The Vanishing Stair (#2) by Maureen Johnson

Published: 22nd January 2019 (print)/22th January 2019 (audio) Goodreads badge
Publisher:
Katherine Tegen Books/Harper Audio
Pages: 384/9 hrs and 13 mins
Narrator: Kate Rudd
Format: Audiobook
Genre: Young Adult / Mystery
★   ★   ★   ★   ★  – 5 Stars

All Stevie Bell wanted was to find the key to the Ellingham mystery, but instead she found her classmate dead. And while she solved that murder, the crimes of the past are still waiting in the dark. Just as Stevie feels she’s on the cusp of putting it together, her parents pull her out of Ellingham academy.

For her own safety they say. She must move past this obsession with crime. Now that Stevie’s away from the school of topiaries and secret tunnels, and her strange and endearing friends, she begins to feel disconnected from the rest of the world. At least she won’t have to see David anymore. David, who she kissed. David, who lied to her about his identity—son of despised politician Edward King. Then King himself arrives at her house to offer a deal: He will bring Stevie back to Ellingham immediately. In return, she must play nice with David. King is in the midst of a campaign and can’t afford his son stirring up trouble. If Stevie’s at school, David will stay put.

The tantalising riddles behind the Ellingham murders are still waiting to be unravelled, and Stevie knows she’s so close. But the path to the truth has more twists and turns than she can imagine—and moving forward involves hurting someone she cares for. In New York Times bestselling author Maureen Johnson’s second novel of the Truly Devious series, nothing is free, and someone will pay for the truth with their life. 

Johnson has done an amazing job with this sequel because it brings all the mystery of the first book and as the clues and evidence unravel it also raises new questions which I totally wasn’t expecting. We may find out the answers to some of the questions in Truly Devious, but the answers to the questions raised in The Vanishing Stair are as equally intriguing and in a way a whole lot more dangerous. The characters we fell in love with in Truly Devious are back, the events of the previous story still there but with a small jump in time. We get to see how the school and students have coped after the events of book one and how Stevie is managing as well.

One of the best things of this story is how Johnson has treated her characters. I love how each person at Ellingham have their uniqueness explored in a respectful and honest way. Stevie’s passion for true crime, as well as her own anxiety and self-care techniques are part of her day to day, and Nate’s introvert nature is accepted, jested about sometimes between friends but is never seen as a problem. The reasons that these students have been accepted into Ellingham is openly welcomed and celebrated and Johnson constantly reminds us that these are gifted kids who have a passion and a talent beyond the norm that they need to be free to explore and develop.

There is drama and mystery, all the things a good crime story should have. Johnson doesn’t hold back from the realities of this kind of story but she also tries not to be too gruesome or detailed. There is a good balance between what Stevie is capable of finding out due to her position, but has all the fun or sneaking out and maybe being in places you should go. The 21st century issue of technology with mysteries is used to the story’s advantage and using these modern conveniences doesn’t essentially make anything easier but it helps when Stevie is confined to a school in the mountains and has no actual job or resources to use beyond her immediate surroundings and her desire to find answers.

Rudd is once again a great narrator. Her voice captures Stevie’s uncertainties and her passion, you can see these characters come to life in your mind and all the teenage awkwardness, uncomfortableness and enthusiasm is all expressed perfectly. Her pace is wonderful and her tone keeps you engaged throughout.

This is a series you must read in order so if you haven’t already, you should check out Truly Devious. There is a third book coming soon so if you become enraptured in this series like I have, you won’t have to wait long.

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You Must Be Layla by Yassmin Abdel-Magied

Published: 5th March 2019 (print)/5th March 2019 (audio) Goodreads badge
Publisher:
Penguin/Penguin
Pages: 288/5 hrs and 21 mins
Narrator: Yassmin Abdel-Magied
Format: Audiobook
Genre: Young Adult
★   ★   ★ – 3 Stars

Layla’s mind goes a million miles a minute, so does her mouth – unfortunately her better judgement can take a while to catch up! Although she believes she was justified for doing what she did, a suspension certainly isn’t the way she would have wished to begin her time at her fancy new high school. Despite the setback, Layla’s determined to show everyone that she does deserve her scholarship and sets her sights on winning a big invention competition. But where to begin?

