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Everyone was looking for Jennifer Jones.

Alice Tully is trying to live a normal life. She has a boyfriend, a job at a coffee shop and a loving home and yet the news that Jennifer Jones – JJ, the infamous child killer – is about to be released from prison is preoccupying her thoughts. The media are desperate to find out everything they can about when and where Jennifer Jones is going to return to society. Only a handful of people know the truth and Alice Tully is one of them.

Narrated in the past and present tense, Looking for JJ, tells the story of murder from a different perspective. Told with incredible sensitivity, Cassidy explores the age-old question of nature vs. nurture and the role it plays in the actions of a child-killer.

As readers know the consequence of the action before it is explored in detail, tension and uncertainty run throughout the story. You are made to draw a connection and a conclusion to characters before you know the truth of what happened and, at times, it feels very uncomfortable feeling sympathetic towards what should be an unsympathetic character.

Cassidy’s narrative is compelling and complex as it challenges preconceived ideas and explores if people who commit the worst crimes can ever have the right to a second chance.

4 star

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THUG Life

THUG

I shouldn’t have come to this party.

Regular readers of TTW know that I usually stay away from books that have hype surrounding their launch as I like the headspace to make my own mind up about them. But there was something about The Hate U Give that made me desperate to read it and now, having done so, I can say that the hype is justified. This book is important, relevant and heart-achingly good. Everyone should pick up a copy.

Starr Carter lives two lives – balancing her posh co-ed high school in the suburbs with her home life in one of the poorer neighbourhoods, the place where she was born and raised. She’s managing to keep the two successfully apart but one evening and one tragic incident will soon bring those walls that divide her lives crashing down and she has to decide to find her voice before she’s silenced…

Thomas’ debut novel is fearless. Inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement, it is both affecting and effective, drawing you deep into the heart of Starr’s world. It explores the fear, generosity, anger and loyalty a girl, family and community feel when it is threatened by injustice. It examines prejudice at every angle – from a figure of authority’s assumption of behaviour based on race to the issues surrounding couples of different ethnic backgrounds. At its heart, it is the tale of a sixteen year-old who witnesses the shooting of her friend but THUG actually explores much more about the world than we’d readily admit.

Unlike the central incident of the book, THUG is actually an incredibly balanced novel. It examines white privilege just as readily as it explores the problem of gang warfare. It is not anti-white or pro-black but rather calls for universal humanity, justice and consequence. It is as much a social and political commentary as it is a gripping and powerful narrative.

Starr is a wonderfully generous protagonist. She is unfiltered but neutral, seeing all sides of life at school, home and in her neighbourhood. I loved the complexity and honesty that Thomas captures in Starr – she is the only witness to the shooting of her childhood friend, Khalil, by a police officer and has to navigate the guilt, anger and injustice that begin to stand alongside her grief. Somehow she is able to find courage and conviction to go against the accepted authority and fight for what is right. She is an awesome and inspiring protagonist that you’ll root for time and again.

The Hate U Give brings today’s racial tensions and the issues associated with it to light in much in the same way Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird did. It’s just a shame that such a powerful book is still needed today. A fantastic and phenomenally successful novel, The Hate U Give is a book well worthy of its praise. Read it.

5 star

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Marked For Life

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I was older than all my friends when I got my first tattoo.

In the case of Alice Broadway’s debut novel, absolutely judge a book by its cover because this one is a stunner – look at all that beautiful foiling! Whilst I admit the cover drew me in, it was the blurb that made me desperate to read this book because the concept of Ink is fascinating…

Everyone is marked from birth. The stories of their lives are documented on their skin, with every significant moment illustrated for all to see. When a person dies, their skin is removed and made into a special book, a life laid bare. Each book is weighed and judged and, if deemed worthy, will sit in the homes of their ancestors forevermore. But when Leora’s father dies, she soon realises that his Skin Book has been edited and she’s not the only one who has noticed…

Engrossing and immersive, Ink tells the story of one girl’s struggle to understand a parent’s death and to come to terms with the idea that her father was a man not a hero. Everyone, at some point in their lives, has to come to terms with the fact that their parents aren’t perfect or invincible – that they keep secrets and have pasts too. Leora only starts to unveil the truth about her father when his Skin Book gets taken away for examination and she begins to realise the significance of one tiny, hidden tattoo.

The dystopian world Broadway creates within Ink is rich and bewitching. Big concepts such as the afterlife, religion, indoctrination and love are woven into the tale with astute awareness and sensitivity. Ironically in a book about death, there is so much life to the tale and the characters – as the opening book to the trilogy it builds Leora’s world and sets up the premise of the following two books without sacrificing its ability to entertain. The ending was so utterly empowering that I couldn’t help but compare and believe that Broadway was setting Leora up as a Katniss Everdeen-esque heroine for the next book and I can’t wait to see what’s in store!

Normally I wouldn’t read the opening to a trilogy until all three books were out – as an impatient person, I like to read all three in quick succession – but I couldn’t avoid opening Ink. Unique and addictive, Ink rises to a crescendo and leaves you desperate to see where Broadway is going to take us, and Leora, next.

4 star

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A Parisian Playground

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Here is everything I know about France: Madeline and Amélie and Moulin Rouge.

