Robyn Reviews: Ace of Spades

‘Ace of Spades’ is a searing thriller exploring institutional racism in US private schools. It’s a powerful read exploring some hard-hitting topics, but despite the difficult subject matter it’s incredibly fast-paced and readable.

Niveus Private Academy is one of the most elite US schools, attended almost exclusively by the super-rich and churning out students destined for Harvard or Yale. Amongst these students, Devon Richards doesn’t fit in. He’s an exceptionally talented musician – but his father’s in prison, and his mother can barely scrape together enough money to pay the fees even with his hefty scholarship. Not to mention the fact he’s one of only two Black students in his year. The other, Chiamaka, has generational wealth thanks to her Italian father – but she still straightens her hair and puts on a persona every day to try and make herself fit in. She’s fought her way up to Head Girl, but her fight hasn’t made her many friends. When the two find themselves the target of an anonymous texter, Aces, determined to spill their darkest secrets, they must band together if they want to keep their future – and possibly themselves – alive.

Devon is an exceptionally likeable protagonist. He struggles with school – struggles being around people who have too much when his family struggles to even pay the bills – but he loves his family, and his passion for music is incredible. He’s desperate to make it to Juilliard to make his mother’s sacrifices for his education worth it. He’s also gay, but terrified of that coming out – terrified of how his mum might react. Devon skips classes and sometimes deals drugs to try and make sure there’s enough money in the house for the bills to be paid, but he has a good heart and does everything with the best intentions and to try and make his mother proud. He’s the sort of character you want to give a hug to for the majority of the book.

Chiamaka takes longer to warm up to, but she’s a complex character and very well crafted. She wears masks in every moment of her life – a Head Girl mask at school, a Good Nigerian Daughter mask at home with her parents, a Bubbly Fun Girl mask with her best friend Jamie. Beneath the masks, Chiamaka just wants to be good enough – to make it into medical school at Yale and prove that she deserves it. She wants so badly to be liked and respected that she forces herself to be other people because she isn’t convinced that she deserves it as herself. Her battles with self-esteem are hugely relatable, and exacerbated by being the only Black girl at her school and hyper-aware of it. Her growth throughout the book is excellent and it’s amazing seeing her confidence gradually change from a crafted, false confidence to a genuine sense of belief in herself.

The plot is fast-paced and twisty, with a constant sense of tension and unease. It starts as simple high school drama – an anonymous texter spreading gossip – but quickly takes on a more sinister tone. There are side plots dealing with homophobia, incarceration, gangs, and internalised racism. These are all dealt with very well, provoking a great deal of thought without being too heavy for a YA reader. They also fit into the flow of the story, never distracting or coming across as preachy. For a debut novel its an assured and impressive read.

There are a few minor quibbles. There’s a sapphic relationship between two bisexual female characters which comes out of nowhere and has absolutely no on page chemistry – a shame, as every other relationship in the book is well-crafted. The plot is also a bit over-exaggerated which can occasionally take away from the important messages it puts across – but then again, this is fiction, and thriller as a genre is often over-exaggerated. Still, these are tiny blips on an otherwise resoundingly excellent copybook.

Overall, ‘Ace of Spades’ is an excellent YA thriller tackling some important and heavy issues in a powerful yet readable way. Recommended for fans of both YA and adult thrillers and anyone who enjoys TV shows like Gossip Girl.

Published by Usborne
Paperback: 10th June 2021

Robyn Reviews: Full Disclosure

‘Full Disclosure’ is a delightful contemporary YA novel about navigating school, identity, and relationships with a slight twist – the protagonist, Simone, has HIV. A debut by a teenage author, it keeps the perfect balance between a fun YA contemporary and providing an honest look at the struggles of living with HIV – not because of the disease, which is easily controlled, but because of the stigma surrounding it. Simone makes a delightfully relatable protagonist, with authentic teenage worries compounded by the added stress of her secret. This is an incredibly important book, and highly recommended to teenage and adult readers alike.

Simone Garcia-Hampton has only been at her new school for a few months, but she’s determined that things will be different. Here, she finally has best friends, she’s respected and using her talents as the director of the school play, and she’s got a crush – Miles, the only Black boy on the school lacrosse team. She’s doing great – which is why it’s paramount that her HIV status stays a secret. After all, last time it got out, things got ugly. However, when it becomes apparent that Miles actually likes her back, things get complicated. She knows that undetectable means untransmissible – but will Miles still like her when she tells him her status? Then she starts receiving threatening notes – someone in the school knows, and if she doesn’t break up with Miles by Thanksgiving they’ll tell the whole school. Now Simone is juggling a new relationship, her classes, the school play, and desperately trying to keep her secret – and sooner or later, she knows it’ll all come tumbling down.

