YA book review – “The Hate U Give” by Angie Thomas

Regular readers of this blog will know that I am passionate about children’s literature and regularly review both kids and YA books. I haven’t done a kids book review post for a while, for reasons that have been rehearsed in recent blogs, so it was a joy to pick up a YA book again and to be able to start another ‘Kids Books Week’.

The Hate U Give imgThis book is Angie Thomas’s debut novel and it caused a sensation when it was first published in the United States in February 2017. It enjoyed both critical and popular acclaim, remaining at the top of the New York Times YA best seller list for almost a year. It was made into a film which was released last Autumn. The novel came out of a short story Thomas wrote in college following the police shooting of a young black man in 2009.

The narrator is Starr Carter, a 16 year-old who lives in a poor neighbourhood of an unnamed American city, but who attends an elite private school. Her parents are not wealthy (her mother works in the health sector, her father owns a shop and has spent time in jail) but they are ambitious for their three children and determined that they should have a good education and defy the expectations of their birth. Throughout the novel Starr tells us how this presents her with some complex challenges and how she effectively has to be two different people – school Starr and ‘Garden Starr’ (the family’s neighbourhood is called Garden Heights). She is constantly torn between these two identities at an age when she is still trying to work out who she really is, and doesn’t feel she truly belongs in either place. This puts her in conflict at times with her wealthy, white boyfriend, who cannot fully empathise with her and from whom Starr keeps many of her true feelings, and indeed her father, who is angered when he discovers Starr is going out with a white boy.

Starr’s life is turned upside down when one of her friends, Kahlil, a boy she has known since kindergarten, is shot and killed by a police officer while he is giving her a lift home in his car after a party. Starr and her older brother have been drilled by their father about how to behave with the police, but non-threatening, compliant behaviour does not save Kahlil when confronted by the police officer who carries assumptions about young black males. This is the second time in her short life that Starr has seen a friend killed. As the only witness to the killing, Starr is in an impossible situation – it is her word against that of the police officer. The police officer is also a colleague of her uncle’s, so the whole family is affected and divided by the events that follow the shooting. Furthermore, the shooting raises tensions in the neighbourhood between the police and the residents, in particular the two main gangs that effectively control the area, and whose actions are presented very much as part of the problem.

The reader is carried along with Starr’s pain at the loss of the her friend, fear for the position in which she has been placed as the only witness and what this means for her family, especially in the context of the gang elements in Garden Heights, and ongoing confusion at her place in the two worlds in which she moves.

This is a profoundly moving and fascinating novel; as a reader I really felt drawn into Starr’s dilemmas – she is such a powerful narrator. On one level, the novel left me feeling despair at how easy it clearly is for young black people to become the victims of violence for which they are not responsible and how, for young black men in particular, this presents a constant threat. The author’s note at the end of the book expands on this. On another level it is a novel full of hope as the strength of the community, family bonds and Starr’s maturity and dignity shine brighter than the injustices.

The novel pulls no punches and parts of it are a tough read, but the themes are important ones for all of us to be aware of, and it is an important contribution to the Black Lives Matter  movement. Young people will I think empathise with Starr’s agonies; even though most will never have to face the terrible ordeal that she has, they will understand her teenage outlook, her anxieties and her emotions, because these are universal.

There are drug and sexual references as well as some strong language, so I would recommend this for mature 14 year olds and over. I also recommend to all adults  – it’s a cracking read.

Have you seen the film of this novel? I’m keen to know if it does justice to the book.

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Book review – “Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry” by Mildred D Taylor

I chose this book as February’s choice for my Facebook Reading Challenge 2019. The theme for the month was a YA novel. First published in 1976, this rather pre-dates the emergence of the YA genre, so it does not fit quite so comfortably. However, it is a classic and, in my view, essential teenage reading. My edition is published by Puffin and the narrator and main character is a child, but make, no mistake, the themes here are mature and heavyweight.

