What Happens Here by Tara Altebrando.

Paperback, 256 pages

Published May 6th, 2008 by MTV Books

Goodreads blurb: We were going to see the world together, Lindsay and I. We were going to eat it up, whole. But it didn’t happen that way. It didn’t happen that way at all….

When Chloe’s parents decide to take her to Europe the summer before senior year of high school, she’s ecstatic…she only wishes her best friend, Lindsay, could come too. Living in Las Vegas, they have long imagined the world through the casinos inspired by great cities and have vowed to travel the globe together someday. Unfortunately, Lindsay’s parents won’t agree to send her along.

So Chloe goes to Europe and sends postcards to Lindsay every day. But when she comes home, she must cope with shocking news that rips her family — and Lindsay’s — apart. And as she tries to uncover the truth about what happened, Chloe soon begins to feel that Lindsay’s brother, Noah, is the one person alive for whom she’d go to the ends of the earth….

I was blown away by What Happens Here. I’ve read it twice, but will definitely be reading it again (and again).

You may be dubious of the publishing situation. I know for me, when I see stuff that’s been published by Girlfriend or Dolly magazine, or even MTV, I automatically think ‘trashy’ (judging a book by it’s publisher, tsk, tsk). But ignore all of that (if it’s a problem for you) because you won’t regret reading this.

The writing is good, the characters are real (Noah is gorgeous, I love Chloe and Lindsay), the mystery is handled well.

Go forth, and read it!

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Fixing Delilah by Sarah Ockler.

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Paperback, 308 pages

Published 5th December, 2010 by Little Brown

IBSN: 9780316052085

When Delilah’s grandmother – who she hasn’t seen in eight years – dies, she and her mother immediately hit the road to Vermont. The summer stretches out before her: fixing up her Nana’s house, helping with estate sales, attending the funeral. There is also the fact that Delilah is on thin ice with her mother for continually acting out (kind of accidentally, in Delilah’s defense), and the secretive, stubborn way that her mum avoids discussing the big fight that caused the family rift eight years ago. Her aunty Rachel, who is also spending the summer in Vermont, isn’t very forthcoming with information either (about Nana, or their other sister, Steph, who died in her late teens).

Next door, little Ricky – Del’s childhood friend – has grown into the beautiful, musically gifted, Patrick. Romance ensues (but it’s the young adult kind that you can get behind, as opposed to the tween kind that may drive you a little crazy).

This is a summer novel. I adore summer novels for their almost magical quality and the way that there are always rites of passage and growth and love. I think they’re great.

Fixing Delilah has complicated family relationships (mother/daughter, sister/sister) that start off rocky and crappy, due to neglect and stubbornness and mistreatment. I’ve always loved novels that start this way and then get pieced back together again. Delilah didn’t disappoint in this respect.

To be honest, I enjoyed Sarah Ockler’s first novel more (Twenty Boy Summer). But Fixing Delilah is really good too. The writing is beautiful, but approachable. The romance is believable. The characters are multi dimensional. It’s a nice, contemporary, summer book (with a slice of the mysterious: why was Nana estranged eight years ago? what really happened with Del’s deceased aunty? and what’s the real deal with the father she’s never met?)

For fans of Ann Brashares, Jodi Lynn Anderson (specifically the Peaches series) and Melina Marchetta.

The Compound by S.A. Bodeen.

Paperback, 245 pages

Published 1st September, 2009 by Square Fish

IBSN: 9780312578602

Eli’s billionaire father is so obsessed with an ‘imminent’ nuclear war that he builds an elaborate bunker deep underground in the middle of nowhere. While camping, Eli’s family are woken in the middle of the night by his father raising the alarm: the nuclear war is here and it’s time to go the the compound.

The plan is to stay for fifteen years, until it is safe to go back above ground. There is plenty of food, some cows for milk, a hydroponic vegetable garden, thousands of DVD’s, a enviable music catalogue, and everything the family could possibly want or need for one and a half decades of underground seclusion.

But as the years pass, unforeseen complications arise and Eli starts to wonder about the outside world. Would it be better to leave the compound early?

The Compound has a really interesting premise. It reminded me of Blast from the Past – a movie from the late nineties/early noughties. It’s not totally original, but I enjoyed it.

Eli was nine when they entered the compound, and is fifteen now. As a kid, he was pretty self centred and bratty. He’s still retained some of that as a teenager. But it’s understandable. Imagine being stuck underground for six years with only your family for company. He is quite the anti social recluse, actually. Luckily, he matures and makes peace, I guess, with his family as the novel goes on.

The father is a real patriarch. He’s pretty controlling and pushes the family to do his bidding. Some of his ideas are pretty sick, and it’s disturbing seeing them come to light, and wondering which members of the family will go along with them. And asking yourself what you would do in that situation (this is kind of a survival book).

The ending is quite ambiguous. But in a satisfying way, where you can quietly think about what might happen, and make your own decisions without a sequel being thrown in your face.