Simone is a fantastic protagonist. Brought up by two gay dads, who adopted her as a young child, she’s had a liberal and loving upbringing – other than having to take medication every day to control the HIV she was infected with by her birth mother. Her dads and doctors have always impressed the importance of taking her medication and being careful – and she is. But now, at seventeen, she’s ready to start exploring relationships and sex – and with her diagnosis, that’s a whole can of worms beyond what most seventeen year olds have to deal with. Simone is a strong, intelligent young woman, but having bad experiences with people finding out her HIV status before has knocked her self-esteem, and she’s terrified of the idea of having to disclose it to anyone else. She’s scared to confide her worries in anyone because that would either involve having to disclose her status or talking about sex with her parents. The stress of Simone’s predicament is wonderfully portrayed. It’s clear that she always wants to do the right thing but is terrified of being hurt again, especially when her life seems to be finally going well.

Being written by a teenager, all the characters feel believable. Simone and her best friends – Lydia and Claudia – are accepting and sex-positive, yet simultaneously awkward about sex and relationships in a way that feels completely authentic. Claudia is an asexual lesbian and Simone bisexual, and its great seeing them navigate those identities and figure out which labels suit them. There are also discussions on exclusion within queer spaces – being not bisexual enough when being in a male-female relationship, for example – which are important, and it’s great seeing them handled so well in a YA book. They’re not perfect – Claudia has a very black-and-white worldview common to teenagers figuring out the world, and Lydia can be passive and indecisive – but their imperfections make them three-dimensional and generate discussion.

The most impressive thing about this book is how, despite covering some important and heavy-hitting topics, it always remains first and foremost an enjoyable YA contemporary. It never feels preachy, and it’s packed full of lighthearted and fun moments as well as the more difficult ones. Discussions around the stigma of an HIV diagnosis, bisexual exclusion in queer spaces, the importance of safe sex and consent, and the difficulty of navigating school cliques and stereotypes are woven naturally and seamlessly into the overarching plot, enhancing rather than detracting from the central story about a girl navigating her first serious relationship. It’s an incredibly mature novel yet accessible to its teenage audience.

Overall, ‘Full Disclosure’ is a powerful YA contemporary covering some crucial topics in an engaging and enjoyable way. Highly recommended for all teenagers and young adults, anyone who works with them, and anyone who wants to educate themselves on what growing up with HIV is like while enjoying a great read.

Published by Penguin
Paperback: 30th October 2019

Robyn Reviews: Don’t Breathe A Word

‘Don’t Breathe A Word’ is part YA mystery in the vein of ‘One of Us Is Lying’ and part dark academia along the lines of ‘Plain Bad Heroines‘. Like the latter, it takes place across two timelines – the present, where Eva has just started at a new, exclusive boarding school, Hardwick Academy, and 1962, where six students enter a bunker built under the threat of the Cold War – but only five emerge alive. It’s an engaging, twisty tale with plenty of surprises. There are elements that require a bit of suspension of disbelief but, taken at face value, this is a solid mystery with a highly satisfying ending.

Eva has always felt like she doesn’t belong. An accidental pregnancy, she was replaced in her mother’s affections as soon as her husband and legitimate child came along – and the final straw has seen her shipped off to boarding school against her will. At Hardwick, she’s on the outside of established social groups and more of an outsider than ever – that is, until she receives an invitation to join a secret society known as the Fives. With the Fives, she’s finally part of something – finally seen as special. But there’s more to the Fives than there first seems, and the more Eva learns, the more uneasy she becomes. Just how many secrets are the Fives ensuring stay buried?

In 1962, Hardwick Academy has constructed a nuclear fallout shelter to counter the escalating threat of the Cold War – and to test it out, six students are invited to volunteer to stay overnight. Connie would never have volunteered – except the exercise is being run by Mr Kraus, her best friend Betty’s latest obsession, and school golden boy Craig Allenby has also volunteered. She can’t pass up the opportunity to spend four days locked in with him. However, it quickly becomes apparent that there’s more to the exercise than they first thought – and as things start to escalate, Connie starts to worry that everything will end in disaster.