Roll of Thunder imgRoll of Thunder, Hear My Cry is the first of three novels by Mildred D Taylor about the Logan family, black farmers in Mississippi, set in the 1930s. They are poor, but they own their own small piece of land, Grandfather Logan having bought it in the 1880s from local landowner Harlan Granger, much to the chagrin of some of the white locals who still cannot accept the social changes giving black people greater autonomy and rights. Grandfather Logan is now dead and the central character, Cassie, lives on the farm with her parents, her grandmother and three brothers. Despite owning 400 acres, the family still struggles to make ends meet, which is why Cassie’s father works away much of the year, on the railroad construction, and her mother works as a teacher at the local (black) school. All the family contributes to the running of the farm and the income it generates.

The scene is set beautifully, mainly through the four children and in particular, Cassie’s narration. The children have the same worldview of any kids their age, but even at their young age they have a strong awareness of their low status compared to their white counterparts, for example, in the way most of the local white children treat them and how the white kid’s school seems so much better resourced (they even have a bus, while the Logan children have to walk several miles every day). The unfairness is not lost on the children and sometimes they express their sense of injustice in ways that worry the adults, who know that for their own safety they must just keep their heads down and accept the reality. The early chapters set all these conditions in place and the readers is aware of the underlying tensions in the community that might erupt at the slightest provocation.

And that provocation soon comes along. Little Man, the youngest of the Logan children and a very fastidious boy, rejects a book given out to him in class because it is shabby. The books, cast-off by the white’s school as too damaged to use any longer, have been bestowed upon the black children and they are expected to be grateful. Little Man’s rejection of the damaged book is considered an affront too far, even by his teacher (it is interesting how most of the black adults in the book have been rendered completely docile by conditioning and by the threat of retribution if they speak out). For appearance’s sake, the children’s mother has to mete out Little Man’s severe punishment (being beaten), even though it pains her to do so. She decides to cover all of the children’s books, to make them appear fresher, but when this is spotted by the local (white) inspector, it has severe consequences for her too.

A series of other events set off a cascade of problems for the Logan family. For example, when the owner of the local store, upon which they all depend, appears to be treating his black customers unfairly, Cassie’s parents try to set up an arrangement whereby they make collective bulk purchases from a store charging better prices in a neighbouring town and the Logans transport the goods on their wagon. This riles the white community (black people have no right to make such a stand and resist the control being exercised over them) and the family is threatened.

Events take increasingly grave turns and the threat of violence, even death and financial ruin are never very far away. As you would expect from a novel for this age group, crisis is averted when a disaster at the end manages to bring the community back together in the most unexpected way. However, the novel does not shy away from suggesting that a terrible confrontational denouement is merely averted and not truly eliminated. It is happy for now, not happy ever after, as we know from the civil rights history of the USA. By the end of the novel, one thing is for sure and that is that nine year-old Cassie will never see the world in quite the same way again. Events have forced her out of her naïve belief in fairness and into an awareness that life, for her ilk at least, is definitely not fair.

I found this novel really gripping. I loved the characters, the dialogue with and between the children felt very authentic and the writing flows beautifully. It is a packed novel for its 220 pages, dealing with some important issues that will help to illustrate the African-American experience during a dark period in America’s history.

Highly recommended.

If you have read this book, either recently or when you were younger, I would love to hear your thoughts.

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Facebook Reading Challenge 2019 – February’s choice

I was in two minds whether to relaunch my online reading challenge for 2019, not least because I am not one of those bloggers who is able to plan and post in a wholly disciplined way (cf. the fact I am posting about February’s choice halfway through the month!) I am a mother of three teenagers, work part-time, blah, blah, blah, I know you’ve heard it all before – we are all busy. I’ve set myself a reading challenge for the past couple of years now, with the aim of trying to expand my reading from my usual genres and authors, and really enjoyed it. Then in 2018 I took it online and set up a Facebook group for others to take part. To my great surprise and pleasure, it was fairly successful and I enjoyed the conversations we had about the books we’d read, even if they weren’t always universally liked – sometimes you can have more to say or more fun commenting on the ones you don’t like.

Towards the end of the year, though, I faltered, both in my regularity of posting and my ability to get through the books I was selecting for us. This was due largely to family pressures and a period of not being very well. I’d more or less decided that I wouldn’t continue the challenge into 2019, until a few members of the group contacted me to say that they had really enjoyed it. Suitably re-motivated, I relaunched for 2019, albeit a little into January…

Roll of Thunder imgIn January the theme was a humorous novel and we read Beryl Bainbridge’s The Bottle Factory Outingwhich I reviewed here last week and which, I think it’s fair to say, did not go down a storm! The theme for February is a YA novel and my selection is Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred D Taylor. This was first published in 1976, probably before the concept of the YA genre as we understand it truly existed, so it is perhaps more accurately categorised as a teen novel. It is widely read as part of the KS3 school curriculum I believe.

