in the way that is dictated to them. This is a book that so many young adults and adults alike should read, as there are so many important lessons within its pages that we could all take note from. After all, this tale could well be a warning of what could happen if bad decisions and bad people gain control of society…

Punching the Air by Ibi Zoboi and Yusef Salaam

My fourth title from the Carnegie Shortlist was ‘Punching the Air’. Another brilliant piece of free verse for a YA audience, tackling yet again an important subject in our society.

I am not sure I have the skill to review this book in the way that it deserves. I am not sure I have the words for how wonderful it is, despite the fact that it tackles such a difficult subject – and one that we all wish was not able to happen.

Inspired by the tragic true story of one of its authors, Yusef Salaam, who was sent to prison at the age of 15 for a crime that he did not commit, Amal Shahid is falsely imprisoned – the victim of the crime is the only one who can save him, but he is not able to share his story. So, Amal, loses the world he knows, his loving family, the chance to practice his art and his poetry, and is forced to adapt to a life behind bars. This is a story that, although incredibly sad and emotional throughout, is also a one of hope and finding joy in the small things – when the joy is there to be found.

Beautifully written, this free verse novel becomes a real page-turner as you hope that true justice will be served, and that Amal will have the strength to learn and grow from his experience, and have the future that he truly deserves.

This is the sort of book that I hope all young people will read and take some important lessons from – especially about the difference a simple choice can make – and that the consequences can be much farther-reaching than you could ever imagine.

When We Fell Apart by Soon Wiley

Trigger warning – this book deals with suicide.

Thank you Tandem Collective for gifting me a copy of ‘When We Fell Apart’ by Soon Wiley. I read this as part of a readalong, and I thought it was a great read.

A dual narrative tells us the story of young couple Yu-Jin and Min – they seem to be a great couple. However, Yu-Jin takes her own life, something which Min struggles to accept and believes that there must be more to the story, as Yu-Jin had a bright future ahead of her – so why would she do such a thing?

For me, this book is very much about identity: Min, a Korean-American, is not entirely sure of his place in the world. Is his place in Korea or America? As for Yu-Jin, does she really fit into the mould that her parents have placed her in – or does she need to break that mould in order to live the life that she knows she should be? And is that life one that will ever be accepted in Korea?

This is a fantastic piece of literature that does not fit perfectly into a genre. It is a contemporary piece of fiction but with elements of mystery and thriller.

If you enjoy a thoughtful and intriguing read – that stays with you even after the last page – then I really recommend this book.

The Invisible Man by H G Wells

My May pick for ‘The Unread Shelf Project’ was ‘The Invisible Man’ – as this was the shortest unread book on my shelf.

I did not know what to expect from this novel – I did not know the story other than the obvious you can infer from the title. I had simply picked up a copy of this book as I had quite enjoyed ‘The War of the Worlds‘ and thought I would give some more H G Wells a go.

I devoured this book – in fact, I struggled to put it down. I really enjoyed the Gothic vibe of the story; it reminded me ‘Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde‘. There was that conflict between the desire for scientific knowledge, and the drive of wanting to be remembered for that one great discovery – and the impact that has on people and their morals.

I do not like to give away spoilers, so I do not want to go too deeply into the story other than to say that I was not a fan of Griffin – so I do not have a lot of empathy or sympathy for the ‘Invisible Man’. Although, I understood some of his motivation, even if it is not a good path that he takes. However, I can understand how this book is a classic and it is definitely one that I would recommend, especially if you are fan of ‘Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’, as it is almost a more modern take of the dangers of science in the wrong hands.

The Poet by Louisa Reid

Louisa Reid is one of the authors I was introduced to by The Tasting Notes Live – one of the greatest joys of book events is being introduced to new authors.

I was kindly gifted a copy of Lousia Reid’s latest book, ‘The Poet’, at The Tasting Notes Live Event.

‘The Poet’ is an adult free verse novel, and I really enjoyed it. Centring on a relationship between a professor and his ‘muse’, and once student, it tackles unhealthy relationships and how, sometimes, they can be difficult to escape – even when you know you should. This was a powerful read, and the beauty of free verse is that it often evokes a strong response, as there is so much skill in putting a whole narrative together in this way.

Also, having Louisa Reid read some of her free verse aloud, it makes you appreciate it even more – it is a text that should really be read aloud (although I appreciate we may not always want to sit and read aloud to ourselves), but it certainly makes you realise that you should not always speed through books, but take your time to read the verse.

Published on 2nd June, I recommend that you pick up a copy of this fantastic piece of free verse fiction.

A Tidy Ending by Joanna Cannon

Jenna, host of The Tasting Notes Book Club, selected ‘A Tidy Ending’ by Joanna Cannon for May: a book I knew nothing about and an author that I have not read before, so I was really looking forward to diving in and seeing what the book was all about.

Well, dive in I did. In fact, I sped through this novel, as from the moment I started reading, I had to find out more. Told through two timelines, we meet Linda, now and then: a woman who seems to be ‘invisible’, who does not really seem to fit in, and who struggles to make friends as people seem to avoid her. Married to Terry, she appears to be living a fairly uneventful life – until a series of murders happens in the local area. From that moment, life starts to change – even more so when Linda makes a new friend in Rebecca, the woman who had lived in her house before Linda and Terry purchased it.

I have to keep this review spoiler-free, as there are twists and turns throughout this book that will keep you guessing and sending you off down different paths of thought. It is a book that probably crosses genres; a thriller in some ways, contemporary fiction in other ways, and a bit of an old-fashioned murder mystery in other ways. All of these ingredients, combined, do make it a great read – Joanna Cannon does constantly leave you wanting to find out more, never revealing too much too soon, and keeping you guessing. But that final page will really stay with you!

This is a cleverly constructed story that I would probably have missed if I was not a member of the fantastic Tasting Notes Book Club – it definitely reminds me why book clubs are such a great thing for all book lovers to belong to.