The Compound isn’t my new favourite or anything, but I’m intrigued by S.A. Bodeen’s writing. It seems like she isn’t too afraid to put her characters into intense situations. I’ve already got another of her books ready to go and there’s a survival one that’s just come out or is coming out soon that I will definitely read as well.

Heaven by Christoph Marzi.

Translated by Helena Ragg-Kirkby

Paperback, 409 pages

Published 2nd February, 2012 by Orchard Books

IBSN: 9781408314661

The night that Heaven lost her heart was cold and moonless. But the blade that sliced it out was warm with her dark blood.

David is a young runaway who works at a bookshop and has a penchant for scaling rooftops. He is delivering a book for a customer late one night when he comes across the distraught Heaven – a young woman who claims that two bad men have cut out and stolen her heart. And yet she is alive and talking and walking around. David doesn’t believe her, but wants to help. He takes her to the hospital, expecting that to be it for him and this girl. But soon he is deeply entangled in the mystery of Heaven’s stolen heart.

Heaven is fantastical and easy to read. While reading it, it’s hard to put down, because all the events are so seamlessly attached – it’s like it’s one big event. It’s the kind of novel you could read in one go without meaning to.

I’m not sure what I was expecting when I picked this up. Originally I bought it because the premise sounded so different, and I crave that every now and again. Now, having read it, I must say that it is amazing. The writing is beautiful somehow – kind of organic, as in it doesn’t seem like the author is trying too hard. Christoph Marzi is a great storyteller.

I was reminded a bit of Cornelia Funke’s style of writing, as well as books like Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger and The Name of the Star by Maureen Johnson – due to the recurring London backdrop and also another aspect (that I won’t mention as it’s a bit of a spoiler). For a nice little mystery with a different take on the fantasy genre, where anything is possible, check out Heaven.

Tomorrow Land by Mari Mancusi.

ImageeBook, 281 pages

Published March 8th, 2012 by NLA Digital (originally published as Razor Girl)

Tomorrow Land chronicles the adventures of Peyton and Chris through two timelines. The first is four years ago, when the world was just starting to show signs of the apocalypse. Peyton’s father has been predicting and preparing for the end times for years. He has built a shelter in their house and planned to meet up with other scientists at a predetermined location, to work together and create a new, better world.

The second timeline is now, as Peyton leaves the shelter for the first time. Armed with body enhancements that her father gave her – ocular implants with GPS, razors that retract into her fingers (Wolverine style) and nanos to make her stronger – and the experience that many many hours of martial arts training has given her, Peyton is on a mission to get to her father in Florida. But when she meets up with Chris – her old flame – things get more complicated.

Their are also two points of view – Peyton’s and Chris’. I dare say that Peyton takes charge most of the time. The two POV thing works well with the romance side of things – you are privy to both parties thoughts and regrets. It’s not as cute as I’ve seen in other books – less involuntary ‘aw!’ing, but that could be viewed as a plus.

As a post zombie apocalypse novel, this follows a pretty standard template. An across country journey, zombies shuffling around everywhere, leading characters that are super good at fighting, broken up society – hardly any humans left, and the ones that are left are excellent examples of how low humanity can sink, etc.

Look, it’s not the best zombie book I’ve read, but it’s pretty good. And for under four dollars from either Amazon or Kobo, how can you go wrong?

If you like your romance on the fluffy and somewhat predictable side, and your zombies not too gory, Tomorrow Land may just be the book for you.

New Girl by Paige Harbison.

Paperback, 314 pages

Published January 31st, 2012 by Harlequin Teen

IBSN: 9780373210428

Years ago, on a post Harry Potter whim, New Girl (she remains nameless throughout novel, I will just refer to her as NG from now on) told her parents that she wanted to attend Manderley Academy – an exclusive boarding school in New Hampshire. Now, her parents announce that she has gotten in and that’s where she’ll be spending her senior year of high school.

NG is less than thrilled – she will miss her lovely hot Florida, her family, and her great circle of friends – but doesn’t want to disappoint her parents.

Manderley is beautiful – The campus had always been striking in the pictures I saw, but to see it in person made me feel like I was in the presence of some omniscient queen – but, as she meets all her new classmates, NG discovers that she is hardly welcome there. Last year, Becca, a girl who everyone seems to love and adore, went missing. It is because of the disappearance that NG got a spot at the school at all. She is even living in Becca’s old dorm, sharing it with her old roommate and crushing on Becca’s boyfriend. But what is the real deal with Becca’s disappearance?

New Girl is told from two perspectives: NG’s in the present and Becca’s from one year earlier, when she too was the new girl at Manderley. It is a retelling of Rebecca, by Daphne du Maurier – written in 1938 and made into a movie by Hitchcock in 1940. Unfamiliar with the story, I read a summary of the original novel afterwards to get a grasp on how much New Girl draws on Rebecca. You can read it here – but beware of spoilers for both books.