Set in the Deep South of America during The Great Depression in the 1930s, its themes are challenging, and the threat of, as well as actual, violence, is never very far away. The central character is Cassie Logan, a nine year-old black girl growing up in a small town and gradually learning about ‘how life is’ for people like her. I am well into the book already and am finding it thoroughly gripping. The evocation of time and place is very powerful and the characterisation very strong. I think this one will be more widely enjoyed.

If you would like to join the conversation, it’s not too late to take part. The book is fairly short so you could easily read it in a few sittings (perfect for teenagers!) I will endeavour to post on time at the end of the month to start the discussion!

Happy reading!

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Kids book review: “Red Nemesis (Young Bond)” by Steve Cole

When I was a kid, I watched all the James Bond movies, several times over, because my Dad loved them. So, I know the storylines well and have views about who is my favourite ‘Bond’ (Sean Connery, of course!). In recent years, the Bond movies have got darker, more erotic (rather than just sexy with a smile) and have greater psychological depth, more adult in other words. But there is something about the Bond marque which remains innocent, boyish and which has an appeal across the age groups, despite the inevitable multiple death toll! And it’s not just the baddies who die, which is awkward for younger viewers. However, I watched them all as a child and I think I’m okay.

Red Nemesis imgTo my shame I have never read any of the Fleming novels (my husband has and he likes them a lot), so I was delighted to pick up this book from the children’s section of my local library and if you have pre/young teens in your household, I think they might like it. Red Nemesis by Steve Cole, is the ninth novel in the ‘Young Bond’ series by Penguin Random House (under their imprint Red Fox). Five have been written by Charlie Higson (author of ‘The Enemy Novels’ – The Enemy, The Dead, The Fear, etc) and four so far by Steve Cole (famous for his Astrosaurs books). They are all closely linked to and published under the aegis of the Ian Fleming novels. In these books, we meet James Bond as a schoolboy. He already has connections with the British Secret Services, thanks to his father’s career in defence sales, and becomes involved in improbable missions and adventures. All part of the escapism! In Young Bond we get to see the life events that shape the man we know so well. (In my case through Sean, Roger, Pierce, Daniel, et al).

Red Nemesis is set in the summer of 1935 during James’s summer break from Fettes College, a smart public school in Scotland. He is about to go home with his Aunt Charmian; his parents are dead, having been killed in a skiing ‘accident’ when he was younger. The story opens a couple of years earlier in London with a mysterious Russian, Ivan Kalashnikov, deliberately breaking the legs of his daughter, Anya, in a car crash that was meant to look like an accident. Anya is a promising ballerina set for a glittering career on the international stage. Why would a father do this?

On the train back from Scotland, Charmian hands James a backpack which belonged to his father and which has been retrieved from the ice where he died. The contents are mysterious and include items which James senses are clues to an unsolved mystery in which his father may have been involved, in particular a cryptic postcard penned to his brother Max, James’s uncle and Charmian’s late husband. James also feels the contents of the backpack may bring him closer to the truth about his parents’ untimely deaths.

Following the clues, James goes to London. He first visits the Secret Intelligence Service to hand over copies of the documents in his father’s backpack to a former acquaintance of Max’s, the SIS agent Adam Elmhirst. He then goes to the Mechta Academy of Performing Arts, an international school near the SIS building. He masquerades as a prospective pupil, the son of a diplomat, pretending he has made an appointment to look around. He is given short shrift by the cold foreign authorities at the school but manages to break free of security. He conducts his own tour of the basement and finds a large stock of a powerful explosive. He is discovered and gets into a fight with a young man who is apparently a pupil. James wakes up in a cell, locked up for trespassing on the premises of the school without permission, until he is rescued by the aforementioned Elmhirst, who immediately invites James to accompany him to Moscow to help solve the mystery of the contents of the backpack, which Elmhirst says will lead them to uncover some malign Russian plot.

