These Shallow Graves by Jennifer Donnelly Review

New York, 1890. Josephine Montfort is from one of New York’s most respected and wealthiest families. Like most affluent girls, Jo’s future is set: a comfortable life in a suitable marriage – but her heart can’t help yearning for more. And then her father is found dead. It was supposedly a tragic accident, although some details don’t seem to quite add up. Was it really an accident… or worse, murder? With the help of a young reporter, Eddie Gallagher, Jo is in a race against time to find the culprit. Escaping her gilded cage could be dangerous and Jo will have to face some dark characters on the gritty streets of New York. But some secrets can’t stay hidden forever, no matter how deep you bury them.

these shallow graves

I received this book as a physical review copy from Hot Key Books in exchange for an honest review. At 480-odd pages it was pleasingly weighty and I couldn’t wait to get stuck in for a lengthy read – but I got through it much quicker than I thought I would. It’s divided into 100 short chapters, each one ending on a cliffhanger that makes it irresistible to see what happens in the next short chapter. And then the next. And the next…

Welcome to New York, 1890

The setting is always a key factor for me, and I loved being transported back into the world of late-nineteenth-century New York. Donnelly paints a detailed picture of the great city, from the elegant homes and parks of its elite to the grimy slums and docksides of its underbelly. But it’s the scenes set in the darker corners of the city, the morgues, asylums and brothels, that really drive the action forward.

My kind of girl

Josephine Montfort – or just Jo – was born into New York’s privileged upper class. A wannabe journalist, she is constrained by the limitations placed on her sex in the gilded cage she inhabits. Her quest to uncover the truth about her father’s death leads her deeper into the murky side of the city. She starts out somewhat naive and idealistic, and is truly shaken and horrified when she witnesses her first bar brawl and encounters her first corpse. Yet each shocking discovery about the realities of life only strengthens her resolve. I loved that whatever she faced, she somehow managed to tough it out, even when feeling genuinely scared.

What’s life without a little romance?

At its heart this is a story about a girl taking on the world, and Jo’s journey of self-discovery took central stage. But it was nevertheless pleasing to witness her blossoming feelings for Eddie Gallagher. Every girl loves a good adventure, but of course it’s more fun if you have dashingly handsome and talented reporter at your side! The pair are from different sides of the tracks, and it was fascinating to watch how their initial preconceptions about each other were peeled away to reveal genuine mutual regard and respect.

Twists and turns

As Jo and Eddie delve into the suspicious events surrounding her father’s death they uncover yet more disturbing secrets and realize there are sinister forces at play. After about halfway I had already guessed a couple of the big reveals, but there were a few final twists that came as a surprise to me, so I was gripped right until the end.

I want more!

I don’t know if Jennifer Donnelly has any plans to write further books featuring Jo and Eddie. I hope so, as I could see them working really well as a crime-busting duo. This is the first book I have read by Donnelly and it’s given me a hankering for more historical fiction. I discovered that she has also written a series for adults set in Victorian London – The Tea Rose trilogy. It’s going straight onto my TBR!

Review: Everything, Everything by Nicola Yoon

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Goodreads description:

My disease is as rare as it is famous. Basically, I’m allergic to the world. I don’t leave my house, have not left my house in seventeen years. The only people I ever see are my mom and my nurse, Carla. But then one day, a moving truck arrives next door. I look out my window, and I see him. He’s tall, lean and wearing all black—black T-shirt, black jeans, black sneakers, and a black knit cap that covers his hair completely. He catches me looking and stares at me. I stare right back. His name is Olly. Maybe we can’t predict the future, but we can predict some things. For example, I am certainly going to fall in love with Olly. It’s almost certainly going to be a disaster.

If you’re looking for a sweet and charming book that will up your happiness levels significantly, then stop right here. There is only so much I can say about this book without giving too much away so I am going to keep this review short and sweet. I implore you to read this book! It won’t take you long as it’s so hard to put down. And I’m dying to be able to talk to someone about it so if you do read it, come back and tell me what you think.

Meeting Maddy

Madeline Whittier, or Maddy, as Olly calls her, has Severe Combined Immunodeficiency Disease, also known as ‘bubble baby’ disease. This means that she can never go outside. The only people physically in her life are her mother and her nurse Carla. I have no idea what it feels like to live your whole life inside one house, cut off from the outside world, but there were other things about Maddy, like her love of books and the way she learns about the world through them, that I definitely could identify with. She felt so real and vivid from the very first page. Her voice is very direct and the opening chapters are short and punchy, giving you little tidbits about her life and sucking you right in. She has a positive nature and dry sense of humour that makes light of her situation – she is an expert at enjoying the little pleasures in life and finding contentment within the parameters of her life, rather than fighting against them. Nicola Yoon has done a great job of creating the kind of character you’d want to be friends with in real life, because you know she’d always be able to see the good in every situation.