Both plotlines are engaging. Reading about the threat of the Cold War and the psychological impact on those growing up in the sixties is fascinating, if horrific, as is the difference in gender roles and the way authority figures are treated. The politics of high school are incredibly familiar, and its hard not to feel for Connie. While it’s never stated on page, Connie also has a clear anxiety disorder, and it’s great to see this not glossed over and have a significant impact on how she acts. In the present day, it’s initially unclear how the timelines will intersect – but as reveals are slowly made, it becomes obvious that there’s a massive secret, and the tension steadily ramps up. At the same time, Eva must deal with the joy of being chosen for the first time in her life alongside the growing fear that the Fives are far darker than she initially thought. The way she grapples with her innate clinginess and fear of being alone is well portrayed, and while its always clear which side she’ll choose Woods does well to make her decision a difficult one.

The characters are delightfully complex. Initially, Eva can come across as hard to like – as a result of her childhood, she has an outward air of irreverence combined with an internal clinginess so strong its off-putting – but as the reader gets to know her, she flourishes into a practical girl with great instincts and a strong moral compass. Her character arc is excellent, and its wonderful to see her start to find happiness despite the circumstances. In contrast, the reader immediately feels sorry for Connie – the anxiety she suffers with is overwhelming, and she’s led along by her friend Betty who seems to mean well but doesn’t always go about things the right way. Connie is sweet and quiet, but also naive – and as events unfold, it becomes apparent that her view on things is far too black and white. Again, she has an excellent character arc, and its impossible not to root for her.

The supporting cast fall a little more into stereotypes, but they play their roles well and have enough dimension to avoid being caricatures. The story as a whole isn’t the most original, with elements reminiscent of other stories in the YA mystery genre, but again it holds its own well enough to prove a worthwhile read. Some parts are wildly implausible – its unclear how the original secret was covered up so well – but this is fiction, and allowances can be made. The story reads on the lighter side, so detailed criticisms of possibility seem unfair.

Overall, this is an enjoyable entry to the YA mystery genre with a highly effective two-timelines structure and two complex and compelling protagonists. The historical elements with the Cold War lend this a dimension which sets it apart enough from its compatriots to be highly worth a read. Recommended for fans of YA mystery and the lighter end of dark academia.

Thanks to Harper360 YA for providing an ARC – this in no way affects the content of this review

Published by HarperCollins
Hardback: 24th June 2021

Robyn Reviews: One Last Stop

‘One Last Stop’ is the second book by Casey McQuiston, author of the massively popular Red, White, & Royal Blue. Like their first, its wildly implausible escapist fiction – this time with a time traveling twist. However, its also a delightfully emotional read, packed with humour, sadness, and profound observations on modern life. McQuiston has a gift for perfectly capturing characters and relationships, creating complex individuals who couldn’t feel more real. You want to believe their stories are true. If you’re looking for a queer book this summer, you won’t find better than this.

At twenty-three, life has taught August that the best thing to be is alone. After a string of college transfers as she tries to figure out what she actually wants from her life, she’s ended up in New York – complete with a dodgy flat, potentially even dodgier flatmates, and an accidental job at a diner that she’s completely unqualified for. She’s determined to make it through the year sticking to her status quo – keeping her head down and avoiding attachments. But her new roommates are surprisingly stubborn – and then, there’s a girl on the train. Jane. Her devastatingly attractive hero in a leather jacket. Except, Jane doesn’t just look like a 70s punk rocker – she actually is one, accidentally displaced from time to the 21st century. August will have to delve into her own past and skills she thought she’d left behind to help her – and she can’t get too attached. After all, Jane has her own time to get back to.

McQuiston’s cast of characters is utterly delightful. There’s August, our protagonist, clinging determinedly to the armour her life has demanded she wear. August is a mess, but the sort of mess that’s intimately relatable to anyone who’s ever been a twenty-something trying to figure out what they actually want from their life. There’s Jane, our love interest, a tall dark and handsome Chinese punk rocker who’s left a trail of broken hearts from here to 1970. Jane is cool, calm, and collected, the sort of woman who’s got everything figured out – except that it’s just a front for someone who’s not entirely sure who she is anymore, and hiding it behind headphones and a smirk. Then there’s the roommates – Myla, Niko, and Wes, an eclectic collection of misfits who form a fierce little family. Myla is a talented Black electrical engineer who chucked it all in to become an artist, with a bluntness about her that’s both admirable and regularly hilarious and a heart of solid gold. Niko, her boyfriend, is a trans psychic and terrible bartender, in many ways Myla’s opposite but also heartwarmingly perfect for her. Wes hides behind prickly silence and the distraction of his dog, Noodles, but is just as much of a softie as the others. The friendship they form with August is beautiful and heartwarming, and their banter is incredible – the little in-jokes and one liners are laugh out loud hilarious.