Most of the rest of the book is set in Moscow, as James and Elmhirst get into numerous scrapes. There are dramatic chases, villains, fights, plus of course, a bit of young love interest when James tracks down Anya Kalashnikov (he was clearly already powerfully attractive from quite a young age). Anya becomes James’s sidekick after her father is brutally killed; she realises she is not safe and has nothing to lose by getting involved with the mystery-solving activity.

There is violence, peril, quite a few deaths, unlikely villains, stereotypes and spies, but all of it in true James Bond fashion. It’s not as tongue-in-cheek as some of the earlier Bond films; there is an element of the troubled soul, the three-dimensional human we have come to see in the Daniel Craig incarnation of Bond (though not that dark), which is probably truer to the Fleming novels.

I have to say I thoroughly enjoyed this book – it has nail-biting action, problem-solving, and James feels like a well-developed character with fears, feelings and flaws as well as bravery, resilience and strong fighting instincts. There is quite a bit of violence and death, so I would recommend for 12-14 year olds. Alongside James, Anya provides a strong female character so I think both girls and boys would enjoy this. I did!

What do your kids think of the ‘Young Bond’ novels?

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YA Book Review: “36 Questions that changed my mind about you” by Vicki Grant

This book took me straight back to being a teenager, not so much because I empathised with the central characters, but because reading it felt like a complete guilty pleasure. And I loved it!

36 questions that changed my mind about you imgThe central character, Hildy, is a slightly quirky, slightly awkward 17 year-old. She has two close friends – her best friend is Max, who is gay and fairly camp with it, and her other good friend, Xiu is much more astute, confident and successful in affairs of the heart. She confides in them extensively about her feelings and worries. Hildy has not had a boyfriend for some time and so, out of a degree of desperation signs up for a research programme which is exploring whether it is possible to facilitate a romantic relationship between two people by making them ask and answer a specific set of (36) questions. Hildy’s ‘partner’ in the programme is Paul, who, from the outset, makes it quite clear that he is only in it for the $40 fee and who is a nonchalant and frustrating participant to begin with; where Hildy makes an effort to answer the questions truthfully and fully, Paul is uninterested and uncooperative, and obfuscates throughout. Their first session ends with Hildy throwing a tropical fish at Paul that she had bought for her younger brother on the way to the meeting.

Hildy’s violent reaction to Paul’s behaviour is clearly sobering to him and he contacts her afterwards to apologise. They continue their interaction and to work through the questions via social media messaging and eventually agree to meet. Hildy’s home life is complicated, however; her parents are going through a difficult time in their marriage (she doesn’t realise why at first, although this is revealed towards the end). Her mother is a hospital emergency doctor and her father the Principal of her school. She has an older brother, with whom her relationship is somewhat distant, and a 12 year-old younger brother, towards whom she is very protective, especially as she feels he is suffering most from the troubles at home.

Slight spoiler alert….if you don’t want to know any more about the plot don’t read the next two paragraphs, though I won’t give away the full ending.

Paul also has his fair share of troubles; as their relationship develops, he confides in Hildy that his mother (who was a single parent) died in a car accident when he was young, and that he carries some guilt for this.

A crisis at home means that Hildy fails to make the coffee shop meeting with Paul they had arranged after carefully rebuilding the rapport between them after the fish incident. Since one of Paul’s most hated things is lateness, this causes another major setback. Hildy had no way of contacting Paul because he does not carry a mobile phone. She then has to set about tracking him down, knowing very few actual facts about him.

The usual question of whether the boy gets the girl/girl gets the boy, hangs over the rest of the book right to the final page.

The book has an interesting style, which I think will appeal to the target audience (13-15 year olds), with some chapters written in prose style, while those sections which make up the interactions between Paul and Hildy are written like dialogue in a drama. This writing style variation seems to be quite common now in YA books, I guess because it makes them a bit easier to read for an age group traditionally seen as having more limited attention spans. It does indeed make it an easy quick-fire read.

It is a romance, but it does deal with some of the issues teens face – peer pressure, how to deal with worries at home, social anxiety, awkwardness interacting with others in whom you are romantically interested.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book and recommend if your teenager would like something light and unchallenging to read. Will probably appeal more to girls.