Enter Olly

And then she meets Olly. When she starts exchanging messages with the boy who moves in next door things start to change. The balance has been upset, and for the first time Maddy has secrets that she keeps from her mum. The friendship that develops between Maddy and Olly is absolutely adorable and perfect in every way. There is a real innocence to it that you don’t get that often in YA books, and because of Maddy’s situation all of the intense feelings of getting to know someone special for the first time are even more SUPER INTENSE. I also loved and believed in the relationships between Maddy and her mum, and Maddy and her nurse, Carla. She doesn’t have many people in her life so you can see that she is totally invested in the relationships that she does have. While Maddy’s blossoming connection to Olly is very sweet, I think it was actually these relationships and the changes that they underwent that interested me most.

Where to from here?

So Maddy lives a life confined to her house, then begins a friendship with a boy next door – but she still can’t go outside, so what next? You will have to read it yourself to find out: that little dilemma will keep you hooked right until the last page. I did have mixed feelings about the ending. It was well-executed, so no gripes from me on that front. But I felt very torn between wanting a perfect happy ending for the characters but at the same time not feeling completely prepared to accept the changes that this could entail. I’d love to say more but I can’t, because spoilers.

Bonus feature 

The book also included some very cute illustrations which were a nice added touch and they helped to bring Maddy’s unique world viewpoint to life.

Review: Railhead by Philip Reeve

untitledCome with me, Zen Starling, she had said. The girl in the red coat. But how did she know his name? The Great Network is a place of drones and androids, maintenance spiders and Station Angels. The place of the thousand gates, where sentient trains criss-cross the galaxy in a heartbeat. Zen Starling is a petty thief, a street urchin from Thunder City. So when mysterious stranger Raven sends Zen and his new friend Nova on a mission to infiltrate the Emperor’s train, he jumps at the chance to traverse the Great Network, to cross the galaxy in a heartbeat, to meet interesting people – and to steal their stuff. But the Great Network is a dangerous place, and Zen has no idea where his journey will take him…

The setting is out of this world

I was obsessed with Philip Reeve’s Mortal Engines series, so when I was sent this ARC I was over the moon. What I liked most about that series was the incredibly imaginative world building, and Railhead didn’t disappoint – though the setting couldn’t be more different. I loved the idea of speeding across the universe to different worlds on sentient trains – who needs spaceships? I’ve always been drawn to the romance of great train journeys: this book takes them to another level. There were so many other extraordinary beings and imaginative details that pulled together to create a thrilling ride into a whimsical  futuristic world – Hive Monks made up of thousands of bugs, life-like Motorik robots, mysterious Station Angels, all-knowing artificial intelligence Guardians, and so much more.

A is for adventure

Our main character, Zen Starling, starts out as just another petty thief but gets drawn into an adventure beyond his imagining. I liked that the heart of the story was about a seemingly ordinary boy going on a journey in which he learns a lot about himself and what he is capable of. He is pushed out of his comfort zone every step of the way. One of his biggest challenges is masquerading as a distant member of a noble family – his struggle to blend in with high society had me just as much on the edge of my seat as some of the action sequences. And just like the K-bahn train journeys speeding across the universe, the pace and excitement just doesn’t let up.

It’s a knockout cast

There are so many brilliant characters in this book! Among my favourites were Nova, a Motorik with aspirations of being human and Zen’s best friend, and Threnody, a noble girl of the Noon Family, who initially befriends Zen when he sneaks onto the Noon Train under the guise of Tallis Noon. She’s smart and seems to have a knack for seeing to the heart of things – and not taking no for an answer. But the real stars of the show for me had to be the sentient trains – the proud and loyal Damask Rose, the sinister Thought Fox, and the Wild Fire and the Time of Gifts, the two glamorous engines of the Noon Train who are deeply in love with each other. Philip Reeve makes them just as real and unforgettable as his human characters.

Destination unknown

The ending blows everything wide open – literally anything could happen next. Many of the threads of the story are brought to a satisfying point, if not resolution, and there is no obvious set-up for a sequel. But with so much detail and care put into the world building, it’s hard to imagine that Philip Reeve would be able to resist coming back to this world. I predict more stories on the Great Network to come.