I was sure I wasn’t going to enjoy this book. The blurb had all the hallmarks of a Lindsey Lohan/Amanda Bynes/Hillary Duff 90s romcom and the book itself contains all the corresponding over-used stereotypes of a fairly ignorant American girl moving to Paris against her will but meeting a sophisticated and popular English (ish) boy called Étienne St. Clair (seriously!). And yet, despite that and in all honesty with hand on heart, I couldn’t put it down!

Anna and the French Kiss is a characterful read with an accessible and relatable protagonist – you can’t help but imagine yourself in Anna’s place within the pages. She’s in an alien environment, unsure and alone and in that all-too-familiar-way trying to find her voice and place in the world. Stuck between missing an old life and forging a new one, Anna soon finds the reason behind Paris’ romantic reputation and learns that it’s not all bad being forced to live in the French capital…

There are some books that read better when taken on face value – books where, if you scratch too hard beneath the surface, you could argue yourself out of ever having enjoyed it in the first place. Anna and the French Kiss is one of those books. It’s not trying to do anything complicated or complex, but rather tell an addictive story of teen romance. It’s a read to escape within, one that ticks all the boxes – pacey, accessible, Parisian – and yes there are clichés and hypocrisies, yes you know what the outcome will be and yes it is a bit predictable but it is still utterly scintillating!

Anna and the French Kiss is a book that truly demonstrates the phrase “it’s the journey, not the destination” – you may be able to see all too clearly where you’ll end up but it’s so much more about the captivatingly enjoyable tale of getting there!

4 star

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Decisions, Decisions

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Everyone thinks it was because of the snow.

If I Stay was my first foray into the world of YA sensation Gayle Forman and I found it to be a well-crafted read with an interesting concept driving the narrative.

Mia’s body is in the ICU, alone and afraid. She was supposed to be driving with her family to visit friends and yet here she is, in hospital, with a choice to make – to stay or go.

If I Stay is a character-driven narrative about the choice between life and death. Whilst out-of-body experiences are frequently explored on television series, I’ve yet to read one, let alone see one carry a whole book so successfully. Foreman is able to articulate Mia’s confusion and uncertainty beautifully and rather than have a book entirely composed of a spirit wandering the halls of a hospital she intersperses the narrative with flashbacks to add depth.

Conceptual and characterful, If I Stay is an emotional read – swinging from wonderful nostalgia to heart-breaking reality – but it’s not perfect. There were some rather cringey first-love sections (play me?! really?!) but you can forgive the cheese when there is so much content. I didn’t find the book ‘devastating’ or even ‘heart-breaking’ – I shed a tear or two because I always cry! – I came away thinking that If I Stay is more about life than it is about death.

If I Stay is a noticeably short book at 210 pages and it takes place over no more than a few critical moments in Mia’s life. It packs a lot into those moments, fleshing it out for Mia’s circumstance to become a tangible decision or her to make rather than something uncontrollable. It becomes a very interesting take on the reality and consequence of choice.

3 star

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Modern Mythology

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I’ll say, ‘Why don’t you just kill me?’

Show me a book with a modern take on Greek mythology and I’ll happily give it a whirl but add in an exceedingly good cover, an attention-grabbing blurb and a recommendation from one Miss Carrie Hope Fletcher and I’ll add it to the top of my TBR list! Chosen to kick-start my reads of 2017 is The Drowning of Arthur Braxton.

Life is hard for Arthur Braxton. His mum has just walked out on the family and his dad is now in the middle of an existential crisis. He keeps getting bullied at school and girls won’t give him the time of day. One day, playing truant, Arthur comes across the old Oracle – a disused and abandoned bathhouse. Upon entering, he comes to realise that not only can anything happen but that his life will never be the same again…

In The Drowning of Arthur Braxton Smailes takes the pain and uncertainty of adolescence and mixes it with the drama and violence of Greek mythology. In any other hands this book would have been a disaster but with Smailes ingenious writing and intriguing narrative, it is an utter triumph.

The story of Laurel, Arthur, Silver, Delphina, Maddie, Madam Pythia, Kester and Pollock is a unique and ethereal tale, grounded in the today. Juxtaposing reality with mythology, gritty urban landscapes with the otherworldly, The Drowning of Arthur Braxton is a multi-narrative story about first love and finding your place in the world.

The woven mythology in the narrative (particularly reworked stories of Apollo and Delphine, Castor and Pollux, Medea and Jason) is effortless and works wonderfully well within the world of Arthur Braxton. It’s a weird, strange and addictive story that will definitely divide readers but, if you are willing to be completely transported into the world of The Oracle, it will reward you with a unique tale and thought-provoking reading experience.

You can probably tell that I loved this book and raced through it, mainly because it surprised me. I wasn’t expecting to be gripped and enthralled by The Drowning of Arthur Braxton. It’s a book that lingers and stays with you long after the cover has been closed. It will be a firm fixture on my bookshelves for many a reread and was a fab first read of my new year!

4 star

(Also, writing under the name Caroline Wallace, Smailes’ next book The Finding of Martha Lost is out this March and it sounds just as fantastic – I can’t wait! Lucky for me, my birthday is around that time…)