How do you feel about your teens reading light romantic novels? Is it okay or do you wish they read weightier material?

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Book review: “Just Fly Away” by Andrew McCarthy

I posted earlier in the week about getting your teenagers reading in the school holidays. Well, here’s a book they might like, and the author brings back memories of my own teenage years! Andrew McCarthy is better known as an actor and director (Pretty in Pink, St Elmo’s Fire), but in recent years has turned his hand to writing. This is his second book and his first work of fiction and is aimed at teenage readers. As regular readers of this blog will know I have launched an online reading challenge through Facebook, with a different genre or theme for each month. January’s was a YA novel, for which we read The Disappearances by Emily Bain Murphy. My book club decided to follow suit and we selected Just Fly Away. Just to warn you, this review contains spoilers, as I’m writing this for parents who might be looking for reading material for their teenagers and want to know what the book is about.

Just Fly Away img2

The central character in the novel is Lucy Willows, a 15 year-old living in New Jersey with her parents and younger sister, Julie. The novel opens with the family enjoying a day out at an amusement park on the Jersey Shore. It is a normal happy existence and Lucy’s life appears to be like that of any other teenager, a mixture of the humdrum and the special where family relationships go through the usual ups and downs. Then Lucy overhears a conversation between her parents about someone her father “would be proud of” and her fear and curiosity are aroused. She confronts her parents about it and they decide it is time to reveal to their daughters that Lucy’s father had an affair some years earlier which resulted in the woman having a child. The boy, Thomas, is now eight years old and lives in the same town.

Lucy’s world is turned upside down. It is important to note at this point that whatever issues there may have been between Lucy’s parents, they have put the matter behind them, and Lucy’s mother appears to be completely reconciled to her husband’s past infidelity and to have forgiven him. It is in fact she who started the conversation with her husband about Thomas. As an adult reader, I was inclined therefore to think a) it’s the couple’s business not Lucy’s, and b) so what? If they are over it, Lucy should accept it and move on too. But that is to miss the point, and one of the aspects of the book I really liked, the fact that the story is told entirely from Lucy’s point of view. Any parents of teenagers will know that they tend to see the world entirely from their own perspective, their capacity for empathy at this stage in their development can often be quite low, particularly where their parents are concerned! Therefore it is entirely credible that Lucy should react so strongly to the news and to have the reactions she does to her parents. She hates her father at this time and seems also to despise her mother for not having left him!

An important sub-plot to the novel, and which will broaden the appeal to young people is that Lucy develops a relationship with Simon, the older brother of a school friend. Simon is ‘different’; he has some sort of learning difficulty that is not fully explained, and goes to a different school. Simon is handsome, charming, warm, sensitive, and caring. He proves to be a great support to Lucy.

Lucy is curious about Thomas and finds out where he lives. She persuades Simon to go with her and the two make contact with him, without revealing the connection. Lucy thinks this encounter might help but instead it throws her into a tailspin. One day, whilst heading out to the shops, she decides on a whim to take the train to New York City and from there to travel to her grandfather’s house in Maine, whom she has met only once previously as there has clearly been a difficult relationship between him and Lucy’s father. Her journey is more than just a series of scary late night encounters and bus rides, it is a metaphor for her growing up and away from her parents, making it on her own, with limited funds and a new-found resourcefulness. Through the contact she then has with her grandfather, she glimpses some of the challenges to be faced in parent-child relationships and it helps her to reframe the situation she finds herself in with her own parents.

Spoiler alert…

Whilst Lucy is staying with her grandfather he has a massive stroke. Lucy’s father travels to Maine both to collect Lucy and to visit his Dad. Upon his arrival, Lucy’s father starts to ‘tell her off’ but it is clear that Lucy has grown out of this sort of admonishment and his reprimand seems hollow and out of step. Grandfather dies and this is an emotional element to the book, but I think this will be tolerable to teen readers because he is elderly and his peers seem to accept it as natural and not untimely. The event also serves to bring the family back together and into a new phase. Simon also makes the trip to be at the funeral for Lucy, and so he gets to meet her parents, and they seem to approve of him and accept their daughter’s maturity.