There are equally charming more peripheral characters, from neighbour Isaiah (who moonlights as the drag queen Annie Depressant) to grumpy pancake chef Jerry, but they’re best discovered organically. They’re also mostly queer. McQuiston captures how queer communities tend to form, outcasts spotting each other and banding together with bonds stronger than blood. There are references to homophobia and bullying, but for the most part the tone is hopeful and triumphant. This is a tale of queer joy, and it’s beautiful to read.

This is 99% a contemporary novel, with 1% the supernatural time travel element which offers only the most superficial justification. This doesn’t matter – it’s the sort of story that invites the reader to suspend disbelief, not requiring any real believability. The contemporary elements are brilliantly constructed. New York is constructed with electric atmosphere, from the grime of the subway to the customers at an all-night pancake diner at 4am. Behind the love story, the characters tackle family dramas, gentrification, coming of age dilemmas, and learning to trust after always being let down. There are several subplots, each beautifully written and complimenting rather than distracting from the overarching narrative. The way they tie in is foreshadowed – sometimes too obviously, but always allowing them to slot in neatly and satisfyingly. There are a few loose ends, but each allows the story to feel more real. Life, after all, rarely concludes tidily.

The ending is obvious but beautifully satisfying, and the way it’s achieved is over the top but glorious to read. McQuiston goes for entertainment over realism and overwhelmingly succeeds.

The representation is excellent. Jane is Chinese American, Myla Black with a Chinese adoptive mum. Niko is trans, and there are two drag queens with prominent roles. August is bisexual, Jane a lesbian, and there’s a secondary relationship between two men neither of whom label their sexuality on page. August never goes as far as to call herself fat but is written as a larger woman, delightful to see in a romance.

Overall, ‘One Last Stop’ is a brilliantly entertaining read, possibly even better than McQuiston’s first novel. It’s a bit cheesy and over the top, but it knows that it is, turning this to its advantage and creating a novel guaranteed to make you smile. Recommended for fans of sapphic romance, contemporary fiction, and found families – plus books that are just fun to read.

Published by St Martin’s Griffin
Paperback: 1st June 2021

Book Review: Everything Happens for a Reason

Everything Happens

This book all but broke me with its mix of lonely sorrow and dippy behaviour. It tells the story of Rachel, a mother whose much wanted son, Luke, died in the womb at full term. Structured as a series of emails, Rachel writes to her dead child about her daily routine – people she encounters, how she is thinking and feeling. Mostly set over a five month period, it opens just a couple of weeks after Luke’s stillbirth. Rachel is on maternity leave and grieving deeply. What comes to the fore is how difficult it is to say anything appropriate to those suffering such a devastating experience. Rachel is upset by well meaning friends who use words she finds empty, yet there is no hint as to how one may do better – other than to never say the death of a child happened for a reason.

Rachel lives in London close to both her parents and her in-laws. She is married to Ed and they are comfortably off materially. The marriage appears to be a happy one although the loss of their child has, obviously, taken its toll on both of them. Ed is doing his best to support his wife but she is not sharing with him her coping mechanisms.

On the day Rachel discovered she was pregnant, while travelling by tube to meet Ed and give him the news they had both longed for, she prevented a potential suicide. Although she had no further contact with the young man involved, she now gets it into her head that Luke died because, due to her actions, he lived. She sets out to track the man down and in doing so meets Lola, an underground worker, and her feisty seven year old daughter, Josephine.

In what must be a breach of protocol, Lola provides Rachel with the details recorded about the young man on the day of the incident, when he tried to jump in front of a train. Internet searches enable Rachel to track him down remarkably easily. Her behaviour towards him – Ben – although well meant verge on stalking and harassment. Somewhat surprisingly, he mostly puts up with this.

Lola also allows Rachel into her life, entrusting her with Josephine after just a short acquaintanceship. Rachel turns to these strangers rather than her family, who have proved themselves painfully tone deaf to her current needs. She dreams up schemes to ‘help’ give Ben a better life, as a mother might her grown child. Rachel treats him as her mother treats her – overpowering with good intentions without taking in and adjusting for negative reactions.

The author suffered the heartbreak of a stillbirth so could write aspects of this work of fiction from personal experience. Knowing this undoubtedly coloured how I read the tale – why I tried to accept that certain responses might realistically occur. Rachel’s grief is palpable which makes it hard to condemn her inappropriate behaviour. Nevertheless, how she forces her plans and needs on Ben made me squirm.