Looking outside and in, Layla will need to come to terms with who she is and who she wants to be if she has any chance of succeeding.

I have mixed thoughts about this book. I enjoyed parts of it, and how it didn’t become an Issue book, but at the same time I think it didn’t do enough to flesh out the issues it does raise. In essence it is a good story, there is a balance between Layla being the Minority Spokesperson but there is also a universal story about finding your place in the new school and being the awkward age of being a teenager.

Layla has dreams and she makes sacrifices to achieve those dreams. I like that there is a protagonist who isn’t shy and meek, or a full on fighter, she is loud and cheerful, which she is completely ok with, and she has goals.  She screams self-confidence and her Sudanese and Muslim traditions are part of her day and not huge plot points in the narrative, it’s a background part.

There are themes of ethnicity, belonging, family, and bullying which are all dealt with reasonably well. One thing doesn’t stand out as the main point of the book, they are all woven together like they are in life, coming and going and being ever present in the background. I did love that Layla doesn’t have to stop being a teenager to become a fighter against the bullying or an advocate for her heritage, she could just enjoy her life.

It pays to remember this is the narration of a thirteen year old girl and those around her are year eight students which is a great eye opener to the next generation because while some parts were reminding me of my own year eight experience, the language and the technology is a new experience. There are also great male/female friendships. I was worried at the start based on how Abdel-Magied introduced them, but it was great to see that girls and boys could be friends without it being an issue.

Unfortunately Abdel-Magied’s writing is not entirely seamless, there is some repetition and the language can be clunky. I didn’t mind the teen slang, it may date but that was fine. It was more that I think it needed another edit, needed to be refined a bit more. This is evident listening to the audiobook. Even though Abdel-Magied reads it herself, and she does a decent job, it makes you even more aware of the writing as it can be jarring at times and highlights the flaws.

It skirts along big issues but doesn’t focus on them any further. Initially a good idea, and while I am glad Layla and the book doesn’t become focused on those issues, by the end I think it needed a bit more depth and maybe more length. In a strange way it felt like the start of a series, that all the issues half introduced in this story would be addressed in the next book. There were a lot of issues half raised and I kept expecting certain things to have more of an impact.

One thing that irked me is I honestly can’t see how this can be classed as an LGBT book like I’ve seen when it happens in the last few pages of the book and has no effect on the plot whatsoever. It could be edited out and it would mean nothing. For all the parts that work, there are just as much that doesn’t. It’s a book that borders on two sets of audiences, kids and teenagers. Layla is 13 and I think anybody over that age won’t get as much out of it as those who are younger. There’s some great messages in there that suit the younger age bracket that can escape being brushed over with minimal depth.

You can purchase You Must Be Layla via the following

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They Both Die at the End by Adam Silvera

Published: 5 September 2017 (print)/5 September 2017 (audio) Goodreads badge
Publisher:
HarperTeen/Harper Audio
Pages: 373/8 hrs and 30 mins
Narrators: Michael Crouch, Robbie Daymond, Bahni Turpin
Format: Audiobook
Genre: Young Adult
★   ★   ★  ★  ★ – 5 Stars

On September 5, a little after midnight, Death-Cast calls Mateo Torrez and Rufus Emeterio to give them some bad news: They’re going to die today.

Mateo and Rufus are total strangers, but, for different reasons, they’re both looking to make a new friend on their End Day. The good news: There’s an app for that. It’s called the Last Friend, and through it, Rufus and Mateo are about to meet up for one last great adventure—to live a lifetime in a single day.

I am so, so glad I kept reading this. I tried twice to get going but I don’t know whether it was too late at night or I wasn’t in the right mood on the day, but I almost didn’t keep reading. I’m glad I was rewarded for my persistence though because this is a beautiful story. This story answer the question about what would you do if you knew today would be your last day? Where would you go? What would you do? Who could you meet?