Lucy is a great character and not too feminine so I think even young male readers could identify with her. It’s a good story, easy to read and whilst Lucy, to an adult reader, might seem to overreact at times, it is a reminder that, as a parent it is important to realise that what may seem ‘small stuff’ to us can be ‘big stuff’ to them.

There is some light sexual content and occasional swearing. Recommended for 14-17 year olds and a nice read for grown-ups too!

Do you have any suggestions for YA novels for older kids to read?

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Book review: “The Disappearances” by Emily Bain Murphy

At the start of this year I set up a Facebook reading group, based on a challenge I undertook for myself last year where I read a book with a different theme each month. I have been delighted with the response and that so many people are keen to push their reading boundaries a little. The theme for January was a YA book and I chose The Disappearances by Emily Bain Murphy, a first-time American novelist. This book has had rave reviews and I’ve come across a few vlogs where the reviewers have spoken passionately about how much they loved it. I was keen to see what all the fuss was about!

The Disappearances imgThe book is set in Connecticut in 1942-43. Aila, is 16 years old when we first meet her and she has a younger brother Miles. Their mother, Juliet, has just died and their father has been called away to fight in the war. Aila and Miles are sent to live in Sterling (their mother’s birthplace) with Matilda Cliffton and her family; Matilda was Juliet’s childhood best friend. Aila is keen to take something of her mother’s with her and she finds a volume of Shakespeare’s complete works, much scribbled in, into the back of which has been placed an envelope, containing a ring Juliet always wore, and a mysterious note to an unknown person, Stefen, at the end of which Juliet signs herself ‘Viola’.

 

When Aila and Miles arrive in Sterling it quickly becomes clear that things are not as they should be. First of all, Aila notices that other townspeople seem quite hostile towards her, and that this has something to do with Juliet. She also quickly observes that there are no stars and no smells in Sterling, and that the inhabitants have no reflections. Matilda Cliffton reveals to her the curse that struck Sterling (and its two nearby ‘sister’ towns Corrander and Sheffield) some years before which means that every seven years something in their life disappears (ie stars, reflections, smells). They are due another Disappearance shortly. Over the years, Matilda’s husband, Dr Cliffton, has been instrumental in developing ‘Variants’, powders which temporarily restore the losses, and these are traded in the market in town. Thus the scene is set and Aila and her brother settle into life in Sterling. We see Aila making friends at the local high school, particularly George, Beas and Will, the Cliffton’s son, and a few enemies, namely Eliza, who has a thing for Will and whose indifference to Aila borders on antipathy.

Interspersed between the events in Sterling are short italicised chapters where we meet the dark characters of Stefen and his father Phineas. Phineas is a former grave-robber, and has served time in jail for this. He is also dying. We know that Stefen wants to find ‘the Stone’ to try and save Phineas’s life though it is not clear how it would do so. Stefen is also obsessed by birds and at the start of each of these chapters is a short description of a bird species, and its characteristics give the reader clues to the action that is taking place in Sterling.

A kind of chase commences, as Stefen goes in search of Juliet’s ring, and Aila tries to understand the root cause of the curse (suspecting that it is somehow connected with her mother). She is convinced she can also find a way to lift it, and believes clues to the mystery lie within the Shakespeare volume of her mother’s. The plot is complex and I have to confess that some elements of it left me slightly confused. However, I loved the characters, particularly Aila, who is well-developed and very credible. I also loved the handling of the relationships among the young people, particularly the dynamic between Aila and Will. The book is beautifully written and the Shakespeare references are lovely and very cleverly incorporated. It is well-researched and well-thought through. I liked the ‘fantasy’ element less, but perhaps that is because I am not a particular fan of that genre, though I can see how it would appeal to a YA reader. Also, the twist at the end (which many of the YouTube vloggers loved) left me feeling a bit cold. I just couldn’t believe in it. The pace of the book is also a little uneven; the reader is thrown into the action and the plot quite quickly, but then it slows right down and becomes less engaging before the sprint at the end. Those things aside, it’s a good read that I would recommend and I think if you do find it a bit slow, stick with it because you will be rewarded. Hence, I’m not giving spoilers on this one!

For younger readers I would recommend the 14-17 age group. The plot is complex and not likely to appeal to those under 14, and there is some romance more suited to slightly older teens.

Have you read The Disappearances? Did you think it lived up to the hype?

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