Structuring the story as emails maintains pace, providing pithy updates on Rachel’s day to day plans and activities. The writing throughout is focused and heartfelt. Rachel’s dealings with her wider family provide lessons in how not to treat the recently bereaved. However, certain plot developments felt contrived, particularly in setting up for the denouement. It was not this that I found almost too difficult to read. I came close to abandoning the book several times because of how vexed it made me feel.

Rachel undoubtedly deserves much sympathy but I still found her character irritating – particularly how she used her wealth, and treated Ed. The depiction of her in-laws came across as two-dimensionally stereotyped – insular, instagrammable, yummy mummy and self-entitled granny – the oft depicted privileged and blinkered London set. Ed was developed better, highlighting how lonely grief can be even within a loving relationship. Lola’s reaction to Rachel, given their differing circumstances and the fact that she too had family close and willing to help, was hard to give credence to – I was curious about how Rachel made her feel with the over the top gifts to Josephine. Also, this is possibly the only story I have ever read where a dog died and I just couldn’t care.

Other reviewers have written about how much they enjoyed this tale. Some found humour amidst the poignancy. I wanted more depth and less ditzy behaviour from a protagonist supposedly successful career-wise – even if knocked sideways by tragedy. This story simply wasn’t for me.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Orenda Books.

Robyn Reviews: Felix Ever After

‘Felix Ever After’ is a delightfully moving coming-of-age story. It grapples with themes of identity, purpose, class divides, and marginalisation, managing to weave together a tale that’s both heartwarming and bittersweet. The ending is simultaneously satisfying and ambiguous, suiting the narrative perfectly. This is a must-read for any teenager grappling with their identity and what they want from life.

Felix Love is struggling. At seventeen, he wants nothing more than to get into Brown College to study art – but his father can’t afford the fees, so his only chance is to get his school’s scholarship. Unfortunately, his worst enemy – Declan – is also after the scholarship, and whilst he might be an asshole he’s an exceptional artist. Meanwhile, Felix is watching all his friends get into relationships and fall in love, while he himself – despite his surname – has never been in love. Can anyone fall in love with him when he isn’t even sure he loves himself? At the same time, Felix is grappling with his own identity. He’s identified as a trans man for several years, but he isn’t sure that label is right for him anymore. His struggles are thrown into the spotlight when someone carries out a transphobic attack at school. With so much growing on, Felix feels like his life is falling apart – but could his happily ever after be just around the corner?

The best thing about Felix is he feels so much like a teenager. His struggles, his attitude, his mistakes – all of them feel so genuine and believable. Felix is a bit self-centred and lazy, but only in the way that all teenagers are as they figure out their place in the world. At the end of the day, Felix is a great guy with a big heart and a huge amount of loyalty – he’s just emotionally fragile and prone to rash overreaction. At the start of the book, Felix can be a little hard to like. Some of his actions are questionable, and he leaps to conclusions without any evidence. However, as time goes on, it becomes clear why he is the way he is, and his true character starts to shine through. Felix isn’t perfect, and it’s this humanness that makes him such a brilliant protagonist.

A core part of the book is Felix’s relationships – with his friends, with his family, and romantically. His relationship with his father is fascinating, with both clearly loving each other yet having serious issues. Felix resents that his father hasn’t fully embraced him as his son rather than his daughter; Felix’s dad struggles with his son pulling away and trying to take so much independence at seventeen years of age. Neither communicates clearly with the other, and the way this falls out is cleverly written. In contrast, Felix’s relationship with his best friend, Ezra, seems amazing on the outside. The two care for each other deeply, with a level of physical and emotional comfort only seen between the closest friends. However, as the story goes on, it becomes clear how much they’re both hiding from the other, and cracks start to develop and widen. Once again, all the friendships feel incredibly authentic of teenage friendships, with a level of intensity and desperation. Felix’s difficulty as friend groups and those within them change is well-handled, and the ending is lovely.

There is a love triangle – not something I usually like in books. The love triangle here is obviously unbalanced, and the ending is always relatively clear. That said, whilst its inclusion isn’t entirely necessary, the way it ends does add an element of sadness and dissatisfaction inherent to life, and it fits the realistic vibe of the rest of the story. There are always those who are unhappy in love and in life. The love triangle is my least favourite part of the story, but I’ve read far worse.