In this not so distant future the technology exists to let people know the day they will die. The problem is they don’t know until the day of when they get that fateful phone call. I loved that there was no explanation about how or why this system came into practice but it has been in long enough that people are used to it, but not so long either. I also loved how there were enough new technologies to allow people to experience things they never thought they would, and that society had evolved to allow spaces for those on their last days to enjoy themselves and be with others like them. This was also a brilliant way to explain and explore the world from so many different voices and experiences.

I will give away nothing but there is a beautiful heart in this story and with these characters. I loved the alternating points of view, not only from Rufus and Mateo but from the other perspectives we’re shown. Through these other eyes we see the wider world, other experiences and gain more insight into the way this future works with people knowing the day they will be dying. The three narrators do a fantastic job. Each one brings a different approach for their roles which makes the right tones sit with the right moments. Turpin’s role is separate from Daymond and Crouch but it still helps create a fantastic mood for this story. Daymond and Crouch bring these boys to life and I loved that I was caught up in the story and their narration allowed me to get lost in the story and not focus on anything else.

This is a story about connections and life and not even so much as living it like it is your last day regardless but also about making whatever you do count. Make it matter. There’s a mixture of opinion about whether it is better to know when you will pass away, and if you must know, certainly knowing a future date is better than knowing the day of. I loved there is no real explanation about how this all came about but I love that it is clinical, accepted, debated and still new.

There is so much to say about this wonderful beautiful story and yet not so much to say either. The best way to experience this book is to read it, book, audio or other. You won’t regret it and it will do wonders for your outlook on life.

You can purchase They Both Die at the End via the following

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Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe (#1) by Benjamin Alire Sáenz

Published: 21 February 2012 (print)/ 9th April 2013 (audio) Goodreads badge
Publisher:
Simon & Schuster/Simon & Schuster Audio
Pages: 359/7 hrs and 29 mins
Narrator: Lin-Manuel Miranda
Format: Audiobook
Genre: Young Adult
★   ★   ★  ★  ★ – 5 Stars

Aristotle is an angry teen with a brother in prison. Dante is a know-it-all who has an unusual way of looking at the world. When the two meet at the swimming pool, they seem to have nothing in common. But as the loners start spending time together, they discover that they share a special friendship—the kind that changes lives and lasts a lifetime. And it is through this friendship that Ari and Dante will learn the most important truths about themselves and the kind of people they want to be.

How I managed to relate to a teenager in America from the 1980s is a surprise to me but I did. This is a novel that didn’t evoke a lot of visible emotions, there wasn’t any squealing or gasping, no warm fuzzy feelings, but it was impactful all the same. It was a profound novel without being Profound. There are no sweeping metaphors, not Deep Thoughts, but at the same time it was deep in its own way. Sáenz is quite subdued with his grand thoughts and that is what I loved about this story.

At the beginning I didn’t think I was going to enjoy the story as much as other people but somewhere around the middle I realized how much I adored this story, how much I loved Ari. Sáenz’s writing is brilliant in its slowness, and its enlightenment. It felt real. It felt like the 1980s where everything is slow, there are certain world events around you that have their own impact and effect. There is growth and understanding and I think it is a beautiful story.

I loved how Ari thought about things but it never came to a point where it was unbelievable, that you wouldn’t believe these are a fifteen year olds thoughts and feelings. I believed everything Ari thought and how he thought and seeing him work out the world and who he is was a great journey. I loved that it takes place over years, it isn’t one summer of discovery, it is years of growth and finding out who you are, it takes time. But at the same time I loved that it has a focus on the long summers. The long days of finding things to do and wasting time and being with friends.

The friendship between Dante and Ari is fantastic. There is a wonderful and genuine friendship between them that breaks down the need for manliness and inherent toxic masculinity, especially from the 80s but also from today. Sáenz’s depiction of male friendship is loving and affectionate without it being an issue for either boy. It is pure and I loved every minute of it. Dante is gentle and kind, and has no problem with that, even Ari is quiet and thoughtful, and loyal and has no worry being unlike other boys.