Review: Asking For It by Louise O’Neill

25255576It’s the beginning of the summer in a small town in Ireland. Emma O’Donovan is eighteen years old, beautiful, happy, confident. One night, there’s a party. Everyone is there. All eyes are on Emma. The next morning, she wakes on the front porch of her house. She can’t remember what happened, she doesn’t know how she got there. She doesn’t know why she’s in pain. But everyone else does. Photographs taken at the party show, in explicit detail, what happened to Emma that night. But sometimes people don’t want to believe what is right in front of them, especially when the truth concerns the town’s heroes…

I read this book in one sitting. Then it took a while for the dust to settle before I could compose my thoughts and share them with you. Other bloggers have said that this is a book that everyone should read, and I can’t help but agree. Here are my reasons why:

Not an ‘easy’ read

Compelling, yes, and written in an engaging tone, yes – but easy to read? No. There were times when I had to put it down for a moment to compose myself because it was just so vivid and sad and real. But then I had to go back to it and carry on. When an author does that  – when they challenge you, make you think, make you question your responses to the situation they are presenting to you, make you physically not be able to turn away from the harrowing nature of things – that is a pretty intense reading experience. And it’s a rare talent that can achieve it.

Not a likable narrator

Now let’s just be clear about this: Emma O’Donovan, or ‘Easy Emma’, as she is branded in the aftermath of the assault, really doesn’t come across as a nice person. She’s obsessed with being the prettiest and doesn’t care how she proves it – whether it’s by putting her best friends down or coming on to their boyfriends and crushes. She’s bitter, too – she doesn’t think twice about stealing a bottle of Chanel perfume from her friend Ali, whom she resents for being richer than her. They are all signs of someone who is very vulnerable deep down, but nevertheless it doesn’t make you warm to her. This ‘unlikability’ is pivotal to the novel. Because she was drunk and dressed provocatively on the night of the rape, people say that she was ‘asking for it’. As if she somehow deserved it. She is shamed, called a slut, bitch, whore. People who used to admire her (and secretly always resented and envied her) turn against her and she is left friendless, isolated, alone. And no one believes her. She isn’t a victim: she is to blame. Would people have reacted differently had the rape happened to a nice girl, who dressed and behaved ‘appropriately’ and always treated others with kindness? Or maybe it wouldn’t happen to a ‘nice’ girl, because she wouldn’t have ‘deserved it’? The point is that no one, not ANY ONE ‘deserves’ to be raped. Not even if they’re a bit of a bitch. And it can, and does, happen to anyone. The fact that Emma is hard for the reader to like or connect with means that the sense of moral outrage at what happens to her is pure and untempered by an emotional attachment – you’re not upset and angry because a character you love has been hurt or wronged, you are upset and angry because what has happened to her is just. Plain. Wrong. The sense of injustice becomes bigger than the characters and the book. It takes on a life of its own and stays with you long after you’ve turned the final page.

Not pulling any punches

In a similar vein to O’Neill’s debut novel, Only Ever Yours, there is no redemption or resolution here. She paints a very bleak picture and doesn’t make any compromises or give us any answers. There is only one glimmer of hope: Emma’s brother Bryan, who stands beside her through it all. But he alone cannot hold back the tide. Of course it would have been more life-affirming to read about how Emma’s attackers got their comeuppance and she went on to get over her trauma through therapy and somehow put it all behind her. But that wouldn’t, as O’Neill herself has said, have been true to this narrative, and neither is it true to reality, if the statistics that Emma reads about in the paper are accurate: the rate of conviction for rape in Ireland is only 1%.

Not talking about it

The whole town turns against Emma. The four boys involved in the gang-rape are players on the football team, the town’s heroes (‘They’re good boys really’) and she is ruining their lives. Really, for Emma to stand a chance of getting over the trauma would take the support of every single person in that ‘tight-knit community’. But no one will talk to her. Some of Emma’s friends do try to reach out to her, but she is incapable of communicating to them what she is going through. Though they don’t directly admit it, her own parents are ashamed of her. This was the worst and saddest part of the story for me. You really want them to stand by their daughter and say they will support her no matter what, but they don’t. They would rather not talk about it and just want it all to go away. Even Emma can’t bring herself to say ‘that word’. But as O’Neill writes in her afterword, not talking about it is precisely the problem: ‘We need to talk about rape. We need to talk about consent. We need to talk about victim-blaming and slut-shaming and the double standards we place upon our young men and women. We need to talk and talk and talk until the Emmas of this world feel supported and understood. Until they feel like they are believed.’