This is not always a happy story. The ending is heartwarming, and there are cheerful elements throughout, but there’s also a dark plotline about transphobia and bullying that hits hard. I found this exceptionally well-done, adding to the realism and making the ending even sweeter, but readers should be warned that they may find parts difficult to read.

Overall, ‘Felix Ever After’ is a brilliant coming of age story that captures a slice of contemporary teenage life. A highly recommended read.

Thanks to Faber Children’s for providing an ARC – this in no way affects the content of this review

Published by Faber Children’s
Paperback: 18th May 2021

Robyn Reviews: If We Were Villains

‘If We Were Villains’ is an absolutely spellbinding book. Set in the claustrophobic bubble of a class at drama college, it explores the lines between fact and fiction, right and wrong, and acting and authenticity in a complex and engrossing way. Many have touted it as the natural successor to Donna Tartt’s ‘The Secret History’ – having read both, I personally believe this is better, although I imagine many will disagree. Where ‘The Secret History’ is a punch in the gut, this is more the first breath of cold air on a winter’s morning: impactful without leaving the reader feeling quite so eviscerated.

Oliver Marks has just been released from prison, having served ten years for a murder he may or may not have committed. He’s greeted by none other than Detective Colborne, the man who put him in prison all those years ago. The detective is retiring, and he wants to know the truth – what really happened at Oliver’s elite conservatoire. Oliver agrees to tell his tale. Thus begins a story of a group of young actors, each with their own role both in life and on the stage, and what happens when those roles are changed.

Oliver might be touted as the protagonist, but he’s always played the supporting role. He’s a sweetheart – the glue binding his group of friends together. Naive and trusting, Oliver is blissfully unaware of most of what’s happening right under his nose – but he also has insights that others wouldn’t. Reading the novel from his perspective showcases a very different angle to most books, and whilst he can make a frustrating protagonist I wouldn’t have it any other way.

The other six characters, of course, fit into the roles of a Shakespearean play. There’s Richard, the protagonist – traditionally masculine, cocky, the sort who always gets the girl. There’s Meredith, the love interest – beautiful, body confident, content to hang off Richard’s arm. There’s James, the antagonist – more delicate and effeminate than Richard, but otherwise shrouded in mystery. There’s Filippa, the supporting role – a tomboy, renowned for her versatility, but utterly forgettable because of it. There’s Alexander, the fool – a loud, flamboyant gay disaster who flirts with everyone and is always the loudest person in the room. Finally, there’s Wren, the supporting female character – slightly less seductive than Meredith but still beautiful in a quiet way.

Except, of course, they’re not just characters – they’re people, and they don’t slip into their roles as neatly as it might first seem. The protagonist isn’t always the hero. The love interest wants to be seen as more than her body. The antagonist isn’t always wrong. The forgettable character is missed when they’re not there. The fool, always laughing, isn’t always happy. The supporting character sometimes comes first. As each becomes less of the character and more the person, relationships twist, leading to unprecedented levels of damage. With the wreckage mounting, each must decide which role they actually want to play – the one they’ve been assigned, or one they craft for themselves.

This is a story about humanity. It’s about the relationships between the characters – the good, the bad, and the ugly. It’s about what happens when actors get so deep into a character they forget how to be themselves. The plot is dark in places, but also far less important than each character and the way they interact with everyone else. There are constant references to Shakespeare, but familiarity with his work isn’t required to appreciate the intricacy and brilliance of ML Rio’s creation.

Overall, ‘If We Were Villains’ is an exceptional piece of literature – fiercely clever and lingering far beyond the last page. It will always be compared to ‘The Secret History’, but it deserves to be talked about in its own right and on its own merit. Recommended for fans of complex character dynamics, dark academia, and what humanity is capable of when left unchecked.

Published by Titan Books
Paperback: June 13th 2017

Robyn Reviews: Normal People

There are some books which are so poorly written they make you cringe. There are some books which are so clever that they make you grin in delight; some that make you laugh out loud; some which are so beautifully written you want to sit and read the same sentence over and over again until it’s imprinted onto your soul. Then there are books like ‘Normal People’ – books which, from the outside, don’t seem that special, but which are so visceral and real that they alter your entire worldview. Reading this leaves you a different person when you put it down to when you picked it up.

This is not a happy story. It’s not a sad story, either – it’s life, distilled into under 300 pages of pure emotional turmoil. Marianne and Connell are intimately relatable protagonists – we aren’t all like them, but we know people like them, and it’s so easy to see how people could become them. This is a coming-of-age story unlike anything else I’ve ever read. There’s no huge drama, because life isn’t full of huge dramas: life is full of little dramas, many of which we create ourselves, that pile up and up until they seem like huge, insurmountable obstacles. This reflects that. There are twists and turns that you always see coming, because life is predictable and people behave in predictable ways. It’s completely excruciating in the best way watching Marianne and Connell fall into the traps that everyone falls into, despite the fact that they’re completely avoidable.