While the similarities are close, I think that Daphne du Maurier’s characters have probably lost a lot of depth, being recreated as high school students. Dana, especially. It sounds like her counterpart was completely vindictive, devoted and evil in Rebecca. In New Girl she is only a portion of that. But really, until I read the original or at least watch the movie, I am hardly an expert in the matter. Bearing in mind, too, that this is a young adult novel, the retelling is probably pretty good. 

However, if I take away all that retelling business and just focus on New Girl as I would any other novel I pick from my shelf, I am not really a fan. It is easy to get into – I devoured the first fifty or so pages – but at about a third of the way through, I suddenly realised that I disliked every single person. Or at the very least, I just didn’t care about them. NG suddenly began suffering from a terrible bout of no-personality and insecurity – I know that this was a part of the tale, from the power of Becca’s spirit seeping throughout the whole of Manderley Academy, and everyone comparing NG to Becca all the time, etc, etc, but it just made her . . . annoying, I guess. Even that isn’t the right word. Boring, inconsequential.

Becca’s side of things was more interesting. She was a ‘troubled’ child back home, before her parents shipped her off to Manderley. We see her come onto the dull boarding school scene and shake it up by introducing parties and snagging the hot, unattainable Max. She is self centred, egotistical, fun loving, outgoing, daring, predatory and promiscuous. As a lead character, I liked her better.

Even though the two POVs were clearly labelled and told from different perspectives (NG in first person, Becca in third), I found myself blurring their situations and getting a bit confused sometimes. More so when I was thinking back, if that makes sense. Like when NG said she had done this certain thing – I didn’t remember that at all and realised that I must have read a whole chapter of hers thinking that she was Becca. Maybe if I had paid more attention.

When I picked this up, I expected an intense mystery, possibly with some thrills. For a while it seemed like the mystery side of things was going to really pick up – there was a stretch in the second half of the book that I was really getting into – but unfortunately the end of the mystery was very anti-climatic. Meanwhile, the Manderley scene is so superficial and shallow. There’s oodles of parties with teen drinking and pointless sex. I raised my eyebrow in unimpressed detachment pretty often.

When I realised that this was written by the same author as Here Lies Bridget, I was quite excited (this was before I began reading it). I really enjoyed HLB, and I will most likely read Paige Harbison’s next book. As for this, you may love it. But I didn’t.

Bad Taste in Boys by Carrie Harris.

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eBook, 256 pages

Published July 12th, 2011 by Random House Children’s Books

IBSN: 9780375898068

You may know this type of girl: she wears a periodic table robe, has ‘I heart Science’ underwear, and actually enjoys doing pop quizzes. She is Kate Grable, a high school senior with aspirations of becoming a doctor. She is the student trainer of the football team – attending to sprains and other game related injuries.

When Kate finds out that her coach – the type of guy who just screams ‘zombie fodder’ – has started giving ‘her players’ steroids, she is suitably unimpressed.

Not that I was going to let the steroid thing slide. No way. I actually felt a little protective now. Steroids could kill, and I wasn’t about to let that happen to any of my players.

Then the guys start turning into zombies, and that’s when Kate’s troubles really begin.

Bad Taste in Boys is only a short book. And as far as the zombies go, it is relatively low on gore. Possibly so it is more suitable for a younger audience? As well as that beautiful cover, it’s got plenty of other typical young adult requisites: most notably, a cute boy that the MC is totally crushing on (in this case, Aaron – the quarterback), best friends (Kiki and Rocky), and hardly any mention of parents (mum overseas, dad working all the time). So it’s a little bit more-of-the-same, but it’s also a lot of fun.

Kate is a smart, driven, and funny leading lady. She does have a tendency of putting herself down a bit (I was like ‘come on, now, that’s enough of that’), but otherwise I liked her. Also, when push comes to shove, she’s pretty brave. Because of her future in medicine, it fits that she would try her darnedest to find a cure for her classmates’ new zombified conditions, and all the medical talk seemed pretty legitimate (I did read that Carrie Harris’ husband is a doctor, so she’d probably have some of that doctor mumbo jumbo down pat already).

This really has nothing to do with plot or anything, but there were a few Twilight references in here – possibly mocking. I thought to myself: ‘I’m onto you, Carrie Harris’, with a little chuckle. I like that sort of thing, you see. Anyway.

Read Bad Taste in Boys if a quick, funny (or enjoyable, at the very least), teen zombie novel appeals to you. But be warned: there is a lot of vomiting in this book (it makes sense when you read about it, but still. Buckets and buckets of regurgitated product).

“[Spoiler] is a zombie, isn’t he?” Jonah asked when I could breathe again.

I tried to scoff. “Not exactly. If you’re looking for a scientifically accurate explanation, I think he has a virus that–”

“Bull! He’s a freaking zombie, Kate. I’ve played enough Resident Evil to recognise a zed head when I see one!”