#NotAskingForIt

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revenge what we saw

Conversion by Katherine Howe review

A1VeWPHu6FLIt’s the final year at St. Joan’s Academy, and Colleen Rowley and her friends are feeling the heat. University applications, deciphering boys’ texts… all of it has turned life into a pressure cooker. And much like their school’s namesake, Joan of Arc, they’re expected to keep it all together. Until they can’t.

The first victim is gorgeous, popular Clara Rutherford, who starts having loud and uncontrollable tics while her horrified classmates look on. More students follow suit with new symptoms – seizures, body vibrations, uncontrollable coughing fits, hair loss. The media descends on the small town, as school officials, angry parents and health experts scramble to find something, or someone, to blame. Environmental pollution? Could the girls be faking? Or succumbing to stress? But as Colleen – who has been reading The Crucible for extra marks – soon realises, there’s one thing that nobody has factored in: the town was once Salem Village, the site of a similarly bizarre epidemic among teenage girls over three-hundred years ago. And when she learns that her best friend is hiding a secret that could jeopardise her future, the pieces finally start to fit together.

Hang on, what genre is this book?

If I was an actual librarian, I wouldn’t be sure where to shelve this book – half of the story has a contemporary setting, the other half historical, but both are also fictionalised accounts of real-life events. We need a new contemporary/historical fictionalised non-fiction section, people! It was fun reading a book that didn’t sit comfortably in any of the usual boxes. Plus, Katherine Howe is a lecturer in American Studies at Cornell University, and she has really done her research, drawing inspiration from the Salem witch trials in 1692 and a mystery sickness that struck the all-girls school of Le Roy, New York in 2012.

These girls are under too much pressure!

I could definitely relate to the contemporary setting of senior year at school. I still sometimes get those final exams nightmares – you know the ones where suddenly you are going into an exam and realise you haven’t revised. The panic! In the competitive environment of St. Joan’s, the senior year girls are all obsessed with their GPA and college applications and Colleen, our modern-day narrator, is more so than most – this girl really, really wants to be valedictorian! Colleen, Anjali, Deena and Emma have their tight-knit group of friends, but even within that there are constant unspoken comparisons. And when the Mystery Illness strikes, they are thrown into the centre of a media frenzy. It’s pretty intense and an extreme scenario, but it did make me stop and think about the huge amount of pressure some teens are put under – not just by their parents and peers but also by themselves.

So many unknowns…

There is a whole lot of uncertainty going on in this book. Colleen isn’t sure what to make of her enigmatic new teacher Ms. Slater, or the anonymous text messager who urges her to read The Crucible and delve deeper into what’s really going on at the school. Colleen’s best friend Emma has secrets, and her mum stays indoors all the time with ‘headaches’, but we’re never really sure why. And nobody, not the school board, the department of health or countless experts, has a clue what is going on with the Mystery Illness. The real problem is that none of these adults know how to handle the resulting situation, and that’s why it all unravels: the order has been upset. Teenagers might be almost adults themselves, and they might rebel and test boundaries, but they still look to adults for authority and reassurance. It’s just that those adults don’t always know how to deal with difficult situations. Maybe that’s what happened during the real Salem witch trials? In Howe’s version of events, the adults certainly have their own agenda and seem to be manipulating the girls’ actions.

Will we ever really know what happened?

As we near the end of the book, everyone finally agrees on the true cause of the Mystery Illness, and it is all rather neatly dealt with and swept under the carpet. But Colleen has her own theory and doubts, and, just as the Salem witch trials will forever remain an historical enigma, her unanswered questions leave us wondering – will we ever really know what happened?

A gripping read, but some slow points along the way

For the most part I was swept along by the story – although more so by Colleen’s narrative than by the interlude chapters where we read the confession of Ann Putnam (a real-life person involved in the Salem witch accusations). But there were a few scenes that I found a bit clunky – Colleen’s family all sit round the TV and watch news reports about the Mystery Illness, and Clara and some of the other afflicted girls being interviewed on a chat show. I guess these scenes were meant to echo the courtroom of the Salem witch trials, but the dialogue was stilted and forced and it all felt static and awkward to me.

The verdict?

I accuse Katherine Howe of writing an intelligent, thought-provoking book and find her guilty as charged.

If you like Conversion, why not try…

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