Are Marianne and Connell likeable? Yes, and no – they’re people. Normal people, as it says on the cover. Marianne is from a wealthy Irish family near Sligo who don’t like her very much. Her father passed away and her mother is rarely around – and when she is, her interactions with her daughter are strained. Her brother is a bully who considers his sister to be a weirdo. Marianne drifts through life trying to be completely herself, but her apparent confidence masks an attitude of deep self-loathing from a life of never quite being good enough. She’s the slightly different girl at school who everyone looks askance at, never sure if they hate her or admire her.

Connell, in contrast, is the only child of a cleaner – Marianne’s family’s cleaner. His mother had him as a teenager and raised him alone. They’re poor and very much not the sort of family to be associated with – except that Connell is the smartest person in his class and the football teams star centre forward. He’s a nice guy, effortlessly popular, drifting through life on the coattails of that popularity. He knows Marianne because his mum works for hers, but he can’t associate with her in public – Marianne is Not Cool, and without being Cool Connell has nothing.

Their relationship is both inevitable and doomed. It’s the epitome of first love – needlessly dramatic, messy, beautiful in places but hollow where in matters. Reading about it is excruciating but you can’t look away. At times you want to scream at them or just shove the obvious in their faces – but equally, you can remember a time when you were like that, or your friend was like that, and know that it won’t help.

The writing is brilliant – not overly fussy, just poignant and real. There’s no need for lyrical prose or florid descriptions – instead, Rooney perfectly captures humanity with the thoroughness of her characters. It’s a spectacular achievement and deserves all the praise it’s garnered.

Overall, this is a must-read book. It’s not always conventionally enjoyable, but it’s powerful and moving and poignant and captures feelings on paper in a way that few authors are capable of. The resonance lasts long beyond the final page. I don’t hesitate to call this a masterpiece.

Jackie’s thoughts on Normal People can be found here

Published by Faber & Faber
Hardback: 28th August 2018
Paperback: 2nd May 2019

Robyn Reviews: Red, White, and Royal Blue

‘Red, White, & Royal Blue’ is pure escapist fiction. Since its release it’s garnered constant comparisons to fanfiction for its idealism, tooth-rotting sweetness, and amalgamation of romance tropes between – of all people – the First Son of the first female US President and the Prince of England. Naturally, it’s an absolutely implausible read – but it’s also laugh-out-loud funny, joyously fun, and a much needed ray of light in a genre which contains too much tragedy. If you’re willing to go along for the ride, ‘Red, White, & Royal Blue’ is deserving of its reputation of one of the best books in the LGBTQIA+ romance genre.

Alex Claremont-Diaz is tabloid fodder – the twenty-one year old son of the first female US president, and the first half-Mexican in the White House. His entire life revolves around politics – and with election year approaching, it’s more important than ever that he remains the perfect marketing strategy. So, when photos leak of an apparent confrontation with his arch-nemesis – none other than His Royal Highness Prince Henry, grandson of Her Majesty the Queen of England – damage control is essential. Enter a clever scheme: a fake friendship between Alex and Henry stretching back years. Alex and his arch-nemesis must put their longstanding enmity aside and play nicely for the paparazzi. Except the more time they spend together, the more it becomes clear that they don’t hate each other after all… and the only thing more damaging for both of them than enmity is love.

Both Alex and Henry are instantly loveable characters. Alex is a charmer – intelligent, witty, and determined, he’s the consummate politician, always looking for the right thing to say (unless Henry’s involved). But underneath the politician’s sheen he’s a hot mess – unsure what he wants to have for lunch, let alone the direction of his entire life, and clueless about his own personal life even with things staring him in the face. Alex’s relationship with his sister is heartwarming, and his relationship with his mother complicated, but overall filled with love. (There’s a scene involving a PowerPoint which sums it up perfectly and is one of the funniest scenes ever put to paper).

Henry is, in many ways, an American caricature of what a British person should be like – uptight and repressed, faultlessly polite, but beneath that veneer kind, caring, and exceptionally poetic. It’s impossible not to like him. There has never been an outwardly gay member of the British royal family, and Henry’s relationship with his sexuality – and how it affects his perception of himself – is heartbreaking to read about. However, this is always a hopeful and optimistic book, and it’s always clear he’ll get a happy ever after.