Other things that makes this story feel realistic is the constant call-backs to old jokes, no matter how long ago they started. This is a great reflection on real life that in jokes between friends and family can rise up at any point. It also explores serious things like absent family members and the after effects of war and those who must live on after it. I understood Ari’s frustrations and the way Saenz explores why Ari has these emotions; his anger, his guilt, his shame whether he knows that is what he’s feeling initially or not, it is real and heartbreaking. Dante is also wonderful and unapologetic. His confidence and shine is invigorating and it’s great seeing how it helps Ari, whether he knows it or not.

Lin-Manuel Miranda is amazing as narrator. His voice is perfect for these boys and he had wonderful pacing and tone which made it even more enjoyable. He uses a good voice for each of them and you don’t even hear that it is him after awhile because you get lost in their story. I thought it may be hard to hear anything but Lin but that wasn’t the case.

I need book two because I need to know what happens after what happens at the very end. I need a whole book of that final scene and I think there are so many brilliant moments in this book about friendship and honesty and boys, and what it means to be a person in the world and a teenager. There is a lot of love of all kinds and seeing Ari understood the world by observing others is such an introverted thing to do I loved it. He doesn’t say much but he thinks a lot and through those thoughts we try and understand who Ari is and how he is seeing the world around him. This is truly a story about Ari discovering who he is and wants to be, but more so trying to make sense of the world around him. Each character must try and find their place in the world and realise their actions affect others.

You can purchase Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe via the following

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Louisiana’s Way Home by Kate DiCamillo

Published: 2nd October 2018 (print)/2nd October 2018 (audio) Goodreads badge
Publisher:
Candlewick Press / Listening Library
Pages: 240/3 Hours 35 min
Narrator: Cassandra Morris
Format: Audiobook
Genre: Junior Fiction
★   ★   ★  ★ – 4 Stars

When Louisiana Elefante’s granny wakes her up in the middle of the night to tell her that the day of reckoning has arrived and they have to leave home immediately, Louisiana isn’t overly worried. After all, Granny has many middle-of-the-night ideas. But this time, things are different. This time, Granny intends for them never to return. Separated from her best friends, Raymie and Beverly, Louisiana struggles to oppose the winds of fate (and Granny) and find a way home. But as Louisiana’s life becomes entwined with the lives of the people of a small Georgia town — including a surly motel owner, a walrus-like minister, and a mysterious boy with a crow on his shoulder — she starts to worry that she is destined only for good-byes. (Which could be due to the curse on Louisiana’s and Granny’s heads. But that is a story for another time.)

This story is told to us by Louisiana and from the start we are put right into the excitement as Lousinana and her grandmother take off on a mysterious journey in the middle of the night. I love DiCamillo’s work and this was just as beautiful as all her other stories. She has a way with making the everyday seem profound and important and she makes you realise the everyday is profound and important too.

I liked the almost magical feel of this story. The southern charm is evident and the peculiarities of Louisiana’s grandmother add a nice eccentricity to the tale but the further you get into the story it becomes so much more. The feeling of belonging, finding out who you are and where you belong in the world is an emotionally touching story. Louisiana’s innocence, the daunting nature of her situation are captivating and as DiCamillo takes her story into new friendships, tough questions, and harsh realities it draws you in further. There is a timeless feeling despite being set in modern time.

The characters are just as charming and it is hard not to be captured by their hospitality and kindness. Their love and support of Louisiana are a nice comfort while you follow her journey and try and find her footing in this strange new life her grandmother has put her in. I can understand how it may feel too perfect at times but it is also refreshing and it brings safety and security to a child’s world, a refuge with open love and acceptance without fear.

The audiobook was a wonderful expereince, Morris captured Louisiana’s voice perfectly and her narration only added to the mystical nature of the tale. There is nothing actually magical about this story, really, but DiCamillo’s stories always feel a little out of this world, some deep magic and I felt that with this story. There was an old time feel to the setting and it had the childhood innocence but resilience, knowledge and strength as well.

This is a standalone but it has connections to characters previously seen in DiCamillo’s book Raymie Nightingale. This is a story that is both heart-warming and heartbreaking but Louisiana is endearing and seeing her discover who she is and what she is capable of enduring is a beautiful comfort. A very small part of you may even tear up as you read, especially the end, and that is 100% completely acceptable.

You can purchase Louisiana’s Way Home via the following

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