The plot is stereotypical romance – enemies forced to play nice and pretend to be friends end up in a secret relationship which will undoubtedly be revealed at the worst possible time – but the characters and writing make it so much more. Alex and Henry get themselves into ridiculous situations and force you to laugh, cry, and gasp right along with them. Their chemistry is electric, but so too is the chemistry between the books many friendships – Alex’s White House Trio, Henry and his sister Bea, Henry and his friend from Eton Pez. There are elements which stretch the bounds of plausibility to its limit, but you want to believe it’s possible – you want to believe that Alex and Henry can beat the odds. (And yes, the Prince probably can’t just conveniently obtain the keys to the V&A for a midnight visit – but everyone wants to believe it could happen).

Overall, ‘Red, White, & Royal Blue’ is the sort of tooth-rotting fluff that everyone wants to read on a bad day. It’s ridiculous and over-the-top, but so likeable that it’s hard to care. Recommended for all fans of romance and LGBT fiction, and everyone who wants something happy and optimistic to get through hard times.

Published by St Martin’s Griffin
Paperback: May 14th 2019

Robyn Reviews: The Cousins

‘The Cousins’ is Karen McManus’s latest YA mystery. It’s slower paced than some of her other novels, with more of a contemporary focus than crime thriller, but equally as enjoyable and compelling. With each new novel, McManus continues to cement herself as a stalwart of the YA mystery genre.

Decades ago, the wealthy Mildred Margaret Story – owner of a lavish resort on Gull Coast Island – suddenly disinherited her four children with a single sentence: ‘You know what you did’. They never heard from her again – until unexpectedly, each of her three grandchildren receives a letter inviting them to work at her hotel for the summer and meet their mysterious grandmother. The three barely know each other, but suddenly find themselves packed off to the island to untangle a family mystery that’s remained buried for years. However, the more time they spend on the island, the more it becomes clear that nothing is as it seems – and some secrets are better left well alone.

The story alternates between four perspectives – the three grandchildren, Milly, Audrey, and Jonah, and flashbacks of Milly’s mother Allison, Mildred’s only daughter. Milly is introduced as the typical heiress – entitled, obsessed with fashion and her appearance, more interested in scoring drinks off men in bars than obtaining the grades for college. However, it quickly becomes apparent that there’s a lot more to her than meets the eye, and once you get past her caustic one-liners she becomes a caring and insightful character. She also shares her grandmother’s name – Mildred Margaret Story-Takahashi, for her Japanese father – and, despite her protestations, is more desperate for her grandmother’s approval than anyone else.

Audrey is an absolute sweetheart and one of the nicest characters in the book – however, she initially comes across as angry and petulant, throwing a competitive swim meet just to spite her instructor. There’s obviously a lot going on in her life behind the scenes, and her character development is probably the strongest of everyone’s. In many ways she’s naive and anxious, but she’s also incredibly smart and always wants to do the right thing.

Initially, Jonah seems like a typical entitled man, complaining about how going to the island is ruining his chances of going to an exclusive science camp and throwing insults left, right, and centre. His attitude and refusal to open up makes him a bit of a mystery – but as the story unfolds, he too becomes a far more sympathetic and intriguing character.

The plot is sedate, with more focus on family dynamics than the mystery until nearly the end of the book – but this works well, allowing each character to become established and their backgrounds to become clear. Towards the end, some of the revelations are pretty far-fetched, but nothing completely breaks the bounds of plausibility and McManus makes you want to believe it. The ending is excellent, with just the right amount of lingering mystery. The only part I’m less fond of is the romantic subplot – McManus always has one, but it doesn’t feel entirely necessary in this book. That being said, there’s a certain scene related to it involving a balcony which is absolutely priceless, so it might be worth it for that section alone.

This is a book about money, and the exploration of the lives of the rich – not the obscenely wealthy billionaires, but the sort of comfortably wealthy people who end up CEOs and politicians – is one of the most interesting parts. Their attitudes to money are so different, and there’s a complete gulf in understanding over what it actually means to be poor. It illustrates perfectly how those who have always had plenty simply cannot understand what it’s actually like to struggle to make ends meet.

Overall, this is a slower story than McManus’s previous books, but equally as well written with excellent characters and an intriguing backdrop. Some may not find it as engaging, but read for what it is rather than what it isn’t it makes a highly enjoyable read.

Published by Penguin
Paperback: 3rd December 2020